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Is Sam Harris Right About Free Will?: A Book Review

Stewart Goetz

Considering the implications of a hard determinist viewpoint of human will

Ross Frederick Wicks Distinguished Professor in Philosophy and Religion, Ursinus College
May 26, 2014

Are we free to choose? Do we have free will? Human beings have been interested in these questions for millennia. ‘Incompatibilists’ are people who believe that being free to choose is not compatible with being determined. Their intuition is that one and the same event, a choice, cannot be simultaneously both free and determined. ‘Compatibilists’ believe otherwise: a choice can be simultaneously free and determined. There are two types of incompatibilists. One, ‘libertarians’, believe that we are actually free to choose and, therefore, that our choices are not determined. They typically express their belief by saying that our choices are uncaused or not causally determined. The other, ‘hard determinists’, hold that our choices, assuming that we make choices, are actually determined and, therefore, not free.

Sam Harris is a philosopher, neuroscientist, and hard determinist. According to him, while it seems to us as if libertarianism is true, neuroscience gives us reason to believe that it is not. In his short book Free Will, he maintains that we have “the sense that we are the conscious authors of our actions” and “some moments before you are aware of what you will do next [is] a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please” (9). But “[f]ree will is an illusion” (5). Harris claims this is deeply troubling “because it touches nearly everything we care about. Morality, law, politics, religion, public policy, intimate relationships, feelings of guilt and personal accomplishment—most of what is distinctly human about our lives seems to depend upon our viewing one another as autonomous persons, capable of free choice” (1). Not only are criminals nothing more than “poorly calibrated clockwork” who do not deserve any punishment for their deeds, but also “those of us who work hard and follow the rules [do] not ‘deserve’ our success in any deep sense” (1). Harris acknowledges that among professional philosophers today, compatibilism is the preferred view. However, he regards compatibilism with contempt. It is “not the free will that most people feel they have” (16) and the vast amount of literature produced in its defense “resembles theology” (18). For Harris, that is about as low as one can go.

sam harris

Sam Harris (2010). Photo Credit: Steve Jurvetson / via Flickr 

Before considering why Harris thinks free will is an illusion, it is important to correct what he says about how things appear to us concerning our freedom. For example, does it appear to us that we have complete freedom to behave, as he says, however we please? It does not appear that way to me. Right now, it would please me to fly in the sky like a bird, but I can’t do this. Harris might respond that he doesn’t literally mean that it appears to me that I am free to do just anything that would please me. But if things do not appear to me this way, just how do they appear?

It seems to me that I am free in a way that is at least in part restricted by what I believe I can do. And what I believe I can do is restricted not only by what I believe I am capable of in terms of my bodily actions but also by the reasons that I have for acting. For example, on more than one occasion in my life it has seemed to me that I have had a reason to admit that I was morally guilty and a reason not to do so. In light of these reasons, I was free to make a choice. But the choices I could make were constrained by the reasons for acting that I had. At those times, I did not have the choice to do just anything. For example, I could not just choose to become a professional golfer, because I had no reason to do so. This was in part because I had no desire to become a professional golfer.

Harris says that “the idea of free will emerges from a felt experience” (15). Again, I must demur. In the situation just described about my being free to choose to admit or not admit my moral guilt, I was aware of being free to choose either way. But this awareness was not a feeling. And the actual choice I made was not a feeling or something felt by me.

As an argument against our being free, Harris writes the following:

“I just drank a glass of water and feel absolutely at peace with the decision to do so. I was thirsty, and drinking water is fully congruent with my vision of who I want to be when in need of a drink. . . . Where is the freedom in this? It may be true that if I had wanted to do otherwise, I would have, but I am nevertheless compelled to do what I effectively want” (19).

Harris seems to be saying that he had a desire to get a drink but had no desire to do anything else (or he had more than one non-moral desire—a desire that is concerned with what is not moral in nature, which is different from being about what is immoral—but his desire to get a drink was strongest). Therefore, he had to get a drink. He was determined to do so. Where is the freedom in this situation? The correct answer is that there is no freedom in this situation. But so what? No reasonable description of our freedom would include an assertion that Harris was free in this situation to choose not to get a drink. Given his psychological makeup, Harris did not have to make any choice in this situation because he had a reason to do one thing and no reason to do anything else (or his reason to get a drink was stronger than any other reason to act arising out of other non-moral desires). So he deterministically directly formed an intention to get a drink of water.

