Why did I decide to write this blog post? I am not quite sure, precisely. I could say it’s because I’ve read Sam Harris’ book “Free Will” or because I’ve had somewhat recent encounters with people who hold steadfast to the belief that we have free will. However, truthfully, I have no idea why I actually decided to write this. I cannot know this. It came from a part of my brain which I cannot access.
It seems that the default position is to believe in free will. I did until I read Harris’ book. I am sure most people believe in free will. However, there was one scientific study that pushed me away from believing in free will. Apparently, via fMRI machines, subjects are told to raise either their left or right hand, and seconds or milliseconds before they actually raise it, the desire to raise the selected hand is spotted in the subject’s brain. The scientists know which hand the subject will choose before the subject does.
I told this to someone recently (an atheist, so their views weren’t clouded by religion), and he stated something that I didn’t expect. He said that the unconscious part of our mind is a part of us, and therefore, we still retain free will. I didn’t expect this argument, and I hadn’t finished Harris’ book by that point, so I didn’t really know what to say.
However, Harris does deal with this counterargument. Your unconscious brain is not “you” in any sense that we can conceive because your unconscious mind is also doing things like creating red blood cells and making sure your heart beats. We are not in control of these things, in the same way we are not in control of our subconscious thoughts. I could suddenly say, “Putting spaghetti on my head feels strange,” and I’d have no way of accounting for why I didn’t say, “Putting puppies on my head feels strange.”
So why do we do what we do? It’s simply a highly complex amalgamation of our life history, our DNA and our current circumstances. Think about anything you do. Why did you do it?
For example, I drank two espressos today. Why did I do that? Because I’m addicted to coffee.Why am I addicted to coffee? Because it keeps me awake. Why didn’t I drink tea? My experience with tea is that it doesn’t have the same kick as coffee. Why does it give me a kick? Something in human DNA causes me to react in this way to caffeine.
The details of every decision can be explained in every detail ad nauseum. There is no mystical “me” that fits into this equation.
Just because it feels like we are making decisions, doesn’t mean it’s not an illusion.
I am not an expert on this subject, for sure. I am quite a tyro, in fact.
As Michael Shermer states, “Sam Harris has the unique ability to translate difficult subjects into really crystal clear writing”
So, for a better, more in depth understanding of what I’m talking about, check out this speech by Sam Harris: