I was listening to Joe Rogan and Sam Harris discuss free will, and figured I’d share some thoughts on the subject.
I side with Harris on this; I believe that “I” is an emergent phenomena, and that free choice is an illusion.
From a scientific point of view, our brain is a machine. It’s orders of magnitude more complex than a computer, but fundamentally no different. Chemicals and electrical impulses combine to create thoughts and emotions, to create “me.” In a very real sense, we are these hormonal surges and electrical firings. Our thoughts, our responses, and our desires do not exist outside of these real, physical systems.
That raises the question: if there is free will, what is its source? If we examine the universe scientifically, the machine that is our brain operates from one of two sources: determinism or free will.
In a deterministic universe, reality is essentially a giant watch. It was wound up at the beginning of time and it will proceed until the end, mechanically.
If determinism is true, we can view our brains as an infinitely complex set of cogs and gears. In this scenario, we have no more free will than a car; if someone pushes the gas peddle, it goes forward. Our inputs and resulting actions are more complex, but the principle is the same. Or, you can view the mind as software being run on the computer that is our brain; if you provide the exact same inputs to a piece of software, it will always behave the exact same way, because it cannot do anything else.
In this reality, we are not responsible for our choices, because our brain is simply playing out the predetermined script.
In a random universe, our thoughts and actions aren’t predetermined, they’re the result of chance. Something, maybe something operating at the quantum level, causes an input to our brains, our brains process that input, and we act based on that processing.
In this reality, our brains are like software with a random seed; our thoughts and actions cannot be predicted, because we don’t know all of the inputs, but if we were given the exact same inputs again, we would behave in the exact same way.
In truth, our minds are probably a combination of both determinism and randomness. Quantum activity provides random input, but at larger levels, we play out our responses deterministically. This isn’t to say that the process is simple, just that it’s mechanical.
If our mind works in either (or both) of these two ways, there is no free will. We are either playing out a predetermined script, or we are responding mechanically to random inputs. For free will to exist, its source must be something outside of physical reality. Which brings us to:
Theists, mystics, and pretty much everyone else point to the soul as the source of our free will. In this version of the universe, our brain isn’t so much a machine as it is a radio, which sends information to and receives decisions from the soul. The fact that damaging the brain can alter the personality is explained away as merely a signal degradation; the soul remains uninjured, but also incapable of communicating perfectly with the brain.
There are several problems with this, the first being testability. The soul is a hypothesis, and to validate a hypothesis, you need to be able to test it. So far as I know, no one has been able to put forth a set of testable criteria that would point toward the existence of absence of a soul.
If our thoughts, desires, and actions really are a product of the soul, communicated to the brain, how would that be measurably different that if those same thoughts, desires, and actions arose naturally from the brain itself? Until this question can be answered, the concept of a soul remains firmly outside of science. People can hope that we have a soul, even believe that we have a soul, but there’s no way to prove it.
But even if we accept the idea that our mind is a product of the soul, we still don’t have room for free will. Why? Because the soul is a thing, created with certain properties, and responding to stimulus based on those properties. Just like the brain, the soul is either a deterministic piece of machinery, or it is a random number generator, or it is a combination of both.
And if we assume that we have a soul in the Christian sense, the case for fee will actually gets even worse. Take this verse:
For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son …
Two concepts are inseparably linked here: foreknowledge and predestination. If you have a god that is all-knowing and all-powerful, literally nothing can happen outside of his or her design. Every choice you make–every sin committed and every virtue lived out–was known ahead of time, before the deity ever created you. And when it was knitting you together in your mother’s womb, to borrow a phrase, it knew exactly what you would do, for every single moment in your life. The deity knew when you would have your first kiss, when you would tell your first lie, when you would be filled with anger, when you would be overcome with love, when you would be born and when you would die.
No, the idea of a soul makes free will even less likely, not more.
So what does this mean?
We’ve looked at three possibilities: a mechanical universe, a random universe, and a supernatural universe, and we haven’t found room for free will in any of them. So what does this mean?
In practice, not much. A lot of what we know about human psychology, about motivation, willpower, and so on, is still true. It still makes sense to reward behaviors that we desire and punish behaviors we dislike, because the machinery of our brain will respond to those inputs in a fairly predictable fashion.
It does, however, kind of eliminate the justification for retribution. It makes sense to punish undesirable behavior as a deterrent, but not as vengeance. The fact that a person is a murderer stems from their genetics, their family, their experiences, and countless other variables that are entirely outside of their control. Sometimes its simply a facet of the hardware of the brain malfunctioning. The fact that a person was born without dopamine receptors is no more their fault than the fact that they were born in poverty. Again, punishment can make sense as a deterrent, but there is no moral basis for revenge.
Of course, the desire for revenge is also born into us. Turtles all the way down.
Finally, it should alter the way we go about achieving our goals. If we’re on a diet, for example, rather than beating ourselves up because we run out of willpower and eat a slice of pizza, we should examine what science tells us about choices and willpower, and use that to get the desired result out of the software of our brain.
We shouldn’t look at ourselves as weak, or as morally flawed, but as a system, a system with rules that can be manipulated to achieve our goals.