Sam Harris—neuroscientist, pop philosopher, and author of the book Free Will—says there’s no such thing as free will.
His main argument is that everything you do depends on your thoughts. Whatever you think to do, you will do. But you cannot control your thoughts, and hence, you do not have free will.
[su_box title=”Further explanation”]Consider how everything we do depends on two things: our physical makeup (brain chemistry, genetics, etc.), and our past experiences. Since these things aren’t within our control, neither are our choices in life.
For example, you probably aren’t a murderer. But if you had the exact same physical body (and brain) of a murderer the second before he stabbed someone, you were in the place as him, and you had lived the same experiences as him—in other words, if you were him—then you too would commit the murder.
This is not to say that I believe no one is responsible for their actions, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
What I want to talk about is something Harris said that I think makes no sense: “Losing a belief in free will has not made me fatalistic—in fact, it has increased my feelings of freedom.”
Fatalism is the belief that since things are destined to occur a certain way, there’s no point trying to change them. It’s the feeling that you are powerless to avoid your fate, and have resigned yourself to it.
Fatalism goes hand-in-hand with determinism: the idea that everything that happens was destined to happen (as a result of pre-existing conditions), and could not possibly have happened any other way.
Harris evidently thinks he can be deterministic without being fatalistic. How can that be?
Obviously, it can’t be. You can’t have determinism without fatalism, because if there is no free will, then there is nothing anyone can do to change what happens to them.
Harris isn’t stupid, so I assumed I’d overlooked something. I reread the text—still didn’t make sense. I looked up explanations online—nope. I tried coming up with potential arguments from his point of view… see below.
My interpretation is that Harris feels more free (as a result of his realization that we don’t have free will) because different inputs (of knowledge and life experiences) lead you to make different decisions, and the knowledge that we don’t have free will is a useful input.
In short, knowing that you don’t have free will is “freeing” because it changes your future decisions for the better.
How? By making you realize that the decisions you make now are both an “output” of your current knowledge and experiences, and an “input” to your future decisions.
For instance, perhaps you’re trying to lose weight, but you also enjoy going to a bakery every day after work. Each time you tell yourself “I’m only going to get one doughnut,” and each time you end up getting six doughnuts and eating the whole bag.
Instead of beating yourself up for not having enough willpower, you could realize that whenever you’re in a doughnut shop you don’t have as much self-control as you would like. The environmental input (being in the store) leads you to buy and eat six doughnuts. After realizing you don’t have free will, you decide to avoid bakeries altogether.
More generally, you realize that whatever decisions you make now (e.g., where to go after work) will also affect your future decisions (e.g., how many doughnuts to eat), and hence the knowledge that you don’t have free will has caused you to make decisions that change your life for the better.
But how can you improve your decision-making if the fact that you’re thinking of making a different decision is itself something you have no control over? You couldn’t even control whether you came across the idea of not having free will in the first place.
This is why I’ve concluded that Harris’s stance makes no sense.
Maybe he doesn’t want to acknowledge that fatalism is the only logical conclusion because he thinks fatalism leads to feeling passive and depressed.
However, I think you can be fatalistic without acting like it. You can just say, “Yes my beliefs are inherently fatalistic, but that’s no reason to give up on changing my life”?
Some might say “If you act like you don’t believe in fatalism, you’re obviously not fatalistic—so you clearly don’t believe in your own argument.”
This brings me to an important question: Can you truly believe something while acting as if it’s false? The jury is still out, but I’m going to continue acting as if you can.