Free will is not a scientific reality but an artifice of Christian theology, and those who don’t recognize this fact are most at risk of being hacked by governments and corporations.
That at least is what eminent historian and best-selling author Yuval Noah Harari would have us believe in his recent editorial, “The Myth of Freedom.” Harari does not go so far as to deny that our choices are real or significant, but that they are not “free” in the way we think they are. They are, rather, the product of social, biological, and environmental variables (genes, gender, culture, and so on) outside of our control. To think otherwise—to believe, as most of us do, that we are masters of our fate—is dangerous because then we will be blind to the powerful influence that nefarious hackers and organizations will one day exert over us with data.
The question becomes: can we really engage in Harari’s proposed project without reference to the grand stories of traditional religious faith?This may seem dramatic, but Harari is responding to observable technological trends. He reminds us that huge volumes of information are already being collected about us, and predicts that pretty soon biometric sensors will capture insights about our moods and affections. All of this data could then be combined and wielded against us with far more effectiveness than any dictators of the past. As he puts it, hackers wouldn’t need to know everything about you, just enough to know you “a little bit better than you know yourself.”
In response to this predicament, Harari believes we must work hard at knowing ourselves better—and specifically our biases, fears, and cravings, because these are what will be exploited by hackers. By recognizing, for example, that you are not an independent entity, you will probably be “less obsessive” about your desires, and feel “more connected to the rest of the world.”
Indeed, Harari laments that we are not coming to this realization quickly enough. Instead we are clinging to age-old illusions like religion and nationalism to find meaning, or wasting our time with pointless questions about the “veracity of the Bible” when we should be addressing the dangerous implications of AI and bioengineering. He writes, “I don’t know where the answers will come from, but they are definitely not coming from a collection of stories written thousands of years ago.”
Harari closes with an ambitious agenda. First, we must defend liberal democracy, for despite its shortcomings, it still allows us to debate the future of our species with relatively few constraints. At the same time, we need to question the assumptions of liberalism and “develop a new political project that is better in line with the scientific realities and technological powers of the 21st century.”
Certainly Harari is justified in his alarm at the way that data could be misused to manipulate us. Recent stories about election hacking, data breaches, fake news, and Cambridge Analytica seem like strong indicators of this troubling development. And I think Harari is right to say that free will, in its mainstream conception as the ability to act on our desires without constraint, is a gross oversimplification of autonomy. He describes a simple thought experiment to illustrate this point, but he is probably also taking his cue, at least in part, from sources like Sam Harris’s book on free will, in which Harris contends on neuroscientific grounds that choice is predetermined by unchosen forces such as biochemistry and genetics.
There are, however, a number of problems with Harari’s overall argument. To begin with, the science is far from settled on the free will question, and there are plenty of scholars who contend that while our agency has limitations, we nonetheless have the capacity to generate options for ourselves as we respond to stimuli and manage our thoughts and emotions. Put another way: even though our choices are constrained, we possess gradations of free will within those constraints, just as the player of a game has choices on how to play within the rules. You may disagree with that, of course; but it would be a mistake to read Harari’s argument and assume there is no other viable way of looking at the matter.
Another issue is Harari’s estimation of what might happen when we recognize the free will illusion. Would knowing that our choices aren’t free really make us less obsessed with our desires and feel more connected to others, as he suggests? Perhaps. But it is also quite possible that we would become fatalistic cynics who don’t see much point in being good. There is in fact compelling research to suggest that people who are taught that free will is a fiction become “less creative, more likely to conform, less willing to learn from their mistakes, and less grateful toward one another.” Whatever the case, it is telling that Harari uses words like “can” and “hopefully” in his article, as if to say you could be better off by recognizing the illusion—depending how you appropriate that self-awareness. But then that would suggest that your choices really do matter: that your will is free in a limited yet significant sense, and that how you cultivate it is of vital importance.
But perhaps the most egregious point that Harari makes is that responding to the challenges of our future cannot possibly be found in systems of religious belief. True, ISIS is recruiting Muslim men from the UK, and we have every reason to worry about that; and yes, debating the truth of the Bible was all the rage back in the Enlightenment. But these observations hardly warrant a sweeping dismissal of religion.
Consider the implications of Harari’s proposal. If we need to know ourselves better, and if we must envision a better future in light of the terrifying consequences of data-enabled human hacking, then we will need to ask hard questions like why we are here, what makes us flourish, and what should be the basis of human rights. We will need to admit the sheer depth of our brokenness, while not succumbing to crippling shame and self-pity. We will need honesty, compassion, humility, integrity, love, forgiveness, courage, self-sacrifice, and a host of other virtues. These are not scientific or technological concerns, but deeply moral and spiritual matters involving unprovable assumptions about ethics and human purpose. The question becomes: can we really engage in Harari’s proposed project without reference to the grand stories of traditional religious faith?
