Einstein’s Unheralded Prescription for Peace

Albert Einstein’s insight into the nature of existence was profound. His revolutionary explanation for what’s happening when an apple falls from a tree was so different from Newton’s that it redefined time, space and gravity.

Albert Einstein in 1947 photographed by Philippe Halsman

I couldn’t believe it when the editors of TIME Magazine put Einstein on the cover of their person of the century issue and did not change the issue’s title to SPACE-TIME. I thought that would have been a no-brainer.

Einstein transformed humankind’s understanding of existence itself when he theorized that humanity’s conception of time and space as mutually exclusive, absolute things was illusory. His theories of special and general relativity represent unequivocally mind-blowing acts of creative insight and sense-making. We have a better understanding of reality because of Einstein’s genius, and that better understanding matters in important ways.

Take GPS satellites for example. We know that time and space do not exist as they seem to us, because GPS technology works as it does, relying on Einstein’s genius as it quickly, precisely and accurately determines the location of any spot on our planet.

While Einstein is best known for his paradigm-shifting ideas about space and time, a different convention-busting idea he believed in — one about the human condition itself — has more profound practical implications.

Einstein thought that free will was an illusion. One that causes people to misunderstand what they are. Einstein did not believe that people were the free-willing conscious agents that most people see themselves as. He thought people misunderstand what’s happening when they make a choice or a decision.

Einstein wrote about the subject in 1932 in My Credo:

“I do not believe in free will. Schopenhauer’s words: ‘Man can do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wills,’ accompany me in all situations throughout my life and reconcile me with the actions of others, even if they are rather painful to me. This awareness of the lack of free will keeps me from taking myself and my fellow men too seriously as acting and deciding individuals, and from losing my temper.”

Einstein did not believe that people have the ability to freely choose between the options before them at the moment of any apparent choice. Rather, he thought the entire universe was governed by immutable laws of physics. Einstein believed that every event that occurs in reality, including the events occurring in our brains that give rise to our thoughts and desires, are subject to these laws. He summarized his view during an address to the Spinoza Society of America in 1932, and gave humanity an idea that I see as an unheralded prescription for peace — inner peace for each and everyone of us, as well as for peace on Earth too:

“Our actions should be based on the ever-present awareness that human beings in their thinking, feeling, and acting are not free but are just as causally bound as the stars in their motion.”

In a letter he penned in 1950 to a distraught friend who had lost a young child to polio, Einstein offered the following thoughtful reflections:

“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe’ — a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and feelings, as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Einstein did not say or write the words below, I did; but I think they reflect ideas he would agree with. What do you think?

Einstein’s view about free will is shared by many notable scientists and philosophers, and it’s worthy of consideration if one is committed to being guided by reality and reason versus intuition and blind faith in a plot detail found in a creation myth in an old book.

As human beings we’re prone to sensory misperceptions, failings of intuition and cognitive biases. If free will is a fiction created by humanity and perpetuated as a cultural cornerstone from one generation to the next, as Einstein believed, it’s critical to understand this illusion’s impact on society’s institutions, mores and values. So much of what is important to people hinges on the question of whether or not we have free will.

Author and neuroscientist Sam Harris sums it up like this:

“The question of free will touches nearly everything we care about. Morality, law, politics, religion, public policy, intimate relationships, feelings of guilt and personal accomplishment — most of what is distinctly human about our lives seems to depend upon our viewing one another as autonomous persons, capable of free choice. 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. Without free will, sinners and criminals would be nothing more than poorly calibrated clockwork, and any conception of justice that emphasized punishing them (rather than deterring, rehabilitating, or merely containing them) would appear utterly incongruous. And those of us who work hard and follow the rules would not deserve our success in any deep sense. It is not an accident that most people find these conclusions abhorrent. The stakes are high.”

So high that regardless of how abhorrent these conclusions may seem, exploring how they might be valid is important, given the growing amount of empirical evidence supporting that people don’t exercise free will when they make a choice.

Despite how persuasive the subjective experience of making a decision may seem to confirm the existence of free will, closer examination reveals that the notion that humans possess the freedom to choose appears unrealistic both objectively and subjectively.

