Free Will part 1: The neuroscience answer

In an attempt to become more prolific on this blog, I’ve decided to pick a theme for each week and run with it. I’m going to start with a three day post sort of thing, so this shouldn’t be seen as an all-encompassing view on each theme. This week, I want to start by talking about the thorny subject of free will. Enjoy!


The below video is from Sam Harris, noted author, neuroscientist and New Atheist. I have not read any of Dr. Harris’ books but I think he hits the nail on the head when he talks about the illusion of free will from a cognitive science angle.

My thoughts are after the jump.

What I really love about Harris’ dissection of the notion of free will is how he pulls in the hidden cognitive and psychological factors that influence our decisions. He talks about how it can be measured that your brain will know, seconds before, what hand you are going to use before you consciously decide it. I also think he rightly characterizes the various forces that influence your actions (genes, society, history, economics, etc.) as the causes that dictate our actions. I think there is a lot of parallel here with the philosophical ground that I typically reside in (Continental/postmodern) which is highly doubtful of the notion of free will. We are all, to some degree, under the constraints of the various forces in our lives. In the P.M. school, this has been mostly expressed in relation to Foucault’s ideas of power structures, that create knowledge bases and discourses that we all live in. What Harris does is extrapolate this same critique into a more American and psychological direction. Take his coffee example.

He states that in the morning you need to make the decision to have coffee, that you can’t just sit and wait for it to happen (though, there are coffee machines that are almost to this point). If I were to apply his reasoning to myself, then I am only half making the decision to have coffee in the morning. While I may wake up and think I decide, “I’m going to have coffee” there are a host of external and internal sources. For instance, I like the smell of brewing coffee. Grinding the beans gives me satisfaction and pouring the hot water over the grounds into the french press makes me feel like I am doing something that takes skill.

This wouldn’t be the same if I brewed my coffee in a automatic drip coffee pot. In fact, I like it much less, and it’s not just because of the taste.

What Harris (and myself) is trying to get at, is that any action contains a host of factors that influence our decisions. Why do I prefer french press coffee over auto drip? Because it requires more time and feels more “artistic.” It lights up the parts of brain that get happy about doing something. Likewise, I assume that “real” coffee drinkers don’t buy Folger’s and throw a few scoops into a Mr. Coffee. So I have a social example that I want to live up to. Taste, satisfaction, culture, creative impulses, all these effect why I make coffee in the morning and the way I make them. Lastly, even my status as a American who can afford to brew coffee at home plays into this. I wouldn’t have this “free will” in another cultural context.

This might seem like a trite example, but it can be applied to anything. Of course, this doesn’t mean that there wasn’t some part of me that didn’t gravitate towards these reasons for my coffee brewing. You could put the same factors in front of another person and they’d be just fine with their Mr. Coffee and Folger’s. However, there are equally as pressing reasons for why they would not be as open to the world of french press. Once again, it might seem like a small example, but think about it in relation jobs one might hold, or a specific place you might want to live. They are all under the same pressure from forces that “limit” our freedom to choose these things.

What do you all think? Are you convinced by Harris’ argument?


One thought on “Free Will part 1: The neuroscience answer

  1. If there is some element that is not predetermined, what is the purpose of science? Chance is more than a description of unknown properties, and chance actually has properties, than the scientific method is worthless, and scientific experimentation is unreliable. Chance has to be nothing more than the unknown, or nothing is possible to exist.

    The fact that anything exists is proof that God is (grammar intentional for emphasis).

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