Jul 09

Drive On Through: A Review of Sam Harris’s Free Will Part 1

Free WillDrive On Through: A Review of Sam Harris’s Free Will

Part 1 of a review in three parts by Ian Kluge

Whenever he encountered a poorly made argument, one of my old philosophy professors used to say, “We could drive trucks through that one.” What he meant was that an argument was so carelessly constructed that there were huge logical holes in it, problems like non-sequiturs, equivocation, insufficient evidence and correlative fallacies. As I read Sam Harris’s Free Will (2012) I could hear Professor Rueben Bonney behind me, intoning, “We could drive big trucks through that one.”

Harris’s goal in Free Will (2012) is simple.  He wants to persuade us that

… free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control . . . Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them. (p.4)

He adds that

The popular conception of free will seems to rest on two assumptions: (1) that each of us could have acted differently than we did in the past and (2) that we are the conscious source of our thoughts and actions in the present. (p. 6)

Finally, to make sure everything is crystal clear he states

The intention to do one thing and not another does not originate in consciousness – rather, it appears in consciousness, as does any thought or impulse that might oppose it. (p.8)

He also claims that “to actually have free will”

You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have complete control over these factors. But there is a paradox here that vitiates the very notion of freedom – for what would influence the influences? (p. 14)

In other words, Harris believes that free will requires an infinite regress of effective causes and since such a regress is impossible, free will is impossible.

The Arguments

Let us examine his arguments.

Consciousness is central to Harris’s argument because the concept of free will and moral responsibility require that our conscious decisions be effective in controlling our actions. In other words, consciousness and conscious choice have agency and we are responsible for our decisions and acts. That, of course, is what most people mean by free will and that is precisely what Harris seeks to refute by arguing that consciousness is powerless to do anything but to reflect or report what unconscious brain processes have decided. Consciousness is not “the source of our thoughts and actions in the present” (p.6). The problem with his view is obvious: while it may ‘solve’ the free will problem, it does so at the expense of raising an equally devastating problem: if consciousness is so powerless, what is its role if the brain and make and enact decisions without it?

steampunk1The technical name for Harris’s position on consciousness is epiphenomenalism for which mental phenomena are simply by-products of physiological processes. Our awareness is an artifact of bio-chemical processes in which it has no part. The main difficulty is that epiphenomenalism cannot explain – even in principle – the very existence of consciousness and the subjective experience of exercising our will. If we are capable of making decisions and taking action without consciousness why and how did it arise? What survival advantage does it confer, especially if does nothing but give us delayed recognition of decisions made deep in the brain as Libet and Harris claim?

If hidden processes in the brain are capable of making all our decisions, is there any need for ‘us’ to consciously know anything about them? Thus, Harris’s inability to integrate consciousness and free will into his theory of human action is severely deficient.

We could, of course, argue that consciousness and the sense of free will are biological spandrels, i.e. accidental by-products of other evolutionary developments in our brains. One of the problems with this response is that the whole subject of ‘spandrels’ is bogged down in a definitional debate, i.e. it is not entirely clear what is a spandrel and what isn’t. Worse, all examples of spandrels, pendentives, corbels and squinches do actually serve a function, i.e. they are necessary to achieve something – but that necessity is exactly what epiphenomenalism denies.

Chambers_1908_SpandrelsAnother problem with Harris’s argument is that his claims run completely contrary to virtually universal human experience. Few people experience their conscious decision and willing as ineffective or controlled by ‘something else.’ Harris might say people are deceived just as people were once deceived about the sun going around the earth. However, in this case, we are not talking about an externally, physically observable and measurable phenomenon but of people’s subjective, internal experience of themselves from minute to minute.

To say that all humans have been deceived about their most personal and intimate aspect of their lives strains credibility. We cannot categorically say it is impossible, but we can say that such an astounding claim requires astounding evidence. Harris doesn’t even come close.

