I’ve always enjoyed philosophy and now that I’ve had more time to read and watch philosophy related content, you may see some more “Exploring Philosophy” blog posts from time to time. I don’t know how many entries there will be on philosophy, but I hope to eventually discuss topics such as Nihilism, Existentialism, Absurdism, Stoicism, morality, and the nature of time.
Now that I’ve taken on the question of whether or not there is a god (or gods) and tentatively concluded that there are no deities, I now have the pleasure of re-evaluating my entire philosophy. While some of this was done by default in the process of deconversion, there is still plenty to explore. I now get to explore whether morals are objective or subjective, the nature of time, and whether free will exists or if it’s simply an illusion. All of this is truly fascinating to me. However, today I will simply focus on free will. This is a topic that I’ve been interested in for quite some time now and I’ve finally read through Sam Harris’ book Free Will, read articles, and watched countless videos. Now, I get to share my current opinion on the matter.
So the big question is: Do we have free will? Now, intuitively, the answer is “of course I do!” because it feels like we make the choices that we make…but do we really? Sam Harris and many other neuroscientists will tell you that, no, we don’t really have free will and I unfortunately must agree. I say “unfortunately” because it would be so much easier if the evidence suggested that our subjective experience of free will is accurate, but instead, it points to an often uncomfortable reality that what we intuitively feel to be true is in fact completely false.
Some of the most compelling evidence for this lies in several scientific studies of neuroscience. In these studies, researchers would have the subjects perform an action at whatever time they chose while hooked up to EEG or fMRI technology. What these researchers found was that the decision to perform the action at a particular time was made inside the brain anywhere between 300 milliseconds to 10 full seconds before the participant was conscious of their decision. What does this mean? This implies that while you may feel that you are calling the shots in everything that you do, your brain makes all of the decisions for you and you are simply a passenger along for the ride.
“You have not built your mind. And in moments in which you seem to build it—when you make an effort to change yourself, to acquire knowledge, or to perfect a skill—the only tools at your disposal are those that you have inherited from moments past…You did not pick your parents or the time and place of your birth. You didn’t choose your gender or most of your life experiences. You had no control whatsoever over your genome or the development of your brain. And now your brain is making choices on the basis of preferences and beliefs that have been hammered into it over a lifetime—by your genes, your physical development since the moment you were conceived, and the interactions you have had with other people, events, and ideas. Where is the freedom in this? Yes, you are free to do what you want even now. But where did your desires come from?” – Sam Harris, Free Will
If you are familiar with biology, and neuroscience in particular, this may not seem too far-fetched after a little rumination. Hormones and neurotransmitters can significantly alter our moods and behaviors in a moment’s notice, and we don’t truly have control of these do we? To use one of the examples Sam Harris provided, if an organ failed in our body we would not say that we “decided” to have that organ fail; instead, we would be considered a victim of that organ failure. Another example would be that we have not control over our wants and desires either. We have no more control over our wants and desires than we do over our body producing hormones or neurotransmitters. One might argue that we can refuse to give into our wants and desires, which certainly is usually true. However, if you think a little further back, you had no control of that desire coming over you, or even control of the strength of your will. As Sam Harris put it, “Thoughts simply arise unauthored and yet author our actions.” Another great example of biology influencing free will would be brain damage or brain tumors. In the famous case study of Phineas Gage, an iron rod was driven through the front of Phineas’ brain by an explosion which led to drastic changes to his personality. The once respected and well mannered railroad foreman now behaved erratically and would curse, yell, and make crude remarks that were previously uncharacteristic of him. Another example would be the effects a brain tumor had on a 40-year-old school teacher in the year 2000. (Sources: http://bit.ly/2rLmb3Z and http://bit.ly/2Ef8tcv ) The man, who otherwise lived a normal life, suddenly began to visit prostitutes and collect child pornography. This deviant sexual behavior was discovered, he was kicked out of his home, and eventually found guilty of child molestation. The night before his sentencing, he was rushed to the emergency room where it was discovered that he had an egg-sized tumor in his brain. Days after having the tumor removed, his deviant sexual behavior and other symptoms disappeared. The symptoms even began to come back a year later, which lead to the discovery of another tumor developing in the same area of the brain.
