Title: Free Will.
Author: Sam Harris.
Genre: Non-fiction, philosophy, ethics, politics, socialism, psychology.
Publication Date: 2012.
Summary: A belief in free will touches nearly everything that human beings value. It is difficult to think about law, politics, religion, public policy, intimate relationships, morality—as well as feelings of remorse or personal achievement—without first imagining that every person is the true source of his or her thoughts and actions. And yet the facts tell us that free will is an illusion. In this book, the author argues that this truth about the human mind does not undermine morality or diminish the importance of social and political freedom, but it can and should change the way we think about some of the most important questions in life.
My rating: 6/10.
♥ The question of free will touches nearly everything we care about. Morality, law, politics, religion, public policy, intimate relationships, feelings of guilt and personal accomplishment—most of what is distinctly human about our lives seems to depend upon our viewing one another as autonomous persons, capable of free choice. If the scientific community were to declare free will an illusion, it would precipitate a culture war far more belligerent than the one that has been waged on the subject of evolution. Without free will, sinners and criminals would be nothing more than poorly calibrated clockwork, and any conception of justice that emphasized punishing them (rather than deterring, rehabilitating, or merely containing them) would appear utterly incongruous. And those of us who work hard and follow the rules would not "deserve" our success in any deep sense. It is not an accident that most people find these conclusions abhorrent. The stakes are high.
♥ Upon hearing about crimes of this kind, most of us naturally feel that men like Hayes and Komisarjevsky should be held morally responsible for their actions. Had we been close to the Petit family, many of us would feel entirely justified in killing these monsters with our own hands. Do we care that Hayes has since shown signs of remorse and has attempted suicide? Not really. What about the fact that Komisarjevsky was repeatedly raped as a child? According to his journals, for as long as he can remember, he has known that he was "different" from other people, psychologically damaged, and capable of great coldness. He also claims to have been stunned by his own behavior in the Petit home: He was a career burglar, not a murderer, and he had not consciously intended to kill anyone. Such details might begin to give us pause.
As we will see, whether criminals like Hayes and Komisarjevsky can be trusted to honestly report their feelings and intentions is not the point: Whatever their conscious motives, these men cannot know why they are as they are. Nor can we account for why we are not like them. As sickening as I find their behavior, I have to admit that if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom to atom, I would be him: There is no extra part of me that could decide to see the world differently or to resist the impulse to victimize other people. Even if you believe that every human being harbors an immortal soul, the problem of responsibility remains: I cannot take credit for the fact that I do not have the soul of a psychopath. If I had truly been in Komisarjevsky's shoes on July 23, 2007—that is, if I had his genes and life experience and an identical brain (or soul) in an identical state—I would have acted exactly as he did. There is simply no intellectually respectable position from which to deny this. The role of luck, therefore, appears decisive.
Of course, if we learned that both these men had been suffering from brain tumors that explained their violent behavior, our moral intuitions would shift dramatically. But a neurological disorder appears to be just a special case of physical events giving rise to thoughts and actions. Understanding the neurophysiology of the brain, therefore, would seem to be as exculpatory as finding a tumor in it. How can we make sense of our lives, and hold people accountable for their choices, given the unconscious origins of our conscious minds?
♥ In fact, we can be very poor witnesses to experience itself. By merely glancing at your face or listening to your tone of voice, others are often more aware of your state of mind and motivations than you are.
♥ 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. Another lab extended this work using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI): Subjects were asked to press one of two buttons while watching a "clock" composed of a random sequence of letters appearing on a screen. They reported which letter was visible at the moment they decided to press a full 7 to 10 seconds before the decision was consciously made. 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.
These findings are difficult to reconcile with the sense that we are the conscious authors of our actions. One fact now seems indisputable: Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next—a time in which you subjectively appear to have a complete freedom to behave however you please—your brain has already determined what you will do. You then become conscious of this "decision" and believe that you are in the process of making it.
The distinction between "higher" and "lower" systems in the brain offers no relief: I, as the conscious witness of my experience, no more initiate events in my prefrontal cortex than I cause my heart to beat. There will always be some delay between the first neurophysiological events that kindle my next conscious thought and the thought itself. And even if there weren't—even if all mental states were truly coincident with their underlying brain states—I cannot decide what I will next think or intend until a thought or intention arises. What will my next mental state be? I do not know—it just happens. Where is the freedom in that?
♥ Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have complete control over those factors. But there is a paradox here that vitiates the very notion of freedom—for what would influence the influences? More influences? None of these adventitious mental states are the real you. You are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm.
♥ Compatibilism amounts to nothing more than an assertion of the following creed: A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings.
♥ There is no question that our attribution of agency can be gravely in error. I am arguing that it always is.
