So I recently started reading Sam Harris’s more recent book, Freewill. This is his major, definitive masterpiece meant to once and for all put to rest this “illusion” of free will. “There’s no other rational way to see it,” is basically the whole of his introduction.
Sam Harris played a big part in my becoming an Atheist but since that time I’ve become more and more convinced that he’s really just an arrogant boob. Well spoken mind you, but still. It is really hard to take anyone seriously when they start out with, “There’s no other rational way to see it.” But I’ve been trying to continue reading…
Although he brings up some interesting points, he seems, like many of those who are on his side of the discussion, to be rather insistent that Free Will has to be defined as something magical and impossible or it just isn’t Free Will that we’re talking about. He charges those of us who are compatibilists with changing the meaning of things in order to continue deluding ourselves. Daniel Dennett of course is one of his primary, explicit targets in this. I don’t believe he does well in supporting this assertion so far though.
One particular example comes to mind. He quotes a current philosopher discussing what Free Will must mean and how that operates in the brain. What the philosopher explained seemed to make a lot of sense to me and although I will admit that the average person’s view of Free Will could not be satisfied by the explanation, that it would scare the fuck out of them and make them run to the nearest Bible for help, I could not accept Harris’s basic assumption that we all have to talk about it at that level or we’re playing word games or whatever. After quoting this rather reasonable explanation and distinction from what he called “contra-causal free will” (free will outside the chain of causes) from the only possible kind, Harris just says, “See, he’s talking about stuff you would NEVER accept as Free Will.”
That simply doesn’t work for me. There at least seems to be something about the decision making process that takes part in my brain that remains independent and essentially “me”. I do NOT think that I have to accept a magical explanation of that in order to continue believing it. I may need to alter my understanding of something and forego some assumptions I have about it, but I see this as a path of growth…a sophistication of understanding what seems quite clearly an existent phenomenon. Consciousness itself is such a thing and I think it absurd to claim it doesn’t exist just because we have to accept the fact that its foundation lies in the unconscious, that everything we’re conscious of we were first “unconscious” of, and that much of what we think we see or feel we in fact do not.
Yes, the naive, commonly held view of these things are inherently flawed and impossible, but there is a rational view of them that can be understood within the real world and not depend upon magic. Asserting that we can only talk about magic as the base thesis in your argument may be interesting to you, and it may convince you that you’ve taken the only rational approach and abandoned your “illusions”, but you’ve still got a lot of explaining to do no matter what you chose to call it.
His main contention seems to be that because the source of our conscious thoughts are themselves unconscious that it is impossible that consciousness plays a part in Free Will and therefore, “where’s the freedom in that?” I think this is a reasonable challenge but I don’t accept it as definitive. Although he can cite various studies in which some rather trivial decisions appear to be completely made before the person making them is conscious of them, I think it may be an invalid assumption to say that ALL decisions are made before we are conscious of them. For one thing, we have to then figure out why consciousness exists at all if it apparently serves no purpose. It seems to me that the subjective POV and self-simulation that seems to play a big part in how we are conscious probably provides some amount of input into the decision making process even if that decision bubbles up out of the deep and into the conscious. So I’m not convinced that his assertion that the consciousness plays no part in decision making is true and thus remain so far unconvinced that any feeling I might have that my consciousness is involved is entirely illusory.
His second contention seems to be that we should only accept a definition of free will that allows the patently absurd. For example, I can’t decide what I’ll think next. This is obviously tautological for anyone who gives it the remotest amount of thought (lol). To decide what to think next you would need a variety of possibilities and this is simply astronomically huge if not infinite. The brain simply has to calculate thoughts and perculate them up into consciousness. It’s basically obvious that this HAS TO HAPPEN. It is not clear though if what we are conscious of can have influence upon what happens in those levels and it would seem to me that it would have to have some. If Dennett is correct about what consciousness is, a popularity shouting match of thoughts, then it would seem that the more popular, more conscious thought would continue to have weight and thus be VERY involved in the process. Perhaps the idea that my conscious thinking can create the decision to focus on some area of reasoning is not entirely flawed.
Another example he gives is that we can’t decide to think of things we did not think of. It’s hard for me to take this line of reasoning seriously at all actually. It’s simply absurd to expect it. This kind of absolutist view of free will is patently insane and obviously naive and childish to anyone that considers it but for a moment. It’s hard to even reason what he expects in this case but it is very much in line with the example I previously mentioned. In order for what he thinks must be possible for free will to be truly “free” it would have to be possible for us to have in our minds at all times an infinite variety of possible next things. Nothing could be omitted or out of view. We would then select our preferred next thought and have it. But what, pray tell you, would THAT decision be based upon?
It’s an infinite regress that isn’t even possible in any view of non-material, non-calculative views of thought and consciousness let alone anything that can exist in this world. That seems to be the basis for his entire argument and yes, if that’s the only thing you can accept as free will then hey, you win…it’s fucking ridiculous. On the other hand, I think it patently absurd and arrogant to insist that we all HAVE to share your view of this phenomenon, accept your ridiculous definition, or stop talking about it entirely and accept that what we’re actually interested in, the phenomenon of agency and the degree to which it is free, is untenable and deluded.
He follows this up with a major straw man that he seems to think is a reductio ad absurdum: that compatibilists because they recognize that these things, consciousness and will, are essentially built from thing that are neither that what we are saying is that we decide every moment to make new red blood cells. Anything that happens in the body must then be an exercise of free will. This is the kind of black and white, fundamentalist thinking though that gets in the way of ALL progress in ideas and understanding. Consider the abortion issue and the question, “When does life begin?” Well, we can see that when a baby is born that it’s pretty much a human being and accept this as true. We can see also that birth doesn’t seem like a reasonable distinction here as little about the baby has changed. We can do this all the way back until it’s nothing but a combination of two half-cells…and we can go back further. In all of this very little has changed and so the fundamentalist thinker has to come up with something and so they say, “Conception! Life begins THERE!” I think that we can all accept that there are some things we clearly have no choice in, and maybe there are things we DO have choice in. Simply claiming that everything is the former or we have to be talking about ridiculous shit like I decided to make my blood…that is very far from rational discourse and thinking.
So it’s hard for me to continue reading his great thesis on free will. From what I can tell, he’s not talking about anything I care about, he’s not conversing about agency, he’s not talking about any kind of free will I’d even want…but he expects me to give up the subject entirely because his fucked up definition is ridiculous at a level worthy of mockery toward anyone that would believe in it. Sorry Mr. Harris…you’re not convincing me.