Is Free Will an Illusion? March 27, 2012Posted by Matt in books, Free Will.
Tags: choice, free will, philosophy, Sam Harris
I know I haven’t posted anything substantive in quite some time, so I hope you will bear with me for a bit.
I’m a fan of neuroscientist/philosopher Sam Harris and have been for some time. Over the years I’ve read several of his books: The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, and The Moral Landscape, and I have always come away challenged and maybe even a bit enlightened. He’s a brilliant man and a very good writer, one who makes good use of humor and rarely comes across as condescending, unlike the feeling I’ve had from some of his contemporaries in religious criticism like Richard Dawkins.
I downloaded Harris’s short book, Free Will, a few weeks ago and read through it slowly, taking time to digest his ideas and come to an understanding of his viewpoint, one which was somewhat foreign to me. Having been raised in a Conservative area of the country and having been part of a fundamentalist sort of church for many years, the notion of free will seemed as concrete and real as anything. I had the complete freedom to make conscious choices, whether good or bad.
As Harris says at the beginning of his book:
Most of what is distinctly human about our lives seems to depend upon our viewing one another as autonomous persons, capable of free choice.
He then methodically disassembles this notion.
Without going into the details, he tells a true story of two men, career criminals, who murdered an entire family. He then tells of their troubled past, of abuse and psychological disorders and remorse, before making the statement:
Whatever their conscious motives, these men cannot know why they are as they are. Nor can we account for why we are not like them. As sickening as I find their behavior as I find their behavior, I have to admit that if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him: There is no extra part of me that could decide to see the world differently or to resist the impulse to victimize other people. Even if you believe that every human being harbors an immortal soul, the problem of responsibility remains: I cannot take credit for the fact that I do not have the soul of a psychopath.
What does this do to the idea of free will then? According to Harris:
Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control.
Harris says that the idea of free will is based on two assumptions:
1) That each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past
2) That we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present.
And this is just chapter one. Stay tuned for more.