Blame it on Adam and Eve. No, wait. Eve first. She just had to give into the devil’s temptation to bite that juicy red apple from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Memo to tree: You need a shorter name, honey.) And then she just had to offer it to Adam, who just had to follow the wife’s lead and they just had to get themselves kicked out of the primo piece of real estate on earth. And that’s why we have to wear uncomfortable, expensive clothes and work 9 to 5.
But what if it wasn’t Adam and Eve’s fault (or the devil’s, for that matter)? What if there were no free will?
That’s the thesis behind “Free Will” (Free Press), a provocative little tome (only 83 pages) by Sam Harris – philosopher, neuroscientist and everyone’s favorite atheist now that Christopher Hitchens has gone to meet his, er, non-Maker.
In “Free Will,” Harris uses neuroscientific research – including the work of physiologist Benjamin Libet – to state that free will is an illusion. Decisions are made deep in the brain milliseconds and, in some cases, whole seconds, before we are conscious of them. What we perceive as our decision-making is nothing more than our awareness of a decision that’s already fait accompli.
Indeed, your decision to read this article – and mine to write it – was a done deal before you actually thought to read it and I thought to write it.
Easy enough to understand when the example is that innocuous, right? But what about when you consider Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which took place 49 years ago this month? Harris would say Oswald didn’t choose to shoot the president any more than the president chose to go to Dallas. Their collision course was sealed by their neural activity. Biology is destiny, as Freud said.
Whew. It’s at this point that my brain says, “I’d rather look at the pics of a shirtless Tim Tebow in Vogue.” And I say, “It’s all right, brain. Grab a latte, put your feet up and go right ahead.”
With my brain back on the job, though, it has to wonder, as I’m sure yours, dear reader, must by now: What about the role of responsibility? If we’re not in control of our choices, can we be accountable for our actions?
This is tricky, but Harris writes that we can.
“Judgments of responsibility depend upon the overall complexion of one’s mind, not on the metaphysics of mental cause and effect. …If, after weeks of deliberation, library research and debate with your friends, you decide to kill the king – well, then killing the king reflects the sort of person you really are. The point is not that you are the ultimate and independent cause of your actions; the point is that, for whatever reason, you have the mind of a regicide.”
So the lack of free will doesn’t let us off the hook for our behavior, nor does it preclude a criminal justice system based on the need to protect society. But, Harris goes on to write, “Once we recognize that even the most terrifying predators are, in a very real sense, unlucky to be who they are, the logic of hating (as opposed to fearing) them begins to unravel….even if you believe that every human being harbors an immortal soul, the picture does not change: Anyone born with the soul of a psychopath has been profoundly unlucky.”
“The role of luck, therefore, appears decisive.”
Maybe so, but I’m willing to bet that regardless of what science tell us, most of us – especially most of us Americans – would rather believe that we make our own luck, that we’re in control of our destiny.
Yep, we’re going to go right on taking a big bite out of that juicy old apple – and blaming someone else.