Now, when you first read of the man found guilty of child molestation, you likely had no pity on him. Did your opinion change when it was revealed that the behavior was simply caused by a brain tumor? What is the difference between someone behaving in a way we find reprehensible because of a brain tumor and someone who behaves the same way without a tumor? Both instances are the result of neurophysiological activity in the brain; however, we understand why the person affected by a tumor is behaving that way. If we had a complete understanding of how the brain works, would we treat the two any differently?
Many people argue that we have free will, usually involving something about having a soul or the randomness of quantum mechanics. As far as the argument for a soul, even if you take the argument at face value, the science seems to show that our decisions are made before we are conscious of the choice we’ve made. If we have a soul, we still don’t have control over it; we are just the conscious observers of the decisions it makes. In regards to chance fluctuations in quantum mechanics, Sam Harris states “Chance occurrences are by definition ones for which I can claim no responsibility. And if certain of my behaviors are truly the result of chance, they should be surprising even to me. How would neurological ambushes of this kind make me free?…Quantum indeterminacy does nothing to make the concept of free will scientifically intelligible. In the face of any real independence from prior events, every thought and action would seem to merit the statement ‘I don’t know what came over me.’” Daniel Dennett, on the other hand, argues for free will in a very interesting way. Dennett argues that while we do not have control over our neurophysiological processes, they are still a part of us as a person and therefore “you” are still making the decisions. Sam Harris argues against this by pointing out that people “feel identical to a certain channel of information in their conscious minds” and don’t typically consider their continuous biological processes as part of their identities. You probably don’t view your body producing blood cells, hormones, and enzymes as part of your identity, so why would this change simply to make an argument for free will?
I had no choice to write this blog than you did eating dinner a week ago. However, accepting this fact is the easy part. The hard part is figuring out what this means for, well, practically everything. The assumption of free will governs how we live our lives in significant ways, especially when it comes to our morality. In regards to the way we treat criminals, Sam Harris states “It may be true that strict punishment—rather than mere containment or rehabilitation—is necessary to prevent certain crimes. But punishing people purely for pragmatic reasons would be very different from the approach that we currently take.” If we truly don’t have free will, would it not be better to find ways to rehabilitate than to simply punish criminals? What about morality? Can we truly say that someone can be immoral if they have no control of their actions? (I would argue that we certainly can, but I won’t get into as it warrants an entire lengthy post of its own.) While I haven’t completely figured out how the lack of free will will change how I live my life and how I view the world, I look forward to finding out!
What do you think about the debate on free will? Do we have free will or is it just an illusion? Does the idea of not having true free will bother you or create any problems? Let me know what you think in the comments and once again, thanks for reading!
Related Content if you’re interested:
Libet B, 1983. “The onset of cerebral activity clearly preceded by at least several hundred milliseconds the reported time of conscious intention to act.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6…
Soon CS, 2008. “We found that the outcome of a decision can be encoded in brain activity of prefrontal and parietal cortex up to 10 s before it enters awareness. This delay presumably reflects the operation of a network of high-level control areas that begin to prepare an upcoming decision long before it enters awareness.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1…
Bode S, 2011. “We demonstrated using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) that the outcome of free decisions can be decoded from brain activity several seconds before reaching conscious awareness.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/arti…
Fried I, 2011. “We report progressive neuronal recruitment over ∼1500 ms before subjects report making the decision to move.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2…
Free Will Debunked – Rationality Rules
Everday Life without Free Will – Rationality Rules and Cosmic Skeptic
Sam Harris on the Illusion of Free Will
Crash Course Philosophy: Determinism V.S. Free Will
Crash Course Philopsophy: Compatibilism
Do We Have Free Will? – Philosophy Tube
Why We Don’t Have Free Will & Why That’s Ok – What I’ve Learned
Funny Cracked skit for your viewing pleasure