The Delusion of Free Will Good evening, everyone.
I’m Ann Mossop from the Sydney Opera House.
And it’s my great pleasure to welcome you here
to the opening night of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in 2012.
The Festival of Dangerous Ideas is presented by the Sydney Opera House
in partnership with the St James Ethics Centre,
and my co-curator, Simon Longstaff, from the St James Ethics Centre
is here to welcome you also. -(APPLAUSE)
-Thank you. Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.
And on behalf of all of us here this evening
and those attending the festival, I’d like to begin by acknowledging
the Gadigal people of the Eora nation on whose traditional lands we meet
to pay our respects to their elders, and also to all other elders
who are here with us at this time. I’d also like to welcome to her first
Festival of Dangerous Ideas Louise Herron, the incoming CEO
of the Sydney Opera House. At the St James Ethics Centre,
we really value the partnership we have with the Opera House
which makes an event of this kind possible.
And it’s a great privilege to be able to work with
people like Louise and Jonathan and the rest of the team
in presenting this event. But also here in the audience
somewhere, and I can’t see him, attending his first
Festival of Dangerous Ideas while not being the CEO
of the Opera House is Richard Evans,
who, along with me, founded the Festival of Dangerous Ideas
about five years ago, and I hope he’s going to enjoy this
weekend as much as the rest of us. -(APPLAUSE)
-Yes, please welcome Richard. There are a number of great civic
occasions taking place this weekend, one with the grand final of the AFL
in Melbourne, the grand final of the rugby league
here in Sydney. And I’d count this as the third great
civic event with all of us here. -So thanks for coming along.
-(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) Finally, one of the great pleasures
of working on this festival is being able to work as a colleague
with Ann Mossop, the co-curator, and the festival producer,
Danielle Harvey. They are really tremendous intellects
and great inspirations for making what I think you’re gonna enjoy
as a wonderful weekend of activity. So it’s with particular pleasure
that I hand back to you, Ann, to introduce the first
of our speakers tonight. Thank you.
Thank you very much, Simon. Before we get started,
some small issues of housekeeping. Please can you make sure that
your mobile phones are turned off? And while we encourage
discreet tweeting – to hash tag #FODI –
or indiscreet tweeting, if that is more dangerous…
(LAUGHTER) And we will be hearing, of course,
from Sam Harris this evening, and there will be time at the end
for some questions from the audience. You’ll notice
that there are microphones throughout the auditorium,
including for our lovely colleagues behind me.
So I will come back to the stage to moderate
that question-and-answer session, and I’m sure that there will be some
fast and furious exchanges there. Sam Harris is the bestselling author
of books like ‘The End of Faith’, ‘Letter to a Christian Nation’,
‘The Moral Landscape’, ‘Lying’ and ‘Free Will’.
‘The End of Faith’ was the winner of the 2005 PEN Award for Nonfiction.
He’s the co-founder and chairman of Project Reason,
a non-profit foundation devoted to spreading scientific
knowledge and secular values. He received a degree in philosophy
from the Stanford University and a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA.
We’re particularly pleased that he was able to come
to the Festival of Dangerous Ideas because although we’re not generally
collectors as such, this is the fourth
of the Four Horsemen of the New Atheist Apocalypse
to grace our stage. (APPLAUSE)
And those of you who are truly Festival of Dangerous Ideas diehards
may have been here to see Christopher Hitchens,
the late Christopher Hitchens, open the first festival in 2009.
But of course since then we’ve had not one but two visits
from Richard Dawkins and a wonderful appearance
from Daniel Dennett late last year. So, more importantly than that,
however, what Sam Harris brings us tonight
is a unique blend of science and philosophy
to the fearless dissection of big and dangerous ideas,
and his work on free will is absolutely no exception.
Looking at what neuroscience has revealed
about the workings of our brains, he’s penned a pithy
and cogent argument about what this means
for how and why we do what we do and how this in fact exposes
free will as an illusion. In the first paragraph of the book
he says, “If the scientific community were
to declare free will an illusion, “it would precipitate a culture war
far more belligerent “than the one that has been waged
on the subject of evolution.” So when that breaks out,
you were here somewhere very close to the beginning.
(GENTLE LAUGHTER) Sam is writing about an area
where the complexities of cognitive science, neuroscience and philosophy
come together, and he really excels at bringing
a compelling clarity to his argument that free will is in fact a delusion,
so even those of us who are fortunate or unfortunate enough
not to be philosophers and neuroscientists
will be able to participate fully in what I’m sure will be
a wonderful discussion. Sam Harris.
(APPLAUSE) Well, it really is an honour
to be here at such a beautiful venue,
and to be following the other Horsemen.
It really is great to be here. Now, I’m going to speak tonight
about the delusion of free will. And, to my surprise, this is
an incredibly sensitive subject – it’s perhaps
the most sensitive subject I have had the honour to touch.
It’s sensitive to religious people, of course,
because without free will, Judaism, Christianity, Islam
don’t make any sense, if you can imagine such a thing.
(LAUGHTER) But the existence of free will
is actually a very sensitive topic for atheists as well,
because it seems to touch everything human beings care about.
It seems to touch everything, in fact,
that makes us distinctly human – morality and law
and politics and religion and intimate relationships,
feelings of personal accomplishment, feelings of guilt and responsibility.
It seems that most of what we care about in human life
depends upon our being able to view other people like ourselves
as being the actual conscious source of their thoughts and actions.
So, in this talk I hope to do two things.
I hope to convince you that free will is an illusion
and I hope to convince you also that this matters,
and those are quite distinct. And I want to begin, I hope,
on not too defensive a note by telling you the two ways,
the two most common ways of misunderstanding my argument,
and this is sort of like beginning a marriage proposal by saying,
“Here are the two most common reasons women haven’t wanted to marry me…”
(LAUGHTER) “..and why they were wrong.”
(LAUGHTER) Now, the first way
of missing the point is to think that we simply don’t
understand enough – science is incomplete,
some of our scientific assumptions may be false,
there may be truths to discover about the nature of the universe
that would put free will, the popular notion of free will,
on some new footing. So it’s simply too soon to say
scientifically that free will is an illusion.
This is not true. I am arguing that free will
as a concept is so incoherent that it can’t be mapped onto
any conceivable reality. The second detour you might be
tempted to take, as many have, is to say, “Well, of course
the popular notion of free will “doesn’t make any sense.
“It doesn’t fit the facts.” “But…none of that matters.
“That’s an academic argument. “We still feel free.
