I just finished Sam Harris’ new book on Free Will. It’s a shortish tome, only about 66 pages plus notes, but it doesn’t suffer for its brevity, and it may even be praised for it’s succinctness and clarity.
The basic premise is this: That free will is a sham. Based on recent neurological experiments, we know that decisions are made in the brain before we become consciously aware of them, even when we feel that we are making such decisions in real time. Regardless of the origins of these decisions, whether reactions to external events, products of internal processes, or even results of randomness, it is clear that we do not will them in the way we typically think. For some reason, evolution has given us the illusion of free will, but it is only that — an illusion.
I don’t have much to disagree with on the science and logic behind Harris’ claims and conclusions with regard to free will. If I were so inclined to argue against Harris’ ideas (and, perhaps in the future I will be), I would probably start where my friend Dave suggested, with Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, which apply primarily to mathematics but perhaps would be relevant in this discussion. Nevertheless, I stipulate that, on the whole, Harris’ arguments seem reasonable from the empirical neuroscience we have to go on.
However, Harris goes slightly beyond the logical arguments against free will and attempts to explain that there’s still a place for morality in our free-will-less world. If the brevity of his argument suffers at all, it’s in dearth of explication on his thoughts about morality. Basically, he makes three displaced assertions, which I look at below.
Will-less Choices Matter
In the section on “Choices, Efforts and Intentions,” Harris writes about the difference between determinism and fatalism (pp. 33-34). We always make a choice, even if the choice we make is to choose not to do anything — even my seven-year-old acknowledges that. But then Harris asserts that “the fact that our choices depend on prior causes does not mean that they don’t matter.” Or, to state it positively, our will-less choices do matter. What does it mean that choices matter in this context? To Harris, it appears to mean simply that other things happen:
If I had not decided to write this book, it wouldn’t have written itself. My choice to write it was unquestionably the primary cause of its coming into being. Decisions, intentions, efforts, goals, willpower, etc., are causal states of the brain, leading to specific behaviors, and behaviors lead to outcomes in the world. Human choice, therefore, is as important as fanciers of free will believe. But the next choice you make will come out of the darkness of prior causes that you, the conscious witness of your experience, did not bring into being.
Let’s ignore the claim that his choice to write Free Will is a primary cause and simply acknowledge what we already knew: That actions have reactions. Harris fails to state why a particular action-and-reaction chain of events perpetuated by human choice matters any more than, say the wind blowing an acorn off a tree and landing in a field where it germinates and later grows into another tree that produces acorns to be blown off by the wind and dropped onto the ground. If human actions are both effect and cause, then they do not “matter” any more than other non-human actions that also are effect and cause. Maybe all actions, human and non-human, matter! Of course, as we learned from The Incredibles, saying everyone is special is just another way of saying nobody is. The same is true with actions and reactions.
Whether will-less actions matter doesn’t ultimately affect Harris’ argument about free will itself. However, his failure to present a reasonable case for why will-less actions matter, any more than any other natural process matters, does show a fundamental lack of integrity with regard to how we can view such action.
Moral imperative and correction
In his section on “Moral Responsibility” Harris says that we must find a notion of personal responsibility that fits with the idea that people do not have free will. His solution is predictably utilitarian:
Dispensing with the illusion of free will allows us to focus on the things that matter — assessing risk, protecting innocent people, deterring crime, etc. However, certain moral intuitions begin to relax the moment we take a wider picture of causality into account. Once we recognize that even the most terrifying predators are, in a very real sense, unlucky to be who they are, the logic of hating (as opposed to fearing) them begins to unravel.
He goes on to discuss how we might lock up people on the basis not of retribution, as our courts often prescribe, but on their level of danger to society with regard to the unluckiness of circumstances beyond their control. There may be some merit to this idea, and I’m generally in favor of anything that would make our justice system fairer. (Although, I think there probably are simpler and more effective ways to achieve more immediate results, such as by decriminalizing drugs and ending the drug war.) But Harris fails to look at the potential negatives sides of his ideas.
On pp. 54-55, Harris posits a theoretical cure for evil:
To see how fully our moral intuitions must shift, consider what would happen if we discovered a cure for human evil. Imagine that every relevant change in the human brain could now be made cheaply, painlessly, and safely. In fact, the cure could be put directly into the food supply, like vitamin D. Evil would become nothing more than a nutritional deficiency.
