If you’re unfamiliar with the neuroscience behind the illusion of freewill, this TED talk, Sam Harris on “Free Will”, is a good listen. If you are familiar, then skip ahead until it gets interesting as he addresses other related issues.
He does a good job of addressing the idea of freewill, and points out enough compelling evidence that proves that free will is an illusion. Heck, if I didn’t know better, I’d think he had been reading my posts on freewill over the last decade. I confess I skipped ahead. About 30 minutes in, he mentions Dan Dennett’s belief that freewill is compatible with a completely deterministic universe (1) . For more on this, listen to this brief 6-minute interview Sam Harris on His Debate with Daniel Dennett on Free Will.
The nitty gritty
Everything we notice in life arises from underlying forces. Observing life from this standpoint is what I called a symptoms point-of-view. Scientists follow this in their quest to understand nature. Sam Harris does a decent objective job when discussing freewill, but loses that impartiality when he speaks on religion and spirituality in Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. This is excessively long and predictable, but skipping ahead here and there will give you the gist. Like Dan Dennett, his view becomes naively imbued with the ubiquitous instinct-based sense of implied freewill.
So, why would a neuroscientist who disproves freewill on one hand, exemplify the epitome of implied freewill when it come to religion? Need and fear, naturally! When those two turn on, we only see what we need to see. Clearly, when emotion starts driving the nervous system, a more rational and impartial symptom’s point-of-view is unavailable. Passion and impartiality are like oil and water.
I see the subtler implied sense of freewill as an emergent property of primal instinct and our ability to think. The sense of freewill is simply a symptom of how we instinctively feel. It isn’t rational. Dan Dennett needs to feel he has freewill, and devises a narrative that allows there to be freewill in a deterministic universe. The underlying need — the urge— to be in control of our circumstances is something all animals feel. Thinking animals (humans) end up believing that they are in control… the illusion of freewill. In addition, I see this arising from a deeper illusion… the illusion of self.
What I keenly realize now is how subtle and all-encompassing implied freewill is. It pervades the human psyche. It is fascinating how difficult it is to realize this; perhaps because it is all pervasive. For example, if the whole world were painted ‘blue’, how would you know it without there being some part of it not ‘blue’? Contrast plays a huge role in perception. Perhaps that is why passion is so blinding; it is utter singularity — all fire and no water.
In the beginning, there was the void
Seen simply, existence is the counterpoint to nothingness. Nothingness drives the ‘necessity’ for all that happens in nature. Some of the spooky qualities of quantum physics are easier to appreciate when viewed from this angle. From here, it is a small cognitive step to see that fear and need are merely emergent properties of nothingness and existence. This dynamic duo of need and fear give birth to action and inaction in living things.
Considering human nature as an emergent property of instinct helps avoid much of the ‘superiority biases’ that creep into thinking. Instinct is foundational in animal science, and we all acknowledge we’re animals, at least until our own biased ideals kick in. Seen simply, instinct plays two roles in life: attraction and aversion.
What are attraction and aversion really but other words for need in fear? Take migratory birds for instance. We say instinct drives these birds to fly south in winter. We could just as easily say they are ‘attracted’ to, or they ‘need’ to go south in winter. Does this view feel too general and vague? Truth is, precise definition is the cognitive way we divide and conquer conflicting narratives; it is how thinking animals rationalize their way out of inconsistencies and into hypocrisy. As chapter 18 puts it, When intelligence increases, there is great falseness, or as D.C Lau translated chapter 18, When cleverness emerges, There is great hypocrisy.
A confession — Mia Culpa
An issue I’ve always had with philosophers in general, and now Harris in particular, is that they don’t dig deep or look broadly enough. They leave are too many questions unanswered. Their intelligence blinds them. Then I realize, I may be giving the same impression. After all, I am also somewhat intelligent, right?
I should stipulate that what I write is the result of current observations, which are the result of previous questions, but certainly not the end of the questions. I keep probing because each answer leads to another question. It’s hard enough just to write clearly on current observations without introducing the myriad tangential questions that arise constantly in my own mind. This brings to mind chapter 56, Knower not speak; speaker not know. Oops 😉
(1) Dan Dennett’s belief that freewill is compatible with a completely deterministic universe arises from a cognitive compromise: He needs freewill to exist without the usual attendant need for a ‘higher power’ like God. This need stems from fearing the consequences of society without a belief in free will. He imagines that chaos and evil would get the upper hand. Ironically, that is what religious fundamentalists fear as well. The only difference is they feel a belief in God is essential. Dan, being an atheist, is just concocting a story of freewill without God.
They need not worry. There’s enough instinct-based implied freewill to drive us all to do what is necessary. Guilt, social consensus, and empathy also play into this. I just can’t abide the notion that humanity needs to live a lie to survive. We deal with life in a practical, straightforward way all the time. We’ve come around to solving problems with wild animals roaming the streets of town by relocating them to the countryside. We do the same with crooks and sociopathic individuals by relocating them to prison. The only difference is we ‘punish’ the crook because we believe he has freewill, and freely chose the path of ‘evil’. Without that illusion, we could be much more forgiving, yet still resolve the social problem by relocation, and if possible, rehabilitation.
At some point, I suppose we’ll come around to accept the fact that crooks and sociopaths are the unintended consequences of civilization. Our species did not evolve to live in such huge populations. The ensuing sense of disconnection drives us to align with one cultural story or another; this only insures endless bias and conflict. It is a messy affair, but that isn’t surprising for species that veers off what had been an evolutionarily balanced trail. However, I expect our species will eventually regain its natural balance. After all, necessity is the mother, and Mother Nature has a way of winning in the end. Yay!