Free Will……………….March 26, 2012

Sam Harris, noted atheist and author, does not seem to think free will exists. He has described how our actions, our decisions, occur in our brains several seconds before they are acted upon. He asks where our thoughts originate. How does, and from where does, your next thought come from? Free will, he says, is an illusion.

I think free will exists. I think the evidence can be derived from our apparent dualism (Dualism in the sense that when you ask yourself a question, who are you talking to). Who are you talking to in your head when you talk to and ask questions of someone? ( Dualism also solves the question of who the religious are talking to when they think they are talking to a God.)  We have a subconscious mind, and a conscious mind. The subconscious mind operates continuously carrying out various needed orders for required functions of the body. I think it does more, autonomously, than just send out the necessary signals to carry out life maintenance. I think it runs like a computer on a specified program (Ever gone to sleep on a problem only to awaken and have the solution?), and that it is our subconscious that has no free will while our conscious minds have the capability of modifying the decisions generated by the unconscious. It is my assertion that our conscious minds have free will.

As a primitive animal the subconscious mind with it’s ability to react swiftly without conscious thought was needed for survival. Hesitation guaranteed that natural selection would eliminate you. Harris’ remarks that our brains fire up to 7 to 10 seconds before an action is taken is misinterpreted in my opinion, and instead, it is only the concept presenting itself from deep within the recesses of the subconscious brain. (Work has been done showing that the brain will fire in the area where it would if an action might take place, even when only watching someone else perform that same action. ) Perhaps such a concept can apply to the animal brain, as they most often carry out immediately everything that emerges. I assert that the conscious, sentient, self-aware mind of the human being does not immediately carry out each activity, but weighs whether or not the activity is appropriate.  

The human mind, a product of the sheer difference in size between our brains and those of the animal world, became capable of generating self-awareness, conscious thought. Hence the dualism, as the primitive brain continued to exist alongside the new.

Even today the human being is capable of being snapped into action quickly by the subconscious brain in times of threat.

I personally remember waking up after already having sat up in bed upon the sound of a wire connector being ripped out of the side of our house by an errant semi-driver striking a wire and pulling it along. My conscious mind did not “get up” until after the subconscious(unconscious) mind had already primed and activated the body to rise. There I was, sitting up in bed, and then having conscious awareness emerge. Vision started at the center and grew as a field from the center point, as you would imagine an old tube-type television coming on. This was a very important survival feature in the primitive past. Up and running before you knew you were up and running.

Even though the unconscious mind generates a constant stream of decisions it is my assertion that upon receiving the emerging thought the conscious mind has the ability to modify, or change completely, and therefore change the course of behavior in an act of free will. Indecision itself, to my way of thinking, invalidates the concept that free will is an illusion. Also, consider guilt. Why would people have regret, or guilt, if we were helpless automatons of our thoughts?

Another thought… gaining the conscious mind was an impediment to our continued survival as it delayed action with thoughts about whether the actions were in the best interests of the animal,  therefore it had to arrive after we became social animals and able to work together to guarantee survival. This socialization and the subsequent acquisition for the taste of meat (high energy source), may have been the facilitators of our large brain development, without which we would be in the same boat with the more primitive animal. 

I realize that a lot of non-believers will “slap me down” for this viewpoint… “Harris has credentials” “Who are you to question the great…”. To that I say, if millions of Christians can be wrong about the existence of their deity, which I truly agree that they are, then one man, can be wrong about free will, by my reasoning.  What could be Harris’ purpose? Why does he seem to desire that freewill be invalidated? Perhaps he thinks that the non-existence of free will invalidates God, or at least the offer of salvation, because it eliminates the possibility of choice.

If there is no free will, there is determinism. With everything from the past determining the future, the future is set in stone. There would be no free will to elicit changes. If God knows everything, everything is set in stone, nothing can change it. Omni-prescience supports determinism, supports… Calvinism. If free will exists, then nothing is set in stone and an omniscient God… can not exist. Free will does not open a door to a Christian God, but closes one.

In my opinion Sam Harris reaches his conclusions in the same way theologians reach theirs… by assuming the conclusion, and then trying to prove it correct. For some reason he feels that the existence of free will gives the religious an edge in proving the existence of God. Also he seems adverse to holding people responsible for their actions and instead holding their “programming”, genetic, or environmental factors responsible. Again, in the same way Christians surrender their responsibility to their God.

