This week's blog post is available here.
Is free will an illusion?
Yes, free will is but an illusion. So says neurscientist Sam Harris in his new little book, Free Will. In his view, all our thoughts and actions are determined by prior events and brain states; in other words, we cannot choose to do or to think anything other than what we in fact do and think.
Christian apologist J. P. Moreland, whose book Scaling the Secular City (1990: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House) I read in my seminary apologetics class in 1991, begs to differ, quoting theologian H. P. Owen on page 90:
"Determinism is self-stultifying. If my mental processes are totally determined, I am totally determined either to accept or to reject determinism. But if the sole reason for my believing or not believing X is that I am causally determined to believe it, I have no ground for holding that my judgement is true or false."
Busted, as my kids would say. This quote was so arresting that it has remained lodged in my mind for over twenty years since I first read it, allowing me to pull the book from my bookshelf and locate it today as a foil for Harris’ position.
I recall that after first reading Moreland’s defense of free will and his arguments against physicalism, naturalism, and determinism, I arbitrarily lifted my left pinky finger in defiance of the notion that everything I did was determined by natural laws. I didn’t have to lift a pinky finger, let alone my left one, but I did so anyway. “Take that, determinism!” Yet even then, I had a nagging thought that a determinist might wish to dismiss my act of raising my left pinky finger as nothing more than a reflexive impulse against the repugnant notion that all my actions were outside of my control.
Isn’t it self-evident that we are the author of our actions, that we are responsible for what we do (both good and bad), and that we could freely opt for action a or b when given a choice? Isn’t it built into our justice system that a man of sane mind who pulls the trigger of his gun to kill a man who seduced his wife could have instead listened to his conscience, paused, and avoided carrying out the crime? If, as Harris believes, the murderer could not have done anything other than what he ended up doing, must society then give up its mandate to hold criminals responsible for their crimes? Are we really only left to excuse the “guilty” as follows? “It wasn’t his fault; he was just driven to pull the trigger by his circumstances, his underprivileged upbringing, his exposure to violence as a way of life, his genes, his personality, the lax gun laws in his state, a chemical imbalance in his brain, yada yada yada!” Or, to use a recent example from the real world, “Sargeant Robert Bales was driven to murder 17 innocent Afghani civilians because he was stretched to the breaking point by his four deployments, the loss of fellow soldiers in his unit, injuries he suffered, or post-traumatic stress syndrome. He simply had no choice but to go take out his frustrations in the way he did.”
Harris would argue that even the most heinous and most senseless of crimes are triggered not by a free will that could have chosen to do otherwise, but instead by a series of events and brain states governed by the laws of nature, including those described by chemistry, physics, genetics, biology, and (perhaps) quantum mechanics. He rhetorically asks free-will advocates what else but the laws of nature could possibly account for our decisions. Setting aside the special case of coercion by others, if I lift my left pinky finger, it’s because I want to lift it. If I don’t want to lift it, I don’t lift it. But why do I want or not want to lift it? I don’t have control over my wants; they just appear for reasons I’m not often conscious of, reasons that arise from the laws of nature operating on my brain and on my environment.
Sometimes I sense a conflict of wants within me, and it's when choosing between two wants that I feel I'm making a free moral decision. For example, I want the thrill that comes from clicking on the link to a sexually explicit photograph, but I also want to preserve my marriage and to direct my sexual passions exclusively toward my wife. Since I think (based on the input my brain has received about the dangers of pornography) that I can’t have both, I think I have to choose between the two options, and I prefer a long-lasting, intact marriage over the thrill of the moment, so I decide not to click the link. And because I gave up something potentially thrilling in favor of fidelity to my wife, I gain a sense of satisfaction in having made the right moral decision, for which I think I am entitled some credit. But where in that decision-making process was there room for anything outside the laws of nature? Did I have any control over my upbringing, during which the dangers of pornography were instilled in me? Can I help it that my wife is a beautiful person to whom I’m helplessly attracted, a wife who faithfully loves me in return? Is it up to me whether I want her more than the pornography, or that I have been led to believe that in some sense the pornography jeopardizes my relationship with her? No, my brain controlled my wants, and I ended up doing what I wanted to do, that is, giving up the short-term thrill of the pornography for the longer-term stability of my marriage.
Now, what if I had been away from my wife on a trip without any sexual release for months and the urge to click that link had not been overcome by my desire to remain emotionally faithful to my wife, and what if I had gone ahead and clicked that link because the desire for the thrill was greater than my perceived risk of doing so? In either case, I’ve done what I wanted to do, and I can’t control my wants. If I know ahead of time I’ll be vulnerable to such temptation and wish to avoid it, then I can choose to not take that months-long trip, but my choice not to do so is also governed by my wants, over which I have no ultimate control.
As for a potential criminal who’s contemplating pulling the trigger on his wife’s seducer, what if the thought enters his mind that he might well get caught and put in prison for life or executed if he were to go through with the murder, and the fear of getting caught makes him relent? Then he relents because he wants to relent. Why does he want to relent? Because his brain (whether consciously or otherwise) weighs the various outcomes and decides it’s in his interest to hold off. In this case, the desire to relent is traceable to an external factor, though in many cases it isn’t always easy to determine where our desires come from. But one thing Harris is sure of: they don’t arise from a disembodied or supernatural soul that drives our decisions apart from who we are, apart from the sum of all the circumstances and brain states that precede our every thought and action.
Harris’ confidence in the non-existence of free will is based at least in part on the results of experiments he describes as follows:
“Subjects were asked to press one of two buttons while watching a “clock” composed of a random sequence of letters appearing on a screen. They reported which letter was visible at the moment they decided to press one button or the other. The experimenters found two brain regions that contained information about which button subjects would press a full 7 to 10 seconds before the decision was consciously made. More recently, direct recordings 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. These findings are difficult to reconcile with the sense that we are the conscious authors of our actions. 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.” (From Harris, Sam (2012-03-06). Free Will (Kindle Locations 159-168). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.)
