Not sure how I ended up down this rabbit hole today, but here are the top Yuval Noah Harari quotes on free will.
10 Deep Thoughts on Free Will from Yuval Noah Harari
1. Did you choose your desires?
“Humans certainly have a will – but it isn’t free. You cannot decide what desires you have … If by ‘free will’ you mean the freedom to do what you desire, then yes, humans have free will. But if by ‘free will’ you mean the freedom to choose what to desire, then no, humans have no free will.”
2. Lottery of birth:
“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.” (Note: also see the lottery of birth, ovarian lottery, and veil of ignorance thought experiment)
3. The 99%:
“In 99% of cases, your choices aren’t made freely but are shaped by various biological, social, and cultural forces. I would be happy to concede that there is such a thing as ‘free will’ and that 1% of our decisions are made completely freely if in exchange people investigate more seriously what shapes the other 99%.”
4. Do you choose your thoughts?
“The wrong idea about free will is that any thought that pops in my mind, any desire that I have, is my free will … There are a lot of forces in the world which encourage us to have this simplistic idea that anything that pops in the mind is the reflection of my free will.”
5. No incentive to investigate = easy manipulation:
“As long as I think that my choices reflect my free will, I have no incentive to investigate what made me choose this or that—I simply did it of my own free will. Therefore I completely identify with whatever choices I make, and I remain ignorant about the biological, social, and cultural forces that have really shaped my decisions. This is how belief in free will becomes a big barrier to self-exploration and self-understanding. In the twenty-first century the price we pay for ignorance about ourselves will increase dramatically, because governments and corporations are now gaining unprecedented abilities to hack and manipulate human choice. And the easiest people to manipulate are those who believe in free will—because they refuse to acknowledge that they can be manipulated.”
6. Know thyself (better):
“The very concepts of ‘individual’ and ‘freedom’ no longer make much sense. In order to survive and prosper in the 21st century, we need to leave behind the naive view of humans as free individuals … and come to terms with what humans really are: hackable animals. We need to know ourselves better.”
7. Observing and questioning:
“From one perspective, this discovery gives humans an entirely new kind of freedom. Previously, we identified very strongly with our desires, and sought the freedom to realise them. Whenever any thought appeared in the mind, we rushed to do its bidding. We spent our days running around like crazy, carried by a furious rollercoaster of thoughts, feelings and desires, which we mistakenly believed represented our free will. What happens if we stop identifying with this rollercoaster? What happens when we carefully observe the next thought that pops up in our mind and ask: ‘Where did that come from?'”
8. Less identified, more connected:
“Realising that our thoughts and desires don’t reflect our free will can help us become less obsessive about them. If I see myself as an entirely free agent, choosing my desires in complete independence from the world, it creates a barrier between me and all other entities. I don’t really need any of those other entities – I am independent. It simultaneously bestows enormous importance on my every whim – after all, I chose this particular desire out of all possible desires in the universe. Once we give so much importance to our desires, we naturally try to control and shape the whole world according to them. We wage wars, cut down forests and unbalance the entire ecosystem in pursuit of our whims. But if we understood that our desires are not the outcome of free choice, we would hopefully be less preoccupied with them, and would also feel more connected to the rest of the world.”
9. Less illusion, more curiosity:
“Realizing this can make us less obsessive about our opinions and feelings—and more attentive to other people. It can also help us explore the truth about ourselves. 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 kindles a profound curiosity. As long as you strongly identify with whatever thoughts and desires pop up in your mind, you don’t need to make much effort to know yourself. You think you already know exactly who you are. But once you realize, ‘Hi, these thoughts aren’t me. They are just some biochemical vibrations!’ then you also realize you have no idea who—or what—you are. This can be the beginning of the most exciting journey of discovery any human can undertake.”
10. Who am I?
“As long as I simply identify with the constant stream of thoughts and feelings that pop into my mind, I think I know exactly who I am. Once I stop identifying with whatever pops into my mind, I start asking, ‘So who am I? Who is observing all these thoughts and feelings? Who is asking these questions? And who can discover the truth?’ There is no easy intellectual answer to any of these questions. The only way to answer them is to directly observe the reality, which is a very difficult thing to do. That’s why most people never do it and instead just believe in some philosophical or religious story.”
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