Is Free Will an Illusion? Part 2 March 28, 2012Posted by Matt in Free Will.
Tags: free will, intentions, neuroscience, Sam Harris
Yesterday I introduced the ideas put forth in Sam Harris’s book Free Will, and today I’d like to take a slightly deeper dive into this interesting work. First we answer the question: From where does the Will originate?
Our brains take in untold amounts of information each moment of our lives, yet we are only aware of a very small fraction of it. Everything we come in contact with is recorded, organized, and analyzed in the depths of our minds, and although we notice that our experiences change (thoughts, moods, perceptions, behaviors, etc), we are unaware of the background workings of our brains that produce them.
For instance, I’ve had two cups of coffee this morning. Why did I not choose to forego coffee and instead choose tea or water? Did I consciously choose to have two cups of coffee this morning? Harris says no.
The choice was made for me by events in my brain that I, as the conscious witness of my thoughts and actions, could not inspect or influence. Could I have “changed my mind?” … Yes, but this impulse would also have been the product of unconscious causes. … The intention to do one thing and not another does not originate in the consciousness – rather, it appears in the consciousness, as does any thought or impulse that might oppose it.
Harris then goes on to cite scientific studies to support this idea. Physiologist Benjamin Libet used EEG to show that activity in the brain’s motor cortex can be seen 300 milliseconds before a person feels that they have decided to move. A second study employed fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to further this idea. Experimenters found that associated brain regions contained information a full 7-10 seconds before a conscious decision was made. In other experiments, direct recordings of the cortex showed that the activity of 256 neurons was all that was needed to predict (with 80% accuracy) a person’s decision to move 700 milliseconds before they became aware of it.
Harris carries this hypothesis to its logical conclusion, saying:
These findings are difficult to reconcile with our sense that we are the conscious authors of our actions. One fact now seems indisputable: Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next – a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please – your brain has already determined what you will do. You then become conscious of this “decision” and believe you are in the process of making it.
I cannot decide what I will next think or intend until a thought or intention arises. What will my next mental state be? I do not know – it just happens. Where is the freedom in that?
So, if we do not know what we will intend until the intention arises from our brain, we are not the authors of our thoughts and actions, at least not in the way that we seem to think we are. Thus, in Harris’s view, we are beholden to these neural impulses, based on a combination of collected data and genetics.
To close out this section, he asks and then answers the question, “What would it take to actually have free will?”
You would need to be aware of all factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need complete control over those factors. But there is a paradox here that vitiates the very notion of freedom – for what would influence the influences? More influences? None of these adventitious mental states are the real you. You are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm.
Is Free Will an Illusion? March 27, 2012Posted by Matt in books, Free Will.
Tags: choice, free will, philosophy, Sam Harris
1 comment so far
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.
Jesus’ Dollhouse July 21, 2009Posted by Matt in family, philosophy, theology.
Tags: children, determinism, dollhouse, free will, god, philosophy, theology
This morning I was enjoying a few minutes with my oldest child, Rachel, during breakfast when she asked what I thought to be a rather profound question. At some point, out of the blue, she innocently asked me, “Daddy, are we like dolls in Jesus’ dollhouse?”
After talking back and forth for a few moments, I realized that the basis for this question from her rapidly developing 6 year old mind lay in the age old theological debate between Free Will and Determinism. Do human beings actually have a free will, are they able to make rational choices of how to live their life that will ultimately control their destiny, or are we following a path that has been pre-ordained by an omniscient God? Needless to say, I was floored by her perceptiveness.
“Honey,” I said, “that is a very interesting question and one that has been asked for many, many years by people studying theology. What made you think of that?”
Rachel smiled and shrugged her shoulders, “I don’t know. I was just wondering if this (gesturing to the house around us) is like a dollhouse and we are like dolls to God.”
“So,” I carefully answered, “what you are really asking is, does God control you and me like dolls?”
“Uh, huh,” she replied, shaking her head in affirmative.
“Well, what do you think?”
Giggling like only a little girl can, she answered, “I hope not.”
Like I said, she’s a smart kid.
Intent and Omniscience November 12, 2007Posted by Matt in god, universalism.
Tags: church, free will, god, grace, omniscience, universalism
Yesterday in Sunday school our topic of discussion was an interesting one and one that has been historically neglected in the Churches of Christ – grace. We have a regular exercise that we go through in our class in which our teacher, Ryan, will write a term on the board and then we will use other words to describe it – either under the heading “synonym” or “antonym.”
Most of the answers given were what you would expect – grace is “undeserved,” grace is not “cheap” (echoing Bonhoeffer), etc. Being the kind of person that I am, I decided to stir the pot a bit and called out, “universal.” Following that, another person attempted to clarify what I said by stating, “Well, it was universally intended…”
So, that made me start to think a bit (which can be pretty dangerous) but, because I did not want to dominate the class, I held my tongue. What exactly is, “God’s intent?”
The word “intent” has connotations that there is a specific purpose, an aim that one believes will come to fruition. For years, we have been told in our churches that God is an omniscient being – meaning that He/She/It has unlimited knowledge about all things past, present, and future. Therefore if it was God’s intent that all of humankind receive grace, then He truly believed that everyone would be appropriated some amount. But, if He has all knowledge, then He would have known that belief to be in vain.
So, it seems to me, in this dichotomous way of thinking, that if you state that God’s intent was unfulfilled, then you must rob Him of this otherworldly power of knowledge. If you accept that God’s grace has been poured out on all of mankind, then you must rethink the historic ways of thinking about hell.
It is an interesting problem and one that thousands of people much smarter than me have no doubt agonized over for centuries. What do you think?