I have written before about the apparent contradiction between free will and materialism (the idea that the universe is exclusively comprised of particles that obey physical laws). The problem is easy enough to state: if every particle in the universe behaves in a manner governed by a combination of random chance and predictable laws, how can a physical entity like the brain respond to stimuli in a way that is neither random nor determined?
Joshua Gold of the University of Pennsylvania and Michael Shadlen of the University of Washington recently summarized some experiments on monkeys that illuminate this issue. They found that they could use a computer to predict how monkeys will respond to visual stimuli, suggesting that such mental functions are automatic.
Of course, there is a big difference between parts of mental life like maintaining a steady heartbeat and tracking a moving object visually and those like making ethical decisions. That said, I continue to be unable to see what mechanism could exist between the former and the latter, and which could square our intuitive belief in free will with what we know about the functioning of the universe. That being said, we do not have any reason to act as though free will does not exist. The reason for that is simple: if free will doesn’t exist, we don’t have any influence over what we believe or how we act, while if it does exist we certainly want to behave appropriately. As such, if we do have any scope to choose, we should choose to believe in free will.