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)
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.
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?
The 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.
Another 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.
Libet’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.”)