The doctrine of free will is a keystone in Christian theology. It is the principle by which theologians try to explain away the problem of evil in a world designed by a benevolent God. It is central to the tenet of redemption and the reason for the human sacrifice of Jesus.
With the advent of neuroscience, it has become increasingly more difficult to defend free will. We see more and more that what we view as our “selves” and our desires are products of circumstances that we had no control over (our genes, our upbringing, the amount of sleep we had, the smells of a room, noises in the neighborhood, etc.). And, as Sam Harris argues in his new book, Free Will, not only is free will an illusion, it is unintelligible.
Free will is not conceptually coherent, according to Harris. “Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.” No amount of quantum indeterminacy can even begin to make sense of a free will doctrine. No amount of theological finessing can make heads or tails of it.
The theistic position regarding free will maintains that we, in a very real sense, create our own thoughts (termed contra-causal free will)*. This is, however, at odds with what we know about the nature of the brain. Studies such as those performed by physiologist Benjamin Libet showed that activity in the motor cortex can be seen around 300 milliseconds before the a person becomes aware of a decision to move. Another study showed that observing a mere 256 neurons was sufficient to predict with 80% accuracy a person’s decision to move. Even without delays, our conscious self is not in control of the causes behind which and when neurons fire.
Though we feel free in our choices, we are not in control of this feeling to feel free. And therein lies the illusion. It seems that we are only free in the sense that we don’t mind what the unconscious operations of the brain tell us. Even our not minding is itself the product of unconscious operations that are out of our control. Neuroscience and informed philosophy has reduced “authorship” to our conscious mind helplessly witnessing the spontaneous appearance of unconsciously determined thoughts into consciousness. Harris writes, “From the perspective of your conscious awareness, you are no more responsible for the next thing you think (and therefore do) than you are for the fact that you were born into this world.”
Consider the mind of a person who murders a random pedestrian. In subsequent interviews, we find that this person exhibits no remorse for his actions and says that he would do it again, given the chance. Were we to discover that this person has a tumor in his prefrontal cortex (the site of much of our behavioral impulses), we might consider that he was not truly to blame for his actions. He was not responsible for his tumor or the precise consequences of his tumor, after all. But, how is this situation any different from the brain of a psychopath, which is known to have palpable differences with normal brains?
None of the circumstances that lead to a psychopathic mind are the fault of a psychopath. He did not choose to have a psychopathic brain. Neither does it imply that a psychopath is free because he desires to kill a person since that desire is not under his control either. Should we learn that a murderous psychopath had struggles with his bloodlust and earnestly fought against his compulsion, we can only conclude that his desire to murder won out over his other determined desires. Where is the freedom in that?
A psychopath has merely been unlucky to have inherited genes that predispose him to violence and a lack of empathy. This, of course, predisposes him further to situations that encourage him to hold cynical and anti-social beliefs. The lack of control of the psychopath is no different from our lack of control in having the minds that we have at this moment. A psychopath is as much a victim of neurophysiology as we are.
If you were to trade places with our hypothetical psychopath, “atom for atom” as Harris puts it, you would be him. There would be no extra part of you that would be there to see or experience the world in any different way. You would have no way to tame the murderous impulses with the more moderate impulses of your former body.
One need not be a naturalist to dismiss free will. Even outside metaphysical materialism, Harris argues, the notion that an immaterial soul is at the helm of our will does not rescue the notion of free will. “The unconscious operations of a soul would grant you no more freedom than the unconscious physiology of your brain does.”
Harris presents that the only philosophically defensible notion of free will is compatibilism, or the idea that determinism and free will are not incompatible. However, it appears that compatibilism and determinism are only different in that they define free will in completely different terms, though neither finds the theistic notion of contra-causal free will convincing. Compatibilists argue that free will is real in the sense that unconscious mental activity is still “you.” However, this does not seem to be what most people mean by “free will,” which is the conscious authorship of thoughts. It is certainly not what theologians mean by free will. Harris reduces the compatibilist position to “a puppet is free as long as he loves his strings.”
An important distinction should be made between determinism and fatalism. Fans of libertarian free will might point out that since our wills are determined, we should just lay back and watch as our bodies move themselves without conscious intent (fatalism). But that, of course, is to forget that conscious intentions, though caused by events prior to consciousness, are a part of the system which determines consequences. Intentions do matter and intending to just sit around is itself an intention. And this intention to be passive, Harris points out, will increasingly become more difficult as the compulsion to do something else grows intolerable.
