No Free Will For You!
Apparently, I’m a compatibilist. I wasn’t aware of this fact myself but Sam Harris has informed me as such so it must be true. I, certainly, didn’t consider myself as such but that is irrelevant because I am not the author of my own words. Or, truly, the author of anything at all. Thus, I should preface all my work with, “I would like to thank the universe for writing all my stories for me. I would further like to blame the universe for not unloading a helluva lot more success upon me for this work that it did on my behalf.”
For those who aren’t in on the minutia of my life, I’ve been spending the last week in a heated debate about Free Will. Mostly, this has revolved around my inexplicable compulsion to engage in Derek’s annual year moving when he likes to box all his worldly possessions and shuffle them a few feet or hundreds of kilometers depending on whether the sun is trying to murder me or not. Why have I felt compelled to consistently assist him with this duty when he has never returned the favour? I could tell you a lengthy tale about how he’s my friend, how I like to help those I’m close with and the dated ideals of social reciprocity and bonding suggest that this is advantageous to my survival as it enables me to enlist his help at a future date should I so desire.
Sadly, I have discovered all of this is a lie. Thanks a lot Sam Harris.
I just finished Free Will but the aforementioned good doctor. It’s, ostensibly, a rejection of free will based on neuroscience and psychology. The book was, considering it’s subject matter, a surprising 65 pages. Needless to say, it wasn’t the most verbose argument I’ve ever read but at least it made for a quick read. For all that I can (and will!) say about Sam Harris, the man does take an approach similar to Derek’s–focus on comprehensibility over a stuffy and impenetrable air of academia.
By Mr. Harris’ admission, it is “difficult to think about law, politics, religion, public policy, intimate relationships, morality…without first imagining that every person is the true source of his or her thoughts and actions.” Of course, Harris wouldn’t have a book if he didn’t propose that all of this is an illusion. The jacket of the book goes on to explain that Harris will enlighten us all on the truth of the human mind while not undermining society’s morals or the importance of political freedom all the while changing our understanding of life’s most importance questions.
At least, that’s what the cover claims. In sixty-five pages, I too would have been impressed if he’d accomplished this. If you hadn’t picked up my tone yet, I am unconvinced. Not that some lowly blogger in some remote part of the Internet must try be impressed by Harris’ work for legitimacy, especially when our only traffic are copyright lawyers hunting down malicious use of intellectual infringement, but here we are anyway. Thankfully, it’s not my fault (the infringement, to be clear, though I’m not to be blamed for the forth coming ramble on psychology and philosophy).
Let’s jump into the meat of things, shall we? Free will has been a hot debate in the course of philosophy for… I don’t know… longer than I was an undergraduate that’s for certain! You would thusly imagine that someone who so definitely claims to put the subject to rest would have some lengthy treatise on his position. Alas, only the first fourteen pages of the book are devoted to actual research–which made the work even quicker for me to finish.
If you haven’t heard of Libet’s experiment then you are not alone. The poor man is already dead and only now does his work seem to be gaining any traction with the wider public. Isn’t that always the case? To be fair to Mr. Libet, we really didn’t have a choice in the matter.
Benjamin Libet’s experiment, however, is somewhat interesting in the discussion of consciousness and decision making. I won’t bog the blog down in details that no one is truly interested in, but he demonstrated through the use of a digital clock that when people “consciously” choose to make a decision via button press on when to pause the clock, neuronal reading of their brains demonstrated that there was a build-up of activation which predicted said behaviour upwards of ten seconds before conscious awareness.
This, Harris hinges upon, is the definitive evidence that free will is an illusion (e.d. – ok, there’s a bit more research but this is essentially the launching point so forgive me the simplification). He puts forth the “controversial” position that our wills are simply the byproduct of background causes of which we are unaware and lie beyond our control. I place controversial in quotations because, ultimately, if you have engaged in a discussion about free will, then you know ho incoherent the concept is.
As Harris puts forward, our thoughts are not spontaneously generated within our conscious thought. This shouldn’t really be that surprising. You don’t determine that you are hungry after long consideration. Likewise, you don’t will yourself into sleepiness but realizing you’re tired or hungry are both realizations of your own body’s feedback. Likewise, Harris purports, we are not the creators of our conscious thoughts and that these very words which I’m typing upon this page sort of congealed from some unspecified void and was enacted by my fingers longer before my consciousness truly became aware of them.
It is this assertion which we can begin to see the problem in Harris’ position. Reading through his book, he seems to be intrinsically motivated to disprove the concept of conservative or religious thought–that we are truly independent beings being held back by either our own laziness (conservatism) or disobedience (theology). Ironically, Harris seems primarily motivated to reject the dualism philosophy of consciousness: we are biological beings being manipulated by a disconnected soul or mind. And yet, Harris argues just as vehemently that there is a dualism nevertheless. He never specifies what the “self” is and thus, when he argues our thoughts are never self-generated, he fails to say where the hell they come from. By Harris’ description, there’s some mystery “thought void” which simply shunts thoughts into our minds which we misconstrue as originating from ourselves like a petulant redditor who has stumbled across a humorous cartoon and wishes to post it under their own name to reap that delicious, delicious reddit karma.