Harris says that in getting the glass of water he was “compelled” to do what he effectively wanted. Sometimes being determined involves being compelled. For example, if some men had forcibly opened Harris’ mouth and poured a glass of water into it, he would have been deterministically compelled to imbibe water. But being determined is not the same thing as being compelled. Compulsion involves causation and Harris seems to assume that all explanation is causal explanation:

“Choices, efforts, intentions, and reasoning influence our behavior—they are themselves part of a chain of causes that precede conscious awareness and over which we exert no conscious control. . . . There is a regress here that always ends in darkness” (39).

However, in addition to causal explanation there is also ultimate/final and irreducible teleological or purposeful explanation (from here on, I will omit “ultimate and irreducible”), where the reason for which an agent acts is the purpose for which he acts. Thus, if Harris had a reason for getting a drink of water (e.g., that he quench his thirst) and no reason to do anything else, then he purposefully yet deterministically intended to get a drink. This is teleological determinism, which is different from causal determinism. And when an agent is free to choose because he possesses reasons for alternative courses of action, the choice that he makes is explained teleologically, not causally.

It is also important to make clear that the locus of freedom is choice. Moreover, the fact that the reasons in light of which one is able to choose are themselves causally determined in no way undermines the choice’s undetermined nature. Consider the following argument against human freedom by Harris:

Consider the biography of any “self-made” man, and you will find that his success was entirely dependent on background conditions that he did not make and of which he was merely the beneficiary. There is not a person on earth who chose his genome, or the country of his birth, or the political and economic conditions that prevailed at moments crucial to his progress. . . .

Even if you have struggled to make the most of what nature gave you, you must still admit that your ability and inclination to struggle is part of your inheritance. How much credit does a person deserve for not being lazy? None at all. Laziness, like diligence, is a neurological condition (61-2).

I can see no reason to question the view that the “background conditions” which provide the reasons in light of which an agent chooses are themselves causally determined. But it simply does not follow from this fact that the choices that are made for the reasons provided by those conditions are themselves determined. It is thoroughly consistent to affirm that reason R for which choice C is made is determined, while maintaining that C itself is undetermined. It is Harris’ apparent failure to understand this point that falsifies the following: “Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have complete control over those factors” (13). But choices are not determined (causally or teleologically) and because the freedom involved in your making choices is not at all undermined by the fact that the reasons for which you choose are causally determined, you do not have to have any, let alone complete, control over those factors.

Somewhat amusingly, Harris ends Free Will by praising his wife, Annaka Harris, for her contributions to helping Free Will see the light of day. “As is always the case, her insights and recommendations greatly improved the book” (67). Harris adds that “I don’t know how she manages to raise our daughter, work on her own projects, and still have time to edit my books—but she does” (67). One thing we know for sure is that if Harris is right, his wife is no self-made woman. After all, she could not have done anything other than what she did because she was causally determined to do all that she did. It was just a matter of “good luck” (45) for Harris that she was causally determined to help him. He tells the reader that losing the sense of free will has increased his sense of compassion and forgiveness toward others. One would have thought that this loss would have similarly undermined his motivation to praise others who have helped him because he now understands that they were causally determined to provide that help. His wife’s assistance was strictly a deterministic causal result of her genome, the country of her birth, political and economic conditions, etc. She no more deserves praise than the moral wrongdoer deserves blame and punishment (48-60).

With his discussion of desert at the end of Free Will, Harris ends where he began: “those of us who work hard and follow the rules [do] not ‘deserve’ our success in any deep sense. It is not an accident that most people find these conclusions abhorrent” (1). Given that Harris believes they strike most of us as abhorrent, it is appropriate to ask why our belief in free will is illusory. He claims that the experimental work of the neuroscientist/physiologist Benjamin Libet and others helps to make clear that we have no free will.[1] Here is Harris’ brief summary of this work:

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 the screen. They reported which letter was visible at the moment they decided to press one button or the other. . . . One fact now seems indisputable: Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next—a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please—your brain has already determined what you will do. You then become conscious of this “decision” and believe that you are in the process of making it (8, 9).[2]

As I have emphasized already, actions are performed for reasons/purposes, where acting for a reason is a teleological and not a causal notion. Libet had to depend upon the reports (verbal or otherwise) of his subjects in order to learn about the time at which they consciously decided to move their fingers. Were Libet’s subjects free to lie to him? One would assume so.[3] A lie, however, is more than communicating a falsehood. It is purposefully choosing to misrepresent the way things are in order to mislead someone else. But if one is free to choose purposefully to misrepresent what is the case, one is also free to choose purposefully to convey the truth. Libet assumed that his subjects were freely choosing to tell him the truth (for the purpose, say, of assisting him with his experiment) about when they consciously decided to move their fingers. And this assumption presupposed that the subjects’ purposefully explained free choices to report the correct time of their conscious decisions were the ultimate/originating causes of their reports (which involved bodily movements).

