Harun Yahya

The Errors of Sam Harris and the Truth about "Free Will"

The atheistic philosophy, based on the denial of a Creator, argues that there is no need for a "concept of religion" for people to maintain their lives in an orderly manner.

    The subject of this article, the atheist writer Sam Harris, argues in his book, The Moral Landscape, that, "religion is not necessary for good social morality" and "emotions and thoughts are all results of biochemical reactions." First of all, everyone is free to interpret life and its events in their own way. However, it is not acceptable to mislead people and distort truths by creating arguments that are far from scientific facts. For this reason, it is important and necessary to tackle the concepts that atheists defend and evaluate their faults scientifically.

    So, in this article, we will talk about the mentality that Sam Harris tried to explain in his book, and tackle its faults and short-comings. Also, we will explain how morality is necessary, and how the concept of "free will" voids the atheists' assumptions.

 

 

    WHAT IS THE TRUE ORIGIN OF MORALITY?

    To the contrary of what atheists argue, the true origin of morals is the Divine religions. The definition of good and evil is provided in the sacred scriptures that have been conveyed through revelation, and they have been conveyed to the people through messengers. Today, the moral values that are considered "good and right" all originated from religions. Most importantly, in the final religion of Islam, there are no personal rules or peer pressure, there are only specific forbidden deeds and sins, which is a great comfort and goodness.

    In the Qur’an, except for the few forbidden things designated by God, everything is lawful and good, so there is an endless freedom. However, wherever you go in the world, you will encounter countless rules and regulations. For example in the USA, Germany or France, there are rules of the streets and every place has its own traditions and customs. People are oppressed and trampled under these rules; they can neither laugh, have fun nor can they eat comfortably. People get drown under these invented systems, precepts and moral principles. But in the Qur’an, we can only see God's perfectly good morals.

    Even though they are distorted, this truth is still valid for other religions too. Christianity encourages good morals too, and so does Judaism.

    In the materialistic philosophy, which is in principle against Islam and all other faiths, God is not considered a "lawgiver" (Surely God is beyond that).

    No doubt, there should be rule makers in societies and legal regulations should be designed in detail. However, social rules and the punishments practiced by a society can withhold people from bad morals only to some extent, and it can only be done by force. When someone who doesn't fear God realizes that his personal interests are threatened, these sanctions lose their effect. That person becomes inclined to show bad morals. For example, at the first opportunity he may try to scam people or he may steal from someone else. But it is different for a God-fearing person.

    Someone who fears God, even if he is in a place or situation where a potential crime might well remain unprovable, would know that God is always watching him, and shows same good moral values even if they are in conflict with his own personal interests. He wouldn't steal, resort to violence, or violate someone’s rights; he would help those who are in need of help. Even if a crime remains unprovable in this world, he would know that one will have to suffer the consequences of one’s actions in the eternal afterlife, and this fact encourages him to show good moral values. To explain this more clearly, let's give some examples of wrong but common behaviors:

 

    Why is "might makes right" mentality harmful?

    In communities where morality does not originate from religion, the dominant mentality is based on mutual interests. This moral understanding which stems from the selfish passions and ambitions of the human soul, impels people to be arrogant, selfish, cynical, insolent, merciless, rude and cruel. In these societies, it is believed that in order to raise yourself, you have to step on other people and this merciless behavior is practiced at every opportunity. At the heart of all these behaviors, there lay the materialistic philosophy; people are taught that "they won't be responsible for the deeds they have done," and that they are a kind of animal. "The strong oppressing, even destroying, the weak" is taught to be a "law of nature."

    This situation breeds individuals who are ready to perform every kind of cruel task for their own good, and subsequently, a need for a "preventive system" arises, in order to maintain social order via penal laws and police force.

    But such criminal measures are not entirely effective. In situations where no one is watching, or one's personal interests are in danger, people start to act according to their personal interests instead of listening to their conscience, and this is how they start to prefer evil over good. However, God never showed people this kind of moral understanding. The beauties that are told to us in the Qur’an bear no comparison with the shallow and suffocating social rules.