This is incredible: brain scans reveal that our brains make decisions before we’re even aware of the decisions we make. It’s as though I’m an automaton driven by factors beyond “my” control (whatever “my” means), and the decisions I’ll make can be visible to researchers before I’m even aware I’ve made them! Only, it’s not as though I’m an automaton; the inescapable conclusion is that I really am an automaton, albeit an automaton that’s aware of its decisions and consequent actions in such a way that it feels as if it’s making free decisions unconstrained by the laws of nature.
But if we’re all just automatons that will do what we’ll do, why bother to exert any effort to do anything at all, let alone anything noble? Why even get up in the morning? To this question, Harris retorts:
“...people generally confuse determinism with fatalism. This gives rise to questions like ‘If everything is determined, why should I do anything? Why not just sit back and see what happens?’ This is pure confusion. To sit back and see what happens is itself a choice that will produce its own consequences. It is also extremely difficult to do: Just try staying in bed all day waiting for something to happen; you will find yourself assailed by the impulse to get up and do something, which will require increasingly heroic efforts to resist.” (Harris, Sam (2012-03-06). Free Will (Kindle Locations 374-378). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition. )
And to the worry that we’ll not be able to hold others (or ourselves) responsible for our actions, I would add that, even if we don’t have free will, we as a society can seek to provide disincentives (like sending murderers to prison or criticizing those who act recklessly) and incentives (like medals of honor, monetary reward, or verbal praise) as a means of influencing our fellow automatons to behave in ways we perceive to be in the interest of the society in which we live.
What about Owen’s charge that determinism is self-stultifying, that if our beliefs are determined by circumstances beyond control, then even our belief in determinism is determined, and there’s no legitimate reason to think that either our belief in determinism or any other belief is grounded in reality? I am not a philosopher of epistemology (the study of how we know what we know), but as an armchair philosopher who’s open to my readers’ contrary input, my first take on this question is that our brains have evolved a certain (I use “a certain,” because it’s limited) capacity to adjust our beliefs to evidence. If there’s evidence of a poisonous snake in our path (based on visual stimuli reaching our brains), we come to the unavoidable conclusion that a snake really is there, and we decide to take measures to avoid it. It does not follow that, since our decision to believe that a snake is in our path is determined, then there are no grounds for believing it. Similarly, if our decision to accept determinism is itself determined (for example, as a result of learning that brain scans show us to be unaware of our decisions until after they’re made), that does not nullify the grounds for legitimately accepting determinism.
Why should we engage in argument to convince anyone else to adopt our point of view on any matter, if in fact the other’s point of view is already determined, and if that person is not personally responsible for holding what we think to be a mistaken view? It seems to me that there is still plenty of room for us to discuss our differing views in an effort to communicate knowledge and reasoning that will serve as input to the brains of others (this sounds so clinical, doesn’t it? Sorry about that! I can’t help it!) and thus convince them of what we discern to be true, based on the evidence to which our brains have been exposed. In the process, we might ourselves be surprised to be exposed to new evidence that changes our own position, and so knowledge based on good evidence is given a chance to thrive in more and more brains, leading to more lives lived in accordance with a truer understanding of reality.
In writing this post, don’t I run the risk of making people feel less responsible for their actions and thus more prone to live immorally? I doubt it, as long as my readers understand that if you live immorally, you’ll still reap the consequences of your actions, and those consequences are no less sufficient grounds for “deciding” to behave than is the notion of free will. In other words, a deterministic contemplation of the consequences of my actions serves to put the brakes on a reckless course of action. The best way to ensure moral living is to gain an ever more complete understanding of how our actions will impact us and those we love in the long term. This is why we educate our children, not only in the 3 “R”s (Reading w‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic), but also in m‘Rality.
Finally, why should I care about whether others adopt a realistic view of human free will, i.e., that we don’t have free will? One practical benefit is a greater sense of compassion for those caught in a trap not of their “own” making. Instead of reacting in moral outrage to those whose who are bent toward destructive actions, we can think to ourselves, “There but for good fortune go I.” It tends to pop the balloon of our smug self-righteousness and arrogant moralizing when we realize that our own accomplishments and moral rectitude aren’t due to our own free will but are a result of the legacy of the nature and nurture bequeathed to us. This doesn’t mean, as I’ve said before, that we can’t still put in place measures to encourage constructive behavior and to discourage destructive behavior in all of us, but it takes the edge off our tendency toward judgmentalism and self-righteousness when we recognize that free will is an illusion.
If you’re interested in knowing more about this topic, I would strongly encourage you to read Harris’ book, which should take no more than a couple of hours to get through, and if you buy the Kindle edition, it’s only $3.99. Having also read philosopher of science Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves (2004, Penguin), I prefer Harris’ more direct and accessible approach, but Dennett’s views are also worth reading and considering as a less hard-nosed naturalistic alternative to Harris’ characteristically pull-no-punches stance.
Kenneth W. Daniels (1968-), son of evangelical missionaries, is the author of Why I Believed: Reflections of a Former Missionary. He grew up in Africa and returned as an adult to serve with Wycliffe Bible Translators in Niger on the edge of the Sahara Desert. While studying the Bible on the mission field, he came to doubt the message he had traveled across the world to bring to a nomadic camel-herding ethnic group. Though he lost his faith and as a result left Africa in 2000, he remains part of a conservative Christian family. He currently resides with his wife and three children in suburban Dallas, TX, where he works as a software developer.