Objectively — we live in a cause and effect reality that is governed by laws that dictate, either deterministically or probabilistically, the outcome of every event that occurs. Leaving aside the question about whether or not the future is predetermined, given what we know about how the universe works, it’s impossible to offer a coherent explanation of how someone could consciously control their will. Events occurring in your brain that give rise to thoughts or intentions are subject to the same immutable laws governing everything else in the cosmos. Such events are necessarily the result of prior causes, any number of which were obviously beyond your control. You did not choose your parents or your genes, nor did you choose the culture that you were born into.

Subjectively — our thoughts, intentions and desires arise within our consciousness. A few moments of quiet introspection spent examining your own thoughts quickly belie the notion that you’re exercising free control over what you think or want. Go ahead and try to not think a single thought for five minutes. Good luck. If you had free will, if you possessed conscious control of your thoughts, not thinking any thoughts, on demand, would be possible, wouldn’t it? Or how about this question: which ice cream flavor do you prefer, chocolate or vanilla? Whatever your preference is at the moment, are you free to genuinely prefer the other one? Granted your preferences may change over time, but clearly you are not free to consciously control what you want.

Monitoring brain activity, in experiments first conducted as long ago as the 1980’s, scientists have been correctly predicting a person’s decision to move a finger or raise one of their hands before that person had become consciously aware of their decision to do so. In time, scientists will unravel more mysteries about the most complex object in the known universe — the human brain, and the growing collection of empirically-validated stories about the unconscious origins of human thoughts and intentions will continue to illuminate the precise causes of different human behaviors.

The “culture war” over the existence of free will that Sam Harris alludes to is really just another battle in the ongoing war between faith-based religion and science. Questions about the origins of our universe and whether or not human consciousness survives the death of the body are familiar topics of debate in this fight. I hope, against the odds, that Sam is mistaken about how antagonistic this battle will be. How incongruent really, if at all, is the idea that free will is an illusion to believers of faith-based traditions? Many religious people claim to believe there is a divinely ordained plan for their lives. How does one reconcile this belief with the idea that people have free will to author their own plan for their lives?

Remember, it’s because we know better about time and space and gravity that the Global Positioning System enables us to reliably report the location of any spot on Earth. What will knowing better about the human condition and the actual antecedents of human behavior make possible? What does a world that knows better about the illusion of free will look like? Like Einstein’s better explanation about time and space, his better explanation about what is happening when someone “makes a choice” has revolutionary implications for humanity.

I’m echoing Sam Harris and other free-will skeptics when I assert that not believing in free will does take something away from life; it takes away an egocentric or self-centric view of life, and replaces it with one recognizing that we are not truly separate from one another. Rather, we are all linked to each other and to the world around us, and everything that we do matters, because of these connections.

Quoting Harris again:

“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 well-being makes sense. Trying to maximize your well being and the well being 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.”

My free will skepticism does impact what I mean when I use words like intention, decision and choice. Regardless of that, all of these things still matter without free will because of the role they play in the ongoing, cause-and-effect chain of events that is my life, and the universe itself, unfolding before me.

Replacing the cultural cornerstone belief in free will with a scientific understanding of the actual origins of human thoughts and intentions will result in a better apprehension of the role that chance or luck plays in life. The reasonable response to personal successes would be feelings of gratitude, rather than pride. While personal failings and being wronged by others would inspire feelings of compassion and nonjudgmental understanding, instead of shame and hate. “Get over yourself!” would become the goto admonishment for people mistakenly blaming or crediting themselves for a notable success or a formidable failure. With the belief in free will out of the way, society will be in a better position to focus on the genuine root causes of problems, and to work efficiently and effectively to identify what change is required to bring about the desired result.

Dispelling the illusion of free will will result in a fundamental shift in how people think about personal responsibility. Our criminal justice system and our mental health care system would be obvious targets for reform as a result. The belief in free will is ostensibly valuable because of the role it plays in shaping societal norms about moral responsibility and how they, in turn, affect human behavior. Many view a belief in free will as a prerequisite for maintaining order in society; they think it provides the rationale for viewing individuals as morally culpable for their actions based on the belief that people consciously control their desires and intentions. This misunderstanding of the human condition leads people to think that perpetrators of crimes deserve retributive punishment because they supposedly freely chose to violate the law. A correctly calibrated system of law and order would be a consequentialist one where the rationale for punishment is deterrence rather than retribution. One doesn’t need to believe in free will, and view people as morally responsible for their behavior in order to understand the practical necessity of holding everyone legally accountable for their actions for the sake of public safety.

