Free will

My thoughts on Free Will by Sam Harris, cross-posted from Goodreads.

I had already enjoyed the 2012 talk and was a bit worried that a “book” this short couldn’t add much to it. It doesn’t, in fact, add much, but it was still worth my while to revisit the argument in a different medium.

The first of Harris’ arguments concerns experiments where the test subjects are asked to make a decision and record the time of the decision. Apparently, the decision can be predicted by brain activity before the test subject is aware of having made it, which Harris argues shows that our decisions are made for us by deeper processes. I know nothing about psychology or neurology, so I don’t know if the conclusion is sound, but I wish that Harris had spent a little more time exploring this. It makes no evolutionary sense for our consciousness to only act as a narrator for decisions already made, because it would be superfluous. What kinds of choices need to involve our consciousness? When the decision is made elsewhere, why does our consciousness pretends as if it were in charge? Is it possible, with self-control, to force certain decisions out of the dark, into the light of our conscious thought?

Second is the problem of regress. To quote:

My choices matter—and there are paths towards making wiser ones—but I cannot choose what I choose. And if it ever appears that I do—for instance, after going back between two options—I do not choose to choose what I choose. There is a regress here that always ends in darkness.

Or more succinctly:

We are not self-caused little gods.

I think this is compelling, but it is a little bit like the children’s game of “why why why.” Colloquially, we can account for why it snows without asking “why” all the way back to the origin of the universe. Perhaps a similar line can be drawn for inquiries into volition, that ends somewhere inside our heads?

Third, Harris says that self-introspection will reveal that the source of our thoughts and decisions are mysterious even to ourselves. Ever since I saw his talk I have tried to think about this, but cannot say I find it as obviously true as Harris does. I don’t know where my ideas and impulses come from, but if pressed I think I could attribute many of them to known external and internal sources, which are obviously not of my choosing, but still not mysterious. Some preferences, like tea or coffee, are mysterious, but it’s not mysterious why I prefer an ice tea over hot chocolate on a warm summer day.

Finally, Harris untangles free will from determinism. We don’t yet know for certain which kind of universe we inhabit, but there’s nothing about an indeterminate universe that would grant us free will. Conversely, compatibilism is the view that we can have free will even in a deterministic universe, even if Harris is rather dismissive of this. I should probably read Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting to get a fair treatment of the subject.

In the end, the notion of free will is rather like the notion of god—ill-defined and with no supporting evidence. For now, I have no choice but to withhold belief.