Drive On Through: A Review of Sam Harris’s Free Will Part 2

Drive On Through: A Review of Sam Harris’s Free Will Part 2

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

Part 2 of a review in three parts by Ian Kluge.

Editor’s Introduction: Last week, Ian introduced his review of the latest book by Sam Harris – the prolific and controversial new atheist thinker. According to Harris:

… 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)

The scientific evidence, Harris claims, is the famous experiment of Benjamin Libet. which he interprets as showing that the mind makes decisions before we are consciously aware of the decision. The idea is that there is “brain activity recorded on the EEG actually precedes our awareness of our intention”.

Claims along those lines suffer from serious interpretative problems, according to Kluge.

Back to the discussion

More Problems with the Libet Experiment

But there is another serious problem. How does Libet know that the brain activity his EEG machine reports is “a decision” and/or an “intention” to press the button? Electrical read-outs of brain activity do not provide clues of their specific content.

No one can take an EEG read-out and determine the subject is reading Hamlet Act 1, Scene 1, Line 32. Without knowing that specific content, we cannot definitively connect the unconscious brain-readiness potential to the act of pushing the button. Since we cannot make that connection, then Libet’s claim is simply an assumption for which he has no evidence. Here, too, we find a non-sequitur.

Even worse, Libet’s and Harris’s reasoning is a classic illustration of the fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc – before this, therefore, because of this. If something happens before something else, the first must be the cause: there was lightning just before my dog died, therefore, the lightning killed my dog. Just because there was some brain activity before I was aware of my decision to press the button, noting the time and then actually pressing the button, does not necessarily mean the brain activity was the cause of my decision. As Hume could tell them, a sequential pattern does not allow us to assume causality (this is one of Harris’s correlative fallacies).

Even if – for argument’s sake – Libet’s experiment is valid for rather mechanical decisions to press a button, does that also mean it is also valid for more complex intellectual tasks? Imagine a cashier returns $5.00 too much change, what should you do? What could you do? What would your friends and relatives say? And why? Think of all the implications. Or, if we are reading Heidegger’s Being and Time and we are trying to understand and decide the validity of two key concepts, “ready-to-hand” and “present-at-hand.” Is there any reason to think that making a decision about this would be as simple as pressing a button? Or, we hear a phrase like “heart of glass” (Blondie) and try to decide what it and all its allusions mean. Or trying to decipher a mysterious expression on our loved one’s face. What about scientific thinking? The idea that we should simply accept that high order mental processes are essentially no different than button pushing maneuvers requires more evidence and better logical argumentation than either Libet or Harris provide.

But Does it Matter?

Harris tries to avoid the logical consequences of determinism by suggesting it really doesn’t matter.

The case I am building against free will does not depend upon philosophical materialism (the assumption that reality is, at bottom purely physical . . . even if the human mind were made of soul-stuff, nothing about my argument would change. The unconscious operation of a soul would grant you no more freedom than the unconscious physiology of your brain does . . . if you don’t know what your soul is going to do next, you are not in control. (p. 12)

This is “nonsense on stilts” as the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham once said. Harris’s case is entirely dependent on ontological materialism. This is evident in his assumption that “soul-stuff” is not significantly different from the physical brain stuff and, therefore, also has a conscious-unconscious structure and all the associated problems. It is hard to think of a better example of a logical category mistake, i.e. treating one kind of thing as if it were another kind, or, in common speech, mixing apples and oranges. Harris treats the non-physical mind or soul as if they were something physical. The soul or mind in his view is simply a diaphanous duplicate of the brain – which it obviously is not.

For Harris’s this claim to make any sense, Harris should be able to show how his assumption can be tested scientifically. How can we test the functions of something that is not material, i.e. the soul, by the scientific method which is designed to test only physical data? How can we measure something that is not physical? How does he intend to test to see whether the soul is divided into two parts? And why would he assume that something non-physical would have the same structure and attributes as something physical? It’s like basing our understanding of horseshoes on our thoughts about sunflowers. This category mistake makes it clear that Harris has never given serious thought to the concept of a soul and is simply spinning words. Consequently, there is no reason to accept his claim that belief in the soul results in the same determinism as his Laplacean materialism. Furthermore, he makes the same mistake with willpower, claiming that “Willpower is itself a biological phenomenon” (p. 38). Once again, a round of questioning begins. How would/could you measure it – even in principle? What units of measurement? What are its physical correlates if it has any? One is reminded of the utilitarian’s plan to measure pleasure in “hedons” and pain in “dolors.”

