The idea that humans have free will figures quite prominently in philosophical, psychological and religious thought. Free will is sometimes provided as an answer to why people do things that are considered evil or bad. We choose to commit a crime as much as we choose to help someone in need. We understand that one person’s free will can impinge on another’s and that the time and place of your birth has a massive impact on your freedom to exercise your will. Our self-determination, albeit within the constraints of our environment, makes us personally responsible for our actions and their consequences, in the eyes of most people. However, this only seems to be the case once we reach a crucial point in childhood. We aren’t born responsible or with free will. If a young child breaks something in a shop, the parent takes responsibility even if the child intended to break the item and the parent has no direct control over the child’s actions. Is the point at which we become personally responsible the same as when we can control our impulses, understand the consequences of our behaviour and develop an awareness of how others view us? Is it the acquisition of “knowledge of good and evil”, the understanding of what it means to be a good or bad member of society, that imbues us with free will and makes us responsible for ourselves?
A few weeks ago I read a book (pamphlet!) by Sam Harris on the topic of free will. The main claim of the book is that free will is an illusion. People are the product of biology, environment and experiences, none of which are authored by the individual. We don’t choose where or when we will be born.The breadth and variety in the curriculum of our educational system, if we have access to one at all, is essentially beyond our control while we are in it. We have no say over the quality of our upbringing or what is valued by our culture. Harris argues that consciousness furnishes us with an illusion of free will. We feel that we are making decisions, weighing options and acting accordingly but where does our intentionality come from? If I normally drink coffee in the morning but one day decide to have tea because I fancy it, what motivated that decision? Do you decide what you’ll think before you think it? Harris points to processes that operate below the level of consciousness but argues that even if you view the mind and body as separate and believe that your intentionality is motivated by your soul, you still have no insight into that preconscious decision making. If you are making finalised decisions before they reach your consciousness, in what sense are you able to exercise free will?
The book raises some interesting points particularly around the degree to which we are responsible for our actions. If an animal attacks a person we don’t usually blame the animal. It is the intent of a person that warrants blame and the more free they were to choose an alternate course, the more blameworthy they are. Harris argues that in the example of a killer, mitigating factors such as the circumstances, upbringing or wellness mediates how accountable we judge a person to be. If someone who is otherwise a good person commits a crime because a brain tumour has had a personality-altering effect on them, we would probably not blame them, we would want to help them. If, as Harris suggests, our intentionality is not something we consciously control, then are we really responsible for our behaviour? Should transgressors be punished or reformed?
I’m willing to travel quite a long way with the arguments Harris puts forward about free will but I’m still not sold on the idea that free will is an illusion. There are certainly constrains – environmental, biological, psychological, cultural and societal – on our free will and it may be that we feel freer than we really are but could free will really be an illusion? The reason I’m skeptical is that Harris only seems to consider scenarios that support his contention. He appears to suggest that free will should be a purely conscious activity and that intention-oriented behaviour is unidirectional:
unconscious decision > awareness > action
I suspect the reality is more complex. Consider this scenario: I’m watching television and a family member switches it off. Some unconscious processing takes place, my mood changes, I’m angry and I realise that I am going to insult them. I’m aware of my cultural and social norms and have a model for intentionally transgressing in this specific way. I turn to open my mouth and see they are upset. My mood changes, some subconscious processing takes place, I realise that insulting is the wrong action for this context. I might rapidly visualise the consequence of my insult. I manage to snatch back the words before they can leave my mouth and instead ask “what’s wrong?”. There are elements of this scenario that happen fast like shifts in emotion and interpreting facial expressions. Some that might happen a little slower like selecting and retrieving response models and visualisation. There are rapid back and forths between different brain functions, some of which may be available consciously and others not. There’s also a thread of intentionality that is subject to conscious and unconscious influence. My point is that we can recognise that people are not completely free to do as they wish and they may not be fully aware of their limitations but they still have and exercise agency.