Our answer should be organized by tense: what does it feel like to be faced with a choice; what does it feel like to be making a choice; and what does it feel like to have made a choice. Our focus will be on those aspects relating to the question of freedom of will, thus the experience of conscious, deliberate choices. For if we do not have freedom in those cases we surely do not have it in unconscious decisions.
When we are faced with a choice, depending on the circumstances we may or may not notice that there is a prerequisite meta-choice involved: whether to make any decision at all in the present. Decisions require mental energy and usually involve commitment risk, so avoidance of unnecessary choices is an adaptive behavior. In evaluating this prior choice, we are motivated primarily by the possible consequences of failing to make a decision now. Sometimes it will make no difference; other times it will merely delay the achievement of some goal; and sometimes it is a matter of physical safety. On either extreme we will likely not even notice the meta-choice since our instincts take over; and the meta-meta-choice does not arise in practice, as it is merely a question of whether to be conscious of the decision.
Let us consider the experiential phenomena immediately after we have decided (whether consciously or instinctively) that we will or must make a conscious first-order choice. We consider our options in turn or in parallel, by visualizing their consequences. To some extent we attempt to simulate the experience of what it is like to be in the world that exists after a particular option is selected – both the substantive outcomes and how we feel about having made that choice. We may feel an urge to gather information and may actually do so. We may feel confident or uncertain about the outcomes we are visualizing. In all this, and whatever other thought processes or related activities we pursue, we experience the work of making the choice. It does not feel “ballistic” whereby our course is determined externally or in advance. It feels like the choice will not be made unless we make it ourselves.
Emotionally, this feels like a burden. It is up to us, and us alone, when are faced with that choice. We sense that it needs to be made, that making it requires effort, our effort, and further that we will be responsible for the consequences.
The actual experience of making the decision depends on our confidence or decisiveness. If we are decisive, it feels much like a switch flipping. Suddenly, we are on the other side, and we feel a sense of relief and possibly enthusiasm. If we are indecisive, it will feel more like the switch flipping back and forth, always in motion, never quite stopping on one side. When we do finally decide, though we feel the switch finally land in one position, we feel discomfort or dread, even continuing to revisit the other options, now either in a past tense or even evaluating whether it is too late to change the decision (which feels quite different from making another choice in the first place).
After having made the choice and learned the consequences, we are likely to experience either satisfaction or regret. We see how the choice played a role in the outcome, whether or not in the manner we originally envisioned prior to making the choice. We see how it would have been different had we made a different choice. We feel that the outcome was, at least in part, due to our choice, and we are therefore, at least partly, responsible for the outcome.
We can exploit this phenomenology to argue for freedom in at least two ways. The first is to apply a form of eidetic reduction. As an example of how this might proceed, Sartre famously makes an eidetic argument for the existence of other minds:
I have just made an awkward or vulgar gesture. This gesture clings to me; I neither judge it nor blame it. I simply live it. I realize it in the mode of for-itself. But now suddenly I raise my head. Somebody was there and has seen me. Suddenly I realize the vulgarity of my gesture, and I am ashamed. It is certain that my shame is not reflective, for the presence of another in my consciousness, even as a catalyst, is incompatible with the reflective attitude; in the field of my reflection I can never meet with anything but the consciousness which is mine. But the Other is the indispensable mediator between myself and me. I am ashamed of myself as I appear to the Other (Being and Nothingness, H. Barnes translation, p. 302).Similarly, in the case of conscious choice, we cannot shed the prior experience of burden nor the subsequent experience of satisfaction or regret that accompanies the outcome. For example, we might imagine having to choose whether an injured and unconscious parent should undergo surgery. We know that there are great risks and we feel the burden of the choice in part because we anticipate the feeling of regret that will accompany an incorrect decision. If the parent dies, the felt regret is powerful and long-lasting, and it connects to our memory of the experience of the burden of the choice. Applying Sartre’s terminology, freedom is an indispensable mediator connecting the felt burden with the subsequent feeling of regret. We cannot make sense of these feelings without freedom.
A second approach is epistemic in nature. We explored certain epistemic considerations in a previous post, Causation and Self; here we will consider the concept of choice in particular. Like all terms, “choice” aggregates, synthesizes, and abstracts a history of applicable experiences. However, concepts of pure phenomena are different than those of external objects in that we do not act as epistemic intermediaries. Saul Kripke considers this with respect to pain and other mental states:
To be in the same epistemic situation that would obtain if one had a pain is to have a pain; to be in the same epistemic situation that would obtain in the absence of a pain is not to have a pain… Pain … is not picked out by one of its accidental properties; rather it is picked out by the property of being pain itself, by its immediate phenomenological quality (Naming and Necessity, p. 152).
It is plausible that choice is, like pain, a concept of mental states, of pure phenomena. When we say we have a choice, we are not normally talking about ourselves as a biological machine that is computing a utility function. Even when we think of another human, or even some animals, making a choice, we normally imagine their experience of choice rather than seeing them as an inanimate object that might fall one way and might fall another.
If we accept this phenomenological version of the concept, then when we say we are faced with a choice or made a choice, it is the experiences described earlier to which we refer. The experience of choice, and in particular the feeling that the choice will not be made unless we make it, and that after we made it we were responsible for it, is what choice means. Thus when we ask the question whether a choice is free, we must turn to the nature of those experiences, not to an external, mechanical notion that is not constitutive of the meaning of the word. Viewed in this way, each referent of the term was experienced unambiguously as our choice and that we were free to make it.
Horgan and Timmons argued recently that we cannot rely on phenomena to establish freedom, because the representational purport of the phenomena is theory-laden (“Introspection and the Phenomenology of Free Will”, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2011). In other words, we cannot assume that we would experience freedom only if it that freedom were genuine in some underlying physical sense. Indeed, a reductionist neuroscientist might well say that our phenomena of choice are just how we experience the brain making a decision, mere epiphenomena. But this approach assumes that the concepts of choice and freedom refer primarily to a physical process, and we have suggested above that this is neither necessary nor consistent with typical use.
Consequently, answering the question of whether we have freedom of will depends on our concept of choice. If we insist that it incorporate physical mechanisms, then as we saw in The Metaphysics of Freedom, the question is likely unanswerable. If we treat choice as a concept of mental states or pure phenomenal experience, the answer is manifestly libertarian.