We Can Safely Reject Harris’s Claim

At this juncture one thing is clear: neither Libet nor Harris have provided any proof that our decisions are made unconsciously, i.e. that our sense of making conscious decisions is delusional. Once this is understood, we can safely reject Harris’s claim 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; emphasis added)

(1) does, indeed, represent the “popular conception” but, as we have already seen, nothing in Libet’s experiment disproves it. There is also a hidden ambiguity in Harris’s denial of (1). Does (1) say that we could not have acted differently in the past if we had different information or does it mean that we could not have acted differently if everything were the exactly the same? To say we could not have acted differently if we had different information, is nonsensical by Harris’s own standards since different causal factors would be involved and lead to a different result. If we mean that we could have not acted differently even if everything were exactly the same, then we have a truism. Two identical situations lead to the same result.

In most people’s understanding (1) means we would have acted differently with different information (e.g. life experience) which is obvious in any causal system. Harris denies this (p. 6). The problem with denying (2) , i.e. the belief that we are conscious agents only works if we accept Libet’s experiments as the final word. There is no reason to do so. “The popular conception of free will” is safe from Libet and Harris.

Harris also claims that we need to know and have control of “all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions” (p. 14) Why? Why do I need to know the bio-chemical processes in my stomach to choose porridge for breakfast? To make my choice I need to know only two things – whether I am hungry and whether porridge suits me this morning. Indeed, my choice might be constrained by the fact that if I cook porridge I will be late for work but my choice will not be constrained by my lack of complete knowledge of the digestive process or the effect of oatmeal on the brain.

Once we realize that this requirement for total knowledge is a red herring, it is self-evident the falsity of Harris’s claim that “there is a paradox here that vitiates the very notion of freedom – for what would influence the influences?” (p. 14). He is attempting to disprove conscious agency by showing how it leads to an infinite regress. But this does not work. There is no reason why a numerous causes cannot come to a culmination and require a decision – porridge or pancakes – which we can consciously make. Nor is there any reason why we cannot weigh all the evidence for and against Kant’s categorical imperative and then decide whether we believe it is true or untrue, likely or unlikely, useful in some cases or not. Of course, there is no action in the latter case, but there is no reason to think free will is limited to action.

Next week: The 3rd and final part of this review compares Harris’s approach with that found in the Baha’i writing. Harris holds that the material reality is the ultimate reality, Kluge argues, but the Baha’i writings – and those of other religious traditions – view things differently.

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15 thoughts on “Drive On Through: A Review of Sam Harris’s Free Will Part 2

  1. It’s weird that Sam Harris would take such a position on free will or anyone would. He implicitly posits some kind of Fate or Destiny that determines everything that happens and what everyone does.

    Also, I find it weird for an Atheist to be a Hard Determinist. I find it to be extremely funny that this is something Sam Harris and Martin Luther agree on.

    Given the argument from free will, most Atheists believe in free will.

    Incompatibilism and Compatibilism are the two responses to the free will issues. Incompatibilism can be further divided into Hard Determinism, Hard Incompatibilism aka Pessimistic Indeterminism, and Metaphysical Libertarianism.

    It has implications for the mind body issue which can be seen on the Wikipedia article. Dualism, Monism, Neutral Monism, Idealism, Panpsychism, Pantheism, and Physicalism aka Materialism are all the responses to this issue.

  2. Dear Stephen:

    William James said, compatibilism is “word jugglery” and Kant called it a “miserable subterfuge” – both nice ways of called it nonsense. Harris of course accepts it because it fits in with his empiricist-physicalist world-view. In fact, anyone holding that world-view is, logically speaking, committed to that position. The means that atheists – at least those atheists who wish to be logically and philosophically consistent – are either hard determinists or compatibilists – which is in effect, the same thing. They cannot coherently believe in free will. The fact that they claim to believe in free will simply shows they don’t understand their own position.

    The basic compatibilist argument is that everything in the universe is determined but that we are ‘free’ because our determined thought processes happen inside our heads. This is not what the issue of free will is about. Compatibilists have merely changed the meaning of the word “free” and decided to call slavery to determined causal events in our heads “freedom.’ Hence James’ and Kant’s remarks “word jugglery” and “subterfuge.”

