Free Will by Sam Harris
If you ever want to feel irrelevant, read Free Will by Sam Harris.
Divided into eight short sections, including his conclusions, Mr. Harris explores the nature of free will and why it is wrong. Mr. Harris postulates that, indeed, free will is an illusion. That “I”, the conscious-I that we all think controls our bodies and decisions, has just as much input in what I will write in this review as, say, “you”, the conscious part of you.
Did that make sense?
Let’s use Mr. Harris’ language as he says it far more clearly than I ever could:
It is important to recognize that the case I am building against free will does not depend upon philosophical materialism (the assumption that reality is, at bottom, purely physical). There is no question that (most, if not all) mental events are the product of physical events. The brain is a physical system, entirely beholden to the laws of nature – and there is every reason to believe that changes in its functional state and material structure entirely dictate our thoughts and actions. But even if the human mind were made of soul-stuff, nothing about my argument would change. The unconscious operations of a soul would grant you no more freedom than the unconscious physiology of your brain does.
If you don’t know what your soul is going to do next, you are not in control. This is obviously true in all cases where a person wishes he could feel or behave differently than he does: Think of the millions of committed Christians whose souls happen to be gay, prone to obesity, or bored by prayer. However, free will is no more evident when a person does exactly what, in retrospect, he wishes he had done. The soul that allows you to stay on your diet is just as mysterious as the one that tempts you to eat cherry pie for breakfast.
Hhhmmmm, yeah cherry pie does sound good…
I am not a philosopher. And I can’t claim to know anything about neuroscience. Nor can I say with infinite clarity why I decide to do one thing and not another. But I like to think I’m in control. And despite what Mr. Harris may prove, I am.
Here’s my reasoning. Call it the layman-atheist’s principles, if you will (well, you can’t, remember you have no free will – you simply will or won’t).
- If my next decision to type a bullet point arises from my murky subconscious electrical synapses built and governed by my hereditary genes and past experiences, then regardless of whether the conscious-I thinks I made that decision or not, I have.
- If no outside force (that includes a god) is physically forcing me to type this next bullet point, then I take complete responsibility for making that decision – even if the conscious me did not make it.
- Whether my actions are a product of a combination of my genes, past experiences that may or may not include some sort of abuse, my current blood sugar levels, or the random pressure of a growing tumor in my brain OR my consciousness (who I think is writing this), the moral responsibility of said actions should be assigned to the body/brain/soul combo regardless of how those actions arose.
Though I admire all of Mr. Harris’ work, I do have to say I was disappointed in this essay. Why? Because in my heart (dare I say it?) and soul, I disagree with his final conclusion, but when I read it aloud, it sounds so right:
The illusion of free will is itself an illusion.
Argh! Okay, I’m done. I have a headache.
Recommended? I will allow you to make that decision.