We have free will, Sam Harris

(hpd) Sam Harris writes about free will. Conclusion: our will is not free and it would be wrong not to face this fact. In his book "Free Will" he examines the implications of this fact and praises the demystification of the world.

The freedom we mean when we speak of free choice, freedom of expression or freedom of religion is freedom from external constraints. We don't want others to decide for or about us. However, when we speak of free will in the metaphysical sense, we mean freedom from causes. Then we mean that it is not the state in which our brain is at the time of the decision that determines our will, but something completely different. Such freedom is an illusion. This is not only the opinion of philosophers like Spinoza or Schopenhauer, but also the result of modern brain research. In his book Free Will Sam Harris investigates the implications of this fact.

The end of free will is just another step in the demystification of the world and of people. The religious image of man is the image of a magical being. Each of its defining features is a wondrous riddle that science gradually solves. We do not live as the purpose of the universe at its center. We don't come out of nowhere, we evolved just like any other species in nature. We do not have an immaterial soul that can survive our death. And our will is not mystically free.

Free will is considered to be the basis of our morality. So if science deprives us of free will - so fear - then it also deprives morality of the basis. Here the same figure of thought is emerging that we already know from the paternalistic "belief in faith". Yes, says the enlightened “believer”, who may have long since lost his faith himself: It may be that there is no God, but we should still do everything to ensure that people continue to believe in him! Likewise, and for the same reasons, we should strengthen belief in free will, even knowing that it is only an illusion.

Sam Harris argues against this need. On the contrary, the religious-metaphysical concept of free will has disastrous effects similar to those of religious belief in general: “Within a religious worldview, belief in free will supports the concept of sin - which evidently justifies not only the harshest punishments in this life, but also eternal punishments in the next. Yet ironically, one of the fears about the advancement of science is that a better understanding of ourselves could dehumanize us. "

Since he no longer believes in free will, Sam Harris has noticed positive effects on his own moral attitudes. His compassion grew stronger and he was more willing to forgive. He is also less likely to imagine the fruits of the fortunate coincidences in his life. Because the quasi-religious American myth of the self-made man stands or falls with free will. On closer inspection, it quickly becomes clear that none of those who “made it” have also created the diverse prerequisites for their success.

The illusion of free will gives rise to another illusion: we believe that the misfortune caused by humans is fundamentally different from the misfortune caused by natural disasters. Judith N. Shklar has in her book On Injustice (Faces of Injustice, 1990) described the phenomenon that we discover injustice in more and more misfortunes due to the increasing controllability of natural processes. Of course, the sea is not to blame for the consequences of the tsunami, but maybe the politicians who haven't invested enough in the early warning system ?! Nowadays nobody dies of hunger, but also of failure to provide assistance.

With the disappearance of free will, we can now observe the opposite phenomenon: where guilt disappears, injustice also disappears, and only unhappiness remains. An accident is meaningless, but injustice is meaningful.

It is now generally accepted that many sex criminals are more likely to be sick than angry. But this is no consolation for the victims and their families, on the contrary. You were attacked, injured, or murdered by something, not someone. The cry for vengeance, for justice, for reparation, not only goes unheard, it loses its meaning.

The lack of freedom of the perpetrator is reflected in the lack of freedom of moral reaction. Unless we are personally concerned, we may find pragmatic consequentialist views convincing. If, for example, punishment did not lead to a decrease in the risk of recidivism, or if sex offenders were deterred, then punishment would have no good consequences and would be wrong. But the closer the crime affects us personally, the more grotesque we find this pragmatism. Our sense of justice takes a severe blow when it cannot find anyone to send to Hell.

Creating meaning through blame is an important need. For millennia, people have blamed the gods for otherwise inexplicable catastrophes. But it wasn't until they stopped that they could begin to explore the world systematically. The results range from lightning rods to storm surge barriers. Solutions that are unthinkable as long as we believe that Zeus can throw the lightning bolts or that Poseidon can get very angry for no good reason. Why should it be any different in the case of the dangers posed by humans? As long as we misinterpret the causes, we cannot effectively prevent or avoid them. Whoever is under an illusion has no control.

But maybe we can learn to deal with this illusion of responsibility? The cry for vengeance becomes weaker when we learn, for example, that a brain tumor has destroyed the offender's empathy center. We now have a physiological explanation for his behavior. Above all, it is the ignorance of the causes of human behavior that drives us to revenge, according to Sam Harris. Because for every behavior there is an explanation at this level.

Does this make punishment senseless or even immoral? Barely. Because even without the magic of free will, incentives work, including negative ones such as threats or the execution of punishments. In any case, a plea for puppet status is unlikely to have any chance of success. Because every judge could answer it as a puppet. "You couldn't help but kill, and I can't help but judge you."

Harald Stücker