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I read Sam Harris' "Free Will" - a short 60-something page book. In it, the author argues that, based on current neuroscientific evidence, we have every reason to accept that determinism (the view that all actions are determined by prior causes) is true. He proposes that we are not the authors of our own thoughts and experiences, but rather they appear in consciousness. A moment of deep introspection would reveal exactly that...
Disclaimer: Please note that this summary is offered for educational purposes only. If you are interested in reading the complete book please purchase it from the author.
Guest post courtesy of my friend Nikolay Petrov, Psychology Research Assistant (firstname.lastname@example.org)
This message is not to be confused with fatalism - the view that there is no point in doing anything because everything is determined. Our choices, intention, desires and wishes all matter. They all have consequences - but this does not mean that they, themselves, are not determined by prior causes.
This also has implications for moral responsibility. The fact that we do not have free will does not mean that we cannot hold people responsible for their actions. A murderer, whether his behaviour is determined or not, who is eager to kill again should be detained for the simple reason they are a danger to society.
Should we care?
Well, albeit there is some evidence to suggest that the knowledge that free will is an illusion might cause participants to do mischievous acts, there can be positive effects too. For instance, being aware of the background causes of one's actions and feelings can grant you greater control over your life.
It is important to keep in mind that Harris makes a lot of assumptions in his book that cannot be taken at face value. I've identified some of them, but a lot of them I have missed. For example, some suggest that Harris considers free will an all-or-nothing phenomenon which is not necessarily the case.
Here is a brief summary
Free will is a massive topic that touches on every aspect of society – morality, law, politics, religion etc. Harris then gives the example of two criminals (Hayes and Komisarjevsky) who brutally tortured and murdered an entire family. Given the brutality, we all naturally feel that they are responsible for their actions but does it make a difference that they have had “bad luck” in life (e.g. their genes and environment). What if they had a tumour that caused such behaviour? Our moral intuitions seem to shift dramatically…
Free will is an illusion. Thoughts and actions arise all by themselves in our brains and every action is determined by prior causes (e.g. genes, childhood, sleep etc etc…)
2. The Unconscious Origins of the Will
Impulses to do anything appear in consciousness. They do not arise there. Neuroscientific evidence supports that. In one study where researchers observed the activity of only 256 neurons in the brain, they managed to predict with 80% accuracy a person’s decision to act 700 milliseconds before the person became aware of it.
Harris offers a thought-experiment: What would happen if we had a device that could perfectly detect and interpret changes in brain function. With that, you will find that scientists are able to predict every single thought, movement and choice well before it happened.
The laws of nature (e.g. cause and effect) are simply incompatible with the notion of free will.
Voluntary and involuntary actions differ. The former has a subjective experience of the felt intention. It does make sense to treat those as separate in, for example, our legal system.
3. Changing the Subject
There are three main approaches determinism, libertarianism and compatibilism to the question of free will.
Compatibilism amounts to the assertion that “A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings.”
At any one time, we have many competing desires and which one triumphs is just as mysterious as it is caused by prior events. Not only that but also there is little freedom in wanting what one wants without any internal conflict. For instance, where is the freedom in me being satisfied or not with writing this summary? The fact that I feel satisfaction is itself determined by prior causes relating to me.
Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris disagree on free will to a certain degree. Dennett claims that even if our thoughts and actions are the product of unconscious causes (something he agrees on with Harris, i.e. determinism), they are still our own. Anything that our brain does or decides is something we have done.
The different between Dennett and Harris amounts to this: Dennett, unlike Harris, claims that what makes me ‘me’ is everything that goes inside my body (e.g. producing blood cells, enzymes etc) and this is how we should conceptualize a person. However, this seems to ignore the feeling of free will that we have. Free will is a subjective experience of being a conscious agent, rather than a whole human being identical with my neurophysiology. In essence, Dennett “trades a psychological fact – the subjective experience of being a conscious agent – for a conceptual understanding of ourselves as persons.”
4. Cause and Effect
Some have proposed that the brain works on probability and indeterminacy, much like a quantum computer, hence our behaviour can be considered “self-generated” which is how they “save” the popular notion of free will.
