Opinion

Do people have free will?

The experience of free will is more basic than any other. Everyone naturally feels he or she is the author of his or her choices and character. Even our language — we say “I chose,” not “my brain chose” — attests to the universality of this sensation. But in spite of its apparent self-evidence, author and neuroscientist Sam Harris argues in Free Will that it is a hollow illusion. This tightly and cogently argued book is simply devastating in its attack on its namesake.

Owing to the fact that “[free will] cannot be made conceptually coherent,” Harris holds the idea is not only an illusion, but a transparent and vacuous one. The logical problems with free will are glaring and obvious. One’s choices are a manifestation of one’s desires. One can choose to act upon whichever one of his desires he prefers at a given moment. However, he cannot choose his desires. The mechanisms of the brain, which both determine one’s desires and adjudicate between conflicting ones, are either “determined by prior causes” or “the product of chance.” Neither case, concludes Harris, leaves room for self-authorship.

The scientific critique of free will is as effective as the logical one. Science has demonstrated that a person’s decisions are made in her brain prior to her conscious experience of “deciding.” In this regard, Harris references a study conducted by the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience Berlin, which asked subjects to press one of two buttons. Utilizing Functional Magnetic Resonance Technology (FMRI), the researchers “found two brain regions that contained information about what button subjects would press.” By examining these regions, they were able to predict, with astounding accuracy, what button people would press 7 to 10 seconds before they consciously “chose” to press it.

In view of these findings, Harris asserts that everything which humans intend “is caused by events in the brain that we do not intend,” and indeed lack any awareness of. To his mind, this utterly discredits any notion of free will. Nor can the (occasional) randomness of the brain’s physical processes make space for free will. Randomness is sheer chance, over which one has no control. Asks Harris, if a random release of neurotransmitters compels him to drink an extra cup of coffee this morning, does this really constitute a genuine expression of free will?

In my view, Harris’s argument easily exposes “free will” as illusory. Contemporary neuroscience aside, the arguments for free will are simply incoherent. As Arthur Schopenhauer put it, “Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.” I do as I will. But what I will is a byproduct of the physical processes of my brain, processes I did not author and don’t even consciously experience.

The (in my view, bogus) notions of souls and god are often invoked to allow for the existence of free will. However, as Harris notes, neither of these entities would eliminate determinism. One cannot “take credit for the fact that [he] doesn’t have the soul of a sociopath,” if souls there be. If one had the precise combination of genetics, “soul-stuff,” and life experience as Adolf Hitler in 1945, he would be powerless to act in a manner different from him. And with respect to god, his presence only makes the truth of determinism starker. As an omniscient deity, god knows Sam is going to eat lunch at 2. Therefore, Sam will eat lunch at 2. He might feel as if this is his decision, but it is logically impossible for him to make a different choice.

Under all conceivable circumstances, free will is a logical impossibility. In light of this fact, it is striking that relatively few philosophers and neuroscientists openly denounce the concept. Harris understands their intellectual timidity. For “if the scientific community were to declare war on free will,” he writes, it would ignite a culture war far more toxic than even that between creationists and evolutionists. Mindful of this possibility, intellectuals cloud the issue of free will in obscurity.