Free will. Who could be against this seemingly wonderful notion? The opposite idea seems to be a depressing downer: Unfree determinism.
After I'd read the first part of Sam Harris' new book, "Free Will," I shared my enthusiasm with my wife about giving up the belief that I can freely decide what I think, feel, or do. She wasn't nearly as enthused, perhaps because of her lengthy experience as a psychotherapist.
"But wouldn't people then use I've got no free will as an excuse for doing whatever they want? And wouldn't this take away people's motivation to change, to improve themselves, to pursue difficult undertakings?"
I had a ready response.
"Anyone who reads Harris' book will simply have more information dumped into their brain, an additional experience that will combine with all the other influences which currently determine their brain states. How they change as a result can't be predicted. Giving up a belief in free will might be highly positive for them, rather than negative."
Here's some quotes that illustrate how Harris approached this subject.
Speaking from personal experience, I think that losing the sense of free will has only improved my ethics -- by increasing my feelings of compassion and forgiveness, and diminishing my sense of entitlement to the fruits of my own good luck.
...Losing a belief in free will has not made me fatalistic -- in fact, it has increased my feelings of freedom. My hopes, fears, and neuroses seem less personal and indelible. There is no telling how much I might change in the future... A creative change of inputs to the system -- learning new skills, forming new relationships, adopting new habits of attention -- may radically transform one's life.
If who we are and what we do is up to us, we're confined in an exceedingly small cage of individualistic selfhood. We can only move in directions that are apparent to our conscious free will. Fortunately, this isn't the truth known to modern neuroscience and psychology.
Psychologist Shimon Edelman discusses how the illusions of free will and selfhood are being replaced by the scientific truths of determinism and extended "virtual" selves. Here's how he puts it in a book that nicely complements Harris', The Happiness of Pursuit.
Insofar as the extended system -- the effective and narrative Selves planted in the great web of cause and effect -- can reach deep into geographical and social space, the computational need for such focusing of behavioral feedback is pressing. By taking responsibility for the processing and use of this information, the phenomenal Self gives rise to another useful illusion: that of free will.
In the West, it has been known since at least the time of Voltaire and Hume that the concept of uncaused cause, which is a prerequisite for free will, is logically incoherent: if my "free" decision to do a particular deed arises absolutely independently of any of the existing circumstances, including my own prior actions and states of mind, then in no sense can it be considered free, or, indeed, mine.
...I do not obey a code of conduct that is implicit in the web of cause and effect; rather I am part of the web. The ultimate reach of this web is universal -- and within the boundaries of physical law the universe is, of course, free.
...The bottom line, then, is this: the Self, along with all of its perceived and remembered attributes -- anything and everything that is included in the feeling of being you -- is a product of the brain's virtual reality engine. This virtual Self is computed and put in charge of the situation purely for reasons of good governance, that is, efficient and purposeful control of the brain's life support system -- your body.
So here's another reason why my wife doesn't have to worry much about people giving up their belief in free will and turning into irresponsible there's no reason to do anything couch potatoes: evolution has led to a virtual/illusory sense of self being front and center within human consciousness.
Even if I intellectually know that I have no free will, it sure seems like I'm able to choose what words I'm going to type in the next moment. (Yet as every writer knows, what's going to be written isn't known until the words appear on paper or a computer screen.)
The inward feeling of free will isn't much of a problem. What's culturally destructive is how this illusory feeling gets translated into social policies which assume that individual human beings are capable of freely deciding their thoughts and actions.
Harris talks about how our justice system is founded on this assumption.
Retribution becomes the main goal, rather than rehabilitation and prevention of future crimes. Often it will be necessary to lock people up to keep them from committing additional offenses. However, there's no scientifically defensible reason to believe that a criminal freely chose his/her unlawful act.
Would we punish hurricanes or earthquakes, if this were possible, berating them for the destruction they bring to humans? Or if ways to prevent these natural occurrences could be found, wouldn't we simply implement them without considering that a malevolent motivation lies behind 150 mph winds or 8.0 Richter Scale shakings?
Viewing human beings as natural phenomena need not damage our system of criminal justice. If we could incarcerate earthquakes and hurricanes for their crimes, we would build prisons for them as well. We fight emerging epidemics -- and even the occasional wild animal -- without attributing free will to them. Clearly, we can respond intelligently to the threat posed by dangerous people without lying to ourselves about the ultimate origins of human behavior.
Then there's sin (or the Eastern version, bad karma).
Sin can't exist without free will, which is why earthquakes, hurricanes, and rattlesnakes don't have to spend time in a confession booth. A belief in sin or freely willed bad karma has decidedly destructive consequences, as Harris notes.
Despite our attachment to the notion of free will, most of us know that disorders of the brain can trump the best intentions of the mind. This shift in understanding represents progress toward a deeper, more consistent, and more compassionate view of our common humanity -- and we should note that this is progress away from religious metaphysics.
Few concepts have offered greater scope for human cruelty than the idea of an immortal soul that stands independent of all material influences, ranging from genes to economic systems. Within a religious framework, a belief in free will supports the notion of sin -- which seems to justify not only harsh punishment in this life but eternal punishment in the next.
And yet, ironically, one of the fears attending our progress in science is that a more complete understanding of ourselves wil dehumanize us.
No, truth can't be dehumanizing. Which includes the truth, free will does not exist.