Sam Harris: Free Will

HarrisFreeWillCoverI am currently researching an epic pair of posts re-examining Sam Harris’ debate on morality against William Lane Craig from April 2011 at The University of Notre Dame and in particular Craig’s wilful misrepresentation of Harris’ written work.  This has necessitated me engaging in the mammoth – albeit wonderfully rewarding – re-reading Harris’ books, The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, The Moral Landscape and Free Will.

I have always loathed the faithful’s concept of “free will” but have never had the means to tackle it head-on.  I invariably put the term in scare quotes to signify my distain.  It is part of the disgusting branch of theological “thought” called “theodicy”, aka making excuses for your imaginary best friend’s failure to do anything about all the evil and suffering in the World.  Theists argue that God have given us “free will” to act how we please and to believe in him or not and our rejection of him.  However, poor old God’s heart is broken when we abuse our “free will” to reject his boundless love and commit atrocities against our fellow man.

For me, this concept is philosophically and semantically incoherent to the point that I had no idea how to mount an argument against it.  How can you have a choice not to believe in God?  Taking the coward’s way out with Pascal’s Wager is at best feigning a belief in God.  There are plenty of facts about the World that I do not especially like – such as the existence of famine, genocide and the wonderfully designed AIDS virus – but have to accept because there is plenty of evidence for their existence regardless of whether or not I find them comforting.

If presented with sufficient evidence for God’s existence – such as a big face and a booming voice sticking out of the clouds striking sinners down with fire and brimstone rather like the God of the Bible I was made to learn about in school – I would believe.

Harris –v- “Free Will”

In his gem of a short book Free Will, Harris explodes the concept of “free will” as philosophically incoherent and scientifically unsupportable; our thoughts and actions are entirely deterministic.  Here are some of Harris’ key points:

  • You are no more in control of the next thought you think than the next thought I write.  Thoughts appear in your head at random and you have no control over them.  As you try to concentrate on one of Sam Harris’ lectures to which I link below, you may well suddenly think, “Gosh, he does look a bit like Ben Stiller!”
  • You are not free to choose options of which you are not aware.  For example, if someone asks you to think of a film, you would not be able to choose The Maltese Falcon if you have never heard of it.
  • Modern neuro-imagining shows that our brains have formed our decisions seconds, sometimes minutes, before we are aware of them.
  • All of our thoughts and actions are governed by a string of prior causes over which we have no control: genes, upbringing and environment.
  • Even people who believe in “free will” accept that certain medical conditions will affect a person’s thoughts and actions such as depression, diabetes and brain tumours.  Therefore, you have as much “free will” to be a homosexual as you have to be black or white skinned.
  • Compromise positions on “free will” such as “compatibilism” that concede that our thoughts and actions are influenced by prior causes over which we have no control amount to saying “a puppet has free will as long as it loves its strings”.
  • As counter-intuitive as it seems, it makes no more sense than to hate a psychopath who has tried to cut you up with an axe than to hate a grizzly bear who has tried to eat you.
  • Retribution and personal hatred of people makes no sense as we are punishing people for acts for which ultimately they are not responsible.  Our criminal justice should be geared towards protection of the public at large (which does include incarceration) and rehabilitation but not retribution and revenge.
  • If we developed a pill that could cure psychopathy with no side effects, it would make no sense to withhold it from a violent psychopath as a punishment for what they have done.
  • Swallowing determinism whole by “throwing the oars out of the boat” and doing nothing but drift through life and seeing what happens is a course of action over which we have no control and is therefore impossible.  Just try staying in bed and waiting for something to happen: very soon you will feel the urge to get out bed and do something, like eating or going to the loo!
  • Good and evil, morality and happiness do not depend on the existence of “free will”:

In my view, the reality of good and evil does not depend upon the existence of free will, because with or without free will, we can distinguish between suffering and happiness.  With or without free will, a psychopath who enjoys killing children is different from a paediatric surgeon who enjoys saving them.  Whatever the truth about free will, these distinctions are unmistakable and well worth caring about.

  • Personal effort and choice do still count even on a deterministic view of “free will”:

Might free will somehow be required for goodness to be manifest?  How, for instance, does one become a paediatric surgeon?  Well, you must first be born, with an intact nervous system, and then provided with a proper education. No freedom there, I’m afraid.  You must also have the physical talent for the job and avoid smashing your hands at rugby.  Needless to say, it won’t do to be someone who faints at the sight of blood.  Chalk these achievements up to good luck as well.  At some point you must decide to become a surgeon—a result, presumably, of first wanting to become one.  Will you be the conscious source of this wanting?  Will you be responsible for its prevailing over all the other things you want but that are incompatible with a career in medicine?  No.  If you succeed at becoming a surgeon, you will simply find yourself standing one day, scalpel in hand, at the confluence of all the genetic and environmental causes that led you to develop along this line.  None of these events requires that you, the conscious subject, be the ultimate cause of your aspirations, abilities, and resulting behaviour.  And, needless to say, you can take no credit for the fact that you weren’t born a psychopath.

