I Will Choose Free Will

Each of us, a cell of awareness; imperfect and incomplete
Genetic blends, with uncertain ends; on a fortune hunt that’s far too fleet

You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice
If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice
You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill
I will choose a path that’s clear
I will choose free will

– Rush, “Free Will”

Sam Harris - Free WillI just started reading a new book by Sam Harris entitled “Free Will” in which Sam argues that free will is an illusion.  Clearly he makes this argument in opposition to religious arguments about choosing to follow and obey God or not.  But also he makes this argument in opposition to his good friend and compatibilist Dan Dennett.  The compatibilist view states that free will and determinism are not mutually exclusive and can co-exist.

I find that there are few topics more confusing than the free will vs. determinism debate. Most people, including me, seem to have a gut reaction that I am the author of my actions and that I do have a form of free will.

However, as I grow older, I see more and more the power of determinism.  I did not choose to be born in this era.  I did not choose to be born in the United States.  I did not choose to be born into a family of conservative Christians.  I did not choose the genes I was given.  I did not choose to suffer from Social Anxiety Disorder.  I had no role in developing the drug that has largely cured my disorder.  I did not choose to be born at all.  The number of things that I did not choose is so large that they seem infinite.  And the “choices” that I’ve made are so small and petty that they seem almost insignificant.  Still it feels like I am not just an automaton and it seems like I do have a measure of freedom at some level.

What about faith?  Did I choose to leave the Christian faith?  Or was I compelled by experiences and reasoning that parts of my brain could not ignore?  I certainly did not choose to enter the Christian faith.  I was born into it and it became my default position.  And I think that this is the case for many religious people.  They are born into their religion, they learn to love it, they internalize it, and unless they undergo a dramatic experience that forces them to question everything they hold sacred, they will not leave the faith.

Right now I think that human beings have a limited form of free will.  It is not “pure” free will, because such a thing could never exist.  We are heavily constrained by our environment, our biology, and the very nature of our existence.  But I think we have a small measure of constrained choice.  Some flexibility that comes from the pre-frontal cortex that allows us to override and deny our more ancient biological urges.  We can make small but high-level, informed decisions that have major consequences in the long run.

I don’t think I can give up on the idea of free will.  Not yet.  Not until my back is absolutely up against the wall.

I find that my views on this subject swing back and forth like a pendulum.  This subject matter is obviously very complex and  I’m sure I’ll have more to say as I finish reading the book, so watch this space.  Also, I’d love to hear your thoughts and discuss this topic with you, please add your comments below.

About SciAwakening

Blogging about religion, science, psychology, and whatever else is currently on my mind. http://ScientificAwakening.com

Posted on March 8, 2012, in Books, Philosophy, Religion and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. You pose some really great questions that I don’t think I’ll ever have the answers for. I suppose the danger in assuming that free will doesn’t exist at all is become nihilistic, but I definitely think that I need to read this book.

    • Yes, Sam addresses nihilism and says that determinism does not mean fatalism. In the end I think this comes down to how we define “freedom” and making this important distinction between determinism and fatalism.

  2. The idea of free will being a ‘gift’ from god has always made about as much sense to me as the concepts of The Secret and ‘manifesting’ your destiny. Theres nothing free about any society now, as taxes and licenses and penalties and mortgages have ensured, and without the ability to control OTHER people’s actions, we can only minimally guide ourselves toward where we want to be – someone else will always be able, and choose, to screw it up for us. Great post, thank you!

  3. I totally agree. It’s hard to really believe in free will on anything other than an intangible gut-feeling level when you consider all the unchosen things that make up such a huge portion of your life!

  4. I just read about uncertainty effects in quantum mechanics, according to which God plays dice – so we should have a free will?! It’s the old nature vs. nurture discussion and therefore I like your idea of a “limited” free will. Probability p=0.05 😉

  5. Very thought-provoking post. I enjoyed it. I definitely believe in free will. If you are a believe in reincarnation, one of the theories is that yes, we actually DID choose to be born, did choose how our lives would turn out, did choose everything that happens to us. Some of the things are bad, but we chose them before our life began because we knew–in our infinite wisdom of the afterlife–that we needed to go through these experiences in order to do something great, to complete our life’s work. And by life’s work, I don’t just mean this life. All of our lives. All of our reincarnations. It can be a tough concept for some to accept–I certainly want to believe that I chose the things that happened to me, especially when I was younger, but perhaps I did choose them, because I knew that later on down the line (I’m not quite there, yet, but I will be) some good would come out of it. Perhaps before you were born, you chose to go through the horrors of your disorder because you knew that later in life, you would be able to help someone so significantly–perhaps even saving their life–that you were willing to go through it yourself to complete this task. It sounds horrid, I know, but perhaps there’s some truth to it. I don’t know that I fully believe it, but I’m considering the possibilities.
    Anyway, before this comment turns into a post in itself, I will end it here by saying that I am thoroughly enjoying your blog and will be reading it more in depth shortly.

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