To help with this question, we would do well to turn to the famous media scholar Neil Postman. In a 1997 essay titled “Science and the Story that We Need,” Postman acknowledged that the accomplishments of science and technology are impossible to ignore. We have not only solved the problem of economic scarcity, but also the problem of information scarcity, resulting in wonderful comforts and conveniences that we take for granted on a daily basis.
And yet there’s a problem: we lack a transcendent narrative to make sense of it all, no “loom” with which to weave a coherent story out of the data at our disposal. Postman is not talking about micronarratives like parables or novels, but a grand story that “tells of origins and envisions a future; a story that constructs ideals, prescribes rules of conduct, provides a source of authority, and above all, gives a sense of continuity and purpose.”
Of course, one could reply that science can supply such a narrative. Science lets us formulate and test hypotheses about how our world operates; it sets up procedures to help us be as objective as possible. We cannot deny that it works, and works very well.
But therein lies its deepest weakness: although science can enlighten us about natural causes and give us control over our environment, it cannot answer questions about anything outside of strict empirical observation. In Postman’s words,
To the question, “How did it all begin?”, science answers, “Probably by an accident.” To the question, “How will it all end?”, science answers, “Probably by an accident.” And to many people, the accidental life is not worth living. Moreover, the science-god has no answer to the question, “Why are we here?” and, to the question, “What moral instructions do you give us?”, the science-god maintains silence. It places itself at the service of both the beneficent and the cruel, and its grand moral impartiality, if not indifference, makes it, in the end, no god at all.
Well then, what about technology? Not surprisingly, Postman is equally scathing in his critique of technology as he is of science. Technology promises to solve our problems and make us rich—and demands that no one stand in the way of its ethic of expediency. As such it is even less equipped than science to help us become better versions of ourselves: “It is a god that speaks to us of power, not limits; speaks to us of ownership, not stewardship; speaks to us only of rights, not responsibilities; speaks to us of self-aggrandizement, not humility.”
Postman goes on to strike down reason (which Freud deconstructed) and nationalism (which Marx deconstructed, and which Harari fears) as offering ultimate, alternative narratives. He concludes that in the end, we are left with the time-tested narratives of religion. That doesn’t mean we revive geocentrism, flat-earth theories, or other such flagrant errors; rather, as Postman says, it means “revising and expanding [the meaning of transcendent narratives] to accommodate the new” and coming up with “new ways of narrating ancient truths to encompass a larger world.”
Let us consider some brief examples of this in action. One big question Harari has raised is how to handle the possibility of robots taking over menial jobs and creating severe social inequalities. As part of our response to this possibility, we could look to the Christian story of creation, which states that all people are made in the image of God and therefore have equal and intrinsic worth—and this story in turn ought to shape how we treat people with dignity regardless of their economic status. Or consider another chief concern of Harari’s: our obsession with indulging our desires, and our horrific propensity to trample on one another to do so. Over and against this narrative of self-gratification, the Christian narrative speaks of a god-man named Jesus who gave up everything to rescue us from ourselves. His story of sacrificial love enables and motivates us to radically transform our desires—not to abandon them altogether, but to reorder them in a way that puts the love of God and others (and even one’s enemies!) before love of oneself.
None of this is to say that religion alone can answer every question of our time. On the contrary, science and religion must work together. Some of the earliest promoters and practitioners of science, from Descartes to Galileo to Newton, saw no inherent conflict between science and faith—a view shared by countless devout believers to this day, including scientists who argue for a harmony between creation and evolution.
How would such a cooperation look? The answer is complex, but on this point Neil Postman shares two quotes to provide a high-level picture. First, from Galileo: “The intention of the Holy Spirit is to teach how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.” Second, from Pope John Paul II: “Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.”
No doubt many would balk at this, in part because it requires us to abandon the myth, much encouraged by the media, that science and faith are hopelessly incompatible. Moreover, it requires humility from both the theologian and the scientist to recognize the role and authority of their respective domains. But collaboration is a better solution than a rejection of one or the other tout court. There will of course always be legitimate disagreements between believers and non-believers as we delve into the particulars of a given scientific or technological issue, but that should never stop us from remembering why science alone is insufficient to solve our problems, and that the transcendent narratives of faith are essential if we are to face a future whose questions are in fact profoundly moral and spiritual in nature.