Of course, I’m not saying that you can become a surgeon by accident—you must do many things, deliberately and well, and in the appropriate sequence, year after year. Becoming a surgeon requires effort.  But can you take credit for your disposition to make that effort?   To turn the matter around, am I responsible for the fact that it has never once occurred to me that I might like to be a surgeon?  Who gets the blame for my lack of inspiration?  And what if the desire to become a surgeon suddenly arises tomorrow and becomes so intense that I jettison my other professional goals and enrol in medical school? Would I—that is, the part of me that is actually experiencing my life—be the true cause of these developments?  Every moment of conscious effort—every thought, intention, and decision—will have been caused by events of which I am not conscious.  Where is the freedom in this?

  • Determinism does not undercut the human concept of “love”, yet assists in a better understanding of “hate”:

What many people seem to be missing is the positive side of these truths.  Seeing through the illusion of free will does not undercut the reality of love, for example—because loving other people is not a matter of fixating on the underlying causes of their behaviour.  Rather, it is a matter of caring about them as people and enjoying their company.  We want those we love to be happy, and we want to feel the way we feel in their presence.  The difference between happiness and suffering does not depend on free will—indeed, it has no logical relationship to it (but then, nothing does, because the very idea of free will makes no sense).  In loving others, and in seeking happiness ourselves, we are primarily concerned with the character of conscious experience.

Hatred, however, is powerfully governed by the illusion that those we hate could (and should) behave differently.  We don’t hate storms, avalanches, mosquitoes, or flu.  We might use the term “hatred” to describe our aversion to the suffering these things cause us—but we are prone to hate other human beings in a very different sense.  True hatred requires that we view our enemy as the ultimate author of his thoughts and actions.  Love demands only that we care about our friends and find happiness in their company.  It may be hard to see this truth at first, but I encourage everyone to keep looking.  It is one of the more beautiful asymmetries to be found anywhere.

Harris differs from Daniel Dennett, who defends “free will” simply by redefining its terms:

Fans of Dan’s account—and there are many—seem to miss my primary purpose in writing about free will.  My goal is to show how the traditional notion is flawed, and to point out the consequences of our being taken in by it.  Whenever Dan discusses free will, he bypasses the traditional idea and offers a revised version that he believes to be the only one “worth wanting.”  Dan insists that this conceptual refinement is a great strength of his approach, analogous to other manoeuvres in science and philosophy that allow us to get past how things seem so that we can discover how they actually are.  I do not agree.  From my point of view, he has simply changed the subject in a way that either confuses people or lets them off the hook too easily.

Sam Harris lectures on the illusion of free will

Caltech, 2012:

Festival of Dangerous Ideas, Sydney Opera House, 2012:

Bon Mot Book Club, Vancouver, 2012:

Reddit.com Q&A, 2011:

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7 Responses to “Sam Harris: Free Will”

  1. Justin Caouette Says:

    Harris is wrong.

  2. manicstreetpreacher Says:

    Thank you for the link to your blog post, Justin.

    You raise some interesting points, but I am not persuaded by your arguments.

    [W]e should reject the notion of free will that Harris offers us, and, the notion that we are left with is in fact a notion of free will, at least the sort of free will that we need to have moral responsibility and to justify ascriptions of praise and blame.

    This is little more than a statement of wishful thinking: “Free Will must be real otherwise we wouldn’t be able to hold people accountable for their actions”, which is rather like saying, “There must be an afterlife, otherwise sinners would escape eternal punishment for their actions and there would be no ultimate justice in the World.”

    I believe Harris answers the spirit, if not the letter, of the remainder of your post in his book, website articles and lectures that I link to in my main post.

    You seem to be taking a “compatibilist” stance on “free will” as you state “Mitigating factors can limit our ability to act “freely”, such as various mental disorders and external factors, however, to claim that free will is an all or nothing sort of concept seems to miss both the folk intuition as to the importance of free will (see Nahmias, Morris, Turner, Nadelhoffer 05′) and our ordinary conceptions of its role in grounding moral responsibility and justifying our conventions of punishment, dealings in relationships, desert, and conscious experience.”

    However, Harris argues that the compatibilist stance is only valid if a puppet loves its strings.

    Furthermore, Harris argues that the illusion of “free will” does not negate the concepts of good and evil, morality, choice and responsibility, but simply necessitates a reassessment of how we deal with criminals.

    Harris is in favour of incarceration of criminals in order to keep the public safe but seems revenge and retribution of people as akin to the medieval trials and public punishments/executions of animals.

    Finally, your charges that Harris “needs to read more philosophy” smacks of the veiled ad hominems and “credential inflation” that William Lane Craig beats his opponents over the head.

    As Stephen Hawking stated in his last book, “Philosophy is dead.” It has nothing useful to say any more in matters of science. While I am not writing it over all together as a subject, its uses are retrospective in that it explains data that science has already uncovered and explains it via empirical logic.

    However, it is very far from the “be all and end all” that many of its adherents portray it to be.

    MSP

  3. William Lane Craig’s misrepresentation of Sam Harris’ written work during their debate on morality | manicstreetpreacher Says:

    […] also my recent post setting out Harris’ views on “free will” which links to a number of relevant web articles and […]

  4. Daniel Dennett reviews ‘Free Will’ by Sam Harris | manicstreetpreacher Says:

    […] year, I reviewed and summarised the writing and public speaking of Sam Harris in relation to “free will”.  Fellow “Four […]

  5. Sam Harris responds to Daniel Dennett’s review of ‘Free Will’ | manicstreetpreacher Says:

    […] contained in his short book of the same name and additional articles and public speaking, which I reviewed and summarised last […]

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