Free Will by Sam Harris


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.



Evidence-based Faith part 1


What is faith, in the religious sense of the word? Although what faith means may be varied and nuanced between different religions, denominations and individual believers, faith can be broadly defined as: trusting and having confidence in religious authority, which might include religious leaders, holy books and supernatural entities. Faith is seen by some to be an important component of religion. It’s often considered virtuous to place your trust in religious authorities. Faith is also frequently talked about as though it’s the opposite of evidence. “Blind faith” as a way of describing beliefs held without evidence is in my view nothing more than rhetoric. The idea that someone puts their trust in and has confidence in religious authority without evidence strikes me as false. The faithful must have some ideas about their god for example and perhaps its character, values or its will. These ideas are unlikely to have arisen independently in people and so it seems to me that the faithful must base their faith in evidence. This evidence is constitutive of their beliefs. Perhaps they were told about their religion by parents. Maybe they were read passages from a holy book by a religious leader. Some may not consider this evidence to be strong or convincing, but it’s evidence nonetheless. I don’t currently have any religious faith but this notion of evidence-based faith has got me thinking. What sorts of questions could I ask to find out if I could or should have the kind of faith defined above?

Many religions are based on holy books from which the faithful draw their religious knowledge. These books are generally sacred texts, which are held by some to be accurate and true. But is a holy book a reliable source of information? After all, language doesn’t withstand the passage of time very well. It has a tendency to change and meanings shift quite rapidly. This was even more the case before languages became standardised for printing. Meaning is easily (unavoidably?) lost or corrupted in the translation process and holy texts have a tendency to be compiled and recompiled from multiple sources whose authorship can be geographically diverse and separated by hundreds of years. Writing is a product of its time, carrying the assumptions inherent in the world view of its author. If the author lived in a culture that considered women to be property then the writing may well contain that view. If the author didn’t know for example what stars are or the motion of the earth around the sun, that ignorance may well be exposed in the writing.

Our perception of the authority of the written word has changed radically over time as well. Historically the word has had an almost magical quality. In fact in some cases the very act of making marks representing ideas was a method of spell casting. Before the invention of the printing press (enabling mass production) the sheer rarity of books endowed them with authority. They were expensive to make and were owned by the very wealthy. Even if books were available, levels of literacy in the past were very low. Our view of books is much more pragmatic now. We are less likely to believe the content of a book simply because it is in a book. The availability of books and levels of literacy are far higher now, although not evenly distributed. People now have greater opportunity to engage critically with books and fact-check using the internet.

If assessing a holy book to decide if I could have trust and confidence in it I might ask:

  • What is the history of this book and how was its content assembled?
  • Is the author identifiable and how credible are/were they?
  • What is it offering me and what does it want from me?
  • Are its claims consistent with our constantly improving understanding of how things work?
  • Are its claims verified or supported by independent records?
  • Is it logical and consistent?
  • And how does it compare with other holy books?

I’m not convinced that a book is a good way to ensure that an essential religious message travels unaltered over hundreds or thousands of years to reach the maximum number of people. Perhaps holy books are not so much the perfect transmission of the values, will and intent of supernatural, creator entities. Perhaps they are more to do with normal people expressing and recording their (and others’) religious experiences.