Free Will

Free WillI just read Sam Harris’ Free Will. There was nothing new in it for me. I have already worked all this stuff out for myself. But it was nice to see the argument laid out so well. For those of you who don’t spend all your time fretting about such issues, it goes like this: all of your choices are neurochemical; you can no more not do what you do than hydrogen and oxygen can combine to form helium. As Harris writes (I’m not looking up the exact quote), to say that under different circumstances you would have made some different choice is the same as saying that in a different universe you would be in a different universe.

We are all machines—gloriously complex machines, but machines nonetheless. We already know this in terms of our bodies. Athletes are shockingly predictable machines. At this year’s Olympics, Usain Bolt ran the 100 m dash 0.05 seconds slower than his best time of 9.58 seconds. That’s a difference of 0.5%. Similarly, professional basketball players are remarkably consistent. People (Even the athletes themselves!) believe in streaks, but all that is ever seen are predictable statistical variations on their bases. In other words, a player with a 42% field goal average is a machine that makes field goals 42% of the time.

Free will then is nothing but an illusion—admittedly a fairly useful one. But it is also a dangerous one, and this is Harris’ main argument. For a long time, I’ve felt that I couldn’t come out and say that I felt sorry for pedophiles. They are such a pox on our society—such dangerous creatures with such innocent victims—I felt certain that people would go off on me. Yet I know from my experience that my sex drive—incredibly, depressingly typical though it may be—is in no way under my control. When I was younger, I tried to change my tastes into something more exotic, but it just isn’t in me. I like what most men like, except with glasses.[1]

How could it be any different for a pedophile? I can’t imagine that pedophiles actually think of Marilyn Monroe as a sex goddess and yet go around raping children because it is so fun to be evil. Pedophiles must be (among other things) machines that want to have sex with children. I’m not suggesting that we say, “Hey! They are what they are: let them go on raping!” Harris discusses this exact point. We don’t allow grizzly bears to wander the streets eating people; when they get too close to populations, they are removed. But we don’t moralize about grizzly bears: they are built to kill and eat creatures such as humans.

Clearly, we must keep pedophiles away from children. This will clearly restrict their freedom. But locking them up in prisons so they can be gang raped and otherwise brutalized is not an ethical approach to the problems that pedophiles represent in our society.

Free Will is an excellent little book. I mean this literally. It is excellent in that you could not ask for a better introduction to this subject. And it is little, coming in at perhaps 12,000 words—the length of an average magazine feature. And it is a book, because it is bound that way. Whether it is really worth $9.99 ($3.99 for the eBook), I will leave to you.

[1] There is, of course, the Sarah Vowell effect. How can a nerd such as me not think she is just too adorable for words. Or Kristen Schaal, who’s ditzy persona screams, “I’m smarter than you!” Even if she is a horse:

In the 70s, Schaal and Kurt Braunohler were at best toddlers. Now that’s comedy!

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