The Illusion of Free Will

Free Will

“Free Will” by Sam Harris is available from the library in hardcover.

Loren RossonAre we responsible for our actions? In Free Will, neuroscientist Sam Harris argues no, that our experience of free will is an illusion.

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 thought about cooking dinner, but could have considered ordering pizza.

(2) That we are the conscious source of our thoughts and actions. Our consciousness is the author of our inner lives—the thinker of our thoughts, 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.

Harris says the problem with the first assumption 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.

The problem with the second is that the conscious desires and intentions that precede our actions are not their true origin. Everything we are consciously aware of at any moment is the result of a stream of neurophysiological events in the unconscious. We’re not aware of this stream and have no control over it. Our unconscious activity produces thoughts and emotions, and we are mere witnesses to the choices we think we are consciously making.

In other words, according to this wisdom, we aren’t responsible for our actions. Any of them. Literally. A psychopath isn’t responsible for psychopathic behavior any more than a good person can take credit for good deeds.

If that sounds alarming and nihilistic, Harris has things to say about what all of this means for us politically and morally. Read his stimulating book and find out. Also check out his short video clip below.

About Loren Rosson

Loren Rosson heads up the circulation department at the Nashua Public Library. He's worked at the library since graduating from Lewis and Clark College, with the exception of the two years he spent in Lesotho with the Peace Corps, teaching high school.

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