Ideas have consequences. Even if your ideas about matters such as free will are implicit and subconscious, you still hold them. Which philosophical ideas you hold determine how you will approach your day—indeed, your entire life.
The dominant idea of our twenty-first century culture is that free will is a myth. Consider the words of philosopher and author Sam Harris, writing on his blog:
My workflow may sound a little unconventional, but my experience of writing this article fully illustrates my view of free will. Thoughts and intentions arise; other thoughts and intentions arise in opposition. I want to sit down to write, but then I want something else—to exercise, perhaps. Which impulse will win? For the moment, I’m still writing, and there is no way for me to know why—because at other times I’ll think, ‘This is useless. I’m going to the gym,’ and that thought will prove decisive. What finally causes the balance to swing? I cannot know subjectively—but I can be sure that electrochemical events in my brain decide the matter. I know that given the requisite stimulus (whether internal or external), I will leap up from my desk and suddenly find myself doing something else. As a matter of experience, therefore, I can take no credit for the fact that I got to the end of this paragraph. [Source: “Free Will and the Reality of Love,” samharris.org, 7/31/13]
The key phrase in this paragraph is: ‘I can be sure that electrochemical events in my brain decide the matter.’
Harris fails to mention his values. For example, he values exercising. He also values writing his article. He experiences conflict over which one to do first. Instead of prioritizing and making a list of what order makes most sense to pursue both these values, he leaves the ‘decision’ to impulse.
Instead of owning his decision to act on impulse rather than rational choice, he blames it on ‘electrochemical events’ in his brain.
I find this true of people who externalize all of their personal responsibility. Sam Harris externalizes it on his brain. In essence he says, ‘My brain made me do it.’ Others will externalize it on other people. ‘My family of origin made me do it.’ Or, ‘Society made me do it.’ It’s all externalization.
I’m not suggesting we control everything. But we do control what we control; and it’s important to own it. Most of all, it’s important to acknowledge our control over the activities of our own minds and consciousness. That’s the core of free will.
This is what Sam Harris and others like him refuse to acknowledge. He assumes his ‘impulses’ have no origins. He doesn’t treat his impulses as ideas, cognitions or beliefs. Instead, he treats them as random, meaningless and externally caused events.
Yet even Harris cannot escape the role of the cognitive—and by implication, choice—in matters of consciousness. Notice how he says, ‘Because at other times I’ll think, ‘This is useless. I’m going to the gym,’ and that thought will prove decisive.’
The clear implication of this comment? Thoughts and ideas drive actions, and even are decisive. But we are in control of our thoughts. Of course, some thoughts—even ones we know are irrational or questionable—will occur, at times, against our will. But we’re free to consider those thoughts, act on them or discard them based on more rational conclusions.
Hungry for some chocolate? You might have the impulse to eat chocolate against your will. But you’re free to weigh the pros and cons of eating that chocolate right now. Or you’re free to evade that effort. You can blame the electrochemicals in your brain all you wish. Those electrochemicals might have generated the desire for chocolate; but you’re the one who’s going to decide whether or not to eat it, in the end.
The error people like Harris make is to assume that automatic thoughts—because they occur against our will, as in compulsions or impulses—are outside of our capacity to manage. But ask anyone who has stopped a bad habit, or stopped a destructive abuse of a substance, or gambling, or some other habit. If those uninvited and unwelcome compulsions are all powerful, caused entirely by the circuitry of the brain, then how in the world did this person stop the behavior—even for a day or month, to say nothing of a lifetime?
Denying the reality of choice is like denying the reality of existence. Of course, philosophical subjectivists like Sam Harris do this all the time. They claim there is no reality, and that the mind is by definition, and by nature, cut off from reality. We’re all helpless against the forces of the outside.
It’s no wonder so many people feel profoundly anxious, lost or confused. Like I said, ideas have consequences. This includes the (false) idea that we have no ideas, no choices and therefore no free will. Thank you for that, Sam Harris and others.
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