The following is adapted from the Introduction of Dan Barker’s new book, Free Will Explained.
We need a new way of talking about free will. Many scientists inform us we don’t have it, but many philosophers assure us we do. Although scientific determinism appears to rule it out, free will continues to feel like an obvious part of our existence.
So, we have a paradox. “Yes, I have free will,” Christopher Hitchens quipped. “I have no choice but to have it.”
Scientists and philosophers have been battling with this issue for at least 2,000 years. The Oxford Handbook of Free Will has 600 pages and looks more like an encyclopedia than a handbook. As with theology (a subject with no object), the subject of free will creates an octopus of opinions. So maybe something is wrong with our approach.
I am proposing an understanding of free will that turns it sideways and makes the paradox disappear. If we can view the world more like jazz musicians than classical musicians, we will see “free will” as a beautiful improvisation of the human species. I call it “harmonic free will.”
While playing jazz piano, I approach music from two different angles. Like classical musicians, I rely on the formal bottom-up training of sight-reading and technique. But as a jazz improviser, I try to rise above all that (without ignoring it) and freely create from a top-down frame of reference. When you invert the scene, you can see — or hear — that music produces something greater than the sum of its parts. Free will is like that. When we flip perspective, we suddenly experience the world from a vibrant and creative vantage point.
The question is relevant to freethought, because if atheists claim there is free will, isn’t that admitting there is something that jumps outside of nature? We can also ask the believers: Does God have free will?
Free will is not a scientific truth. It is a social truth.