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.