I Have “Chosen” Determinism

Sam Harris - Free WillThis is the conclusion to my previous post: I Will Choose Free Will

Well I’ve finished the new Sam Harris book “Free Will”.  It turns out this book is very short and a quick read.  I highly recommend buying the economical electronic version.  This is Sam’s second short book and I have to say, I like this format a lot.  This format may become a new niche in the digital book age along the lines of the “Kindle Single”.

So let’s dig into the book.  Here’s a section where Sam addresses the concerns of determinism and fatalism.

As Dan Dennett and many others have pointed out, people generally confuse determinism with fatalism. This gives rise to questions like “If everything is determined, why should I do anything? Why not just sit back and see what happens?” This is pure confusion. To sit back and see what happens is itself a choice that will produce its own consequences. It is also extremely difficult to do: Just try staying in bed all day waiting for something to happen; you will find yourself assailed by the impulse to get up and do something, which will require increasingly heroic efforts to resist. And the fact that our choices depend on 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.

I agree that we need to keep determinism and fatalism separate.  Although, do we live in a completely deterministic universe if there are random events at the quantum level? Either way, there is little room for freedom here.  A thought popped into my head as I read this, a person suffering from clinical depression has the exact opposite problem regarding leaving their bed in the morning.  They find it extremely difficult to get out of bed and it takes a heroic effort in order to do so.  This kind of depression is certainly not a conscious choice.

The men and women on death row have some combination of bad genes, bad parents, bad environments, and bad ideas (and the innocent, of course, have supremely bad luck). Which of these quantities, exactly, were they responsible for? No human being is responsible for his genes or his upbringing, yet we have every reason to believe that these factors determine his character. 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.

I definitely agree with this sentiment, and now see if you can wrap your mind around Sam’s conclusion:

 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.

I’d love to read a book like this from a compatibilist and be able to more capably compare and contrast the views.  I still think that we have a measure of free will.  It’s just a very constrained and limited form of freedom which some people like Sam argue is not free at all.  Either way, the lesson we need to take away from this is that people are heavily constrained by their genes, environment, and good/bad fortune.  Let’s spend more time understanding people, helping them where we can, and less time judging and demonizing them.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, leave your comments below.

About SciAwakening

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

Posted on March 11, 2012, in Books, Philosophy, Psychology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. here’s a thought… having not read the book, but still… if the illusion of having free will is itself an illusion… does that mean we do have free will… it’s just that we have this illusion that it’s (all) an illusion, b/c life is complex?

    • I think that what he’s trying to say here is that once we focus on the true causes of our own behavior the illusion of free will dissolves. Like I said before, I don’t think it completely dissolves, but we do start to realize how we frequently oversimplify the causes of our and others actions.

  2. I had this discussion on New Years Eve (over several glasses of vino…) and people were very suprised to hear the notion that we have no free will. It was great fun getting people to consider that they had no real choice in getting to the point where they were sitting in my dinning room and that their whole life had perhaps led up to this moment…

  3. Nice post.. I love this kind or topic, and you made the book more appealing. Going to check it out on amazon now! A

  4. I am writing a book on this very topic (been doing so for years) and agree wholeheartedly with Harris’s view on it. Sam has taken a more scientific approach which is great (and he even addresses “spiritual” notions to a degree). My book details out the incompatibility of free will with both a deterministic and indeterministic universe. I delve more into how people incorrectly use Quantum Mechanics, specific time theories, bad semantics, a conflation of acausal events with probabilism, incorrect assumption that a cause can lead to multiple possible effects, etc…to contrive their notion of free will. I also delve deep into the free will psychology people hold, why the belief in free will is not benign but rather harmful, and so on.

    ‘Trick Slattery

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