Free Will and Changing Your Mind

There was a very good question posed to Sam Harris on his podcast which was:

“If free will is an illusion, why are intentions morally relevant?”

Sam Harris’ answer was very good, but I wanted to throw in my own answer as well.  This also brought to the fore questions I have been asking for years and has led me on a path to learn about the brain and cognitive science: “How effectively can we change our own minds about things?  And what is the manner in which we can change our mind?”  Now perhaps to some, the question posed to Sam Harris doesn’t seem related, but I think there is a very important connection here.

Whether or not you agree that free will is an illusion or not, isn’t something I want to debate with right now.  I haven’t heard a compelling reason in favor of the idea of free will in some time.  I think what the more interest question is to understand why people are against the idea of free will being an illusion.  Sure you could argue that religion is part of that reason, but even secular people are uncomfortable with the idea.  The question posed to Sam Harris says it all.  If there is no free will, how is anybody responsible for their actions?

The word responsible is the word that doesn’t belong here, and this is what most people seem to miss.  This has important consequences for our justice system.  So then why do intentions matter?  The reason why intentions matter is because of what it says about your brain.  Let’s say I’m driving and I accidentally hit a cyclist, what does this say about me as a person?  I may be careless on the road.  Maybe I need to take some more driver training classes.  Maybe I need glasses.  Maybe if I’ve gotten into numerous accidents it means I probably shouldn’t drive any more.   What if I feel genuine remorse for what I’ve done?  Doesn’t that say something about how my brain works as well?  Do I belong in jail?  I don’t think so.  But if on the other hand I see that cyclist and get a sinister grin on my face and speed up and mow that cyclist down, what does this say about me?  It says that I am a person who takes joy about causing harm to others.  I might not feel remorse…maybe I do…but there would be something troubling about my mind that speaks to what future actions I am likely to take.  What if I know the cyclist and hate the person and that’s why I mow them down?  This also says something troubling about future actions I might make.  Because who might be the next person I hate, and what might I do to them?

I have talked about the idea of “personal responsibility” before and as I write this post it becomes even clearer why that phrase confuses me.  Having a party centered around personal responsibility seems to be an even bigger mistake.  We are a social species and it’s easy to say we are responsible for ourselves, but I don’t think that’s really the case.  It is the environment which shapes the individual and we have laws in large part not to control individual behaviors but to protect society.  It seems to me that it is we as a society, as other people in a person’s life that intervene to impact someone’s behavior.  And when a person does change their behavior it is a response to what society values, or through some personal experience in interacting with society or their environment that changes one’s mind.  If I am going around running people down with my car, whether accidentally, or on purpose, it is society that in some way says hey you can’t be doing that and finds an appropriate way to make me less of a danger.  If I take it upon myself to make changes, it is because of some emotional reaction to what I’ve done that is the impetus for change.  Rather than a decision to change, my body, my mind doesn’t want to feel a certain way and thus pushes me in a direction to not feel that way again.  My consciousness of that motivation is what gives me the illusion of free will.

Change in an individual seems to be a result not of an individual’s decisions, but rather the environmental context in which we live.  If society hasn’t shaped us to be more receptive to changing our mind, it is actively intervening to try and convince us to reform our views.  Sometimes successfully, sometimes not.  It seems that there is no real reason for me to want to change my mind about anything when I think about it.  I mean if what I believe has kept me alive so far, to be of an age to reproduce and raise children to a sufficient age so they can reproduce then what I believe must be pretty reasonable.  Now for a social species it could be that what I believe is very counter to surviving well with the people around me.  But as long as I generally believe what the “group” believes I’ll probably be alright.  Whether those beliefs are true or not makes no difference.  It really doesn’t even make a difference if they are harmful, providing that harm doesn’t lead to any consequences that would significantly reduce my chances to reproduce.