Society’s conception of “mental illness” is also ripe for a revolutionary rethinking in light of the fact that absolutely no one is able to consciously choose what he or she will think or want next.

John Horgan is a science journalist who published a review of Free Will in Scientific American entitled “Will This Post Make Sam Harris Change His Mind About Free Will?” which included the following:

“But the strange and wonderful thing about all organisms, and especially our species, is that mechanistic physical processes somehow give rise to phenomena that are not reducible to or determined by those physical processes. Human brains, in particular, generate human minds, which while subject to physical laws are influenced by non-physical factors, including ideas produced by other minds. These ideas may cause us to change our minds and make decisions that alter the trajectory of our world. Some of us have a greater capacity to perceive and act on choices than others. The killer with a brain tumor, the schizophrenic, the sociopath, the obsessive-compulsive do not and cannot make decisions — or change their minds — in the way that I do.”

First off, Horgan’s assertion that the human mind is influenced by “non-physical factors,” like ideas from other human minds, is facile and misleading. Asserting that an idea is a “non-physical” factor ignores that ideas can only be shared after they have been instantiated in some physically sensible form. Only after an idea has been expressed in writing, or in spoken language, or as a picture or a model, etc., can it be perceived by someone else, thereby causing some physical brain change and corresponding “change of mind” in another person.

Next, Horgan’s view about “making decisions” and “perceiving and acting on choices” is also confused. Thalia Wheatley, Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth, writing about “choices” describes how confused:

“Choice is simply a fanciful shorthand for biological processes we do not yet apprehend. When we have communicated that — when references to choice occupy the same rhetorical space as the four humors — we will be poised to realize public policy in harmony with a scientific understanding of the mind.”

As someone who believes in free will, Horgan asserts that “the schizophrenic, the sociopath, [and] the obsessive-compulsive do not and cannot make decisions — or change their minds” like he does. It’s attitudes like this one that lie at the heart of the stigma associated with mental illness. Horgan asserts that he possesses more control over what he will think or want next than someone who is exhibiting signs of mental illness. This is a fallacy. He has the exact same amount of conscious control over his will as any other person with or without mental illness: absolutely none. Plus referring to a person as an “obsessive-compulsive” or a “schizophrenic” versus someone suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder or schizophrenia ignores what we’ve learned about brain plasticity, and implies that people exhibiting signs of mental illness will necessarily continue to do so for the rest of their lives.

People with mental illness have no less conscious control over their behavior or their lives than anyone else does. Rather, they are simply exhibiting thought and behavioral patterns described in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Horgan and billions of other people incorrectly conflate “exhibiting signs of mental illness” with “having less control over your life.” It’s not that John Horgan has more control over what he will think or want next, rather he’s simply fortunate that he apparently doesn’t habitually think and behave in ways described in the DSM. In other words, he’s lucky.

The reasonable response would be for him to be grateful for his good fortune, but instead, he egotistically asserts that he possesses choice perceiving and decision making capabilities that mentally ill people do not, and worse, cannot possess. I think that John Horgan and many other people who insist they have free will incorrectly identify themselves as the sole or primary causal source of their thoughts and intentions because they first glimpse ideas and impulses as they emerge within their own consciousness. (Note: I made this same mistake for over 40 years until I watched this video.)

I’m not a scientist, nor an academic, far from both actually, but I am surely not alone in thinking that Horgan is mistaken. I have quite a bit of company actually. A lack of belief in the “self” — a fixed nexus of conscious control residing within a person — is not uncommon. There’s the Buddha, Einstein and Sam Harris for starters. There’s experimental psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist Bruce Hood; author of The Self Illusion and German philosopher Thomas Metzinger author of The Ego Tunnel, to name a couple more.

To be clear, I do see value in the idea of the self, practically speaking, just like I see value in the practicality of referring to and relating to time and space as mutually exclusive things. I have no confusion when using the time-keeping and GPS technology in my iPhone to meet someone at a particular place at a particular time. Similarly I can recognize the illusory nature of the self while still being able to make sense of my experiences, for myself and for others, by creating narratives about them that provide meaning and purpose to my life. A sense of personal identity emerges from these narratives. Creating, and believing in stories about ourselves and others, that connect us, that connect our minds to the physical world that we inhabit are how we make sense of the reality around us and how we communicate and connect with other people.

