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.
The Power of Prayer? November 19, 2009Posted by Matt in Christian Beliefs.
Tags: Healing, prayer, probability, psychology, Sam Harris, supernatural power
Last night a friend of our family was at our home and told about how they quit praying because it did not seem to do any good. This person would fervently lobby God, but each time the request would fall on deaf ears. This person was notably discouraged by this lack of response and therefore made the decision that prayer did not work.
Though I held my tongue at the time, I wanted to give her a hearty amen.
I haven’t been a real believer in the supposed power of prayer for quite some time and I must admit cringing a bit when others see fit to invoke it. This doubt is not the product of some selfish want that God didn’t fulfill, it’s not because God didn’t rain money from heaven like Joel Osteen or those of his ilk might claim, rather, it is the product of much time and thought and study.
First of all, I think the idea of successful intercessory prayer comes from a skewed or perhaps even nonexistent understanding of statistical probability. When one realizes that improbable does not equal impossible, the idea of a “miraculous” recovery takes on a much more realistic bend. Just because the chance of an event’s success is at the far end of the bell curve does not mean it cannot happen without divine help. Ask as atheist who survived an improbable health scare or the family of a believer who died and maybe that will put it in perspective. It does seem a bit arbitrary when you consider who makes it and who doesn’t. There was a recent study released on the phenomena of intercessory prayer and you can read about that here.
I wonder why people only pray for things within the realm of probability. Recovery from cancer is possible. In his debate with Rick Warren, atheist Sam Harris puts it this way:
You could prove to the satisfaction of every scientist that intercessory prayer works if you set up a simple experiment. Get a billion Christians to pray for a single amputee. Get them to pray that God regrow that missing limb. This happens to salamanders every day, presumably without prayer, so this is within the capacity of God. I find it interesting that people of faith only tend to pray for conditions that are self-limiting.
Thus you begin to wonder if Christians even believe in the power of prayer.
Now, this does not mean that prayer is not a useful tool. I feel quite certain that the peace of mind provided by having loved ones pray over you or by offering up your own prayer can be a great aid in recovery. While this may not be supernatural and is certainly not a gift solely relegated to Christianity, the belief that one will recover can go a long way. I imagine the psychological benefits are great for both those who receive and say prayers.
On another note, I often wonder if some prayers (not ones for physical recovery) stem from little more than laziness on the part of Christians. We can pray for God to feed the hungry and take care of those in need, but if we are not willing to get out in the world and actually work to make it a better place, what does that say of us?
Again, this is not to discourage anyone from praying or to say that I never will (I do). Instead, I’m just thinking some things through and wanting to put them in perspective.