1. Could freedom of the will in the strong or unconditional 'could have done otherwise' sense be an illusion?
2. Suppose A and B are mutually incompatible but individually possible courses of action, and I am deliberating as to whether I should do A or B. (Should I continue with this blogging business, or give it up?) Deliberating, I have the sense that it is up to me what happens. I have the sense that it is not the case that events prior to my birth, together with the laws of nature, necessitate that I do what I end up doing. Seriously deliberating, I presuppose the falsity of determinism. For if I were thoroughly and truly convinced of the truth of determinism it would be psychologically impossible for me to deliberate. (Compare: were I thoroughly and truly convinced of the truth of naturalism it would be psychologically impossible for me to pray or engage in any spiritual practice the successful outcome of which requires the falsity of naturalism.)
3. Determinism is the thesis that, given the actual past, and the actual laws of nature, there is only one possible future. When I seriously deliberate, however, my deliberation behavior manifests the belief that there is more than one possible future, and that it is up to me which of these possible futures becomes actual. There is the possible future in which I hike tomorrow morning and blog in the afternoon and the equipossible future in which I blog tomorrow morning and hike in the afternoon. And which becomes actual depends on me.
One may be tempted to say that the indisputable fact of deliberation proves the reality of free will.
4. But then someone objects: "The sense that it is up to you what happens is illusory; it merely seems to you that you are the ultimate source of your actions. In reality your every action is determined by events before your birth." The objector is not denying the fact of deliberation; he is denying that the fact of deliberation entails the reality of free will. He is claiming that the fact of deliberation is logically consistent with the nonexistence of free will.
5. To evaluate this objection, we need to ask what is meant by 'illusory' in this context. Clearly, the word is not being used in an ordinary way. Ordinary illusions can be seen through and overcome. Hiking at twilight I jump back from a tree root I mis-take for a snake. In cases of perceptual illusion like this, one can replace illusory perceptions with veridical ones. Something similar is true of other illusions such as those of romantic love and the sorts of illusions that leftists cherish and imagine as in the eponymous John Lennon ditty. In cases like these, further perception, more careful thinking, keener observation, 'due diligence' and the like lead to the supplanting of the illusory with the veridical.
But if free will is an illusion, it is not an illusion that can be cast off or seen through no matter what I do. I must deliberate from time to time, and I cannot help but believe, whenever I deliberate, that the outcome is at least in part 'up to me.' Indeed, it is inconceivable that I should disembarrass myself of this 'illusion.' One can become disillusioned about many things but not about the 'illusion' of free will. For it is integral to my being an agent, and being an agent is part and parcel of being a human being. To get free of the 'illusion' of free will, I would have to learn to interpret myself as a deterministic system whose behavior I merely observe but do not control. I would have to learn how to cede control and simply let things happen. But this is precisely what I cannot do.
It would be nice if one could 'switch off' one's free agency. Sophie's choice was agonizing because she knew that it was up to her which child would remain with her and which would be taken away by the Nazi SS officer. Now which is more certain: that she knows that she is a free agent responsible for her choices, or that she knows that she is a wholly deterministic system and that the sense of free agency and moral responsibility are but illusions? The answer ought to be obvious: the former is more certain . One is directly aware of one's free agency, while it is only by shaky abstract reasoning that one comes to the view that free will is an illusion.
We are not free to be free agents or not. It is an essential attribute of our humanity. Thus we are "condemned to be free" in a famous phrase of Jean-Paul Sartre. The sound core of the Sartrean exaggeration is that being free is constitutive of being human. No doubt I can try to view myself as a mere deterministic system pushed around by external forces, but that is a mode of self-deception, a mode of what Sartre calls mauvaise-foi, bad faith. Determinism is "an endless well of excuses" as I seem to recall Sartre saying somewhere. Being free is constitutive of being human.
6. Or is it only the (false) belief that one is free that is constitutive of being human? Perhaps the fact of deliberation proves merely that one must view oneself as free when in reality we are not free. Why couldn't it be the case that we all go through life with the irremovable false belief that some of what happens is up to us when in reality nothing is up to us?
My considered opinion is that this ultimately does not make any sense. It makes as little sense as the notion that consciousness is an illusion. Consciousness cannot be an illusion for the simple reason that it is a presupposition of the distinction between reality and illusion. An illusion is an illusion to consciousness, so that if there is no consciousness there are no illusions either. There simply is no (nonverbal) distinction between the illusion of consciousness and consciousness. Similarly for the difference between the illusion of being a free agent and the reality of being a free agent. It is difficult to see any (nonverbal) difference.
Connected with this is the impossibility of existentially appropriating the supposed truth of determinism. Suppose determinism is true. Can I live this truth, apply it to my life, make it my own? Can I existentially appropriate it? Not at all. To live is to be an agent, and to be an agent is to be a free agent. To live and be human is not merely to manifest a belief, but an all-pervasive ground-conviction, of the falsity of determinism. Determinism cannot be practically or existentially appropriated. It remains practically meaningless, a theory whose plausibility requires a third-person objective view of the self. But the self is precisely subjective in its innermost being and insofar forth, free and unobjectifiable.
If you look at the self from a third person point of view, then determinism has some plausibility, for then you are considering the self as just another object among objects, just another phenomenon among phenomena subject to the laws of nature. But the third person point of view presupposes the first person point of view, and it is the latter from which we live. We are objects in the world, but we live as subjects for whom there is a world, a world upon which we act and must act. Subjectivity is irreducible and ineliminable.
We are left with a huge problem that no philosopher has ever solved, namely, the integration of the first-person and third-person points of view. How do they cohere? No philosopher has explained this. What can be seen with clarity, however, is that subjectivity is irreducible and ineliminable and that no solution can be had by denying that we are irreducibly conscious and irreducibly free. One cannot integrate the points of view by denying the first of them.
All indications are that the problem is simply insoluble and we ought to be intellectually honest enough to face the fact. It is no solution at all, and indeed a shabby evasion, to write off the first-person point of view as illusory.