Here we have Sam being quite eloquent on the subject of free will, and if you didn’t read his book with that title, this is a good substitute. But if you don’t subscribe to his “Making Sense” podcast (and I don’t, mainly because I can’t listen to many podcasts), you’ll hear only the first 43 minutes. (I have no idea how long the entire program is.)
In the part I listened to (link below), Sam offers some “final thoughts” on free will. I suppose this means that he, like me, is pretty much done discussing the subject, as we haven’t changed our ideas much after having listened to a lot of counterargument. I agreed with what Sam said in Free Will, and I still agree with it; and he says in this podcast pretty much what he said in his book.
After defining what he means by free will, which is contracausal (non-material) free will (the common notion of free will), Sam then asserts that he will show that free will is not even an illusion, and will then show how jettisoning that idea, well, frees us from a lot of our bad behaviors. (If you’re asking, “Why is he trying to persuade me to give up the idea of free will if there is no free will; for doesn’t that mean we can’t be persuaded?”, then he answers that in this segment, too.)
Sam further explains, as he does in his book, why the form of free will to which most people adhere—libertarian or contracausal free will, what I call “you-could-have-done-otherwise” free will—is bogus, since our actions and thoughts are purely the result of deterministic processes, with perhaps a soupçon or quantum randomness thrown in. He adds, “Neither determinism nor randomness, nor any combination of the two, justifies the feeling that most people have that goes by the name of ‘free will’. . . People don’t want to believe that they are in any sense like a wave breaking on the shore, but this is how causes propagate, or seem to propagate.”
He notes that the idea of free will is inseparable from our feeling of “being a self”, which means that we feel we’re the source of our intentions and actions, all initiated by our conscious minds.
Here’s the issue: “we don’t feel that we are free to beat our hearts or causing our cells to divide. . but we do feel that we are the source of our thoughts and voluntary actions, and at any moment we feel we are free to think or do something else.” But how can that happen if our thoughts have material origins and material causes?
Then he moves to what I see as the most interesting part of the discussion: why there is no illusion of free will because there is really no experience of free will. His argument for this appears to come from his experience of Buddhism: the view of mindfulness—paying attention to your thoughts and how they arise.
As Sam says, “Thoughts appear in consciousness and we don’t know what we’re going to think next if we pay attention to them. Our thoughts determine our goals, what we do or say. We feel that we are the author of our thoughts, but there is no thinker to be found in the mind, just thoughts themselves. If we pay attention, we see that thoughts arise, we see that they simply appear out of nowhere, and we can’t choose what we are going to think next. And if we can’t control our next thoughts, where is our freedom of will?” (These quotes may be somewhat off, as I was typing quickly.)
So, he says, if we pay attention to what we’re thinking—and of course what we’re thinking is translated into our actions, views, and entire life—we will see that our thoughts seem to arise at random, coming out of nowhere, and we can’t control what we’re thinking or what our next thought will be. He gives us a demonstration of this by asking us to pick and name a movie. This exercise goes on at length, and it’s pretty convincing.
Sam then dispels some of the many misconceptions about determinism, e.g., how can you convince people that they don’t have free will if our views and ideas are all determined by physics? How can anybody change their minds? (I’ve discussed the answers at length.)
Although lots of people get upset when you tell them they cannot make “free decisions” or think “free” thoughts (I have personal experience of this pushback), Sam asserts that the realization that we don’t have contracausal free will actually rids us of arrogance and hatred, provides a profound basis for compassion as well as a basis for real forgiveness, and is “the only view of human nature that cuts through the logic of retribution: the notion of punishment as justified vengeance.” I agree with this, too.
At least in this segment of the podcast, Sam doesn’t discuss compatibilism (the view that we can still maintain a form of free will despite the fact that we are victims of determinism and randomness), nor does he do more than touch on the notion of moral responsibility. (My own view, which I’ve expressed often, is that rejecting contracausal free will rids us of the notion of moral responsibility, but not of responsibility. Ergo we still need punishment and reward, but not punishment of the retributive sort.)
If you’re new here, and haven’t followed my own arguments on free will, they align almost completely with Sam’s, so you can get up to speed by listening to this bit. As always, he’s quite eloquent and (at least to me) persuasive—except when it comes to the view that morality is objective!
Click below to go to the first 43 minutes of the podcast: