Free Will — Are Psychopaths Free?

You do not have free will. No one does.

Many seem to have absolutely no awareness of how fortunate one must be to succeed at anything in life, no matter how hard one works. One must be lucky to be able to work. One must be lucky to be intelligent, physically healthy, and not bankrupted in middle age by the illness of a spouse. — Sam Harris

For the past two months, ever since I have written my The Concept of Hell is Absurd article, I have attempted to write down my own understanding of free will, since that was what was criticized the most in the blog post.

My conclusions:

  1. Saying ‘we are pre-determined’ is often times misunderstood. Most confuse it with Fatalism.
  2. Scientific research supports the claim that there is no free-will.
  3. There is no such thing as the ‘Self’.
  4. We are not free.
  5. Psychopaths are not free.

Quick Definitions:

Determinism: every event occurred because of conditions that preceded the event.

Fatalism: the point of view that there is no point in doing anything, since everything is determined, why bother.

Consciousness: the thing that we call the ‘Self’. The me in between the eyes.

Fatalism vs. Determinism

One of the more common responses to my blog post on Hell, was that if you truly believe in no “free will” then you have no ground for doing anything at all. Why not just relax and chill if everything is determined?

In the words of Sam Harris: “This is pure confusion” (33). It is true that if you chose to sit back you would not have done anything. If I have not decided to write this blog, I would not have completed it. But it is no coincidence that I am writing on free will and not on how Stephen Curry played in his last game. The topic of interest is something that I have been wired to have.

Actors, writers, and athletes say the same: they were born to do what they are doing. It is important to say that it is our utmost responsibility to do things, even if our brains have been wired to prefer different things from other people.

Choices, efforts, intentions, and reasoning influence our behavior — but they are themselves part of a chain of causes that precede conscious awareness and over which we exert no ultimate control. My choices matter — and there are paths toward making wiser ones — but I cannot choose what I choose. — Sam Harris

If you believe in some sort of understanding of free-will, you’d still have to agree with the above statement. Things are in some way predetermined, even if we consider these actions to be ‘free’ actions, they are still the result of some experience that we have, or some understanding that we have of the universe/ourselves.

Research on Free Will

Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next — a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please — your brain has already determined what you will do. You then become conscious of this “decision” and believe that you are in the process of making it. — Sam Harris

It all comes down to research, and whether we can empirically prove that free-will is unscientific. Consider the following research on determinism:

  1. Benjamin Libet (physiologist) — showed that activity in “brain’s motor cortex” can be observed 300 milliseconds before the individual has decided that he needs to move.
  2. When using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging): Subjects were asked to press one of two buttons while watching a “clock” composed of a random sequence of letters that appeared on a screen. They reported which letter was visible at the moment they decided to press one button or the other. The experiments found two brain regions that contained information about which button subjects would press a full 7 to 10 seconds before the decision was consciously made.
  3. Direct recordings from the cortex showed that activity of 256 neurons was sufficient to predict with an 80 percent accuracy that a person made a decision to move 700 milliseconds before he became aware of it.

For Sam Harris it comes down to the question: “I cannot decide what I will next think or intend until a thought or intention arises. What will my next mental state be? I do not know — it just happens. Where is the freedom in that?” (p.8-9)

Albert Einstein Dismissed Free Will

Most people still believe we do have Free Will. Einstein would be quick to disagree. Robert Lanza, in his book Biocentrism, says that “much experiment evidence since 1998 shows that [free-will], too, may be an illusion” (121).

Lanza, echoing Einstein, says that there is an entire ‘house-of-cards’ separation between us and others, the body and the exterior, nature verses ourselves. All of these are based on neural connections that change the way we view reality. As will be argued below, this adds up if we understand how limited our concept of ‘the Self’ really is.

The Self is Non-Existent

None of us is the same in old age as he was in youth. None of us is the same tomorrow morning as he was the day before. Our bodies are carried away like rivers. . . . I remember you once treated the commonplace that we do not run into death suddenly, but proceed by degrees: we die every day. Every day some part of our life is taken away — Letters, Seneca.

