Sam Harris’ book, Free Will argues that free will is an illusion. If he’s right, this has some interesting consequences, many of which I’m still thinking about, but I’d like to share some of the results this line of thinking has caused.
If everyone’s free will is an illusion and all of our actions and thoughts are the results of genetics, circumstances, and chance, then certain things stop making sense. Regret, for example, becomes silly. If free will is an illusion, then every choice you made was in fact the only choice you could have made given who you are. You could not have possibly done anything else because to do so would require a change in your genetics, experience, or chance. So there is nothing to regret. Ever. You can still feel bad for things you’ve done that you feel bad about, but really you could not have done anything differently and still be you.
This thought alone could save some people years of misery. How many times have you thought ‘If only I’d done that instead…’? If we accept Harris’ argument, then we could never have done anything other than what we did. Of course we can still learn from our mistakes and misdeeds, but we can stop beating ourselves up over the fact that we made this mistakes in the first place.
The next thing I noticed was that one of the central motivations in my life was quite suddenly irrelevant. In a world without free will, how can you possibly justify vengeance? It would be like that scene in the Life Aquatic when Bill Murray says he’s going to kill the shark that killed his partner to get revenge. If there’s no free will, then a person who has wronged you has just as much responsibility as a shark. Of course this doesn’t mean that we should let everyone in prison go free and that they are absolved of all guilt. Much like the shark, there are people who are genuinely dangerous and need to be locked up. Outside circumstances like laws and sentencing still change the behavior of people even if there’s no free will. But things like the death penalty and getting revenge quickly become pointless, like hunting down the tornado that destroyed your house.
Perhaps the biggest change that this line of thinking creates is that it effectively eliminates hate. I’ll do a little paraphrasing and use an example like something in Harris’ book. Let’s say that a good friend of yours was murdered by a man who had a brain tumor in his frontal lobe that caused him to act out violently. The brain tumor doesn’t negate the tragedy of your friend’s death, but it’s difficult to hate the man who did it. If the man who killed your friend had surgery that removed the tumor, he would no doubt feel enormous remorse and never think to do anything like that again. You’d likely pity him. In a world where free will is an illusion, all murders become the result of genetics, circumstance, and chance. It’s hard to hate someone when but for those three things, you could be that someone. Again, I think it’s important to point out that though such lines of thought eliminate hate, it doesn’t negate the danger that a murderer or any other violent sort may represent.
The most interesting thing to me about all of this is that while it may make things like regret, vengeance, and hate irrelevant, it doesn’t do the same to positive thoughts and emotions. If we understand that free will is an illusion, then we start understanding people as more like weather patterns. Some are very nice. Some can be outright deadly. And this understanding gives us more empathy towards others, even towards the worst in our society.
So accepting that free will is an illusion eliminates some of humanity’s worst traits and preserves some of its best. And it does all of this without a ‘God’ or a set of belief systems that can’t be proven and don’t relate to our daily experience. It becomes a way of looking at life that gives you sympathy and understanding while not making you naïve. It creates a framework that, if anything makes me feel as though you’re more a part of the universe than apart from the universe.
I’ve read Sam Harris’ Free Will three times now. I expect I’ll read it some more and have more thoughts on this. When I do, I’ll post them here. In the meantime, I’d advise you check out Free Will. He does a much better job of explaining his argument than I’ve done here and it’s one of the most enlightening books I’ve ever read.
– Jack Cameron