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August 13, 2023


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And what can I say about free will that I haven't said before? Maybe I can just focus on what SAM HARRIS said at Caltech. He called free will not only an "illusion" but also a "totally incoherent idea" that contradicts what science tells us about how the world works. "The illusoriness of free will," he said, "is as certain a fact, to my mind, as the truth of evolution." This is one of Harris's characteristic traits, flaunting his certitude like a badge of honor.

Harris asks us to consider the case of a serial killer. "Imagine this murderer is discovered to have a brain tumor in the appropriate spot in his brain that could explain his violent impulses. That is obviously exculpatory. We view him as a victim of his biology, and our moral intuitions shift automatically. But I would argue that a brain tumor is just a special case of physical events giving rise to thoughts and actions, and if we fully understood the neurophysiology of any murderer's brain, that would be as exculpatory as finding a tumor in it."

Harris seems to be advancing a reductio ad absurdum, except that he wants us to accept the absurdum: there is no fundamental difference between me and a man compelled to kill by a brain tumor. Or between me and someone who can't help washing his hands every 20 minutes, or someone who's schizophrenic, or a babbling baby, or a newt, or a worm. I mean, if I'm not different from a guy who kills because a tumor provokes him into murderous rages, how am I different from anyone or anything with a brain, no matter how damaged or tiny?

Here's the difference. The man with a tumor has no choice but to do what he does. I do have choices, which I make all the time. Yes, my choices are constrained, by the laws of physics, my genetic inheritance, upbringing and education, the social, cultural, political, and intellectual context of my existence. And as Harris keeps pointing out, I didn't choose to be born into this universe, to my parents, in this nation, at this time. I don’t choose to grow old and die.

But just because my choices are limited doesn't mean they don't exist. Just because I don't have absolute freedom doesn't mean I have no freedom at all. Saying that free will doesn't exist because it isn't absolutely free is like saying truth doesn't exist because we can't achieve absolute, perfect knowledge.

Harris keeps insisting that because all our choices have prior causes, they are not free; they are determined. Of course all our choices are caused. No free-will proponent I know claims otherwise. The question is how are they caused? Harris seems to think that all causes are ultimately physical, and that to hold otherwise puts you in the company of believers in ghosts, souls, gods and other supernatural nonsense.

But the strange and wonderful thing about all organisms, and especially our species, is that mechanistic physical processes somehow give rise to phenomena that are not reducible to or determined by those physical processes. Human brains, in particular, generate human minds, which while subject to physical laws are influenced by non-physical factors, including ideas produced by other minds. These ideas may cause us to change our minds and make decisions that alter the trajectory of our world.

Some of us have a greater capacity to perceive and act on choices than others. The killer with a brain tumor, the schizophrenic, the sociopath, the obsessive-compulsive do not and cannot make decisions--or change their minds--in the way that I do. When I weigh the pros and cons of writing about Harris, my chain of reasoning is determined by the substance of my thoughts, not their physical instantiation.

Consider: When I watch the video of Sam Harris talking at Caltech, is it the electrons streaming through my MacBook, the photons impinging on my eye, the sound waves entering my ear that make me want to respond to Harris? Of course not. It's the meaning of the video that stirs me, not its physical embodiment. I could have watched a DVD of Harris's talk, or read a transcript, or listened to someone summarize his lecture over the telephone. And it's possible that Harris's words, instead of provoking me to write a critical response, could have changed my mind about free will, so that I decided to write a column defending his point of view. Of course, if I thought about it for a moment, I'd realize that the fact that Harris had changed my mind and hence my actions was evidence of my free will.

We are physical creatures, but we are not just physical. We have free will because we are creatures of mind, meaning, ideas, not just matter. Harris perversely--willfully!--refuses to acknowledge this crushingly obvious and fundamental fact about us. He insists that because science cannot figure out the complex causality underpinning free will, it must be illusory. He is a throwback to the old behaviorists, who pretended that subjective, mental phenomena—because they are more difficult to observe and measure than planets and protons—don't exist.

