If you had the exact chemical composition of Ted Bundy, then you would be a serial killer. Your chemical makeup, your genes, and your environment are not something that you choose. Yet, your brain and all of the pleasures, pains, memories, and decisions are influenced by or directly composed of the things just mentioned.
A person who achieves is the very last person that should seek credit for so doing. Your attitude, your diligence, your internal motivations are either innate or entirely influenced by your environment. Would Warren Buffett be a wealthy man if he was born in Bangladesh? Even he admits that this is highly unlikely. Can one choose to comprehend? Absolutely not. Intelligence is no more the product of one’s diet than it is of one’s will. Yet many believe that achievement comes from within. The truth is that achievement comes from without. Every great thinker, every great idea has stood on the shoulders of mental giants (and sometimes even mental dwarfs) to attain their status.
This is where both religion and conservative politics fail to grasp an important truth: society is more an agent than an individual. Your thoughts and ideas are influenced by society itself, and not the conscious “you”. While the unconscious “you” is certainly a part of “you”, it makes every decision for you, and you are merely a spectator. If you’d like to claim credit for the beating of your heart, please feel free. I will be standing over you and pointing to “individual responsibility” when it spontaneously stops beating for reasons outside your control. The chemical processes that make your heart beat decide what foods you like, what you should wear in the morning, and whether my opinion on this subject is valid. Because we are more influenced by each other than ourselves, society seems to be the real agent at work, and each individual person is more like a cell in the body of society.
Excerpt from the book:
“Within a religious framework, the belief in free will supports the notion of sin- which seems to justify not only harsh punishment in this life but eternal punishment in the next. And yet, ironically, one of the fears attending our progress in science is that a more complete understanding of ourselves will dehumanize us.”
Can you “want to want”? For example, if I walk into a bar and order a pint of India Pale Ale because it’s my favorite beer and I wanted it, can I have wanted to want a pint of Stout? Can I wish that India Pale Ale wasn’t my favorite and that Stout was? No, and the question is meaningless. It applies to every decision that you make. Do you like math? Do you hate wearing green? Your tastes and motivations can change through physiological or cultural influence, but the conscious “you” has no choice.
Sam Harris’ new book “Free Will” was released today, available on paperback ($9.99) or Kindle ($3.99). It’s really more of a pamphlet or long essay similar to many Hitchens books and can be read in one sitting.