This changes nothing.” It’s sort of like saying that, uh…
..atoms are mostly empty space. This is not empty space we can use –
nothing about our life changes. You know, “Everything
is mostly empty space, “but I still can’t fit into
an old pair of pants.” Many people agree that free will
doesn’t make any sense and that it’s some kind of illusion,
but they think that nothing important changes,
and that also, on my view, is untrue. Imagine you’re taking a nap
in the botanical garden next door. I don’t know if that’s legal or not,
but just imagine you do it. And you are awakened
by an unfamiliar sound and you open your eyes
and you see a large crocodile about to seize your face in its jaws.
Stranger things have probably happened.
It should be easy enough to see that you have a problem.
And now swap the crocodile for a man holding an axe.
The problem changes in some interesting ways,
but the sudden emergence of free will in the brain of your attacker
is not one of them. But imagine the difference
between these two experiences. Let’s say you survive your ordeal
and you have a… it’s a terrifying experience
and let’s say you’re injured – let’s say you lose a hand.
Now imagine confronting your human attacker on the witness stand
during his trial. OK, if you’re like most people,
you are gonna feel feelings of hatred that could be so intense
as to constitute a further trauma. OK, you might spend
years of your life fantasising about
this person’s death. How much time are you gonna spend
hating the crocodile? You might even go to the zoo,
take your friends and family to the zoo for fun,
just to look at him. You’d say, “That is the beast
that almost killed me.” Although you might be pointing
with this hand. (LAUGHTER)
Which state of mind would you rather have?
Now, I think this idea of free will largely accounts for the difference.
The crocodile was just being a crocodile.
What else was a crocodile going to do,
coming upon you napping in the park?
But this idea that the human had free will
and could have done otherwise and should have done otherwise…
..has very different consequences. Now, most people imagine
that a belief in free will is necessary for morality,
morality has to be grounded in this idea,
and it’s necessary, therefore, for getting most of what we want
out of life. I think that’s clearly untrue.
The difference between happiness and suffering
exists with or without free will. I no more want to be eaten
by a crocodile than I want to be killed
by a man with an axe. These are both very good things
to avoid. And we can avoid them
and we can talk about almost everything else we want in life
without suffering any obvious illusions
about the origins of human behaviour. Now, the popular conception
of free will seems to rest on two assumptions.
The first is that each of us was free to think and act differently
than we did in the past. You chose A,
but you could have chosen B. You became a policeman but
you could have become a firefighter. You ordered chocolate
but you could have ordered vanilla. It certainly seems to most of us
that this is the world we’re living in.
Now, the second assumption is that you are the conscious source
of your thoughts and actions. You feel that you want to move,
and then you move. Your conscious desires
and intentions and thoughts that precede your actions
seem to be their true origin. The conscious part of you
that is experiencing your inner life is actually the author
of your inner life and your subsequent behaviour.
Now, unfortunately, we know that both of these assumptions are false.
The first problem is that we live in a world of cause and effect.
Everything that could possibly constitute your will
is either the product of a long chain of prior causes
and you’re not responsible for them, or it’s the product of randomness,
and you’re not responsible for that, obviously,
or it’s some combination of the two. And however you turn this dial
between the iron law of determinism and mere randomness,
free will makes no more sense. What does it mean to say that
a person acted of his own free will? It must mean that he could have
consciously done otherwise… ..not based on random influences
over which he had no control, but because he, as the conscious
author of his thoughts and actions, could have thought and acted
in other ways. Now, the problem is
that no-one has ever described a way in which mental and physical
events could arise that make sense of this claim.
Consider your generic murderer. OK, his choice
to commit his last murder was preceded by a long series
of prior causes, a certain pattern of electrochemical
activity in his brain, which was the product
of prior causes, some combination of bad genes
and the developmental effects of an unhappy childhood,
whatever influences were impinging upon him
the day he committed his crime. The moment we catch sight
of this stream of causes that precede any conscious experience
and reach back into childhood and beyond,
or beyond the person’s skin into the world…
..the sense of his culpability disappears.
The place where we would place our blame disappears.
To say that he could have done otherwise
is really to say he would have been
in a different universe had he been in a different universe,
or that he would have been a different person
had he been a different person. And as disturbing as I might find
such a person’s behaviour, I have to admit that if I were
to trade places with him, atom for atom,
I would be him and I would behave exactly as he did,
and for the same reasons. There’s no extra part of me
that could resist the impulse to victimise innocent people.
Even if you believe that every human being harbours an immortal soul,
this problem of responsibility remains.
I cannot take credit for the fact that I don’t have
the soul of a psychopath. If I had truly been
in this person’s shoes, if I had an identical brain
or an identical soul in an identical state,
I would have behaved exactly as he did.
So the role of luck in our lives appears decisive.
One has to be very unlucky to have the mind and brain or soul
of a psychopath. But the moral significance of luck
is very difficult to admit. It seems to
completely destabilise us. We seem not to know
how to think about evil in this context.
And yet, in specific cases, we have already changed
our view of evil. Whenever we see the cause
of someone’s behaviour, when we see for instance
that a murderer had a brain tumour, and the brain tumour was
in just such a place in the brain so as to explain
his violent impulses, that person suddenly becomes
a victim of biology. Our moral intuitions shift utterly.
Now, I’m arguing that a brain tumour is just a special case
of physical events giving rise to thoughts and actions.
If we fully understood the neurophysiology
of any murderer’s brain, it would be as exculpatory
as finding a tumour in it. If we could see how the wrong genes
were being relentlessly transcribed, if we could see
how his early life experience had sculpted
the microstructure of his brain in just such a way as to give rise
to violent impulses, the whole conception
of placing blame on him would erode. Now, of course, this is a problem
that scientists and philosophers are aware of,
and many think they have put forward a notion of free will
that can…that can withstand the facts,
and I’ll deal with some of that. There appears to be a poltergeist
in this computer. But I want to argue for a moment
that the problem of free will is actually deeper
than the problem of cause and effect. I mean, most people think we have
this experience of free will and simply we can’t map it on
to physical reality. I think this is an illusion.
Free will doesn’t even correspond to a subjective fact about ourselves.
And if you pay close attention to your experience,
you can see this. Your thoughts simply appear
in consciousness, very much like my words.
What are you going to think next? What am I gonna say next?
I could start just wondering about why we don’t eat owls.
-Why don’t we eat owls? -(LAUGHTER)
They seem perfectly good. Where did that come from?
Well, as far as you’re concerned, it came out of nowhere,
but the same thing happens in the privacy of your own mind.
It’s happening right now. You’ve all made an effort
to be here tonight, presumably because you wanted to hear
what I had to say about free will, and you’re trying to listen to me,
but you have a voice in your head that just says things.
(LAUGHTER) -Haven’t you noticed?
-(LAUGHTER CONTINUES) I’m standing up here
trying to reason with you… ..and you’ll think, “He looks
a little like Ben Stiller.” (LOUD LAUGHTER)
I was hoping I didn’t look THAT much like Ben Stiller.
