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Is there no free will?

These thoughts are in response to a recent monologue by Sam Harris, in which he suggests there is no free will.


To say "there is no free will" is to say the experience of free will is not sufficient evidence of its existence given the logic of cause and effect. But then, what is "free will" beyond an experience?

If we are looking for evidence of a brain lesion, we can say the standard is a CT scan, MRI, within the limits of their sensitivity. That's understandable because we have defined a brain lesion as "physical." But what could possibly be greater evidence of free will than the very experience of it?

Is the absence of the experience of free will at times sufficient to say it there is no free will or it is an illusion when experienced? While you are sleeping at night, does the absence of the experience of the bed your body is sleeping on mean it does not exist at all or simply that it doesn’t exist as imagined by the waking mind and as not-experienced by the sleeping mind?

Understandably, experience is not reliable beyond a certain level of sensitivity–for example, in the case of seeing a “sun-rise”. But in the case of free will, we are not talking about an image *of something*. We are talking about will–the very agency of individuated existence.

How can reason–an activity that lives on the nourishment of conceptual boundaries and therefore the boundaries of individuation–comment on the reality as opposed to simply the experience of individuation? Reason alone cannot–not with a straight face. What reason can do is say (the experience of) free will waxes and wanes in relationship with the experience of individuated identity or self, a relationship Harris acknowledges in his monologue.

After this acknowledgement, to go further and suggest reason sits on the side of there being no free will is an overstep. Reasoned exploration of free will is being conflated with observation of the waxing and waning of individuation. “Free will” becomes a scapegoat for a commentary on the search for identity. The overstep, then, does not originate in an exploration of free will, it originates in believing that reason can tell us where or not the individuated self is real as well as what lives beyond it.

Why this overstep? Why go so far as to say–in a roundabout way–reason can tell us that the self “doesn’t exist” and “is an illusion”? One reason is it offers some sense of certainty in an inherently creative domain.

Another reason is this is simply where spirituality is today. The language of “illusion” and “not real” interprets and/or copies the language of ancient philosophical texts, which are doing their best to indicate subtle, non-reasonable realizations using as much reasoning as possible, while knowing such realizations are not native to reason.

Reason is the familiar, available boat that carries the seafarer nearer to shore, upon which the journey begins, not ends.

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1 Comment

Robert Hansard
Robert Hansard
May 29, 2021

It seems like such a terrible belief, it sounds so unhealthy for a person to believe they have no free will.

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