Free Will, by Sam Harris (2012)

I really enjoyed this.

Sam Harris is firmly of the opinion that we do not have free will and makes interesting arguments for it.

I have always found determinism appealing. It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to imagine that everything, our thoughts included, could be traced right back to the origins of the universe. One long chain of cause and effect, starting at the birth of the universe with an initial state and a set of rules, and just playing out from there.

As I understand it (which is not very well at all), we could theoretically compute every cause and effect relationship down to the quantum level, where we would meet quantum indeterminacy and the limits of our understanding. Our current expectation is that events at the quantum layer are fundamentally probabilistic and not deterministic, but there is plenty more to learn, and as far as I can tell, there’s no ruling out that further discoveries could reveal them to be the deterministic result of something deeper still.

Regardless, if the source of the fundamental randomness required for free will to exist is somewhere down at the quantum layer, then we are a very long way away from having control over it. That, as Sam Harris argues, is not free will by any measure.

No matter where in the chain of events free will might lay, if it is outside of our conscious minds, which to me it seems likely to be, then for all intents and purposes we don’t have free will.

Anyway, the book is short, entertaining, and thought-provoking.

Highlights

1

Without free will, sinners and criminals would be nothing more than poorly calibrated clockwork, and any conception of justice that emphasized punishing them (rather than deterring, rehabilitating, or merely containing them) would appear utterly incongruous.

4

I cannot take credit for the fact that I do not have the soul of a psychopath.

5

Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have.

5

Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.

6

The popular conception of free will seems to rest on two assumptions: (1) that each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past, and (2) that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present. As we are about to see, however, both of these assumptions are false.

8

The intention to do one thing and not another does not originate in consciousness—rather, it appears in consciousness, as does any thought or impulse that might oppose it.

8

More recently, direct recording from the cortex showed that the activity of merely 256 neurons was sufficient to predict with 80 percent accuracy a person’s decision to move 700 milliseconds before he became aware of it.

9

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 that you are in the process of making it.

11

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.

13

We do not know what we intend to do until the intention itself arises. To understand this is to realize that we are not the authors of our thoughts and actions in the way that people generally suppose.

14

You are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm.

16

Unconscious neural events determine our thoughts and actions—and are themselves determined by prior causes of which we are subjectively unaware.

18

According to compatibilists, if a man wants to commit murder, and does so because of this desire, his actions attest to his freedom of will. From both a moral and scientific perspective, this seems deliberately obtuse.

19

It may be true that if I had wanted to do otherwise, I would have, but I am nevertheless compelled to do what I effectively want. And I cannot determine my wants, or decide which will be effective, in advance. My mental life is simply given to me by the cosmos. Why didn’t I decide to drink a glass of juice? The thought never occured to me. Am I free to do that which does not occur to me to do? Of course not.

23

To say that you are responsible for everything that goes on inside your skin because it’s all “you” is to make a claim that bears absolutely no relationship to the feelings of agency and moral responsibility that have made the idea of free will an enduring problem for philosophy.

24

Given the right experimental manipulations, people can be led to believe that they consciously intended an action when they neither chose it nor had control over their movements.

25

How can we be “free” as conscious agents if everything that we consciously intend is caused by events in our brain that we do not intend and of which we are entirely unaware?

26

Consequently, some scientists and philosophers hope that chance or quantum uncertainty can make room for free will.

28

If my decision to have a second cup of coffee this morning was due to a random release of neurotransmitters, how could the indeterminacy of the initiating event count as the free exercise of my will?

29

If determinism is true, the future is set—and this includes all our future states of mind and our subsequent behavior. And to the extent that law of cause and effect is subject to indeterminism—quantum or otherwise—we can take no credit for what happens. There is no combination of these truths that seems compatible with the popular notion of free will.

34

Therefore, while it is true to say that a person would have done otherwise if he had chosen to do otherwise, this does not deliver the kind of free will that most people seem to cherish—because a person’s “choices” merely appear in his mind as though sprung from the void. From the perspective of your conscious awareness, you are no more responsible for the next thing you think (and therefore do) than you are for the fact that you were born into this world.

37

If you pay attention to your inner life, you will see that the emergence of choices, efforts, and intentions is a fundamentally mysterious process.

37

You are not in control of your mind—because you as a conscious agenct, are only part of your mind, living at the mercy of the other parts. You can do what you decide to do—but you cannot decide what you will decide to do.

39

You have not built your mind. And in moments in which you seem to build it—when you make an effort to change yourself, to acquire knowledge, or to perfect a skill—the only tools at your disposal are those that you have inherited from moments past.

39

Certain compatibilists insist that freedom of will is synonymous with the idea that one could have thought or acted differently. However, to say that I could have done otherwise is merely to think the thought “I could have done otherwise” after doing whatever I in fact did. This is an empty affirmation. It confuses hope for the future with an honest account of the past. What I will do next, and why, remains, at bottom, a mystery—one that is fully determined by the prior state of the universe and the laws of nature (including the contributions of chance).

41

You did not pick your parents or the time and place of your birth. You didn’t choose your gender or most of your life experiences. You had no control whatsoever over your genome or the development of your brain. And now your brain is making choices on the basis of preferences and beliefs that have been hammered into it over a lifetime—by your genes, your physical development since the moment you were conceived, and the interactions you have with other people, events, and ideas. Where is the freedom in this?

44

You will do whatever it is you do, and it is meaningless to assert that you could have done otherwise.

45

Many people worry that free will is a necessary illusion—and that without it we will fail to live creative and fulfilling lives. This concern isn’t entirely unjustified.

45

Speaking from personal experience, I think that losing the sense of free will has only improved my ethics—by increasing my feelings of compassion and forgiveness, and diminishing my sense of entitlement to the fruits of my own good luck.

52

If, after weeks of deliberation, library research, and debate with your friends, you still decide to kill the king—well, then killing the king reflects the sort of person you really are. The point is not that you are the ultimate and independent cause of your actions; the point is that, for whatever reason, you have the mind of a regicide.

54

The men and women on death row have some combination of bad genes, bad parents, bad environments, and bad ideas (and the innocent, of course, have supremely bad luck). Which of these quantities, exactly, were they responsible for? No human being is responsible for his genes or his upbringing, yet we have every reason to believe that these factors determine his character.

55

The urge for retribution depends upon our not seeing the underlying causes of human behavior.

57

We are deeply disposed to perceive people as the authors of their actions, to hold them responsible for the wrongs they do us, and to feel that these transgressions must be punished.

60

Why did I order beer instead of wine? Because I prefer beer. Why do I prefer it? I don’t know, but I generally have no need to ask. Knowing that I like beer more than wine is all I need to know to function in a restaurant. Whatever the reason, I prefer one taste to the other. Is there freedom in this? None whatsoever. Would I magically reclaim my freedom if I decided to spite my preference and order wine instead? No, because the roots of this intention would be as obscure as the preference itself.

61

Consider the biography of any “self-made” man, and you will find that his success was entirely dependent on background conditions that he did not make and of which he was merely the beneficiary.

64

It is not that free will is simply an illusion—our experience is not merely delivering a distorted view of reality. Rather, we are mistaken about our experience. Not only are we not as free as we think we are—we do not feel as free as we think we do. Our sense of our own freedom results from our not paying close attention to what it is like to be us. The moment we pay attention, it is possible to see that free will is nowhere to be found, and our experience is perfectly compatible with this truth.