Man is born free, and everywhere he is in shackles. ~ Rousseau
Can we decide who are parents are? No. Can we decide what we look like when we are born? No. Can we decide which country we are born into? No. Can we even decide what personality traits we inherit upon birth? No. It seems, then, that a large part of our existence is already predetermined. If this is the case, how much free will do we have, if any at all?
Sam Harris, American author and Neuroscientist plans to release his new book Free Will in May – indicating the topic is still as pertinent as ever, and remains a issue of profound ambiguity. In the book Harris argues free will is an “illusion” and we have known this for about a “century” (1).
Harris’ conclusion is hubristic – particularly because our knowledge of the brain is limited, so limited, in fact, that Neuroscientist Lawrence Parsons of the University of Sheffield believes we are 300-500 years away from understanding the brain and all its complexities. Furthermore, our understanding of what human consciousness is the subject of conjecture and speculation. Philosopher Colin McGinn believes “the more we know of the brain, the less it looks like a device for creating consciousness: it’s just a big collection of biological cells and a blur of electrical activity – all machine and no ghost” (2).
So here we are: we have limited knowledge of the brain and we don’t have a clue what consciousness is, yet we want to say that free will is, factually speaking, an “illusion”? Now, while it is possible that free will is an illusion and all our actions are predetermined by prior causes of which we have no control over, we need to be careful of labeling something as “fact”.
The mention of the body/soul dichotomy may seem fictitious to some – but only to the narrow minded. Once again we need to be careful: to concretely say we do not have a soul is a theoretical fallacy; ‘we have no proof for the soul’, is more sensible. Science, however, will never be able to penetrate the world of the unseen or the world of metaphysics, simply because it is not interested in it. For those that rely purely on scientific observation, it is only the physical, tangible world that can empirically experienced, therefore, if anything else exists, it is out of science’s domain and has no relevance to us.
The existence of the soul should therefore remain open. If the soul does exist, however, we can posit that free will exists, too. Why, you may ask? If one believes the soul and the brain interact to form intentions – and that intentionality derives from the soul – our brain is therefore at the behest of our soul. Without the soul, the brain – it could be argued – cannot function properly.
Scientists have been studying intentionality rigorously for the past ten years, but there is still no definitive answer in relation to how intentionality is formed. Clearly, when analyzing the brain, consciousness and intentionality, there seems to be a missing component. Science has shown us that decisions can be predicted between 300 milliseconds – 10 seconds before we are even aware of them. But if the origin of our actions come from the soul, this would go some way to explaining this phenomenon.
However, because the soul and the brain must interact for free will to exist – when we suffer from mental illness, or when we take drugs which alter our biological chemistry – the link between the material and the immaterial becomes severed, and the brain then begins to function by itself. This is why in most religions, the mentally unwell or those who are not consciously aware of what they are doing are excused of Divine accountability, as so long as they are in that state.
If we don’t have any free will – as Harris suggests, or we have limited free will, as Timothy Winters suggests – can we enhance the amount of free will we possess, or even, seemingly paradoxically, “activate” our free will?
Winter says: “At the moment we authentically rise above our genetic programming and education and take a moral decision, we are stepping outside of the mechanics of the universe. We don’t create our own actions, there is only one Creator, but in an instantaneous, miraculous fraction of a second, we can acquire actions and this is of the mystery of the Ruh [soul].”
If we are slaves to our previous experiences, education and genetic programming, we cannot step outside “the mechanics of the universe” but if we transcend everything apart from what we know to be innately good or bad [something we all have within us], we then make a moral choice for ourselves, and activate our free will.
If we do, therefore, have free will, it can be enhanced through the pursuit of transcending our ego, our doubts, fears and inhibitions, and, in turn, by activating a component within our consciousness that allows us to tap into that which is innate within us. That which is innate with in us – it could be argued – is the soul, the component in us that acquires actions from the Creator. Therefore there is not just a body/soul dichotomy at work – there is a trilateral harmony between: the Creator, the acquirer of actions (the soul) and the disposer of these actions (the brain).
McGinn says we have more ignorance than knowledge; so the worst thing we can do is coalesce our ignorance with arrogance. Let’s leave the options open and not be one-dimensional creatures. The truth is there to be discerned but we must first accept that there is more than one way of arriving at it.
“Those who play chess are constrained by the predetermined limits decreed by the game’s inventor. And, although the player of chess is in complete subordination to the originator’s decreed limitations, the player’s own merit and effort or neglect and lassitude will determine whether he wins or loses the game of chess..ponder this well, for chess is an edifying metaphor and a sagely invention. (3)”
1) The free will delusion, page 46 New Statesman, 19 December 2011
2) All machine and no ghost? page 43, New Statesman 20 February 2012