Neuroscientist Sam Harris on Our Misconceptions About Free Will and How Acknowledging Its Illusoriness Liberates Us Rather Than Taking Away Our Freedom
By Maria Popova
“When you come right down to it, how much of that was free will?” teenage Sylvia Plath pondered as she looked back on her life-choices in reflecting on what makes us who we are. “Before we raise such questions as What is happiness, what is justice, what is knowledge, and so on,” Hannah Arendt argued a quarter century later in her intellectually exquisite 1973 inquiry into what free will really means, “we must have seen happy and unhappy people, witnessed just and unjust deeds, experienced the desire to know and its fulfillment or frustration.” Another generation later, cosmologist Janna Levin captured our confusions about free will perfectly in her conversation with Krista Tippett: “If I conclude that there is no free will, it doesn’t mean that I should go run amok in the streets. I’m no more free to make that choice than I am to make any other choice.”
The nuances, complexities, and misconceptions surrounding the question of free will are what neuroscientist Sam Harris examines in his book Free Will (public library) — an elegant case for why, rather than disempowering us by taking away our freedom, letting go of the idea of free will liberates us from the weight and pressure of the ego, thus expanding our capacity for compassion and our sense of what Diane Ackerman so poetically called “the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else.”
The question of free will touches nearly everything we care about. Morality, law, politics, religion, public policy, intimate relationships, feelings of guilt and personal accomplishment — most of what is distinctly human about our lives seems to depend upon our viewing one another as autonomous persons, capable of free choice. If the scientific community were to declare free will an illusion, it would precipitate a culture war far more belligerent than the one that has been waged on the subject of evolution. 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. And those of us who work hard and follow the rules would not “deserve” our success in any deep sense. It is not an accident that most people find these conclusions abhorrent. The stakes are high.
This wonderful cinematic adaptation of a talk Harris gave based on the book synthesizes the challenge and the payoff of relinquishing the illusion of free will:
The illusoriness of free will is as certain a fact as the truth of evolution, in my mind. And, unlike evolution, understanding this truth about the human mind has the potential to change our sense of moral goodness and what it would mean to create a just society.
The question of free will touches nearly everything people care about: religion, public policy, politics, the legal system, feelings of personal accomplishment, emotions like guilt and pride, and remorse. So much of human life seems to depend on our viewing one another as conscious agents capable of free choice.
The fact that our choices depend on prior cause does not mean that choice doesn’t matter. To sit back and see what happens is also a choice that has its own consequences. So, the choices we make in life are as important as people think, but the next choice you make will come out of a wilderness of prior causes that you cannot see and did not bring into being.
Losing a belief in free will has not made me a fatalist — in fact, it has increased my feelings of freedom. My hopes, fears, and neuroses seem less personal and indelible. There is no telling how much I might change in the future. Just as one wouldn’t draw a lasting conclusion about oneself on the basis of a brief experience of indigestion, one needn’t do so on a basis of how one has thought or behaved for vast stretches of time in the past. A creative change of inputs to the system — learning new skills, forming new relationships, adopting new habits of attention — may radically transform one’s life. Becoming sensitive to the background causes of one’s thoughts and feelings can, paradoxically, allow for greater creative control over one’s life.
This understanding reveals you to be a biochemical puppet, of course, but it also allows you to grab hold of one of your strings.
In Free Will, Harris goes on to explore the unconscious origins of free will, why we have such a hard time relinquishing it, and how we can begin to think about choice and moral agency after letting go of free will. Complement it with philosopher Rebecca Goldstein on what Plato teaches us about free will and negotiating our capacities for good and evil and C.S. Lewis on what it means to have free will in a universe of fixed laws, then revisit Harris on spirituality without religion, the paradox of meditation, the need to demolish the boundary between science and philosophy, and his reading list of 12 books he believes everyone should read.
Published July 25, 2016