In his nonfiction book Free Will
(2012), neuroscientist Sam Harris explores the concept of free will, concluding that true free will does not exist, but also arguing that this does not mean that concepts of morality and freedom of choice do not matter.
Harris concedes that the concept of free will is not only pervasive in society, but is also baked into how civilization is structured; if science were to prove that free will did not actually exist, society would suffer drastic consequences, as punishing criminals and other acts holding people responsible for their actions and decisions would be pointless. Harris tells the story of a pair of career burglars who broke into a family’s home, acting with uncharacteristic brutality, bludgeoning the father, raping the mother, and then setting the house on fire while the two children were tied to their beds. When arrested, the burglars could not explain their sudden descent into violence, expressing regret and shame; one attempted suicide.
Harris argues that if he were to somehow become one of those criminals—having identical genetics, upbringing, and experiences—he would undoubtedly have behaved in the same way, because free will is an illusion. Noting that for most people, our supposedly free thoughts appear from an unknowable darkness, he argues that what we perceive as free will is actually the result either of complete chance or prior causes—in either case, we are not responsible for the results (our actions). In other words, Harris says that our decisions to do or not do something do not originate
in our consciousness—rather, they appear
in our consciousness, and because we tend to think in terms of “I” we take ownership of those impulses, assuming they are our will.
Harris describes scientific experiments with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) that found the brain contained information about which decisions people would make some period of time before the people themselves became aware of their decision—a time gap ranging from 700 milliseconds to 10 full seconds. This implies that our mental states, thoughts, and actions come to us from some part of our brain that we do not control, rather than generated by any sort of free will.
Harris notes that the brain, like any other organ, is a physical thing that behaves in a predictable, mechanical way, much like our heart. Ruled by physical laws, its changes and reactions to physical states are what produce impulses within us, which we then assume are our own desires and decisions. In order for us to be in complete control of our actions, we would have to be aware of all the factors that affect our brain, which is impossible. Since we know that unconscious factors influence our decisions, our actions are determined by forces we cannot know about.
Harris argues that simply because we are doing what we “want” does not mean we are exercising free will, because we cannot know why we want things. Our wants come from an unknowable place within us, they are not generated; none of us can explain why we want things. We make the mistake of thinking our will is separate and distinct from our neural processes when, in fact, the “machinery” that drives our actions are inseparable from those actions. Harris notes that many experiments have proven that we usually do a lot of backward-reasoning to justify our actions, picking and choosing the events that led to our decisions. Harris argues that we do this all the time, with every decision we make.
Harris acknowledges that we can try to change the environment to favor certain outcomes. He gives as an example someone who is trying to cut down on the amount of candy he eats; removing candy from his home can make it more likely that he will eat less. However, his desire to eat candy remains outside of his control. Even there, we are limited, as we have precisely the amount of energy and ability to affect our environment as we have, and cannot change that aspect of our existence. He argues that people often go years with a specific desire—say, to lose weight—and then, suddenly, they find the extra energy to do so. Where did this extra energy come from? We cannot know, but it certainly was not something we generated through our will.
Harris contemplates how this view of free will changes how we view society. Criminals, for example, could not be judged as having done terrible things through their own free will; they would have to be compassionately regarded as helpless to resist their impulses. However, this does not mean that having a criminal justice system or other societal controls is bad or useless, or that our moral judgments are meaningless.