The Illusion of Free Will

Monday, May 28, 2012

The writer and neuroscientist Sam Harris argues that there's no such thing as free will. In his new book, Free Will, he says science proves there's no such thing and that the premise has major policy implications for our criminal justice system and for our understanding of war in society.


Sam Harris

Comments [11]

Hywel from London

In follow up to the last comment made my Crowhill of Washington D.C where you said "To me, that's 1000 times more ridiculous than free will." ...all I would say is that while you're absolutely right in saying how ridiculous it seems, that doesn't have any bearing on the fact that it is true.

Evolution was a pretty ridiculous notion to contemplate if you'd been sat reading "On the Origins of Species" back in 1859, but the truth doesn't care about whether we find it ridiculous or not!

Quantum mechanics has demonstrated that our human brains are simply not adept to comprehend the reality of what is going on at the sub-atomic level. To contemplate the idea the idea of a particle being in a super state, where it is both perfectly stationary whilst moving at the same time seems utterly ridiculous to us. But that doesn't mean its not true.

Our brains have evolved with limitations to what we can understand simply through the use of common sense. Common sense becomes redundant when trying to wrestle with the truth of what Quantum mechanics reveals about the fabric of reality.

May. 30 2012 08:16 AM
Crowhill from Washington, D.C.

I have always found it hard to believe in free will, but I find the alternative even more ridiculous.

If there is no free will, then everything is determined. Which means that from the moment of the Big Bang, the purposeless, unalterable, materialistically determined outcome was me sitting here responding to a meat computer called "Sam Harris" on some weird thing called "free will."

To me, that's 1000 times more ridiculous than free will.

May. 29 2012 03:04 PM

Sam Harris used the example on air of Saddam Hussein as an early-determined bad guy. According to Ralph Schoenman, the CIA via Egypt hired Saddam Hussein, then a newspaper editor, to assassinate popular Iraq leader Kassim which his team managed to accomplish on their third try. Saddam was then placed on special assignment to develop his qualities of character to prepare him for the presidency while his Bath Party uncle was made president of Iraq. That special assignment was to head the Palace of Doom, torturing to death in prison more than 50,000 left-wingers to name their fellow left-wingers who were similarly imprisoned and tortured to name their associates. The US directed Saddam to invade Iran which he dutifully did resulting in the deaths of large numbers on both sides. When Saddam began acting independently of US directions he was demonized as a bad guy and taken out.

May. 28 2012 12:42 PM
Frank De Canio from Union City, NJ

Further to my previous comment, the notion imparted by quantum mechanics of indeterminacy only means that we find it harder to "predict" future states, not that those states are not determined. For as in all so-called random behaviors, they are only random to the uninformed observer and not to the behavior itself. The husband with senile dementia who incongruously treats his wife as a stranger is not exemplifying free will, nor even random behavior, but the final result of a series of previous determinants that could be traced to their origin and then shown their logical progression. The inexplicable suicide is itself a function of a multiplicity of determinants; loss of job, alienation from family, rejected love, any and all of these can factor into the determinants that lead to a suicide, and the probing psychologist may never find the exact cause. That does not mean the behavior is not determined, only that its antecedents are harder to find.

As for determinism precluding punishment; on the contrary it would seem to mandate punishment and sanctions as other determinant of behavior. When the hot pot burns the hand of an individual he is less likely to touch the pot under those circumstances again. The hangover discourages excess drinking, the "thank you" rewards the polite person and reinforces his or her behavior, so that it will recur more likely in the future (barring other contingencies, such as resenting "thank-you's" as patronizing!!! The judge who sternly warns the recidivist offender that one more time will land him in the clink for an extended term will certainly factor into whether he will (if he has self-destructive tendencies, or is averse to authority) or won't (if he fears incarceration)repeat the offense. And so it goes. All behavior is determined. Our system of education is informed by the fact that children need to "learn", to adopt good behaviors and to offset those other "negative" contingencies that inform the behavior of those who tend to have their own (less democratic, altruistic) rules of behavior. And so it goes. A child doesn't grow up to be a Nobel laureate who was raised in the woods by wolves. Genes, parents, teachers, life experiences, political environment, chance meetings, mentors, formal education, financial resources, religion or the lack of it, all is factored into who we are. The best a society can do is to ensure that all its citizens receive "good enough mothering" (as Heinz Kohut has it), a good, comprehensive education, a safe environment, and reinforcement for productive behaviors.

May. 28 2012 11:59 AM
Jessie Henshaw from way uptown

It's a real strain on science to be asked to settle religious arguments. All the words mean different things, and don't connect.

If your want a useful question related to this, from a scientific view, it might be "Why does science describe life as lifeless?"

That's one with real answers if you just look very closely, to observe what goes on, where you see live behaving in a lively creative way.

May. 28 2012 11:30 AM
John A.

I did look over Sam's 'Free Will' book in the bookstore. It is one of the slimmest books I have ever seen, save for some monk philosophizing on Zen. It is printed with a number of value-adding qualities (paper,typeset etc.)
but still I just see it as pandering to Sam's young and somewhat not-yet-developed audience.

May. 28 2012 11:30 AM
Ralph from Mahopac, NY

Just because you can analyze the process of making a decision under the MRI, or microscope, and see it pop up before the words are formulated does not eliminate free will. There is a randomness that will never be accounted for by examination. Part of that randomness are feelings, wants, and desires, that cannot be put into an equation no matter how much you examine it. Why aren't twins reacting the same way to every event? They are genetically the same, and they live in the same environment, ergo they must act exactly, or almost the same? They don't and that's a lot of variation from what a preprogramed machine would do.

May. 28 2012 11:24 AM
Andy B. from New York

The same tedious ultra-liberal, social science-styled condescending attitude on the question of punishing criminals.

Nobody is immoral, everyone is a victim, there is no evil, punishment is wrong. Blah, blah, blah. Somehow I doubt that this guy has developed some profound insight to negate thousands of years of collective wisdom on this topic.

May. 28 2012 11:21 AM
John A.

Quantum Physics destroyed determinism in Physics decades ago. Unknown to me is why we as physical beings can again be theoretically deterministic. Sounds to me like Harris missed something in his thinking. Not the first time for that to happen.

May. 28 2012 10:59 AM
Frank De Canio from Union City, NJ

Surprise, surprise. All actions are either determined or random, and even the latter has antecedents that seem inexplicable to the detached observer. The illusion of free will is the fact that fresh determinants influence behavior. These determinants shape “desire” and subsequent behavior so that we have the illusion of being free.

Schopenhauer said we are free to choose what we desire but not desire. And there’s the rub. The judge gives sanctions, a kind woman gives an either/or to her potential spouse to change his ways, a chance meeting with someone on the street while waiting for a bus, all these are determinants that shape desire and our consequent behaviors for better or for worse; and give the illusion of free will.

Of course, if we believe in determinism we also have to believe in predestination. As Dr. Paul Edwards said in one of my philosophy classes: if a demon had access to all of the contingencies in the world as it exists now we could predict with unerring accuracy where someone would be 10 years from now. We’d have to know about China, Europe, the person walking down the street at a certain hour, the economy, etc. But we would be able to predict.

All life is determined in the sense that d is a consequence of c and c of b and b of a. Determinism is the very basis for the belief in God; the idea that since everything has a cause there must be an ultimate cause without cause.

“If we could look into the seeds of time, and see which will grow and which will not” Macbeth muses in Shakespeare’s Scottish play.

May. 28 2012 10:34 AM
Ed from Larchmont

Again, as a proposition, that human beings do not have free will in the radical sense is simply wrong.

May. 28 2012 06:00 AM

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