sepdek August 23, 2012
Free Will Book Sam Harris

Free will has long been an issue on my mind. Although I am not into psychology or neuroscience I approached it in a logical/abstract way. It became apparent to me that there is no such thing as ‘free will’. The manifestations of our thoughts, our actions, which we tend to base upon free will, seem to me to be the result of our genetic composition, our culture and the current conditions of the universe. Like in chaotic dymanics we seem to be so dependent and sensitive to initial conditions and on ‘butterflies’ that fly around (and produce butterfly effects ;-)) that there seem to be no room for any whatsoever and however defined free will. But, again as in chaotic systems, the ‘determinism’ imposed by removing free will is not equivalent to ‘predictability’. Probably this lack of predictability is what makes us feel like acting in free will.

Recently I came across a book named ‘Free Will’ by Sam Harris. Harris has a degree in philosophy from Stanford University and a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA. In this book, Harris claims that

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

Harris tries to prove these assumptions to be false in his book.
Specific experiments conducted using EEGs and fMRIs proved that a decision in the brain is being taken milliseconds to seconds before the decision is expressed by a person or even the person becomes aware of it in the first place!
As Harris states,

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 the ‘decision’ and believe that you are in the process of making it.

To the compatibilists, who claim (I oversimplify) that we are everything that is going on in our bodies, Harris responds like this:

The are more bacteria in your body than there are human cells. In fact, 90% of the cells in your body are microbes like E coli (and 99% of the functional genes in your body belongs to them). Many of these organisms perform necessary functions-they are ‘you’ in a wider sense. Do you feel identical to them? If they misbehave, are you morally responsible?

He states that:

Combatibilism amounts to nothing more that an assertion of the following creed: A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings

Pondering even deeper, Harris concludes that

The illusion of free will is itself an illusion.



2 thoughts on “On free will

  1. Free will only doesn’t exist if you define it as necessarily non-causal and hat is a definition that makes no sense at all.
    It also really baffles me that people seem to think that if their will comes out of nowhere (not calculated by the brain based on limited information) that that somehow amounts to ‘freedom’? that’s just a nonsense definition of freedom. Why is it freedom if your actions are determined by an invisible dice in another dimension? Freedom is just absence of control by another consciousness (if your an atheist you can discount god here), it is not taking a break from the constraints of reality, and will is just what your very physical brain calculates to be what you want. That is a definition of free will grounded in reality and that exists.

    Harris his scoff at compatibilism is not reasoned but emotional. without those ‘strings’ your will doesn’t even exist. There is no conscious without a brain producing it and then you go and blame the very process and biology that produces your conscious for it not to be ‘free’? ridiculous! it is like blaming your car doesn’t drive faster than light (impossible, like a non-causal will) on it having an engine. ‘you’ are your brain and every part of it and any ‘non-freedom’ will have to be found external to you.

    1. Thanks for your comment. In essence I agree with you that ‘you are your brain’ and since a brain makes (deterministic) decisions based on current data and the emotional and physical status of the system called the body, then it is ‘free’ to act accordingly, and be individual and original. I also understand that the issue of free will arises from incompatible definitions. You also mention it.

      Freedom of will has been traditionally related with fuzziness, individuality, non-determinism, ultimately randomness in the controlled actions of intelligent beings, a randomness that can in no way be predicted and relates to the individual’s choices before actions.

      But this might not be the case. As great minds of the past have already stated (see Laplace’s demon) –of course maybe false–, given enough knowledge everything can be pre-determined. This could be transferred to the human level and suggest that there is no actual randomness, only lack of enough knowledge, thus, the conceptions relating free will with the randomness of a human’s CONTROLLED actions falls apart. Remember, the traditional concept of free will is tightly interwoven with CONTROLLED random actions (if such thing exists). In addition, since (some) experimental results (as suggested by Harris and others) have shown that **the conscience of an action comes after the action has already been decided and initiated**, the “controlled” part of the random action also falls apart. Nevertheless, it is **the same person** (a person’s brain actually, but this is exactly what the person is) that **decided the action even before realising it**…

      I suppose, the existence or not of free will depends on the definition one accepts for it…

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