There is No Free Will: Sam Harris' Dangerous Idea

January 16, 2014

Free will as we know it is an illusion. It is an engine that produces myriad moral illusions, which cost us personally and our society collectively.

We know that no one has made himself. You didn’t make your own genes, you didn’t pick your parents, you didn’t pick your environment. There is nothing about your environment or your brain that you are the author of, and yet the moment-to-moment states of your brain will produce every subsequent thought and action that becomes the stuff which you experience.

When we look at a murderer who commits a heinous crime, it’s only because we don’t fully understand the neurobiology of human behavior, thought and emotion that we can say he is responsible for his crime in [such a] deep sense that it merits vengeance on our part. When we look more closely, we see that he could not possibly have been the downstream cause of all of the micro-events in his brain that produced his crime.

We can see this rather effortlessly when we find a murderer who has a brain tumor in the right spot to produce, say, a failure to regulate emotion or impulse control. Upon discovering the tumor, we say “oh well, then he’s just a victim of bad biology—he’s not actually culpable for his crime.” But the reality is that genes and biochemistry and the micro-details of changing brain states provide the exact same exculpatory logic as a tumor.

There’s no difference between gene transcription and a tumor from the perspective of authorship of actions. This is a dangerous idea to take seriously, because it strips away the moral indignation that is our default setting as primates who find the misbehaviors of other primates abhorrent. It would require that we treat misbehaving people, “moral monsters,” as monsters [in the same category as] grizzly bears and sharks and hurricanes. When a hurricane kills people, or when a grizzly bear kills people, we don’t expect them to have done otherwise—because they’re grizzly bears! Well, psychopaths are psychopaths, and irretrievably selfish people are irretrievably selfish. This has social and moral and legal implications, and I think it’s time we spoke honestly about it.

Sam Harris is a neuroscientist and the author of Lying and Free Will and The End of Faith. His most recent book is Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.