Philosophy 101: So You Think You Have Free Will?


“Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making.”

- Sam Harris


This article is the third in the 101 series where the main focus is centered around the hotly debated free will versus determinism. It follows on from the second in the series https://www.byarcadia.org/post/philosophy-101-is-the-physical-world-all-that-there-is that highlighted philosophical dilemmas such as physicalism and qualia, specifically looking at thought experiments. In this series, the emphasis is on the controversial idea that free will is simply an illusion. Ever since the neurologist, Benjamin Libet formed his 'Libet experiments' in the early 1980s, philosophers and scientists have been fascinated by the notion that every action humans make is pre-determined rendering free will a false concept. Sam Harris is one of many that brings this debate to the masses. He has written books on the subject and given lectures all around the world.



Sam Harris is a neurologist and philosopher. In 2012, Harris hosted a lecture at the Distinguished Science Lecture Series in California. The lecture was about the idea of free will, being an illusion. The philosopher asked the audience to think of any city in the world and hold it in mind. The audience was then asked to think about the experience of how the thought or thoughts of many possible cities first arrived into consciousness. Harris pointed out to the audience that in that moment, where there seems to be the freedom of choice being made, where one thinks that the city being chosen is out of complete freedom, is actually just an illusion. Harris believes that total freedom of thought cannot be true. There are physical states occurring in the brain that determine what one is going to think about. Even before one knows it. To help clarify the point, Harris says to imagine the many possible cities one has never heard of. In those incidents, freedom is obviously not on the table due to lack of knowledge. However, the audience was then asked to think about the cities that were known but did not come to mind.

For example, a city such as Cairo may not have been on everyone's radar, even though it is well known, to most if not all, that Cairo is indeed a city. Harris posited the idea that one had no more freedom choosing a city that of which was not chosen than one did of the city that was chosen. In other words, no one in the audience had the freedom of choice NOT to think of a city that was already known. That is not to say that someone did not think, I will choose Paris over Istanbul. Rather, that one did not choose to think of a city that was known but did not even register in the subconscious. Our every thought is based on determining factors. The fact that one thinks of a city like London then, in the next second changes it to Paris, gives rise to the notion of free will, however, in actual fact, argues Harris, one cannot explain why those thoughts randomly occur. One might have a story to attach to a particular city, for instance, if someone had French food for dinner before coming to the lecture. Harris explains that it is a well-known fact that in psychology, these kinds of stories are false. Humans tend to place heavy emphasis on emotion and reasons why they act or do not act. And when people are manipulated in the laboratory in such a manner, the feelings and emotions that one has nearly always does not align with the outcome of what is being tested.


Let’s talk about free will. (n.d.). [ILLUSTRATION]. Let’s Talk about Free Will. https://brewminate.com/lets-talk-free-will/




Another, perhaps childlike, way of looking at the notion of free will as an illusion is to imagine if it was suggested to a person to not think of a banana. The person hearing this would not have the freedom not to think of a banana. It is impossible. There have been several experiments taken place in laboratories (The Libet experiment devised by Benjamin Libet) where people have been wired to electroencephalograms (EEG) and all that is asked of the person is to either click the left or right button. What is fascinating about this is that the computer can, more often than not, predict the outcomes of a person's decisions seconds before it is even at the forefront of the participants' minds.

This has wide implications for how society treats people who commit heinous crimes. Or any type of crime for that matter. It is understandable that people will have strong views against the idea of free will being an illusion. One who has such vehement views may argue that this eradicates the idea of the responsibility of anyone who commits a crime. That potential offenders of crime could be let off the hook if the widely held mainstream view of free will is false and that the perpetrator of the crime is seen to be a victim of their own genetics and environmental factors. This view is as previously stated, completely understandable. When there is mass murder committed it goes without saying that there is anger and resentment towards those that have committed such crimes, however, understanding the idea of free will as an illusion, makes for more nuanced and balanced arguments about how to deal with such people. Unfortunately, it is incredibly unfortunate if one is born with such genes including the environment in which one is brought up in if psychopathic tendencies are apparent. It is unfortunate because it is not anyone's fault for what genes one inherits.


Know yourself before big tech owns your beliefs and directs your decisions: Op-ed. (n.d.). [Illustration]. Know Yourself before Big Tech Owns Your Beliefs and Directs Your Decisions: Op-Ed. https://sociable.co/technology/know-yourself-big-tech-owns-beliefs-decisions/


A good example of this is the serial killer, Ted Bundy. One of the most notorious killers in American history. The inclination to kill all those victims was simply too strong to deny. This does not mean, however, that Bundy should not be deemed responsible. Bundy was a highly manipulative predator and knew the actions committed were wrong. However, Bundy did not have complete control and needed to be taken out of society for the safety of others. However, nowadays, if a neurologist could prove to a court of law that parts of the perpetrator's brain were abnormal in the sense of lacking empathy or was in some way wired incorrectly, then this might be the difference between someone being given the electric chair and given a lifelong jail sentence. By dint of having a better understanding of why people act the way they do, does not mean that the responsibility of an individual is being diminished, it just means that society understands the mitigating circumstances more effectively. In steven Pinker's book, How the mind works, (1997) "We don't poke fun at the eagle for its clumsiness on the ground or fret that the eye is not very good at hearing because we know that a design can excel in one challenge only by compromising at others" - In other words, humans understand the strengths and weaknesses of an animal and therefore do not make a discriminatory judgment. Humans merely understand.


In conclusion, it is easy to lean towards the idea of free will as an illusion, but an illusion that is so powerful that it does not matter (in everyday life) whether it is or not. Though it may and perhaps should matter in cases such as law and order, as previously highlighted with the Bundy case. And though certain actions may actually be pre-determined, I feel that humans have the capacity to inhibit certain actions. In other words, people may have some free will in influencing behavior although perhaps humans do not have as much control as it may seem. The Libet experiments demonstrated that the conscious decisions of his participants did not cause the actions. There was brain activity recorded milliseconds prior to the conscious thought which then obviously led to the participants' actions. The laughable irony is, whether you believe in free will or not, that in itself is, maybe, a free choice.

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Peter Terrence

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