[~2,100 words, reading time: ~10 minutes]
Many scientifically-minded people claim that mankind does not have free will. Instead, they say that all of our choices are determined by physical laws, and our perception of free will is an illusion. I hope to show that this claim is either false, or if it’s true then we can’t know it, because it is self-refuting.
In his bestselling book, Free Will, atheist neuroscientist Sam Harris boldly proclaims that our perception of free will is an illusion. He begins by telling the story of a heinous series of murders committed by two psychopaths. Dr. Harris then explains that if he had the same genes, upbringing, environment, and brains as these men, he would have also committed the same crimes. He says:
As sickening as I find their behavior, I have to admit that if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him: There is no extra part of me that could decide to see the world differently or to resist the impulse to victimize other people. Free Will (p. 4)
This is a compelling argument. It reminds me of Star Trek’s transporter: a person’s atoms are beamed across vast distances, and when they rematerialize, they are still the same person as before. If my atoms were converted into the atoms of another person, I’d be that person.
Beg Your Question?
A problem with using this story as an argument for determinism is that it begs the question. It assumes determinism: that given the same person, atoms, and point in time, we will always make the same choice. Free will says we could choose differently, even given all the same preconditions. Also, it’s not a scientific argument, though it is made by a scientist. It cannot be tested nor falsified. It is simply impossible to go back in time, become someone else’s atoms, and see what would happen. Therefore, it fails the scientist’s own criteria for determining whether a claim is true.
Dr. Harris concludes Free Will with this thought:
The moment we pay attention, it is possible to see that free will is nowhere to be found, and our experience is perfectly compatible with this truth. Thoughts and intentions simply arise in the mind. What else could they do? The truth about us is stranger than many suppose: The illusion of free will is itself an illusion. Free Will (p. 64)
First, I do believe that thoughts arise in our minds without our control. Sometimes I have thoughts I’d be embarrassed to share, other thoughts I’m proud of, and most other thoughts are unremarkable. The key experience we have is that we can decide what to do with our thoughts.
If the thought is a lie (you can’t do it), we can choose to remember the truth (yes, you can). I go so far as to say that our raw thoughts are not who we are. Instead, the thoughts we choose become our identity. The Bible talks a lot about renewing our minds (Romans 12:2), or taking thoughts captive (1 Cor 10:5). I’ve experienced the reality that thoughts can be captured and redirected from negative to positive. Sometimes it’s difficult, but it’s definitely doable. We know we have that freedom when we choose to use it.
You may be experiencing this now: you’re reading, considering my thoughts, having thoughts of your own, and then something else, your will, is deciding whether or not you understand, agree, or care. I think this distinction between our thoughts and our “self,” our choosing, deciding, intentional, willful self, is the key difference.
Look back over the past year to a decision you now believe was a mistake. (20-20 hindsight, anyone?) Do you believe that you could have chosen differently? Most people I ask say: “yes.” Is that sense an illusion? Well, as in Dr. Harris’ psychopath story above, we can’t go back in time and test this hypothesis scientifically. However, I find lived experience to be compelling evidence. When I think back to a foolish purchase, for example, I remember a voice of wisdom inside that I chose to ignore.
Dr. Harris is right when he says on page 61 that, in many ways, people who make good choices that lead to great outcomes are “lucky” (I’d say blessed instead). They may have been born into a wealthy, free country to great parents who were generous and kind. They and their family may enjoy good health. They may not have a predisposition to alcoholism or gambling that makes them vulnerable. Any number of environmental factors may limit our available choices, just like a blind person can’t just choose to see. However, none of these constraints invalidate the truth that most healthy people have the ability to evaluate options and make decisions using what we call free will.
Thinking Fast & Slow
My friend Luke Stokes recommended another book to consider: Thinking Fast and Slow by Nobel laureate and psychologist Daniel Kahneman. In a compelling parade of psychological studies, Dr. Kahneman shows the many ways people can be biased, led astray, confused, and inspired to accept false ideas. TF&S is sometimes used to show that our perception of free will is illusory.
Time and again, Dr. Kahneman and his colleagues were able to manipulate people’s thinking in predictable ways. For example, studies showed that people can be “primed” by presenting them with certain words that impact their behavior in ways the subjects did not expect.
For one group of students, half the scrambled sentences contained words associated with the elderly, such as Florida, forgetful, bald, gray, or wrinkle. When they had completed that task, the young participants were sent out to do another experiment in an office down the hall. That short walk was what the experiment was about. The researchers unobtrusively measured the time it took people to get from one end of the corridor to the other. As Bargh had predicted, the young people who had fashioned a sentence from words with an elderly theme walked down the hallway significantly more slowly than the others. TF&S, (Kindle Locations 837-842)
Kahneman’s book is a great compilation of ways that we can be deceived and not know it. While reading TF&S I regularly felt humbled and challenged, and questioned my own ability to reason. Rightly so: I definitely believe I need constant refinement and improvement, and I have the same potential to be unaware of my biases as anyone else.
