Like most of us, I was taught while growing up that humans have free will. That important lesson was not delivered by my school teachers, however, nor even by my parent or relatives, but by my nanny.
My nanny was an elderly lady with no formal education beyond high school. She was diligent, caring, and tolerant, but she was an uncritical thinker. That is, she simply accepted what had been taught her, without much mulling it over, and passed it on to me.
One of the things that had been taught her, and which she uncritically passed on to me, was the notion of hell. My mother, an agnostic at the time, was no more concerned with teaching me about hell than she was concerned with teaching me about what some far distant Amazonian tribe wore to weddings. I don't even know if she believed in hell. But my nanny had been taught hell, had never questioned it, and thought it important.
I was about five or six when my nanny taught me about hell. And it was in teaching me about hell that she introduced me to the concept of free will. I vaguely recall she actually used the term "free will", but that could be my memory adding its frills and laces to the facts. At any rate, I believe it was as my nanny was teaching me about god, afterlife, hell, and salvation, that I formed my first notion of free will -- although I can't be sure whether I learned the term then or later.
Naturally, all that talk of hell caused tears. When my mother got home from work, she had to comfort me. Which she did -- as was her custom -- in an intellectual way. There were no hugs and kisses and reassurances that I was a good boy and would go to heaven. I probably would not have been satisfied by those things anyway, for I was an intellectual kid.
Instead, mom verbally asserted -- like the good agnostic that she was -- that the concept of hell was highly questionable, and that I was too young to make a decision about whether there was such a thing. As I recall, her words did not entirely calm me down and comfort me, but they did, I think, steer me in the direction of critical thought -- for one of the most important lessons to learn about critical thinking is the wisdom of suspending judgment.
Over the years, my sporadic reflections on free will have led me to greater and greater uncertainty about the concept. Today, I only think there is an exceedingly small chance of it. That is, if you define free will as whether, given two absolutely identical situations, your choice of action could vary from one of those situations to the other, then I think the odds are overwhelming that free will does not exist. And if it does exist, then -- for reasons too complex to discuss here -- I suspect it might be negative in nature. That is, you cannot freely will to do something, but in some limited way, you might be able to freely will not to do something.
In other words, what we call "free will" might not amount to much more than the inhibitory functions of consciousness. I guess it would depend on whether or not those functions are caused. If they are caused, then the will is not free. If they somehow cause themselves (and how could that be!), then the will has a certain measure of freedom.
What do you think about the notion of free will? Does it have any merit? Why or why not?