It's Not Your Fault

Sam Harris
Sam Harris
Samuel B. Harris, born April 9, 1967, is an American author, philosopher, neuroscientist, and businessman. He is the co-founder and CEO of Project Reason. | Photo: Project Reason | Sam Harris, Author, Philosopher, Neuroscientist,


The murderer is to blame when they kill somebody. Of course. But what if the murderer actually had a tumor that completely destroyed their self-control? Maybe a little trickier: what if the murderer was beaten as a child and constantly told that killing people who didn't have the same morals was good? Free will; you have one ' don't you? Everybody does. Or at least feels they do. Recently two of the Four Horsemen of modern atheism, neuroscientist Sam Harris and philosophy professor Daniel Dennett, fought about it online with informative and hilarious results.

Harris wrote a small book about free will being an illusion. Dennett disagreed and wrote a very lengthy, dense, and at times convoluted (despite mentioning several times how important it is to be clear) review. Harris put it up on his blog, wrote a clever, cringe-worthy response, and posted that up.

I encourage you to read both, but Denett's review is definitely a pain to read. The short version: Dennett thinks we have free will but are still constrained by life. He thinks external influences affect who we are and thus our choices; for example if you grew up in Indiana with a few KKK holdouts as parents, can anyone really blame you for, at least in your younger years, being racist? But ultimately you have the ability to do otherwise. This idea ' compatibilism ' can go a lot of different ways, so let's stop here. Suffice to say, while life may give you moldy lemons, you still have the choice of what you're going to do with them, within the constraints of your life.

Harris goes further into incompatibilism. Life may give you moldy lemons, and then you may become optimistic and say "Hey ' I can cut off the moldy parts and still make some great lemonade!" But where did that optimism come from? That's what Harris asks over and over again, and in my view, what Dennett doesn't seem to understand. Actually he does, but he thinks it's irrelevant. Does it matter where you got the optimism?

This is what makes their argument so puzzling to me, because it seems the answer would be a very obvious yes. As a note, humans are obviously not fatalistic; that is, if you said "free will is a lie! So I'm gonna lay in my bed all day; screw it," your body wouldn't at one point get up on its own, drive to the store, and decide on a coffee instead of a tea. You'd stay there until you yourself chose to get up and get that coffee. So we need to actually choose, and do all the things that make us feel like we have free will. But when we get to that point, say, of choosing coffee over tea, why did we choose coffee? You could link it to any number of reasons: I had tea yesterday and I'm bored of it, I heard coffee has more caffeine and I want a strong kick, et cetera. But if you keep going further and continue asking "why?" like a kid in the backseat, you'll never reach a point where it's because of you.

Why do you like coffee in general, more than tea? Because you're a go-getter and it gives you more energy. Why are you a go-getter? Because you like the idea of making a great, not just good, life for yourself. Why do you like that idea? Because... Then it starts to fade. You can say it's because you naturally do, but, what does that mean? Naturally? If you naturally do, what that means is that you just had it. You didn't choose to have the feeling, you were just alive, doing whatever it is that you do, and one day you noticed that you like the feeling of being a go-getter. Naturally means you didn't choose it.

Maybe you think I'm oversimplifying. "Maybe I didn't naturally like the idea, but I wanted to like the idea because it's better to be a go-getter!" It's better? And where did the feeling of wanting it come from? Better because you get more money, more stuff, more of whatever your go-getting? This all may be true, but in the end what that's saying is a general fact of life, that a better life is better, and you can't really credit yourself for liking the idea that better is better. In regard to free will, liking something is the same as wanting to like something (or wanting to want to like something, or wanting to want to want...).

What Harris tries to point out in his book and in his response is something that's worth noting for everybody, not just philosophy nerds. He says if we don't have free will, some things in life don't make much sense ' but it doesn't mean chaos has to take over. Take our first example of the murderer (let's say he's a man). If he has a tumor that destroys his self-control, and we cut it out and show that he is no longer a harm to society, why put him in prison? He was clearly not in control when he committed murder. Why punish him or make him suffer, or even try to rehabilitate him (since he doesn't need it)? Why put him behind bars? And yet this is what most people would likely ask for anyway, even if they knew the truth. Vengeance. If the murderer didn't have free will when he killed, vengeance makes no sense. The tumor would effectively be a magic spell forcing him to find a victim.

Now apply this to everyone. We are all under a magic spell. We did not choose to like what we like, or choose to feel the way we do about things before we feel them ' and you can take that backward as long as you like. Maybe you chose to feel happy, rather than jealous, at your ex's marriage; but why did you choose to choose to feel happy? And why did you choose to choose to choose (and so on, ad infinitum)? If you say "I just did", the key word is "just". You just did. Why? Don't know. And that's the point. In the end, behind every choice is a Just.

So what ' empty the prisons, let killers roam free? Hardly. Harris explains that no free will means in the end we can't place a sort of ultimate, divine guilt on someone if they've done something wrong. But we can still place blame. And having no free will, in an interesting yet very real way ' and this is Harris's point ' is oddly like having it. If a murderer can't be ultimately guilty for killing, so in turn the moral person can't be guilty for being moral. It still makes sense to lock up people if they are a danger to society, or to be kind to your neighbors, or to be honest with your spouse, because doing those things obviously makes life better. Free will being a lie doesn't change the fact that living in a complete anarchy would be terrible, or that your spouse taking the day off to spend time with you wouldn't feel good. Not having free will doesn't mean that suddenly we have no pain, no fears, no hopes, no loves, no desires. Feelings are true by definition. If you have 'em, they're real. The acknowledgement that free will is an illusion just changes how we ought to go about getting what we want to feel.

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Updated Aug 12, 2017 12:04 PM EDT | More details


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