Do People Have Free Will?

by oracleofreason

While browsing on Amazon the other day I came across a new book by atheist author Sam Harris entitled Free Will. The book’s description states that the facts tell us that free will is an illusion. I went to Harris’s website to get a better grasp of what he is talking about in which there are two essays posted there that give some indication as to what Sam Harris’ new book is all about.

In one essay Harris says:

In Free Will, I argue that people are mistaken in believing that they are free in the usual sense. I claim that this realization has consequences—good ones, for the most part—and for that reason we should not gloss over it by revising our definition of “free will” too quickly.

Without having the luxury of reading Free Will I decided to do some reading on the subject. I came across an article in a scientific magazine that also asserted free will was a myth. The study cites a study by U.C. San Francisco psychologist Benjamin Libet in which during the course of his research, Dr. Libet concluded that our subconscious minds were what called the shots in terms of our activities. Everything from what we will eat for breakfast to what we wear to work is already decided for us by our subconscious minds.

There was room for doubt, however. Despite a sixty percent accuracy with fMRI tests of people who participated in the tests, brain activity was detected ten seconds before patients decided on which course of action to take when instructed on what to do.

I don’t think this experiment disproves free will at all since the choices made by patients during the experiment has nothing to do with the fact that a choice has been made. Our brains help us to survive which includes the capacity to learn and make decisions. A Discovery Channel special I saw a few years back helps illuminate this point in that the program points out our brains help us to live and survive and that includes the capacity for us to learn and make decisions.

Since the subconscious mind is what is the central issue for this study I look at the subconscious mind as being a kind of file folder that stores important memories for us so if we ever want to recall how to do something or react to a situation based on information relayed by our senses. In turn, it feeds the information to our conscious mind so human beings can act. Like our minds, our will and our brains are inseperable and to treat them as two different things (which seems to be the conclusion of the scientists who participated in the U.C. San Francisco study) can degenerate into requiring us or leading us to believe in the mystical concept of an eternal soul.

If people have indeterminancy as part of their decision making process we have free will. The ability to choose or not does not mean people are helpless or have no choice if given a limited amount of options to choose from be it at the grocery store or during a brain experiment. To make it out to be otherwise is to assert that human beings are helpless in terms of the decisions we make and that simply is not the case.

None the less, despite this flaw in Sam Harris’ logic I still have a great amount of respect for him. I look forward to reading his new full length book Lying which looks like a treatise on asserting the morality of telling the truth.

Update 04/17: Hat tip to Dr. Leonard Peikoff for a great explanation on the issue of intuition (which is the result of a well honed subconscious mind) for one of his podcasts given in 2010.