Free Will – a book review
Did I write this review because I wanted to, or is it because my background and circumstances compelled me to?
Some time ago, the answer to this question would have been obvious to me but after reading Free Will by Sam Harris, I’m not so sure.
In brief: the book makes the case that the widely accepted notion of free will is little more than an illusion because our (apparently conscious) decisions originate in causes that lie outside of our conscious control.
Harris begins by noting that the notion of free will is based on the following assumptions:
- We could have behaved differently than we actually did in the past.
- We are the originators of our present thoughts and actions.
Then, in the space of eighty odd pages (perhaps no more than 15,000 words), he argues that the assumptions are incorrect and looks into some of the implications of his arguments.
The two assumptions are actually interrelated: if it is indeed true that we are not the originators of our present thoughts and actions then it is unlikely that we could have behaved differently than we did in the past.
A key part of Harris’ argument is the scientifically established fact that we are consciously aware of only a small fraction of the activity that takes place in our brains. This has been demonstrated (conclusively?) by some elegant experiments in neurophysiology. For example:
- Activity in the brain’s motor cortex can be detected 300 milliseconds before a person “decides” to move, indicating that the thought about moving arises before the subject is aware of it.
- Magnetic resonance scanning of certain brain regions can reveal the choice that will be made by a person 7 to 10 seconds before the person consciously makes the decision.
These and other similar experiments pose a direct challenge to the notion of free will: if my brain has already decided on a course before I am aware of it , how can I claim to be the author of my decisions and, more broadly, my destiny? As Harris puts it:
…I cannot decide what I will think next 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?
The whole notion of free will, he argues, is based on the belief that we control our thoughts and actions. Harris notes that although we may feel that are in control of the decisions we make, this is but an illusion: we feel that we are free, but this freedom is illusory because our actions are already “decided” before they appear in our consciousness. To be sure, there are causes underlying our thoughts and actions, but the majority of these lie outside our awareness.
If we accept the above then the role that luck plays in determining our genes, circumstances, environment and attitudes cannot be overstated. Although we may choose to believe that we make our destinies, in reality we don’t. Some people may invoke demonstrations of willpower – conscious mental effort to do certain things – as proof against Harris’ arguments. However, as Harris notes,
You can change your life and yourself through effort and discipline – but you have whatever capacity for effort and discipline you have in this moment, and not a scintilla more (or less). You are either lucky in this department or you aren’t – and you can’t make your own luck.
Although I may choose to believe that I made the key decisions in my life, a little reflection reveals the tenuous nature of this belief. Sure, some decisions I have made resulted in experiences that I would not have had otherwise. Some of those experiences undoubtedly changed my outlook on life, causing me to do things I would not have done had I not undergone those experiences. So to that extent, those original choices changed my life.
The question is: could I have decided differently when making those original choices?
Or, considering an even more immediate example: could I have chosen not to write this review? Or, having written it, could I have chosen not to publish it?
Harris tells us that this question is misguided because you will do what you do. As he states,
…you can do what you decide to do – but you cannot decide what you will decide to do.
We feel that we are free to decide, but the decision we make is the one we make. If we choose to believe that we are free to decide, we are free to do so. However, this is an illusion because our decisions arise from causes that we are unaware of. This is the central point of Harris’ argument.
There are important moral and ethical implications of the loss of free will. For example what happens to the notion of moral responsibility for actions that might harm others? Harris argues that we do not need to invoke the notion of free will in order to see that this is not right – as he tells us, what we condemn in others is the conscious intent to do harm.
Harris is careful to note that his argument against free will does not amount to a laissez-faire approach wherein people are free to do whatever comes to their minds, regardless of consequences for society. As he writes:
….we must encourage people to work to the best of their abilities and discourage free riders wherever we can. And it is wise to hold people responsible for their actions when doing so influences their behavior and brings benefits to society….[however this does not need the] illusion of free will. We need only acknowledge that efforts matter and that people can change. [However] we do not change ourselves precisely – because we have only ourselves with which to do the changing -but we continually influence, and are influenced by, the world around us and the world within us. [italics mine]
Before closing I should mention some shortcomings of the book:
Firstly, Harris does not offer a detailed support for his argument. Much of what he claims depends on the results of experiments research in neurophysiology that demonstrate the lag between the genesis of a thought in our brains and our conscious awareness of it, yet he describes only a handful experiments detail. That said there are references to many others in the notes.
Secondly, those with training in philosophy may find the book superficial as Harris does not discuss of alternate perspectives on free will. Such a discussion would have provided much needed balance that some critics have taken him to task for (see this analysis or this review for example).
Although the book has the shortcomings I’ve noted, I have to say I enjoyed it because it made me think. More specifically, it made me think about the way I think. Maybe it will do the same for you, maybe not – what happens in your case may depend on thoughts that are beyond your control.