(LAUGHTER) Thoughts just emerge
in consciousness. OK, we are not authoring them.
We can’t think them… We can’t choose them before we think them.
That would require that we think them before we think them.
If you can’t control your next thought,
and you don’t know what it’s gonna be until it appears,
where is your freedom of will? Now, at this moment
some of you are thinking, “What the hell is he talking about?”
Here is what I’m talking about. You didn’t choose that thought
either. If you’re confused
by what I’m saying, you didn’t create that state.
Conversely, if you understand what I’m saying
and you find it interesting, you didn’t create that either.
Everything is just happening. And that includes your thoughts
and intentions and desires and your most deliberate efforts.
We will come back to that point. Now, of course, in a sense
your brain, our brains, do think our thoughts
before we think them, and they think many things
that we never hear about. We’re conscious
of only a tiny fraction of what goes on in our minds,
and we continually notice changes in our experience,
in thoughts and intentions and moods and resulting behaviour,
but we are utterly unaware of the neurophysiological changes
that produce those changes. Consider the sensation of touching
your finger to your nose. OK, feel free to try this.
It seems simultaneous – it seems like the nose
touches the finger at the same time
the finger touches the nose. And while it may be simultaneous
in the world, we know at the level of the brain
the timing has to be different – it simply takes longer
for the input from the fingertip to reach sensory cortex
than it does from the nose, and this is true no matter how short
your arms or long your nose. (LAUGHTER)
So the experience of the present moment,
even of the simplest sensation, is built upon layers
of unconscious processing that we’re not aware of.
So even apparently simple conscious events
are not entirely what they seem. The present moment is, in some sense,
already a memory that is being buffered.
Now, needless to say, this unconscious machinery
produces not only our perceptions, but our thoughts, intentions,
actions, decisions. And this is where the notion
of free will and moral responsibility begin to get squeezed.
Now, many people have demonstrated in a lab –
in many labs, actually – that a person’s conscious decision
comes after processes that can be detected
and there is a time lag between the moment you think
you’ve decided to do something and the moment at which
your brain decided. And this has been proven –
Benjamin Libet did this with EEG, and this has been done with fMRI
and, actually, direct recordings from the cortices of patients
about to undergo surgery. We know that…
..that even the simplest, most apparently voluntary decision,
like the decision to move your left hand
versus your right hand, or the decision to push
the left button or the right button, when you put people in this paradigm
and you have them watch a clock, a special clock that allows them
to discriminate just in very fine increments of time,
and you ask them simply to make the choice
to move whenever they want to – they can move their left hand
or their right hand – just notice what time it was
on the clock when you finally were aware
of which course you were gonna take, we know that some moments,
half a second, sometimes as much as five seconds
before a person is consciously aware of what they’re going to do –
we can see in the brain what they were committed to doing.
So the experience of deciding during this period where
you still feel that you are free to do anything you want
has already been determined by the state of your brain.
So, needless to say, this time lag is very difficult to reconcile
with free will because in principle
it would allow someone to predict what you’re going to do
while you still think you’re making up your mind.
But the truth is that even if there were no time lag,
even if the conscious intention were truly simultaneous
with the neurophysiological underpinnings,
there would still be no room for free will,
because you still wouldn’t know why it is you do what you do
in that moment. And again, you can notice
this fact about yourself directly. Let’s run a little experiment.
Think of a film, any film, it doesn’t matter –
a good one, a bad one. And notice what your conscious
process of selection is like. Notice first that this is as free a
decision as you’re ever going to get. You have all the films in the world
to choose from, and I’ve simply said, “Pick one.”
Does everybody have a film? I’m sorry to say you’ve all picked
the wrong film. (LAUGHTER)
Don’t ask me how I know that, but I do.
Do it again, pick another film, and just be sensitive
to what the experience is like. Do you see any evidence
for free will there? Let’s look for it.
First, if it’s not here, it’s not anywhere,
so we’d better be able to find it here.
First, let’s rule out all of those films whose names you don’t know
and what you haven’t seen and which you couldn’t have
possibly thought of if your life depended on it.
There’s no freedom in that, obviously.
But then there are all these other films
which you’re perfectly aware of but which simply didn’t
come to consciousness. You absolutely know
that ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is a film, but you just didn’t think of
‘The Wizard of Oz’. Now, think about this.
Were you free to choose that which did not occur to you
to choose? For whatever reason,
your ‘Wizard of Oz’ circuits were not primed in such a way
as to deliver it as a possibility. Of course, if you did think of
‘The Wizard of Oz’, you should consider yourself
a genius. (LAUGHTER)
OK, so you probably thought of several films.
And let’s say you thought of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’
and ‘Avatar’ and ‘Mad Max’. So you’ve kind of converged
on those three and then you go, “Well, I’m
Australian, I’ll go with ‘Mad Max’.” And then you thought, “No, no,
“Mel Gibson is more than a little creepy at this point in his life.”
(LAUGHTER) “So I’m gonna go with ‘Avatar’.”
OK? And you settle on ‘Avatar’. Well, you still don’t know
why you chose ‘Avatar’ over ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.
And this is the sort of decision that motivates the idea of free will.
You go back and forth between two options
and you’re not suffering any obvious constraints from the external world
or any coercion. You appear to be doing all of it –
it’s just you and your thoughts. But when you look closely,
it is a mystery why you chose one over the other.
And you might have a story to tell about it –
you might say, “Well, I saw an animated movie last week
“and ‘Avatar’ is animated, so I remembered that
“and so I just went with ‘Avatar’.” OK, well, the first thing to say
is that we know that those sorts of explanations are almost always wrong.
When you bring people into the lab and manipulate their decisions,
they always have a story about why they did what they did,
and it never bears any relationship to what actually influenced them.
So you can bring people into the lab and give them a hot beverage
as opposed to a cold one to hold in their hands
and get them to cooperate more or to like one person more than another,
and they have no idea that the temperature of the cup in their hands
is influencing them at all. Psychology is just bursting
with evidence of that kind. But even if you’re right
in this case, even if the memory
of the animated film was the thing that steered you to
‘Avatar’ over ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, you still can’t explain
why it had that effect. Why didn’t it have
the opposite effect? Why didn’t you think,
“Well, I just saw an animated film “so I’ll go with something else,
I’ll go with ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.” The thing to notice about this
is that you, the conscious witness of your inner life,
isn’t making these decisions. All you can do is witness
these decisions. You no more picked a film
in the subjective sense than you would have
if I picked it for you. I could have been saying ‘Star Wars’,
‘Hannah and Her Sisters’. These names were just appearing
in consciousness. There was this first moment
where I said, “Pick a film,” and nothing had happened,
and then all of a sudden the names of films started coming to you,
and you didn’t know which they would be until they appeared.
