This post is part of my series on free will.
Early scientists like Isaac Newton believed they were discovering the principles by which God governed his creation. Such "laws of nature" were absolute; they admitted no exceptions and could not be broken. A similar vein of thought can be found in Einstein: "I want to know God's thoughts; the rest are details," and in modern theoretical physics, where some speak of an ultimate theory, a Theory of Everything (TOE).
According to another vein of thought, the laws of nature are descriptions, not commands. They are a way of organizing a large body of observations according to the regularities found among them. They are mathematical models that capture some aspect of reality. This view acknowledges that such laws are always provisional and approximate. There will always be some realms - some scales of size or energy - in which the known laws have not been tested, and in which they may well fail to be exactly true.
Many philosophers of free will seem to adhere to the seventeenth-century view of the laws of nature. This is especially evident in their discussions of determinism. There are, it is assumed, some ultimate Laws that, God-like, determine everything that will ever happen.
An exception is the philosopher Norman Swartz, who argues that if we take seriously the view of laws as descriptions, not commands, then the problem of free will does not even arise. I am not completely persuaded by his argument: read it yourself and see what you think. But I agree that thinking of laws as descriptions is an important step in the right direction.
These issues leap to the foreground in discussions of quantum mechanics. If we take the mathematical formalism of quantum mechanics to be an absolute command that admits no exceptions, then we are driven to a metaphysically absurd interpretation (the Many-Worlds Interpretation). But if we admit that quantum mechanics is merely the most accurate description we can give of certain systems, then such absurdities aren't necessary.
I see the significance of this view for free will in the possibility that there is more than one description of a certain event that is (approximately) a true description. The existence of a (valid) description at the level of electrons does not rule out the existence of a (valid) description at the level of mental events.
I will return to this point next time.