    The ‘bad’ news is that the truth lies with some kind of dualism as the Bahai Writings indicate (SAQ 239). The relationship between soul and body is the relationship between substance /soul (in the Aristotelian sense) and attribute/body. Two important modern dualists are Sherrington – the founder of neuro-science and Chalmers.

    1. I didn’t know the founder of neuroscience was a dualist or that there were any mainstream supporters of dualist neuroscience.

      Rational Wiki categorizes it as part of the War on Science.

      It hard to categorize the debate outside of Western Philosophy as people are hard to categorize as theist or atheist in the Western sense of the word.

      The stereotype is all scientists are materialists aka physicalists, or atleast the mainstream ones as the stereotypes goes. There are scientists of the other three metaphysical strains whether dualist, neutral, or idealist. I have read books by several idealist mainstream physicists.

  3. Dear Stephen Gray,

    Check out Sherrington’s book “Man on His Nature” (his summation of his work) as well as “Philosophy of Neurological surgery” (1995). Check out Chalmers’ “The Conscious Mind” (2003) as well.

    The notion that dualism is inherently anti-science simply shows that the the Rational Wiki is committed to metaphysical materialism – and has obviously not given the so-called identity of brain and mind a seriously critical examination. If everything is physical, i.e. spatial, then ideas must also have a spatial dimension. So, does an an idea of a skyscraper take up more space than the idea of a bungalo? And what physical attributes distinguish the physical brain-blips of the idea of a skyscraper from those of a bungalo? Even in principle, what could they be? If ideas are spatial, can the brain get literally full – can it store only a limited number of brain-blips (ideas) – since the brain has limited spatial capacity?

    Once again I would caution you that Wikipedia may be a good place to start but it is not authoritative and is not a good place to stop.

    If you read the third part of my Harris review, you will find that the Baha’i Writings do actually contain a philosophically previously unannounced solution to the problem of mind-brain interaction.

    RE your previous post:

    Atheists are committed to metaphysical materialism and hard determinism, i.e. to the laws of cause and effect from which there is no escape. If there is no escape from cause and effect, there is no free will – since every action, including your own decision and act are determined by previous events. Atheists who claim to have free will are simply inconsistent and unscientific in their beliefs. Harris at least is being consistent and scientific in his views – though he tries to prevaricate with an appeal to compatibilism.


      Given the above two links, the two below syllogisms are disproven.

      Rational Wiki uses this:
      Ether dualism or materialism is true.
      Dualism is false.
      Therefore, materialism is true.

      You use:
      Either dualism or materialism is true.
      Materialism is false.
      Therefore, dualism is true.

      The first premise of both syllogisms is false as not acknowledging the possibility that both dualism and materialism are false.

    2. Ian actually Wikipedia say otherwise with regards to the premise that all atheists are materialists/physicalists.

      “Metaphysical atheism … includes all doctrines that hold to metaphysical monism (the homogeneity of reality).”

      It says all atheists are monists, or rather all monists are atheists as well if you really look at the implications of that statement. Idealism and Panpsychism as well as Neutral Monism are some other forms of monism, and thus other forms of atheism according to the quote above.

  4. Dear Anonymous,

    Here is the Wikipedia passage which you quote:

    “”Metaphysical atheism … includes all doctrines that hold to metaphysical monism (the homogeneity of reality). Metaphysical atheism may be either: a) absolute — an explicit denial of God’s existence associated with materialistic monism (all materialistic trends, both in ancient and modern times); b) relative — the implicit denial of God in all philosophies that, while they accept the existence of an absolute, conceive of the absolute as not possessing any of the attributes proper to God: transcendence, a personal character or unity. Relative atheism is associated with idealistic monism (pantheism, panentheism, deism).”

    Logically, all types of monism – materialistic or non-materialistic, are atheist unless they are pantheistic in which case the universe itself is God and we are all bits and pieces of Him, It.

    Pantheism aside, the logical basis of atheism is the denial of the transcendent, i.e. the denial that there is anything ‘extra’, ‘above,’ or ontologically unlike what we believe reality is and the source, origin or ground of this reality. The universe is one thing, and unless that one thing is God, there is nothing else beside the universe and the one type of reality that it is.

