Free Will by Sam Harris – An Absurd Being Book Review

In his short book, Freewill, Sam Harris mounts a concerted attack on the notion that we are free. He argues that our universe is predicated on some mix of determinism and randomness that doesn’t stop somewhere just outside our craniums, but rather penetrates all the way in to our thoughts and intentions carrying an inert ‘conscious witness’ along for the ride.

Past Behaviour and Thoughts

He starts out by identifying two assumptions that will serve to define freewill: 1. We could have behaved differently than we did in the past and, 2. We are the conscious source of our thoughts and actions. He asserts that both of these are false.

The first assumption corresponds to what we saw Alfred Mele call ambitious freewill (see previous post). Harris rejects this by taking the materialist or naturalist stance that we live in a physical universe governed by physical laws, one of which is causality. Nothing in our physical universe happens without a prior physical cause and since we are a part of that universe, this must also apply to us. Harris points to Benjamin Libet (which I have described here) and other recent similar experiments to support this claim.

He challenges the second assumption in a more personal fashion by asking you to think about the thoughts you have. Do ‘you’ create them or do they just pop up? He holds that a close inspection will reveal that not only do you not place thoughts in your head, it would be impossible for you to do so because that would mean thinking your thoughts before you think them. Rather, what happens is that thoughts occur and then we recognise them via what he calls the “conscious witness”. This is a position known as epiphenomenalism.

Choice and Desire

Clearly we can, and frequently do, choose to do certain things. But Harris asks why you chose to do precisely those things instead of others? In a speech on his book, he asks the audience to think of a movie. After they do so, he asks them to reflect on what actually happened in their minds during this process. Here is his account. Movie names suddenly pop up in the mind. Then the list narrows down to maybe 3 or 4 as the rest are (somehow) rejected and you select one. But why did you select that one? You may be able to offer a reason (“because it was the last movie I saw” for example) but why didn’t you opt for your favourite movie instead? Ultimately, we can’t explain these types of questions because they take place without our conscious awareness, that is, without any free will.

The exact same thing can be said of our desires. Why do you desire whatever it is you desire? One of Harris’ examples is that of a Christian homosexual, who can’t simply choose to be attracted to members of the opposite sex even though he or she believes homosexuality to be a sin. This is a powerful example because even in the face of a strong motivation to change, the Christian is completely helpless, a slave to their biology.

Fatalism

“If everything is determined, why should I do anything? Why not just sit back and see what happens?” Harris thinks this is confused thinking. Determinism is not fatalism. The former says that causes produce effects and all causes are physical whereas the latter holds that certain effects will happen irrespective of the preceding causes. If you do, in fact, do nothing, on the determinist account you had no free choice in the matter. It does not follow that you were fated to do nothing irrespective of prior events.

Quantum Indeterminacy

Indeterminism, that is, true randomness (which physicists tell us holds sway at the quantum level), doesn’t give the proponent of freewill any purchase because the heart of freewill requires that we have the ability to control our future. Randomness is quite the opposite of this.

Compatibilism

Compatibilism is the philosophical attempt to reconcile freewill with determinism, insisting that the two concepts are in fact compatible. Harris’ arguments against compatibilism turn on the idea that compatibilists all take too many liberties with their definitions of freewill. Freewill is the idea that we are authoring our thoughts and actions in some way that is not purely determined by physical laws of nature. Compatibilists inevitably tweak this definition.

Harris points to Daniel Dennett who, as a compatibilist, claims that the “I” in the assertion “I am free” doesn’t mean “I, as conscious witness, independent of my brain, am free”. Rather, the self we reference when we say ‘I’ includes all of the events taking place in our brains, even those happening without our conscious awareness.

However, Harris counters, if this were true, it would then follow that we ought to think we are responsible for our heart beat and the production of red blood cells in the same way that we think we are morally responsible for our actions. Expanding our freewill in this way renders it meaningless.

Morality and Responsibility

So, without freewill, is no one really, truly responsible for their actions? How can we incarcerate or punish criminals if they were just unlucky to be born to the parents they were, in the country they were, with the genes they were, etc.?