That we are free in an absolute and metaphysical sense to decide how to act is a fundamental tenet of our ideas regarding moral responsibility and justice, whether in secular or religious terms. Harris cites the United States Supreme Court, stating that a deterministic view of free will is “inconsistent with the underlying precepts of our criminal justice system.” And, if we are in no meaningful sense the author of our thoughts, then the entire Christian notion of the afterlife (either heaven or hell in any formulation) is horrendous and damnable. Harris writes in the first page of his book, “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.”
Theists worry that without contra-causal free will, there can be no moral responsibility. For how can you fault a hurricane for leveling entire cities? How can you blame an alcoholic for being that way, when genetic predispositions and uncontrolled circumstances led to his being an alcoholic?
Of course, this appeal to consequences does not prove that free will is real. And, upon the slightest bit of inspection, we can see that the theist’s worry is unfounded. Moral responsibility is viable outside of free will. What we appear to morally condemn, and can reasonably maintain to condemn, in violent people (as in the psychopath of my previous example) is the intentionality. The intention and desire to murder is the real cause for fear. If there is anything that we can be held “responsible” for, it would be our conscious intentions, which we are aware of, since these best reflect what kinds of persons we are and how we will tend to act in the future.
If, after careful planning and much research, you decide to kill your neighbor, then that simply shows that you’re the kind of person who would kill your neighbor. You’re the kind of person who would spend hours deliberating on the best means to maim or kill another human being. If you were to find yourself naked in a car that crashed into a tree with your neighbor dead on the hood of your car, without any memory of how you got there, you’re probably not the kind of person who does this sort of thing. The aspect of intention, regardless of its determined origin, generally predicts the trends of behavior that we are likely to have. This gives us good reason to put a premium on conscious intention, in terms of blameworthiness.
The first example shows a person who simply has the mind of a murderer. We have good reason to fear the deliberate murderer and not the accidental one. Though, given determinism, we have no rational basis to hate either.
If we could incarcerate hurricanes, we would, so as to prevent further harm. What, then, does it mean for us to find out that we ourselves are weather patterns of intentions and actions—determined by lawful interactions outside our control? Since a person is fundamentally the epicenter of uncontrolled genetic predispositions and environmental circumstances, any conception of punitive or retributive justice is just incoherent. And what else is religious justice but punitive and retributive?
Without contra-causal free will, the justice of religion is simply absurd and malevolent. Adam was never free to choose which of his impulses would have won out in his encounter with the fruit of knowledge. The sins Jesus died for were the result of bad design by his father in heaven. To be fair, we cannot fault religion for having an unrealistic view of human nature, its creators simply did not know better. This does, however, further betray religion’s human and uninformed origins.
We can maintain a system of laws that is more fair and honest about what we are and what our brains make us to be. To keep everyone else safe, justice systems must rehabilitate criminals. And, in the impossibility of such rehabilitation, incarceration for the good of society is the only recourse. In light of what we know about brains and minds, punishment betrays the juvenile “justice” of our religious and prescientific past.
The knowledge that we are the products of causes outside our control may seem nihilistic and overwhelming, but it need not be. Our awareness should, instead, empower us to know that not every mood we have is meaningful (it can simply be because of lack of sleep). Knowing that we can take hold of the causal triggers of our personality (without denying that this too is due to prior causes), we can take effective steps to change our state of mind by introducing more causes (in the form of books, novel activities, other people, etc.) into the storm that is the mind. Realizing this can help us change our brains in a way that may initially be unconscious, but no less consequential.
We can escape the prison of the delusion that we are little gods immune to nature and accept the laws of nature for what they are. We can be free from fatalism without committing to nonsensical doctrines. Choices, beliefs, and intentions are as important as ever, even if they are determined by prior causes.
In the 66 pages of Free Will, Sam Harris presents a short but devastating case against the traditional and theological concept of contra-causal free will. It is by no means comprehensive, but it gets to the point quick without getting muddled.
*In The Nature of Necessity, the philosopher Alvin Plantinga defines contra-causal free will as: “If a person S is significantly free with respect to a given action, then he is free to perform that action and free to refrain; no causal laws and antecedent conditions determine either that he will perform the action, or that he will not.”
Free Will by Sam Harris is published by Free Press.