I briefly discussed the illusion of free will in both The End of Faith and The Moral Landscape. I have since received hundreds of questions and comments from readers and learned just where the sticking points were in my original arguments. I am happy to now offer my final thoughts on the subject in the form of a short book, Free Will, that can be read in a single sitting.
The question of free will touches nearly everything we care about. Morality, law, politics, religion, public policy, intimate relationships, feelings of guilt and personal accomplishment—most of what is distinctly human about our lives seems to depend upon our viewing one another as autonomous persons, capable of free choice. If the scientific community were to declare free will an illusion, it would precipitate a culture war far more belligerent than the one that has been waged on the subject of evolution. Without free will, sinners and criminals would be nothing more than poorly calibrated clockwork, and any conception of justice that emphasized punishing them (rather than deterring, rehabilitating, or merely containing them) would appear utterly incongruous. And those of us who work hard and follow the rules would not “deserve” our success in any deep sense. It is not an accident that most people find these conclusions abhorrent. The stakes are high.
Daniel Kahneman is an extraordinarily interesting thinker. As a psychologist, he received the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work with Amos Tversky on decision-making. Here is what Steven Pinker, my previous interview subject, recently wrote about him:
Daniel Kahneman is among the most influential psychologists in history and certainly the most important psychologist alive today. He has a gift for uncovering remarkable features of the human mind, many of which have become textbook classics and part of the conventional wisdom. His work has reshaped social psychology, cognitive science, the study of reason and of happiness, and behavioral economics, a field that he and his collaborator Amos Tversky helped to launch. The appearance of Thinking, Fast and Slow is a major event.
Kahneman was kind enough to take time out of a very busy book tour to answer a few of my questions.
The universe is filled with physical phenomena that appear devoid of consciousness. From the birth of stars and planets, to the early stages of cell division in a human embryo, the structures and processes we find in Nature seem to lack an inner life. At some point in the development of certain complex organisms, however, consciousness emerges. This miracle does not depend on a change of materials—for you and I are built of the same atoms as a fern or a ham sandwich. Rather, it must be a matter of organization. Arranging atoms in a certain way appears to bring consciousness into being. And this fact is among the deepest mysteries given to us to contemplate.
Many readers of my previous essay did not understand why the emergence of consciousness should pose a special problem to science. Every feature of the human mind and body emerges over the course development: Why is consciousness more perplexing than language or digestion? The problem, however, is that the distance between unconsciousness and consciousness must be traversed in a single stride, if traversed at all. Just as the appearance of something out of nothing cannot be explained by our saying that the first something was “very small,” the birth of consciousness is rendered no less mysterious by saying that the simplest minds have only a glimmer of it.
You are not aware of the electrochemical events occurring at each of the trillion synapses in your brain at this moment. But you are aware, however dimly, of sights, sounds, sensations, thoughts, and moods. At the level of your experience, you are not a body of cells, organelles, and atoms; you are consciousness and its ever-changing contents, passing through various stages of wakefulness and sleep, and from cradle to grave.
The term “consciousness” is notoriously difficult to define. Consequently, many a debate about its character has been waged without the participants’ finding even a common topic as common ground. By “consciousness,” I mean simply “sentience,” in the most unadorned sense. To use the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s construction: A creature is conscious if there is “something that it is like” to be this creature; an event is consciously perceived if there is “something that it is like” to perceive it. Whatever else consciousness may or may not be in physical terms, the difference between it and unconsciousness is first and foremost a matter of subjective experience. Either the lights are on, or they are not.
The full video is an hour long. Links to specific topics/questions are provided below:
1. Eternity and the meaning of life 0:42
2. Do we have free will? 4:43
3. How can we convince religious people to abandon their beliefs? 14:52
4. How can atheists live among the faithful? 19:09
5. How should we talk to children about death? 21:52
6. Does human life have intrinsic value? 26:01
7. Why should we be confident in the authority of science? 30:36
8. How can one criticize Islam after the terrorism in Norway? 35:43
9. Should atheists join with Christians against Islam? 41:50
10. What does it mean to speak about the human mind objectively? 45:17
11. How can spiritual claims be scientifically justified? 50:14
12. Why can’t religion remain a private matter? 54:52
13. What do you like to speak about at public events? 58:09
The above talk was sent to me by a reader and is well worth watching. In it, the neuroscientist David Eagleman says many very reasonable things and says them well. Unfortunately, on the subject of religion he appears to make a conscious effort to play the good cop to the bad cop of “the new atheism.” This posture will win him many friends, but it is intellectually dishonest. When one reads between the lines—or even when one just reads the lines—it becomes clear that what Eagleman is saying is every bit as deflationary as anything Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens or I say about the cherished doctrines of the faithful.
I don’t know Eagleman, but I’ve invited him to discuss these and other issues with me on this blog. He also has a book out on the brain that looks very interesting and which I intend to read:
This discussion continues at 21:25, when Sam criticizes atheists, scientists and secularists for failing to “connect to the character of those experiences” and for failing to “give some alternate explanation for them that is not entirely deflationary and demeaning and gives some warrant to the legitimacy of those experiences.” He implies that these experiences are somehow beyond the purview of science. I find that strange given Sam’s repeated emphasis on the value of science in studying mental states.
I’m not quite sure what he’s getting at here, and he doesn’t elaborate, but I don’t see why giving credence to these über-transcendent experiences as experiences says anything about a reality behind them. Yes, they might indeed change one’s personality and view of the world, but do any of us deny that?
I had similar experiences on various psychoactive substances when I was in college, and some of them were even transformative. The problem is not with us realizing that people can feel at one with the universe or, especially, at one with God; the problem comes with us taking this as evidence for some supernatural reality. What does it mean to say that an experience is legitimate? If someone thinks that he saw Jesus, I am prepared to believe that he thought that he saw Jesus, but I am not prepared to say that he really did see Jesus, nor that that constitutes any evidence for the existence of Jesus.
So my question for Sam would be this: “So if we accept that people do have these seriously transcendent experiences, what follows from that—beyond our simple desire to study the neurobiology behind them?”
These are all good points. I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that transcendent experiences are “beyond the purview of science.” On the contrary, I think they should be studied scientifically. And I don’t believe that these experiences tell us anything about the cosmos (I called Deepak Chopra a “charlatan” for making unfounded claims of this sort). Nor do they tell us anything about history, or about the veracity of scripture. However, these experiences do have a lot to say about the nature of the human mind—not about its neurobiology, per se, but about its qualitative character (both actual and potential).
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