In a recent comment, a reader named K asked me to respond to this article: “Why You Probably Don’t Have Free Will,” by Jack Maden. Here is the article’s opening synopsis: “Neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris argues that free will is an illusion. In his view, we are the mere conscious witnesses of decisions that deep in our brains have already been made.”
In particular, K wanted a response to this statement by Sam Harris, as quoted in the article:
These findings are difficult to reconcile with the sense that we are the conscious authors of our actions. One fact now seems indisputable: some moments before you are aware of what you will do next—a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please—your brain has already determined what you will do. You then become conscious of this ‘decision’ and believe that you are in the process of making it.
Here is my brief response to this statement, edited from a reply to K that I posted here:
The basic error in this quote is the idea that we make decisions with our “brain,” meaning our thinking mind. The reality is that we make decisions in our “heart,” meaning our love/emotional self, and then our thinking mind confirms and supports the decision we have already made in our heart. That’s what’s really going on in the phenomenon that Sam Harris is describing.
However, Western intellectuals such as Harris generally can’t see or understand this because they are trained to think that human intellect is primary, when in reality love and emotion is primary, and intellect is secondary, following what love tells it to think and do. Their fundamental misunderstanding of how the human psyche works leads them into all sorts of errors, including the denial of human free will.
Ordinary people who make decisions every day understand human reality better that these so-called “rational” intellectuals.
The rest of this article is an edited and expanded version of a longer follow-up comment that I posted here, after reading the article itself.
Atheists and Calvinists
Harris is the atheist equivalent of a Calvinist predestinarian. He contorts himself into positions just as unnatural philosophically as Calvinists do theologically, all in an effort to say that there is no free will, but you’re still responsible for your actions and you should still make good choices, but then again, you’re really not responsible for your actions because it’s all predetermined—in Harris’s mind by genetics; in Calvinists’ minds by God. Here is the resulting philosophical gobbledygook from the linked article:
But it’s important not to mix determinism—the view that all events are completely determined by pre-existing causes—with fatalism, the view that we are powerless in the face of ‘destiny’.
Our choices matter. What we decide to do shapes the paths we take in life. The point is that we cannot decide what we will decide to do. As Harris summarizes:
You can change your life, and yourself, through effort and discipline—but you have whatever capacity for effort and discipline you have in this moment, and not a scintilla more (or less). You are either lucky in this department or you aren’t—and you cannot make your own luck.
Yes, according to both Harris and Calvinists we both do and don’t have the ability to change our life. We must make choices, and our choices do change the course of our life, but we aren’t really making choices at all because free will is an illusion, and the choices have already been made for us by our brain, or by God.
Harris may think he’s being scientific and rational, and that he has gone beyond the irrational and unscientific theists that he ridicules. But really, he is just rehashing the same old irrational, self-contradictory arguments that Calvinists have been making for almost five centuries now. These arguments make no more sense coming out of the mouth of an atheist than they do coming out of the mouth of a Calvinist.
Once again, ordinary folks who make choices every day are smarter about these things than “smart” people like Harris and Jack Maden, the author of the article, who tie themselves in hopeless self-contradictory Gordian knots on issues that are beyond their materialistic scope and ken.
Oh, and speaking of atheists who think they’re smart and everyone who believes in God is stupid, please see:
Current science no longer supports determinism
Harris’s view that there is no such thing as free will because everything is predetermined is not only part of the old Newtonian scientific paradigm, but leads to absurdities such as the idea that the Mona Lisa was predetermined and inevitable at the time of the Big Bang. On these subjects, please see:
Science itself no longer posits or even supports the sort of strict determinism that would be necessary for Harris’s rejection of free will to have a sound scientific basis.
Trivial vs. major decisions
The neuroscience experiments that Harris and the article cite are all about relatively trivial choices that don’t have much impact on a person’s life, such as whether to eat beef or lamb for supper tonight. The big, determinative choices in life are nowhere near so simple.
The big choices in our lives usually happen when we are under extreme weight and pressure of one sort or another, to the point that our life seems to be spinning out of control. The Christian term for this is “temptation.” Spiritual temptation is not about whether or not to eat one too many cookies. It’s about whether to give up in despair and allow our life to go to ruin, or whether to do the hard work of moving forward with integrity even when there seems to be no benefit in it to ourselves. These choices cannot be reduced to milliseconds of cortical activity before we become conscious of the choice we have made. These are decisions we agonize over, go back and forth about, backslide and then press ourselves forward again. No analysis of neural activity will throw any light on these big, life-changing choices that determine whether our life will go down to ruin or up to better things.
Our day-to-day decisions about what to eat and what to wear flow from the “ruling” or predominant love, and the subordinate loves, that we have put at the center of our soul, and surrounding it, through these big choices in life.
I do think we have free choice even in what we will eat for dinner tonight. I do not think these choices are just an illusion, no matter what neuroscience says about neural firings in the brain that seem to precede our choices. Correlation does not equal causation.
But as I said above in my initial short reaction to the Sam Harris quote, our conscious, thinking mind is not where we make our choices. Rather, we make them in our heart, and then they are communicated to our thinking mind. We are the ones who decide and have decided what our ruling love will be. We put that ruling love in place as the ruler of our life, and then proceed to make choices based on it, which our thinking mind then apprehends, supports, and carries out. The big choices have already been made before these little choices are made. And realistically, many of our little moment-to-moment choices are made on autopilot.
