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The Illusion of Free Will

Where do thoughts come from? Are we really their authors or are we simply the receivers of predetermined instigations?

These are questions that Sam Harris asks in his small and “annoying” book Free Will and I will try here to present his line of thought.

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Free will is an illusion (in a way). Thoughts and choices spring from background origins that we can do nothing about or from random chances that we have no control over. Neurons and brain cells conspire and move the threads of our existence at every moment.

I start my day with coffee or tea. Today I chose tea. Why not coffee? I am in no position to know. I just realized that I was more in the mood for tea rather than coffee and I had the option to have either one. Did I consciously choose tea? No. The choice had been made for me by my brain and I, as a conscious witness of my thoughts and actions, could not predict or dictate it.

To know that I prefer beer over wine is all I need to know in order to function successfully in a bar. For some reason I prefer the taste of one over the other. Is there any freedom in that? None. Would I reconcile if I forcefully chose wine instead of the beer that I prefer? No, since the source of that choice would be as mysterious as my initial intuition.

Evidence comes from neuroscientists’ laboratories, where in was found that activity in the motor cortex of the brain could be observed up to 10 seconds before a subject of an experiment felt that he consciously chose to perform an aciton. Imagine someone observing in real time your own brain, in every day life, and being able to predict every single thing you did 10 seconds before your choosing to do it. How much freedom is there in this process? What seems to be evident is that our body (our brain) acts, and we are mere viewers of its choices. And the fact that we might enjoy these choices doesn’t help us rescue our sense of freedom. If the coffee I prefer is filter coffee but at some point I grow a liking for cappuccino, I might relish, for example, the idea of being an eclectic drinker, but to call this ‘freedom’ would only suggest I wouldn’t consider my self a prisoner if only I enjoyed my cell.

Strictly speaking, though, free will is not even an illusion. Subjective introspection can only lead us to the same conclusions as the above. All we have to do is watch closely. What will your next thought be? You might be reading this article and honestly try to follow it, but at the same time there is a little voice in your head that tells you things. Things like reminders of tomorrow’s chores. Or things like “what about criminals? Aren’t they responsible for their actions?” Or “What about the soul? Doesn’t it play a part in this?” We’ll get back to this.

First, let’s make an experiment of our own. I will give you a choice: Pick a city. You are free to choose whichever city you want (let’s say except the one you are currently in). You can repeat this as many times as you like. By the way, this is the freest choice you will ever have to make. If there is such a thing as free will, we better find it here.

Try to observe what is happening in your mind as you are making the choice. Let’s say you went back and forth between Paris, London and Amsterdam, and for whichever reason you chose Paris. There are a large number of cities you are aware of, like Helsinki or Peking, but for some reason they didn’t even enter your consciousness at the time, not even as optional choices. Were you free to choose a city you hadn’t even considered as an option? Which are all these cities that don’t deserve your attention? Who removed them from the equation?

Moreover, why choose Paris over London? When asked to explain a choice like this, people usually give a story about it. E.g. one saw a French movie recently and by association they chose Paris. But why not the other way around? One might as well have seen a French movie and choose something completely irrelevant like Cairo or something related to it, like Algiers.

It doesn’t take a materialist to accept the discomforting idea of the absence of freedom. Even if we fill the 10 second gap with soul, the soul is as mysterious and unpredictable as the predetermined natural causes or quantum randomness. The introduction of the soul just adds one more gear in the machine. We haven’t chosen our soul.

If we have the soul of a criminal, we are unlucky, not “evil”. If I change places with any one criminal, molecule for molecule, and had all the experiences he had throughout his life (and also his soul), then I would be him. There is no extra feature that would make me different in this scenario, nothing that could divert me from the course my genetic traits and my experiences laid for me. So how can we hold a criminal responsible for his actions? Can we say a killer is to blame for a crime he didn’t choose to commit?

Surely under this light, any sense of punishment loses meaning. But is it still the right thing to do; to imprison someone for his crimes? Of course it is. When we imprison someone, we do it firstly to protect the rest of society from him. The need for this remains still, whether the perpetrator had any intent or not (indeed, conscious intent or not). It doesn’t make any difference whether someone has committed a violent act because he is “evil” or because he was “wired” to do so. The place this person belongs in is prison. Another reason to justify imprisonment is rehabilitation. If someone is “wired” to commit murders, we shouldn’t forget the influence of his environment, and since it is too late to intervene to his upbringing, we can offer leverage that would deter him to continue this behavior -“rewire” him, so to speak. It is not fatalism Sam Harris arrives at. To be fatalistic would perhaps lead one to stay in bed and abstain from any kind of activity, since anything that would happen to him, will happen anyway. But this would be a choice as obscure as any other (one would also soon discover that doing nothing is something extremely difficult – our brain would force him into action).


What is the purpose of all this? What remains after this revelation? What does it affect in our every day life and the way we view the important things in life?

What is certain is that we lose something. We lose the pride of our choices (how proud can one be of being “eclectic”, when cappuccino is what he actually prefers?) and our hatred against a criminal (would you hate a dog for biting you when entering its territory?). We also lose our shame for our flaws. But pride, hatred and shame are not such worthy feelings to begin with. In fact, they are egocentric and isolating feelings. What about compassion, love, sympathy? Sam Harris claims that not only do we not lose these feelings but that, under this new light, they are the only feelings, the only kinds of behavior, that matter!

Let’s take an extreme example of “evil”. Uday Hussein, the eldest son of Saddam, would drive around in Baghdad and sometimes, when spotting a wedding, he would abduct the bride, torture, rape and kill her with the help of his entourage. He did this many times. I think it’s safe to say every reader has already in his mind the image of a monster. Let’s picture him when he was 4 years old. Surely we can’t call a 4 year old a monster. But this was the 4 year old who would have the nurturing that would later make him the monster Uday Hussein became. Nobody is responsible for his own education. If we had knowledge of his environment and access to his upbringing at the time, wouldn’t intervening be the right thing to do? At which point in his life would it be too late to help him escape his future? At 5? When he was 8? The answer is: never. Intervening in his life with compassion and mercy, offering a safe and stable environment, would always be the right course of action, both for his sake and everybody else’s. The realization that whatever he became was a direct result of his upbringing should only inspire us to help rather than blame, hate or punish. If nurture is the cause, rather than a wicked will, then nurture is also the solution.

Surely this view is no small feat to hold for someone who has fallen victim to the Udays of the world, or for his relatives, but I think in our most composed moments, when we are called to imagine the betterment of society and assign to our polity the means and the power to face its enemies, forgiveness and compassion are what should guide us.

Freedom does matter. Civil and social liberties surely matter. If someone holds a gun on my head, I have little concern whether he does it because he really chose to or because his neurons forced him. It is important to have the option to do what you want to do. But you can’t choose what it is that you want.

One can’t be proud for his talents, but it is important to use them. One shouldn’t blame himself for his weaknesses but it is important to try to overcome them.


Sam Harris – Free Will (The Free Press, 2012)



Sam Harris speaks at Sydney Opera House at the Festival Of Dangerous Ideas 2012

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