 

The lawful and forbidden things set in the Qur’an set people free

In the Qur’an and undistorted parts of the other Divine books, people are commanded to be noble, humble, trustworthy, charitable, compassionate, self-sacrificing and full of love. It is essential to help the poor and those in need. Not only people but animals are treated well too; they are never tortured or tormented, but are loved and looked after in the best way possible.

Because of this reason, the spiritual understanding and the climate of love that religious morality brings with it will always be better than social rules. This moral system protects an individual's mental health, and ensures that he is a useful and helpful subject to his family, his close social circle and to his country. The environment and the nature are preserved and enhanced. Aesthetics and art reach a zenith; the productivity in fields of art such as painting, sculpture and music reaches an all time high.

In a society where atheistic and materialistic philosophies are dominant, there is no place for the concept of permanent "love." As a matter of fact, the situation is so dire that conflict is regarded as the foundation of progress. In order to protect their rights, people pour over streets and argue, fight, mercilessly attack each other and shed blood. Because of this boundless mentality and pursuit for temporary personal interests, sons kill their fathers, fathers kill their daughters, spouses kill each other without much hesitation.

Again, due to the indoctrination of conflict by the materialistic philosophy, countries and nations either draw closer to each other or declare each other as enemies only in accordance with their interests. Lines are drawn between societies, armed forces are used for intimidation, and visa requirements are put in place for traveling between countries. Love cannot truly exist in those societies where the materialistic and atheistic philosophy is dominant because when the belief of God is absent from a society, people get closer to each other only in the hope of benefiting from each other. No matter how much the word "love" is uttered, these demonstrations of love are fake. The fact that even "the greatest of loves" can end when a spouse gets older, or someone loses his or her beauty after an accident or illness or when one's financial means are lost, is a fact known by everyone. Having cancer, having problems at work, getting injured, infertility, or even not knowing how to do household chores or how to cook are common reasons for divorce.

The problems never end in societies that have no fear of God. Today, even on the streets of most countries, where there are 24/7 monitoring systems, people are in a state of constant insecurity. Every minute, there is a new incident of rape, theft or violence. Even in the USA, which is considered as the greatest economic power of the world, there are millions of homeless people on the streets, devoid of basic health care, and they are trying to survive on their own without anyone's help or care.

All of these facts show us a self-evident truth: A society governed by materialistic rules is rude, merciless and violent. A healthy social order that everyone yearns for can only be attainable via an environment based on love and respect, as defined in the Divine scriptures.

 

IS IT POSSIBLE TO BE MORAL WITHOUT RELIGION?

Someone who considers himself as a mere species of animal and believes that he won't ever have to answer for his deeds carries the risk of performing every kind of deviance. Someone like that has the potential to do every kind of immorality, from murder to war and genocide, cheating to scamming and from telling lies to slandering blameless individuals. These behaviors also include the perversions he would do in an environment where he is not watched and every kind of immoral behavior which he can get away with without being condemned by society. It is because of this reason that there is no possible way for a society consisting of unbelievers to survive in the long-term.

Interestingly, this fact is also acknowledged by some atheists. In one of his interviews, Richard Dawkins, one of the popular contemporary evolutionists, admits this truth in the following way:

"I'll tell you quite freely that a society based upon Darwinian principles is exactly the sort of society I do not wish to live in. IT WOULD BE A TERRIBLE SOCIETY. I do not wish to live in a Darwinian world...

... so that we can construct the kind of society in which we wish to live, WHICH WILL BE A NON-DARWINIAN society. It would be the sort of society which departs from Darwinian principles. A society based on Darwinian principles would be a ruthless free market economy, in which the rich trample the poor… (Richard Dawkins Interviews Creationist Wendy Wright: https://youtu.be/xBJu1j2Mh3E)

 

 THE END OF ATHEISM: THERE IS NO "FREE WILL!"



The aspect which renders the atheistic philosophy desirable for some people is that it is based on the concept of "freedom." However, are humans really as free as some people claim? Let's answer this question in the light of scientific evidence:

First of all, everything is not what it really seems. Beyond the perceivable material world, there is clearly an explicit power which controls us. The evidence for the fact that this power creates us and our actions at every moment has been presented many times by the science of neurology. On this subject, the experiments conducted on "free will" are quite famous.

