Sam Harris wrote the book on free will (or, rather, our lack thereof). Sam Harris doesn’t play around:

The truth is we feel and preserve a sense of authorship over our own thoughts and actions that is illusory.

“How do you like them apples?”, Sam Harris asks.

Frankly, not one bit. Trying this truth-bomb on for a size is uncomfortable. I am my own CEO, aren’t I? I mean, other than the fact that the modern modular model of the mind actually debunks this notion (as discussed in the Buddhism and Modern Psychology Coursera course I’d already referred to), it still feels like we have some say in what we do, doesn’t it? Plus, if we don’t actually have free will, can’t I just twiddle my thumbs for the rest of life and come out the same on the other side?

Sam Harris doesn’t think so:

The fact that our choices depend upon prior causes 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 most people think, but the next choice you make will come out of a wilderness of prior causes that you can’t see and did not bring into being. You didn’t pick the interactions or the effect they had upon you of every event and conversation and exposure to ideas you had in life. Where’s the freedom in this? Yes, you are free to do what you want even now. But where do your wants come from?

Here’s the most interesting part for my purposes:

Now some of you might think this sounds very depressing. It seems to take something away from us. It does – it takes away an egocentric view of life. But I think this can be tremendously liberating. We are not truly separate. We are linked to each other. And to our past. And to history. We are part of a system and therefore what we do matters. You can’t take credit for your talents, but it matters that you use them. You can’t really be blamed for your weaknesses, but it matters that you correct them. So pride and shame don’t make a lot of sense in the final analysis. But they weren’t much fun anyway! These are isolating emotions. What does make sense is a commitment to wellbeing, and to improving your life and the lives of others. Love and compassion makes sense.

This is actually quite beautiful. It also makes me think that the “multi-tenancy” problem of having everyone’s brains uploaded and hosted in the same Megabrain mega-cortex might not be as much of a problem – on the contrary, through a richer history of previous events and experiences, we’d all be able to make better, more positive, more mutually beneficial choices.

What do you think? Shoot me a note to sabbatical@mashakrol.com, or leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you!

Full Video Transcript

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.

So if the scientific community were ever to declare free will an illusion, as I think we eventually must, I think it would precipitate a culture war far more acrimonious than the one that has been waged on the subject of evolution.

Now I hope to do two things in this talk: I hope to convince you that free will is an illusion. And it’s worse than an illusion, it’s actually a totally incoherent idea, which is to say it is impossible to describe a universe in which it could be true, not only is it untrue, it’s hard to make sense of what’s even being claimed to being true. And I also hope to convince you that understanding this truth about the human mind actually matters and that it can change the way we view morality and questions of justice.

The popular conception of free will seems to rest on two assumptions. The first is that each of us was free to behave differently than we did in the past. You chose chocolate, but you could have chosen vanilla. It certainly seems like this is the world we’re living in.

The second assumption is that we are the conscious source of our thoughts and actions, so your experience of wanting to do something is in fact the proximate cause of your doing that something. You feel that you want to move and then you move. You are doing it. You the conscious witness of your life.

Now, unfortunately, we know that both of these assumptions are just untrue.

And the first problem is that we live in the world of cause and effect, and there’s no way of thinking about cause and effect that allows us to say that the buck stops here. The buck never stops. Either our wills are determined by prior causes, a long chain of prior causes, and we’re not responsible for them. Or they’re the product of chance and we’re not responsible for them. Or there’s some combination of chance and determinism. But no combination seems to give you the free will that people cherish.

Where is the freedom in doing what one wants when one’s wants are the product of prior causes which one cannot inspect and therefore could not choose, and one had absolutely no hand in creating? Nobody picks their parents, or the society into which they were born. Nobody picks the life influences that shape the development of their nervous system. You are no more responsible for the microstructure of your brain at this moment than you are for your height.

Are you making red blood cells at this moment? Now, hopefully your body is. But if it decided to stop, you wouldn’t be responsible for that change, you’d be a victim of that change. So to say that you’re responsible for everything that goes on inside your skin because it’s all you is to make a claim that there’s absolutely no relationship to the actual experience that has made free will a problem for philosophy. The truth is we feel and preserve a sense of authorship over our own thoughts and actions that is illusory.

And once we recognize that even the most terrifying people are in some basic sense unlucky to be who they are, the logic of hating them as opposed to merely fearing them goes away. So one consequence of viewing the world this way is that it reduces hatred, which I think, all things being equal, is a very good thing. It also increases empathy and compassion. You as the conscious witness of your inner life are not making these decisions, you can only witness these decisions. How can we be free as conscious agents if everything we consciously intend was caused by events in our brain which we did not intend and over which we had no control. We can’t.

So what does this mean? Well, first, here’s what it doesn’t mean. The fact that our choices depend upon prior causes 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 most people think, but the next choice you make will come out of a wilderness of prior causes that you can’t see and did not bring into being. You didn’t pick the interactions or the effect they had upon you of every event and conversation and exposure to ideas you had in life. Where’s the freedom in this? Yes, you are free to do what you want even now. But where do your wants come from?

Now some of you might think this sounds very depressing. It seems to take something away from us. It does – it takes away an egocentric view of life. But I think this can be tremendously liberating. We are not truly separate. We are linked to each other. And to our past. And to history. We are part of a system and therefore what we do matters. You can’t take credit for your talents, but it matters that you use them. You can’t really be blamed for your weaknesses, but it matters that you correct them. So pride and shame don’t make a lot of sense in the final analysis. But they weren’t much fun anyway! These are isolating emotions. What does make sense is a commitment to wellbeing, and to improving your life and the lives of others. Love and compassion makes sense.

But the idea that we as conscious beings are deeply responsible for the character of our own minds is just impossible to map onto reality. And if we want to be guided by reality, rather than the fantasy life of our ancestors, I think our views on this topic have to change.

Hat tip to Billiam for the pointer to Sam Harris’s discussion on free will, and to Maria Popova of BrainPickings for this video. Source: Sam Harris – Free Will from The Inspiration Journey on Vimeo.