So I’m arguing to you that our experience in life
is actually totally compatible with the truth of determinism.
We don’t have this robust sense of free will
the moment we actually pay attention to how thoughts and intentions arise.
And again, it’s important to notice that this is true whether or not
we have immortal souls, and the case I’m building
against free will does not presuppose
philosophical materialism, the idea that reality
is just entirely physical. No doubt most of reality
is entirely physical and most of mind is produced
by physical changes in our brains. We know that the brain
is a physical system that’s entirely beholden
to the laws of nature. But even if we have souls
that are somehow loosely integrated with the brain,
the unconscious operation of a soul grants you no more free will
than the unconscious neurophysiology of your brain does.
If you don’t know what your soul is going to do next,
you are not in control of your soul. And this is rather starkly obvious
when you think of all of the people who do things
they wish they hadn’t done. Think of the millions of Christians
whose souls just happen to be gay. But it’s true even when you do
exactly what you wish you had done in hindsight.
The soul that allows you to stay on your diet
is just as mysterious as the soul that tempts you
to eat cherry pie for breakfast. So I think it’s safe to say
that no-one has ever argued for the existence of free will
because it holds such promise as an abstract idea.
The endurance of this problem in science and philosophy
is the result of this feeling that most of us have
that we freely author our thoughts and actions.
And, at the moment, the only philosophically respectable way
to defend free will is to adopt a view
in academic philosophy that’s called compatibilism
and to argue that free will is compatible
with the truth of determinism. Now, my friend Dan Dennett,
the philosopher, is a compatibilist, and he essentially makes the claim
that we just have to think about free will differently.
If a murderer commits his crime based on his desire to kill
and not based on some other thing that’s hijacking him,
but his actions are actually an expression
of his real desires and intentions, well, then, that’s all the free will
you need. But from both a moral
and scientific point of view, this seems to miss the point.
But where is the freedom in doing what one wants
when one’s desires are the product of prior events
that one is completely unaware of and had no hand in creating?
So, from my point of view, compatibilism is a little like saying
a puppet is free as long as it loves its strings.
Now, compatibilists push back here. They say that even if our desires
and thoughts and behaviour are the product
of unconscious causes, that doesn’t matter,
because you are the totality of what goes on inside your brain and body.
So your unconscious mental life is just as much you
and your unconscious neurophysiology is just as much you
as your conscious inner life is. OK, but this, to my eyes,
seems like a bait and switch. This trades a psychological fact,
this experience we have, of consciously authoring
our thoughts and actions for a general conception of ourselves
as persons. It’s a little like saying,
“You are made of stardust,” OK, which you are,
but you don’t feel like stardust. And the knowledge
that you’re stardust is not driving your moral intuitions
and influencing our system of criminal justice.
The fact is that most people identify
with a certain channel of information in their conscious minds.
They feel that they are in control, they are the source
and this is an illusion… ..that the you
that you take yourself to be in this present moment
isn’t in control of anything. So compatibilists
try to save free will by saying you’re more than this,
you are the totality of what goes on inside your brain and body.
But you’re making decisions right now with organs other than your brain.
But you don’t feel responsible for these decisions.
Are you making red blood cells right now?
Your body is doing this, hopefully. But if it were to stop,
you wouldn’t be responsible for this. You would be the victim
of this change. So to say that you are responsible
or are identical to everything that goes on
inside your brain and body is to make a claim about you
that bears absolutely no relationship to the experience of conscious
authorship and subjectivity that has made free will a problem
for philosophy in the first place. So what does all this mean?
Well, first let me tell you what it doesn’t mean.
To talk about determinism as a fact is not to argue for fatalism.
The confusion on this point gives rise to questions like,
“Well, if everything is determined, why should I do anything?
“Why not just sit back and see what happens?
“Why not just throw the oars out of the boat
“and just drift through life?” This misses the point.
This is not… To sit back and see what happens
is itself a choice which has its own consequences.
It’s also very hard to do. Just try to stay in bed all day
waiting for something to happen. You’ll soon feel a very strong urge
to get up and do something, and the only way to stay in bed
at that point will be to resist this urge.
Doing nothing actually becomes much harder than doing something
after a very short time. So the fact that our choices
and decisions and efforts depend upon prior causes
doesn’t mean that they’re not important.
If I hadn’t decided to write a book about free will,
it wouldn’t have written itself. You can’t write a book by accident.
So effort and discipline and intention,
all of this matters. Goals…
These are all causal states of the brain
and they lead to behaviours and behaviours lead to
outcomes in the world. So on one level, not much changes.
The choices we make in life are as important
as fanciers of free will imagine. And then, therefore,
fatalism is untrue. The idea that the future is gonna be
what it’s gonna be regardless of what you think and do,
that is untrue – that’s clearly untrue.
But the next thing you think and do is gonna come out
of a wilderness of prior causes which you, the conscious witness
of your inner life, cannot see and did not bring into being.
You have not built your mind. And in the moments
where you seem to build it, when you make an effort
to learn something, when you try to perfect a skill,
the only tools at your disposal are those that you’ve inherited
from moments past. No-one picks their parents
or the society into which they were born.
No-one picks the moment in history where they arrive.
No-one determines how their nervous system gets shaped
from the moment of conception onward. So you are no more responsible
for the structure of your brain, as well as its functional states,
as you are for your height. But I’m not saying
that you can just blame your parents for every bad thing
that happens to you and make no effort
to change yourself. This is a way of misunderstanding
the argument. It is possible to change.
In fact, viewing yourself as a system open to myriad influences
actually makes change seem more possible.
You are by no means condemned to be the person you were yesterday.
In fact, you can’t be that person. The self is not a stable entity.
It is a process. But it is a fundamentally mysterious
process. None of us know how we arrived
at this moment in our lives. There is actually a mystery
here in the present moment that doesn’t get eradicated
even though you have a story to tell about why you think
you did something. We are, at each moment,
simply discovering what our life is. Now, this may sound scary
to some of you, but it actually can be quite freeing
to view the world this way. So our choices matter
and there are paths towards making wiser ones.
There’s no telling how much a good conversation could change you
or how much it might matter to you to surround yourself
with smart people or to get an education.
But you don’t choose to choose what you choose in life.
There’s a regress that always ends in darkness.
You have to take a first step or a last one
for reasons that are bound to remain inscrutable.
And to declare your freedom in this context
is really just a way of saying, “I don’t know why I did that,
but I didn’t mind doing it “and I’d be willing to do it again.”
Now, I don’t mean to belabour the point,
but people have a really hard time understanding this.
Just think of the context in which you are gonna make
your next decision. Whatever it is,
a decision of any size – whether to get married or not,
to go to graduate school or not, to eat at the Chinese restaurant
or the Italian one. Your brain is making choices
based upon beliefs and intentions and states
that have been hammered into it over a lifetime.