To Harris, the unconscious mind is some masterful machine ultimately directing our bodies. It’s this mysterious black box formed by our genes and shaped by our environment into a highly predictable machine that makes us dance to its invisible puppet strings. His book is nearly sixty pages of repeating this statement again and again, “You do not generate your thoughts. You do not generate your thoughts. You do not generate your thoughts.”
Of course, he can’t say how our thoughts are generated. They’re simply intrusive worms into our mind garden which we are forced to tolerate as they eat through our mulch. He poses this problem without giving an inch on the obvious answer: a person is the combination of their unconscious and conscious processes. This seems, to me, immediately obvious. I would have thought that the global penetration of Freudian theory into the public consciousness had made this concept a clear alternative. It is the interaction between conscious and unconscious thought, motivation and action which gives rise to the entity of individuality. It’s a unique combination influenced and formed by the genes we inherit and the environment we inhabit that structures our heuristics, biases and perspective.
But for Harris, this is not enough. Even Libet didn’t argue that free will was absent but proposed a sort of conscious “veto” which our higher cognitive processes were able to dictate to our unconscious urges. We can “feel” hungry but stop ourselves from eating in a garbage can until we get home for a proper meal. Harris concedes (and must as there’s an incredible body of research to demonstrate) that our abilities are formed based on our personal reflection and motivation which often leads to overcoming short-term desires to follow better long-term goals. But this isn’t good enough for Harris because the initial drives are produced in the unconscious. The heuristics you utilize are, according him, nothing more than previous reasoning and influence on behaviour which are nothing more than reasoning and prior influences before that. Down and down we go with turtles upon turtles with no end in sight. Somewhere down the line, someone spilled a glass of milk and that’s made you the angry, aggressive driver you are today.
I had, initially, written a lot of words to discuss the theories Harris proposes, but the format which he writes makes a lot of them redundant. Essentially, the crux of his argument is this confusing and contradicting statement:
“Choices, efforts, intentions, and reasoning influence our behaviour–but they are themselves part of a chain of causes that precede conscious awareness and over which we exert no ultimate control. My choices matter–and there are paths toward making wiser ones–but I can not choose what I choose. And if it ever appears that I do–for instance, after going back and forth between two options–I do not choose to choose what I choose. There is a regress here that always ends in darkness. I must take a first step, or a last one, for reasons that are bound to remain inscrutable.”
Harris has, essentially, framed the discourse in such a way that he can never be wrong. Free will, he proposes, can only be demonstrated if you can be the sole and uninfluenced source of your own thoughts. But this is a ludicrous position. We have, by nearly all consensus, evolved from organisms which had no such capabilities. Our consciousness is not the sole attribute of our personhood. We are the culmination of both our conscious directive and unconscious motivations. Think about that for a second. How would you describe yourself? And how many of those attributes did you consciously generate?
Not a lot, I presume. I never choose to be a male. I didn’t ever make the conscious decision to be gay. My self identity is based upon my own introspection, interaction with others and capabilities I have demonstrated. There is no value in thinking I’m a terrific basketball player if I have never picked up a ball in my entire life. I did not separate and exist as my own entity the moment I achieved some sense of consciousness. The two spiders on my wall are not one entity because they have no demonstrable higher cognitive functioning.
Harris puts forth a hard vision of determinism. All things are, essentially, preordained by his estimation. The only component he’s lacking for a truly religious view is a sentient, all-powerful creator to kickstart the process. He tries to argue that there’s a difference between determinism and fatalism but he provides no evidence for this. If we truly are just passengers in this twisted machine of genes and history, then we have no capability for altering its course. All thoughts originate in that unfathom unconscious and we are powerless to stop whichever ones bubble out and we blindly follow. And yet, Free Will is chalk full of the importance of our choices, motivations and intentions. He dislikes fatalism because it’s an unpleasant consequence of his theory but he never disproves it from his position.
This is, ultimately, my dislike of Free Will. It’s philosophy masquerading as psychology. The only evidence he draws upon is incredibly divisive in its interpretation. Many people debate what’s truly being measured and what it ultimately means on our conscious will. There seems intuitively, a difference between pressing a button and choosing your spouse. We have lots of research on unconscious and conscious decisions as well as a good idea of what consciousness can achieve. We, however, have very little information on how unconscious and conscious processes interact or even how decisions are made. We know so little about the brain that it is an understatement to even suggest Harris’ conclusions are grossly premature. His extrapolations are, invariably, well beyond the scope of the conversation we can have based on the research we have.
I do not begrudge him, at the end. From my reading, I ultimately agree with much of his motivations. But his conclusion seems shortsighted and underdeveloped. He provides no good explanation for why a compatibilist (the argument of our self being both unconscious and conscious elements) is wrong or how his vision truly does not change much in our perspectives of the world. In fact, there’s a very brief chapter on research which suggests that abandoning the concept of free will can lead people to acting more aggressive and dishonest. These studies he simply blithely dismisses because he, personally, has not acted that way.
And, finally, his concluding stream of consciousness ramble is incredibly incoherent. James Joyce did it far better.