The Libet Experiment

Harris thinks he has hard evidence against free will in the famous experiments of Benjamin Libet. To sum it up: Libet’s experiments (1983) seemed to show that a person’s brain unconsciously decides that a person will move or not move his finger before there was conscious awareness of the decision to move. The person is aware of his decision to move his finger only after his unconscious brain processes had already activated themselves and reported to consciousness. In other words, the activation of the brain occurs unconsciously before the subject is conscious of having made any decision. Harris claims this is clear proof that the conscious will is unnecessary in making and carrying out a decision because the brain processes are wholly sufficient to the task.

However, Libet’s experiment does not even remotely prove what Libet and Harris claim. In the first place, Libet’s experiment itself is not ‘clean’ or straight-forward. The test subject has to observe a clock to report when s/he becomes aware of their intention and decision to press the button. When we are dealing in milliseconds, the additional cerebral processing required for becoming aware of our decision, observing the clock and registering our awareness by actually pressing a button inescapably complicates and distorts the results of the whole experiment. Indeed, until there is an instant, i.e. timeless transition from our first awareness of our decision to checking the clock to actually pushing the button – inevitably a time-consuming process – this experiment cannot actually prove that the brain activity recorded on the EEG actually precedes our awareness of our intention. Without definitive proof on this point, their conclusions do not necessarily follow from their data , i.e. they commit a non-sequitur. Evidence is lacking and it is not clear that such evidence is ever obtainable when all processes take time.

clocksLibet’s experiment is ‘tainted’ in another way. Libet has previously told his subjects that they are to press the button as soon as they are aware of their decision and after they have looked at a clock. But this undermines the experiment itself. The readiness potential could be connected to three ‘events’ – becoming aware of having made a decision, checking the clock and pressing the button. Are Libet and Harris suggesting that only the last of these has a readiness potential? That checking the clock, interpreting what it says, associating it with a sudden awareness of a decision do not require their own readiness potential? This will not work if we assert that everything
that happens in the mind is part of a physiological process; there cannot be any mysterious processes that is exempt from this need for a physiological correlate.

Finally, the experiment is ‘tainted’ because giving his subjects instructions beforehand to press the button is nothing less than telling them to get into the readiness-potential mode before they even start! Anticipation and possibly imagined actions would already put the subjects’ brains in the readiness mode – or even just prime them for the readiness mode – and we would expect that this mode precedes any conscious awareness of a supposed ‘decision.’ Of course, it is difficult to prepare the subjects for the experiment without ‘tainting’ it in this way – but that only illustrates why we cannot take this experiment at face value.

Next week: Harris argues that we only feel that we have free will because we think we have “conscious agency” (a fancy word for “self” or “soul.”)


About the author

Ian Kluge


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  1. Stephen Friberg

    When somebody claims there is no such thing as free will, my first reaction is to be suspicious – what are they up too? Usually they are selling something – a philosophy, a doctrine, an ideology – and denying that we have a free will ends up being a necessary part of the defense of the doctrine.

    What is Harris trying to sell?

    Stephen Friberg

  2. Ian Kluge

    I agree that Harris is ‘selling’ something, IMO, Harris is selling a ‘scientistic ideology’ which claims that science and the scientific method alone can answer all human questions, solve all human problems and, above all, discover the true nature of man. In “The Moral Landscape” he tries to show that science is the only moral guide we require – and, as I showed in my review on Common Ground, constantly trips over himself trying to do so. Harris is trying to show that there are no other alternatives to science for guidance in all aspects of personal and collective life. It is, therefore, imperative that we turn to science.

    There is a social and even political dimension to Harris’s scientistic imperative. Eventually, Harris will end up with some form of Technocracy, according to which a scientific and engineering elite will rule the world for the supposed benefit of humankind. After all, if science can explain human nature why shouldn’t a scientific elite be in charge of personal lives, society and collective social life as well as politics? Thus, it is clear Harris is selling a social, cultural and political vision of humankind.

