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3/03/2012

Sam Harris: Free Will Revisited

Sam Harris' new book "Free Will" is coming out next week, and it has already stirred a passionate debate amongst believers and non-believers all over the world. The subject Free Will versus Determinism, while being a topic of conversation ever since the dawn of mankind (or let's say: the times of Marcus Aurelius), still is the recipe for turmoil. I already read horrible comments on Facebook, things I'd like to forget as quickly as possible. The loudest of the bunch are as expected the ones who oppose Harris thesis of Free Will being an illusion. They tend to believe other things to be true, like heavenly guidance for example - and don't seem to have any problem accepting these ideas, while all those others, supplying a more solid scientific backbone are quickly ruled out as "suspect". I don't get it. 

Why do we have such problems accepting the concept of Determinism, when it is there in front of us, showing its teeth?


Sam Harris' book is called Free Will











Firstly, there is something you have to know about me: I once was a firm believer in Free Will as well, fiery at times, and the feeling endured, until my years at university crushed all my metaphysical hopes and dreams. Confronted with the scientific method, I felt like I was hit with a powerful antidote, thus pulling me out of a haze. The coffin nail for the whole concept was an advanced seminar in philosophy - it was called Towards a Theory of Thinking. It covered everything and everyone from Descartes' dualism to David Hume's compatibilism to Daniel Dennett's intentional stance, and it highly shattered any hope in Free Will that may have been left at that point. 

As the realization first kicked in, I remember fighting back (how dare they..!) but when my attempts to deny the whole thing failed, I surrendered. Does it sound completely lame if I tell you that it changed my life for the better? And that it, on further reflection, actually freed me immensely?

Determinism comes to terms with the vital parts of the human condition, and while it may not make us feel like the glorious climactic scene of a stage play called "Creation" at first, I think it's much better to accept the facts than to hope for the conveyed comfort of an illusion.

I feel liberated, because knowing what I am and am not accountable for in life is a great thing. Doing things "right" isn't my accomplishment, but to the same extent is doing things "wrong" not my fault either. I know, this will repel all those people who believe in (legal) culpability, guilt and a penal system that wants to punish wrong-doing more than it aims to protect the general public from those who do. But what does that say about us? 

We'd like to think that we are morally responsible for choosing the "right" thing, we want to be rewarded for not violating the law, implying that all those criminals in jails consciously decided to violate laws. I don't think so. And here come the church bells: There is no indication for active decision-making in the brain. It looks like what we perceive as moments of choice are already pre-determined selections, not offered by the conscious part of our brain. The reason why the decision between pizza or pasta feels free, is because our conscious minds buy in the pretense of choice. It feels free to us. But it's, again, not our conscious selves deciding what to eat - it's blood sugar level, hormones, nutrient agents, force of habit and a myriad of other factors we don't even know about - because they don't make an appearance on our mental horizon.

What does it matter? We will always want the things we "chose", regardless of how they originated or who chose them, the "will" part remains intact. To my conscious self, there is no difference in telling how the decision came into being. 


"Toto, I have a feeling we are not in Kansas anymore."
Our reward-oriented brain is the one that thrives to blame and punish other people's infringements - and indirectly rewards its own "conformity" (again, not an achievement) by doing so - carving in stone what is right and wrong in the process. If we could change our view in judging right and wrong not as universal moral choices, but societal agreements on how to behave - to preserve the right to live amongst society - we would be at a much more human level. But to get there, we must first of all, be willing to accept that certain things we want to believe about ourselves are not true.

 "I cannot take credit for the fact that I do not have the soul of a psychopath." (Sam Harris)

Allow yourself to think about this for a minute or two, and don't worry, even if you find yourself being

  • ...afraid of offending the bearded guy upstairs by thinking outside the book.
  • ...sad, because there is no praise for something we have no influence on.
  • ...liberated, because there is no scolding for something we have no influence on.
  • ...angry, because our conscious self is not in charge.
  • ...unimportant, because the mind is not a metaphysical enclave within the body.
  • ...offended, because I wrote this post.

Trust me, that's all completely normal. :)


Sam Harris "Free Will" on Amazon