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Do we have free will?

By Louis O'Neill - posted Monday, 5 November 2018

Do you feel you chose to click on this article? Or rather, did the firing of synapses in your brain force you to come here?

Well, Sam Harris would argue the latter.

Sam Harris is an author, atheist, neuroscientist, philosopher, and also what is known as an incompatibilist.


If the term incompatibilist isn't in your day-to-day vernacular, let me explain.

Firstly, to understand compatibilism we need to understand determinism.

Determinism is the belief that all actions are in fact shaped by prior events, and the events before those prior events, and so on until the very first moment of time.

You could imagine that we are all wind-up toys, and the Big Bang, (or whatever preceded it) was the hand which wound us, and put us on our course.

Now we've got that out of the way, an incompatibilist is someone who believes firstly in determinism, and who subsequently believes that the notion of free will among individuals is incompatible with determinism.

In simple terms, given the amount of factors which influenced us, influences which we had no control over, Sam would argue that we can't claim ownership of our own thoughts or actions.


Sam Harris, articulating a point without any choice to do otherwise.

Let me explain.

You didn't choose the year you were born. You didn't choose your parents, your gender, the color of your skin or the location you were born. Or to use a somewhat inverse example, if you are reading this, clearly you weren't born with a crippling intellectual disability.

These are all factors thrust upon us without our consent.

Very few people would deny that the above factors play a massive role in shaping who we are as individuals.

Though, that doesn't necessarily mean we don't get a choice in our actions, does it?

Well this is where Harris' beliefs lie. Sam Harris believes that it is precisely these factors which discredit the notion of free will. Sam would argue that we are mere puppets to both environmental and genetic factors, none of which we actually authored ourselves.

It's a difficult pill to swallow and even as I'm writing this I feel uneasy accepting the notion that I was essentially placed upon a conveyor belt, on a path I can't control.

Though upon reflection, I didn't choose to have an interest in writing. Heck, had I been born into a bigger build with better eyesight, perhaps I'd have been an athlete of some kind.

Harris uses analogies which seem to make the case more cleanly.

Harris provides the 1966 case of Charles Whitman, who murdered 17 people, including his own mother and wife. This man is surely the definition of monster.

Well, it gets more interesting.

In his own suicide note, Whitman asked for an autopsy. It was found he had brain tumor in the hypothalamus region of his brain.

Assuming that we could neatly place all blame for Whitman's actions upon the tumor, and the subsequent effects it may have had on his thoughts, it seems quite clear that his free will had been impeded at that moment. Does this mean what he did is somehow negated? Of course it doesn't. Any living relatives of those affected will be forever marred by his actions. Though is he just as culpable as if he hadn't had the tumor at all?

Many would argue, no, we must acknowledge the tumors ability to force him to act uncharacteristically.

Though what of us without brain tumors?

There are many day-to-day examples that can go unnoticed, but make the case similarly. For example when you are hungry, your free will is somewhat hijacked by thoughts of food. When you are dependent on some kind of drug, your free will is hijacked by addiction. What we don't realize, is that thoughts which we do not conjure up ourselves, commandeer our actions in every scenario in life.

To use a more accessible example, take mindful meditation. For those that have tried (and if you are like myself, you quickly gave up,) you will soon learn that it is easier said than done to abandon your internal monologue. No matter how hard you try to simply focus on your breathing, inevitably, thoughts will emerge.

Whether you have happy thoughts, anxious thoughts, or even psychopathic thoughts, all depends on the brain you were given from birth.

Upon hearing this however, many question the purpose of the judicial system. If we have no free will, how then can anyone be culpable for their actions?

Well, interestingly, Sam Harris says that we aren't.

Harris' claim is that the judicial system should be focused purely on what will yield the best future outcome.

For example, take two individuals, both of whom unleash a physical barrage upon an innocent bystander.

Take the first individual, let's call them individual A in this case. Imagine this individual is found to have bipolar disorder. The other individual, individual B, is what we might call a stock-standard human.

With individual A, imprisonment isn't the best recourse, as the mental condition of having bipolar won't change simply through being locked up. In this instance, the best action to take may be some form of medication.

With individual B, however, the best recourse may be in fact to lock them up, perhaps coupled with anger management therapy.

This may yield the significant effect on the person to place them on a course of rehabilitation, to ensure that negative future actions are mitigated.

It is not necessary to have free will to have a system of law and order, it is merely necessary to acknowledge that placing actions upon a human will likely change their course for the future. This viewpoint in fact re-iterates determinism.

Though there are counter-arguments, to the incompatibilist position. This position, as you'd expect, is called compatibilism.

The compatibilist argument has been most recently carried out by Harris and his fellow atheist brother-in-arms Daniel Dennett. Similarly to Harris, Dennett is also a philosopher and writer, who fought alongside Sam in the battle against theism and theocracy.

Dennett occupies the compatibilist position, which means that while he believes in determinism, he also believes the notion of free will can exist alongside a deterministic view of existence.

After the release of Harris' 2012 book simply entitled 'Free Will,' Dennett released a review, and critique of Harris' views on free will.

The pair exchanged verbal volleys to one another in an online discussion, in which Harris responded to Dennett's review in a piece entitled 'The Marionette's Lament.'

Daniel Dennett discussing his notion of Free Will

Upon hearing Dennett's views on the matter however, it seems to me he is sidestepping the argument. He seems to suggest that due to the fact we have the ability to anticipate potential scenario's that may occur in the future, and change our course accordingly, we have free will.

This doesn't negate Sam's arguments. We have brains capable of perceiving the future, just as we have brains capable of forgetting events of the past. We often don't choose to forget something, it is simply a glitch of the mind. Our perception of the future is still shaped by factors out of our control.

The other argument most commonly made against free will, stems from Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle.

Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle is summarised in the above article by The Guardian:

The uncertainty principle states that we cannot measure the position (x) and the momentum (p) of a particle with absolute precision. The more accurately we know one of these values, the less accurately we know the other.

The uncertainty principle is often mentioned when discussing free will, by ostensibly unraveling the theory of determinism, and therefore suggesting our actions are somewhat random.

However, having random or unpredictable behavior, again, doesn't give us free will. It simply gives us random behavior. If our decisions are made by the random toss of a coin, are they still our decisions?

While I still remain uncertain as to whether or not I am choosing to write this article, perhaps it's simply because I was born into an indecisive brain.

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This article was first published on Medium.

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About the Author

Louis O'Neill is a writer from Sydney having graduated from Macquarie University with a Bachelor of Writing focusing on issues of philosophy, morality, religion and social commentary.

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