Some time back now, I promised a further and better post on free will - having discussed at considerable length what people mean by the expression and whether the folk even have a coherent concept of free will. I did say that I'd set out my position, but since then I've come to have doubts as to how easy or helpful that would be. Oh well, some of it follows in this post.
It currently seems as if half of the blogosphere, or at least half of the little corner that I tend to live in, is devoted to this issue. I suppose I could ignore that, except that Sean Carroll has reminded everyone of my promise in a post that I think is well worth reading. Sean has dobbed me in (and he so owes me a beer).
This is still not a post in which I set out a full position on fate, free will, determinism, etc. I've come to wonder whether I can say anything very useful at less than the length of a book. The issues are very confused; I'm not sure that the folk have coherent concepts of any of these things; theologians often seem to be all over the place in their concepts; and the concepts used by philosophers are highly contentious, even if they are sometimes more coherent. Still, I'll sketch a little bit of my thinking.
I've yet to see a claim that we possess incompatibilist free will that makes much sense to me: when you dig into the explanations of how it is supposed to work they become very mysterious. We discussed this late last year, when I got into an interesting debate with Neil Levy, a philosopher who specialises in this area (and took me to task for using the phrase "contra-causal free will", which he dislikes and considers inaccurate).
On the other hand, I can never see the point of simply insisting that we don't have free will. Unless it is explained carefully it sounds like a claim that we are at the mercy of Fate (however understood). I.e., it sounds as if what is being proposed is a fatalism of the kind that says I will die at the same age irrespective of whether I eat healthily or not, and of all my other decisions. That, of course, is not true: there may (depending on such things as your theory of the nature of time) be a fact as to when I will die, but the event of my death at time T will be causally dependent on, among other things, decisions that I make now, such as my decision to eat a certain kind of diet.
This debate goes back to antiquity. The Stoics discussed what was known as the Lazy Argument for fatalism. The Lazy Argument suggests that it is pointless to take any action. For example, if I am ill it is pointless to call a doctor. Why? Well, if I am fated to recover, then I will do so (whether or not I call the doctor). If I am fated not to recover, then I will not recover (whether or not I call the doctor). Because there is some fact as to whether or not I will recover, it makes no difference whether I call the doctor or not. The same reasoning applies to any action.
The Stoic Chrysippus responded to this by arguing that events can be "co-fated": one co-fated event (or, we would say, simply one event that will take place) can stand in a causal relationship to another. I may be "fated" to recover from my illness (i.e. the fact is that this will happen), but I am not fated to do so whether or not I call a doctor. My recovery from the illness, even if "fated" in the sense that it will happen, may stand in a causal relationship to my decision to call the doctor.
It's better not to talk about Fate at all, but simply to say that there may be facts about what events will take place in the future. Nonetheless, the Stoics were right that the existence of such facts does not change what we observe every day: namely, that our decisions can have causal efficacy. Our deliberations and their outcomes in choices and subsequent actions can and often do have a role in bringing about whatever events later take place.
Thus the Stoics developed a view that would now be called compatibilism. But note that they were not trying to deny that our actions are part of the overall causal order. They were opposing a doctrine that was popular at the time, and which has continued to be popular in much religious and folk thinking about the future, i.e. the sort of fatalistic doctrine exemplified in the Lazy Argument.
Sometimes people who claim that we don't have free will then go on to say that this knowledge should affect the personal and political choices we make, such as what kind of penalties we impose for crimes. But note what is being said here: it is assumed that we are able to make decisions about these things and that these decisions will play a causal role in what actually ends up happening.
For example, the penalties for crimes that will be on the statute books in Illinois in 2050 will depend on various decisions by human beings; they won't take a particular fated form, irrespective of what decisions we make. Even in the process of talking about why we should say that people don't have free will, we assume that fatalism is false. Our very decisions to use one form of language rather than another are assumed to have some causal efficacy.
I do get that when contemporary philosophers and scientists talk about people not having free will they usually have in mind the claim that we never step out of the causal order of nature, rather than the claim that fatalism is true. But so what? Like Chrysippus (and David Hume and Daniel Dennett, and most contemporary philosophers) I agree that we never step out of the causal order of nature. We are part of it. The fact remains that we often make decisions and our decisions can be efficacious. When we make decisions, that process is itself part of the causal order of nature. What else could it be? Try to imagine a coherent alternative.
There's much more to be said here. To be honest, I'm not particularly interested in using the language of free will. Such language really only comes up for me when I get into debates about theodicy, in which religious apologists often claim that we have a mysterious ability to make decisions in a way that lets God off the hook for the negative consequences of our actions. But there's no evidence that we possess any such ability. Indeed, I don't believe that any plausible account of what this ability would be like has ever been given. The concept of "free will" in this sense ends up being something spooky and probably incoherent.
But still, we are at least sometimes (even often) able to make decisions that are causally related to future events such as our own future health and how long we live, not to mention political outcomes such as what parties are elected to office, what penal approaches are adopted in various jurisdictions, what media ownership restrictions are put in place, and so on. Some of our decisions and consequent actions can be better than others in whatever plausible sense of "better" you like.
The future comes about through naturalistic processes, but those processes include our deliberations and decisions, and the actions that they lead us to. As the Stoics argued in the face of popular kinds of fatalistic thinking, the future comes about partly as a result of human choice.