I recently enjoyed Sam Harris’s book on free will. Less than 100 pages long, Harris, who has a Ph.D. in neuroscience and is best known for his book, The End of Faith, makes the argument that free will is an illusion. From neuroscience specifics such as the milliseconds between the brain’s activities and when an individual actually makes a decision to the ramifications of free will from religious, moral and political perspectives, Free Will certainly inspires thought on the issue.
Perhaps generally defined as having the conscious ability to control one’s actions, most individuals believe they have free will. Distinctly, there is a difference in the ability to make a conscious decision, that is, to overcome biological programming or environmental influence, and the ability to do what may be physically impractical or impossible.
So the question is: What do we really have control over? Our genes are assigned to us, as well as or parents. Most of our experiences, particularly when we are young, are chosen for us. The environment we grow up in, not only from socio-economic background but also our religious and cultural upbringing, defines and shapes our thought processes. Can we change our perspectives, or are they already ingrained in us—or if we can change our perspectives, is it preciously because of our experiences?
Harris suggests, “. . . the idea that as conscious beings we are deeply responsible for the character of our mental lives and subsequent behavior is simply impossible to map into reality. Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions and you would need to have complete control over those factors.”
“Choices, efforts, intentions and reasoning influence our behavior—but they are themselves part of a chain of causes that precede conscious awareness and over which we exert no ultimate control. My choices matter—and there are paths toward making wiser ones—but I cannot chose what I choose,” Harris described.
And for those who think they “could have done things differently,” Harris explains that this is “. . . an empty affirmation. It confuses hope for the future with an honest account of the past.”
This premise is, however, different from that which happens to us, and the fatalistic premise of divine fate—or that “everything happens for a reason.” Of course, if one believes in the latter, that things “happens for reason,” then one should probably believe in the lack of free will—for those “reasons” are defined in advance and not conveniently postulated or assigned after the fact.
Obviously, equipped with an outcome, particularly a poor outcome, one can either admit that he or she made the wrong decision or ordain it to be deterministic. But knowing the outcome and the idea that one “would do things differently,” does not suggest free will—for at the same time in one’s life, with the knowledge available at the time, no other decision could be made (unless perhaps we’re bumbling around in parallel universes).
Of considerable debate is the impact of free will on religion and morality. Of particular importance is the treatment of those who break our moral and societal codes. If free will is an illusion, then the question is what level of responsibility should be attached to an individual who breaks the law. Harris provides a continuum of situations for accountability—depending on age, socio-economics and biology. Although the volitional acts are identical, society often acknowledges the circumstances of the situation and the perceived amount of free will involved.
Free will is also a critical concept and dividing line in politics. “Liberals tend to understand that a person can be lucky or unlucky in all matter relevant to his success. Conservatives, however, make a religious fetish of individualism. Many seem to have absolutely no awareness of how fortunate one must be to succeed at anything in life, no matter how hard one works,” Harris surmises.
The concept of “Free Will” will remain to be controversial from a number of disciplines. Its implications on society are far-reaching and dividing—its circular reasoning, and the attempt to separate the conscious from the unconscious, is difficult to conceptualize. Fortunately, you are free to draw your own conclusions—or are you?