    Before people buy into this, they should research the history of the Soviet Union which applied technocratic ideas to governance, especially after Stalin. The Politburo was often made up of 90% engineers and people from the strict sciences. This was part of the communist program which consciously styled itself as “scientific socialism” – as distinct from the unscientific socialism – or “bourgeois socialism” – in the Western socialist parties.

    IMO, the end game of Harris’s scientistic ideology is world that will come in one of two ‘flavors': Orwell’s “1984” in its hard version and Huxley’s “Brave New World” in its soft version.

    1. Stephen Friberg

      Hi Ian. You write that “Harris is selling a ‘scientistic ideology’ which claims that science and the scientific method alone can answer all human questions, solve all human problems and, above all, discover the true nature of man.”

      Isn’t this – in essence – a claim that science is a better religion than religion?

      My understanding of Marxist-Leninism and post world-war I “scientific racism” in central Europe is that both appealed to “scientistic ideology” (with the latter have a strong American connection) as underlying their legitimacy. If this is true – and there seems to be strong reasons for holding it to be so – what does that mean for the future of Anglo-American new atheism? Will it simply continue to be a kind of noisy “evangelical” secularism, closely modeled on the evangelical protestantism it so strongly opposes. If so, doesn’t it become simply a part of the broader intellectual, political, sectarian, and religious ferment of our times?

      To be honest, I don’t see anything more nefarious going than a kind of evangelizing movement with healthy book sales. The intolerance towards those who see things differently does seem to me to contribute to the ongoing political polarization we see in the United States, but other than that, I don’t see anything dangerous on the horizon

      Do you see any worrying trends?

  3. Ian Kluge

    Of course Harris et al are claiming that science is better than religion. Indeed, they claim that religion is nefarious and an outright danger to society and progress and is in a very palpable sense evil. Harris himself says so in “The End of Faith.” Hitchens (and I think Dawkins, too) labels teaching religion as “child abuse” for which people should be jailed. Dennett, the supposedly mildest of the new atheists calls atheists the “brights” and by implication making believers into “dims.” These writers are not subtle in their contempt for religion and religious people.

    The tone of the new atheists and their scientistic ideology is worrying. Like the worst of the evangelical Christians or the jihadi Muslims, the new atheists are convinced that theirs is the only road to ‘salvation,’ i.e. progress. And as their books show, they are quite happy to misrepresent religion and philosophy especially to the ignorant. It is no accident that Dawkins has twice walked off the stage in the middle of a debate with David Lane Craig, a fundamentalist Christian philosopher with a Ph.d in philosophy from Tuebingen. Dawkins wasn’t convincing anybody so he just left.

    I see plenty of worrisome signs. For starters, the willful misinterpretation of the separation of church and state in order to remove religion from public life. Even as a Canadian, I know that the American principle refers to congress making laws in favor of any particular religion and not to the removal of all references to God in public life. Family history comes to roost here, but this strikes me as no different than trying to remove all signs of Jewish life in Germany or elsewhere in Eastern Europe in the 1930’s.

    The attempt to control school curricula in regards to religion, esp. in regards to Life Education. As a 30 + year veteran teacher, I can tell you there is no way to teach this subject – including sex education – without injecting either secular or religious morals into it. The notion that we can do this ‘neutrally’ is a bill of goods.

    Even the attempts to force the kids of religious parents to attend these classes is coercion and marginalization. Harris & Co. are quite prepared to do this.

  4. Maya Bohnhoff

    The thing that bothers me most about this dogma of no free will is that it seems a new age take on “the devil made me do it”. Human are merely sophisticated animals with no more decisive power than a diatom. Ergo, no human behavior can be considered morally wrong because we have no choice in our behavior. TADA! We have successfully dodged any responsibility for our actions—and even a need to consider them before we act.

