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.
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,
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 http://bahai-library.com/kluge_aristotelean_lights4 ).
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.
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.