Your physical development is something you had no hand in.
You didn’t pick your parents, you didn’t pick your genes,
you didn’t pick any of the influences that shaped your neurophysiology.
You didn’t pick your soul, if you have one.
And yet, this totality of influences and states
will be the thing that produces your next decision.
Yes, you are free to do whatever you want,
but where do your desires come from? OK, so let’s get back to this issue
that I raised at the beginning of this talk.
It seems that this kind of talk begins to undermine
a sense of moral order, and, in fact, this is the position
of the Supreme Court of the United States.
It has said that free will is just a non-starter
in terms of our criminal justice system.
It is…”a universal and persistent assumption” –
that’s a quote – of our criminal justice system.
And determinism is incompatible with the underlying precepts
of our approach to justice. So the idea is actually doing work
in our world. The problem is if we view people
as neuronal weather patterns, it seems to undermine a basis
for placing blame. Now, I think this is actually
a false assumption. I think we can have
a very strong sense of morality and an effective
criminal justice system without lying to ourselves
about the causes of human behaviour. So, what do we condemn most in people
morally and legally? It’s the conscious intention
to do harm. Now, why is the conscious intention
to harm people so blameworthy? Well, consciousness is the context
in which all of our… ..all the qualities of our minds
seem activated. The consciousness is where our
beliefs and desires and prejudices rub up against one another.
What you do on the basis of conscious premeditation
tends to say the most about you and about what you’re likely to do
in the future. If you decide to kill your neighbour
after weeks of deliberation and library research
and debate with your friends… (LAUGHTER)
..well, then, killing your neighbour really says a lot about you.
That really is the sort of person you are.
The point is not that you are the sole independent cause
of your behaviour. The point is, for whatever reason,
you have the mind of a murderer. You’re not ultimately responsible
for the fact that you have that mind, no more so than a crocodile
is responsible for the fact that it is a crocodile.
But a crocodile really is a crocodile and it really will eat you.
If you see one out on the boardwalk tonight,
it’s worth taking seriously. You don’t have to attribute free will
to it to take it seriously. Now, certain criminals are obviously
more dangerous than crocodiles, and we have to lock them up
to keep everyone else safe. Now, the moral justification for this
is entirely straightforward. Everyone is better off that way.
But… And that still makes sense without free will.
What doesn’t make sense is the motive of retribution,
the motive of punishing someone because they deserve it.
That begins to not make sense. We don’t punish crocodiles
because they deserve it. In fact, that hasn’t always
been true. It says in Exodus
that if an ox gores a person and kills him or her,
the ox has to be stoned to death and its meat can’t be eaten.
And, in fact, for hundreds of years in medieval Europe,
Christians held trials for animals that harmed people.
These animals were actually defended by lawyers.
(CHUCKLING) There were actually cases of…
There was a case I just read about of a lawyer who was representing
a large collection of rats that had destroyed a crop,
and his argument to the magistrate was the rats couldn’t appear in court
because there were so many cats about that were gonna do them mischief,
so his client was absent. (CHUCKLING)
OK, this went on for hundreds of years.
We’ve lynched… The latest lynching of an animal
in the United States was in 1916,
where an elephant ran amok out of a travelling circus,
trampled someone in the street, and the good people of Tennessee
decided to lynch it. To get justice, they hung an elephant
from a railroad crane, and they were quite satisfied
with themselves. (LAUGHTER)
So you can see that… I mean, those facts
are macabre and comical now. You can see how we’re prone
to illusions on this front. Now, I’m not ruling out
the possibility that certain punishments
may be necessary to regulate people’s behaviour.
It may be that certain crimes require punishment
in order to be deterred, but that is
a purely pragmatic discussion about human psychology and
the causal efficacy of punishment. It has nothing to do with
retribution. Dispensing with the illusion
of free will allows us to focus
on things that actually matter, like mitigating harm,
deterring crime, assessing risk.
So I’m not arguing that everyone’s not guilty by reason of insanity.
The bad people need to be locked up if that’s all we can do
to keep ourselves safe. And all the distinctions
we care about – the difference between voluntary
and involuntary action, or the moral responsibilities
of an adult versus those of a child – all of those can be conserved
without this notion of free will. In the United States,
we have 13-year-olds serving life sentences for crimes.
I don’t know if this happens in Australia,
but this happens in the US, and it’s not based on
any kind of sane assessment that these children cannot
be rehabilitated. It is based on the sense
that they deserve this punishment, they are the true cause,
the sole cause, of their behaviour, which was so heinous
that they deserve this as a matter of retribution.
That doesn’t make sense when you relax this notion of free will.
The thing you have to admit in the final analysis
is that even the most terrifying people
are, at bottom, unlucky to be who they are,
and that has moral significance. And, once again, even if you think
everyone harbours an eternal soul, the game doesn’t change.
Anyone who’s been born with the soul of a psychopath
is profoundly unlucky. You take one of the most odious
people I can think of, Saddam Hussein’s eldest son,
Uday Hussein. He really is somebody who is…
It’s almost impossible to feel compassion for this man
when you think of him as he was as a man.
I mean, this was somebody who, when he would see a wedding
in progress in Baghdad, would descend
with his thuggish bodyguards and rape the bride.
Sometimes he would rape and kill the bride.
He did this more than once. So, given that we couldn’t capture
him during the course of that war – whatever you think about
the ethics of the war – it was good that we killed him.
Unless you are a total pacifist, you have to admit
that this is what guns are for, to shoot people like Uday Hussein.
(LAUGHTER) But simply walk back
the timeline of his life. Think of him as a 4-year-old boy.
OK, he might have been… His psychopathy might have been
evident even at the age of four. He might have been a scary boy,
but he was also a very unlucky boy. He had Saddam Hussein as a father.
(LAUGHTER) How unlucky can you get?
OK, he was the 4-year-old boy who was going to become
the psychopath Uday Hussein, through no fault of his own,
ultimately. If at any point in his life course
we could have intervened to help him, at four, at five, at six,
at seven, at eight, that would have been
the right thing to do and compassion would have been
the right motive. So the irony is
if you want to be like Jesus and love your enemies,
or at least not hate them, one way into that is to view
human behaviour through the lens of a wider
scientific picture of causation. Now, I’m not saying it would be easy
to adopt this perspective if you or someone close to you
was the victim of a violent crime. This is how we need to see the world
in our more dispassionate moments. But our dispassionate moments
are the source of our thinking about public policy
and scientific truth. To see how fully our moral intuitions
should shift, imagine if we had a cure for evil.
Imagine that we understand exactly what psychopathy
and all its variants are and we can make the necessary changes
in the brain painlessly and safely and easily.
We can just drop the cure into the milk like vitamin D.
