Despite the fact that Daniel Fincke and I once, a long time back, mutually challenged each other to debate it, I’ve been putting off this post, or any post on the subject, for some time. And I’ll tell you why:
Mainly, I’ve just realized, it’s because I’m afraid of it.
For someone like Sam Harris to say explicitly that free will is an illusion, or for Daniel Fincke, whom I respect, to assert the same thing, disturbs me greatly.
Because … no free will? That’s like saying “You’re not real, you’re not there, you’re not YOU.”
Or – at the very least – not as You and you think you are.
I don’t WANT to be not-Me.
But I already sort of figured it out, really. Because my own conception of free will is that it’s possible, but very, very difficult. And so, most people don’t have it, or don’t have much of it.
Except me, right? And you, of course.
All of us think we have it. The subjective little mindstorm in my own head seems very You-ish to me. But that’s probably the case with all of us, I guess.
In thinking about déjà vu years ago, that dramatic feeling of “I’ve been here before, doing this exact same thing” – with its corollary that we all have some sort of precognition, and this is the proof – I looked at the thing as a real-world pragmatist and tried to figure out what it might be if it wasn’t evidence of a spooky psychic power.
It was pretty easy to come up with an idea about what it might be:
Postulate that there’s this mechanism in your head, a sort of “Oh, hey, I recognize this!” mechanism. And postulate that, though it fires off properly most of the time, when you actually DO recognize something familiar in a slightly-emphatic way, it also sometimes fires off at odd moments, in a sort of tiny, tiny seizure-thingie, and for a few seconds you get déjà vu.
Years later, I read an article about it, and heard that brain scientists have concluded that that’s pretty much precisely what déjà vu is.
Anyway, that clued me in to the fact that my brain, the meat mainframe on which my You runs, is prone to mechanical errors. Which sort of underlines the fact that there IS a meat mainframe underneath all this You-ness, and that it operates in some real-world mechanical way, with neurons and molecules in place of gears and wires.
Which means, first, that my You is, in deep, profound ways, a sort of illusion. But also that IN ADDITION to the massive number of errors in my You-program itself (and oh man, have I had to live with an enormous amount of screwed-up-ness), I have to contend with the fact of a clunky, flawed mechanical platform on which that supposed You-program runs.
None of us wants to believe we’re not real. We’re prone to instantly reject the assertion that we’re nothing but meat robots, with nothing of choice about what we think, say and do.
A little aside here: I haven’t read Sam Harris’ book. Like I say, the subject scares me – I didn’t want to face a reverse-Pinocchio scenario where, thinking myself a real boy all my life, I’m forced to discover I’m nothing but a string puppet.
But I wanted to trek out into the subject on my own for a bit, to see what I come up with, before I compare notes with the experts.
The simplest argument for it is, “I’m me. I know I am. It’s obvious. And I do stuff all the time just because I want to.”
The objections to that viewpoint pretty much leap out at you.
In the Hitchhiker’s Guide series, there’s a creepy-funny scene late in the story where a couple of mouse researchers want to study main character Arthur Dent’s brain by removing and dissecting it. They offer him a replacement robotic brain, asserting that nobody would notice the difference.
Dent protests “I would notice!”
The mouse-scientist answers “No you wouldn’t. You’d be programmed not to.”
That literary scene was, to me, a scary answer to the supposedly obvious nature of You-ness. What if we aren’t actually real, but are only programmed to think we are?
But I was grappling with the subject from as far back as the age of 15 and arguing with nerd friends while losing games of chess in the high school cafeteria.
The simplest argument against the idea of free will was “Hey, you can’t just flap your arms and fly, man! Therefore you don’t have Free Will!”
There always seemed something wrong with that argument, though. My answer, which I was never erudite enough to get out during one of those arguments, is that “Hey, you can’t define it like that! If ‘free will’ means ‘able to flout physical laws at will,’ we might as well not even discuss it, because we obviously can’t do that.”
If it means anything at all, ‘free will’ has to mean something else. Because yes, that meat mainframe is under everything that goes on in our minds, and under that is the real physical world, with all sorts of evolutionary realities of human-species-ness along for the ride, all of which utterly limits the sorts of things our little software-y selves can think and do.
If free will means flouting the laws of physics, then it doesn’t exist.
But again … if we want to talk about it at all, if we want the phrase “free will” to mean something worth thinking and arguing about, it can’t mean that. For it to be a viable subject for thinking about, talking about, we have to define it in some other way.
To explain my earlier statement that I think most of us don’t have it, but that it’s possible for some of us, I’ll have to go back a ways and sort of sneak up on the subject.
So in Part 2 (which may be a few days in coming) I’ll talk about why I don’t think we have free will, and then in Part 3 (another few days) I’ll talk about why I think we might.