In a study conducted in 2008, John-Dylan Haynes, a neuroscientist at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin examined if there was any time delay between the moment of choice and the moment of action. The procedure involved using MR imaging to scan the brains of subjects who were shown random letters on a screen. Participants were told to press one of two buttons with their right or left hands at a moment of their choosing and to remember the letter that was showing on the screen when they made their decision. Meanwhile, the brain activity of the participants was monitored. The results were quite surprising:

The decision regarding which button to press was made 10 seconds before the subjects pressed the button. This shows us that, well before individuals make their momentary decisions, the decision is already determined in their brains. The results of this important study was reported in the Nature magazine in the following way:

“There has been a long controversy as to whether subjectively ‘free’ decisions are determined by brain activity ahead of time. We found that the outcome of a decision can be encoded in brain activity of prefrontal and parietal cortex up to 10 s [seconds] before it enters awareness.”  (Chun Siong Soon, Marcel Brass, Hans-Jochen Heinze & John-Dylan Haynes, Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain. Nature Neuroscience April 13th, 2008)

To give an example from everyday life; the physical and chemical processes to react to a child who runs out into the road are readied in the brain of a driver 10 seconds before it occurs, while the child is not even there. In terms of chronological order: first the reaction is prepared, followed by the child jumping out into the road. So how is the brain readied for the situation before the child is even in the road?

 



Such neurophysiological incidents demonstrate that the reaction is not dependent on seeing the child. Neuroscientists have accepted that the feeling of having made a “choice” is only "a subsequent thought" in the biochemical sense that has nothing to do with the physical move. Some scientists describe this saying, "free will is merely an illusion." Patrick Haggard, a neuroscientist at University College London, says that, "We feel we choose, but we don't." Haynes makes the following confession on the non-existence of human free will:

"How can I call a will 'mine' if I don't even know when it occurred and what it has decided to do" (Smith, Kerri (2011), "Neuroscience vs philosophy: Taking aim at free will", Nature, 477 (7362): 23–5)

Benjamin Libet, a neuropsychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, was the first to propose this fact, a fact which many people are not even aware of, about the human processes of decision-making and choosing in 1983. Libet, through experiments performed with the cranial application of the electrodes of an EEG (electroencephalogram) device, demonstrated that brain activity occurs 500 milliseconds before the conscious intention to move. (Libet,B., Gleason, C.A., Wright, E.W.&Pearl, D.K. Brain 106, 623–642 (1983))

 



As we mentioned before, Haynes carried Libet's old EEG experiment technique, which could only observe the brain activity in a limited area, one step further by scanning the entire brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Haynes reached the same conclusions in his future studies as well.

In 2011, when the aforementioned study was repeated using ultra-high field fMRI on a 7 Tesla scanner at the Max Plack Institute in Germany, the same results were acquired. An article on the subject states that what is supposed to be free will and behavior actually occurs outside the consciousness:

“As humans, we experience the ability to consciously choose our actions as well as the time at which we perform them. It has been postulated, however, that this subjective experience of freedom may be no more than an illusion, and even our goals and motivations can operate outside of our consciousness [1]

Itzhak Fried, a neuroscientist and a neurosurgeon from the University of California, Los Angeles, implanted electrodes in an open brain during an epilepsy surgery and detected neuron activity in particular areas of the brain 1.5 seconds before the subject makes a conscious decision. Prof. Fried says:

“At some point, things that are predetermined are admitted into consciousness. The conscious will might be added on to a decision at a later stage.” [2]

There are hundreds of other studies within the scientific cannon that reach the same conclusion. This consensus of opinion is reported as a meta-analysis of 90 experiments from 33 laboratories in 14 countries.[3]

The results of all these scientific studies show us that, there is actually a separate will and directing that is beyond physical and biochemical world. In short, the concept of "free will" is currently being debated among the scientific circles and it is argued that "free will" is in fact only an "illusion." The choices we make are not our own: Our brain is preparing in advance for situations that we will only be conscious of 10 seconds later. After decisions go through processes that are outside of us, we are only given the feeling that "we made the decision." Therefore, no decision really belongs to an entity who thinks that "he made the decision."