    Relative atheism is not really atheism at all. As your Wikipedia article states, “while [relative atheists] accept the existence of an absolute, conceive of the absolute as not possessing any of the attributes proper to God: transcendence, a personal character or unity.” At bottom, this is not an argument for atheism but an argument about the nature of the divine. The moment a philosophy admits the existence of an absolute, i.e. non-contingent reality, it ceases to be atheism and becomes, at least, a mild form of theism. To show the God concept in Buddhism, you only have to ask one question: “Is there any exception to dependent arising?” – and there are several – to find the minimalist requirements for a God-concept being met.


      You use a Western definition as it western philosophy was all philosophy and Western theology was all theology.

      The nature of God in monotheistic religions is a broad topic in Western philosophy of religion and theology, with a very old and distinguished history; it was one of the central topics in medieval philosophy.

      The Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all affirm monotheism, or belief in one God.[1] These religions each give different answers as to the details, and those details are very important to the adherents of these religions; but together they share a tradition of asking the same or similar questions, and proposing the same or similar answers, about what, precisely, God is or is supposed to be.

      Even if all Jewish, Christian, and Muslims philosophers and theologians agree or agreed on one or one set of definitions of God, it is problematic to superimpose said definition of God on traditions that weren’t party to said traditions.

  5. The view that God is transcendent to reality, i.e. ‘above’ and ‘beyond’ the phenomenal world in which we live and ontologically different is by no means a uniquely western concept.

    It underlies all religions and mythologies although there are differences in the way this transcendence and ontological otherness is conceived and portrayed. Even the gods and goddesses of polytheism are ontologically different, possessing powers no human has and being indestructible i.e. independent of events in the phenomenal world. The background presence of a transcendent power – e.g. fate in the Greek, Roman, Norse mythologies, or the Creator in Native and Innuit religion/mythology.

    Even in Buddhism it is present in philosophically minimal form in the concept of dependent origination which is the root metaphysical concept of Buddhism. The only thing that does not originate dependently is dependent origination itself – which, ontologically unlike all other things – has always been and always continues and underlies the phenomenal world. However it meets the criteria of the so-called ‘western’ view of God: it is ontologically absolutely independent from all other things; it transcends them and is absolute in its power (omnipotent) insofar as everything else depends on it; it does not come into and go out of existence; it is creative; it is omnipresent. It manifests its consciousness in the form of the infinite number of buddhas that have existed throughout time. In some forms of Mahayana, God is portrayed as a ‘super-Buddha.’

    Here is more proof of Baha’u’llah’s teaching of the underlying essential unity of all religions.

    What is a “non-divine absolute”? If something is absolute, it meets all the philosophical criteria cited above – and, therefore, is divine.

    1. Ian, it’s still a stretch from the minimalist to classical definition.

      Classical theism refers to the form of theism in which God is characterized as the absolutely metaphysically ultimate being, in contrast to other conceptions such as Pantheism, Panentheism, Polytheism, and Process Theism.
      Whereas most theists agree that God is, at a minimum, all-knowing, all-powerful, and completely good,[1] classical theists go farther and conceive of God as the ultimate reality, with a broad set of attributes including transcendence (total independence from all else), simplicity (being without parts), and incorporeality. Some classical theists go so far as to include the attributes of immutability, impassibility, and timelessness.[2]

      Classical theism is, historically, the mainstream view in philosophy and is associated with the tradition of writers like Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, St. Anselm, Maimonides, Averroes and Thomas Aquinas.[2] In opposition to this tradition, there are, today, philosophers like Alvin Plantinga (who rejects divine simplicity), Richard Swinburne (who rejects divine timelessness) and William Lane Craig (who reject both divine simplicity and timelessness), who can be viewed as theistic personalists. Since classical theistic ideas are influenced by Greek philosophy and focus on God in the abstract and metaphysical sense, they can be difficult to reconcile with the “near, caring, and compassionate” view of God presented in the religious texts of the main monotheistic religions, particularly the Bible.[3]

      Another example would be Paul Tillich.

      Martin Buber criticized Tillich’s “transtheistic position” as a reduction of God to the impersonal “necessary being” of Thomas Aquinas.[51]

      Tillich has been criticized from the Barthian wing of Protestantism for what is alleged to be correlation theory’s tendency to reduce God and his relationship to man to anthropocentric terms. Tillich counters that Barth’s approach to theology denies the “possibility of understanding God’s relation to man in any other way than heteronomously or extrinsically”.[52] Defenders of Tillich claim that critics misunderstand the distinction Tillich makes between God’s essence as the unconditional (“das unbedingte”) “Ground of Being” which is unknowable, and how God reveals himself to mankind in existence.[53] Tillich establishes the distinction in the first chapter of his Systematic Theology Volume One: “But though God in his abysmal nature [footnote: ‘Calvin: in his essence’ ] is in no way dependent on man, God in his self manifestation to man is dependent on the way man receives his manifestation.”[12]