Tutor to Nero: Seneca

According to Jan Westerhoff, there seem to be four factors involved in the Idea of the Self. (1) Our self is inside the body, (2) the perception of us is unchanging and continuous, (3) the self is the unifier, and (4) the self is an agent (Reality: A Very Short Introduction, p. 58). There is no soul in the mind. And the idea of the Self is only the brain’s perception of that which seems present behind the eyes.

The Self is an illusion. There is no ego. Friedrich Nietzsche denied it. So did his predecessor David Hume. Buddhists have also been in conflict with the view for over 2 millennia, so have the Greeks. There is skepticism in all of these traditions about the Self, including physics, psychology, and psychiatry. I am not alone to think this.

There is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming. ‘The doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed — the deed is everything. . . . our entire science still lies under the misleading influence of language and has not disposed of . . . the ‘subject’ — Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, 1887.

Daniel Dennett said that to prove this it would merely suffice to collect the number of different life stories that are told about someone to prove how different the ‘Self’ actually is.

Tony Kelly says that the Self is simply a “grammatical mistake”. We say my house, my car, and my self, as if it was a thing like a house or a car.

Robert Lanza says that there is no ‘me’ that is ‘looking out’. That everything is within. Colors don’t exist. Objects don’t exist. Everything is just a visual fabrication of that which is truly happening within the universe. He extends that even further dismissing the concept of individual consciousness and rather argues for a collective consciousness.

Philosophers as early as Socrates have argued this. In Plato’s Phaedo, when Socrates was awaiting execution trying to offer his family reassurance, he said that “I am not my body, but my rational soul, which will continue and flourish better without a body.” Plato (the bro that documented everything that Socrates said) argued in the Symposium that we want to have children because it’s the nearest to immortality we’ll ever be able to come to.

We are walking around but you actually don’t see your head (Douglas Harding). If you look for the center of experience it is like we are indeed having an experience. If you look for a subject then that sense of center can drop out. That is like the “flow state” that is so famously recognized as an experience where you completely escape and no longer focus on the action. There’s just a moment of pure flow and unified sense of experience.

Another note on this is that this supports our claim that we are not subject to our bodies. That is to say, there is no place in your brain where your ego is hiding. Impulses that initiate behavior are in the neurons in the brain, which are all dependent on each other. If we were to affect certain parts of the brain, we’d affect the person that we are. Philosopher Daniel C. Dennett elaborates on this in his book, Where am I?

Since this is our understanding on the Self, it would only make sense to extend that a little bit further to the idea of free will. If there is no self and everything is just the processing of neurons in the brain, how can we be separate from these impulses that lay deeply in our psyche?

This leads us to consider this pressing question:

Are We Free?

Even if you believe that every human being harbors an immortal soul, the picture does not change: Anyone born with the soul of a psychopath has been profoundly unlucky. — Sam Harris (pp. 53)

Objectively we know that everything you are consciously aware of is all preceded by events in your nervous system of which you are not aware. The state of your being is the result of variables which you have not influenced and chosen. You haven’t created your neuro-physiology, as Harris would argue.

You didn’t pick your parents.

You didn’t pick the society you were born into.

Yet everything you think and do arises from this ocean of things that were made before you were born.

Most people resist this idea. When actually this is the antidote to hatred. It is the recipe for gratitude, love, and acceptance. You appreciate who you are because it is literally “a gift”.

Sam Harris elaborates:

Your thoughts are the result of your brain a causal framework. Your thoughts and intentions matter because they are the proximate result of your mind, not because you are free to think whatever you wants, but because you are not free. Whether you understand it matters absolutely.

You are part of reality, whatever it is. Your belief about the world is formed because of a perfect crucible of primer causes. If you change your mind, it is not because of this one conversation.

There is a difference between knowledge and dillusion. Knowledge can produce a change in the universe (unless some law of nature prevents it). Given the right knowledge you can change anything. What we do as a species based on our ignorance may very well destroy us. So the stakes could not have been higher.

Knowledge is what changes your opinion. In order for that to happen you need to understand the complexity of the issue, in this case free will.

