Sam Harris’s Delusional Case for Determinism

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Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have.[1]

The challenge of free will

To think or not to think…that is the question

Thinking [writes Ayn Rand] is not an automatic function. In any hour and issue of his life, man is free to think or to evade that effort. Thinking requires a state of full, focused awareness. The act of focusing one’s consciousness is volitional. Man can focus his mind to a full, active, purposefully directed awareness of reality — or he can unfocus it and let himself drift in a semiconscious daze, merely reacting to any chance stimulus of the immediate moment, at the mercy of his undirected sensory-perceptual mechanism and of any random, associational connections it might happen to make.[3]

Evasion

the act of blanking out, the willful suspension of one’s consciousness, the refusal to think — not blindness, but the refusal to see; not ignorance, but the refusal to know. It is the act of unfocusing your mind and inducing an inner fog to escape the responsibility of judgment — on the unstated premise that a thing will not exist if only you refuse to identify it.[5]

What do we introspect?

[T]he deeper truth is that free will doesn’t even correspond to any subjective facts about us — and introspection soon proves as hostile to the idea as the laws of physics are. Seeming acts of volition merely arise spontaneously (whether caused, uncaused, or probabilistically inclined, it makes no difference) and cannot be traced to a point of origin in our conscious minds. A moment or two of serious scrutiny, and you might observe that you no more decide the next thought you think than the next thought I write.[6]

You have not built your mind. And in moments in which you seem to build it — when you make an effort to change yourself, to acquire knowledge, or to perfect a skill — the only tools at your disposal are those that you have inherited from moments past.

Choices, efforts, intentions, and reasoning influence our behavior — but they are themselves part of a chain of causes that precede conscious awareness and over which we exert no ultimate control. My choices matter — and there are paths toward making wiser ones — but I cannot choose what I choose. And if it ever appears that I do — for instance, after going back and forth between two options — I do not choose to choose what I choose. There is a regress here that always ends in darkness. I must take a first step, or a last one, for reasons that are bound to remain inscrutable.[10]

Free will and causality

You didn’t pick your parents, you didn’t pick your genes therefore, and you didn’t pick the environment into which you were born, and yet the totality of these facts determines who you are in each moment and what you do in the next. And even if you think you have an immaterial soul that somehow animates this machinery, you didn’t pick your soul. The next thing you think and do can only emerge from this totality of prior causes, and it can only emerge in one of two ways: lawfully, that is deterministically, like one domino just getting knocked over by another — or randomly.[12]

Free will and neuroscience

The physiologist Benjamin Libet famously used EEG to show that activity in the brain’s motor cortex can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels he has decided to move. Another lab extended this work using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI): Subjects were asked to press one of two buttons while watching a “clock” composed of a random sequence of letters appearing on a screen. They reported which letter was visible at the moment they decided to press one button or the other. The experimenters found two brain regions that contained information about which button subjects would press a full 7 to 10 seconds before the decision was consciously made. More recently, direct recordings from the cortex showed that the activity of merely 256 neurons was sufficient to predict with 80 percent accuracy a person’s decision to move 700 milliseconds before he became aware of it.[15]

Free will, genes, and environment

Conclusion

Notes

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