Thursday, 7 March 2013

An excursion into free will

I recently read an essay entitled Free Will by Sam Harris, a scholar and philosopher for whom I have much respect and whose opinions I tend to take very seriously. In it, Mr Harris argues that free will is an illusion. Now, my entire approach to life hinges on the idea that -- perhaps within a framework of some limits -- we have the option of making decisions as we see fit, thereby shaping our world according to our wishes.

I’m sure you can imagine how troubling the implications of such an essay were for me -- considering that an adequately strong argument has historically swayed my worldview on a number of notable occasions.

I needn’t have worried. Although this is not the time or place to discuss my responses to Mr Harris’ outstanding essay in detail, it is enough to say that there are two main reasons why he did nothing but reinforce my existing belief system. The first is that according to my criteria, the objective existence of free will is irrelevant compared to the subjective experience of contemplating and deciding on a course of action, which then results in consequences that would not have eventuated if we had made a different decision. Mr Harris and I agree from the outset that feeling free and being free are two independent issues.

The second reason is that my own experience of life, and the phenomena I have been involved in first-hand, are drastically divergent from what Mr Harris has experienced. Therefore it is to be expected that my interpretation of why things happen as they do is different to the interpretations offered by Mr Harris. The net effect is that reading his essay felt like absorbing a passionate diatribe explaining why the world can be nothing other than flat, when I myself am a seasoned space cadet and have seen the planet very differently from orbit.

(I hope you will forgive my good-natured ad hominem jibe; ironically, the ‘flat earth’ analogy is one I use myself in relation to free will, and the side I argue for is that the shape of the planet is secondary to the fact that for all intents and purposes, the Newtonian world as we experience is indeed flat.)

In any case, it is a superbly written exposition and one I recommend unreservedly. It was extremely thought-provoking, intriguing and enjoyable to read, and as I previously alluded, I am in complete agreement with many of the points Mr Harris makes. I also learned several new words, and that is always a thrill for me. I respect Mr Harris’ views, and would never suggest my own version of the truth is superior; as always, I invite you to read for yourself and make up your own mind as to whose ideas are most beneficial for you.

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