Newspapers and magazines are giving prominence to the notion that free will is an illusion. Some examples of this are articles in The Atlantic (titled "There's No Such Thing As Free Will: But we're better off believing in it anyway"), The Guardian (titled "Guilty, but not responsible?"), the New York Times (titled "Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will?"), Scientific American Mind (titled 'How Physics and Neuroscience Dictate Your "Free" Will'), Psychology Today (titled "Illusion of Choice: The Myth of Free Will"). Even newspapers catering to the less-intellectually-inclined are getting into the act. For example The Independent has an article titled "Free will could all be an illusion, scientists suggest after study shows choice may just be brain tricking itself."
Just in case you think articles such as the ones above are the final word, note that ScienceDaily: Your Source for the Latest Research News reports in an article titled "The brain-computer duel: Do we have free will?" that:
"Our choices seem to be freer than previously thought. Using computer-based brain experiments, researchers studied the decision-making processes involved in voluntary movement. The question was: Is it possible for people to cancel a movement once the brain has started preparing it? The conclusion the researchers reached was: Yes, up to a certain point--the 'point of no return.'"
In this article I will show not only that free will is not an illusion, but also how the "free will is an illusion" argument rests on a premise with no scientific basis and is in fact literally faith-driven. And I will discuss why the ruling class (a.k.a. "the elite" here) benefits from us thinking that free will is an illusion. I'll start with the last point first.
Why would the elite be promoting the minority of intellectuals who say that free will is an illusion?
One reason is this: It tells the vast majority of people--who don't agree that free will is an illusion--that they are so ignorant of the basic facts of reality that they are not fit to have a real say in society. The elite have learned this trick--promoting ideas that most people reject in order to attack the idea of democracy--well; for example they told the (initially, at least) majority of people who opposed same-sex marriage that they were so wrongheaded about something so fundamental that they should not have a real say in society, that--as the liberal establishment put it-- "It's wrong to vote on rights." Telling people they're wrong about fundamental things is a way to undermine the idea of democracy--the idea that ordinary people are fit to rule society. The ruling elite always are looking for a new way to undermine the idea of democracy, so why not use the "illusion" of free will?
Another reason is this. To the extent that people are persuaded that free will is just an illusion, they will find it harder to object to the ruling elite's surreptitious manipulation of human beings. If human beings have no more free will than inanimate objects then it follows that manipulating the former is no more objectionable than manipulating the latter. The idea that free will is just an illusion thus perfectly suits the needs of any manipulative ruling class. I owe this insight to the author of the Dilbert cartoon for February 4, 2015, in which Dilbert says, "I'm programming our robot line to emotionally manipulate their owners into buying upgrades"; his colleague then asks, "You're teaching cloud-connected robots all over the world how to surreptitiously control humans?" to which Dilbert replies, "Technically, yes. But free will is an illusion anyway." This shows that the people employed to do the manipulating will find it a lot easier to rationalize what they're doing if they believe free will is just an illusion.
The "Free Will Is an Illusion" Premise: There's Nothing But Non-Sentient Matter/Energy
The "free will is just an illusion" view claims that none of our behavior is determined by our conscious choice; all of our behavior is totally determined by the atoms that make up our brains, in obedience to the impersonal laws of physics. In this view of reality, the existence of consciousness is a complete mystery, since it is impossible to imagine subjective consciousness emerging from purely non-sentient matter. (Some scientists admit this impossibility, while others who try to explain consciousness end up just waving their hands and revealing that they haven't a clue.) Scientists with this "no free will" view either deny the reality of consciousness (as B.F. Skinner, the behaviorist psychologist, essentially did) or they admit that it mysteriously exists but only as an "epiphenomenon," meaning that consciousness only reflects (somehow), but never causes, the decisions made by the atoms of our brain following the laws of physics.
If there is no free will, then it follows logically that the governance of society is rightfully a matter of social engineering and not a matter of taking seriously what individual people say they want. In this view, democracy is an irrelevant pointless idea. Society should be controlled by people who understand what makes people tick (i.e., how the laws of physics controlling the atoms in our brains yield the laws of chemistry that control the molecules in our brains, in turn yielding the laws of molecular biology that control our brain cells, in turn yielding the laws of neurology controlling our behavior and (possibly) our merely "epiphenomenal" consciousness). For example, the online film, Zeitgeist III, which has more than 16 million viewers and which is a very slick expensive production that appeals in the beginning to people who want a more equal and democratic society, ends up denying free will and calling for essentially a dictatorship of scientists.
The "no free will" idea does indeed derive very logically from the idea that all there is in nature is non-sentient matter/energy. This notion that there is only non-sentient matter/energy in the world is the chief premise of the modern scientific view of the world. Here's where it gets interesting.
What Is the Origin of the Idea that there is Only Non-Sentient Matter/Energy?
The modern scientific world view (that there is just non-sentient matter/energy) is purely based on faith. It does not derive deductively from empirical observation. Historically, this view emerged and gained ruling-class favor in the Enlightenment period of the 17th century because it was originally linked to the idea that the world consisted of purely non-sentient matter on the one hand and fundamentally different divine things (human souls and God) on the other hand. The ruling class at this time feared the "animistic" ideas that (the ruling class was afraid) influenced peasants and made them stop fearing the Church and start revolting against the rulers who claimed to derive their authority from the Church.
The animism idea was that there was no fundamental difference between our souls and our bodies because, like our souls, our bodies (and all other ordinary things in nature) had an aspect of subjectivity and did things for reasons of their own; i.e., were self-moving (like our souls) and not merely passively controlled by laws of nature. According to animism, our body and our soul are fundamentally similar, not dissimilar. The fact that our body dies and decomposes means that our souls, being fundamentally similar, also die and decompose. And this means that our souls are not eternal, and do not go to heaven or hell depending on whether we obey the Church or not. The Church, naturally, saw this as blasphemy, and relied on the new Enlightenment scientists such as Newton and Boyle (famous for his law of gasses) to rebut animism with non-sentient materialism. Newton and Boyle, themselves, were ardent defenders of the Church's claim that God and souls existed and were fundamentally different from ordinary matter.
The Church also needed ordinary nature to be completely non-sentient matter in order for the miracles of Jesus to be truly supernatural. If matter were animistic it would mean that such miracles were things that happened routinely and were commonplace. This in turn would mean that Jesus' performance of miracles would no longer provide evidence that Jesus was divine, which in turn would undermine the basis for the Church claiming to be the one true religion (since none of the other religions were based on somebody who performed miracles).