“Free Will” by Sam Harris

“Free Will”, by Sam Harris, contends that free will as we commonly understand it is an illusion. There is a large and growing literature that demonstrates that we make decisions before we are actually aware of them. He cites several experiments with human subjects showing that certain brain centers are activated early enough to permit experimenters to predict decisions before the subjects themselves are aware of them. Depending on the exact setup, the time lag can be several seconds to several tenths of a second. This is disquieting to the subjects themselves; they are invariably surprised, because most people feel in control of their decisions. Of course, nobody else is in control of these decisions, but large parts of the decision-making process are unconscious, and by the time we become aware of the final decision, it is already made by our unconscious mind. Given that, what level of responsibility do we really have for our decisions?

I think part of our tendency to confusion here is the meaning of the word “we” in the previous sentence. We have an inherently dualistic notion of ourselves – our minds we identify with our consciousness, and we assume everybody else does the same. The conscious self seems to us to contemplate both itself and the body that contains it. And yet we know from science that both are part of our body and its active processes. Those who deny this may believe in a soul or a spirit, but that still does not relieve them of the problem that decisions are made by their brains without their knowledge. So how can we assign responsibility to ourselves and others, when everybody’s decisions are given by the unconscious?

For Harris, moral responsibility still resides with the individual who makes decisions, be they good or bad by their own lights or in the opinion of others. Only the degree to which we feel that individuals are blameworthy changes. This follows when we recognize that so much of what people do is determined by antecedent processes, many of which are hidden from our consciousness, sometimes never to be revealed. Harris discusses this with some intriguing hypothetical cases. Consider for example two situations: a boy of five finds a loaded gun in a drawer and accidentally kills a young girl with it. Here we cannot blame the boy at all, but the person who left the gun loaded and insecure. Next consider a young man who shoots and kills a girl “because he felt like it.” He is very culpable. But suppose it turns out he had a brain tumor that likely made him behave this way. Then his culpability is less. In all these cases we make different estimates of culpability even though the basic facts are the same. Harris is arguing that our condemnation of the healthy young man will be less intense once we understand that he too is the product of forces beyond his own control.

Others, like the philosophers Eddy Nahmias or AC Grayling, feel that free will is fundamental to morality and our system of justice. Nahmias resists the idea that the scientific results really undermine free will. He argues that they are telling us in part how our minds work. In other words, Nahmias thinks free will has not really been falsified by the evidence. Harris thinks that the free will Nahmias believes in is not what most people understand by the term.

Harris argues that what most people understand by “free will” is that, faced with a decision, we could choose freely to follow one or more courses of action. The objection to this conventional view is that the decision we make is completely determined by the mental state we are in before we become conscious of the decision. Thus, the conscious “we” are not really free to make a different decision than the one we make. Most people are assaulted by conflicting desires, and he asks rhetorically, “Where is the freedom when one of these opposing desires inexplicably triumphs over its rival?” Here is another of his remarks: “Am I free to do that which does not occur to me to do? Of course not.” Harris manfully quotes his critics, who claim that even if some of our thinking is unconscious, it is still ours, and so we are responsible for the results. But this, he says, is really redefining free will, so that it no longer means what we feel that it means, that we are in charge of a stream of thoughts. In essence, the idea that free will is compatible with determinism entails assuming responsibility not only for our unconscious deliberations, but also for the bacteria inside us, or the obscure machinations of our bodily physiology.

According to Harris, operationally we still have grounds for law and for the more informal modes of regulating the behavior of individuals in society. What disbelief in free will does is take away the intensity of moral condemnation, replacing that with a consciousness that what people do is a consequence of their prior experience and genetic makeup.


Free Will, by Sam Harris

Free Press, 2012

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