Daniel Dennett has a new short article online about the dangers of either hanging on to antiquated conceptions of free will or dismissing this very important matter outright.
The key to understanding real free will is recognizing that it does not reside in some concentrated internal lump of specialness, but in the myriad relations and ispositions of an enculturated, socialized, interacting, acknowledging, human agent. Tradition makes the Cartesian mistake of packing all the power into the inner puppeteer who pulls the body’s strings. When we banish this inner agent, distributing its tasks throughout not just the entire brain, but the body and the “surrounding” cultural storehouse–the memes, plus a little help from our (human) friends–we don’t have to banish free will! We can see it as a phenomenon distributed in space and time as well. That was the point of my ironic formula, in Elbow Room 7 (p143), “If you make yourself really small, you can externalize virtually everything.” Don’t
make yourself–your self–small; that’s the Cartesian error; recognize that there is a nonmysterious, and valuable, concept of a self that can be large enough to take responsibility and act morally.
Regrettably, Dennett never gets around to explaining why exactly the idea of free will is so important for humans. Admittedly, he does explain why the idea is important in general: those who believe is some sort of free will tend to be better people, or at least to behave better. However, the question that his first paragraphs raised in my mind was never answered: Why do people – and even philosophers – feel such a (psychological, emotional?) need to believe in free will? Why are we so constituted that we get uneasy when someone tries to convince us that all our actions and decisions have been caused by outside forces? This seems to be the most interesting question. An answer will probably have to deal with the fact that this reluctance to deny free will might well be constitutive of free will itself: free will might be one of the odd objects in our ontological universe that actually only exist if you believe they do…
There is certainly no easy answer and i cannot offer even the beginnings of one myself. I can only, with Dennett, underline the existence of the problem.