It's pleasing to my progressive self when modern science confirms one of the foundations of Democratic/liberal political philosophy. Such as, that we humans don't have free will. It's an illusion.
Such is the message of Sam Harris' captivating new book, the pleasingly short (66 readable pages) "Free Will." Harris is a neuroscientist whose first book was "The End of Faith," which brought him a lot of well-deserved attention.
Harris talks about the political aspects of free will in a next-to-last Politics chapter.
What he says is highly relevant to our nation's current debates over whether the goal of government should be to let people alone to pursue their own supposedly freely chosen routes to success and happiness, or whether efforts aimed at leveling out the "bad luck" playing field are justified.
Science comes down solidly on the second option. No man or woman is an island. Our successes and failures, our joys and sorrows, are all tightly tied to other people, genetic influences, culture, education, and many other kinds of social experiences.
Here's the entire three page chapter:
For better or worse, dispelling the illusion of free will has political implications -- because liberals and conservatives are not equally in thrall to it. Liberals tend to understand that a person can be lucky or unlucky in all matters relevant to his success. Conservatives, however, often make a religious fetish of individualism.
Many seem to have absolutely no awareness of how fortunate one must be to succeed at anything in life, no matter how hard one works. One must be lucky to be able to work. One must be lucky to be intelligent, physically healthy, and not bankrupted in middle age by the illness of a spouse.
Consider the biography of any "self-made" man, and you will find that his success was entirely dependent on background conditions that he did not make and of which he was merely the beneficiary.
There is not a person on earth who chose his genome, or the country of his birth, or the political and economic conditions that prevailed at moments crucial to his progress. And yet, living in America, one gets the distinct sense that if certain conservatives were asked why they weren't born with club feet or orphaned before the age of five, they would not hesitate to take credit for these accomplishments.
Even if you have struggled to make the most of what nature gave you, you must still admit that your ability and inclination to struggle is part of your inheritance. How much credit does a person deserve for not being lazy? None at all. Laziness, like diligence, is a neurological condition.
Of course, conservatives are right to think that we must encourage people to work to the best of their abilities and discourage free riders wherever we can. And it is wise to hold people responsible for their actions when doing so influences their behavior and brings benefit to society.
But this does not mean that we must be taken in by the illusion of free will. We need only acknowledge that efforts matter and that people can change. We do not change ourselves, precisely -- because we only have ourselves with which to do the changing -- but we continually influence, and are influenced by, the world around us and the world within us.
It may seem paradoxical to hold people responsible for what happens in their corner of the universe, but once we break the spell of free will, we can do this precisely to the degree that it is useful.
Where people can change, we can demand that they do so. Where change is impossible, or unresponsive to demands, we can chart some other course. In improving ourselves and society, we are working directly with the forces of nature, for there is nothing but nature itself to work with.