I have no credentials with which to formally criticize a scholar of Kahneman’s caliber. However, I must question the broad conclusions he draws from his studies. Consider these claims:
You cannot know this from conscious experience, of course, but you must accept the alien idea that your actions and your emotions can be primed by events of which you are not even aware. TF&S (Kindle Locations 834-835)
We now know that the effects of priming can reach into every corner of our lives. TF&S (Kindle Locations 876-877)
The idea you should focus on, however, is that disbelief is not an option. The results are not made up, nor are they statistical flukes. You have no choice but to accept that the major conclusions of these studies are true. More important, you must accept that they are true about you. TF&S (Kindle Locations 908-910)
These claims are all quite bold, and they resonate with us. If I describe a delicious smoothie with peanut butter, chocolate, bananas, and blueberries and you buy a smoothie after reading this article, are you, for that reason, not free? Kahneman doesn’t necessarily go that far, but his whole book essentially “primes” the reader to lose confidence in his ability to make reasonable, free decisions at all.
It’s not that Kahneman’s studies aren’t valid; they certainly show many examples of people under the influence of unconscious biases. The question is: what do these studies prove? Do they prove people have no free will? If so, how can the scientists themselves even study? Would they not likewise be so biased that they could draw no reasonable conclusions, refuting their own ability to make claims? Or, is it just that we can be influenced, maybe even programmed, and we must choose to become be careful and aware of how susceptible we are to the input all around us?
We experience ourselves as individuals with free will. You know that you decided to keep reading this and that you could bail out at any time (thanks for staying!). You may be hungry, and you know you can decide to eat now or wait, what to eat, and how to pay for your meal. In countless ways, we experience the world as free agents.
Can I be influenced? Absolutely! Can I be deceived and make decisions from bad information? No doubt. Can pain in my past make me resistant to taking reasonable risks in the future? Sure. I even think that our consciences can be “seared as with a hot iron” so that after a pattern or habit of bad choices we can be so stuck in our ways that change is nearly impossible, apart from a major intervention. None of these limitations remove the real experience, however limited, of freedom, responsibility, and ultimately, of personal identity.
Free To Deny Freedom?
This leads me to why I believe that determinism is self-refuting, or collapses in on itself. If we really have no free will, then we couldn’t actually prove it, because our very reasoning processes depend on our ability to freely choose between options.
When we evaluate whether something is true, we should go through a process of logical reasoning. In that process, we seek to understand competing options, evaluate each option in the most reasonable way we know, and based on our evaluation, we make a decision about what we believe is the best option. This process itself requires free will: the ability to consider options and make a choice based on whatever criteria we believe is best.
I created this flowchart to show what I mean. When deciding whether or not we have free will, we have to consider the options. (For this example, I’m simplifying this broad subject to “yes” or “no”; I realize there are many nuances.) We then evaluate each option in light of a reasonable process: we consider our empirical experience, we read competing theories, we talk with people, we think things through. We may even run it through our filter of values too: are we trying to be objective or just win an argument? Are we afraid of the outcome of one choice or another?
Following the evaluation of options, we are left with a decision: do I have free will? Now, if I do have free will, I actually have the capacity to choose the best option. I have within me the ability to evaluate in light of what I believe, perceive, and value. I then can decide: yes, I have free will.
However, if I don’t actually have free will, my ability to make a free choice in response to this question is an illusion. I think it’s even worse for determinists who follow a materialist evolutionary line of thought. If the way our minds work is just a byproduct of natural selection acting on random mutations, then the goal for which our minds were made was simply to survive and reproduce, not to be reasonable, rational, or logical. This is even more self-refuting, because our very idea of rationality would be an illusion, and minds with arguments suitable to survive and procreate would be selected, not minds with arguments that are actually true.
In light of these considerations, I claim that our experience of free will is real, even if constrained in ways we’ve discussed. In addition, even if determinism were true, we could not know it, because we would lack the very freedom required to prove its absence.
The question of whether we have free will has very important implications for ethics, morality, and even theological systems. In the end, the way we live our lives on a daily basis is shaped by how we answer the question of whether we have free will. I choose to live my life in light of my experience of reality: I am free, and am responsible to use that freedom to make the wisest, most positive choices possible.
How do you work out these age-old questions? Do they matter to you?