Ever since reading Sam Harris’ 2010 book “A Moral Landscape“, I have looked forward to an elaboration on his brief comments about free will.
Last month, he was kind enough to oblige with a 13,000-word monograph, simply called “Free Will“. And for the critics, the size of this book has been as remarkable as its contents. Dr Harris’ defense is to simply point out that larger books are often a product of modern publishers who think readers only pay proportional to the volume of the volume. Although, with Sam’s erudition and insight, he doesn’t need to justify himself to critics.
Rather, it is the critics who need to justify writing a 1,000 word review for a book that is scarcely much longer.
Therefore, I will refrain from too much analysis and simply attempt a summary. Then I’ll comment on what I think this has to do with miracles.
Harris’ dissection of free-will beings with focusing on the nature of conscious experience. He takes quite some time to help the reader notice that there is nothing in our conscious experiences that suggests we are the author of our own thoughts. This is about as mind-bending as the most difficult piece of theoretical physics, requiring a similar shift in thought that begins with noticing a previously ignored assumption:
We may be the conscious witness of these thoughts, but we are not their authors. Thoughts just arrive.
Next, Harris considers how our subjective ideas interact with the objective universe.
While most people agree that we all share an objective world, it is commonly assumed that our authorship of private internal thoughts can affect this world.
It is a default assumption for most people to think that if, say, you want to pick up a cup on your desk, you decide you want to do this, and then the universe yields to your choice with your hand moving to grasp the cup.
Now, when thoughts like ‘I want to pick up a cup’ arrive (and they clearly do arrive), we might attempt to test whether this sequence of events is as we suppose. Authored by us or not, it is a separate question to consider whether these thoughts are potential prime causes – creating a new causal chain that moves from thought, to brain activity, to movement and beyond.
Those who do suppose this also tend to believe that we can, potentially, predict events after brain activity. From the brain onwards, its all physics. Yet, it is supposed, our thoughts, in a way unknowable to us, ignite the fuse of the electrical brain.
However, when we experiment, we see no indication this picture is correct, and multiple cases suggesting it is false.
There have been various studies that indicate brain activity can be correlated with particular thoughts or dispositions. When it comes to making a choice, it seems that brain activity precedes the conscious arrival of a decision; not the other way around.
A 2008 paper lead by Chun Siong Soon describes an incredible experiment to show that brain computation precedes conscious choice. They write:
There has been a long controversy as to whether subjectively ‘free’ decisions are determined by brain activity ahead of time. We found that the outcome of a decision can be encoded in brain activity of prefrontal and parietal cortex up to 10 s before it enters awareness. This delay presumably reﬂects the operation of a network of high-level control areas that begin to prepare an upcoming decision long before it enters awareness.
This can enable someone watching an image of your brain’s electrical activity to know your decisions some time before you claim to have ‘decided’.
And so, it seems, we are not the centre of our actions, and the human brain is just one domino (albeit a very large and vital domino) in a long chain of events.
The main opposition to Harris’ thoughts can be divided into two groups.
First, there are those who simply maintain that they are the authors of their own ideas. There’s little much one can say in reply, except to encourage additional meditation on the matter. Concentrate on your thoughts, and you’ll notice nothing more than their arrival.
Then, there are those who, in addition to supposing free will is a subjective experience, also attempt to render it compatible with physics. For some, the intrinsic probabilities of quantum mechanics seems a good hiding place for actualizing choice. Dean Radin, whom I have previously critiqued, claims that it is possible to perturb the results of quantum experiments (such as the double slit experiment), skewing the statistics by exercising one’s will. The research is underwhelming, considering the boldness of his claims.
My interest in these ideas are related to my on-going work to write a book about miracles.
Reading Harris’ words brought me to the realization that the common-sense view of human free will is actually the acceptance of a scaled-down miracle.
The religious often purport miracles to be enacted by the will of a their god. And, for the monotheisms at least, this god can impose its infinite will limitlessly throughout the cosmos.
Most thinking people deny these sorts of miracles are possible, or possible to know. Yet, do not most of the same people also afford themselves a reduced version of the same ability? They suppose their will is restricted, and limited to act in the local region of their brains. But they still think they are a constant exception to physics, telling the universe how to be from the brain onwards.
Indeed, once the comparison is made, it is interesting to ponder whether the idea of miracles is merely an abstraction of our view of human free will.
And so, I have come to think that logical consistency requires one to either accept the common-sense idea of free will AND the possibility of miracles, or reject both.
For the religious this is no big news. They accept miracles as proof of their faith, and they require free will to bring sense to the concept of sin.
For atheists who think they have free will, I think this comparision presents an interesting and difficult new challenge.
 Soon, C; Brass, M; Heinze, H; Haynes, J (2008) ‘Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain‘ Nature Neuroscience 11 (5): 543–545
 Radin, Dean ‘Testing nonlocal observation as a source of intuitive knowledge‘ [Preprint: Accepted for publication in Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing’