How the Illusion of Choice Inhibits Compromise
Do you feel free to stop reading this article?
Let Us Explore Your Alternatives
Assuming no one has a gun to your head, then presumably, whether you continue to read this or not depends only upon your choice to do so, right? Undoubtedly there are other, and likely far better, alternatives for you. In fact, it readily appears you have already made, and will continue to make, a multitude of decisions today - whether or not to continue investing your time into this post is just one of them.
Looking Back, Were You Really Free?
But what if I told you that, in fact, you had no choice but to read to this very sentence; that your idea of choice is merely an illusion, or a parlor trick in your mind? Even if you now stop reading this exact word, your decision to do so is still not your decision at all. At least not in the sense you think it is. That choice, rather, is merely an inescapable chain reaction caused by neurophysiological events in your brain that far preceded any apparent conscious decision to act. These events are natural consequences of occurrences moments prior, which were also beyond your control.
"The illusoriness of free will is as certain a fact, to my mind, as the truth of evolution."— Sam Harris, Neuroscientist and Author
Choice As An Illusion
Such is the case according to Sam Harris and Daniel Dennet, two prominent scientists and well-known philosophers on the topic of "Free Will." While there is some disagreement among the two (primarily over ascribing accurate meaning and/or definition to the term itself), the thrust of the argument is the same: freedom to choose as it is commonly understood is largely an illusion.
In essence, the brain is no more than a mechanism; part of the Universe's clockwork. And, in your case, as in mine, each decision you are purportedly making right now is simply a necessary cause of events that happened moments before. You did not intend these events to occur, and you have no control over them.
Who Exactly Is In Control Then?
In practical terms, it is impossible to think your thoughts before you think them. In fact, you no more decide the next thing you think, then you choose the next word I write. Words, ideas, thoughts, simply arise in your mind due to experiences and causes outside of your control. And although it seems like you voluntarily go through a conscious decision-making process, in actuality, your mind and body are merely experiencing an orchestrated series of neural events undergoing a predetermined reaction to circumstances prior.
Is There Another -You- Inside You?
The Origin Of Action
Isn't there something there, though? Isn't there anything special that we can attribute to the decisions that give rise to our actions, aside from our raw physical makeup relative to the circumstances we find ourselves in? Of course, it may be difficult to know for certain - or to at least comprehend. But can anyone really say that they would behave any differently than, say, you do, if they hypothetically swapped out your physical properties atom-for-atom? Is there something extra about you that makes you act differently?
So, Where Do We Go From Here?
If our choices really are just the inevitable product of immovable physical processes in the mind, some suggest that our society may need to collectively revisit how we think about such concepts as justice, punishment, and rehabilitation. In fact, it may be a basis for restructuring our entire legal system as we know it - not necessarily implying that criminals should now be set free on the basis of insanity, but that we should at least make efforts at treating them more as beings destined to commit a criminal act, rather than as having made a conscious choice to commit one.
A Question Of Compassion
To elaborate further on this proposal, to what extent can the notion of 'no free will' offer insight into how we approach other areas of our lives as well, particularly those involving social debate? What impact may this line of reasoning have on our overall negotiation strategies? Would our day-to-day interactions on social media websites change at all?
Assuming our thoughts and choices are not our own, in the sense we think they are, and understanding how passionate we can be as adults about politics, religion, law, or otherwise, would we be so emotional (and sometimes irrational) knowing that the other side is physically incapable of "choosing" to agree with our position? Would we argue so strenuously with someone who otherwise had a mental deficiency or some other form of physical impediment hindering their capacity to "decide" in our favor?
Shouldn't we, rather, take extra care to cautiously explain ourselves more fully? Why not, at the expense of a temporary "win," seize each opportunity at dialogue as a means to better understand the other side and crystallize our own thoughts for future conflict? Would it not be better, in the long run, to plant small seeds deeply rooted in compassion and humility, than to berate the supposed poor choices of your enemy?
The Will To Compromise
In the end, the hope is that ironically, acknowledging our lack of choice may, in a sense, free us to approach contentious situations with a greater sense of compassion and disinterest for those who disagree us. Indeed, it would, in the very least, seem futile and immature to spark unnecessary emotional triggers or resort to extreme positions purely as a defensive measure. Knowing that the other side is not consciously "choosing" to disagree with you, but simply is that way, as a matter of course, should prompt us to approach our discussions understanding that we will never be the mechanism for some miraculous 'change of heart' by the other side. Likewise, we would be empowered to better focus our efforts on what it is exactly both parties are actually trying to accomplish and, thus, perhaps with some added willpower, be more of a mind to grant reasonable concessions in order to achieve real, substantial progress.
Are We Suited To Let Change Occur Naturally? Is It Possible To Set Aside Goals Of Artificial Victory In Favor Of Understanding, Collaboration, And Mutually Beneficial Results?
- Sam Harris on Free Will - YouTube
Sam Harris is Author of the New Work Times bestsellers: The Moral Landscape, The End of Faith, and Letter to a Christian Nation.