Book Summaries Philosophy

Free Will Summary (6/10)

Free Will by Sam Harris is a book devoted to the philosophical debate about what agency is. His argument is that free will is nothing more than illusion. The reason why this is important is that if he is correct, we would need to think of reality and people very differently.

If the scientific community were to agree with Harris that free will was an illusion, this would be the cause of more public outrage than the theory of evolution. If we accepted that the behavior of criminals was not free, then the way people are punished, treated, and thought of should change.

The traditional way people think of free will is the ability to determine future behavior consciously. This view depends on two assumptions: (1) Each of us could have acted differently in the past (2) We are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions. Both assumptions are false.

We are only conscious of a fraction of the information our brain processes. We may notice changes in our experience such as our mood, thoughts, or behavior, but we are ignorant of the neurophysiological events that produce them.

Even if you were to assume that you could have made different choices in the past, these decisions were the result of unconscious activity that is outside your control.

The physiologist Benjamin Libet famously used EEG to show that activity in the brain’s motor cortex can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move. Another lab extended this work using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI): Subjects were asked to press one of two buttons while watching a “clock” composed of a random sequence of letters appearing on a screen. They reported which letter was visible at the moment they decided to press one button or the other. The experimenters found two brain regions that contained information about which button subjects would press a full 7 to 10 seconds before the decision was consciously made.3 More recently, direct recordings from the cortex showed that the activity of merely 256 neurons was sufficient to predict with 80 percent accuracy a person’s decision to move 700 milliseconds before he became aware of it.

Harris’ argument doesn’t depend on philosophical materialism (the assumption that reality is at bottom made of physical stuff). Even if you had a soul, the argument would hold since you don’t know what your soul is going to do in the future.

There is a difference between voluntary and involuntary actions. Hitting someone by accident is different from hitting someone on purpose. Intention is important, but we don’t know where this intention came from. This doesn’t mean that social and political freedom is less important. We are still faced with the same problems and have the same responsibilities, but to say that we have control of our mental lives is not true.

Harris describes the ways the problem of free will has traditionally been tackled.  

In the philosophical literature, one finds three main approaches to the problem: determinism, libertarianism, and compatibilism. Both determinism and libertarianism hold that if our behavior is fully determined by background causes, free will is an illusion. (For this reason they are both referred to as “incompatibilist” views.) Determinists believe that we live in such a world, while libertarians (no relation to the political philosophy that goes by this name) imagine that human agency must magically rise above the plane of physical causation. Libertarians sometimes invoke a metaphysical entity, such as a soul, as the vehicle for our freely acting wills. Compatibilists, however, claim that determinists and libertarians are both confused and that free will is compatible with the truth of determinism.

Harris argues there is only one defensible position today: compatibilism. There is no question that unconscious neural processes determine our behavior and thoughts, and these processes were determined by events we don’t know about. But the compatibilists have a different definition of free will than the one we are accustomed to.

Compatibilists think that you are free as long as there aren’t any internal or external compulsions that are preventing you from acting on your desires. If no one forces you to get the scoop of ice cream that you just ordered, you were free to make that choice. But that is a limited view on freedom. Generally, people believe they are more free than that, they think that their choices of who to marry and what to eat are their own and only slightly influenced by prior events. But Harris makes the point that this isn’t so, we are completely influenced by prior events that we are unconscious of.

According to compatibilists, if a man wants to commit murder, and does so because of this desire, his actions attest to his freedom of will. From both a moral and a scientific perspective, this seems deliberately obtuse. People have many competing desires—and some desires appear pathological (that is, undesirable) even to those in their grip. Most people are ruled by many mutually incompatible goals and aspirations: You want to finish your work, but you are also inclined to stop working so that you can play with your kids. You aspire to quit smoking, but you also crave another cigarette. You are struggling to save money, but you are also tempted to buy a new computer.

Harris points out that if we have conflicting impulses, where is our freedom when one of those impulses is victorious over another? What if we don’t want to have internal conflict? Are we free to simply choose without experiencing the opposition of wills within our own psyche?

Consider the following, from Tom Clark of the Center for Naturalism:

Harris is of course right that we don’t have conscious access to the neurophysiological processes that underlie our choices. But, as Dennett often points out, these processes are as much our own, just as much part of who we are as persons, just as much us, as our conscious awareness. We shouldn’t alienate ourselves from our own neurophysiology and suppose that the conscious self, what Harris thinks of as constituting the real self (and as many others do, too, perhaps), is being pushed around at the mercy of our neurons. Rather, as identifiable individuals we consist (among other things) of neural processes, some of which support consciousness, some of which don’t. So it isn’t an illusion, as Harris says, that we are authors of our thoughts and actions; we are not mere witnesses to what causation cooks up. We as physically instantiated persons really do deliberate and choose and act, even if consciousness isn’t ultimately in charge. So the feeling of authorship and control is veridical.

Moreover, the neural processes that (some-how—the hard problem of consciousness) support consciousness are essential to choosing, since the evidence strongly suggests they are associated with flexible action and information integration in service to behavior control. But it’s doubtful that consciousness (phenomenal experience) per se adds anything to those neural processes in controlling action.

It’s true that human persons don’t have contra-causal free will. We are not self-caused little gods. But we are just as real as the genetic and environmental processes which created us and the situations in which we make choices. The deliberative machinery supporting effective action is just as real and causally effective as any other process in nature. So we don’t have to talk as if we are real agents in order to concoct a motivationally useful illusion of agency, which is what Harris seems to recommend we do near the end of his remarks on free will. Agenthood survives determinism, no problem.8

Harris thinks that such a view is mere trickery. Dennet is saying that our subjective experience of consciousness (a psychological fact) should be replaced with a different conceptual understanding of ourselves. The psychological truth is that people feel identical to the experience of consciousness. Dennet is saying that we are more than this; everything that goes on inside our bodies, conscious or unconscious, corresponds to what we are.

This is like saying we are made of stardust—which we are. But we don’t feel like stardust. And the knowledge that we are stardust is not driving our moral intuitions or our system of criminal justice.10

Harris maintains that such a view doesn’t hold because we don’t behave as if it’s true. You are mostly made of bacteria, 90 percent of the cells in your bodies are microbes. These organisms perform crucial functions for your survival. They are “you” In some way, but that doesn’t mean you feel identical to them.

Harris demonstrates this point with the following thought experiment.

Imagine that a person claims to have no need to eat food of any kind—rather, he can live on light. From time to time, an Indian yogi will make such a boast, much to the merriment of skeptics. Needless to say, there is no reason to take such claims seriously, no matter how thin the yogi. However, a compatibilist like Dennett could come to the charlatan’s defense: The man does live on light—we all do—because when you trace the origin of any food, you arrive at something that depends on photosynthesis. By eating beef, we consume the grass the cow ate, and the grass ate sunlight. So the yogi is no liar after all. But that’s not the ability the yogi was advertising, and his actual claim remains dishonest (or delusional). This is the trouble with compatibilism. It solves the problem of “free will” by ignoring it.

Harris is saying that what matters is how people feel about their agency. You don’t solve the problem of free will by changing the definition of agency itself. We have an idea of free will, it states that we are in control of our actions, that we determine our future behavior consciously. If we tried to include our unconscious thought patterns as part of our definition of free will, we are avoiding the problem. The yogi may in some way be surviving from this light source, but he is not surviving in the important way that we care about. That is, he is not surviving without eating food. Similarly, we can say that our free will is controlled by unconscious events, but then it is no longer “free”.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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