The debate around free will is one of the longest running in all philosophy, and has huge ramifications well beyond it. By and large, we live in societies created under the libertarian notion that human beings possess free will: the ability to make decisions that are free of causal and coercive influences. If I go to a bar and choose beer over wine, it was an act of free will since nothing stopped me from choosing wine instead; I don’t dislike wine (though I prefer beer), they cost pretty much the same, and both were readily available on the menu. Laissez-faire economics runs on the notion that we have free will in nearly every element of our lives, and the way to maximize individual freedom is to provide people with more choice, while removing the constraints that would limit those choices (namely the state). It’s hard not to feel some natural sympathy for this position. We all feel like we have free will. The very notion of being human and feeling human (as opposed to being an automaton) depends on this.
Unfortunately, the evidence in favor of this libertarian view of free will is scant. In contrast to libertarians, determinists believe that every single human action was entirely determined by prior causes and therefore is not truly free even when there is no coercive influence that prevents us from doing otherwise. So perhaps nothing stopped me from choosing wine, but was I entirely in control of my physical desire for beer? Not really. Perhaps I want to “prove” my free will by next time choosing wine but did I choose the thoughts in my head that made me want to behave like a contrarian? Did I choose my contrarian personality? Perhaps there is some degree of randomness in the neural activity or quantum mechanisms in my brain that led me to this and so my choice is not fully determined in a strict sense, but since I cannot control processes at the micro-level, are they even relevant? Either way I did not have the free will to pick wine over beer in the first instance, or beer over wine in the second.
In recent years, determinism has exploded in popularity, particularly since it has been embraced by numerous celebrity public intellectuals like Sam Harris (who wrote an essay length book in 2012, Free Will). Determinism is to pop philosophy similar to what Freakonomics was to pop economics a few years back: it’s a great way to start a dinner conversation and look like you’re the smartest person in the room. After all, most people who haven’t read extensively on both sides of the philosophical debate would be naturally prone to thinking that they have libertarian free will. Getting swayed to the determinist camp is easy when done by an eloquent and convincing interlocutor, which Harris certainly is, and when one doesn’t particularly have a stake in the outcome – if anything, determinism seemingly justifies all the bad things you’ve ever done since you couldn’t help yourself from doing them!
The problem is that Harris performs a number of intellectual sleights of hand that are common among determinists: reduce the debate to a single definition of free will, claim that the opposing arguments are so rubbish that they cannot be taken seriously, and avoid discussing those arguments that seriously threaten his point. That Harris chooses a 66-page pop philosophy book to do this rather than undertake his battle in rigorous, academic channels is telling of his unwillingness to face serious opposition from compatibilists: those who believe that free will and a deterministic universe can coexist. So let’s dwell deeper into this topic. Continue reading