Skip to main content
Fascinating Blog

What Sam Harris doesn’t know about free will could fill a book. Even his.

By July 6, 2015December 20th, 2015No Comments

I’m not surprised that Sam Harris has gone to the trouble of writing a whole new book in order to say exactly what he’s said before about free will, only longer.  Taking potshots at free will is one of the things the New Atheists do – like Shriners wearing little hats or PTAs holding pancake breakfasts.

But at least the PTAs pancakes are delicious.  They have thin slices of apples baked in.  The writings of the New Atheists, on the other hand, tend to be more fluff than substance.  That’s an odd thing to say about the writing of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, who after all are significant thinkers in their fields (Sam Harris, by contrast, is not).  There’s no denying that.

But … and this is the trick … religion and free will are not their fields.  Dawkins self-evidently refuses to stoop to understand the phenomenon he would conquer (as Terry Eagleton once made abundantly clear).  And Harris … well, look, getting a graduate degree in neuroscience doesn’t actually make you an expert on anything except neuroscience.  There are those who would say, at the top of their lungs, that everything is neuroscience – much as there are those in the field of computers who say everything is a computer and those in the field of mathematics who believe that good algorithms guarantee good dates.  Die hard Star Wars fans can make a Star Wars comparison out of anything, too.  Did you know the Galactic Senate parallels the United Nations in crucial respects?

But a familiarity with Star Wars is not the same thing as a familiarity with global politics, and studying neuroscience is not the same thing as studying free will, anymore than studying the circuitry of traffic lights explains traffic patterns.

Someone who has studied free will … whose field it is … is the University of Rochester psychology professor Richard Ryan, with whom I’ve conducted a number of interviews.

One of the leading scholars of motivation (what motivates people to do what they do), Ryan co-founded what is known as “Self-Determination” theory along with his colleague Edward Deci.  And to those who wonder whether human beings have free will, here’s what’s interesting (I can’t cite sources for this since it came out of conversations I had with Ryan):

We’ll never actually know, in an absolute sense, whether human beings have free will.  It’s impossible to test for.  What we can know, absolutely and scientifically, is that when you put people in situations in which they cannot make choices that are important to them for a prolonged period of time, their mental health deteriorates.

In other words, there is a paradox to the idea that we don’t have free will:  if we don’t have it, the ability to express it is still vital to our health as deterministic organisms.  Even if we don’t have it, we need to act as though we do in order to be healthy.

Interesting, isn’t it.

To me this is a strong indication (not “proof,” but a strong indication) that we do in fact have the capacity to make real choices.  The idea that a deterministic universe created biological organisms that have no agency in fact but are required to dance as though they do seems absurd.  What evolutionary purpose would this fulfill?  What benefit could there possible be for a deterministic entity to have a drive to pursue self-determination?  If anything, it seems an awful hindrance.

You may disagree, and Sam Harris may disagree.  But Ryan has done the research.  “Free Will” isn’t just an abstract philosophical concept:  it’s a vital component of a healthy life.  In that sense, at the very least, it has a concrete, and verifiable, reality.