Drive On Through: A Review of Sam Harris’s Free Will Part 3

Drive On Through: A Review of Sam Harris’s Free Will Part 3

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

Part 3 of a review in three parts by Ian Kluge.

Editor’s Introduction: Two weeks ago Ian Kluge 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)

Last week, Kluge looked in depth at Harris’s evocation of the famous experiment of Benjamin Libet and Harris’s claim its shows that we don’t have free will. This week, Kluge addresses other areas where he thinks that Harris’s arguments fail to convince. The book, he concludes, shows the perils of scientism.

Kluge continues:

Challenging Conscious Agency

There is another aspect to what Harris sees as the problem of not knowing all the factors involved in making a choice. In Free Will he asks,

How can we be “free” as conscious agents if everything that we consciously intend is caused by events in our brain that we do not intend and of which we are entirely unaware? We can’t.

To say that “my brain” decided to think or act in a particular way, whether consciously or not, and that this is the basis of my freedom, is to ignore the very source of our belief in free will: the feeling of conscious agency. People feel that they are the authors of their thoughts and actions and that is the only reason why there seems to be a problem of free will worth talking about. (p. 26)

Harris also wants to challenge the “feeling of conscious agency,” which, in his view, is the origin of the “problem of free will.” To eliminate free will, it is necessary to eliminate “conscious agency” and with it, the conscious agent, i.e. the ‘self,’ ‘ego’ or soul. He seeks to do this be showing how our brain processes are part of causally determined physical events. However, no matter how far we pursue these causal links, we will sooner or later arrive at the core question: ‘Is the feeling of “conscious agency” a delusion’ or does this feeling point to the existence of something real?

Challenging the Challenge to Conscious Agency

Usually, “the feeling of agency” and of a conscious agent is connected with the idea of a ‘self’ or ‘soul,’ i.e. something that is non-material and, therefore, outside the control of physical cause and effect. If the existence – or even the possible existence – of such a non-material entity could be demonstrated, Libet’s experiment and Harris’s arguments would be severely, perhaps fatally, weakened. We maintain that at the very least, the possibility of such an agent can be rationally demonstrated.

Imagine that you open a book in a foreign language. No amount of physical analysis will provide a clue about what the book means because the meaning of the book is not physical and intrinsically reducible to physical things. The same is also true of a book in a language you do understand. Physically, there are only material marks on a page. As you read the page, your brain synapses fire electrical blips. And here is the key: in regards to their physical existence, the print marks and the brain-blips are equivalent.

They can be fully analyzed by physical means for their chemical or bio-electrical contents – but these contents contain no hint of their actual meaning. The brain itself as a physical organ has no sense of meaning. However, this leads to a serious problem: who or what is to ‘understand’ the meaning of the text?

If we go to yet another ‘reader’ of the book, a machine that scans the brain-blips, the same problem repeats itself: brain-blips cannot tell us the content meaning of brain-blips. An infinite regress has begun – telling us, thereby, that this method of identifying an entity that understands meaning will not work. By a process of elimination, the entity that understands the meaning of the text cannot be material. It cannot be a physical thing – which is exactly what the common belief in a soul, self or ego asserts. At the very least, the rational possibility of a non-physical entity which understands meaning has been established. This undermines the logical foundations of Harris’s argument and the “popular conception” of a conscious agent that makes decisions has been strengthened.

What are Non-Physical Things?

The Baha’i writings call these non-physical ‘things’ – meanings, souls, self etc. – “intellectual realities” (`Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 83). They are not sensible realities but they affect us nonetheless because we ourselves are souls which are non-material entities capable of comprehending meanings. Among these “mental realities” are love (not physical lust), “the human spirit”, and “the power of the intellect”. They are capable of acting in or causing action in the physical world.

For example, consider the following two text-messages: (1) “We won the lottery! $500M. Hurry home!” and (2) “Don’t love you anymore. Bye. P.S, took your dog.” Both can cause enormous trains of physical reactions – and yet your cell-phone remains silent: because it does not understand meaning. We know that meaning can cause worldly action. But how? How can a non-physical entity cause action in a physical one?