Dwelling on Harris depresses me. All that brainpower and training dedicated to promulgating such bad ideas! He reminds me of one of the brightest students I've ever had, who was possessed by an adamant, unshakable belief in young-earth creationism. I did my best to change his mind, but I never succeeded. I probably won't change the minds of Sam Harris and other hard-core determinists either, but it's worth a shot.

SantMat64, I don't understand your position on free will. It seems to contain a highly dubious assumption: that thoughts and the mind somehow are non-physical entities.

Please provide evidence of this. Not links to New Age web sites. Links to peer-reviewed scientific research demonstrating that thoughts and the mind are non-physical. I'm familiar with the current state of neuroscience. I'm almost 100% certain that you are completely wrong in your assertion that thoughts and the mind, including your choices, don't arise from the action of the brain, which obviously is a physical entity, being composed of many billions of neurons and vastly more connections between those neurons.

How do you explain anesthesia? How do you explain dementia? How do you explain unconsciousness from being hit on the head by a baseball bat? If the mind isn't physical, why do physical causes result in the mind going off-line or becoming dysfunctional?

You mistakenly say that Harris and other neuroscientists deny subjectivity. That's also flat-out wrong. Harris is a big proponent of meditation, being an avid practitioner of a Tibetan Buddhist style of meditation. Subjectivity is simply being conscious. Since consciousness arises from the brain, this makes subjectivity physical. It is the central feature of consciousness, since no one has direct access to our consciousness but us.

So where does your supposed free will come from? Please explain. The brain operates according to the laws of nature. Or do you deny that? If so, what are those laws? If they're non-physical, how do they control the physical brain? Or if you're unaware of those laws, why do you claim that your choices are made outside of the realm of the physical laws of nature?

I appreciate your comment. Some of it makes sense. But your claim that thoughts and the mind aren't physically instantiated in the brain makes no sense.

Does the driver drives the car or is de driver driven by the car?

If the car is defect, the driver cannot drive
If the driver is defect he cannot drive the car.

The car is meaningless and valueless without the driver.
It is the driver that uses the car for his own purposes that in no way are related to the car.

It appears that the issue of free will is confused with choice. Choice is limited to the data that we are programmed with via our cultures and genetic natures. Choice arises naturally depending on the needs and desires of the moment and is an automatic reaction to conditions.

To have free will there needs to be an entity (somehow within the organism) that is separate and uninfluenced by the physical/mental brain/body. This would require some mysterious agent that operates outside of natural laws. The concept of free will can give justification to the hope or desire that there is some agent (call it a soul, God etc.) running the show - which helps with mankind’s neurosis about our future demise.

As a human being with a naturally strong bond to the natural world, my view is that consciousness, free will, the mind and self etc. are all part of the naturally evolved mental framework that developed as we evolved and grew bigger, more complex brains. Nature has served us well in evolutionary terms, ensuring that life’s main objective for any organism is to get its genes into the next generation – and we have excelled at that.

With our amazing mental abilities, it would be a shame if we unconsciously choose to use them to justify some ego-based justification that we are special or that we have special rights such as a separate self that has something we call freewill. We have a great need to live in harmony with nature – which includes ourselves as we are, and not to imagine ourselves to be special and independent of nature.

Sam Harris is a master of the polemic. His book, Free Will, is a scant 66 page essay and is lacking in many essential ways, particularly in the matter of evidence for his claims. Harris states there is no free will, that it is an illusion, but offers no proof for his assertion. In fact, on Pages 13, 38, 39, and 40, he states that the sources of our intentions, desires, actions, and wants are unknown, a mystery, inscrutable or obscure. He seems to be asserting that because we do not know the sources for our thoughts and actions, it necessarily follows that we do not have free will. Such a flimsy connection is not proof.

He cites some well known experiments, such as the Libet, (debunked, see link)


...all of which are inconclusive, and does not provide the reader with strong scientific evidence to back up his assertions.

Mr. Harris critiques compatibilism by too often, for such a short essay, emphasizing the differences between himself and Daniel Dennett, the philosopher who has written Elbow Room and Freedom Evolves. In fact, Dennett makes a very cogent case for the compatibilism and coexistence of determinism and free will in human beings. One of Mr. Harris's breezy dismissals of compatibilism on Page 16 is that the "free will compatibilists defend is not the free will most people feel they have." Such a statement seems to imply that Mr. Harris sets aside the fine and scholarly work of many philosophers such as Dennett, because it does not accord with some popular misconception of free will. Populism would appear to trump scholarship in this book.

