You probably thought that the answer is: “you.” But neuroscientist Sam Harris argues (or rather, asserts) in his new book, Free Will (http://www.amazon.com/Free-Will-Sam-Harris/dp/1451683405/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1344363795&sr=1-4&keywords=sam+harris), that your genes and your environment are responsible for your behavior: you have no choice.

Harris claims that free will is an illusion, and therefore no-one can be held accountable for his behavior; we merely act the way our genes and environment dictate. Therefore, we cannot assign blame or praise to anyone. Criminals are victims of their circumstances; Olympic athletes and successful entrepreneurs excel solely because of their genes and upbringing.

The thought of shedding personal responsibility might be comforting to some; however, we should care about Harris’ claim and understand that it is wrong. Why? For two reasons: because 1) we need to choose and pursue values in order to survive and flourish (as opposed to acting on the basis of random urges we feel in any given circumstance, such as defrauding the bank in order to finance our business or hiring a hit man to eliminate our competitor), and because 2) we don’t know automatically what values are required for a happy life and how to achieve them.

Harris would have us believe that some of us are destined to achieve values and others are not. Ending up with a life of crime, with an Olympic medal, or with a successful business are all beyond our control, claims Harris.

Harris’ erroneous assertions are easy to refute. All one has to do is simply to introspect in order to observe free will in action. The fundamental choice we all make in any given waking moment is to focus our mind, or not. You have to choose to focus to read this blog, or let your mind wander, or quit reading. Your genes do not pre-determine that choice for you nor does your upbringing.

All our subsequent choices depend on the fundamental choice to focus your mind, to “turn the switch,” or not. Only if you choose to focus can you achieve your values in the long term. By choosing to focus you can learn, acquire a skill, develop a business plan, persuade investors to invest in your company and customers to buy its products and services. The consequence is a thriving business and achievement of other rational values.

The alternative is to choose not to focus on facts at hand but to evade what’s around you: new technologies being invented, insufficient cash flow of your business, competitors taking your market share, and customers taking their business elsewhere. (This is assuming that you chose to focus earlier in order to build a business in the first place).

If you choose not to focus, you will live in a mental fog and take random actions, as the mood or some inexplicable urge strikes you. The consequence is a loss of your business and all other values.

The point is: the choice to focus is not an illusion. It is yours to make—and you are responsible for that choice and for the rest of your behavior.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Good theme and article, thanks.

    My comment is “Ah, he is beginning to reveal what his own beliefs are.”

    While critiquing religion effectively in the past he did not provide an alternative. Rejecting the supernatural, thus being an “atheist” in people’s minds, is not a prescription for living – it is merely a NO answer to the question of the supernatural.

    Belief systems that do not use the supernatural range from Marxism (the greatest killer of the 20th century) to Objectivism (based in reality including functionality of the human mind).

    Harris’ beliefs are typical of neo-Marxist/post-modernist thinking. (The book “Higher Superstition” (the academic left and its quarrel with science) covers many notions in that thinking, giving some good rebuttals – but beware it is verbose and difficult to read.)

    “Harris would have us believe that some of us are destined to achieve values and others are not. Ending up with a life of crime, with an Olympic medal, or with a successful business are all beyond our control, claims Harris.” is the same contradictory notion as Marxist revolutionary struggle – somehow a person is destined to achieve it but they must work very hard to actually succeed. Or am I missing their meaning of “destined” – seems to be a vague causal force?

    And in application of such ideas there’s Barack Obama, who says the collective did it all for you, thus you should be so grateful you’ll sacrifice yourself to it.

  2. This Materialistic view no longer has a leg to stand on. Thru Epigenetics and Neuroplasticity we can rewire our brains. We are not the product of our genes,we have the power to change and control our behavior.

  3. Dear Jaana, I know this idea that we are not responsible for our behavior is completely contrary to what has been unquestioned by man (and women) for as long as we have inhabited the planet.

    I myself found Harris’ take on no responsibility for behavior outrageous until I really looked at the bare root of every thought that rolled through my mind.

    It didn’t take me long to realize that my thoughts are the product of the thought that preceded it.

    Like puzzle pieces that interlock perfectly at lightening speed the flow of my thoughts appear to be impervious to any disruption of continuity. Even if my thoughts were to radically change course the sudden new puzzle piece or thought would still flawlessly lock with the thought that preceded it.

    Though it may appear that running into that burning building to save a child was the result of your own “free will” it is not difficult upon reflection to see that you didn’t have a choice to do anything contrary to what you did.

    Because we humans have accomplished incredible achievements against all odds the great difficulties that were endured to reach these goals suggest that only a will that was free could be responsible for such feats but there again the man who runs into a burning building risking his own like couldn’t have done otherwise.

    • Thank you for your comments. I disagree with your conclusion that our behavior is determined by our thoughts. People can have all kinds of ideas (for example, fantasies) and never act on them.

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