This is the old ‘mind-body’ problem which Libet and Harris attempt to solve by reducing mind to body. Other philosophers accept a mind-body dualism. However, I believe the Baha’i Writings have at least the outlines of a rational solution. We shall try to explain this position in broad outline form. The Baha’i answer is sketched in the following statement:

Some think that the body is the substance and exists by itself, and that the spirit is accidental and depends upon the substance of the body, although, on the contrary, the rational soul is the substance, and the body depends upon it. If the accident — that is to say, the body — be destroyed, the substance, the spirit, remains. (`Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 239)

Let us first understand what `Abdu’l-Baha asserts. The technical terminology he uses is from Aristotle whose method of analyzing reality is found throughout the Baha’i writings (see Ian Kluge, “The Aristotelian Substratum of the Baha’i Writings”, Lights of Irfan, Vol. 4, 2003 at ).

To say that “the body is the substance and exists by itself” means that the body has its own unique identity which is independent of anything else. For example, my whippet Athena is a substance; she has her own identity and even if I died, she would go on. Furthermore, every substance has qualities or attributes, Athena is a black and white – but her color is accidental, i.e. she would still be a dog-substance if her color were gray or brindle. Here is the key: the attributes or qualities are the expressions of the substance, i.e. they are the way the substance manifests or appears in the material world. What Athena actualizes are the potential attributes of her physical substance.

`Abdu’l-Baha reverses this argument: he asserts that the “rational soul is the substance” and body is accidental, i.e. the body is one way the soul expresses or manifests itself in the material world. The body is an attribute of the soul or mind. In other words, the relationship between mind and body is, in principle, the same as the relationship between a substance and its attributes, e.g. between Athena and her colors. One is an outward appearance of the other, and in this case, body is the outward appearance of mind or soul. However, whereas in the materialist argument accepted by Libet and Harris, the physical body is the source of the mind and its controller, in `Abdu’l-Baha’s argument, the soul or mind is the source and the controller. The two arguments are mirror images of each other.

There are, of course, other questions to deal with on this issue but for now it must suffice that we have shown that contrary to Libet and Harris, the existence of non-physical reality is rationally possible, and consequently, Abdu’l-Baha’s solution to the mind-soul/body problem remains a logically viable option. Let us briefly return to Harris’s Free Will.

In Conclusion

Free Will is a dangerous book insofar as it provides superficial, reductionist answers to profound questions of human nature. Those who accept Harris’s arguments will find their thinking is shallower for doing so. Nonetheless, it is a book that should be read – if for no other reason than to learn from its mistakes, some of which we have pointed out in this review. It is an excellent illustrative summary of scientism at work, i.e. the attitude that we can solve questions about human nature and morality in a laboratory, and ignore the fact that the scientific method is not equipped to deal with such issues.

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4 thoughts on “Drive On Through: A Review of Sam Harris’s Free Will Part 3

  1. You say that by a process of elimination, the entity that understands the meaning of the text cannot be material. It has to be a soul. Interestingly, there are Christian groups, like Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and some smaller groups, that say the opposite. They say that when the Bible uses the Hebrew or Greek word for ‘soul’, nephesh in Hebrew and psyche in Greek, there are only two possible meanings, it can mean the body, or the life in the body, but that there is no such thing as a supernatural immortal soul in us. These Christian groups of course disagree with Harris, they say we do have free will, and they do believe in God who is a Spirit. But in case of us, they would say that it is our physical brains that analyze the text, not a supernatural soul. And it is true, that for example chimps can learn a little American Sign Language, they get to understand that a certain hand shape stands for a banana for example. So it is similar like we read text, we see the sequence of six letters that spells out banana, and we recognize that it stands for the same idea like a banana fruit that we can see in a bowl, even though the letter sequence banana does not resemble a banana much. As we learn languages, we build a dictionary in our brain, that the sequence of sounds having the consonant b in the beginning, then a certain vowel, then the sound of n, etc., will equate in our brain with the idea of a banana fruit. And then as we learn to read, we establish an equivalence of the letter b with the sound b, even though the shape of b does not suggest the sound of this bilabial voiced stop consonant. It can be viewed as very mechanistic, like a machine, building up dictionaries. Still, this begs the question of whether we do have free will anyway. And even if we have souls, do these souls have free will, or are they behaving predictably, based on what input they get, and some of that input can be random, like in radioactive substances it is unpredictable which atom will decay, it is random. Of course for somebody believing in the Bible or in Baha’i scriptures, the answer is we do have free will, because that is what the Scriptures say. But if we were to ignore these scriptures, then we could easily question, do souls have free will? Do angels have free will? Does even God have free will? Fascinating questions.

