The Illusion of Free Will


The idea of free will implies two things:

(1) That we were free to think and act differently than we did. We did something but could have done otherwise. I raised my right hand but could have raised my left; I went to see a movie, but could have visited a friend; I decided to join the Peace Corps, but could have gotten a job; I thought about cooking dinner, but could have considered ordering pizza.

(2) We are the conscious source of our thoughts and actions. Our consciousness is the author of our inner lives and subsequent behaviors — the thinker of our thoughts, and the intender of our intentions. I feel that I want to rise from a chair, and so I rise. I experience the desire to marry my girlfriend, so I propose to her.

Sam Harris says both of these assumptions are false.

(1) The first problem is that we live in a determinist universe (a world of cause and effect) and everything that could possibly constitute our will is the product of a chain of prior causes: genes, environment, social networks, patterns of electrochemical activity in the brain, atomic states at this or that precise moment. We’re not responsible for any of this, and to say “I could have done otherwise” is to say, essentially, that I could have been a different person or I could have been in a different universe.

We cannot have chosen differently in the same circumstances in which we had exactly the same values, exactly the same feelings and inclinations, exactly the same information at our disposal, and in which our brains were in exactly the same physical states, down to the last synaptic firing threshold. That’s what it means to live in a determinist world. A psychopath isn’t responsible for psychopathic behavior anymore than an altruist can take credit for noble deeds.

(Note: This isn’t to say that our decisions and behaviors are necessarily 100% deterministic. Random elements may interact with determinist ones, so that under any set of conditions someone is x% likely to make this decision, y% likely to make that decision, etc. But this has no bearing on the discussion. Random causes are those for which we’re not responsible and obviously can’t take credit — they don’t involve free will any more than determinist causes. As Harris says: “Determinism makes you a machine; randomness makes you a machine playing dice.”)

(2) The second problem is that the conscious desires and intentions which precede our actions are not their true origin. Everything we are consciously aware of at any moment is the result of stream of neuro-physiological events in the unconscious. We’re not aware of this stream and have no conscious control over it. This unconscious activity is what begets our thoughts and emotions, and determines our choices; we are mere witnesses to the choices we think we are consciously making.

This has been shown in lab experiments, where equipment monitoring mental activity detects what a person’s unconscious is deciding before he or she consciously make the choice. And Harris notes that if we pay close attention to our thoughts, we can glimpse the nature of this truth: thoughts simply appear in consciousness, and we really can’t account for why we choose, say, to raise one hand but not the other.

The Push-Back

The two points — that we live in a determinist universe and so could never have “done otherwise”; and that we are unaware and powerless over the unconscious activity that precedes our conscious choices — aren’t terribly controversial. Yet many scientists and philosophers insist on making room for free will in this prison. Their position is called “compatibilism”, and it basically asserts that we are the net sum of our experiences, conscious as much as unconscious. Free will exists since we experience it. But as Harris points out, that simply changes the subject and misses the point: that the experience is an illusion.

David Livingstone Smith is one of my favorite philosophers, but he falls into the compatibilist trap, and tries to save free will by distinguishing between causation and coercion.

“Those who deny the existence of freedom of the will, or who claim that freedom must defy determinism, fudge the distinction between causation and coercion. You are coerced only if you are forced to do something that you don’t want to do (you perform the act at gunpoint, as it were) or are prevented from doing something that you want to do (for example, you can’t stand up because you are duct-taped to the chair). It’s obvious that coercion is incompatible with freedom. It’s equally obvious that causation isn’t. The mere fact that one’s choice was caused by various prior events does not imply that one was coerced into making the choice. And there are no grounds for claiming that making the decision is not free.”

Again, this is just an artful way of changing the subject. It’s playing semantics. Whether we speak of our “choices being caused” or “ourselves being coerced” makes no difference if the end result could not have been otherwise. The only difference is on the level of conscious subjective experience, and again, the point is that our experience isn’t what we think it is. Yes, it’s an important part of the human condition, but it’s ultimately a mirage.

Compatibilism in the Abrahamic Religions

Of course, compatibilism is nothing new. Nearly every theologian who has advocated a form of predestination has made wiggle-room for free will. Augustine and Calvin, our forerunners of “hard-core” predestination, insisted on degrees of free will that somehow don’t conflict with God’s inescapable plan. This has been difficult to understand, of course, as the two concepts are at odds with each other.

But they were married from the start. The bible blesses their union. The exodus story speaks of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart (Exod 7:3; 9:12; 10:1,20,27; 11:10; 14:4,8) and Pharaoh hardening his own heart (8:15,32; 9:34). Perhaps God imposed his will on Pharaoh sometimes, while Pharaoh exercised his will on others. Or maybe God was in complete control all the time, and Pharaoh’s hardening himself was the simple result of God forcing him to harden his heart against his will. In the latter case, Pharaoh’s free will was an illusion.

Most theologians prefer it the other way — that God’s predestination is the illusion. Pharaoh, they say, exercised free choice at every point. God merely provided the circumstances and occasion for Pharaoh to be forced to make a decision. He sent Moses to place demands before Pharaoh, and Pharaoh chose to resist God’s demands. Had God not sent Moses and provided the backdrop for Pharaoh to exercise his stubborn attitude, Pharaoh would not have been faced with the dilemma of whether to release the Israelites. On this reading, God set a “preordained” path in motion, but he was not the author of Pharaoh’s defiance.