As we realize the global society that we live in, and that more and more of us are infringing on each other cultural and intellectual space, as we become more acutely aware of the harm of certain beliefs and values, not just in our community but over the entirety of the planet, I feel it’s important we start asking how can we all get along?  What values should this global community have?  What differences can we afford to maintain and still get diversity?  Does diversity’s value diminish over time if we hope for unity among humankind?  And given how difficult it seems to be to change one’s mind, what are some beliefs we could have that would provide a backdrop to growth for a better future where less humans suffer, and well being is increased?  It is this last question I want to explore a bit more in future posts.  I think tied to this is the area of human emotion which I have become more intrigued with of late.  I think that our emotional and reasoning side are more tied together than we think and that without emotions, at least for humans, growth isn’t possible.

10 thoughts on “Free Will and Changing Your Mind

  1. As to the last question: a belief that only we can effect change. Seems obvious, but you read something like the Cornwall Alliance’s Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming, and you realise there are great hordes out there who aren’t simply socially/morally/ethically lazy, but actually consciously, purposefully reject this idea.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, that would be a good one. I think that certainly follows from the acceptance of there not being free will. But I think that one could embrace that even if one believed we had free will. There are plenty of Christians who also don’t leave everything up to God. I agree with you that people who do so are the most worrying, because their rejection only serves to allow suffering to continue or to ensure suffering occurs in the future. It’s flat immoral, and if we wanted to equate it to Christianity it would be the equivalent of sloth, the spiritual and physical apathy that for good reason is one of the seven deadly sins. Even if there is no such thing as sin, it’s apparent the harm excessive apathy has.

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  2. Hi Swarn,

    Really enjoy your conversation starters as always. I know you don’t wish to debate the illusion of free will here, but I am wondering if I could ask you to simply clarify what you mean? I read your other posts and it seems like you are suggesting that due to all the various influences that act upon us, both within our bodies and without, there is very little role for what is commonly perceived as the act of personally choosing a course of action. If I read you correctly, then it seems to me reality is somewhere in the middle: we are not faced with the opportunity to choose whatever we desire in the absence of external factors, as indeed a great many relevant factors outside of our personal control affect us, but also it seems that we also are not causeless billiard balls bouncing around. It seems–and maybe this is the illusion, I don’t know–that we are in relationship with what we might call the external world, so that our actions influence that which influences us. And our thought processes appear to influence at least our long-range planning and courses of action, so that our “choices” are not wholly moot.

    That said, the value I would choose is that no ethnic or religious group, person, tribe, race, nation, etc. should occupy an inherent position of privilege (e.g. should hold power simply for being who they are). We’ll eventually need to somehow flip the world game over from being an attempt by individuals, corporations and nation-states to command as many of the world’s resources as possible in their own interest, to the world game of figuring out how to achieve the best possible outcomes for the maximum number of people.

    Bring this up and you are typically sworn off as a naive idealist, perhaps for good reasons. Those reasons quite often taken as obvious, and are what we describe as “human nature.” It seems we need a new myth/dream/idea of what it means to be human.


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    1. Thanks for your comments Michael. I said I didn’t want to debate free will in the post, but I am happy to do so in the comments. lol

      I guess I am probably less equipped to debate it, but have rather read quite a bit about it and so would recommend you read Sam Harris’ book Free Will,,. For a much shorter review of philosophical arguments:

      I would say that we probably are a billiard balls, but not causeless ones. We are however pushed in particular directions as a result of our environment, education, family, genetics, etc. I think an important point that neuroscience has brought to bear is that fMRI data has shown that we have made a decision to do some thing before we become consciously aware of it. This is something discussed in Sam Harris’ book. Here is a good article that talks about it as well.

      That being said, I think it’s helpful to at the very least see free will as somewhere in between. It is often the case that free will does often imply absolute free will. Especially for many religious people. That a hungry homeless person has absolute control over whether they steal a piece of bread or not, and yet that is unlikely to be the case. The fact that you have long range plans, mean that you were raised in environment that afforded that type of thinking. You probably didn’t live in poverty, or you probably had parents who emphasized this type of thinking. We know one of the impacts of poverty is to not plan long range. The fact that you can have a particular goal in mind, means you have prior knowledge of that goal as a possibility, and if you are choosing to pursue it you have causes that explain such a choice.

