Sam Harris

An Islamic answer to Sam Harris and other deniers of free will

This article is an Islamic answer to Sam Harris and those who follow in his tracks. Below is a video that shows the dynamics of the free-will-denying discourse; the way it uses a collection of scientific facts to leap to the conclusion that there is no room for free will:

The main argument of the video can be stated as this: if this universe is a closed physical system, then everything that happens inside it is a consequence of the system itself.

If you imagine this universe as a closed box with atoms floating inside it, when you see an atom move faster than another, you do not say that atom chose to move faster. The atom has no free will. You instead say that the way this atom interacted with those other atoms caused it to move faster.

Sam Harris’s philosophy is therefore entirely reliant on the assumption that the universe is, when it comes to free will, a closed system. If everything we do is a consequence of the design of the brain and body and our past experiences, then naturally this means there is no room for free will. According to this view, if you have perfect knowledge of everything that goes into a person’s brain, and perfect knowledge of their physiology, then you can predict with 100% accuracy every one of their thoughts and actions. They are just a highly sophisticated robot responding to their own design and their environment.

Islam’s answer to that is this: this universe is a simulation with the soul residing outside of it. We are happy to acknowledge everything scientists say about the way human behavior is affected by material causes. But we reject the unproven hypothesis, the leap of faith of free will deniers, that this leaves no room for free will. By placing the soul outside the universe, we can say that the soul can act independently of the universe. It can “transcend” the universe and do its own thing when it chooses.

The most fundamental question when it comes to the question of free will, according to the Islamic perspective, is whether God exists. From there we can come to whether the soul exists. And from there we can come to the material universe. The soul, according to Islam, is “more real” than the universe, the same way that in the film The Matrix the real people are outside the universe, controlling avatars inside it. The universe is merely like a computer game, with the players residing outside.

While as a soul I am constantly affected by the universe, by my hormones and past experiences, since I am “more real” than these things, I can “sit back”, think apart from all that, and come to choices that are not demanded by the material factors. I am like Neo in the Matrix; my avatar inside the Matrix an send all kinds signals to my real self which resides outside of. But since my real self is outside of it, it continues to maintain a form of independence from the Matrix; it can transcend it. I can choose to be selfless and generous even if all material causes make me want to be otherwise.

As Muslims we say the player is more real than the game and controls it. They say there is no player; there is just the game. They are like characters stuck inside a video game, or inside the Matrix, denying that there could be anything outside the game. And they keep telling us about the wonderful features of the game and how it affects the avatar as if this proves there is no reality beyond it. To them everyone in the game is an NPC (non-playable character) controlled by the game itself. To us, humans are real players who are not deterministically controlled by the game, even though the game affects them strongly.

They will say that since there is no proof that there is anything outside the game, we must believe the game is all that there is. That is another way of saying that there is no reason to be Muslim (and have such beliefs about the universe) since there is no proof that Islam is God’s one true religion. To that I say that since I have experienced God through the Quran, and since thousands of great men and women before me have also experienced God in similar ways (and not just Muslims), I could not be anything but Muslim. To me my framework, my worldview, is more authoritative than theirs. There is no scientific proof that God or the soul do not exist, or that Islam is false. But there is strong soft (not hard) evidence for the truth of Islam. Therefore my view of the universe, to those who have had similar experiences to mine, actually has more evidence on its side than their view of the universe. I take a leap of faith based on experience and soft evidence. They take a leap of faith that goes against experience (all humans act as if free will exists even if they can come up with clever theories to deny it) and that only has soft evidence behind it (suggestive facts about the way human behavior is affected by physiology and the environment).

If they say that only foolish people believe in religion and that more intelligent people will believe in their worldview, the evidence of the real world disproves their claim. There are highly religious Muslims and Christians who believe in a worldview similar to mine who are just as intelligent as any atheist or non-believer in free will.

For more on the Islamic theory of the universe as a simulation and a discussion of soft versus hard evidence, see my essay: Al-Ghazali’s Matrix and the Divine Template: A Plausible Reconciliation of the Quran and the Theory of Evolution

This article is based on an email I sent to a friend who sent me the video above and asked for an Islamic answer to it.