However, this indeterminacy does not make the concept of free will any more intelligible. Not least of all, not everything (actions, desires, impulses etc) is a mere product of pure chance. As long as the laws of cause and effect apply to our understanding of behaviour (regardless of whether the foundational causes of behaviour were random or not in the brain), such indeterminacy does not provide a basis for free will.
5. Choices, Efforts, Intentions
There is a big difference between volitional and nonvolitional actions. They depend primarily on higher-order brain structures and combine information from many different brain areas. Therefore, you can make choices, but these choices only appear into consciousness and the prior causes of those choices are still not your choice.
This is where the confusion lies between determinism (which we’ve established is true) and fatalism (the kind of thinking “If everything is determined, why should I do anything?”) – it is still a matter of choice, albeit determined at the most fundamental level.
For example, you’ve tried many times to go on a diet but all of them had failed. This one time you went on a diet and it succeeded. Why? It is something that simply appeared in consciousness, all by itself, rather than something you created. It is hard to account for why your wants are effective in one case but not another.
To quote: “You can do what you decide to do – but you cannot decide what you will decide to do.”
Choices, efforts, intentions, and reasoning influence our behaviour – but they are themselves part of a chain of causes that precede conscious awareness and over which we exert no ultimate control.
One of the important ideas to come from Existentialism is that we are free to interpret and reinterpret the meaning of our lives. But this also does not require free will. It simply means that different modes of thinking have difference consequences and why you pursue any one line of thinking is still the produce of prior events that you did not bring into being.
6. Might the Truth Be Bad for Us?
One study found that participants who read an argument against the existence of free will were more likely to cheat while another found that they were less helpful and more aggressive – therefore, the argument that it might be bad for us to know that free will is an illusion is justified
However, it can definitely have positive effects – being more compassionate and forgiving and being aware of the role of luck in one’s life.
Every discussion of free will also has its place. Much like viewing people as a collection of atoms does not always serve us well but this does not change the utility of physics, this does not mean that the absence of free will does not have its place in the world.
What’s more, realizing the illusion of free will can allow for great control over one’s life due to being sensitive to the background causes of one’s thoughts and feelings.
7. Moral Responsibility
In terms of moral responsibility, free will does not change the picture too much. Regardless of whether someone is “free” to do something, we can still condemn or praise their behaviour. If a criminal wants to kill, we need not entertain any discussion of free will and luck, but rather just lock the criminal up.
Conscious intention does play a role here (and that’s why we value it so much) – if someone has been under the influence of drugs/alcohol or has a brain tumour, we view their behaviour in a less critical way because we see that as not reflecting their global state of mind. However, if somebody kills with a conscious intention to do so, this simply reflects the kinds of person they are.
However, incorporating the absence of free will in our worldview can make us less hateful towards criminals as we need to realize how unlucky they have been to be in that situation.
Still, it is worth considering the powerful effects that retribution can have. Knowing that the murderer of your family is still out there living their life is psychologically challenging. This desire for retribution seems to rest on the idea that each person is the free author of their thoughts and actions. Therefore, it is based upon a cognitive and emotional illusion and perpetuates a moral one.
Nonetheless, it is worth pointing out that a complete understanding of free will and a criminal system that takes it into account properly can be made to account for the need for retribution (e.g. sham forms of retributions).
Liberals tend to think that how successful one is depends entirely on luck while conservatives completely dismiss any talk of luck, which makes for an incomplete understanding of the world
Of course, getting rid of any notions of free will does not entail that we should not encourage people to do their best and change behaviours for the better. But we can start to find out where people can change and we can demand to do so, whereas if we find cases where change is impossible, we can chart some other course of action.
It is generally argued that we do have a free will because we feel like we are the authors of our own actions and thoughts. However, this is a shallow understanding of the human mind. A moment of deep introspection reveals that we are far from controlling our thoughts, emotions and experiences.
Our thoughts simply arise in us and they change us – we cannot change them.
How did your view of free will change in light of this information? Go ahead and share it with a friend.
Get in touch for your free session to see how you can integrate this new information into your life.
Special thanks to my friend Nikolay once again for producing this summary.
Martin Stefanov Petkov
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