If we were truly puppets on strings at the mercy of every emerging thought there would be no civilization. Everyone has had thoughts emerge where vengeance on an enemy is imagined. Instead of proceeding to acquire chains and battle-axe, our conscious mind, in most cases, analyzes the pros and con and sits us back down, leaving us realizing such endeavors could only end in a negative detrimental fashion. Despite protestations to the contrary by Sam Harris and others who claim we are slaves to our destinies, our “programming”, I beg to differ. Some do follow these inane macabre thoughts emerging from the subconscious, but if we all did, imagine what a world we would all be living in. Only chaos would prevail.

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17 Responses to Free Will……………….March 26, 2012

  1. Hi there…hope all is well.

    Free will is logically incoherent with both a deterministic universe as well as an indeterministic universe. Dualism cannot help with this.

    The topic is of great philosophical importance and applies to blameworthiness, deservingness over others, ethics, the justice system, politics, psychology, and so on.


  2. drenn1077 says:

    Logically, I think there are too many reasons to think freewill exists, rather than dismissing it. I feel very strongly that freewill exists for humans and higher order animals, but not to those creatures which do not possess sentience. It is our awareness which makes free will possible in my opinion. Those things that cannot reason are no doubt as deterministic as a feather or leaf in the wind. I have never heard the concept of an indeterministic universe.

  3. I think we can reason as well. 🙂

  4. Really good post. I’m getting ready to post on mechanical atheism again, after reading a post about spirituality (another of S.Harris’ pets) and what it means. You might find it worth a conversation.

  5. drenn1077 says:

    Meanwhile, perhaps you can enlighten me as to what

      mechanical atheism

    consists of.

  6. I posted some thoughts and termed it mechanical atheism. It’s probably easier for you to read those than have me explain it all here again.

    And touched on it again here

  7. Ron Murphy says:

    The evidence against free will is clear in many cases. It’s most obvious in damaged brains, where tumours cause a change of behaviour, as one example with many variations. It can be demonstrated in ‘normal’ brains by priming experiments, where the subject is primed to perform an act, performs it, and then rationalises reasons for doing so – this is an example of someone thinking they have made a free willed choice when they have not. These and many more examples show we don’t have free will on those occasions even though we think we do, so the question stands, where is the evidence that we do have free will.

    The only thing that looks like evidence of free will is the introspective feeling that our minds are not physically embodied in our brains. We cannot detect the activity of the neurons that construct our thoughts. We cannot detect how a non-conscious idea forms and rises to the conscious so that it feels to the consciousness that it has just made a decision. We are not aware of all the subsystems in the brain doing their thing somewhat autonomously and independently. We are not aware of how these different systems interact, unless we observe a conflict.

    We do observe conflict sometimes – as when the prefrontal cortex plans to lose weight over a period of time but unconscious drives intervene to make us succumb to short term pleasures. In classical philosophy this has been modelled simplistically as the subconscious and the conscious, and in theology as the sinful self struggling with the virtuous self. But these are simplistic models that ignore much of the evidence from neuroscience that the brain is many different systems all contributing to the activity of the brain-body system as a whole and what we think is the conscious self is only the self-monitoring introspective program that can’t detect all the other stuff.

    When we say free will is an illusion this is the nature of the illusion, so that even physicalist like me that think free will is an illusion still have the illusion.

    We still succumb to optical illusions. We experience the illusion and can’t avoid it. But intellectually we can also recognise that it’s an illusion from other evidence, different perspectives.

    But with the mental illusion of free will we have only the one introspective perspective. It’s the same perspective experiencing the illusion that is also trying to see through it. Introspection is the wrong tool for figuring out if we have free will. Looking for the physical implementation of consciousness through the tool of introspection is like asking a blind man to see. The faculty isn’t there. The conscious brain cannot feel the cogs turning and say, “There! Those are the neurons making this decision as I think it.” Instead the conscious brain sees the decision and takes the credit.

    The only evidence about free will comes from the brain sciences, and that evidence suggests we don’t have it and there is no other evidence beyond introspection that suggests we do.