 

WE ARE EXPERIENCING PRE-DETERMINED EVENTS

At this point, the truth that everything is created according to the concept of "fate" becomes obvious. Fate, in other words the flow of history whose past and future is already determined, what someone would say to someone else, where, when or how someone would be is all pre-determined at the quantum level. God shows us as an indisputable fact that He is the only Creator.

Your Lord is God, Who created the heavens and the earth in six days and then settled Himself firmly on the Throne. He covers the day with the night, each pursuing the other urgently; and the Sun and Moon and stars are subservient to His command. Both creation and command belong to Him. Blessed be God, the Lord of all the worlds. (Surat al-A'raf, 54)

With these facts, the claim that "thoughts are shaped by chemical molecules," which has served as the foundation for materialist explanations, is pushed out of the agenda. The chemical communication between neurons and the subsequent electrical activity occurs outside of our will. However, there still is a small group who persists on supporting the materialistic point of view. This group is convinced that "molecules determine our actions." However there is a fact this group of people conveniently ignores:

The molecules in question do not act as a reaction to the immediate events, they take action 10 seconds before an event actually happens, as if the molecules are aware of a future event. Moreover, this phenomenon occurs in 7.5 billion people living on earth at the same time, perfectly in sync, without a hitch for anybody.

It is God Who created the seven heavens and of the earth the same number. The Command descending down through all of them, so that you might know that God has power over all things and that God encompasses all things in His knowledge. (Surat at-Talaq, 12)

The fact that a driver's reaction to a child, who will run into the road 10 seconds later, is prepared in his brain in advance has only one explanation: We are all but observers of a gripping movie with a pre-determined scenario. The choice is not ours, but for the sake of the movie's realism, the "feeling" of choice is especially provided for us.

 

ARE ALL OF OUR FEELINGS MADE UP OF BIOCHEMICALS?

It is true that when we feel certain emotions like love, certain chemicals are released. However, the claim that we are guided and controlled by these chemicals is wrong and groundless.

Along with different thoughts, certain chemicals such as dopamine and oxytocin are released in the brain. However, as it can be understood from the aforementioned experiments, we are only observing a finished movie with a 10-second delay. In this case, we have to accept that these molecules are prepared as the physiological details of pre-determined events and circumstances. The claim that we are "controlled" by these molecules is a faulty materialist explanation which fails to address the big picture. On the other hand, it is unacceptable to deny this perfect order, which occurs in unison and based on mutual interaction, that we call "life."

At this point, we encounter a serious dilemma of the materialist viewpoint: The concepts of free will and determinism are in conflict with each other. Determinism, the materialistic idea that everything is pre-determined and impossible to change, clearly conflicts with the materialistic concept of "free will." According to determinism, the whole operation of the universe is determined by various scientific laws, such as the laws of physics, and the occurrence of these determined events are inevitable. This again leads us to the conclusion that there really is no "free will," because if all our choices are based upon biochemical reactions, it is impossible to talk about "free choice."

When we take all these facts into consideration, the faults and mistakes of the people who make claims similar to Sam Harris' and who try to spread the atheistic philosophy becomes all too obvious.

It is irrational to claim that unconscious atoms that make up these unconscious molecules determine how we should feel. Surely, God, Who creates everything and has power over everything at every moment, creates and directs these molecules whenever they are needed.

God created both you and what you do. (Surat as-Saffat, 96)


 



[1] Bode S, He AH, Soon CS, Trampel R, Turner R, et al. (2011) Tracking the Unconscious Generation of Free Decisions Using UItra-High Field fMRI. PLoS ONE 6(6): e21612. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0021612



[2] Smith, Kerri (2011), "Neuroscience vs philosophy: Taking aim at free will", Nature, 477 (7362): 23–5



[3] Bem D, Tressoldi P, Rabeyron T and Duggan M. Feeling the future: A meta-analysis of 90 experiments on the anomalous anticipation of random future events [version 2; referees: 2 approved]. F1000Research 2016, 4:1188 (doi: 10.12688/f1000research.7177.2)


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