Veronica was kind enough to lend me her copy of Sam Harris’s book: Freewill.
I have to admit, even though it is a relatively short work, I’m having some difficulty getting through it.
It is annoying me, to no end.
Now, standard disclaimer, I’ve been critical of Sam Harris in the past, mostly on the basis of his dismissiveness of arguments he disagrees with, and his unquestioning over-reliance on his own intuition.
This book, unfortunately so far, is more of the same in that regard. Any discussion of freewill is going to be complicated on two fronts. The first is that there is a long history of discussion on the subject, so lots of different views to parse, and second, we’re dealing with the activity of a complex system, the human brain.
It takes Harris, 66 pages… and some footnotes. Problem solved.
To start with, Harris describes for the reader an utterly despicable crime, nothing like jumping right into the sensational, and then says:
…if I had his genes and life experience and an identical brain(or soul) in an identical state – I would have acted as he did.
This sets up the standard argument about freewill with regards to counter-factuals.
Now, Harris’ thesis relies on making a vague common understanding of ‘freewill’ his whipping boy, and he dismisses any more nuanced understanding as changing the subject. (Like compatibalism)
It’s essentially like arguing that the common understanding of gravity is flawed, therefore gravity is an illusion. One doesn’t have to spend too much time on youtube to discover that most people’s understanding of how gravity works, and how physics works, is hopelessly flawed. But I wouldn’t dismiss Einstein’s (Or Newton’s) understanding of gravity as ‘changing the subject’. Seriously?
Anyway, a counter-factual is something that is contrary to fact, or untrue. In terms of freewill, the argument goes something like this. I am free if ‘all things being equal’ I could have made a different decision. The problem with this, as Harris rightly observes, is that unless you have some magical idea of freewill, any reasonably well grounded understanding of causal determinism would lead one to the conclusion that ‘all things being equal’ means that you’re going to get the same results.
Now, on the level of the universe, quantum mechanics and such, this gets more complicated. There is some question as to whether initial conditions will always lead to the same results. I’m not a physicist, so I’m going to leave it at that. But I’m mentioning it because sometimes people imply that this is relevant to human freewill. It is not. Quantum uncertainty functions on the quantum level, and as far as I have read, does not impact on human decision making, at least not in a way that would be really relevant to freewill. Human brains are not quantum machines.
What would be relevant however would understanding neuroscience. Now I say relevant, but unlike Harris, I’m not a hopeless reductionist. I am a Compatibalist, and I think Dan Dennett does a better job dealing with the complexities of freewill.
Harris says: “Our wills are simply not of our own making.”
And he reasons this way, based on another strikingly intuitive stance. He sees the unconscious mind as a distinct thing. If we have freewill, it must exist entirely on the conscious level. He uses the famous Libet experiment as his example of how certain decisions can be predicted from observing the brain, before the person making them is aware they are making them. I think Harris’s conclusions with regards to this experiment are more a matter of his own confirmation bias, about the distinction between conscious and unconscious, than a direct result of the data.
One can easily imagine that making a conscious decision requires less brain power, than reflecting on that decision. This is perilous territory, because it goes right to the core of the distinction between conscious and unconscious, but I think this is the problem. There is no clear demarcation line. Consciousness has levels and they tend to blur into each other.
Compatibalists have produced a vast amount of literature in an effort to finesse the problem. More than any other area of academic philosophy, the result resembles theology. (I suspect this is not an accident…
I’m going to finish the book, I have decided this, and if I have any revelations I will do a part 2 to this post. But I’m not expecting much. It is exactly this sort of ridiculous equivocation that makes it hard for me to take Harris seriously.