After being recommended to me by several different friends in different circles of my life, I finally picked up Free Will by Sam Harris at the end of last year. At only 66 pages, it was a short read that helped me finish my reading goal of 25 books for the year, though honestly it still took a little effort to get into it. I wrote down some notes at the time, but I’ve also had six months to reflect upon it, and there are a few things to which I keep coming back.
Sam Harris is a neuroscientist, author, and general media personality focusing primarily on topics of the self, meditation, and religion. I’d previously heard him on several podcasts, and read his book Waking Up on meditation as well as used the app of the same name. The main idea of this book is that our notion of free will, that our inner voice is in control of our thoughts and actions, is an illusion. But contrary to the traditional counterpoint of ‘fate’, where some invisible universal hand controls everything, Harris posits that there is a biological basis for our lack of ‘free will’. He cites several studies where scientists measuring brain wave electrical activity can see from the signal what decisions you will make before you are actually aware of them.
But the part that I’ve meditated on since December is this:
Even if we say that you can decide what to do based on your thoughts, you don’t have control of the thoughts that actually enter into your head.
You are not in control of your mind–because you, as a conscious agent, are only part of your mind, living at the mercy of other parts. You can do what you decide to do–but you cannot decide what you will decide to do. Of course, you can create a framework in which certain decisions are more likely than others–you can, for instance, purge your house of all sweets, making it very unlikely that you will eat dessert later in the evening–but you cannot know why you were able to submit to such a framework today when you weren’t yesterday.
‘Willpower’, or the ability to act in a way that our ‘better selves’ desire, is not an ability of the mind but of biology. You can’t magically act ‘better’ than you want to if you yourself are not in control of your own thoughts.
So it’s not that willpower isn’t important or that it is destined to be undermined by biology. Willpower is itself a biological phenomenon. You can change your life, and yourself, through effort and discipline–but you have whatever capacity for effort and discipline you have in this moment, and not a scintilla more (or less). You are either lucky in this department or you aren’t–and you cannot make your own luck.
I reread James Clear’s Atomic Habits shortly beforehand, and I think there is an interesting overlap. Much of Clear’s ideology of shaping your environment to maximize your chance of sticking with a good habit or getting rid of a bad one, cuts at some of the same issues. We may think we have control of how we react to the thoughts in our head, but we do not have control of what thoughts come into our head. Those are culmination of environment and past experiences. By working to reshape our environments, we can provide the best opportunity for which future thoughts come into our head and limit our reliance on Free Will.