We Can't Choose Who We Are

James Titchener / @mistertitchener

Are we conscious agents of our destiny? Sam Harris has written a concise and thought provoking book called Free Will that picks apart this commonly held notion. The implications of his beliefs are far reaching.

“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.”

I’d imagine that most of us have never questioned our own autonomy, because it feels like we’re autonomous. We think our thoughts, contemplate our options and make conscious decisions based on what we believe to be true. If I want to chainsmoke a pack of Marlboros while I write this, well that’s my God given right. If I want to link to a video of a pufferfish eating a carrot (you’re welcome), then that’s my choice. Why didn’t I post a picture of Sammy Sosa during his transition into the Pink Panther instead? Well, I just did.

Again, you’re welcome.

Were these seemingly conscious (albeit strange) decisions of mine of my own free will? Sam doesn’t think so. 

“The intention to do one thing and not another does not originate in consciousness—rather, it appears in consciousness, as does any thought or impulse that might oppose it.”

Here Sam is arguing that consciousness is not generating our thoughts, intentions or decisions. Our subconscious is. Any feeling that we’ve authored our thoughts is simply an appearance whose origins came prior to our awareness. He points to an experiment that backs up this claim. 

“The physiologist Benjamin Libet famously used EEG to show that activity in the brain’s motor cortex can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move.”

If our decisions have been made by our subconscious before we’ve become aware of them, what conscious agency can we claim? None. But if you’re still not sold, Sam sums up his argument directly in the following.

“Take a moment to think about the context in which your next decision will occur: You did not pick your parents or the time and place of your birth. You didn’t choose your gender or most of your life experiences. You had no control whatsoever over your genome or the development of your brain. And now your brain is making choices on the basis of preferences and beliefs that have been hammered into it over a lifetime—by your genes, your physical development since the moment you were conceived, and the interactions you have had with other people, events, and ideas. Where is the freedom in this? Yes, you are free to do what you want even now. But where did your desires come from?”

Honestly, it’s taken me a few reads of his book to begin embracing these claims. I think the reasons being that they’re so counter-intuitive to our experience and common conceptions of agency. The implications of his claim that free will is an illusion makes it seem to be a horse pill we’d never want to swallow. 

“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.”

If you also fall into this category of finding these conclusions abhorrent, I do not blame you. I literally felt physically uncomfortable when I first read Free Will. Surely I must be responsible for my plethora of accomplishments! Who the fuck does this knockoff Ben Stiller think he is?! 

Seems awfully convenient that we haven’t seen these “two” in the same room before...

Despite my body screaming that these conclusions must be wrong, I couldn’t find a coherent argument against them. How can I deserve the success in my life if I am a culmination of prior conditions that were entirely outside my control? What say did I have in not having been born a Filipino girl in 1976? What say did I have in not having been born into a family of alcoholic rodeo clowns? None, but you could be damn sure I’d have lived a much different life if I were born to these delightful circumstances. If these factors are outside of my control, and they undeniably create the conditions for who we imagine ourselves to be, how can I take credit for not being a compulsive shoplifter? And if ascribing praise for our successes doesn’t make sense given our lack of free will, how can we blame the compulsive shoplifter for simply being unlucky to have had the parents, environment and genes that he has?

This is not to say that we should be free to steal as many KitKats as we can carry, because fuck it! Nobody’s morally responsible for their actions! Our decisions matter regardless of what we think of free will. As do our intentions. The mind of someone who accidentally backs into a child in their driveway is different from that of someone who’s perfect Saturday is blasting his truck through a crowded playground. The latter individual should be locked away assuming there isn’t a clear path to rehabilitation. If by some breakthrough in psychology that we could guarantee that he could be cured of his pathological delusions, we should provide that cure and free him at once. How can criminal punishment make sense in a world where the only blame we can prescribe another is having been dealt a shit hand? We don’t need to punish criminals for the sake of retribution. If punishment effectively deters future crime from society, fine. If a criminal is beyond any chance at rehabilitation, lock them up and throw away the key. But I think we should learn to look upon the inmates on death row the way we would the children in a cancer ward, with empathy for their poor luck and gratitude for having not been born in their shoes. 

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