Sam Harris and Free Will


Sam Harris’s Free Will: An Exasperated Review

Some books are so bad they defy refutation.  Sam Harris’s short book on free will comes close to being one of those books.  It is rife with naïveté and self-contradictions, and proffers trivia and hypotheticals in place of evidence.  In these, it is like his earlier book The Moral Landscape, which covered much of the same ground at greater length.

As one is reading this book, one begins to wonder just what definition of free will Harris is talking about, and one finally finds out (sort of) on page 30 (of a book that is only 66 pages long), where he refers to the “popular” version of free will.  This popular version, which appears to be Harris’s target (why?), is indeed a very naïve one, entailing that free will must be conscious and operate somewhat like a syllogism.  He writes, “to actually have free will [,y]ou would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would have to have complete control over those factors” (italics added).  I have never before encountered such a view of free will; if Harris is correct, this stands as a major insight, never before thought of in the whole history of theology and philosophy.  Of course, no one can be, or would want to be, aware of all the factors that determine his thoughts and actions, nor can anyone imagine having complete control over them, or wanting to.  One would be so entangled in what he elsewhere refers to as introspection, and so fraught with indecision as to what kind of control to exercise, that making any kind of decision, let alone of the kind that makes the question of free will interesting, would not be possible.  To devote even a short book to this childish, magic-wand kind of free will seems a tragic waste of time.

The trivial nature of his definition is seconded by the triviality of his evidence.  He discusses choosing between coffee or tea as an example of how our choices are not freely willed but determined by prior causes, particularly by events in the brain (p. 7).  I can imagine the internal struggle unfolding in a Starbucks, but not in the Garden of Gethsemane; he seems to be talking about the “free will” of a rather shallow character, a consumer.  Free will is a profoundly ethical concept, but alas it is not surprising that in our contemporary society of entertainment and shopping it has come to mean no more than consumer choice.

As in his earlier book, Harris trots out the experiments of Benjamin Libet, who demonstrated that, when subjects were asked to push either one of two buttons, scans of their brains showed that the decision was made several seconds before the subjects were consciously aware of it.  This is a trivial fact, one might even say a factoid, and again has nothing to do with the free will as an ethical problem.  This is more akin to reflex action than to the often drawn-out process of deciding what to do when faced with a moral dilemma, the kind  that might cause a President to pace the Oval Office floor.  Perhaps Harris does not discuss examples of the latter sort because such situations cannot be reduced to simple cause and effect or measured by brain scans and therefore do not fall within the purview of science, in the pure reductionist way that  Harris understands it.  If physics offers us anything helpful in addressing this question, it is its understanding that the whole is not describable in terms of the particle.  We may be made up of atoms, but we are not atoms and don’t act like them.

Speaking of brain scans, Harris also indulges in hypotheticals that are supposed to buttress his thesis but which do not.  He writes, “Imagine a perfect neuroimaging device that allow us to detect and interpret the subtlest changes in brain function.”  Well, we are free to imagine just about anything, from unicorns to warp speed, but to imagine something is not to establish its existence, and since we do not have such a machine, we cannot reach any conclusions from its operations.  Sure, it might be that such a machine would show that “the experimenters knew what you would think and do just before you did,” but until such a machine comes along we cannot conclude from its imaginary existence that free will “is an illusion” (p. 11).  That “We know that we could perform such an experiment, at least in principle” which would then “directly challenge [our] status as conscious agents in control of [our] inner lives” (p.24) is, in principle, a fairy tale.  If we had a time machine, in principle, we could travel backwards and forwards in time, but for now, in principle, we cannot travel through time.

I think that free will is most likely a cultural artifact rather than an innate trait conferred by genes or souls or whatever; it is something that we human beings, through the power of symbolic language, have created for ourselves, just as much as any other cultural artifact, whether a social structure or a work of art, and it is every bit as real as those things.  It is both an act and an attitude—we choose to do one thing rather than others, and we choose to accept or reject responsibility.   Historically, it has preoccupied the Christian West more than it has other cultures.  The version of free will Harris denies is a particularly Western, Christian one.  Apparently, he cannot conceive of any version of free will that does not first assume a soul; his language gets confused when he speaks of “your brain” vs. “you” (p. 9); he seems unclear about how one could be introspective and yet without free will; and in a single sentence he both denies and affirms free will.  “This understanding reveals you to be a biochemical puppet, of course, but it also allows you to grab hold of one of your strings” (p. 47).

It’s that one string that makes all the difference.  Of course, we are limited, by the circumstances of our birth, by the social class we grow up in, by the vagaries of health and accidents, by the climate, by the other human beings who surround us, by the brevity of our lives; but we are also capable of acting within these circumstances rather than always and only reacting.  We do not need a magic wand, we do not need to make a Faustian pact with the devil to exercise free will.  In fact, free will would be meaningless without those limiting circumstances, for it is only in the real world that free will can present itself.

See also BigQuestionsOnline

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