He goes on to show that this completely theoretical idea of curing evil disproves the morality of the “retributive impulse.” Whether it does (I’m not wholly convinced), he completely fails to acknowledge that this idea hasn’t always been merely theoretical. It has led to efforts to correct what was seen as behavioral deficiencies through a number of scientific methods, including:
- Eugenics — Although the attempt to improve humanity through genetic breeding is now generally viewed as premised on pseudoscientific principles, it was once viewed as legitimate science and was supported by influential scientists, including Leonard Darwin, son of Charles, and political leaders such as Teddy Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. It was used by the Nazis to justify forced sterilizations, forced abortions and infanticide.
- Lobotomy and other psychosurgery — The link to science is undeniable, as the 1949 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was awarded to António Egas Moniz for discovering how ripping out a specific part of the brain could cure psychological problems. Although apparently a few lobotomies are still performed around the world each year, they are widely regarded as brutal and unnecessary.
- Involuntary treatment — Less controversial than the other two, there is still a huge problem with the idea of forced medication and other involuntary treatments. In the U.S., there is an established legal history to protect people from unnecessary treatments they don’t want, except in extreme circumstances, with good reason. Historically, some people have been wrongly diagnosed or prescribed unnecessary medications under involuntary treatments, on the argument that it is a social benefit.
I’m not suggesting Harris supports all or any of these scientific attempts to control behavior. However, his failure to acknowledge the historical fact that scientific ideas about changing behavior have led to horrific actions — rather than merely being a vehicle for benevolence, charity and compassion, as he implies — makes his overall moral argument somewhat disingenuous.
One further point. Let’s say we are able to avoid the Miranda scenario and scientists do somehow develop a relatively cheap, painless, and safe “cure for evil.” Harris speaks about withholding such a cure as cruel, and perhaps that’s so. What about forcing it on someone who commits certain extremely heinous crimes, such as rape or murder — would that be permissible? What if it’s expensive for individuals — would it be okay to tax everyone to administer the cure to a select few evil people, even when most of the populace might otherwise never come into contact with the evil persons? What if was only mostly safe, but some low percentage of people died or got incredibly ill from it? At what point does the utilitarian calculus become too difficult?
Perhaps all of these questions are best left up to society to answer. However, by presenting only the best-case scenario, Harris fundamentally makes his moral argument too simple.
Those damned conservatives!
It’s unfortunate, although perhaps not entirely unforeseeable, that Harris “went there” explicitly with regard politics. He probably couldn’t help it.
The assignment of variables where “liberal = compassionate; conservative = individualist” is tired. For one thing, it’s barely even accurate, and where it does bear some resemblance to actuality, there are always other factors. More importantly, it’s irrelevant and unnecessary to address or reference either group directly here.
If the purpose of the book is to convince people that there is no free will, and a secondary purpose is to show how we should act with regard to that knowledge, then the politics section could have been written as a guide on how to act politically without drawing in specific factions directly.
So, ignoring the played-out political paradigms, I did have one comment of substance. Harris states:
…it is wise to hold people responsible for their actions when doing so influences their behavior and brings benefit to society. But this does not mean that we must be taken in by the illusion of free will. We need only acknowledge that efforts matter and that people can change…. Where people can change, we can demand that they do so. Where change is impossible, or unresponsive to demands, we can chart some other course.
Here again, Harris runs into the problem of what it means for an action to “matter.” Beyond that, though, he seems to imply that we can do something which he spent the previous sixty pages saying we can’t do: Determine an action. Yes, what we do affects those around us. But words like “influence” and “demand” are fraught with ideas of free will. We can’t do anything more than we can do. The implication that we can effect change in someone else, when we can’t even cause our own actions, is not merely paradoxical — it’s patently ridiculous.
As I stated above, I think most of what Sam Harris has to say in Free Will is compelling. He does a good job of arguing that recent neuroscience developments imply a lack of human free will. However, he fails to show a compelling case for why our actions matter — any more than any non-human effect and cause — and how we can still be moral creatures in light of this knowledge.
I will note that I have not read Harris’ book The Moral Landscape. I’ll stipulate that he may perfectly explain his ideas on morality there. If so, he should make a reference or two in the next edition of Free Will.
Sam Harris’ speech on “Free Will”
If you don’t want to read the book, but want to hear Harris’ ideas about free will, here’s a recent speech he gave which provides much of his argument.