You’re all familiar with Harris, aren’t you. He earned a degree in philosophy from Stanford University and a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA. He has written many books, including The End of Faith, which won the 2005 PEN Award for Nonfiction. I’ve mentioned him before, here and here, and I vigilantly follow his blog and recommend his excellent writing. And what thanks do I get for my effort? He intends to remove the causal origins of my thoughts and actions that reside behind my very eyeballs, the powerful “I” or “me” inside my head that initiates my every act and desire. He writes in his new book, Free Will,
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 is stranger than many suppose: The illusion of free will is itself an illusion.
Harris cleverly uses examples of introspection to illustrate just how untenable and incoherent the concept of free will is. (Oh, that tricky man!) He also discusses studies showing neural activity occurring in specific areas of the brain up to 10 seconds prior to a participant’s conscious decision. I’m not sure what to think about this. (Brain to Alan: Do you need a few more seconds?)
Harris neatly dismantles any refuge one may have sought in the idea of a soul or within the theory of quantum indeterminacy. The unconscious operation of a soul offers no hook upon which to hang free will, and following the primrose path of quantum indeterminacy only leads to the dead end of chance. Neither option provides you free will, says Harris. We’re just not able to rise above prior events in our universe to be the true origin of our thoughts and actions. Damn.
So, earlier this week I decided to succumb. I chose to just sit around the house and offer myself up to the causal influences of my environment. Why not? That’s what Harris says is happening to me anyway, right? So, I just plopped down on the couch and did nothing. I let the universe have its way.
Well, as determined by the universe, Harris knows a little bit about this type of thinking. He warns us not to confuse determinism with fatalism, and besides, just sitting around doing nothing is hard to do, he says – and he’s right. I’m married. If anyone wants an example of a causal mechanism, just get a wife. Also, after sitting on the couch for a while, my young son needed lunch, so I had to do something, anyway. This was good, because I also had to pee.
I agree with the conclusion Harris reaches in his book. The problem I face, and I don’t think I’m alone here, is reconciling my beliefs and intuitions about experience, reality and responsibility with the fact that I’m not true origin of their creation. Harris spends a fair amount of time in this short book assuring us that our choices are still relevant despite our lack of free will. He writes,
And the fact that our choices depend on prior causes does not mean that they don’t matter. If I had not decided to write this book, it wouldn’t have written itself. My choice to write it was unquestionably the primary cause of its coming into being. Decisions, intentions, efforts, goals, willpower, etc., are casual states of the brain, leading to specific behaviors, and behaviors lead to outcomes in the world. Human choice, therefore, is as important as fanciers of free will believe. But the next choice you make will come out of the darkness of prior causes that you, the conscious witness of your experience, did not bring into being.
The consequences of this idea for moral responsibility, political decision-making and our system of justice is not fatal, according to Harris. We still need to incarcerate people so they will not harm others, and we can demand change where ever possible, and where it’s not, we can choose another path.
These consolations are bittersweet, though. My oldest son must have gotten a copy of Harris’ book. He doesn’t call me dad anymore, and now refers to me as his “casual agent.” I foresee rough times ahead. Oh free will, I barely knew ye.