The Myth of Freedom

Nate Pickens  ◦  2018 September 21

Yuval Noah Harari, writing for The Guardian, details why continuing to believe in the myth of free will could actually be dangerous in an age where governments and corporations are amassing massive amounts of data about people—so much so that they (or more accurately, software systems that they are running and can manipulate) may soon know us better than we know ourselves.

To put it another way, if we believe we are free, we will implicitly believe that we cannot know and understand ourselves completely. And if we are not striving to know ourselves—especially our weaknesses—we will be vulnerable to the aforementioned governmental and corporate systems which do understand us and are leveraged to manipulate us and exploit our weaknesses.

But recognizing that free will is a myth does not have to lead to a life of despair and depression that many may think is the only next step. Rather it can be quite exciting, as Harari explains (and I can attest to personally experiencing).

People sometimes imagine that if we renounce our belief in “free will”, we will become completely apathetic, and just curl up in some corner and starve to death. In fact, renouncing this illusion can have two opposite effects: first, it can create a far stronger link with the rest of the world, and make you more attentive to your environment and to the needs and wishes of others. It is like when you have a conversation with someone. If you focus on what you want to say, you hardly really listen. You just wait for the opportunity to give the other person a piece of your mind. But when you put your own thoughts aside, you can suddenly hear other people.

Second, renouncing the myth of free will can kindle a profound curiosity. If you strongly identify with the thoughts and desires that emerge in your mind, you don’t need to make much effort to get to know yourself. You think you already know exactly who you are. But once you realise “Hi, this isn’t me. This is just some changing biochemical phenomenon!” then you also realise you have no idea who — or what — you actually are. This can be the beginning of the most exciting journey of discovery any human can undertake.

Read the full post here.