Free will an illusion?

The following video has been making the rounds in various freethinking circles lately to varying degrees of praise and criticism. In this lecture, author and neuroscientist Sam Harris delivers a lecture arguing against the notion of free will based on his book of the same name.

Here, Harris puts forth a deterministic view of the human experience in which we are obviously not free to choose our genes, our backgrounds, our places of birth or control other factors that will eventually lead to our fully developed, adult selves. While some, through any number of variables, become “good” people and generally strive to improve the lives of the people around them, others, due to different and more malignant factors, are decidedly unlucky and become sociopaths and/or killers.

In this lecture, Harris provides the following illustration: he asks audience members to think of a city in the world. I performed this brain exercise as I watched the video and came up with Birmingham, Ala. after cycling through a couple potential picks. Now, I can not explain how Birmingham popped into my mind. One possible clue is that I live in the South, and so I just picked a city in this region of the nation. But why specifically Birmingham? I was actually a bit surprised by my own selection. Why not Nashville (I live a short distance from there)? Why not Atlanta or Charlotte? Birmingham seemed to come from left field. In any case, I can’t account for how it came into my head.

As Harris notes, many others cities did not occur to me and for a couple reasons. First, there are a large amount of cities in the world that I can’t name because they are not familiar to me. Those immediately must be taken from the set of possible cities that I could name. Second, because I live in the U.S., cities outside of America did not occur to me, for whatever reason. I know plenty of cities that are not in the U.S.: Toronto, Tel Aviv, Paris, Cairo, London, Mexico City, Dublin, etc. But even London, a city that I would most like to visit some day, did not occur to me. But of the even greater set of possible cities in the U.S. that I’m familiar with, neither New York, Los Angeles or Chicago popped into my head at the time he asked the question. If you take a minute to pick a city yourself and attempt to pinpoint what that experience is like, this will become clearer.

Harris then asks:

Were you free to choose that which did not occur to you to choose? Based on the state of your brain a few moments ago, Cairo was not coming. Where is the freedom in that?

Presumably, simply picking any city in the world should be one of the freest choices that we could ever make. There is no pressure and no ill-effects from making a certain decision over another. Yet, when one clears the head and summons a city, we can’t account for the reasons behind the pick. To compound this in my own case, I have no ties whatsoever to Birmingham and haven’t even been through that town more than once or twice, so that city is one of which I am particularly unfamiliar, other than knowing that it exists.

At least in my case, Harris was correct when he added:

The thing to notice about this is that you as a conscious witness of your inner life are not making these decisions. You can only witness these decisions. You no more picked the city you settled on in subjective terms than you would have if I picked it for you.

And while doing this simple experiment, I had the thought that actually “witnessing” my own decision on which city to pull out of my hat was actually a little exhilarating in some strange way.

In this question and answer session about free will, in which he alludes to his future intentions to write the aforementioned book, Harris says that numerous experiments have shown that when brain activity is monitored, scientists can know what decision we might make (Say, whether to raise your left arm or your right arm) before we become conscious of our own “decision.”

There have been a variety of neurophysiological experiments and now neuroimaging experiments attesting to this. We know that monitoring brain function would have allowed scientists in the lab to predict which hand I was going to move seconds before I’m consciously aware of my motor plans, so this is a problem for this folk-psychological notion of free will, the idea that we are the authors in every moment of our inner lives and what we subsequently do in the world because we know that we are downstream of causes of which we’re not conscious and cannot possibly be conscious.

… So however you look at this, you have to admit that the contents of consciousness are born of an unconscious mental life which is almost certainly at bottom a matter of neurophysiology in our case.

Now, since picking a city apparently at random and making the “decision” to kill someone or give shelter to a homeless person or volunteer at the local food bank are not quite in the same league if we are ranking the importance of certain choices over others, some of the more heady “decisions” that we can make in life must be addressed.

In my view, the greatest condemnation that has been leveled against Harris’ argument against free will is that if there is no will to choose right or wrong actions, if they are products of our own neurophysiology and if we are merely “witnesses” to those more important life decisions, then how can we be accountable for bad actions or honored for good ones? Wouldn’t Jeffrey Dahmer and Martin Luther King Jr. be on equal footing if both were driven merely by a set of social, personal or neurological variables that were outside of their control? How then could we castigate Dahmer, yet praise MLK?

If I understand Harris’ position correctly (from his other work, “The Moral Landscape”), the reason that we could honor someone like King and condemn Dahmer is that MLK helped to improve the lives of millions of previously oppressed people before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And we can say this objectively because if the word “improve” has any meaning at all, we can surely conclude that having more civil rights is better than suffering a lifetime of oppression. And in Dahmer’s case, a society in which people can be killed and eaten without the threat of justice would surely be a decidedly worse type of society than our own society, where people like Dahmer are either thrown in jail on numerous life sentences or executed. Whether or not Dahmer and MLK proceeded on their paths through a stream neurological impulses based on genes, past experiences, backgrounds, etc., is not relevant to the question of how we should judge their actions because actions are judged based on whether or not they improve the lives of conscious creatures. The question of objective morality is another large topic altogether, so I’ll leave it at that.

