Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Sam Harris on The Illusion of Free Will: Lecture at Caltech

The idea that we do not have our own free will is a notion that runs so deeply and disturbingly counter-intuitive to the way we tend to think of ourselves that it seems completely absurd... I mean, I choose to do something and then I do it, right? It seems like a no-brainer.

But in his new book titled, Free Will, and in this lecture, Sam Harris describes how that is most likely an illusion. From what I gather from his lecture, the genes that were passed down from your parents that make up your body, the millions of neurons in your brain, and the sum total of your experiences and influences all work together to create a picture of yourself that feels very much like "I" or "me". But since this "I" is not separate from the brain and its individual chemistry thanks to its genes, this "I" will act exactly how its individual brain is wired to act and shaped to act through experiences.

If that sounds like complete nonsense, watch the lecture and Sam Harris describes it much more eloquently. The lecture itself runs about 55 minutes and the Q&A afterwards runs about 20 minutes.

1 comment:

Ron Krumpos said...

Sam Harris does feel that free will is mostly an illusion. I believe we can make choices, but seldom freely. In my (free) ebook on comparative mysticism, "the greatest achievement in life," is a chapter called "Outside the box." Here are three paragraphs from it:

What if you had to make all your decisions about living while detained in a jail cell? The cells may be open for brief periods each day, but the prisoners are still surrounded by walls. There are also walls around cells of everyday life. We are restricted by our ability to control our emotions, mind and body. Even with full command of our “self,” we must live within the restraints of Nature and society. Freedom is relative.

“Free will” is really quite limited, despite belief that we control ourselves and our lives. We think we have endless choices...until we try to make them. Each decision must not only be based on what we “want to do,” but also on our own capabilities and what is expected of us. Nature and society imprison us, whether we like it or not. The key to release is mystical realization. All in One and One in All, the divine unity, opens the gate between a universal consciousness and most people’s constrained awareness.

Outer walls are the boxes of Nature and of society. Inclement weather, lack of sunlight, gravity, and/or other natural phenomena may restrain our movements. Our own natural aptitudes, practiced talents and learned skills are always lacking in some areas. Human nature is controlled mostly by society. What we believe that other people expect of us greatly influences how we feel, think and act. Considering the reactions of our family, friends, business associates, community, and/or nation determines much of what we do. Those “laws” of Nature and society govern our lives, usually more so than we wish. Mystical awareness can allow us to obey divine law here and now.

Sam Harris has written positively on mysticism and said “I see nothing irrational about seeking the states of mind that lie at the core of many religions. Compassion, awe, devotion and feelings of oneness are surely among the most valuable experiences a person can have.” Harris' personal background reflects his own search toward that goal.