Do people have free will?

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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.

As Harris observes, compatibilism is widely regarded to be “the only philosophically respectable way to endorse free will.” Compatibilists acknowledge the incoherence of classical “free will,” yielding that our actions are determined by forces outside of our control. However, compatibilists such as Daniel Dennett insist that our choices are still “free” because, among many reasons, they originate in our brains (yes, and the puppet is free, for its actions originate in its own strings). Compatibilists further define the exercise of free will as a person acting out her desires without coercion. But this just isn’t the free will most people think they have.

Lacking any substantive disagreement with the “denialists” of free will, compatibilists defend free will by changing the meaning of the term. This semantic shift serves the important purpose of dulling the public sensibility. When compatibilist intellectuals such as Dennett proclaim faith in “free will,” people think they are affirming the psychological experience with which they are intimately familiar. If science and philosophy more clearly stated what they mean by free will, the public reaction surely would be different.

This might not be for the best. Harris himself invokes a study which shows that “having subjects read an argument against the existence of free will” increases their likelihood of cheating on a subsequent test. However, the typically meticulous Harris is disappointing in briskly rejecting these concerns. He argues that “becoming sensitive to the background causes of one’s thoughts and feelings” is liberating, but only offers anecdotal evidence in support of this claim. I myself have also found rejecting free will empowering, but for most people, the effect appears to be the opposite. Numerous peer-reviewed studies, for instance, indicate that believing in free will is predicative of greater self-esteem and better job performance.

I am sympathetic to the utilitarianism Harris advocates in the book’s chapter on moral responsibility. In light of determinism, Harris argues that punishment for its own sake or “retributivism” is a wicked and primitive notion. After all, the men and women on death row did not somehow author their moral character. As Harris argues, their crimes and disposition are a byproduct of “bad genes, bad parents [and] bad environments.” Punishment for crime obviously remains a necessary deterrent to maximize overall social well-being. However, retributivism is discarded as a barbaric anachronism. We should hold people accountable for their actions, but “only to the degree that it is useful.”

Harris goes on to argue that determinism ethically undermines the cherished American value of rugged individualism. American conservatives and libertarians, he observes, “often make a religious fetish of individualism.” Inequalities are justified because success (and poverty) are “self-made.” It is true that success is a byproduct of meritorious factors such as intellect and work ethic (in addition to factors like socioeconomic status and environment). But whether one is smart or stupid, diligent or lazy, he did not choose to be this way. As Harris says, “diligence and laziness, as well as intellect and stupidity, are neurological conditions.”

Unsympathetic critics note that this sort of reasoning was traditionally used to justify Marxism. However, Harris’s utilitarian criterion can and should be deployed to justify capitalism, given the utter failure of doctrinaire socialism. Nevertheless, the moral implications of his logic are clear: inequality is an evil, even if a necessary one. Its fetishization by libertarians and conservatives cannot be justified. Its incidence ought to be reduced to the minimum socially necessary level. In this way at least, the truth about free will strikes me as unifying and uplifting. Admitting that one’s character and accomplishments were determined by forces outside of his or her control is a humbling concession. This realization also — I hope — implores the fortunate man and woman to help those who find themselves less lucky.

Matt Cockerill is a writer from Omaha, NE.