So at that point, evil is a nutritional deficiency.
Now imagine the logic, the moral logic,
of withholding the cure for evil from someone
as a punishment for their evil acts. Would it make any sense at all
to say, “No, this person was so evil,
he was so bad, “he caused so much harm,
“that he shouldn’t be given the cure.”
Does that make any sense at all? Imagine withholding surgery
from someone who has a brain tumour as a punishment
when you are sure that the brain tumour was the cause
of their violent behaviour. To my eye,
that makes no sense at all, and that reveals
that this urge for retribution is actually born of not seeing
the causes of human behaviour. When you see the causes,
if we could trace the causes in a fine-grained way,
this notion of vengeance and this notion that people deserve
what they get in this way as punishment
would disappear. And this leads me finally
to the subject of religion, because of course
the notion of God’s justice is entirely a matter of retribution –
people deserve what they get because, based on
their own free will, they are misbehaving.
This is the religious answer to the problem of evil.
When you say, “Well, how did an omnipotent and benevolent god
“allow the Nazis to kill millions of people?”
The answer is, “Well, human beings are endowed with free will
“and therefore God couldn’t control that part.”
Now, obviously that’s not an answer to all of the other mayhem
that’s born of other causes, so tsunamis and epidemic disease.
An omnipotent god seems responsible for those things.
But the religious answer to the problem of human evil
is free will. Free will is what makes sense
of the idea of sin, this idea
that people can consciously, as the sole cause of their behaviour
and belief, turn away from God.
I must be the sole sufficient cause of my unbelief.
This can’t be true. This is…
Not only can this not be true, because beliefs are born
of all of these prior causes – I can’t actually be the cause
of my unbelief – it seems impossible to describe
a universe in which it could be true. And however you tune the variables
of determinism and randomness, free will doesn’t
put in an appearance. There’s no mix of randomness and
determinism that gets you free will. Ironically, one of the fears
that religious people have is that this way of viewing the world
dehumanises us, but, rather, I think it humanises us.
What could be more dehumanising than to say that most people
throughout human history are in some crucial way responsible
for the fact that they were born at the wrong time
to the wrong parents, given the wrong beliefs,
given the wrong religion, the wrong intellectual influences,
and as a result of that, they deserve to be punished
for eternity… ..and the god that designed
this diabolical apparatus is somehow still good.
So, to conclude, I just want to bring this back
to the direct experience of consciousness in the present moment.
It’s generally argued that free will presents us
with a compelling mystery, we have this robust experience
of freedom, and yet we can’t figure out
how to map it onto physical reality. I’m arguing that’s not the case.
I think this is a symptom of our confusion.
The illusion of free will, on my account,
is itself an illusion. There is no illusion of free will.
Thoughts and intentions simply arise. What else could they do?
Now, some of you might think this sounds depressing,
but it’s actually incredibly freeing to see life this way.
It does take something away from life –
what it takes away from life is an egocentric view of life.
Now, we’re not truly separate. We are linked to one another,
we are linked to the world, we are linked to our past
and to history. And what we do actually matters.
Because of that linkage, because of the permeability,
because of the fact that we can’t be the true locus of responsibility,
that’s what makes it all matter. So you can’t take credit
for your talents, but it really matters
if you use them. You can’t really be blamed for
your weaknesses and your failings, but it matters if you correct them.
Pride and shame don’t make a lot of sense in the final analysis,
but they were no fun anyway. These are isolating emotions.
But what does make sense are things like compassion and love.
Caring about wellbeing makes sense. Trying to maximise your wellbeing
and the wellbeing of others makes sense.
There is still a difference between suffering and happiness,
and love consists in wanting those we love to be happy.
All of that still makes sense without free will.
And, of course, nothing that I’ve said
makes social and political freedom any less valuable.
Having a gun to your head is still a problem worth rectifying
wherever intentions come from. So the freedom to do what one wants
is still precious. But the idea that we as conscious
beings are deeply responsible for what we want…
..I think needs to be revised. It just can’t be mapped onto reality,
neither objective nor subjective. And if we’re gonna be guided
by reality rather than by the fantasy lives
of our ancestors, I think our view of ourselves
needs to change. Thank you very much.
Thank you. thank you Now, for those of you
who are still thinking clearly after that onslaught,
it’s time for some questions and discussion for Sam.
There are microphones throughout the auditorium.
There’s one here and here, and one upstairs,
and also, of course, number five and six
for everybody behind us. If you do want to ask a question,
can I ask you to make it brief? We’ve got about 15 minutes,
and obviously we’d like to… ..there are many other things
that Sam has worked on that I’m sure
people will want to talk about, so if I can ask you to make it
reasonably brief. Before we start, I just want to ask
Sam one question – what is the consensus, do you think,
in the scientific community about your argument?
I mean, you’ve mentioned that there are schools of thought,
people like Daniel Dennett, who have a different view.
How close do you think we are to some kind of universal declaration
of the illusory nature of free will? Well, it’s just…
the state of affairs is really that most people
just don’t want to think about it. Most people just think
that there’s no… Most people are powerfully…their
intuitions are powerfully shaped by the illusion, the sense
that they have the freedom to consciously author their thoughts
and actions. So people feel that there is
a compelling, subjective mystery and they don’t…
..no-one has been able to give an argument
about how it would map onto physical reality.
But people feel that the experience is so compelling
that there’s just no reason to worry about it –
this is the state from which we need to live.
Then there are people like Dan who have a different…
..from my view, essentially change the subject.
The disagreement between Dan and myself
is essentially this. We’re living in a world where
most people believe in Atlantis and they believe
in the underwater kingdom and they read Plato closely,
trying to figure out where it was. And I want to say
Atlantis doesn’t exist, it didn’t exist,
people are confused about Atlantis. Dan wants to say
that Atlantis is really Sicily, and he’ll give a whole argument
about why Sicily answers to many of the claims
that people are making about Atlantis.
And I want to say, “No, they’re still talking about being underwater.
“Sicily doesn’t do that.” And he says, “But Sicily is a great
place and there’s reasons to visit “and let’s talk about Sicily.”
And when he and I argue about this, he begins to respond to me as though
I’m saying Sicily doesn’t exist. And so there’s a fair amount
of talking past one another in these kinds of debates.
Of course Sicily exists, but the people who are talking about
an underwater kingdom are, at the very least, confused,
and that’s the situation we’re in with free will.
I can see us scheduling a Sicily/Atlantis conversation
at some stage in the future. We’ll take questions
from the floor now. We’ll go over here –
questioner from number four. Does delusion of free will mean
there is no such thing as self-conscious
and only accident or blame? SAM: I’m sorry,
I missed that last piece. Does delusion of free will mean
there is no such thing as a conscious decision
and there’s only accident or blame? -Accidental blame?