On Pages 10 and 24, Harris apparently infers that if we had exceptional machines and brain scanners to monitor our action sequences and choices, we would be astounded to discover that we were not in control of them. However, we do not yet have experiments that might be conclusive. To state that one knows the outcome of future experiments is nonsense. In fact, neuroscience is at the beginning of a long voyage of discovery about the brain, the mind and consciousness.

Another difficulty with "Free Will" is the author's shift to prescription rather than description. Such a segue is yet another example of the philosopher David Hume's famous and much discussed Is/Ought problem concerning Ethics (and Harris' penchant pretentions of polymathery). Harris suddenly advocates, quite radically, what the justice system should do. On Page 54, he writes: "Our system of justice should reflect an understanding that any of us could have been dealt a different hand in life. In fact, it seems immoral not to recognize just how much luck is involved with morality itself." Why should any of us assume, given Mr. Harris's assertion that choices are not in our control, that most citizens will agree about changes to our justice system? Many people, if not in conscious control of their belief and ethical systems, may reach opposite conclusions. Mr. Harris is not the only champion of determinism who seems to dismiss reason as a motivating factor, and then to advocate change based on conscious reasoning.

The larger point here is that Harris' views on free will are not accepted as consensus by the scientific world. This is the thing about Harris that I've pointed out before -- he garnered much of his popularity with his style of speaking with absolute certitude on various controversial issues with absolute certitude. But Harris' conviction doesn't make his views correct. The question of will is still being worked out, with compelling arguments on multiple sides. The problem of free will vis-à-vis determinism reaches back to Ancient Greece and Israel, and is not quickly or easily perused. Galen Strawson, Saul Smilansky, Peter Strawson, Manuel Vargas, Robert Kane and Daniel Wegner are excellent sources.

As previously mentioned, a separate non-physical self is needed for there to be free will. One way to understand the illusion of being (having) a self with free will is to imagine being on a plane from say London to New York. The plane is your life; you board it at the start of your journey (birth) and disembark at the end (death). While on the plane you are able to choose what to do, whether to chat to your neighbour or not, watch the in-flight film or not, to have the vegetarian meal or not, read a book etc. – all activities that originate from your conditioning, absorbed from your particular culture, education, various beliefs. It is from these hotch-potch of accrued mental influences that choices are mechanically selected – nothing to do with free will, just manifestations of your conditioning. And all the time the plane (your life) is moving on from birth to death.

The philosopher Daniel Dennett speaks of the illusion of the ‘Cartesian theatre,' the sense that there is ‘someone’ looking out at a world ‘out there’, and also watching our own thoughts pass by. In reality, says Dennett, there are only mental processes. There are streams of thoughts, sensations, and perceptions passing through our brains, but there is no central place where all of these phenomena are organised. Similarly, psychologist Susan Blackmore has suggested that the self is just a collection of what she calls ‘memes’—units of cultural information such as ideas, beliefs, and habits. We are born without a self, but slowly, as we are exposed to environmental influences, the self is ‘constructed’ out of the memes we absorb.

The concept of self is not static, but rather constantly evolving through social interactions and the ongoing construction of our identity. Brian Lowery: ‘Selfless. The social creation of you.’

And, Jay Garfield’s book: ‘Loosing Ourselves’, explains why dropping the illusion of ‘self’ in favour of just being a person helps us to abandon egoism and escaping the isolation of self-identity.

Many scientists say that the American physiologist Benjamin Libet demonstrated in the 1980s that we have no free will. It was already known that electrical activity builds up in a person’s brain before she, for example, moves her hand; Libet showed that this buildup occurs before the person consciously makes a decision to move. The conscious experience of deciding to act, which we usually associate with free will, appears to be an add-on, a post hoc reconstruction of events that occurs after the brain has already set the act in motion.

The eternal mystery contains the eternal potential of free will.

The more conscious and aware we are, the more free will we have. But do we use it?

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