Notes on Yuval Noah Harari’s Attack on Free Will

Yuval Harari Noah has an article in The Guardian about the way new technology and its impact on democracy. Actually, Harari’s conception of free will is the most intriguing parts of the article. In this thread, I want to ponder (out loud) and analyze the ideas he presents in this article. As always, others are welcomed to join.

Liberalism is founded on the belief in human liberty. Unlike rats and monkeys, human beings are supposed to have “free will”. This is what makes human feelings and human choices the ultimate moral and political authority in the world. Liberalism tells us that the voter knows best, that the customer is always right, and that we should think for ourselves and follow our hearts.

What he’s describing may be mostly accurate when it comes to liberalism, but the U.S. is a democratic republic. The idea behind a republic is that the customer (i.e., the citizen) is NOT always right–not in terms of all the governing decisions. Therefore, the citizens select individuals to represent them, making the best decisions on their behalf. The U.S. Constitution sets constraints on the collective will of the majority, preventing them from infringing upon the rights of the minority.

Unfortunately, “free will” isn’t a scientific reality. It is a myth inherited from Christian theology. Theologians developed the idea of “free will” to explain why God is right to punish sinners for their bad choices and reward saints for their good choices. If our choices aren’t made freely, why should God punish or reward us for them? According to the theologians, it is reasonable for God to do so, because our choices reflect the free will of our eternal souls, which are independent of all physical and biological constraints.

Two things here:

1. Not all Christians believe in free will, although my guess is that the majority do.
2. While I’m in the free will camp, over time, my sense is that the actual situation is more complex–perhaps mixing some combination of free will and pre-destination. (Don’t ask me how that could be, but one possibility is that we have no other way of talking about the relationship between the choices of an individual and God’s sovereignty . Free will and pre-destination is the best concepts we have, but both are woefully inadequate for what’s actually going on.
3. I’m not sure free will is independent of “all physical and biological constraints,” if by this Harari means that there aren’t significant constraints exerted upon one’s free will. Maybe this is imprecise language on my part or knit-picking, but while one may have the ultimate power to decide, biological, social, and cultural constraints may be so powerful that one may feel as if they don’t have a choice.

Humans certainly have a will – but it isn’t free. You cannot decide what desires you have. You don’t decide to be introvert or extrovert, easy-going or anxious, gay or straight. Humans make choices – but they are never independent choices. Every choice depends on a lot of biological, social and personal conditions that you cannot determine for yourself. I can choose what to eat, whom to marry and whom to vote for, but these choices are determined in part by my genes, my biochemistry, my gender, my family background, my national culture, etc – and I didn’t choose which genes or family to have.

Harari seems to imply that humans need a free will that is absolutely free and independent of anything else. If I’m reading him properly, I find this claim odd. Who has claimed that our choices are absolutely free, and that they need to be? I feel like Harari is attacking a definition of free will almost no one believes in. Or I’m missing something.

Though “free will” was always a myth, in previous centuries it was a helpful one. It emboldened people who had to fight against the Inquisition, the divine right of kings, the KGB and the KKK. The myth also carried few costs. In 1776 or 1945 there was relatively little harm in believing that your feelings and choices were the product of some “free will” rather than the result of biochemistry and neurology.

(emphasis added)

I would think many people believe that our choices are products of both things we can control and things we cannot. (I’m not sure about feelings, though. I tend to think we have very little control over what we feel.)

But now the belief in “free will” suddenly becomes dangerous. If governments and corporations succeed in hacking the human animal, the easiest people to manipulate will be those who believe in free will.

(emphasis added)

I think this is applies to people who think they are impervious to manipulation, not necessarily those who believe in free will. Personally, I believe people can be manipulated, and I also have no trouble believing that new technologies can increase the ability to do this. But I still believe in free will. (The flip side of this: Does Harari believe that humans have no control over their lives? Are they never responsible for their words and actions?)

Liberalism has developed an impressive arsenal of arguments and institutions to defend individual freedoms against external attacks from oppressive governments and bigoted religions, but it is unprepared for a situation when individual freedom is subverted from within,…

I think Harari is on to something here. But I come at this issue from a totally different angle. Harari seems to think the main problem is the (false) concept of free will. To me, the the larger issue has to do with information security and information management via internet based technology and media. Specifically, we haven’t developed a way to manage and control information. Traditionally, institutions have done this–e.g., schools, the press, political parties, publishing companies, libraries, etc. We can also talk about laws and government regulation are also tools that would help. A group of individual experts also provide assistance helping a society and individuals manage information.

I think the internet created a dramatically different information landscape, similar to the way the printing press did. The older system that helped manage information for the society and individuals was is weakened, terms of effectiveness and even legitimacy. We may not only need to strengthen older institutions, but we may need to modify them, or even create new institutions and new means to deal with the information landscape.

I’m struggling to see how this relates to the concept of a free will. Now, if Harari is essentially critiquing the belief that individuals, alone, can stave off the threat of those who would attempt to hack humans, I would agree with him. But, for me, I would identify the problem as an overestimation on the capacity of human beings to deal with an information wild wild west, without much assistance from institutions, individuals, and relevant tools.

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