Finally in this lecture, Harris turns his attention to religion because it is with religion that the notion of free will carries the most weight and to dismantle free will is to also dismantle common concepts about God, sin and “salvation.”

Humans must have free will, say the religious because if we don’t have the will to choose to reject God or accept him, and if God just implants within us with the full knowledge of his existence, then we are reduced, at best, to a robotic, parrot-like state. Christians will say that because of our conscious choice to either accept of reject the gospel story, then we must live with the consequences and live with it for all eternity. But I call this rigging the game. According to the Bible, God gave Adam and Eve free will, yet planted in the garden a tree from which they could not eat. Man fell, of course, thanks to the serpent and his own free will and was thus cursed by toil and by the pains in pregnancy (I’ll ignore the inconvenient problem of how the serpent came to be in Eden in the first place. Was God hoodwinked? Is God not omniscient? How could he not have known that the supposed great deceiver was moving in on his “good” creation?).

Harris puts it this way:

We’ve all inherited original sin because Adam and Eve misused their free will, and then for eons, God gave us no guidance whatsoever, and then he wrote a few uneven books that were filled with rumors of ancient miracles, and then he holds us responsible for the slightest doubt we have about his existence on the basis of these books, though he has stacked the deck against us by giving us a faculty of reason, and strangely, an ability to write better books than the ones he’s supposed written. We are deemed the ultimate source of our turning away from him. By our own free will, we are the cause of our doubts. I am the self-sufficient cause of my lack of faith. Now again, this is not only untrue, it seems impossible to describe a universe in which it could be true. Beliefs are the products of prior causes, either determined or random, and there’s no way of turning those dials that gets you standing on the hot spot where you are the ultimate cause of your beliefs. So, without free will, the world view of monotheistic religion, the idea of God’s eternal justice stands revealed for what it is. A completely sadistic and insane view of the world. Ironically, one of the fears that religious people have that you heard about over and over again is that a complete understanding of us in scientific terms would dehumanize us. Rather, I think it humanizes us. What could be more dehumanizing than the view that most of people most of the time by virtue of the fact that they were born in the wrong place, to the wrong parents, given the wrong theology, exposed to the wrong intellectual influences were nonetheless crucially responsible for the fact that they didn’t believe in God or believed in the wrong God, and therefore as a result, deserve to be burned in fire for eternity.

I’ll go a step further. I think even if we grant the Christian world view as being valid, free will still does not exist regarding heaven and hell because there is only one path that leads to salvation according to this view. There is no choice. The caveat is that if you exercise your supposed free will and do nothing, the default judgment comes down from the heavens, and your fate of eternal punishment is decided for you. So a person in this scenario can only take one path if he is to escape annihilation in this world view.

But that’s not the end of it. When someone dies and is supposedly condemned for all eternity, the Bible says that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is lord. So, even if people deceive themselves into believing they have free will inside the structure of this world view while they are still alive, they don’t have it because, according to Christian doctrine, the day will come when they too, though already condemned, will bow the knee.

Not only might there be no free will from a secular standpoint, it doesn’t even exist within the Christian framework.

About the Author

Jeremy Styron
Jeremy Styron
I am a newspaper editor, op-ed columnist and reporter working in the greater Knoxville area. This is a personal blog. Views expressed here are mine and mine alone.

4 Comments on "Free will an illusion?"

  1. Deceived. How different your life would be if you spent the same amount of time searching for truth in the Word of God with an open heart, rather than dwelling in speculation from other unbelieving men. But hey – it is your choice!

  2. Jeremy Styron jeremystyron | April 6, 2012 at 8:52 am | Reply

    I already did that. Actually, I have already spent way more time seeking for truth in the word of God than I have studying anything else. It's always the seeker's fault, isn't it, that this "truth" was just out of our grasp, no matter how long and hard we search?

  3. He will ALWAYS be found when we seek Him with our whole heart. Your argument will not hold up when you stand before Him one day. God is perfect, loving, and forgiving. He does not want anyone to perish. But He does give you free will, in spite of the flawed article above. You can choose life or death, light or darkness. You have chosen darkness and death.

  4. Jeremy Styron jeremystyron | April 9, 2012 at 10:02 am | Reply

    Are you speaking as for God? Why does God need people to speak for him? Oh, that's right. He isn't there and because you think you hear some things in your head and because you believe in the Bible, he actually is there in your mind.

    As for the death and darkness business, that's just a logical mess. God can't be omnibenevolent and say that he wishes that no one perish, yet also say that some will indeed perish. He also can't be omnibenevolent if he created people knowing beforehand that some of them would wind up in hell.

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