- Published on Monday, 20 June 2011 07:17
- Written by John Draper
- Hits: 3307
Sam Harris has come right out and said "free will does not exist". (Example here) He says that not only can science determine what is morally right but that one day it could be possible to predict exactly what anyone will do next. All you need to know is the complete history of the person plus maybe some info about his/her genes. This of course goes 180 degrees counter to the whole concept of sin and accountability. If you are just a product of your genes, your inputs and your history of experiences, then you can't be blamed for your actions. You certainly cannot be judged as a sinner. But I think all Sam's critics are forgetting that the idea of free will is a philosophical one. Few people are thinking science or action/reaction when they think of free will.
When we look at the physical world such as inert minerals and rocks, we are happy to describe them in terms of physical laws even though physical laws are really just something written down which explains what happens. Iron does not consciously oxidize to form rust. The law is just a way of explaining what happens. (If you want more you can go into the chemistry of the molecules). Do animals have free will? They "decide" whether to go hunting or sleep - does that mean they have free will? Or is it a consequence of their genes, inputs and experiences? Since they can't tell us, we don't know if they imagine they have a soul or not.
It seems to me that the starting point for our thoughts on this are that we "feel" we are a person, we are an individual "inside" our bodies. It feels like we are somehow separate to our bodies. Since most of our senses are in our heads, we readily accept that the brain is where our mind resides - we don't need much convincing that we don't think with our hearts. So we feel that we are making decisions independent of our inputs etc. For all practical purposes, it does not matter whether our decisions are truly independent or not. For the purpose of most actions we might take or discussions we might have, what we decide seems to be the result of independent thinking. Since we sometimes make choices that are not always consistent, the impression is maintained. I would say that for the purpose of law, morality and accountability, we can in fact treat other people as if they have free will. It really does not affect anything. But why are we so different to other animals or even rocks?
So I am not going to argue with Sam about whether we have free will or not (although I suspect he's right) but I don't think it matters. We think we do, and that's enough. It only gets important when you try to use science to analyse morality. It's a bit like the old saying about how the slightest event in the world can have major consequences - e.g. the flapping of a butterfly's wings in India may cause a storm in New York, given enough time. But it will be a long time before there is a way for science to follow the chain of cause and effect all the way along. Similarly, it will be a long time before science can prove that a particular action at one point in time will inevitably lead to another action years later. I am of the opinion that it will never be true - not because of free will, but because of randomness. Many actions (e.g. toss a coin) have a random result and only a large number of similar events have a predictable outcome. So it will never be true that the consequences of a single action will have a predictable result.
But the fear of this is obvious: with no free will, you can't blame someone for their actions. We know we can in fact decide to do something or not (or at least it feels like that) and for practical purposes and until science is significantly more advanced, we can act as if we have free will.
The other consequence of no free will, is that it denies the possibility of a god who judges us and/or manages morality. There can still be a creator, but free will is required before you can be accountable for breaking any rules. I think I have shown that Sam may be right but he can't really prove it (it just makes sense) so his argument can't be used to prove anything about a god. Too bad.