  8. drenn1077 says:

    The thought, the reaction, may start in the subconscious. Once it surfaces we are sometimes surprised by its presence (Where did that thought come from?), and are free to modify its content or dismiss it all together. Do not mistake thoughts surfacing from the subconscious for thoughts we will inevitably act upon, i.e. a lack of free will. It is our conscious minds that determine our final behavior, whether we act upon the errant thought, or not. We are a mixture of both the primitive and more advanced parts of the brain.

  9. Ron Murphy says:

    “and are free to modify its content or dismiss it all together”

    Where’s your evidence that this is the case rather than it being your introspective feeling that it is the case?

    “Do not mistake…”

    Do not mistake the introspective feeling you have made a free willed decisions for you actually making one.

    Our conscious minds are just one component in a complex brain. We do not have access through introspection to figure out where a decision was determined. Where is the switch that is thrown one way or the other when a decision appears to be made? Is it in the conscious brain? Is it in some part of the unconscious brain? Is it the neurons in your gut making you feel uneasy and driving you one way or the other (the gut of George Bush took us into Iraq)? Or is it external influences as with priming? Your notion of free will seems more like marbles cascading down a pin board where you attribute free will to the last layer. It’s not really a free will worth having, to use Dennett’s phrase.

  10. drenn1077 says:

    What you seem to be saying can be summed up in a nutshell. No one really knows if we have free will or not. Isn’t that the debate? Isn’t it somewhat like the argument about whether a god exists or not?
    What I am positing is that our subconscious does not have free will. It can be modified, yes, by repetitive reinforcement, but on what it contains at any moment it does not have volition to change or consider its responses to stimuli. In my opinion, the conscious mind gives us the option to decide which direction to take on suggested thoughts that surface(If it did not then I feel there would be quite a number of people dead now than there is, that have crossed my path). This is the difference between us and the animals that possess consciousnesses of lower order. People that do, rather than think, are usually the ones that end up in our prisons. They do not carefully think out the consequences that could result from taking the wrong direction. If they do think about the consequences they do not think they will ever have to suffer them as they have some egotistical makeup which enables them to preclude ever being caught.
    Environment does play a role. Poverty, the people you “run” with, there are many factors that work to produce the less savory character of a human being. People who are able to overcome this kind of past, even while still living in such an environment, upon rehabilitation, most likely did not have the “genetic” predisposition for a life of crime. Others, obviously, no matter where they are tend toward the darker side of life.
    If we do not have free will, and are unhappy with our present life, why try to change it if there is nothing that can be done? In fact, if there was no free will, would the thought that life could be different, ever enter into our thoughts?

  11. john zande says:

    Excellent post, Drenn! I tend to fall into the Dualistic camp as well, but that’s not to say there isn’t a very strong case for no free will. All actions are primed in advance. That seems to be conclusive and perhaps for the great majority of our existence the way it is: no free will. Against this tide, however, there are moments (flashes, perhaps) where we do exercise free will. A lot of one, very little of the other.

  12. drenn1077 says:

    Tests have been done which demonstrate that if a monkey watches another monkey execute an activity, the same brain areas in the observer monkey will show activity as if it had also taken that activity. Yes, brain areas light up in advance of taking action, but action is not always taken.

  13. john zande says:

    So, if i understand it, determinism is written, but nothing is necessarily pre-determined. Is this right?

  14. drenn1077 says:

    The word determinism makes it sound as if everything is solid, that there is no free will, therefore, no creativity. No…. I do not think determinism, that everything is determined, is valid, at least for animals such as ourselves with our unique level of consciousness. Yes, a particular person’s actions may be predictable to some extent, but as time flows, the error in the prediction would increase.
    And, no, I am not entirely sure what is meant by free will, as some people use the term.

  15. john zande says:

    I agree, the word “determinism” is too harsh. It’s an interesting subject but to be honest it does my head in. Nothing ever seems to be achieved deliberating things like subjective/objective truths, free will and whatnot.

  16. John, the fact that we’ve not made huge advances talking about them is exactly why we should be talking about them. My new series on Free Will is heading right at this subject shortly… it takes me a long time to write them though.. .sigh

  17. Pingback: Status, or Pecking Order … September 9, 2013 | Freethinker's corner

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