However, even when it comes to food, we decide upon a dietary plan of one sort or another, and then proceed to carry out that plan. Eating beef or lamb may be just one of the small choices made in our unconscious mind, not requiring much of our conscious thinking and effort, pursuant to the bigger choice we have made about our plan and guidelines for feeding ourselves.
The four basic loves
But our biggest choice in life is what sort of love we will put at the center of our life. And the basic choices of what to put there are:
- Love for God
- Love for our fellow human beings
- Love for material possessions and pleasures
All of these loves are good and healthy if we keep them in the proper order, as listed here. But if we put love for ourselves or love for material possessions and pleasures ahead of love for God and/or our fellow human beings, then our life will go on a downward trajectory spiritually—and probably materially also in the long run.
Whatever we place in the center of our soul as our “ruling love,” that’s what will determine the shape of our whole life: our heart, our thinking mind, and our actions. That is the biggest and most important choice we make in life. And no amount of neural firings can make that choice for us.
In the most important matters of spiritual life and death, we very much do have free will. Everything else is a lesser form of free will. Even if some of our day-to-day choices may be automatic and not matters of conscious choice and control, as Harris believes, the fundamental free will to determine the overall shape and direction of our life remains. That fundamental choice is where all the rest of our choices flow from.
Materialist vs. spiritual views of humanity
Beyond that, materialist viewpoints do tend to lead people to a denial of our free will, and of our humanity along with it. It leads people to believe that we are simply animals with bigger brains that make it possible for us to have a self-conscious awareness of our actions, unlike lower animals. Take away the spiritual realm, and it’s hard to argue against this view. (Though as I said above, current science simply doesn’t support the type of strict, Newtonian-style determinism that Harris apparently espouses.)
Once we recognize that humans are not purely material beings, and that there is a part of a human being that exists beyond the physical brain, Harris’s views become even more foolish and irrational. Not only do ordinary people know that intellectual big-shots like Harris are full of . . . manure, but once we add in the spiritual dimension, Harris’s views become hopelessly narrow and small-minded.
Once we recognize that our consciousness is not physical, located in the material brain, but is spiritual, located in our spiritual mind, then neuroscience, while still telling us interesting things about how the human physical body functions, ceases to give us sound conclusions about how human thought, emotion, love, ideas, decisions, and so on, work. From a spiritual point of view, none of our decisions are made in our physical brain. All of them are made in our spirit, and are then communicated to our brain, which proceeds to instruct our body to carry them out.
Unfortunately, most people these days are not very spiritual, and not very self-reflective. Many people make their “choices” by default, allowing themselves to be led along by their desires without consciously taking charge of those desires.
Our original fall from spiritual life
This goes back to a theme present in the opening chapters of the Bible. When God first made humans on earth, God told them:
Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth. (Genesis 1:28)
In the spiritual sense, having dominion over the rest of Creation means attending to our own thoughts and feelings, represented by fish, birds, and other animals, and directing them from our higher spiritual self, which is represented in the Bible story by “Adam,” which is a Hebrew word meaning “humankind.”
Unfortunately, we quickly failed to follow God’s directions on this point. In Genesis 3, Eve, then Adam, allowed their outward senses—represented by the serpent, and by Eve seeing the tree of knowledge of good and evil as “a delight to the eyes” (Genesis 3:6)—to direct their actions rather than having their actions directed by their inner spiritual self and their connection with God, represented by the tree of life, and by God walking with them in the garden. As a result, they fell into “slavery to sin,” as Jesus terms it much later in the New Testament (see John 8:34).
Our slavery is self-imposed
By definition, being a slave means not being free. In allowing ourselves to be led by our physical senses and desires, we do indeed abdicate our true, spiritual human free will, and become “slaves”—or Harris’s predetermined beings. If Harris is talking about materialists such as himself, of which there are many, then his arguments do have some merit. Such people have the human ability to be spiritually free, but they are not using it to best effect.
However, to people who have made the choice not to be led by outward, physical things, but by spiritual things and by God, Harris’s arguments are mere chaff that the wind drives away (see Psalm 1). The wheat of free will is in our spiritual self, not in our physical body and brain. But since Harris believes that our physical body and brain is the sum total of who we are, he easily falls into an irrational denial of the free will that we all experience every day.
So let Harris think that free will is an illusion. His spirit is still making choices about what he wants to believe, what he loves most, and how he wants to live. His spirit is still communicating those choices to his physical brain, which then marshals and orders his physical body to execute them.
What awaits Harris in the spiritual world?
Here’s where I’m supposed to breathe out dire threats that when Harris dies and stands before God’s judgment seat, God will judge him to eternal torture in hell because he rejected God and religion.
But that’s not at all what will happen.
When, much to their surprise, Harris and his fellow atheists find themselves very much alive in the spiritual world after their physical death, the angels who receive them will know just how spiritually foolish they have been. But those angels will still welcome them into the spiritual world, love them, answer all their bewildered questions, and care for all their needs.
In particular, when Harris finds himself in the spiritual world after his death, the angels who receive him will look for the good in his heart, hoping that it will be enough for him to recognize just how ignorant and foolish he has been on spiritual subjects, all the while thinking of himself as so much smarter than all those irrational and superstitious people who believe in God and heaven.
If, underneath all the bluster, he does have a good heart, then he, too, will accept the truth about God, spirit, and human free will that you and I have known in our heart all along.
Then Sam Harris will find his place in heaven, where he can continue to study, write, and speak on the subjects he is smart about.
For further reading: