If you’re unfamiliar with the neuroscience behind the illusion of free will, YouTube [Sam Harris on Free Will]. He does a good job of addressing the idea of free will, and points out enough compelling evidence that proves that free will is an illusion. Next, please YouTube [Sam Harris on His Debate with Daniel Dennett on Free Will] and listen to this brief 6-minute interview where he mentions Dan Dennett’s belief that free will is compatible with a completely deterministic universe (1).
The nitty gritty
Everything we notice in life results from a long, extremely long, chain of underlying forces playing out via either internal genetics or external circumstances. Observing life from this standpoint is what I called a symptoms point-of-view. Scientists follow this observational path in their quest to understand nature. Sam Harris does a decent objective job of this when discussing free will, but loses that impartiality when he speaks on religion and spirituality. For this, YouTube [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 is ironically and naively imbued with the ubiquitous instinct-based sense of what I think of as implied free will.
So, why would a neuroscientist who disproves free will on one hand, exemplify the epitome of implied free will when it comes 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.
The subtler implied sense of free will is an emergent property of primal instinct and our ability to think. The sense of free will is simply a symptom of how we instinctively feel. It isn’t rational. Dan Dennett needs to feel he has free will, and devises a narrative that allows there to be free will 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, and so we harbor an illusion of free will. Moreover, this illusion emerges from an even deeper illusion… the “illusion of self”.
What I keenly realize now is how subtle and all-encompassing implied free will and the “illusion of self” are. 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 painted 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
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 (p.121) 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 we thinking animals rationalize our way out of inconsistencies and into hypocrisy… In this case, instinct drives the birds but not humans. We have free will. 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 — Mea Culpa
An issue I’ve always had with philosophers in general, and now Sam Harris in particular, is that they don’t dig deep or look broadly enough. They leave us 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 free will is compatible with a completely deterministic universe arises from a cognitive compromise: He needs free will to exist without attributing that power of choice to a higher power like God. His 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 free will without God.
They need not worry. There’s enough instinct-based implied free will to drive us all to do what is necessary. Guilt, social consensus, and empathy all 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 free will, 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, we’ll come around to accept the fact that crooks and sociopaths are the unintended and dare I say innocent consequences of civilization. Our species did not evolve to live in large and dense populations. The ensuing sense of disconnection drives us to align with cultural stories and/or into forms of aberrant behavior. This only insures endless bias and conflict. It is a messy affair, but that isn’t surprising for a 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!