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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.

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