Throughout the bible, God’s will intervenes most forcefully at the critical junctures of salvation-history. Paul makes a predestination argument in Rom 9:6-29, saying that the Gentile acceptance and the Jewish rejection of Christ “does not depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s will”; that “God has mercy on whom he wants and hardens whom he wants” — and has thus called the Gentiles while rejecting his own people. But that almost seems countermanded by what Paul says next in Rom 9:30-10:21: that Gentiles cannot accept Christ unless missionaries reach out and explain the gospel to them. That’s what enables them to choose to “believe in their own hearts” and “call upon the name of the Lord to be saved”.

The usual line of Christian compatibilism is that people are free to an extent, as their nature allows, but their sinfulness prevents them from choosing God (1 Cor. 2:14; Rom. 3:10-12; Rom. 6:14-20). God must therefore be the active agent who elects and saves them. This, however, is problematic for the idea that “God wants all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:3-4): “As in Adam all die, so also in Christ all should be made alive” (I Cor 15:22; Rom 5:18). These passages have naturally provided a basis for rejecting predestination altogether. The reason why “all” humanity doesn’t get saved as God wants, can only be that people use their free will to accept or reject him.

This is all murky, but one thing is clear: There is no mainstream view in Judaism or Christianity that completely denies free will. Jews and Christians either deny predestination, or uphold it alongside a certain measure of free will. Islam is the opposite, in no small part since Allah is bloodthirsty and wants people to roast in hell: “If we [Allah] had willed, we could have guided all men to the truth, but instead we will fill hell with jinns and men.” (Qur’an 32:13) Allah created people to torture them in hell; he could have guided everyone to the truth, but he wants most of them to go to hell, and that’s what happens. (The Judeo-Christian God wants everyone saved, but that’s not what happens.) The Qur’an seems to allow for some measure of free will, but mostly insists that no one believes or disbelieves Allah except by his will, and ultimately Muslim authorities declared free will to be heretical.

Biting the Bullet

The theological gymnastics used to reconcile free will and predestination begin to look a lot like the acrobatics of our modern-day scientists who want to keep free will inside the span of determinism. As far as I can tell, they can do this only by evading the point. To say that we experience the ability to do what we want and thus have free will, is to duck from the unpleasant idea that our experience isn’t what it seems.

And look who ducks. Even someone like David Smith, who has made a career of preaching hard truths (about lying and war-mongering) and scolding those who reject them out of fear of moral abuse. Have we finally hit on the one subject that terrifies even our best specialists?

It would be a supreme irony if atheists like Smith and Dan Dennett are unable to bite the bullet and persist in a compatibilism as cloudy as that of the Judeo-Christian tradition they’re so at odds with. I feel the opposite irony: it’s extremely rare that I find myself “agreeing” with Islamic tradition more than the Judeo-Christian, though of course I don’t reject free will out of any religious-based predestination. I reject it out of scientific-based determinism.

4 thoughts on “The Illusion of Free Will

  1. Granted the Smith quote is totally unimpressive, but I actually found Elbow Room to be succinct and free of mental gymnastics. Dennett does redefine “free will” (he could just as well have invented a new term for it) after showing that the original definition [(1)-(2)] is basically incoherent. He provides a new definition that aligns with the way we apply the concept of free will in our day-to-day life (and actually makes sense). His definition of “freedom of the will” attempts to capture the sense in which human decisions are free-er than chimpanzee decisions, which in turn are free-er than clam decisions, which are free-er than rock decisions. Perhaps Dennett should simply use a term other than “free will” (which, as far as I can tell, is the main difference with Harris). Perhaps Dennett has it wrong. But saying it would be “a supreme irony” if he were “unable to bite the bullet” seems like an overly glib dismissal of Dennett’s view, which, at the very least, deserves some careful consideration.

  2. Dennett is changing the subject as much as Smith. (1) and (2) above aren’t incoherent. They’re what people often think about their free will — that they could have done differently, and that their consciousness generates their will. Human decisions are freer-er than the decisions of less complex organisms only by virtue of the complexity of cause-and-effects behind them and that of the human brain. That’s an interesting discussion, of course, but it’s a different discussion. No matter how complex the chain of events generating our behavior, it’s not generated of our will. We only experience it as such.

    Yes, I was being a bit glib in dismissing Dennett, but he frankly deserves it. His rebuttals of Harris have been sloppy, not to mention intemperate, and it’s clear to me that he’s uncomfortable about the political and moral implications of the illusion of free will. This is the guy who wrote Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Like Smith he’s usually good over rocky roads. But yes, he should be using another term other than free will — though that’s not really the point either, because then we’re just arguing over a definition. Let’s just grant for a moment that Dennett and/or Smith have the better definitions of free will (which I don’t). Fine — but they’re not addressing the more interesting issue. We all know that we’re more complex than other organisms. But that just means the illusion of our experiences become more advanced. We still can’t step outside the stream of cause-and-effect. That’s the substantive point. It galls us, and opposes our intuition, to admit we’re in thrall to the laws of a determinist universe.

    • Fair enough. Dennett’s rebuttal did seem like much ado about nothing. He claims that “he himself [Harris] is a compatibilist in everything but name,” and then complains at great length about Harris’ rejection of the name. The space required just to clarify that “basically, we’re saying the same thing” (my interpretation — not an actual quote) probably indicates that holding on to the term “free will” is not worth it, but I don’t care too much about the semantics either way. I suppose there’s a bit of pride at stake for Dennett.

      • Dennett does seem to have pride issues. I attended a Dartmouth convention back in ’96, where he and Stephen Jay Gould went at each other over evolution. Dennett came off the worse for it, and his spat with Harris last year puts me in mind of the same thing. Read Harris’ response to Dennett for the dirty details.

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