Scary Questioning of Free Will — Part I

Glendale, California
Saturday, March 25, 2017

Oh Lovely Readers,

I reacted with immense sadness—lasting several days—after finishing Sam Harris’ book, Free Will. He makes an apparently seamless argument that we have none. For example, he writes:

Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have (p. 5).

I am unsure of the reasons for my strong emotional reaction. However, I have rebuttals. For now, I offer just three. I’m sufficiently agitated, even with the passage of some weeks, to offer other counter-arguments later. My writing reflects some of my own thoughts, and also some developed by contemporary philosophers of a romantic bent such as Thomas Nagel and others who agree with Harris, like Christof Koch.

First, as Harris skillfully delineates the many antecedents to our choices, rendering them not choices at all, he fails to consider the ironic fact that our understanding of these causes arises out of mind itself. In other words, our understanding of the neurophysiological, cultural, historical, or random causative factors of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors developed out of, well, human minds. Can you appreciate the irony? Our fellow human beings developed the scientific method establishing much of what is considered empirical truth. Our fellow humans identified neuronal functions and other precursors of our thoughts. The role of societal influences, historical contexts, and even the idea of randomness emerged from other human sources.

In the final analysis, then, accepting Harris’ conclusion that free will is an illusion rests upon ideas emerging from the human mind. This is known as the self-referential problem, an idea captured by Godel and others who propose that any complete map of reality would have to encompass the mapmakers creating the map. Douglas Hofstadter refers to this as a strange loop. No way exists to stop the loop from running around and around.

Second, and closely related, Harris and other so-called new atheists base their conclusions on scientific findings that may lack merit. For example, holes exist in science’s understanding of such well-accepted concepts as Darwinian evolution. Evolutionary theory lacks an empirical basis for several of its own foundations, including the creation of life itself. The idea we’ve been taught, like that organic life developed when lightening hit some archaic pond, has yet to be scientifically proven. Nagel writes,

Whatever one may think about the possibility of a designer, the prevailing doctrine—that the appearance of life from dead matter and its evolution through accidental mutation and natural selection to its present forms has involved nothing but the operation of a physical law—cannot be regarded as unassailable. It is an assumption governing the scientific project rather than a well-confirmed scientific hypothesis (p. 11).

Third and last, my reading of Koch, another heavy reductionist, makes me wonder what understanding of phenomena like free will, or consciousness, will do for us. Will it change my perception of my little backyard with its fountain, bird feeders, shrubs, trees or birds? Will it change the way it feels to be writing this second, or hearing the bird songs, or the sense of the light wind on my back? Absolutely not. In fact, I will be interested to read what these scholars figure out, and will be there, in the moment, reading their ideas and concepts.

I agree with the Buddhists and Taoists who think self an illusion. And yet I live the illusion. It feels like we are selves, doesn’t it? So what difference does it make if self-consciousness results from identifiable physical precursors? I kinda doubt it does anyway.

I have yet to read one of these strong determinists writing about Einstein’s basic equation, namely E=mc2. The formula equates the physical with the energetic. What about that? Further, contemporary physics has yet to solve the particle versus wave question. Doesn’t it suggest an incredible arrogance to conclude my experience of this moment, or your experience reading this second, can be reduced to physical precursors? Why can’t it be from waves? Or, as some argue, what if these basic understandings exceed our hominid brain’s cognitive capacities?

Actively engaged in exploring these questions, I remain assured by the foundational mystery behind concepts like free will or consciousness. I admire the efforts of these thinkers who seek answers to such fundamental questions. Closer scrutiny always reveals, however, an absence of certainty. Charles Darwin himself, the (apparent) discoverer of evolution, writes,

The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an agnostic (p. 135).

As do I.

Submitted immersed in the mystery of it all,



Darwin, C. (2013). The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin – Volume 1. New York: Tredition.

Harris, S. (2012). Free Will. New York: Free Press.

Hofstadter, D.R. (2007). I Am a Strange Loop. New York: Basic Books.

Koch, C. (2017). Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Nagel, E & Newman, J. (2001). Godel’s Proof. New York: NYU Press.

Nagel, T. (2012). Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. London: Oxford.

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