Your brain processes millions of bits of data each millisecond act without any conscious effort. Most brain generated activities don’t have even a whiff of free will involved.
Certainly much of what we do, even complex behaviors, is done on “automatic pilot.” An oft quoted example is when you find yourself at some location you meant to get to without being quite aware of f the details of how you got there (a bit scary when driving was involved). Or consider how you cobble together what seems to be a coherent scene from what are actually disparate and rapidly changing sensory inputs that your brain compares to prior experience (that is, conditioning).
Experiments show that when you are asked to decide consciously when to more your finger, your brain decides when it will happen before you are aware the decision has been made. There is the illusion you are making decisions, but that is just an evolutionary trick, an “emergent” phenomenon. The debate rages without words, it is only after a decision has been made, the outcome of the debate determined, that you become aware of it consciously as thoughts.
Those conscious thoughts are how the conglomeration of synapses firing or being inhibited manifest, the story you tell yourself to confirm that reality just might have something to do with your experience and expectations, in order to make it easier to grasp and control.
On the other hand, it certainly is the case that for many complex behaviors and decisions your experience is that you sure seem to have a say in the decision at some point. Even if that sense of free will is an illusion, you at least have to act that way. You really have NO choice but to act that way. That is how compelling it is. To try to do otherwise is denial, delusion and madness.
In fact, I kind of think the whole free will or not debate is a matter of people getting caught in language and concepts that arise from our perspective as evolved monkeys with magnificent but limited brains.
One thing about thinking there is no free will is that perhaps it can make you more compassionate. No praise and blame! If someone does something dangerous to others, fix it, like a malfunctioning machine, without a sense of punishment or retribution, without anger. I can appreciate that. But even that can become pretty hard assed. How do you “fix it”? Keep in mind how often to you want to throw your computer out the window!
In Buddhist terms, you can’t escape your karma, the momentum of everything in all space and time that makes up your life at every moment, as long as you are dealing with the things that involve the senses (including thought), the realm of the relative, of time and space, particle and wave, the universe of change. And this karma is determined by previous decisions and actions, determined by previous… in a never beginning and never-ending regression/progression.
It is what the ancients called Indra’s web, a multidimensional weave of infinitely reflective jewels that instantly reflect all change anywhere and everywhere. Really, that’s how it was thought of some two thousand years ago in the Avatamsaka sutra. Is there free will there? What set up the web, the wheels within wheels; what makes the change that is instantly reflected?
Be that as it may, the Buddha taught that you can wake up. That however you parse it, you can make the “right effort.”
In each moment.
My advice to those who think otherwise: Don’t think because you have some understanding of information, mathematics, biology and brains you know what there IS. Don’t get captured by words.
Don’t be arrogant.
Whatever you think, your life is still there. Free will, illusion and all. You know you “act as if” anyway, so embrace it.