I’m not responsible for penning these words. This isn’t to say that somebody else is typing, or that I am being dictated to; no, these are words of my own, in an order I myself have composed, written with my sole intent. Nevertheless, I am not responsible for penning these words.
In formulating this sentence, I am fulfilling a desire I have in me: to write. I have freely chosen to act upon this desire, and could have decided not to had my desires been different. This is indisputable. But can it truly be said that we are free to act upon our desires if we have no control over the desires themselves?
These are some of the questions raised and concepts discussed in Sam Harris’ audacious 2012 book, Free Will. Within its pages, which number only ninety-six, Harris makes the bold assertion that free will, as we know it, is entirely illusory. That our every action is determined not by our own selves, but by factors that are necessarily beyond our control. Here’s a brief outline:
Consider a familiar example: eating. Why do we eat? The simple answer is to negate hunger. When our bodies require a replenishment of energy, we unsolicitedly develop a desire, that is, to eat. Now, we (or at least the lucky among us) are able to fulfil this desire whenever we choose. We can simply make a sandwich, or order a takeaway. But the fundamental basis of our desire to eat, hunger, comes about through no choice of our own. We must eat to satisfy our hunger. Therefore, the decision to eat is really not a decision we make at all, if we define a decision as an action taken or thought reached which could have not been taken or reached.
Now the quick-witted among you may point out that we could, if we so choose, refuse to eat. Harris notes in the closing pages of the book that he was hungry at the time of composing them, and yet was resisting his desire to eat in order to finish his writing. Surely, some will say, this must be an example of free will, exercised in direct contradiction with a held desire.
Not so, says Harris. To resist a desire requires a reason for doing so. In such a circumstance, there are two possibilities:
- Somebody/something is forcing you to resist a desire, such as poverty restricting a person’s ability to eat.
- You are consciously neglecting a desire, such as forcing yourself to stay awake when you are tired.
In either situation, you still are not acting freely. Sorry.
The first situation requires no explanation; of course a starving Ethiopian does not choose to not eat. But even in the second instance, where it seems a desire is being resisted, it is rather being simply replaced by another.
In Harris’ case, his desire to finish his book is the reason he did not eat, even though he was hungry. Once again, he had no control over this. As he mentions, he cannot say why his desire to write was stronger than his desire to eat at that time, it simply was. He also cannot say what caused the desire to eat to finally overcome the desire to write, it simply did. This is to say we are slaves to our desires, even when it seems we are intentionally disregarding them. Since we have no control over these desires, this is to say further that we are not autonomous. Ergo, “free will” is an illusion.
Even if you tried to be clever and denied yourself the fulfilment of a desire purely to spite this concept and attempt to regain your freedom, you would change nothing, for the desire to do even this is a desire over which you have no control. You may dispute this, pleading that you only acted in this way after reading this article, which you could have chosen not to read. But this is also not the case. Why are you reading these words? Let’s say somebody shared a link to this page on Twitter, and it appeared in your feed. Did you have any control over this? Again, you may say, you could have chosen not to open Twitter in the first place, but the desire to do so came about through a series of involuntary neurological events which occurred without your consent.
And so here you are, reading these words, through no real choice of your own. Every reason for which you are here—an interest in the subject matter; knowledge of who I am; coming across a link to this post, et cetera—had absolutely no decisional input from yourself. In cases where decisions seem to have been made, such as “choosing” to follow the person who shared the link on Twitter, the decision to act in one way rather than another can also definitively only have been the result of uncontrollable, involuntary processes.
You may be seduced into attempting to trace a decision you think you made for yourself back to its original, hopefully conscious, roots, but you’d be wasting your time. Every try will simply lead you into a very uncomfortable regress of causation, eventually ending at some past event such as your upbringing, your genes or your initial environment, none of which, of course, you could have changed.
It is your brain that makes decisions for you. Everything you feel and do is a result of measurable neurological activity. If we could know the precise conditions of a person’s brain to a sufficient degree of detail, we could, in principle, accurately predict exactly how that person will act in the future with 100% accuracy. Of course, technological limitations make such a quixotic experiment currently impossible, but that does not make it principally impossible. There have, in fact, been similar studies, where scientists have shown that our brains make decisions before we are made aware of them. We then are fooled into thinking we are making a decision which has in fact already been made. (Such studies are detailed in the book.) So, imagine we did have the technology to predict a person’s every action before he decides to take it. (I remind you once again that this is an entirely possible future situation.) In such a situation. Is this person truly “free” to act as he chooses, even if he thinks he is?
To say you could have acted differently in a given situation had the conditions of your brain been different is to say nothing more than exactly that. Could the conditions of your brain have been any different? No, they were as they were, and you had no power to change them. And so, if we are defining “free will” as the ability to choose what to think and how to act, saying that our actions are determined ultimately by neurology, and admitting that we have no control over such neurology, we can conclude that free will does not exist.
Now, this is all very interesting, but what can we make of the uncomfortable practical implications of such a realisation? If, when Salman Abedi blew himself up at an Ariana Grande concert, killing children, he did so through no real choice of his own, acting only in accordance with neurological activity that was beyond his control, how can we hold him morally accountable for his actions? What right do you have to be angry at the man who brutally murders your family if he could not have acted differently? Are outrageous criminals simply nothing more than victims of their circumstances? When we disregard the concept of free will, the answers seem, rather distressingly but inescapably, “we can’t”, “none”, and “yes”.
I do not have to tell you that this starkly contradicts our natural moral inclinations, and arguably requires a complete rethink of the Criminal Justice System, along with the manners in which we view and treat criminals. But whilst it’s worth acknowledging that we are undoubtedly treading on ethically complicated turf, the truth of these conclusions are in no way affected by our inability to morally comprehend them.
Harris has his own opinions on such matters, which I shall leave you to explore by reading the excellent Free Will for yourself (available here), or by watching his many lectures on the topic. As for myself, my friend and colleague Stephen Woodford (of the YouTube channel Rationality Rules) and I sat down for an extended conversation about our visions for understanding ethics and moral accountability in light of the problems raised above:
The bottom line is this: even if the realisation of some truth required us to change our ways of life, even in their most fundamental beliefs and practices, the truth would stubbornly remain. Despite our instinctual protestations, we have to eventually accept the prospect of our having been fundamentally mistaken, recognise our illusions, and change ourselves accordingly.