      That said, the value I would choose is that no ethnic or religious group, person, tribe, race, nation, etc. should occupy an inherent position of privilege (e.g. should hold power simply for being who they are). We’ll eventually need to somehow flip the world game over from being an attempt by individuals, corporations and nation-states to command as many of the world’s resources as possible in their own interest, to the world game of figuring out how to achieve the best possible outcomes for the maximum number of people.

      This is excellent. I might distill it down to say that we are simply all humans regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender, religion, and that as such are equal. I think where we get called out as naive is that equality is sort of a bad word. Not everybody can be a theoretical physicist or a top Olympic sprinter. However we clearly aren’t working to maximize everybody’s potential. It’s certain that a lot of people aren’t reaching that potential as a result of the oppression they face while others, including perhaps people like you and I live in relative comfort. But I never took equal to mean that we are all exactly the same, but rather given a certain guarantee of nutrition, health, and education we could all be doing a lot better.

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      1. Hi Swarn,

        I read Sam Harris’s book and enjoyed it. The perfect length for a quick read! I’m familiar with some of the literature on free will and the scientific experiments about brain activity and its relationship to action, but am by no means a scholar in the field. What is interesting to me is that you and I often come to similar conclusions, but for wildly different reasons. And I find the same to a certain extent in reading this book. In the spiritual teachings most dear to me, there is considerable agreement with what Harris has written, including an undercutting of the idea that we are the independent owners of our thoughts—and thus agents of a truly free will. In fact, reading this, which comes at the ideas from quite a different angle, was quite helpful to me.

        I like your restatement, but do think the idea of equality is quite challenging. I think when we really get down to it the sort of equality we’re seeking is an equal right to a meaningful life, with adequate resources and freedom to pursue what we are passionate about offering to the world. We’ll all still be unique, but maybe with less worry that a loved one will end up homeless because of a health calamity, or that we’ll be impoverished by shifting economic sands, or that our country’s climate will change in ways we can’t afford to protect against due to the actions of other nations, and maybe with less worry that we’ll be judged and deprived of access to opportunity because of who we are. I think that is what you’re saying when you talk about maximizing potential, no?

        Here’s an idea regarding changing laws in relation to the idea of free will being illusory. In part this got me thinking that what is really being said is that our perceived independence is illusory. So intellectual property and even equity/ownership of various endeavors gets interesting, doesn’t it? The present system is based on the premise that the person who starts or invents something is this sort of heroic contributor–and of course at some level they are. But the system is set up to funnel long-term gains to a particular individual or corporation or researcher, when in fact what emerges is likely not only the result of generations of work prior, but countless contributions after the fact to realize broad implementation. So it strikes me that a great deal of time is spent creating and protecting economic leverage through intellectual property and controlling ownership of vast organizations, when in fact no one succeeds as an island. I don’t have a solution other than pointing out this strikes me as an example of an ideal that maybe would or could fade in time, in an environment conducive to ensuring the success of the maximum number of people. Much of our inequality is rooted in the idea I’m “chosen”, “deserved”, “entitled”, etc., because of some reason that makes me special…


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        1. I agree Michael that it’s difficult to know where one person’s contribution ends and begins. I mean we are influenced by previous work, inspired by what we see, and what we create is always a launch point off a foundation that existed. There is no question that Eistein’s ideas were monumental and purely a result of his genius, but could have come up with any of his stuff if it wasn’t for Newton, Maxwell, Planck and the like? Probably it’s true to say that Einstein’s brain would have made great advances in any time, but people are never really starting out from scratch. I think it’s very true that no one succeeds on an island and that’s a theme that seems to be forgotten a lot today with many people going around saying “their money” is entirely their own. We know that this is not true given how a society that has been collectively built makes opportunities possible. The idea of property ownership was a foreign one as I’m sure you know, by native Americans because it simply didn’t make sense how one could own land. Land that was clearly for everybody. And we see these problems occur all the time where one farmer, or one state, complains about what the other farmer, or other state is doing upriver, that’s impacting their water. The idea of ownership is a strange one.

