When I choose a book to read, am I really making a choice, or do the events that led up to my choosing a book already determine which book I am about to read? According to the book that I ended up reading, Free Will (2012) by neuroscientist Sam Harris, the answer is the second one.
Sam Harris argues that free will is simply an illusion. Our decisions arise from background causes which our conscience often does not notice. For instance, he asks if the presence of brain tumors in criminals affects our perception of their crimes, then what about other neurological disorders? And even non-neurological ones?
If a man’s choice to shoot the president is determined by a certain pattern of neural activity, which is in turn the product of prior causes—perhaps an unfortunate coincidence of bad genes, an unhappy childhood, lost sleep, and cosmic-ray bombardment—what can it possibly mean to say that his will is “free”? (3)
In fact, the strength of this book is that its argument is based on a well-researched neuroscience. Granted, Harris brings up the more speculative conjectures of philosophy, but only after discussing research of the brain at length.
The physiologist Benjamin Libet famously used EEG to show that activity in the brain’s motor cortex can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move…. More recently, direct recordings from the cortex showed that the activity of merely 256 neurons was sufficient to predict with 80 percent accuracy a person’s decision to move 700 milliseconds before he became aware of it. (8)
In fact, the science seems very well established, and it is the public perception that needs to catch up. Before reading this book and subsequently researching what neuroscientists and philosophers think of free will and determinism, I expected there be serious debate and the sides roughly equally sized. But as it turns out, only 14.9% of philosophers did not lean towards one of compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will. The majority of them actually know what is going on. Neuroscience is even more strongly against free will, as its experiments directly contradict it.
It kind of reminds of me a post I wrote called On Giving Too Much Legitimacy to the Inferior Position, where I argued that on certain issues, even trying to point out that there is “debate” over something sometimes distracts or even draws people away from the truth. This is a case in point, as I had always thought I was in the minority when I argued determinism instead of free will, but it turns out I was in the academic majority.
In addition, as an atheist and humanist, I must applaud Harris for the following passage:
Despite our attachment to the notion of free will, most of us know that disorders of the brain can trump the best intentions of the mind. This shift in understanding represents progress toward a deeper, more consistent, and more compassionate view of our common humanity—and we should note that this is progress away from religious metaphysics. Few concepts have offered greater scope for human cruelty than the idea of an immortal soul that stands independent of all material influences, ranging from genes to economic systems. Within a religious framework, a belief in free will supports the notion of sin—which seems to justify not only harsh punishment in this life but eternal punishment in the next. And yet, ironically, one of the fears attending our progress in science is that a more complete understanding of ourselves will dehumanize us. (55)
Indeed, the concept of free will is very related to religion and its morally abhorrent idea of sin. Dispelling mythological concepts such as the soul or sin is a necessary step in the advancement of the human species. And at some point, free will too must go.