A couple of days ago, I wrote a review of Sam Harris’s book Free Will. He believes that there is no such thing as free will, that we are all determined and therefore that the future is set. We are also not morally responsible for our actions, because we just had ‘bad luck’. You were born with the ‘wrong’ set of genes. Life’s a lottery and there is a fair chance that you will not win it.
Harris is known as what is called a hard determinist, which means that he believes there is absolutely no way there is free will and therefore we cannot be held responsible for our actions. I believe that Harris goes a bit extreme here. Also, his response on how we can still have moral virtue if we accept that there is no free will, leaves some gaps in my opinion.
I think we can all agree that we are determined in some way. The Libertarian view (not the political one) who believe that there is nothing that influences our will and that we are in complete control of it, is not rationally tenable. Where and when we are born for example highly influences your thought and behavior. You would be doing very different things if you were born in Greece in the Hellenistic age, then you are doing now. And that will be different from being born in Africa in the 21st century. Your intelligence also influences your view on the world. If you have a hard time grasping concepts, then this will influence your behavior. Your social group also highly influences you. If you are surrounded by criminals all your life, there is a higher chance that you’ll turn to crime as well.
I could go on, but the point is clear: we are determined. But does that mean that we have no free will? I don’t think so. While it is true as Harris claims, that we are determined by many factors in life, in doesn’t logically follow that free will doesn’t exist. You can compare it to chess. There are rules to what moves the pawns can do. A rock can only go horizontally and vertically, but you are free to move the rock wherever you want as long as it is within the boundaries of the rules. There are a lot of rules imposed in your life, an obvious example is gravity. You cannot just randomly start to fly. This determines you actions in some way, it limits them, but it doesn’t take away your free will. You still have a choice. This choice is what I would call free will.
But as a neuroscientist Harris studies the brain and where this ‘will’ comes from. Harris says that ‘certain states of consciousness seem to arise automatically, beyond the sphere of our intentions.’ This is obviously true. He gives the example of hearing a leaf blower outside of his house and not being able to not be aware of it. It seems that we have no control of it. He also makes a distinction to what comes conscious to us. Where do our conscious thoughts come from? This is highly mysterious because the objective answer would be our neurons. But what would the subjective answer be? Harris claims this comes from some sort of ‘void’. We don’t know why it happens. It just happens and are we responsible for the thoughts we just have?
Though we are not responsible for the thoughts we have to a certain degree (I might want to think about butterflies and recall a memory of them, so there is some control to having thoughts), we are responsible for acting on these thoughts. Though it is morally dubious to think about killing someone, this thinking can happen to anyone. It is acting upon those thoughts that is morally wrong.
It is thus that we must look at actions. Are we responsible for our actions? Again, a hard determinist like Harris would claim that we are not. But Harris also claims that we do still have choices. We just can’t choose what those choices will be. But here is still some freedom. You might have played Pokémon when you were young. In that game you have to choose from three starter Pokémon (small creatures locked up in artificially constructed balls, vegans would be mad). The three creatures are your only options, but you have the choice to choose one of the three. So, if there is a choice that is morally superior to another choice and you choose the morally inferior one, you can still be held responsible for the choice you make. If there is a choice, there is something as ‘free will’. If there is only one option, then there isn’t a choice and there is no free will. Note that choosing not to choose is also a choice. So, there is room for freedom in these cases.
In conclusion I would present myself as a compatibilist. It is the choice that we have that is important to me, not the fact that we are determined. The determination can be a reason why someone does something, but it can’t always be a justification to why someone does something. You always have a choice and we can make the right choice if we set our mind to it. It is something everyone has. If there is one thing that is determined, it’s that.