Psychopaths and the Mass Shooting in the States

Of late, there have been many incidences in the States of mass shootings. It is sad because it happens every week and all the time. The biggest ones, as you know, are the recent ones in Orlando, Vegas, and now Texas.

As was expressed earlier, our notion of the absence of free will, actually provides humility, gratitude, and a sense of responsibility. We understand how fortunate we are to be born into these conditions and we act on this knowledge with thankfulness.

Sam Harris for example says the same about men and women on death row. They are a combination of bad genes, environments, and bad ideas. No human is held accountable for his genes, because he doesn’t have anything to do with them, yet our genes determine our characters.

Our system of justice should reflect an understanding that any of us could have been dealt a very different hand in life. In fact, it seems immoral not to recognize just how much luck is involved in morality itself” (54).

What is the Point of Punishing People?

Whether we punish people for things they can not influence has a lot to do with the fatalistic understanding that was explained in the beginning.

Harris argues that natural catastrophes such as earthquakes and hurricanes are similar to psychopaths. We fight epidemics and wild dangerous animals without attributing a sense of free will to them. He says that we should also be able to intelligently dispose of a threat posed by these “dangerous people without lying to ourselves about the ultimate origins of human behavior” (56). He says we need a justice system that is able to provide an accurate assessment of guilt, innocence and potential risks that the person would pose to society.

But the logic of punishing people will come undone — unless we find that punishment is an essential component of deterrence or rehabilitation. — Sam Harris (pp. 56)

He then continues, that “it seems clear that a desire for retribution, arising from the idea that each person is the free author of his thoughts and actions, rests on a cognitive and emotional illusion — and perpetuates a moral one” (p.58).

Maybe a more efficient means of punishment for certain criminals would be something other than containment and rehabilitating them from society. That is a whole different discussion, a very interesting one. Maybe one that I’d like to look at and write about in the future.

One way of viewing the connection between free will and moral responsibility is to note that we generally attribute these qualities to people only with respect to actions that punishment might deter. I cannot hold you responsible for behaviors that you could not possibly control.

If we made sneezing illegal, for instance, some number of people would break the law no matter how grave the consequences. A behavior like kidnapping, however, seems to require conscious deliberation and sustained effort at every turn — hence it should admit of deterrence. if the threat of punishment could cause you to stop doing what you are doing, your behavior falls squarely within conventional notions of free will and moral responsibility. (pp. 58–9).

Final Remarks

As we have seen there are many reasons to believe that our freedom is very limited. Recent scientific research has suggested that we do not have any freedom. We know that our upbringing and our genes (nurture and nature) have a lot to do with the way we act.

In the end, this reality guides us to a sense of humility, gratitude, and patience for those around us. That is why I think it is important for us to discuss it and adopt it’s teachings into our justice system.

More on This Topic

More on this issue (I only included links and books that I personally have read. I do not like recommending things that I weren’t helpful and brilliant to me):

Sam Harris on his book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion


Free Will, by Sam Harris.

Reality: A Very Short Introdcution, by Jan Westerhoff.

Ancient and Modern Insights about Individuality, Life, and Death, Sorabji.

To Finish it off:

An incredible passage from the book Free Will (was too long to include in the main part of the blog):

It is wise to hold people responsible for their actions when doing so influences their behavior and brings benefit to society. But this does not mean that we must be taken in by the illusion of free will. We need only acknowledge that efforts matter and that people can change. We do not change ourselves, precisely — because we have only ourselves with which to do the changing — but we continually influence, and are influenced by, the world around us and the world within us. It may seem paradoxical to hold people responsible for what happens in their corner of the universe, but once we break the spell of free will, we can do this precisely to the degree that it is useful. Where people can change, we can demand that they do so. Where change is impossible, or unresponsive to demands, we can chart some other course. In improving ourselves and society, we are working directly with the forces of nature, for there is nothing but nature itself to work with. — Sam Harris (pp. 62–3)



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Jakub Ferencik

Author of “Up in the Air” & “Beyond Reason” available on AMAZON | MA McGill Uni | Research assistant for EUROPEUM Prague | 550+ blog posts with 1+ mil. views