There is no need to insist that free will is some kind of magical violation of causality. Free will is just another kind of cause. The causal process by which a person decides whether to marry is simply different from the processes that cause balls to roll downhill, ice to melt in the hot sun, a magnet to attract nails, or a stock price to rise and fall.
Different sciences discover different kinds of causes. Phillip Anderson, who won the Nobel Prize in physics, explained this beautifully several decades ago in a brief article titled “More is different.” Physics may be the most fundamental of the sciences, but as one moves up the ladder to chemistry, then biology, then physiology, then psychology, and on to economics and sociology—at each level, new kinds of causes enter the picture.
As Anderson explained, the things each science studies cannot be fully reduced to the lower levels, but they also cannot violate the lower levels. Our actions cannot break the laws of physics, but they can be influenced by things beyond gravity, friction, and electromagnetic charges. No number of facts about a carbon atom can explain life, let alone the meaning of your life. These causes operate at different levels of organization. Even if you could write a history of the Civil War purely in terms of muscle movements or nerve cell firings, that (very long and dull) book would completely miss the point of the war. Free will cannot violate the laws of physics or even neuroscience, but it invokes causes that go beyond them.
This reminds me of a point made in a TV interview by the late Richard Feynman back in the early 1980s. His point was that most people have fragile knowledge. They do not know under what conditions some ideas are valid and when they are not, analogous to some mathematical techniques being applicable in limited domains. They also don't know how ideas in general or in specific different fields relate to each other. He also added the there were many pseudo-experts that were practising scientism rather than science.
Mr. Baumeister continues:
If culture is so successful, why don’t other species use it? They can’t—because they lack the psychological innate capabilities it requires. Our ancestors evolved the ability to act in the ways necessary for culture to succeed. Free will likely will be found right there—it’s what enables humans to control their actions in precisely the ways required to build and operate complex social systems.Returning to the matter of free will, he concludes:
What psychological capabilities are needed to make cultural systems work? To be a member of a group with culture, people must be able to understand the culture’s rules for actions, including moral principles and formal laws. They need to be able to talk about their choices with others, participate in group decisions, and carry out their assigned role. Culture can bring immense benefits, from cooked rice to the iPhone, but it only works if people cooperate and obey the rules.
Self-control counts as a kind of freedom because it begins with not acting on every impulse. The simple brain acts whenever something triggers a response: A hungry creature sees food and eats it. The most recently evolved parts of the human brain have an extensive mechanism for overriding those impulses, which enables us to reject food when we’re hungry, whether it’s because we’re dieting, vegetarian, keeping kosher, or mistrustful of the food. Self-control furnishes the possibility of acting from rational principles rather than acting on impulse.
The use of abstract ideas such as moral principles to guide action takes us far beyond anything that you will find in a physics or chemistry textbook, and so we are free in the sense of emergence, of going beyond simpler forms of causality. Again, we cannot break the laws of physics, but we can act in ways that add new causes that go far beyond physical causation. No electron understands the Golden Rule, and indeed an exhaustive study of any given atom will furnish no clue as to whether it is part of a person who is obeying or disobeying that rule. The economic laws of supply and demand are genuine causes, but they cannot be reduced to or fully explained by chemical reactions. Understanding free will in this way allows us to reconcile the popular understanding of free will as making choices with our scientific understanding of the world.
Reiterating an earlier point: "Physics may be the most fundamental of the sciences, but as one moves up the ladder to chemistry, then biology, then physiology, then psychology, and on to economics and sociology—at each level, new kinds of causes enter the picture." The increasing complexity as one moves up that ladder has important implications in the policy arena. As someone said:
It just goes to show that it's a lot easier to pull off impressive feats of rocket engineering than social engineering. And yet the saying is "it's not rocket science" when implying something isn't all that difficult. Shouldn't it be, "It's not social science?"Indeed!