      For Biblical literalists Tillich’s thought is too unorthodox to qualify as Christianity at all, but rather a form of pantheism or atheism.[54] The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology states, “At best Tillich was a pantheist, but his thought borders on atheism.”[55]

      In religious belief, a deity (i/ˈdiː.ɨti/ or i/ˈdeɪ.ɨti/)[1] is a supernatural being, who may be thought of as holy, divine, or sacred. Some religions have one supreme deity, others have multiple deities of various ranks.

      C. Scott Littleton’s Gods, Goddesses, and Mythology defined a deity as “a being with powers greater than those of ordinary humans, but who interacts with humans, positively or negatively, in ways that carry humans to new levels of consciousness beyond the grounded preoccupations of ordinary life.”[2]

      Deities are depicted in a variety of forms, but are also frequently expressed as having human form. Some faiths and traditions consider it blasphemous to imagine or depict the deity as having any concrete form. Deities are often thought to be immortal, and are commonly assumed to have personalities and to possess consciousness, intellects, desires, and emotions comparable but usually superior to those of humans. A male deity is a god, while a female deity is a goddess.

      Historically, natural phenomena whose causes were not well understood, such as lightning and catastrophes such as earthquakes and floods, were attributed to them. They were thought to be able to work supernatural miracles and to be the authorities and controllers of various aspects of human life (such as birth or an afterlife). Some deities were asserted to be the directors of time and fate itself, the givers of human law and morality, the ultimate judges of human worth and behavior, or designers of the Universe, instead of being a natural result of the laws of physics.

      In religious terms, divinity is the state of things that come from a supernatural power or deity, such as a god, or spirit beings, and are therefore regarded as sacred and holy.[1][2][3] Such things are regarded as “divine” due to their transcendental origins, and/or because their attributes or qualities are superior or supreme relative to things of the Earth.[1] Divine things are regarded as eternal and based in truth,[1] while material things are regarded as ephemeral and based in illusion. Such things that may qualify as “divine” are apparitions, visions, prophecies, miracles, and in some views also the soul, or more general things like resurrection, immortality, grace, and salvation. Otherwise what is or is not divine may be loosely defined, as it is used by different belief systems.

      The root of the word “divine” is literally “godlike” (from the Latin deus, cf. Dyaus, closely related to Greek zeus, div in Persian and deva in Sanskrit), but the use varies significantly depending on which deity is being discussed. This article outlines the major distinctions in the conventional use of the terms.

      For specific related academic terms, see Divinity (academic discipline), or Divine (Anglican).

      In Buddhism\Buddhist mythology, devas are beings inhabiting certain happily placed worlds of Buddhist cosmology. These beings are mortal (being part of saṃsāra), numerous, and are respected but not worshipped; it is also common for Yidams to be called deities, although the nature of Yidams are distinct from what is normally meant by the term.

      The Buddhist Madhyamaka argue strongly against the existence of a reificating creator or essential being (such as Brahman). Some Prasangikas hold that even the conventional existence of an essential being is a non-existent, whereas others consider that the conventional existence of such a being is an existent.

      Some modern Buddhists, especially in the west, believe that deities exist in the same manner that elves or unicorns do – as an archetypal consensual entity that serves a symbolic purpose in the popular imagination.

      Though this may seem a rather weak basis of existence for some, as many Buddhists (such as the Yogacara) deny any objective existence (of e.g. a chair), and many more deny any sort of essential existence of phenomena at all, the distinction between the existence and non-existence of consensual entities is important to Buddhist philosophy.

  6. Dear Stephen,

    Wikipedia is not the last word on anything and anyone who takes it as such is setting himself up for a fall. It is a good place *to start* from but a terrible place to end, at least from a scholarly perspective.

    Many high schools in Canada (and I hear some in the US) block Wikipedia from school computers and will not accept Wikipedia references in papers because they have found reliance on Wikipedia encourages lazy and careless research habits, discourages critical thought and blunts students’ capacities for analysis, synthesis, comparing and contrasting and close reading among other things.

    I was hoping you had overcome your uncritical reliance on Wikipedia and were ready to deal with some real philosophical issues. Alas, I see you are not.

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