The very idea that human beings possess a level of agency in their personal affairs and actions is considered as self-evident by most, if not everyone. Transcending race, culture, geography, and levels of religiosity, the concept that each person has the ability to freely choose their actions—on its face—appears to be as concrete as the laws that govern our universe. In recent times, with advances in brain imagining and our understanding of the brain’s function, the world of science has exposed that free will—as we understand it in the moral, philosophical, and legal sense—is no more a source of individual activity than Divine Providence.
If the authorship of human decisions does not find its origins in cognizant agency, how then is society to interpret human behavior?
That human beings do not freely make the sort of decisions that impact our day to day lives is an alien concept that many folks may have a hard time wrapping their minds around. That our actions are more the result of neurophysiology informed by genetics, upbringing, trauma, and experience flies in the face of what we assume to know about ourselves. With that said, who (much like this writer) hasn’t held their head in their hands and wondered aloud, “Why on Earth did I do that?”
This leads me to Dr. Sam Harris’ Free Will. In less than 80-pages Harris, a bestselling writer, Ph. D., and CEO of the Reason Project has accomplished what I would have otherwise assumed to be impossible: to clearly and succinctly demonstrate the idea of free will as illusionary.
To be clear, Free Will, is not an overt exercise in philosophy or social commentary. Harris has set out to explain the absence of agency in our personal, every day decision-making by demonstrating, categorically, that all available scientific indicators such as brain imaging and controlled studies support his thesis. The absence of free will as the average person comprehends it is, in Harris’ world, a question of the physical, not the emotional.
In the opening pages, Harris sets the stage by pointing out that even contemplating the idea personally may demonstrate its lack of existence (emphasis by the author):
The popular concept 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…
But the deeper truth is that free will doesn’t even correspond to any subjective fact about us—and introspection soon proves as hostile to the idea as the laws of physics are. Seeming acts of volition merely arise spontaneously (whether caused, uncaused, or probabilistically inclined, it makes no difference) and cannot be traced to a point of origin in our conscious minds. A moment or two of serious self-scrutiny, and you might observe that you no more decide the next thought you think than the next thought I write.
Taking the above into account, the main thrust of Harris’ claim is reliant upon the scientific data on human cognition and decision-making. Harris cites a timed experiment where test subjects were instructed to press one of two buttons based on a series of letters and numbers flashed upon a screen. The experiment, utilizing MRI, “found two brain regions that contained information about which button subjects would press a full 7 to 10 seconds before the decisions was consciously made” (emphasis by the author).
Harris further confounds traditional thinking by pointing out the sheer exhaustive nature of free will should it exist and as it is presently understood within broader society. In one example, Harris recounts his drinking either coffee or tea in the morning. He concludes that there is was no true agency on his part in drinking one or the other any given morning as he just does it without thought. Furthermore, free will would ultimately mean that someone would have to consider each option available to him prior to making a decision. Imagine walking into a convenience store and grabbing a Coke. Did you freely choose to drink a Coke over Snapple? Did the thought of drinking a Snapple ever enter into the equation? How did you freely choose to drink a Coke over Snapple or Dr. Pepper or Yoo-hoo? Were you even thirsty to begin with?
This line of reasoning underlies the sheer exhaustive nature of true free will. If one were to have to consciously choose every decision at every moment of the day, they would find it hard to get anything done, if they even left the house at all. How do proponents of free will reconcile the fact that—even by their own admission and evidenced by science—certain neuroactivity exists outside of the realm of choice at all times (e.g. breathing, hunger, the creation of red blood cells, et al.)?
If the authorship of human decisions does not find its origins in cognizant agency, how then is society to interpret human behavior? This, I suspect, was Harris’ motivation in writing Free Will and is certainly a question that—as our understanding of neurophysiology advances—we will be forced to answer collectively. How should we view a rapist or murderer if indeed their perpetrating harm on others was no more a decision on their part than pouring a glass of water? On its face, should we take the absence of free will to its logical conclusions, how can anyone be responsible for anything whatsoever?
How we are to interpret and control for these measurements based on the determining scientific evidence, similar to past advances in both technology and the field of science, will be a question best answered by future ethicists and policymakers.
Harris argues that rather than view these prospects in terms of right and wrong, society at large should focus on the how and why these sorts of pathologies exist. That free will is no longer an explanation for the evil and criminality of others, which direction will our legal and moral compasses of the future point? Harris makes clear that excusing such behavior is by no means a proposition he will stand behind, but rather demonstrates that each of us are a product of our own neurophysiology, genetics, environmental stressors, and previous traumas. Removing individuals deemed deficient in these governing dynamics is not only prudent, but will ensure a greater level of societal well-being. How we are to interpret and control for these measurements based on the determining scientific evidence, similar to past advances in both technology and the field of science, will be a question best answered by future ethicists and policymakers.
While reading Harris’ latest work, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer—Harris even devotes an endnote on Einstein reflecting on the German philosopher’s “Der Mensch kann was er will; er kann aber nicht wollen was er will,” or “Man can do what he will but he cannot will what he wills.” If we arrive at Harris’ strongly evidenced conclusion, then there can be little doubt that the 19th century pessimist may yet still prove to be one of the most important thinkers in the whole of human history. This is not mere hyperbole, Schopenhauer’s masterwork, The World as Will and Representation, laid bare the very nature of human agency absent any knowledge of neurophysiology and a full century and a half before the advent of brain imaging technology.
The idea that we do not freely decide to do what is we do, is one that will certainly unsettle the majority of individuals, particularly Americans. As our understanding of the brain progresses, most—if not all—of our basic assumptions of human nature will require a thorough reexamination. The broader political, cultural, and legal framework that currently governs modern society could, in a matter of decades, be altered so drastically that the future, in this context, will be patently unrecognizable from the present.
That I have yet to give much pause to what amounts to one of the most groundbreaking and disconcerting concepts advanced in recent memory only gives credence that the absence of free will rings of organic wisdom and, dare I say, is somewhat self-evident. What is more mind-blowing, when I think about it, as I sit behind my laptop and write these words is that my choosing to do so was never a choice at all.