A recent podcast by Sam Harris summarizing his ideas on the question of whether we have free will motivates me to do a further summary here…
There is a broad consensus among many disciplines that our experience of having a self or “I” is an illusion (see for example my lecture “The I-Illusion” and subsequent web lectures). This self illusion is what has the experience of ‘free will,’ of being free to make choices. Having a self is other side of the coin of having free will.
Here is my one paragraph paraphrase of points that Sam Harris’ makes in his ‘Waking Up’ App, and book of that title, as well as his recent podcast:
We all are concatenations of previous causes with the most recent proximal cause rising from this subconscious mist. What we take to be our 'self' or 'I' is actually the archive of our past actions and experiences, stored in long term declarative and procedural memory systems from which thoughts and actions of the present instant seem to rise from nowhere - 'we' don't 'choose' them, they just seem to appear. Having morality doesn't require free will, it is accomplished by having a historical coltlective record of what actions do or don't work out well, with respect to holding society together and passing on our genes. Thinking that 2 + 2 = 5 or killing other humans have bad consequences. It is from this history of actions and expectations in our brain that the moral choices of the moment arise, again as if from nowhere.
Still, most of us, even if granting the above, can’t imagine losing our feeling of having a self, it seems too useful, we couldn’t get along without it. This problem is addressed at the end of my “I-Illusion” talk with text based on points Wegner makes at the end of his classic 2002 book “The Illusion of Conscious Will” :
…..the important point is that we have the experience of having free will, and it must be there for something, even if it is not an adequate theory of behavior causation....perhaps we have conscious will because it helps us to appreciate and remember what we are doing, the experience of will marks our actions for us, its embodied quality our actions from those of other agents in our environment.
We have evolved emotions of anger, sadness, fear, happiness related to survival. We can think of the emotion of agency, or conscious will, as the same sort of evolved emotion, obviously a useful capability in sorting out our physical and social world.
The authorship emotion, an emotion that authenticates the action's owner as the self, is something we would miss if it were gone... it would not be very satisfying to go through life causing things, making discoveries, helping people, whatever.. if we had no personal recognition of those achievements.
And, this view doesn't really need to conflict with notions of responsibility and morality, because what people intend and consciously will is a basis for how the moral rightness or wrongness of an act judged. This is why mental competence is an issue in criminal trials.
So, just as in theater, art, used car sales ...and in the scientific analysis of conscious will..how things seem is more important than what they are. It seems to us that we have selves, have conscious will, have minds, are agents. While it is sobering and ultimately accurate to call all this an illusion, it is incorrect to call the illusion a trivial one, its invention has an obvious evolutionary rationale (along with long list of cognitive biases we seem to be hardwired with). Illusions piled on top of apparent mental causation are the building blocks of human psychology, social life, and our dominance as a species on this planet.