There are black people who hate white people, there are white people who hate black people, and both got their hatred through the same mechanisms: biology and culture—no one has free will. No one is ultimately to blame for their beliefs, and all are deserving of compassion as products of forces beyond their control. To understand hatred in this way is not the same as excusing it or approving of it. We can still try to protect ourselves and others from the effects of hatred, even as we refrain from hating the haters.
Both Harris and Sapolsky proclaim, from different vantage points, that there is no free will, and I agree. If you do not, I recommend their books. Harris’ Free Will, is accurate, shorter, and more accessible, offering arguments for our lack of free will and responses to common objections. Sapolsky’s Behave covers the nuts and bolts of the causes of our behavior—from neurons to ancient culture—in a way that’s very convincing to the science-oriented and leaves no room for free will.
In a podcast on Harris’ web site, they discuss their views, mostly in the context of Sapolsky’s book. Both are intelligent and eloquent, and their conversation is enjoyable and informative, but both have difficulty with living in a way that reflects their convictions about free will. Here’s how Sapolsky presents it in his book:
I can’t really imagine how to live your life as if there is no free will. It may never be possible to view ourselves as the sum of our biology. Perhaps we’ll have to settle for making sure our homuncular myths are benign, and save the heavy lifting of truly thinking rationally for where it matters—when we judge others harshly.
Sapolsky, Robert M.. Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (p. 613). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
In the podcast, Sapolsky describes the prospect of trying to live your life in accordance with the idea that there is no free will as “hugely daunting,” but that is true of any difficult and long-range goal. No doubt a freshman in college would find the prospect of getting a PhD in neuroscience hugely daunting if they were to contemplate all the hours they would have to spend in class, all the tests they would have to take and papers they would have to write, all the facts they would have to learn. How we accomplish such goals is by nibbling away at them—one class, one lecture, one textbook, one fact at a time.
Becoming rational in our feelings toward ourselves and others, freeing ourselves from the kind of blaming that goes with free will, is accomplished in the same way. The difference is that there is no recognizable program for achieving this kind of freedom, no clearly recognized end goal, no PhD. Without a clear idea of what we are trying to accomplish, and of the ultimate value of such an achievement, we may excuse ourselves for accepting our “benign” myths about free will and the feelings they justify. The prospect of ridding ourselves of all of them in the aggregate can indeed seem too daunting.
The problem with Sapolsky’s point of view is that as long as we consider some free will myths benign and allow ourselves to act in accordance with them, we lose the considerable benefits of seeing ourselves more fully as “the sum of our biology.” It is nearly impossible to appreciate those benefits until we eliminate our “benign” myths and the habitual thoughts and behaviors that grow out of them, just as it’s difficult for someone who’s never been physically fit to appreciate how wonderful it feels to be strong. Still, a little bit of fitness feels better than none, and a little bit of progress toward freedom from the habitual irrationality of free will can give us a glimpse of the happiness that is possible.
I have been trying get rid of such habits in the decades since I first understood my lack of free will, and while I can’t claim complete success, I’m far enough along to appreciate the profound differences such a practice can make in one’s life. Sure, tackle the obvious ones first, like those instances in which “we judge others harshly,” but remember that those are just the tip of the iceberg, and there are vast regions of irrational thinking below the surface. They all contribute to our lack of happiness and peace of mind.
Our emotions can be helpful guides to such faulty thinking, from anger and disappointment with the behavior of others, to blame of and disdain for those in less fortunate circumstances, to pride and smugness in our own accomplishments. We need to become alert for the emergence of any of these feelings, to respond to them with recognition of their irrationality, and to mark them as wrong.
This kind of alertness is a form of meditation, and like any other form, we can’t expect ourselves to get it right from the start. We may not recognize that we’re angry until several minutes after its onset. We can mark it as inappropriate, and two minutes later find ourselves angry again. This is normal. You can’t become a Zen master overnight, any more than you can get a PhD by taking one course, but over time, your alertness will improve. You will recognize anger more quickly, and you will spend less time under the damaging influence of glucocorticoids, stress hormones that Sapolsky discusses extensively in Behave.
It will be helpful in this process if you can acquire a sense of humor about the human condition. We grow up being taught that we are responsible for our behavior, and indeed, we must be held responsible in order for society to function, but ultimately we are automatons. In light of that, all our pretensions about being noble and dignified, our righteous indignation and moral outrage, our grandiosity, become laughable If you can’t yet find the humor in our situation, persevere. We are a funny species, and learning to laugh at our foibles is a great tool in freeing ourselves from the myth of free will. So back to the process:
The more alert you become, and the more anger-free time you accumulate, the more you will become aware of the subtler forms of free will irrationality, like smugness and disdain. While they may have seemed relatively benign when you were in the throes of anger, as you become more sensitive you will experience the discomfort they entail, and how unlike happiness they are.
Continuing to be observant of our thoughts can lead us to appreciate the wonder of their happening to us, rather than being created by us. We are presented with a parade of marvels, courtesy of our brain’s interaction with its environment, all the more marvelous for its mostly mysterious origins in the labyrinth of neurons in our heads. The fact that we have taken our thoughts for granted as products of our supposed conscious creativity is one more opportunity to laugh at our presumptions, and, given how much time we spend thinking, we can become continuously amused.
Some people may find the prospect of becoming amused at themselves a deterrent to more rational thinking. They identify with the preferences and prejudices their personal history has imposed on them—it’s who they are—and they want badly to have themselves and their beliefs taken seriously. No doubt they represent the great mass of humanity, but the happiest of humans is not among them.
The point is not to become a saint, but to make the best of our situation, to eliminate the worst parts of being human and learn to enjoy the best. In doing so, we may help others toward the same end, and all of us could become happier. It’s contagious.
(Many of the posts in my blog are concerned with the subjects discussed here. Here’s one to get you further along.)
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