So the other day, I watched a video where Sam Harris talks with Joe Rogan about free will. As I watched the video, I became infuriated. In teaching what he does about free will, Sam Harris is spreading a teaching far more evil and anti-science than anything that he has ever criticized. Evil in its potential to cause horrific damage to numerous human beings and society itself. Anti-science in that he straight up ignores findings of science that he is aware of as a neuroscientist. How he can say what he says and still be able to sleep at night is a profound mystery to me.
To see why I get so angry at Sam Harris, let us imagine a fitness instructor who was tremendously famous as a professional athlete and went around the country “educating” teenagers that physical exercise was totally worthless in terms of changing your body. “Don’t worry about exercise guys. I am a professional athlete and let me assure you that exercise and healthy eating are totally overrated. The only thing that matters in terms of how healthy you are is your genetics and your environment.” If this person was taken as seriously as his fame would warrant, he would ruin countless lives and do permanent damage to an enormous number of people. His teaching would be evil in terms of damaging large numbers of gullible young people and anti-science in that it contradicted mountains of evidence that exercise and diet are vital to health.
When Sam Harris argues about free will, he makes arguments that are very similar to the professional athlete in the above thought experiment. He argues as though the brain was an inert lump that cannot be changed by human effort. He argues as if the brain of a violent criminal offender is formed by “experience” and “genetics” but cannot be changed by the efforts of the criminal. Making these arguments is evil in that it discourages people from attempting to improve themselves and anti-science in that it contradicts mountains of evidence for neural plasticity.
Part of this evidence for the ability of people to improve themselves is our own personal experience. For myself, I know that I have prayed to be more forgiving while asking God to have mercy on others and that God has answered that prayer and I have become a lot less angry. I know that I have prayed that I could love women more so that I would not be comfortable seeing them as sex objects, and that God has answered that prayer allowing me to overcome pornography and lust. I know that I have asked God to help me to have more gratitude and that God has answered that prayer making me far more appreciative of life’s daily blessings. Sam Harris may believe that changing our attitudes and actions through human effort is impossible, but many scientific studies and our own experience contradict him at every turn.
This issue is critically important to human beings. Why? Because every human being wants to live a joyful and fulfilled life. How can one do this? Logically, there are two possibilities. One is that I can die to myself through daily taking up of my cross and learn to love others and be grateful no matter what my circumstances are. This is learning to be joyful and fulfilled through internal change. The other alternative is that I can be politically active and seek to change the system so that I will never encounter anything that I don’t like. If I am a Muslim, I can attempt to enforce Sharia on other people. If I am a social justice warrior, I can enforce politically correct attitudes on other people. If I am a socialist, I can change the government and pursue a man made Utopia. This is seeking to be joyful and fulfilled through external change. One of these paths leads to the joy and freedom of eternal paradise while the other leads to totalitarianism, evil, misery and eternal suffering.