On July 23, 2007, Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky broke into the home of the Petit family in Connecticut, USA. The robbers beat William Petit, bound his hands and feet, and robbed, raped and killed his wife and two daughters aged 11 and 17 years old.
All the excruciating details about how the two career criminals committed the atrocity are told in detail at the start of Sam Harris’s book Free Will.
Despite these horrifying crimes, Harris declares that “I have to admit that if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him: There is no extra part of me that could decide to see the world differently or to resist the impulse to victimize other people.”
According to Harris, “luck” is the only reason he isn’t a rapist and murderer. This is because he believes free will — the ability for a human being to choose from alternative courses of action — is a baseless illusion.
We have no choice in how we conduct our lives, Harris contends, even if we have immortal souls. “I cannot take credit,” he wrote, “for the fact that I do not have the soul of a psychopath.”
In the 1930s as fascism spread across Europe, philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre were faced with the same dilemma over freedom and determinism. Is the universe simply a matter of one event following from another like an endlessly tumbling line of dominos? Do “we” really choose what we do, or is our “choice” determined by the events of the past?
It’s difficult to disprove determinism, but also impossible to prove if freedom exists either way. No scientist can demonstrate that our actions are determined or free. But Sartre believed that he had discovered the basis for human freedom through reason.
Like Harris, Sartre believed there was no “extra part” of the human mind or soul that has freedom to decide, but we nevertheless have freedom. Sartre came to an extraordinary conclusion as to why: our freedom is a “nothingness”.
It took a huge leap of thinking to come to that conclusion. Stage by stage, from the mid-1930s to the 1940s, Sartre believed his great project of Existentialism demonstrated that human beings are free to choose their actions from alternative possibilities. He also elaborated what that means for people and the societies and nations we live in. He began with the most fundamental aspects of existence.
Types of Being
For the purposes of his project, Sartre asserted that there are two types of thing in the world. The first type of thing is the most common, it’s unconscious objects, things like chairs, trees, the sun, skyscrapers, raindrops and feathers.
These things have no consciousness, their destiny is determined. They are neither passive nor active, they just are. These kinds of things Sartre puts into the category of “Being-in-itself” (“être-en-soi”). Being-in-itself lacks the ability to change what it is.
The other category of thing is consciousness. Conscious being is non-determined. Humans participate in our own destiny, we can redefine the essence of what we are from moment to moment.
I am not destined to work in an office, I can learn the saxophone and work as a musician. But a tree cannot help but be a tree, as being-in-itself, a lily has no influence over its own destiny. Sartre calls conscious being “Being-for-itself” (“être-pour-soi”).
Phenomenology: The Study of Experience
Sartre’s philosophy came to be known as Existentialism, but his method was known as Phenomenology. Simply put, Phenomenology means the study (logos) of phenomena (how things appear).
The study of Phenomenology falls somewhere between science and philosophy, it sought to uncover the structure of experience as it manifests itself as consciousness.
The movement was founded by Edmund Husserl, a German philosopher whose ideas Sartre studied in the 1930s. For Sartre, Phenomenology came to be a way of understanding consciousness as the basis of a radical freedom that human beings have.
In his seminal essay (now a book), The Transcendence of the Ego, Sartre describes two types of consciousness experienced by Being-for-itself: reflected and unreflected consciousness.
Unreflected consciousness is the most common type of consciousness that we find ourselves in. This is the consciousness of going about our daily lives, experiencing thoughts and sensations about things in an almost automatic way. Reflected consciousness is less common. It occurs when we put ourselves into our conscious experience of reality.
An example of both types of consciousness could be the experience of a cooking mishap. While I prepare and cook food I am in a state of unreflected consciousness. My consciousness is focused on the tasks at hand — peeling, chopping, stirring and heating the food. At no point in this preparation and cooking do I think about myself.
Suddenly I drop some eggs that smash on the floor. I switch to reflected consciousness because I berate myself for the mistake. I think, “Me in my stupidity, I dropped them! Why am I so clumsy? What’s wrong with me!?” The “me” and “I” appears in reflected consciousness. Reflected consciousness is thought about thought.
Sartre described consciousness as “an impersonal spontaneity”. It’s a tireless overflow of the mind that we cannot stop for as long as we are awake.
Consciousness is doing something important, the world around us as we experience it is unified by consciousness. All the partial and fragmented sense data we have is synthesised into the coherence of our experience, a unitary whole.
This is where the word “transcendent” comes into the picture. In western philosophy, this word is often used to describe something as unknowable. God, for example, is transcendent to many philosophers because God is deemed unknowable. God transcends our understanding.
Sartre considers all objects to be transcendent because what we could possibly know of them is inexhaustible. Take a chair as an example. A chair can be seen from an infinite number of angles and its details perceived in an infinite number of ways. I cannot fully know something as simple as a chair in its entirety.
We can only experience any object partially. Therefore the object in-itself (as a totality of how it can be known) is transcendent — ultimately unknowable. Our consciousness does the work of making our partial understanding of all things into a coherent experience.
We put ourselves into that coherent experience when we reflect on ourselves in reflective consciousness. We think of ourselves as a thing in the moment that we think of ourselves.
Consciousness is always intentional, it is always directed by intent to objects. When consciousness is directed to itself, it too becomes an object of consciousness.
Sartre argues that the ego — the “I think” of reflected consciousness — is transcendent in the same way as the chair, or a tree, or a laptop. This is what is meant by the title of the essay: The Transcendence of the Ego.
