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.