The intense interest on this blog in the question of free will has persuaded me to interrupt my series on the Cognitive Revolution and Objectivism to expound on this contentious topic.
Most criticisms of Objectivism focus on the alleged contradiction between Rand's acceptance of causality on the one side and her insistence on free will on the other. "Ayn Rand's views on causation contradict her views on free will," writes one commentator. "The reason is very simple: her views on causation are those of a determinist; her views on free will, however, make her a libertarian. And those two positions are, by definition, incompatible." Oh, well, if they are incompatible "by definition," that settles the question! Such reasoning, however, is circular: the terms have been defined in such way as to reach the conclusion desired. This is rationalistic verbalism—and is nothing to the purpose. Neither is Peikoff's assertion that "one must accept [free will] in order to deny it" very helpful. Surely the question is every bit as empirical as any other concerning matters of fact. So why not attend to the relevant facts, thereby supplying one's reasonings with the useful check of experience?
Causal determinism asserts "that future events are necessitated by past and present events combined with the laws of nature." The doctrine is very convincing when applied to physical objects. The material world does appear to be deterministic in just this sense, as innumerable experiments have shown. Things get a bit more dicey once we go down to a quantum level. But a propensity interpretation of quantum mechanics, as suggested by Karl Popper, may turn out to be a convincing way around these issues. In any case, the question arises: does the determinism found in the physical world (at least above the quantum level) hold good in the mental world? And if so, why?
One cannot simply assume, a priori, that all of existence is fashioned after a single plan, so that if determinism is found operable in the material world, it must also be found operable in the mental world as well. Do the facts support such a supposition? Not entirely. Do physical entities or events possess the same kinds of characters or properties as percepts and images? Do they exist in the same spatial and temporal order with them? Our experience suggests otherwise. Ideas, concepts, percepts, mental images are one thing, the material world is something else. The mental and physical orders are clearly worth distinguishing.
The next question is: how do these two planes of existence relate? Scientific determinism generally favors the view that the mind is solely determined by physical processes. Superficially, this view seems to be supported by the fact that the mental world depends so enormously on the brain. Yet here we must be careful. There are some facts that simply don't square with the idea that all mental processes are really only material processes in disguise. In the first place, this view strongly suggests that consciousness is epiphenomenal and, ipso facto, inefficacious. But if so, why did evolution breed and select it? Then there's the problem of our own introspective experience. We experience ourselves making decisions and choosing between alternatives. Is our own experience to be ignored as a mere illusion? But if that experience is illusory, why isn't our experience of the material world as deterministic also illusory?
If consciousness is efficacious, if the mind provides a contribution to human life that goes beyond merely physical processes, then free will, in some measure or form, has been established. In what precise measure or form is a question best answered, again, by consultation of the relevant facts. Here neuroscience can provide fascinating perspectives, particularly when combined with evolutionary psychology. If the brain is a product of evolution, then free will must also be a product of evolution. But if free will has evolved, then this suggests that it has in the past, and could still, exist in degrees. A strange notion, to be sure. Is there any evidence beyond evolutionary speculation on its behalf? Yes, there is. People with damage to the ventromedial frontal cortex of the brain are no longer able to engage in effective decision making. It is as if there free will is impaired. Decision making, initiative, planning all rely on the frontal cortex of the brain. If there exist innate factors that increase or decrease how well this prefrontal cortex functions, its plausible that differences in the degree of free will could be partially innate. Indeed, we know intelligence is partially innate, and individuals with greater intelligence probably have a greater degree of free will than those wilth less intelligence.
This view of the mind suggests the following conjecture: that free will is perhaps best conceived as a kind of module of the brain, working in tandem with other modules, such as those providing motivation and thought. There is certain level of innateness running through all these modules, particularly in the affect system, but there's also a certain amount of plasticity to both experience and thought, so that the mind is best envisioned as a complex web of drives and thoughts and self-initiative which interact against one another, perhaps even slightly altering one another in the process, and commencing in volitions that are influenced by thoughts, innate drives, memory, social-training and self-initiative, all working at difference degrees and intensities. Under this model, there is none of the sort of unsaddled free will imagined by Rand. The majority of humans beings are what we find them in everyday life, in history, in great literature, and in scientific research: inherently limited, imperfect, yet still capable, through initiative, discipline and hard work, of attaining a modest level of dignity and self-efficacy. Some may be able to attain more along these lines, some less, depending on the amount of intelligence, initiative, and emotional stability that they are born with.