“My basic perspective on it is, yes, we do have free will, because we can behave the way we wish to behave, but we can’t decide what to will.
“The brain simultaneously will generate willed actions, and it will also generate the experience of willing an action. And the real question is, what’s the point of experiencing, of having this experience of free will? And one answer to that is that it’s very important for the brain to distinguish between actions that are more internally generated, and actions that are more reflexively generated by circumstances in the world. If you put your hand on a hot stove you don’t need to have an experience of free will, but if I’m deciding what to have for breakfast, or what job to take, or whether to say something in particular, then it’s useful to mark that as something that is internally generated, so that I pay more attention to the consequences, ‘cause I might want to do something different the next time.”
Prof. Anil Seth, The Life Scientific, BBC Radio 4 16/6/15
There’s something essentially you about making your mind up, or at least having the sensation of making your mind up, unbidden by circumstances and especially unbidden by the will of another being. Yes, atomize far enough and someone could probably trace the causal chain leading up to that particular choice, then classify it as less-than-totally-free will. But, the way Seth frames it, it’s the experience that counts. The experience of being alive and born free, be that as a snail or a robin or a shaggy mammoth.
And there’s a balance to be struck, which nature left to her own devices does seem to strike, because making “decisions”, the way we humans do, is exhausting. It’s discordant and it drains energy from a soul. No, the privilege of being alive is not so much having the right to decide. It’s having the proclivity to stalk and chase that critter, if you will, or letting it scarper, if you so please, while you stretch out across the path, warming your fur in the afternoon sunshine, because that’s exactly what you feel like doing.
The horse walked with a patient, uncomplaining gait. It had long grown used to being wherever it was put, but for once it felt it didn’t mind this. Here, it thought, was a pleasant field. Here was grass. Here was a hedge it could look at. There was enough space that it could go for a trot later on if it felt the urge. The humans drove off and left it to its own devices, to which it was quite content to be left. It went for a little amble, and then, just for the hell of it, stopped ambling. It could do what it liked.
What pleasure. What very great and unaccustomed pleasure.
It slowly surveyed the whole field, and then decided to plan out a nice relaxed day for itself. A little trot later on, it thought, maybe around threeish. After that a bit of a lie down over on the east side of the field where the grass was thicker. It looked like a suitable spot to think about supper in.
Lunch, it rather fancied, could be taken at the south end of the field where a small stream ran. Lunch by a stream, for heaven’s sake…
Good. An excellent plan. And the best thing about it was that having made it the horse could now completely and utterly ignore it. It went instead for a leisurely stand under the only tree in the field.