In the same way that consciousness synthesizes a unitary object from the fragmented experience we have of a chair, it does the same for our ego, our consciousness of self.
Sartre comes to the conclusion that there is no ego or “I” that is synthesising the world together in consciousness. It’s the opposite fact: the ego is an effect of consciousness.
The self is not a preexisting and complete thing discovered by reflective thought, it is created through reflective thought.
This is an astonishing conclusion when you think about it. We habitually think of ourselves as a whole and complete ego that makes the world in our mind. Sartre contends that this sense of our self is thanks to consciousness, a process we have no control over.
When you brushed your teeth this morning, it’s doubtful that you were conscious of yourself. But since I’ve made you think about it, you are now thinking about yourself brushing your teeth. You have switched from unreflected to reflected consciousness, and not through your own choice.
Consciousness is Nothingness
While traditionally we’d think of consciousness as a box in which our “self” views the world we experience, Sartre attempts to demonstrate that it cannot be that way.
Our consciousness and everything in it is transcendent, including our own self or ego. There is no self or ego actively unifying experience. There is nothing behind experience, there is only experience.
Consciousness is pure experience, it is transparent and it is therefore a nothingness. Consciousness is structured around making distinctions, and these distinctions are based on what things are not at every moment. Sartre wrote that, “consciousness continually experiences itself as the nihilation of its past being.” It is this ongoing activity of negating that allows Sartre to describe consciousness as a nothingness.
“The For-itself [consciousness]… is nothing but the pure nihilation of the In-itself [inanimate things]; it is like a hole of being at the heart of being.”
In other words, consciousness is not a thing, because it nihilates everything, including itself. Consciousness is exceptional.
What does this mean to us? We cannot help but to be free to determine ourselves. While a rock can only be a rock, a person has to actualise what they are at every given moment.
Consciousness just goes on and on. It is a hole — a nothingness — at the heart of our being that we constantly fill with our choices, yet the nothingness never ceases to be within us. Like a black hole in space, it can swallow anything and not cease to be empty. We are compelled to always be making choices.
That’s the important distinction in Sartre’s work between consciousness and the inanimate things around us. Consciousness is an exception from the world, it is what makes us free.
The nothingness of consciousness, its nihilating process, ensures that we are distinct from being-for-itself which by its very nature is determined by the laws of cause and effect.
The being-for-itself is free by virtue of the tireless overflow of consciousness. Most of us can relate to the feeling of vertigo we have when faced with possibilities. I have stood at the edge of a train platform and frightened myself with the thought that I could throw myself onto the tracks.
I also wonder what I could have changed in the past. Why didn’t I become a scientist or a musician? My fate is in my own hands. Thoughts like these are an inevitable consequence of consciousness. I cannot help but be free.
For his famous 1946 lecture, “Existentialism is a Humanism”, Sartre wrote: “Man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does.”
Of course, our freedom is limited by all the aspects of our life that we have no control over. Sartre describes these aspects as the “facticity” of our being.
Examples of aspects that make up our facticity are things like where and when we were born, the colour of our skin and our parents’ identity. It could also be things like a hurricane that comes into your town and destroys your business. You can change your situation, but “facticity” constitutes the starting point of change.
But unlike a paper bag that is blown about the street by the wind, you also have control over many aspects of your life. You are continually faced with ethical dilemmas about how to conduct yourself in every situation you find yourself in.
Of course, you can’t will yourself to float into the sky, and you can’t will yourself to be half your age. Gravity and the year you were born in are facts about your existence that you cannot change. But, Sartre would say, you can still make choices about your attitudes and actions.
You create your own character over the course of your life. You are free to “act out of character” because you created your own character through your choices, not because it is an essence you were born with.
You didn’t choose to exist, yet you are constantly faced with choices and the responsibility for those choices. You are “condemned to be free”.
For a determinist like Sam Harris, there is a strict continuity of cause and effect between the past and the present and between the present and the future. Events of the past cause events of the present, which in turn cause events of the future.
Sartre would contend that while the past has facticity that may structure our choices, we still have choices. For example, if I were born in 1978, I cannot be twenty years old, no matter how much I would like to be. But no event of the past can cause me to take one course of action or another, such as lying or telling the truth about my age, for example.
Sartre believes that this is because we are separated from the past by nothingness. We choose the meaning of past events in the nothingness between our present and the past.
So why do some people behave so predictably? According to Sartre, most people choose aspects of their past to project into the future as part of themselves and claim it as a feature of their personality. But we feel anguish about the future because we know there is a nothingness between our present and past.
Sartre argues that people try to avoid their freedom and the dread and responsibility that comes with it by acting in “bad faith”. When we’re acting in bad faith we are turning ourselves into objects. We are trying to imitate being-in-itself, the kind of being that is at the mercy of the laws of cause and effect.
This will often come out in excuses for not doing the right thing. “I can’t help how I act” is a self-objectification that you’d indulge in if you were faced with a choice. We often do this by acting with “professionalism”, we turn ourselves into the automaton that we believe is expected of us for social or economic reasons. Sartre uses the example of a waiter, who “plays” being a waiter.
We find ourselves living in a mechanistic world. All the things around us are determined, they are subject to the laws of cause and effect. Sartre believed that consciousness was the exception to this rule.
The nothingness at the heart of our being forces us to be free. This paradox may feel like a burden, it may fill us with dread, but it is the paradox at the heart of our destiny. It allows us to build the world around us, to take responsibility for the well-being of others and to create ourselves. We have no excuses.