The absence of free will does not imply that you can become fatalistic and drop all your responsibilities. On the contrary, when you understand the mechanics of human will, you become even more responsible to yourself and to others and try to act in the best possible manner. You expose yourself to better influences, you do not rate and do not judge people by their successes or failures. You do not dwell on the past as if it could have happened in a different way, and you do not worry about the future as much as you did before – you just concentrate on doing your best.
“Free will” does not mean the ability to “make choices.” Yet this is the way it is often defined. Notice that our dictionaries are specific in stating that it is “FREE choice” that is the definition of “free will,” rather than just “choice” alone. To be an expression of “free will,” choices must also be free. Free from prior causes, constraint, external circumstances, fate, divine will, divine intervention.
Free will means there is nothing in our upbringing, nothing in our environment when we were children. There were no genetic predispositions that shaped and influenced us in any way or our temperament when we were born. Free will denies psychological factors such as influence and persuasion when we are young and easily influenced by authority figures.
Consider the biography of any “self-made” man, and you will find that his success was entirely dependent on background conditions that he did not make and of which he was merely the beneficiary. There is not a person on earth who chose his genome, or the country of his birth, or the political and economic conditions that prevailed at moments crucial to his progress.
— Sam Harris
Studies show that the unconscious brain makes the decision for you in advance of your conscious choice. Take a look at this symbol. There are two images. Which one did you see at first?
Half of the people see the face which is looking to the right (the white one) and the other half see the one, looking to the left (the black one).
At the beginning you can‘t choose which image to see first, your brain does it automatically. Then later, you can choose consciously which one you like to see, but it is not a free choice either. When you choose between one or another image, patterns of neural activity representing these two possibilities appear in the cortex. Copies of each pattern grow and spread at different rates, depending on your experiences and sensory impressions. Eventually, the number of copies of one pattern passes a threshold, and you pick the face looking to the right or to the left.
This example of brain functioning is just one of many arguments that free will doesn’t exist.
We are not saying that all our choices are predetermined or that they are just coincidental. Nobody knows it. But as far as human understanding reaches, everything leads to the same conclusion – that free will is an illusion.
The illusion of free will only sounds bleak when you view it from the level of the ordinary mental perspective. Down under that level lies another whole perspective, a completely different way to look at the universe.