    I propose that this is one of those doctrines that even it’s most die-hard proponents give lip service to, but in practice, behave as if they believe something completely different. Indeed, it seems allied with the idea that humans are just smarter animals, an idea that none of the proponents I’ve talked to actually believes in practice. We hold ourselves to a higher standard—indeed, to a completely different standard—of behavior when it comes to such things as killing other animals. We do not prosecute animals—even those closest to us genetically—to any moral standard or expect them to adhere to civil law. Conversely, we do have numerous laws about how humans should behave toward each other—and have had since time immemorial. Even those of us who consider religion a completely manmade affair must realize that the core teachings of every faith involve how humans behave toward each other and even toward other creatures and none dictating how those creatures should behave toward us. There is a reason for this.

    Likewise, I’m sure that Sam Harris gets up every morning and decides what sox to wear, what cereal to eat, even which route to drive to work. I’m sure he also makes deeper more significant decisions. Such as whether or not he believes in God. Certainly, there will be moments when something arises that throws him back on instinctive behaviors—someone hits a line drive at his head, say, or a car darts into an intersection on a red light.

    One of the weirdest paradoxes to me is something I’ve heard from only one other person—a client who had, shall we say, a unique take on reality. To him the soul was an interloper—a parasite that was getting a free ride in his body. Like Harris, he drew a distinction between “self” and the soul. Harris’s idea that the soul or instinct or whatever makes the decision before HE does made my head spin. Who am I if not that guiding intelligence? Why is there this desperate drive to define human beings by our component parts rather than our totality?

    To me, Harris’s doctrine is just an old dogma in new clothes. It is the Han Solo mantra: “NOT MY FAULT!”

  5. Ian Kluge

    I agree that in practice Harris does not actually believe this and that his denial of free will only encourages irresponsible behavior because “My brain made me do it!” Harris, I think, is aware that he is ‘explaining away’ and not ‘explaining’ free will. He even tries to save free will by seeming to espouse compatibilism – an attempt to reconcile free will and determinism, i.e. to stay ‘scientific’ and at the same time to accept our daily experience of free will. It is sheer “word jugglery” as William James put it and a “dishonest subterfuge” according to Kant. Here’s how it works.

    Compatibilism states there is no contradiction between determinism and free will. In the end, it boils down to saying that all our activities including brain activities are determined by previous causes and that ‘our’ decisions are also determined by previous causes but they are ours because they happen in our heads. We have free will and freedom of action because no external physical restraints determine us to cross the street although we ‘decide’ to cross the street due to causal activities in our brain. As Kant says, this is a “subterfuge” because it is not the kind of free will being discussed in the free will debates. Rather, it is a red-herring, intended to change the topic.

    I agree that determinism and compatibilism are philosophies that make it impossible to ‘walk the talk.’ This kind of thing gives philosophy a bad name.

  6. Jonathan Webster

    “what does that mean for the future of Anglo-American new atheism?”

    -‘New Atheism’ has a future? In essence, I see it as an atheist knee-jerk reaction the the shock of the 9/11 tragedy and the subsequent 2003 Iraq War, nothing more.

  7. Ian Kluge

    Dear Jonathan,

    You have, IMO, put your finger on one of the sources of modern Anglo-American atheism. People had false hopes that the end of the Cold War would usher in a prolonged peace – which was shattered by what is, at least from the Jihadist side, a religious war. This has soured people on religion in general but western religions in particular because post-colonial theory successfully but one-sidedly painted the West as aggressor. (Thanks to Edward Said.) This can get pretty crazy. I recently bought a massive book on post-colonial theory and the first article I saw was “Mathematics as an Agent of Western Cultural Imperialism.”

    However, there is at least one other contributor and that is the Anglo-American tradition or axis in western philosophy. In short, a narrow empiricism that will simply not contemplate any other possibilities as a matter of principle. Like it or not, at bottom, empiricism is materialism or physicalism. To this tradition, claims about the existence of non-physical realities are intolerable. They feel this threatens the entire scientific culture of our time. The problem is, their arguments are not very good. I just read parts of Patricia Churchland’s “Braintrust” – and I find it an embarrassment. If electro-chemical compounds carry memories, let her show us these memories in the compounds. To answer that we need the whole brain for that only kicks the can down the road.

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