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Byron Shire
May 15, 2021

Helpless passengers in a mechanical universe

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David Lovejoy

I once spent a long time musing over the idea that European history would have taken a better course if St Augustine had not gained control of the Catholic church. His theology implicitly denied free will and in my opinion was the cause of the church achieving fifteen hundred years of political hegemony – at the cost of a moral confusion in its ranks that still continues.*

But now I am wondering if Augustine may have been right after all, although for the wrong reasons. Do we actually have free will?

Sam Harris is a neurologist by trade and a militant atheist by avocation. His new book, Free Will (Free Press, Simon & Schuster), argues that our sensation of having the choice to do this rather than that is an illusion.

Starting about thirty years ago, many experiments with increasingly sophisticated brain imaging machinery have demonstrated that a second or two before the intention of a deliberate act is formed in the mind, the physical circuitry of the brain is already busy on that act. In other words, what happens in consciousness is a rationalisation of what has already occurred in the body.

Philosophical havoc

This evidence from neuroscience has not had much of a run in popular culture – we are all still secure in our illusion – but it has played havoc in the field of philosophy. Traditionally free will is not an idea derived from logical principles, but from our own psychology. We experience that we have free will, in fact it seems insane to doubt it, although a few exceptional thinkers like Spinoza have done so.

However, with the rise of scientific materialism it became possible to see everything causally connected with everything else, and to believe that events were therefore determined. Determinism gradually embraced thought as well as action, so the existence of free will became somewhat problematic. In opposition to determinism runs the school of thought that there is something extra or magical in the physical equation – the soul perhaps – which gives us our freedom of choice.

It is easy to see that this explanation is closer to theology than science, and intellectually negligible. The fact that consciousness is physically based is incontrovertible, and has long been accepted as such. Nevertheless, until Sam Harris’s colleagues began messing about with their brain scanners it was possible to put the problem of determinism versus free will in the too-hard basket and leave it at that. This is no longer possible, so there’s a third school, the compatibilists, who attempt to reconcile our overpowering sense of free will with the equally overpowering evidence against it.

Without repeating all the arguments in the book, let’s assume Harris refutes compatibilism and proves his case that free will is a subjective experience which has no objective existence. What are the implications?


Well, for one thing although for our safety we would still lock violent criminals away, the punitive aspect of imprisonment would make no sense. The French saying, ‘To know everything is to forgive everything’, would seem to apply.

‘What does it mean to say that rapists and murderers commit their crimes of their own free will?’ writes Harris. ‘If this statement means anything, it must mean that they could have behaved differently – not on the basis of random influences over which they have no control, but because they, as conscious agents, were free to think and act in other ways. To say that they were free not to rape and murder is to say that they could have resisted the impulse to do so… with the universe, including their brains, in precisely the same state as it was in at the moment they committed their crimes. Assuming that violent criminals have such freedom, we reflexively blame them for their actions. But… the moment we catch sight of the stream of causes that precede their conscious decisions, reaching back into childhood and beyond, their culpability begins to disappear.’

It is belief in free will that gives us our commitment to retributive justice. It also gives us the religious notion of ‘sin’, with retribution stretched out into eternity. But if scientific knowledge threatens the existence of free will, how will we be able to judge between right and wrong, good and evil? Moral responsibility must exist for human society to be possible.

Harris argues that there is abundant consistency in the processes of our brains. Judgments of responsibility depend on this consistency, and where it fails we feel we are not in our right mind, and not responsible for our actions. In some cases we already recognise the effect of determinism: if a criminal is found to have a brain tumour, we normally see him as a victim of his own biology.

The tumour is a gross and visible case of a causality that is usually too subtle to tease out. However, when we take that causality into account, hating criminals (as opposed to, quite rationally, fearing them) seems, well, illogical.


Harris devotes a lot of space to the question of criminality in relation to free will, and with good reason. All the world’s judicial systems assume society would break down if free will were in doubt, and a scientist proposing to base justice on determinism has hard questions to answer. Not least is the practical effect on our consciences: when we feel free we are better people, and studies have shown that disbelief in free will increases aggression and reduces helpfulness.

I have briefly presented the book’s scientific argument, but the lag between brain activity and the thought based on that brain activity might not necessarily mean that we are helpless passengers in our body’s predetermined path through a mechanical universe.

Harris’s thesis is that the material state of the universe rather than the free will of its inhabitants determines what happens next at any moment. But given our ignorance of how micro (quantum) and macro (relativistic) physics match up, how can we be sure that the macro-level brain readings he cites prove his case? According to our best guess, time is a component of reality, not the medium in which reality takes place, so is the neurological lag really so significant? At the micro-level does time’s arrow still hold?

So if the potential loss of free will makes you uncomfortable (and it should) there are still abundant thickets of scientific uncertainty in which to hide. And yet… We have all surely had the dizzy feeling of regression, when the very nature of the will seems circular, as in Harris quoting Planck quoting Einstein quoting Schopenhauer: ‘Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.’


*The result of my musings was a semi-fictional account of the fourth century itinerant preacher Pelagius, the last of the true Christians. He had been written out of history by the victorious Augustinians and deserved to have his say. If this interests you, you can download the novel Heresy: the Life of Pelagius from most of the e-book retailers.


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  1. hi david
    -good article, very thought-provoking ……
    – harris asks the question slightly skewed though : the mind rationalising while the body is already acting doesn’t negate free will : the free will is not in the brain, but in the body ! – my personal opinion : there is some free will, but only very very very little of it………
    – and then you have to ask: free will of whom, or what? the ‘i’ my brain is experiencing ? or my gut-feelings ?
    or some deeper order we can’t even perceive ? – we can only think 3 dimensionally, which apparently is a pretty limited view of ‘reality’
    – the nice thing about science is: the more you learn, the more questions will arise……..
    and these bloody philosophers shouldn’t take themselves so bloody serious !

  2. Consciousness is innately free, and so, as individuated units of consciousness, so are we.
    Entrapment lies in misidentifying oneself as a body/mind and misidentifying reality as space/time/physical only.
    Freedom is the disintegration of one’s misidentifications. Then there’s nothing to argue about.


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