Is Free Will An Illusion?

My gut intuition is that I have “free will”, I know, what a shocker.  Perhaps naively, I tend to think I’m in control of my mind and will, at least to some degree.  However, I’m well aware that my hopes and gut intuitions about things often stray me away from reality.  In other words, I realize that I could be dead wrong about this.  Before reading any further, I’d like to remind you that I’m not incredibly fluent in the language of neuroscience, but I find it very interesting, so consider yourself warned.

Last night, I saw Sam Harris give a philosophically titillating lecture about the illusion of free will at the Macky Auditorium on the CU-Boulder campus.  The lecture was particularly timely since his book, Free Will, was released today.  While Harris’ lecture was provocative, and while parts of his argument were undoubtedly true, I confess that I still remain agnostic towards the idea of free will.

First of all, I find it interesting that this question is discussed by anyone other than philosophers.  This is because it’s not a scientific question.  Is the theory of free will really falsifiable?  I would argue that this is a metaphysical question and one which we lack the tools to fully understand.  Like Immanuel Kant, I think we will always be blinded by the spectacles of our own human reason.

So what exactly is free will anyway?  First of all, I think finding a coherent definition of free will is problematic, but for the sake of this post I will not quibble over semantics.  I’ll loosely define free will as the ability to control one’s thoughts.

Here’s a thought experiment from the lecture: think of any city in the world.  Now why did you pick the city you just did?  Why, for example, didn’t you pick Ashgabat in Turkmenistan?  Were you primed by some other material thing in the world or did you truly have the ability to pick any city?  If I understand Harris’ point correctly, he’s suggesting that you had no real control over the city you just chose.  Instead, your consciousness recognized the thought of which city you think you chose milliseconds after the initial thought occurred, but you didn’t actually choose or will what you think you chose.  What are you thinking about right now?  (I’m guessing you’re still trying to digest what the hell I meant by that last sentence.)  Anyway, can you really control or will what you’re going to think about next?  Harris would argue a resounding “no”, and on this point, I think I have to agree.

What some neuroscientists, like Harris, have concluded is that all of our thoughts are essentially the result of some prior physical causes.  For example, memories, genetic-predispositions, and character defects are not the types of things that we can control yet they affect our ability to think.  All of our behavior results from a bunch of molecules bouncing around according to the laws of physics.  According to Jerry Coyne, “The debate about free will, long the purview of philosophers alone, has been given new life by scientists, especially neuroscientists studying how the brain works. And what they’re finding supports the idea that free will is a complete illusion.”

Harris’ shocking claim, then, is that free will is an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.  The gist of the argument can be summed up as follows:

  1. If the universe is deterministic, then we obviously don’t have free will.
  2. If the universe is not deterministic, then it is random (random decisions are obviously not freely willed either).
  3. Determinism and randomness collectively exhaust the possibilities.
  4. Therefore, we cannot possibly have free will.

As Harris pointed out in his lecture, the death of free will spells disaster for religion and our criminal justice system for obvious reasons.  The sinner didn’t will to be a sinner and what kind of unfair God would condemn him to hell?  Uday Hussein was as odious as it is possible for a human-being to be, but did he necessarily choose to be the person he was?  Or was he incredibly unlucky in the genetic lottery?

Although Harris didn’t mention it in the lecture, I couldn’t help but think about Phineas Gage.  Most people who have taken a psychology course are familiar with his bizarre accident.  Gage was an American railroad construction foreman who survived an accident in which a large iron rod was driven completely through his head, destroying much of his brain’s left frontal lobe.  He turned from being a kind and mild-mannered man to a more brutish and rude figure.  Was it his fault?  Despite the fact that he was obviously still alive, did he have the will to change his behaviors after the accident?  Or did some physical part of him change, ultimately meaning that he is not in control, and therefore has no free will to control his behaviors?

The thought of not having free will is a bit unnerving.  Then again, if Harris is right, then you can’t really will how you feel in response to that statement anyway.  I certainly need to spend some more time thinking about this.

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7 Comments on “Is Free Will An Illusion?”

  1. Tanya says:

    Greg, I’m so jealous that you got to attend a Sam Harris lecture!
    I remember reading about his take on free will in his book The Moral Landscape and being unnerved as well. Initially. The more I thought of it, however, the more it made sense insofar as our brains and their functions are biologically based through natural selection. With that being the case, how could we possibly expect to control the goings-on therein any more than we can control the inner workings of any other organ in our bodies? I have a hard time making the next leap though and that is to believe that we have no control over our actions since thoughts and behaviors are two very different things. I look forward to reading his book Free Will. I find it all extremely fascinating.

    • Greg Linster says:

      I’m right there with you, Tanya.  I’m not sure that premise #3 is true, i.e., that determinism and randomness exhaust all the possibilities.  Anyway, it seems to me that there are parts of our neurological makeup that we certainly can’t control.  However, at the end of the day, I think I can control how I respond to those thoughts, at least to some degree.

  2. micah says:

    I think our concept of free will comes down to two things:

    1) Whenever we notice patterns in ourselves, we tend to break them. Thus, over time, we potentially become less and less predictable.

    2) Things aren’t deterministic, but involve a lot of randomness. So no one can know our choices in advance. Not even us.

    I think these are the basic things we mean by free will. Since both seem to be the case at fundamental levels (we always seem to be able to develop and break patterns, and the universe is non-deterministic in terms of “which direction something will go”), then I think free will is real.

    • Greg Linster says:

      @micahredding:disqus, You say things aren’t deterministic, but do you think we are able to consciously choose our thoughts?

      • micah says:

        I’m not sure “consciously choose our thoughts” has a clear enough meaning to comment on. However, by “non-deterministic”, I meant that the basic physical level of reality involves randomness. Presumably, some of that randomness makes its way up to our level.


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