I have excerpted my latest JREF post “Living Without Free Will” below. In it I throw in my lot with philosopher Sam Harris and his arguments against free will. I also discuss how we can live better by abandoning free will in our lives. You can read my other long-form JREF posts here.
Living Without Free Will
I was going to write this essay. I could not have decided otherwise. I do not mean that if I was laying on the couch that this essay would have written itself, in a fatalistic sense, but given my genetics, my childhood, the experiences I have had and the people I have met, the prior state of the universe and my brain chemistry at this very moment, I was going to write this essay.
After reading Sam Harris’ new book Free Will (you can watch a recent lecture on the book here or buy the book on Amazon here) I can say that I am fairly convinced that our common sense notion of free will does not exist. This idea of free will could be defined as the subjective feeling that your conscious self is the author of your thoughts and actions. If you want to debate this point and argue the specifics, I suggest you read the book first (or watch the lecture) and duke it out in the comments below. My goal here is to generally lay out Harris’ argument against free will and then consider what it has meant for me to live a life without free will. Many of religious faith and an inordinate fondness of free will (as it allows for their eternal punishment of course) should be surprised to hear that it is not much different.
Where is the Freedom in That?
One of the points in Dr. Harris’ book is that free will is an illusion of an illusion. While I admittedly had to read the page on which this quote was located perhaps ten or so times, I believe that I now understand what he meant. Not only does our commonsense notion of free will run counter to what we know about science generally and neurology specifically (making it an illusion), we can realize ourselves, subjectively, that it does not exist (an illusion of an illusion). That is to say, if you simply pay attention to how thoughts and intentions merely pop out of the void and into your mind, through mechanisms that are completely mysterious to you, you realize that your conscious “self” is simply a witness to choices that have already been made. You are not aware of what your thoughts or intentions or wants or desires are until they materialize in consciousness through avenues that you have no control over. In this view, paraphrasing Harris, you are no freer to choose the next thing you think than the next thing I write.
Interestingly, we already dismiss free will for others when certain states of the brain are responsible. We do not typically claim people to be the conscious authors of their thoughts and actions when they have some particular brain state caused by a tumor or some other disorder (e.g., OCD). We then view people as “victims of biology,” quoting Harris. But because we know that all human action is determined by brain states (themselves dependent on factors over which we have no control), why doesn’t this conception of biological determinism extend to all brain states? The same brain functions that force someone count to 47 every time they enter a room, for example, are the same brain functions that make you turn left instead of right down a sidewalk. We are nearsighted in the application of our knowledge about the brain. Once we admit that people are not the causal agents of their thoughts and actions depending on brain states, we have readied the coffin for commonsense free will.