          Great comments as always, and yes it’s both odd, but also comforting that we can reach the same conclusion from different approaches. It means there is more than one way to skin a cat…implying that one wants to skin cats I guess. lol


  3. Personally, I think arguments/discussions on “Free Will” are pointless. We’re going to do and act as circumstances require. Why do (some) people feel it’s important to know whether the action is directed or spontaneous?

    Having said that, I do tend to agree with much of what you wrote, Swarn. 🙂

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    1. Thanks Nan. Personally, as I said, the assumption that we have free will is so pervasive and has huge impacts on how we choose to punish people for crimes and also what we think we can do to prevent crimes. More than that, the assumption of free will distracts from the true causes that explain our behavior. So I think tearing down the illusion has enormous value. People act differently in the same circumstances so we don’t all act as circumstances require, but rather act in circumstances in the way we are conditioned which are determined by numerous factors for which we have no control over.

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  4. Interesting ideas, Swarn. I guess I lean to the other side (without any scientific evidence), in that I basically teach my children that everything is an illusion except for choice.

    I think people are opposed to the idea of not having free will, because what does that leave them? If my choices aren’t my own, then why bother? The idea seems quite dehumanizing. Although biologically we may be animals, I think most people believe that we have an ability to rise above our circumstances that is a unique quality to humans. Even if 99% of our choices are determined by our circumstances, 1% of free choices seems still highly significant to me. (numbers chosen arbitrarily)

    I’m not familiar with the science of free will, or precisely how you’re defining it, but practically speaking, it seems highly beneficial to function as a society as though we do have free will. Our entire legal system presupposes it. If people believed that they didn’t have free will, I don’t see how that wouldn’t destroy our society.

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    1. Thanks Chris, as always, for adding your perspective here. I agree that the illusion of free will might be useful in our individual lives, but this isn’t clear to me.

      If people believed that they didn’t have free will, I don’t see how that wouldn’t destroy our society. </em)

      For me to really address this point it probably is important that you familiarize yourself with the science. It's not settled completely, but there is no at least empirical evidence that we have free will other than this is what it seems like to our conscious minds. But let's say we all accepted that we don't have free will. First, can you name a time when realizing something true, led to worse consequences in the long run? Has a clearer knowledge about how we work, or how our bodies work led to more destructive consequences? If you can think of such things, that aren't at least zero sum I'd be interested.

      Our punishment system is based on the idea of free will, and I think we can pretty easily say that our justice system typically doesn't work. It's a bit more progressive in Canada, but here in the U.S. it's horrible. Largest percentage of people in prison here than in the entire world.

      The idea of free will is largely responsible for this failed justice system. We know that monsters are made, they aren't born a certain way. There is nobody choosing to do evil when they could choose to do good. This is important because it gives us valid information about causes. It helps us identify what conditions led to a certain behavior. If we believe that someone is just as likely to kill you as be kind to you and whether they do so is because of a conscious choice rather than a predisposition that is a function of environment and genetics, this would be useful to know. The assumption of free will is what leads people to say to a depressed person "just cheer up!" or an anxious person to just calm down. The illusion that we have conscious control of our behaviours leads to more problems than it helps. It points out the importance of positive environments for child development, it points to looking at the brain to see where important patterns of thought and behavior arise. And while I can't speak for everybody, I can certainly say that my acceptance of their being no free will actually helps me see the world more compassionately and in no way makes me feel like wreaking havoc on society with the excuse that I am not in control of my actions.


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