-Accident or blame. So no such thing
as a conscious decision, is there only accident or blame?
Well, so… I’ll answer what I think
you were getting at there. The…
It’s not that consciousness is meaningless,
because… Within philosophy,
the argument that consciousness is always just behind the times
and serves no purpose, it’s called epiphenomenalism.
Consciousness just doesn’t do anything,
it’s just a movie that’s playing. It’s like you could
turn the monitor off your computer and the lights go out,
but your computer is still doing all the things it was doing anyway.
So that the monitor is kind of an epiphenomenon
relative to what the computer’s actually doing.
My argument against free will doesn’t really imply epiphenomenalism
about consciousness because it could be
that certain things have to be promoted to consciousness
in order to have the effects that they have.
It’s just that their promotion isn’t something that we ever,
as conscious witnesses, ever engineer.
So, for instance, I can unconsciously shift in my seat
and do…from time to time to ease various pains
and I can be unaware of any of this, but I can’t unconsciously decide,
“Well, actually this pain in my hip warrants a trip to an orthopaedist.”
So a certain something may have to rise into consciousness
and therefore begin a cascade of other effects that…
You know, the consciousness could be the difference
that makes the difference, and I think it is in many cases,
but it’s still a mystery why that particular thought pattern
arose in that moment. And in the present moment,
it’s always true to say you don’t know what’s coming next
as a matter of consciousness. And…
And the larger context is you didn’t make yourself –
you didn’t pick your parents, you didn’t pick your genome.
Anything that actually explains the totality of what you are
is something you can’t truly own, and so the role of luck
and its moral significance I think is something
we have to talk about. Coming next from number three.
MAN: Hi. Thanks for that, that was great.
My question’s hypothetical, but I think it’s rather plausible.
What should we – and I say ‘we’ as a global community,
maybe rational members of the global community –
do in the event of a faith-based nuclear attack?
(GENTLE LAUGHTER) And perhaps take the position
of a hypothetical president of the United States.
How would you address that? -And maybe…
-(LAUGHTER) And maybe also speculate
how President Obama or President Romney, God forbid.
(LAUGHTER) How they may…
You’ve speculated a little bit. What should we do in the aftermath
of a faith-based nuclear attack? Right, a nuclear 9/11, I guess.
It seems to me that the faith part is not particularly relevant
once the bombs have actually fallen. (LAUGHTER)
Let’s say one. I think what you may be getting at
is just that faith is obviously something I went into in some detail
in my first book, ‘The End of Faith’. The problem with otherworldly faith,
the problem with the idea that you get everything that you
could conceivably want after you die is that it takes
the entirely rational and important motivating component of death
out of the equation. So then you can walk around the world
meeting people who are, in some basic sense, eager to die,
and they’re not bluffing. There are many secular people
and religious liberals and religious moderates
who think that everybody’s bluffing, and it doesn’t matter how many people
make a suicide video and then blow themselves up.
They still think that, in some sense, you can’t trust
people’s representation of their beliefs,
you can’t take that at face value. There’s always some deeper thing –
they’ve been manipulated, they’ve been brainwashed,
it’s politics, it’s economics. It’s never the faith.
And notice, when you see that game being done,
when you see someone looking for a deeper explanation behind religion,
notice the asymmetry here, notice that no-one ever does it
in reverse. No-one ever meets
somebody with a grievance and hears them say,
“I just had no hope, “I couldn’t afford school.
“I was desperate because we’ve been living under occupation for decades.
“I saw no reason to live, “so then I entered the jihad
“because it seemed the only game in town.”
No-one ever hears that. First of all,
you fundamentally never hear that, but let’s say you did hear that.
No-one is tempted to go beneath that and say,
“Well, what’s the real religious motive?”
OK, they’re always looking for an economic or political motive
behind the religion. No-one ever looks for
the religious motive behind the economics or politics.
I’m not saying there is one, but if you play this game
only in one direction, you’ll always be discounting
people’s religious beliefs. So, yeah, I think that faith…
The certainty of paradise is intrinsically dangerous.
One, because it’s very likely false. There’s no good reason to believe it.
So you’re actually failing to maximise
the only circumstance of wellbeing that you can be certain of.
But two, it allows people to do things that would be
unthinkable otherwise. And that’s…
Yeah, so I do worry about that. Up here.
WOMAN: Hi. You talk about treatment instead of punishment.
How do you explain that the coercive treatment
isn’t a violation of the personal autonomy and the personal values
of the offender, and doesn’t that violation
end up constituting a kind of punishment anyway?
Also, why not talk about treatment and punishment at the same time?
Well, it’s just… It’s a question of…
That question is arising in a context in which we don’t understand
the details, and therefore our treatments
for anything at the level of the mind are incredibly coarse,
and if you’re talking about pharmacology,
they have a spectrum of undesirable side effects
and nothing really works all that well.
So you have to imagine the case where we really have a deep understanding
and we really have remedies that work and they don’t come with all of these
other terrible side effects, so you’re not having to weigh
symptoms of the disease versus the symptoms of the cure.
You just… It’s much more analogous
to the antibiotic… Oh, that’s probably not
a good analogy, ’cause there are side effects.
You know, the tumour was removed and no-one is left wondering
whether that was a good idea, because the problem
was discrete enough, the remedy was clear enough
and the outcome was good. In that case,
you’re just talking like… I’m not gonna worry very much
about someone’s right to be a psychopath.
You know, if we have a cure for psychopathy which is…
..you just get it in the milk now… But then we have parents
who don’t like the idea of this cure even though we don’t have
side effects and now they’re raising
psychopathic children who we all have to deal with,
that becomes… ..again, in the grey areas,
it becomes something to debate, because you’re talking about cures
that don’t necessarily work, incomplete understanding,
side effects, and that’s the world in which we’re
gonna be living for a very long time, perhaps forever.
But where things become clear and actionable,
I think our intuitions just naturally change.
It used to seem completely insane to, I would imagine, to even fix
somebody’s teeth. You know, it’s like orthodonture
is this crazy artifice that we have foisted upon ourselves
at some point, and yet now if your kid has
very crooked teeth, it is the compassionate and
not entirely intrusive thing to do to fix them,
and the kid will thank you when they’re old enough
to see the benefit. And so we don’t waste a lot of time
thinking about the ethics of things like that now,
and yet when they’re novel, I think the novelty’s startling.
Sam, I accept your premise about the nonexistence of free will.
I want to explore your assertion that it matters.
You’ve illustrated the point that it matters
largely in reference to the criminal justice system.
For most of us most of the time, our lives don’t intersect
with the criminal justice system. So can you illustrate this assertion
by explaining how you’ve conducted your life differently
since you landed on these ideas about free will?
(LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE) Well, I’ve managed to stay out
of the criminal justice system. (LAUGHTER)
Yeah, so the criminal justice component of it
doesn’t…isn’t something that I deal with on a day-to-day basis,
but the ethical component is and the emotional component is.
And I can tell you it has… it does…
I don’t always see the world this way.
I mean, I sort of have to remind myself that I see the world this way,
and there are many modes in which we all function.
But when I do see the world this way, it completely undercuts
the basis for hatred. There is no rationale
for hating a person. I mean, the equation between the
crocodile and the man with the axe does actually become valid for me
emotionally. Now, again, it sets a very high bar
if I was the person who was attacked, but even in those cases,
when I get into some… ..not physically attacked,
but when I get into some situation with somebody
where I’m liable to take their hostility personally
and find them as the source, something that inspires anger
or hatred or some really negative emotion,
that…viewing with a kind of wider lens
how we both got into that situation, just the bottom drops out
and the logic of indulging that mood falls away.
And that seems to me to be an intrinsically good thing.
Now, people begin to worry, “Well, what about all the good moods?
“Can you still love people… “..while viewing them as part of
this vast fabric of causality?” And I find that…there is
no sacrifice to the good stuff. First of all, things have to be
sort of situationally appropriate. I’m not constantly
looking at my daughter thinking about, “She’s just
a part of the physical universe “and wow, neurotransmitters giving
rise to all this cuteness.” (LAUGHTER)
I mean, that’s not the mode I’m in. But even to think in those terms,
it doesn’t cancel the desire for her happiness.
The love survives the truth. Love…love is not vulnerable
to knowing how things are arising, and knowing how things are arising
doesn’t nullify all the distinctions about the differences, the possible
differences in human experience that we care about.
We still care about living good, happy, easy…
..positive lives, and what else could we care about?
We’re really almost out of time, but out of fairness
I want to take one quick question from each of these microphones,
so if we can start over here, please. MAN: Hello. How you doing?
Basically, when we all go home tonight,
I’m sure some of us will be told, if we’re lucky, that we’re loved
by our families and partners and things,
and I’m sure a lot of people in here will be thinking,
“Yeah, but that’s not your decision.” Like, “You love me,
but that just derives “from events that are
out of your control.” -(LAUGHTER)
-SAM: Right. And although I found your argument
very compelling, that facet is a bit depressing to me,
that no-one actually loves me if they don’t make the choice.
-So… -(LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)
Yeah, are you a bit unhappy with the idea that –
I don’t want to get a bit personal – but your wife didn’t
make the decision to love you, she just does?
-Do you find that a bit depressing? -(LAUGHTER)
How do you deal with that? (LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)
Well, it’s… It’s not that…
(LAUGHTER) I think stripping off the illusion
doesn’t just change all the bad stuff leaving all the good stuff
exactly as it was. I think there is a cost to…
You lose certain kinds of pleasures or they become…
..you can’t take them as seriously as you otherwise would.
And if you are… If you want to be
sufficiently adolescent about it, you could regret the loss of it.
You know, it’s sort of like losing Santa Claus.
When you lose Santa Claus, you’ve actually lost something.
It didn’t get replaced by something that consoles you
in precisely the same way. So Christmas got a little less fun
when Santa Claus was fully debunked, and yet believing in Santa Claus
and things like Santa Claus has so many other costs
that you just couldn’t indulge it even if you wanted to.
And so there are some Santa Claus-like things
that you lose, perhaps. I haven’t spent a lot of time
thinking about what they all are, but…
It’s not… You’re sort of asking…
Implicit in your question is that there may be some choice here,
but there’s no… Either this seems to be
the way the world is to you or it doesn’t seem that way,
and you can’t choose to believe one way or the other
based on how it makes you feel, or at least if you do succeed
in doing that, you should be pretty sure
you’re deceiving yourself. The way the belief makes you feel
can’t be one of your reasons for believing it.
You’ve got to believe it based on what you think is true.
But, on the whole, I find that almost entirely…
..the change almost entirely positive.
All of the negative states of mind that become so intractable
and just motivate people to waste their entire lives, really,
are undercut by this… ..are anchored to this illusion.
And the depth to which we can take things personally…
I mean, so if I read my Twitter feed and I see all the people hate me
and think I’m an idiot and all the people misunderstand
the thing I just said and… ..the moment I begin to lock in
and take it personally, well, then it’s just like
picking up a hot coal. I mean, there’s nothing good
about it. But an ability to disengage from that
and to see the illusion of that does come at the cost of
you can’t indulge the good stuff at the same level you otherwise would.
So again, pride and hatred are sort of on a similar level.
So how proud can I be of something? Let’s say I do something exactly
the way I wanted to have done it and it’s a success
and everyone tells me that was great. “No-one could have done it
the way you just did it. “Don’t you feel good about yourself?”
When I look closely, I can’t really make much out of that moment,
and it’s not… ..so therefore I can’t
really be so motivated by that kind of turn of events.
I just can’t feel… I see too much of how
luck was involved and other people’s contributions
and just stuff I wasn’t aware of. And it’s like hitting a golf ball –
sometimes it goes great and you feel like Tiger Woods,
and sometimes it goes into the woods. And the indulgence of taking credit
for the one so fully and feeling like a schmuck
for the other, that vacillation between the two
at a certain point becomes just a source of suffering.
It’s just not…it’s an illusion. It’s a dream you can wake up from.
Paradoxically, you can still want to play golf
and still have fun playing golf, it’s just you’re less miserable.
(LAUGHTER) And a quick question from you.
-Hi, Sam. -SAM: Hi.
I’m just wondering, you mentioned a couple of times the…
..sort of being unlucky if you were born with bad genes
or, you know, to be a psychopath or something like that.
And I’m just wondering, is there any evidence to your knowledge
that there is such a thing as, like, a psychopath gene
or an equivalent, something like that?
Oh, yeah. We… The genetics of it
are not totally worked out. The contribution, it’s not like
Huntington’s disease, where it’s 100% contribution
and we know what genes are involved. But, yeah, clearly there’s
a genetic component to psychopathy. And so there are people who have
this complement of genes who don’t wind up being psychopaths
but they can have some of the traits…
..there’s a scale of traits of psychopathy.
And it’s, you know, some, like almost everything that we care about,
some combination of genes and environmental influences
that cause it. So this has been a classic opening
for a Festival of Dangerous Ideas – golf, Ben Stiller, psychopaths
and a cherished illusion going out the window.
So I’m hoping you’re all going to head out into the night
relieved of the burden of free will, hoping that you’re lucky,
that you ended up with the right parents.
Sam will be signing books in the foyer as we leave here.
I’d like you to join me in thanking him,
and I hope to see you over the weekend.
SAM: Thank you. Thank you very much. you