Humanity’s capability to do this: to create and believe in fictional narratives, sets us apart from other animals, as historian Yuval Noah Harari explains in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. The global monetary system is one such fiction that exemplifies how a shared belief in an imaginary social construct enables strangers to effectively cooperate with one another. In other words, an illusion can be practically useful as a way to organize and coordinate behavior in spite of its nonexistence in reality.

There is significant potential value to be gained, through the reduction of suffering, if more people consciously recognize the illusory nature of free will. Facing the reality that what we want… what we think… what we will… is caused by factors and events, biological and environmental, that are patently beyond our conscious control is an idea that could cause peace to break out.

The sooner humanity collectively recognizes the potential value of this likely correct revolutionary re-conception of what it means to be a human being, and what causes people to behave as they do, the sooner we will be in a position to take reasonable steps to solve previously intractable problems.

Suicide is a scourge beyond compare. The pain and suffering resulting from suicidal behavior and death by suicide in this country is staggering, as is the resulting financial cost. The suicide awareness and prevention movement in this country is approaching a critical goal: arresting the rising suicide rate.

Adding my voice, with some help from audacious Al, to the friendly war of ideas opposing a belief in free will to uproot widely-held stigma reinforcing dogmas about suicide and mental illness is a way to help transform the conversation about extraordinary states of human consciousness and the behavior that results from them.

It’s clear, Einstein thought suicide attempters had no choice at the moment of their suicide attempt. Rather, he thought a suicide attempt was caused by a person’s biology and the sum total of their experiences, versus being consciously chosen by the attempter. To save lives we must focus on breaking this cause and effect chain of events that leads people towards a suicidal crisis.

Educating as many people as possible, as quickly as possible about the warning signs of suicide and how to get help if one recognizes them in oneself or someone else is one effective way to save lives. So too is advocating that our law and policy makers dedicate more public resources to reduce the mortality of suicide. There is abundant evidence to suggest that an increase in resources spent on reducing suicide’s mortality in the U.S. would result in a significant decrease in the suicide rate.

Please consider adding your voice to the growing number of people speaking up and speaking out about this preventable, tragic loss of life. Join the fight to bring about the beginning of the end of suicide by urging everyone you love, care about and know to learn the warning signs of suicide, and that there is always someone available to provide help.

Working to increase the likelihood that someone at risk of dying by suicide will seek help when they need it is another important, worthwhile endeavor.

Joining the growing number of suicide attempt survivors who share about their lived experience is another effective way to save lives. DeQuincy Lezine, Kevin Hines, Leah Harris, Dese’Rae Stage and a growing number of other people speak openly and publicly about their personal experience with suicidal thoughts, intentions and behavior. They are exposing the ways of thinking that cause people to completely or partially hide their suffering, and not actively seek the help they need.

I am unable to find words to adequately express how grateful I am to be able to breathe. At age 27, on the morning of March 2nd 1998, I had what is commonly referred to as a near death experience due to suicidal behavior. Over the last nineteen years, countless hours of thoughtful introspection and contemplation coupled with extensive informal study of psychology, behavioral health disorders, and the brain, have helped me to unwind, unpack and understand the cause and effect relationships between the events that preceded my suicidal crisis. Viewed through the lens of free will skepticism, my nearly fatal experience seems more like the result of an unlikely perfect storm of conditions and events colliding versus a consciously deliberate, intentional act. I’m grateful to have had this remarkable and transformative experience and to still be alive and able to talk about it. By publicly sharing about the circumstances leading up to, and the lessons learned since then, I hope to reveal insights about the suicidal mindset specifically, and “mental illness” in general that may provide at least some small measure of understanding and peace to those left to mourn and remember loved ones, friends or colleagues who have died by suicide. I hope too that frankly sharing about the thoughts, intentions, and actions that preceded me nearly dying by suicide will cause anyone going down similarly self-destructive paths to change course and avoid suicidal behavior altogether.

I am all in, wholeheartedly trying to make the most of my second chance at life. Please join me in this worthwhile cause to reduce suicide. The life you save could be your own or that of someone you love.