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  • 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.

  • -(LAUGHTER) -OK?

  • 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.