Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Birth of Physical Laws

Book Review: Free Will by Sam Harris

Well known atheist and New York Times bestselling author Sam Harris has authored a new book entitled Free Will that is dedicated to the proposition that free will is an illusion. The rationale is clear and compelling. It is a short monograph; the main content is about 70 pages followed by a section of references and endnotes.

Do we live in a deterministic universe? Is each future state of the universe determined absolutely by a prior state? Or is the opposite true? Can a certain state of the universe come into existence without absolute dependence on the constitution of a prior state? The key word is "absolute." If, for example, in any new state of the universe, a random element is introduced, then that state is not absolutely dependent on the prior state. This view of the universe is labeled as indeterminism.

The problem with the standard notion of free will is that it appears to be incompatible with either form of universe. Mr. Harris lays out the reasons for this very clearly. This understanding of free will is labeled as incompatibilism.

But, what exactly is the 'standard notion' of free will?  As Mr. Harris points out, the definition can vary and change over time from person to person.

Harris quotes Einstein:
Honestly, I cannot understand what people mean when they talk about the freedom of the human will. I have a feeling, for instance, that I will something or other; but what realtionship this has to freedom I cannot understand at all. I feel that I will to light my pipe and I do; but how can I connect this up with the idea of freedom? What is behind the act of willing to light the pipe? Another act of willing?
Einstein is not compelled to light the pipe.  If he were a robot, the lighting of the pipe would be part of the behavior 'detemined' by his programmer. So, when Einstein lights his pipe, who, or what, is doing the "determining?" 

NYU Professor of Philosophy Ned Block points out how in the face of incompatibility he decided to adopt a more restricted notion of free will. This position is labeled as compatiblism.

Tufts University Professor of Philosophy Daniel Dennett further refines a compatibilist view. We act because of reasons and further we share our reasons with one another. The concept of 'responsibility' is introduced as wearing its definition on its sleeve. We can be responsible to one another because we are capable of responding to one another.

University of Reading Professor of Philosophy Galen Strawson’s argument against free will is based on a definition of free will as the individuals being solely, ultimately, and singularly responsible for his decisions. Mr. Harris maintains similar positions throughout his book.

Must the notion of free will be glued to the notion of responsibility? Some theists propose that the answer is yes, implying that one is responsible to God, however this is a non-sequiter.  Free will can be a bona-fide subject of discussion in both created and non-created universes. The concept of free will, in and of itself, cannot be associated with a concept of responsibility, until one first defines the concept of free will and then answers the question: "To whom, if anyone, is one responsible?"  Free will can exist without regard to the asking or the answering of that question. 

All choices are constrained by the physical laws of the universe. For example, if one is starving and finds two bushes of berries, one red and the other blue, he must make a decision as to which one of them, if any, is safe to eat. He must eat, and his choices are restricted, but he is free to make a choice. This is absolute freedom in every sense of the word. He is not compelled by prior circumstances to choose red over blue or vice versa. He can flip a coin, or perhaps he can feed some of the berries to animals to observe their effect.

The ‘free’ in free will refers not to the quantity or quality of choices. It refers to the individual’s capacities to make a choice and to carry it out. If, in the example above, only red berries were found, the choice remained to eat no berries at all and to press on instead for more reliable food. Yes, death is the risk, but death is the risk of life itself.

Definition of Free Will

Free will is the collection of the following four capacities of a thinking agent:

  1. The capacity to observe the present: Options exist out of which one or more can be chosen. 
  2. The capacity to observe the past: To use ones memory in the evaluation of the current options. 
  3. The capacity to conceive of the future: To predict the probable net effect on future states of the different choices that might be made.  
  4. The capacity to carry out a selected choice.
The net effect of the possession of free will, in a deterministic or indeterministic universe, is to act in conjunction with the physical laws of the universe to determine, predict and cause the existence of a selected future state. The will of man thus becomes a physical law of the universe. In a non created universe, the physical laws of the universe have dictated that new physical laws will come into existence and we see them arise with each newborn child.  In a created universe we see the same thing and more, for we see our children as the continuous gifts of a loving creator who entrusts is with their care.

The autonomous thinkers of free will, be they atheist or be they theist, can reason together to create the rationale and the enactment that will ensure freedom of thought for all newborn children so that they can cause to exist a selected future state of world peace and the realization of an effort to spread the  human population across the universe. We are physical law of the universe, created or evolved, we can move the ancient mountains, in faith or in resolve.


  1. 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.

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