Early humans, as best we can know, did not have a conception of free will, at least not in the way modern people think of it. Instead, they assumed the gods controlled the destiny of man, often directly interfering in the lives of people. What appeared to be your choice, was really just part of a bigger narrative that had been written by others. This is why it was possible for fortune tellers to exist. After all, if the future is not written, then how could anyone divine the future? Obviously, the future was already written.
The funny thing about these early notions of destiny is they did not exempt people from punishment for wrong doing. The thief was still punished, which does not make a lot of sense if his destiny was determined by the gods. Of course, the remedy here is to conclude that his destiny is to be executed and the destiny of the executioner is to be the one who punishes the thief. Even so, it suggests that people have always accepted some degree of free will, even in the age when people believed in gods controlling destiny.
The Greeks, of course, were the first to think about free will. They sort of crept up on the idea by first suggesting the natural world operated by fixed rules. A Greek philosopher named Anaximander proposed that there were ideal laws that governed material phenomenon in the physical world. The famous line from Heraclitus that “you can’t step twice into the same river” did not mean that the world was random. He meant that world is in constant flux, but the changes observed in nature follow a fixed set of laws.
It was not until a generation after Aristotle that the Greeks moved from the position where a set of laws controlled the physical world to a position where the atoms flowing through the void could suddenly swerve from their determined path. This ability of the physical world to deviate from the determined path meant that people could swerve from their determined path. Eventually, this chain of reasoning arrived at the conclusion that people could act from something other than chance or necessity. That’s free will.
The concept of free will has been essential to Western thought since the Greeks and it is an essential element of Christianity. You can’t have sin without free will and you cannot have communion without free will. People have to possess the ability to transcend chance and necessity in order to be held responsible for their actions. This is the fundamental assumption of Western society. Everything from civic morality to political organization is based on the belief that humans possess and exercise free will.
As is true in many aspects of this age, science in starting to question that old notion of free will. Genetics is revealing that our genetic code controls more than just our physical appearance. Our cognitive abilities are also controlled by our genes. Just as we cannot choose to be taller or be of another race, we cannot choose to be smarter or more patient or more prudent. It’s not just the larger aspects of pour personality that are fixed by our genetics code. Everything about us is written in our DNA.
People can accept something like intelligence being genetic. That’s something we begin to notice as children. When it comes to something like patience, for example, that’s where it gets more difficult to accept. It seems like you should be able to change that. The same is true of something like prudence. It seems like as we get older we become more prudent, more cautious about our actions. The mounds of self-help books all depend on the ability of people to alter these sorts of aspects of their personality.
Even though researchers are just scratching the surface with regards to the genetic causes of human cognitive traits, there are people ready to say free will is a myth. The HBD blogger Jayman argues that your choices can’t be “free” if they are so easily predicted by behavioral genetics. If we can predict behavior statistically and all human behavioral traits are heritable, it follows that what you think is free choice, is really just the complex execution of your code in response to external variables.
Again, the science of behavior genetics is just scratching the surface, but the data thus far certainly suggests this is correct. It’s certainly more complicated than what Hollywood imagines, but science says everything about us is in our code. There is probably not a criminal gene or a bad with girls gene, but there are a series of traits that influence these measurable qualities in positive and negative directions. Where you are on the spectrum of these cognitive traits is determined by your code.
Most people will find that rather monstrous, because of the implications. The most obvious is that genetic determinism rules out morality. People cannot be rewarded or punished, unless they can transcend chance and necessity. If their choices are simply the result of their code executing in response to environmental factors, they have no agency and therefore no responsibility. This also means there can be no such thing as sin, unless you believe God creates people coded to sin. The same is true of piety.
On the other hand, people with a background in math will know that not all algorithms produce a single result. A simple formula like f (x) = x² has the set of all positive integers for all possible values of x. Even though the result must always be positive, there is a qualitative difference between three and a billion and three. Something similar may be true about human genetic code. The possible result set is large enough to present a qualitative difference that is important to how we evaluate those results.
In other words, our code may make us like ice cream, but the range of ways that urge could express in our daily life is between murdering someone for ice cream and simply having some after dinner. Another bit of code, let’s call it the free will algorithm, controls how these cognitive traits express, based on the inputs from society. Just as random number generation is not actually random, but can be treated as such, the free will algorithm is not actually free will, but can be treated as such.
This notion of free will is certainly something that evolved. Your house pets do not have a concept of free will. This is a uniquely human trait. That means it may have arisen by chance, but it has a very important purpose. Rewarding and punishing people for their behavior must be essential to what defines as us people. Perhaps just as genes can arise from mutation, the replication process swerving from the path, our actions can also swerve from the path, based on some unknown capacity to choose.