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.