  2. I’m aware what the JW’s and SDA’s believe but, for reasons already given, I do not think their views are logically coherent. If by the “life in the body” they means a ‘life-spirit’ then they have, in effect, a soul by another name. If they believe only in the body, they have the materialist-empiricist problem with free will. A physical brain cannot “analyze” a text because a physical brain only has electronic blips as opposed to letters in ink – but no analysis of either can ever provide the meaning of the text.

    The interpretations of ape behavior consistently ignore the difference between a sign and a symbol, as well as the difference between the literal and metaphorical/symbolical. The ape can recognize that pushing a certain button gets him a banana, but that’s just a literal stimulus-response situation. Any chicken can be trained to do that, i.e. recognize a thing where there is a 1 to 1 correspondence between the sign and the object, i.e. literal signs. However, when we get to many to one relations that are purely intellectual and non-literal, apes are lost. Try to get an ape to show understanding and use of the statement “He’s behaving like a banana” where the meaning is symbolical and not literal.

    The brain makes a 1 to 1 correspondence between letters and brain blips – and that’s not ‘where’ the meaning is. That’s why computers don’t understand anything. It does not matter if we have a huge “dictionary” of letters or brain blips – that’s all they are. When Harris or other empiricists can show us how the analysis of physical objects – letters, blips, whatever – can yield meaning, then and only then can they write off the existence of a non-physical entity (soul) that understands meaning. As Sherrington (the founder of neuro-science) and Chalmers among others assert, some sort of dualism is still the best theory we have.

    If the soul is a non-physical entity then in relationship to matter it is obviously free: being non-physical it cannot be necessarily determined by physical causal processes. There’s a lot more to be said about this, but that is the basic principle we have to work with.

    I do not think it is correct to say that we Baha’is have to believe anything our scriptures say without seeking for understanding. One of our key principles is investigating for ourselves. In other words, the Baha’i Writings encourage a reflective not pre-reflective approach to theological and philosophical problems.

    1. I don’t think computers are just one on one any more. A great progress has been made with computer translation from one language to another. And words in languages have often more than one meaning, sometimes even 3, maybe even more. So for example in English the word general. It can mean a high ranking officer, or it can be an adjective, opposite to particular. So to translate let’s say from English to Czech, one has to program the software to look at the context, like is it a noun in the sentence, or is it an adjective. If a noun, it is translated generál, with the appropriate case ending to show if it is a subject, or object or what, so again the sentence has to be examined to see what role the noun plays there. So if direct object, the software has to translate generála. If it is an adjective, then the task is even harder, it depends on what is general, so the translation can be for example všeobecný, obecný, celkový, generální. And then the adjective has to be made to agree with its noun in case, so we might get for example všeobecného, všeobecnému, etc. The adjective also has to agree with the noun in gender, so with a feminine noun we can get for example všeobecná, všeobecné, etc. depending on case. And plural nouns take plural adjectives. Czech grammar is quite complex. And with your example of behaving like a banana, Czech does have the same fruit, called banán. But if you tell a Czech he is behaving like a banán, he won’t understand, the noun is not used that way. So you have to program the translation software to use a different alternative, more meaningful to a Czech. So naturally with all the complexity, the translation software is still far from perfect. But the way you program the software is similar to how children are learning language. At first they will not understand what it means to behave like a banana, they are learning gradually the vocabulary, and also the grammar, the children will at first make many grammar mistakes, then learn more and more, and so the mistakes are fewer. Just like you are constantly improving the software, so it recognizes more and more, and makes fewer mistakes. So I think that’s basically what the brain does, when processing a language.
      You say that since the soul is not physical, it does not necessarily react to physical causal processes. But it still needs to react to the environment, even if the relevant environment is primarily spiritual. I would expect souls to communicate with each other, learn from each other, if they are bad, maybe insult each other, and then their feelings can be hurt. It can all be determined by cause and effect, even very predictably, if you could know all the variables, like the personality of each soul. And souls can approach or move away. Maybe a soul can even assault another, if that is possible. And the assaulted soul will behave likewise mechanistically, depending on its personality, and if it is surrounded by enemy souls, or there are plenty of friends nearby. So it seems to me like if you could know all the variables (and God might know all the variables), then the behavior of each soul becomes just as predictable, as people behave here on earth in physical bodies. So again, I doubt there is free will, it seems to me like souls will behave very deterministically. Like very sophisticated machines, only they are spiritual machines, not made of matter, maybe not energy either. After all, matter is convertible to energy. So I guess if souls exist, their substance would seem to be something very exotic, neither matter nor energy. But still, in that substance, react mechanistically. Even when learning whatever is the true religion. It is still learning, the software is being updated with more information.

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