Harris resolves this dilemma by saying that, “What we condemn most in another person is the conscious intention to do harm”, not the fact that ‘you’ are the sole, independent cause of the actions of a murderer, but that for whatever reason, you have the mind of a murderer. In the same way, we put down dangerous animals, not because we think they have freewill, but because they are dangerous and will harm innocent people if we do nothing. We would also lock up hurricanes and deadly viruses if we could for the same reason. The desire to lock murderers up makes sense even without attributing freewill to them.

There are also three positive consequences of determinism. First, people are responsible for their actions without being metaphysically ‘guilty’. Second, retribution and revenge, indeed hatred itself, all become groundless. Third, realising that you are just lucky to have the influences you had (and nothing makes you who you are except those influences) encourages humility.

Conclusion

Harris lays out a very compelling case for determinism and competently dispenses with some of the challenges typically offered in favour of freewill. That inner, ‘felt’ sense that we have freewill and are truly independent agents is just an illusion but rather than this paralysing us into inaction and despondency, Harris maintains that seeing the illusion for what it is ironically ‘frees’ us to act with more compassion and understanding.

In my next post I will outline why I think Harris is completely wrong about this.

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7 thoughts on “Free Will by Sam Harris – An Absurd Being Book Review

  1. Hi absurdbeing, this is a good summary of the positions and responses to positions in “Free Will.” I read it a few years ago, too. I think Harris is right that the compatibilists change the question to something no one cares about. From what I can tell, Sam’s own position is really based on his own spiritual experience. Like Alan Watts, he identifies “us” AS consciousness which doesn’t direct the flow of life but just experiences it, and this is something he says he experiences himself (Sam, that is).
    I am not sure exactly where Watts and Harris are coming from, since I haven’t had that same kind of experience, although I did realize in meditation once that ‘there was no one breathing.’ And if there is no one breathing, is there anyone doing anything?–as a causal agent, I mean?
    Whatever position we come down on should avoid fatalism, I think, and preserve positivity and optimism. Even if it turns out we don’t have free will, getting depressed about that is pointless and, moreover, irrational.
    Will be interested to hear your refutation of Sam’s position!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comment Paul.

      Yeah – I agree with you about Harris drawing his conclusions from his meditation experience; particularly Buddhism. I must admit that I don’t find this a particularly robust source though. In particular, his endorsement of altered states of reality, even those ‘achieved’ through fairly serious drugs, baffles me. Why should we believe such abnormal experiences give a clearer or more authentic perception of reality than our normal waking ones?

      Your comment about “no one breathing” is interesting. Perhaps it is possible for breathing to take place in the absence of a willed, directing agent because breathing is a largely autonomic process. I suspect it would be difficult to uncover that same feeling about all other normal life experiences though, i.e. when deciding what to study at university to feel that ‘no one is choosing my major’. The problem seems to be the same; why is it the abnormal experience (sitting in meditation) that we assume is revealing the truth?

      I also thought your final comment was interesting. If we don’t have freewill we ought not to get depressed about it. I wonder though, if we don’t have freewill, would we even be able to get depressed about it? Doesn’t forming an attitude ‘about’ our physical reality necessarily imply some measure of separation from it. In other words, if we were just causal zombies, could we ever become aware of that fact?

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      • Yes, this is the old problem of subjective knowledge (I guess we could call it). Harris’ experiences are convincing for him but have to be reproduced by us for us to be equally convinced.
        As for the example of ‘choosing a major,’ perhaps Harris would say that thought processes are engaged in a decision-making process, but there is no causal agent (source of free will) existing “behind” the thought processes.
        And as for the last point, about ‘forming a mental attitude implying separation,’ this seems, to me, to come from an intuition that lots of philosophers have about being disembodied minds. My opinion is that we aren’t disembodied minds but we can feel that way by paying so much attention to our thoughts (not all people, mostly intellectual types). A disembodied mind feels as though it’s looking at the body and at the “outside” world of objects as Other. So I think we *feel* separate and tell ourselves we are separate without it necessarily being so…When I look at my experience without thinking, the mental boundaries between things are nowhere to be found.
        From one point of view, the difference between looking at the world conceptually (with thoughts) and non-conceptually (just awareness) is at the crux of the issues here. What do you find in your own experience?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I think you’re right about how Harris would respond to the “choosing a major” example. Interestingly, I think he is caught in a contradiction though. He rejects the idea of a disembodied, ‘Cartesian-style’ mind but his “conscious witness” (a key idea in his book) seems to me to be exactly that.