Jordan Peterson eclipsed Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris in 2018 when it comes to search interest

Jordan Peterson doesn’t really have too many insights to offer, he tries to teach what the best religious mysticism teaches but without the religious ingredient. He may change a few lives, and he may have a good influence on changing many people’s notions about leftism. But I do not expect him to have a lasting effect, because his teachings lack the essential aspect of replicability which religion has. Without replicability, teachings like those of Peterson will fail to spread beyond a small group of true believers.

It is very difficult for parents to ensure that their children grow up morally upright because, as the sociocultural evolutionists Richerson and Boyd point out, the effects of non-parents on children’s values and beliefs are much stronger than the effects of parents.

In Small Gods (1992), the atheist writer Terry Pratchett expresses his belief that it is possible to be a nice and decent human being without having to carry all that religious baggage:

What have I always believed?
That on the whole, and by and large, if a man lived properly, not according to what any priests said, but according to what seemed decent and honest inside, then it would, at the end, more or less, turn out all right.
You couldn’t get that on a banner. But the desert looked better already.

Maybe it would have been great if things were really like that. But the reality is that atheists suffer what might be termed the generational devolution of morality. An atheist born to religious parents can perhaps be just as upright as his parents while abandoning their religious ideas. But that is not the true test of irreligious morality. The true test is this: can the atheist bring up children just as morally upright as themselves? And can their children bring up grandchildren just as morally upright as the children?

While a minority will likely be able, through much hard work and care, to bring up morally upright children, for example by having them read the classics, when it comes to the majority, the abandonment of religion always, generation after generation, leads to the abandonment of moral uprightness.

The scientific reason for this might be that religion enables parents to “outsource” the transfer of moral uprightness. The hard work of ingraining all those moral ideals into the brains of your children is done through a society-wide mechanism that is all-pervading, always-on and self-perpetuating (the child acquires the “virus” of religion, likes it and passes it on). Atheists have to “reinvent the wheel” by bringing up morally upright children who believe in the same principles as they themselves believe, without enjoying this vast system of persuasion and perpetuation. If the religious mechanism sounds scary and dystopian, I want to point out that it does not have to be. You can be as kind and gentle as the kindest and gentlest person you can imagine and still enjoy the benefits of these mechanisms on your children, raising them to be kind and gentle and religious like yourself.

The results of secular efforts to replace religion with alternative moralities are as pathetic as you would expect. There is no secularized society whose majority is not made of juvenile-minded, unprincipled, selfish and short-sighed men and women. They complain about unethical and anti-consumer corporations while investing their retirement savings in these very same corporations’ stocks. They complain about the banks while constantly borrowing from them. They complain about corrupt politicians while continually voting the same enemies of the people and puppets of the banks and the state back into office because they promise them shiny new things.

There are many decent irreligious people. But the longer the society continues without religion, the rarer they will become.

The reality seems to be that it is simply impossible to bring up morally upright, responsible and long-term minded citizens in a secularized society. Secular morality is always a defective wannabe religion that is incapable of convincing the majority of people to act by it. The nice, kind and moral secular people you see in the West are perhaps all second or third-generation offspring of upright Christians who continue to enjoy Christianity’s teachings in an unsystematic and vague manner, for now. With each generation those teachings are going to fade more, out-competed by the influences of secular society (films, songs, books). It has taken just one human lifetime for the United States to go from a world where Wall Street and Congress had many highly principled humans (thanks to Christianity’s influence) to a world where they have become almost impossible to spot. I am not saying there was some golden age 80 years ago when Christian morality was still taken seriously. It is, rather, the difference between 10% of the elite being principled 80 years ago compared to 1% being principled today. And that makes all the difference in the world. A few good men and women in a power structure can prevent a great deal of evil.

Those who think that humanistic ideals can replace religion should remember that the greatest historical humanists were all highly religious people and many were priests. Secularism is just a recent social experiment, and the results are not encouraging.