Imagine that a person claims to have no need to eat food of any kind—rather, he can live on light. From time to time, an Indian yogi will make such a boast, much to the merriment of skeptics. Needless to say, there is no reason to take such claims seriously, no matter how thin the yogi. However, a compatibilist like Dennett could come to the charlatan's defense: The man does live on light—we all do—because when you trace the origin of any food, you arrive at something that depends on photosynthesis. By eating beef, we consume the grass the cow ate, and the grass ate sunlight. So the yogi is no liar after all. But that's not the ability the yogi was advertising, and his actual claim remains dishonest (or delusional). This is the trouble with compatibilism. It solves the problem of "free will" by ignoring it.
♥ Imagine what your life would be like if all your actions, intentions, beliefs, and desires were randomly "self-generated" in this way. You would scarcely seem to have a mind at all. You would live as one blown about by an internal wind. Actions, intentions, beliefs, and desires can exist only in a system that is significantly constrained by patterns of behavior and the laws of stimulus-response. The possibility of reasoning with other human beings—or, indeed, of finding their behaviors and utterances comprehensible at all—depends on the assumption that their thoughts and actions will obediently ride the rails of a shared reality. This is true as well when attempting to understand one's own behavior. In the limit, Heisenberg's "self-generated" mental events would preclude the existence of any mind at all.
The indeterminacy specific to quantum mechanics offers no foothold: If my brain is a quantum computer, the brain of a fly is likely to be a quantum computer, too. Do flies enjoy free will? Quantum effects are unlikely to be biologically salient in any case. They play a role in evolution because cosmic rays and other high-energy particles cause point mutations in DNA (and the behavior of such particles passing through the nucleus of a cell is governed by the laws of quantum mechanics). Evolution, therefore, seems unpredictable in principle. But few neuroscientists view the brain as a quantum computer. And even if it were, 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 ans action would seem to merit the statement "I don't know what came over me."
♥ But from a deeper perspective (speaking both objectively and subjectively), thoughts simply arise unathored and yet author our actions.
♥ And the fact that our choices depend upon 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 causal 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.
♥ If you pay attention to your inner life, you will see that the emergence of choices, efforts, and intentions is a fundamentally mysterious process. Yes, you can decide to go on a diet—and we know a lot about the variables that will enable you to stick to it—but you cannot know why you were finally able to adhere to this discipline when all your previous attempts failed. ..Yes, you can do what you want—but you cannot account for the fact that your wants are effective in one case and not in another (and you certainly can't choose your wants in advance). You wanted to lose weight for years. The you really wanted to. What's the difference? Whatever it is, it's not a difference that you brought into being.
♥ Certain compatibilists insist that freedom of will is synonymous with the idea that one could have thought or acted differently. However, to say that I could have done otherwise is merely to think the thought "I could have done otherwise" after doing whatever I in fact did. This is an empty affirmation. It confuses hope for the future with an honest account of the past. What I will do next, and why, remains, at bottom, a mystery—one that is fully determined by the prior state of the universe and the laws of nature (including the contributions of chance).
♥ One of then most refreshing ideas to come out of existentialism, (perhaps the only one) is that we are free to interpret and reinterpret the meaning of our lives. You can consider your first marriage, which ended in divorce, to be a "failure," or you can view it as a circumstance that caused you to grow in ways that were crucial to your future happiness. Does this freedom of interpretation require free will? No. it simply suggests that different ways of thinking have different consequences. Some thoughts are depressing and disempowering; others inspire us. We can pursue any line of thought we want—but our choice is the product of prior events that we did not bring into being.
♥ The U.S. Supreme Court has called free will a "universal and persistent" foundation for our system of law, distinct from "a deterministic view of human conduct that is consistent with the underlying precepts of our criminal justice system" (United States v. Grayson, 1978).
♥ What we condemn most in another person is the conscious intention to do harm. Degrees of guilt can still be judged by reference to the facts of a case: the personality of the accused, his prior offenses, his patterns of association with others, his use of intoxicants, his confessed motives with regard to the victim, etc. If a person's actions seem to have been entirely out of character, this might influence our view of the risk he now poses to others. If the accused appears unrepentant and eager to kill again, we need entertain no notions of free will to consider him a danger to society.
♥ Our system of justice should reflect an understanding that any of us could have been dealt a very different hand in life. In fact, it seems immoral not to recognize just how much luck is involved in morality itself.
♥ The implications of this seem inescapable. The urge for retribution depends upon our not seeing the underlying causes of human behavior.
♥ Liberals tend to understand that a person can be lucky or unlucky in all matters relevant to his success. Conservatives, however, often make a religious fetish of individualism. Many seem to have absolutely no awareness of how fortunate one must be to succeed at anything in life, no matter how hard one works. One must be lucky to be able to work. One must be lucky to be intelligent, physically healthy, and not bankrupted in middle age by the illness of a spouse.
♥ Not only are we not as free as we think we are—we do not feel as free as we think we do. 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.