    By contrast, while I don’t think we are separate minds, I do think consciousness includes the ability to ‘take a position’ on the physical facts, including the physical facts that comprise us. So, again I agree with you when you say, “we *feel* separate… without it necessarily being so”. We aren’t separate in the sense that we are *not* our physical bodies/brains but we are separate in the sense that we are *not just* those physical bodies/brains. Sartre says it best when he says I am not just my beliefs (or thoughts, feelings, etc.)… precisely because I am consciousness of those beliefs (or thoughts, feelings, etc.). To deny any separation here seems to be equivalent to denying our own capacity to be aware *of* anything… which is what consistent materialists, e.g. Alex Rosenberg, say.

    To bring it back to your comment though, I’m not sure I fully understand your final point. I’ve always had a problem with, as you put it, looking at the world non-conceptually. I just can’t see what this could possibly mean. If you could really strip away all concepts, how there could be any perception or awareness at all? As you say, all boundaries would disappear, but wouldn’t this include the boundaries between me and the things around me? How could any experience accrue in such a situation? To whom would it accrue? This idea runs all through Harris’ book Waking Up as well. It seems to me as though my concepts are always at play in the background, so to speak, of my experiences.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is a rich discussion.
      Everything you just brought up seems to be related by the question “what are we?” and the secondary questions “is what we are separate from the world?” and “is what we are a source of ‘free’ choice?”
      Your point about the “consciousness witness” being another version of the “Cartesian mind” or separate ego is, I think, a very good one. This is something I’ve been wrestling with myself, and it’s a major point in a book by Alan Watts I was looking at recently. There, Watts was saying that if we see the “witness” as a passive observer (where there is the world, on the one hand, and the conscious witness, on the other, which is perceiving the world), then we have indeed fallen for the same old dualism. The “conscious witness” would have the same property of the (alleged-to-exist) Cartesian ego, namely the property of being separate from the world. But I think for both Watts and Harris, to understand the conscious witness truly is to understand it as continuous with the world, which means, as it has been said many times, the subject/object duality collapses. Interestingly, we cannot conceive of what this would be like.
      At that point, “we” are the world, seeing that the world is continuous with consciousness, and we are “being lived” by the world instead of “doing the living.” That is the best I can make of what they are saying, on a conceptual level.
      Your point about concepts being activated (shall we say?) in your experience is another intuition, I think, that many philosophers share. McDowell goes so far in his book “Mind and World” to say that all our experience is conceptually structured in a certain sense. This may be a perfectly valid intuition of our *present* experience, but I think Harris and Watts are trying to articulate an experience where the conceptual filter “falls out” of experience in a significant way…. Our minds are creating thoughts, language and concepts continually, and yet, if we can accept that it may be possible for it to stop momentarily, then the experience of “being lived” might happen.
      To recap, if we *think* of ourselves consciousness then we may see consciousness as separate from the world, but perhaps if we *experience* ourselves as consciousness then we see consciousness as non-separate. This leads to importantly different answers to the “who am I?” question and, consequently, to “do I exercise free choice?”

      Liked by 1 person

      • Those are all fair and interesting points Paul.

        You allow a more generous interpretation of Harris’ conscious witness than I did, although regardless of Harris’ meaning, it does sound like Watts is aware of and explicitly addresses this point, which is worth following up – which book of his were you reading?

        Yes, if I’ve read your final paragraph right and you’re rejecting the false dichotomy (we are either a thinking being or an experiencing one), it seems like a tidy conclusion; we are neither purely separate from, nor absolutely continuous with, the world (or perhaps we are both) and if you can accept that experience without thought is possible, you can choose to experience consciousness in either mode (at least some of the time). So the different answers to those questions also turn out to be non-absolute. A respectable “middle way” if ever I saw one!

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