Libet (and Harris) might respond that the subjects did not freely choose to tell the truth on each run of the experiment. They simply deterministically intended to tell the truth in the way that I described earlier in this review (e.g., they had a reason to tell the truth and no reason not to do so). If so, two further points are relevant. First, deterministically intending to tell the truth for a purpose is itself, as I also pointed out earlier, a teleological and not a causal notion. Second, appealing to determined intentions to tell the truth during the experiment presupposes in this case that the subjects made a choice to tell the truth before they participated in the running of the experiment.[4] And the issues discussed in the previous paragraph about choosing to tell the truth will have to be addressed at this point.

Someone like Harris might deny that the subjects were free at any point to choose for a purpose. However, Libet would not want to embrace this position. For example, he sought to preserve the subjects’ freedom by maintaining that they were consciously free to choose purposefully to veto the earlier “decisions” to move their fingers. But if they were consciously free to choose to do this, why were they not consciously free at some earlier point to choose to make true or false reports?

At this juncture, it is relevant to point out, as others have done,[5] that it is not at all clear exactly what Libet was asking his subjects to report. He indiscriminately describes what they were reporting as an urge, a wish, a desire, an intention, a decision, and a choice.[6] However, these terms express different concepts. Neither an urge nor a wish nor a desire is identical with a choice (I will assume that a choice is a decision) or the intention that follows the making of a choice. An urge or a desire is the basis of a reason to choose, and while an agent is passive with respect to both the coming to have a desire and the reason to act that is based on it, a choice is a mental action. If the subjects were reporting the occurrence of a desire, a wish, or an urge, then there would be nothing problematic about the discovery of brain activity several hundred milliseconds earlier that caused the arising of an event of this kind because it is not a choice made by its subject.

Finally, the experimental work of neuroscientists like Libet raises an issue about explanation and its scope beyond the laboratory. Libet concludes that his subjects were caused to consciously urge, decide, desire, wish, intend, or whatever to move their fingers by earlier blind and unconscious brain events. Harris writes that the findings of Libet and others “are difficult to reconcile with the sense that we are the conscious authors of our actions” (9). Are we, then, to conclude from this experimental work that all of our conscious “actions” are ultimately and completely the effects of blind, unconscious brain events? Chun Siong Soon, et al. write that “we directly investigated which regions of the brain predetermine conscious intentions and the time at which they start shaping motor decision” (543) (see endnote 2). In the very next sentence, they write that “subjects . . . gave [their] informed written consent” (543) to participate in the experiment, the implication being that the subjects’ participation was consciously purposeful in nature. But how was their written consent “informed,” if it was ultimately completely explicable in terms of blind causes? And what about the paper by Soon et al.? Is it really plausible to think that blind, purposeless processes in the authors’ brains ultimately completely explained the intelligible sequences of marks on pieces of paper that constituted a description and analysis of their experimental work? And Libet’s writing of his book Mind Time? Is it ultimately completely explicable without any reference to a purpose for which he wrote it? What about the explanation for Harris’ own book? It would be interesting to read what Harris thinks about this issue.

Free Will is an enjoyable book, but it should be read with care. It often mischaracterizes free will and fails to provide any convincing arguments against its reality. That it fails in this regard is not an insignificant point. After all, if we as ordinary people are mistaken about possessing libertarian freedom, then, as Harris emphasizes, what we believe about moral responsibility, praise and blame, and reward and punishment is also mistaken. In other words, much of what we ordinarily believe crumbles. This includes theological beliefs, which is another kind of belief that Harris is fond of attacking. For example, any plausible explanation of evil in the world will have to invoke some version of what is known as the free-will defense, which maintains that at least some of the evil in the world is explained by the purposeful free choices of human, and perhaps non-human, beings.

I would like to praise Harris for writing Free Will. I think he deserves it. But he would probably tell me that he only did what his genes, political and economic background, etc. causally determined him to do. Therefore, no praise is deserved. I think it best to leave the matter there.[7]