The illusion of free will is itself an illusion

While debates about free will remain prevalent in theology, philosophy, and the popular imagination, the concept of free will does not do any meaningful work in modern science. Even philosophically-inclined neuroscientists who write about free will do not evoke this concept in their technical work about the brain. Similarly, we talk about “nature versus nurture” not “nature versus nurture versus free will.” According to writer, philosopher, and neuroscientist Sam Harris, free will cannot be made conceptually coherent. In his little book “Free Will” he writes that “either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.” Sam Harris is not the first person to debunk the idea of free will but what makes his treatment of the subject stand out from most hard determinists (or hard incompatibilists) is his no-nonsense treatment of “compatibilism” and his smart take on the view that free will is an “illusion.” He also has a talent for using effective metaphors to make his cases as evidenced by sentences such as, “you are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm.

Harris is not a “compatibilist” and follows philosophers such as Immanuel Kant (“wretched subterfuge” and “word jugglery”) and William James (“quagmire of evasion”) in identifying this position as a (subtle) attempt to change the subject. About the vast compatibilist literature he writes that “more than in any other area of philosophy, the result resembles theology.” Compatibilists like Daniel Dennet have spent considerable time in twisting the meaning of free will and putting it in an evolutionary context but as some of his critics have noted, the “free will” that is compatible with determinism does not capture the kind of free agency and moral responsibility that philosophers feel is worth talking about (for example, see Paul Russell’s article “Pessimists, Pollyannas, and the New Compatibilism“). “Compatibilism amounts to nothing more than an assertion of the following creed: A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings,” writes Harris.

Harris follows philosophers such as Derk Pereboom in noting that neither determinism nor indeterminism can give rise to free will or moral responsibility. This also includes more recent attempts to find “free will” in quantum mechanics. “Chance occurrences are by definition ones for which I can claim no responsibility…how would neurological ambushes of this kind make me free?

While Harris still recognizes free will as an illusion, there are some passages in his book that reveal that he does not seem to agree that disciplined introspection is a credible source for a belief in free will. “If you pay attention  to your inner life, you will see that the emergence of choices, efforts, and intentions is a fundamentally mysterious process…I do not choose to choose what I chose…there is a regress here that always ends in darkness.” This is a distinctly refreshing perspective because most literature is plagued by the belief that regardless of whether free will exists (or can exist) it is nevertheless an illusion, or worse, a necessary illusion. This “illusion of the illusion of free will” remains a mainstay of most discussions of the topic, despite its shaky foundation in introspection or logical analysis. In a rather Buddhist perspective on the matter, Harris concludes his book by observing that

“our sense of our own freedom results from our not paying close attention to what it is like to be us. The moment we pay attention, it is possible to see that free will is nowhere to be found, and our experience is perfectly compatible with this truth. Thoughts and intentions simply arise in the mind. What else could they do? The truth about us is stranger than many suppose: The illusion of free will is itself an illusion.”

So what then gives rise to the belief in free will and the desire to prove its existence? According to Harris, a belief in free will is closely associated with the concept of “sin” and retributive punishment. One might also add that “compatibilist” philosophy arises from the recognition that most normative ethical theorizing requires some kind of compatibilism. It is not a coincidence that the most exotic treatments of free will can be found in theological, ethical, and ideological writings. Obviously, Harris denies that a belief in free will is necessary for morality and justice. “Certain criminals must be incarcerated to prevent them from harming other people. The moral justification for this is entirely straightforward: everyone else will be better off this way.” The fact that no criminal has free will does not mean that all crime should be treated the same. The reason why we are interested in, for example, whether the cause of a crime can be attributed to a brain tumor or a psychopathic personality type is because it is important to know what kind of person we are dealing with and under which conditions we should expect such crimes most likely to occur. There is no need for a complete overhaul of our criminal system but in a society in which there would be less emphasis on free will there would be more room for intelligent treatment of crime instead of hatred and retribution.

There is a brief chapter in the book where Harris discusses free will in the context of politics. He identifies modern conservatism as embodying an unrealistic belief in free will, as evidenced by the tendency to hold people responsible for their own choices and to glorify “individualism” and the “self-made man.” It is certainly the case that the concept of free will has clouded the mind of many political thinkers. For example, two writers that are closely associated with radical capitalism, Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard, have offered rather obscure defenses of free will. Ultimately, however, most dominant ideologies can be restated without a belief in free will. A denial of free will in conjunction with postulating values such as”egalitarianism,” “impartiality,” and “universalism” can give rise to modern liberalism but a denial of free will is also compatible with an elitist, aggressive, anti-democratic pursuit of human enhancement through state coercion.

Anarcho-capitalism does not require a belief in free will either as evidenced by recent attempts to derive it from Hobbesian contractarianism (Jan Narveson) or economic efficiency arguments (David Friedman). Incoherent discussions of free will in moral and political theory are easy targets for ridicule, and often an indicator of belief in other mysterious concepts such as “natural rights.” In fact, anarcho-capitalism cannot only be restated without any appeals to “free will” or “natural rights” but it does not even require the postulation that “freedom” is valuable (or needs to be be maximized) as has been shown in the recent writings of Anthony de Jasay.

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