Sam Harris on Free Will

Brain GearsI try my hardest to avoid these discussions on free will.  They tend to be very popular and get quite heated in the atheist “community”, but for the most part, I feel they really go nowhere.  Most of the time, I think the people having the debate are just talking past each other, they are using different definitions that are mutually incompatible, making it absurdly unlikely that they’ll ever reach a satisfactory conclusion.  However, someone suggested I watch a Sam Harris talk on the subject, which I did.  I like Sam, I think Sam’s books are always a good read, but I just don’t agree with Sam’s take here.

Immediately at issue, I don’t care for how he defines the self.  He seems, and someone can correct me if I’m wrong, to only consider the conscious, waking mind to be the “self”.  He argues near the beginning of the talk that we can measure the subconscious decision a second or so before the conscious mind is aware of it, that proves that there is no free will.

No, it just proves that free will doesn’t operate the way he asserts that it does.  I don’t pretend that all of human being exists solely in the conscious mind.  Everything we are, our bodies, our physical brains and all of our brain states constitute what we are.  Now I don’t pretend to be an expert on brain chemistry or physiology or anything else, it just makes sense to me that to single out one particular piece of the puzzle and pretend that it constitutes the whole puzzle isn’t a particularly rational way of looking at things.  Why isn’t it more rational to think that a question begins in the conscious mind, it is transferred to the unconscious mind for processing and then the answer is brought back up to the conscious level once a decision has been reached?  All Sam’s studies have  done is demonstrate that the decision isn’t made in the conscious mind, it doesn’t show that a decision isn’t made at all.

In fact, it makes a lot more sense to understand it that way.  You literally make millions upon millions of decisions every single day that you are totally unaware of.  It must be so or you’d go insane with all of the things that would have to rise to the conscious level.  There’s a system in your body called kinesthetics, which allows the brain to be aware of the precise position of every part of the body at all times.  If you close your eyes and tell your body to touch the tip of your nose with your finger, most of us can do it over and over and over again without having to think for a second “where is my finger and do I have to move it a quarter-inch in a certain direction to get it in the right position?”  If you’ve lived where you live for any amount of time, you can easily move around in the dark, assuming no one has put something into an unexpected place, because your mind is constantly making unconscious decisions about where you should move.  Clearly, the conscious mind works in concert with the unconscious mind to make decisions.

That seems like a long way to go to make a simple point, but I also think many people mis-define what free will is to begin with.  As far as I’m concerned, free will can only be defined as the ability to make an unrestrained choice between two available options.  Clearly, I can’t decide to flap my arms and fly, it’s not a possible option.  I suppose I could decide I wished it were possible, but wishing and doing are two different things.  It seems obvious to me, given that definition, that free will clearly exists, we observe it every day.  Even the hard-determinists who claim that because we are simply a product of the electro-chemical interactions in our brains and therefore everything we do is pre-determined, wouldn’t have a problem deciding between chocolate and vanilla ice cream.  They are not restricted from choosing one or the other.  They may have a preference for one or the other, but in order to have the choice pre-determined, they would have to be physically incapable of walking up to the counter and ordering the other choice.  Clearly that’s not the case.  Are they saying that the decision to order vanilla, just this time, was pre-programmed in the brain?  What about next time?  This really starts looking like the Will of God claim that many theists make.  You can only do what is within the Will of God!  So God willed me to order vanilla ice cream this time instead of my regular chocolate?  God’s Will looks strangely like my own human free will and determinism doesn’t seem to take in the clear and present evidence.  I get so tired of armchair philosophers who want to noodle their navel and argue that free will only takes place when it has no influence whatsoever from the physical brain.  Um… dumbshit, without the physical brain, you aren’t real!

To be honest, in looking over the various arguments for and against free will and how it applies to morality, I can think of nothing more than “these people are idiots”.  Clearly we have free will, unless you bog it down with all kinds of ridiculous and unnecessary qualifications, and whether people like it or not, morality is an artificial concept that just doesn’t exist in nature.  We are not inherent moral beings and that has nothing to do with our free will, it has to do with nature.  We simply choose, as biologically social animals, to adopt rules which we call moral in order to better live together in a peaceful coexistence.  That’s all there is to it, at least from where I’m sitting.

Anyhow, here’s what Sam Harris has to say on the subject.  Enjoy.

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8 thoughts on “Sam Harris on Free Will”

  1. I find this free will stuff somewhat interesting and fun, but also somewhat pointless. Even if our choices are all predetermined in some way, it feels like we have free will to us. Anyway, a few things you said I thought were interesting, you mentioned the idea that decisions originate in the subconscious and therefore we don't have free will. I've heard this idea mentioned before and thought it was intriguing, but never really thought about it too hard. Your response was

    "Why isn’t it more rational to think that a question begins in the conscious mind, it is transferred to the unconscious mind for processing and then the answer is brought back up to the conscious level once a decision has been reached?"

    That seems like a damn good question to me. For all we know it is a really complicated process going back and forth between conscious and unconscious, memory, and who know what other parts of the brain. It seems that all they've shown is that the last step is in the unconscious mind.

    As to your chocolate and vanilla ice cream though, isn't the idea that even though the guy thinks he chose chocolate, but really given the way his brain is put together and his past experience he was destined to "choose" chocolate? Reset everything, go back to the same place in time with the same history, he will choose chocolate every time, in that sense his choice of chocolate over vanilla is predetermined. Isn't that really the hard determinist idea?

    My recent post Genesis 18: Abraham Negotiates With God

    1. But that's not what they're saying, they're saying that he will choose chocolate every time because he's predetermined to do so. Clearly though, that's not correct. He has the ability to go and order vanilla any time he wants, even if his personal preference is for chocolate. He has the free will to pick whatever he wishes, given the exact same circumstances. Nothing is stopping him from ordering pistachio either.

      1. But isn't what I said what is meant when they say that he was predetermined to do so? Even though there is apparently a choice, because of everything in his past he will always pick that one in that circumstance. He theoretically has a choice, but has in a sense been programmed to go for chocolate this time. Nothing is stopping him from choosing pistachio, except that his internal programming has been designed to pick chocolate this time given all of the inputs.

        What else would it mean to say that he's predetermined to pick chocolate?

        My recent post Genesis 18: Abraham Negotiates With God

        1. But if he's predetermined to pick chocolate, that means he is physically incapable of choosing anything else, which is clearly untrue. I can walk into an ice cream parlor and order anything on the board. My choice is not pre-determined in any demonstrable way. I think this is very much like the theist claim that God knows everything, but you never know what he "knows" until after you've made your decision and they can retroactively claim that he knew you were going to do that.

          1. "But if he's predetermined to pick chocolate, that means he is physically incapable of choosing anything else"

            I don't think that's true. Let's look at a simple example, suppose there are only 2 options, chocolate and vanilla, and I don't like vanilla. I am going to choose chocolate, every time, in a sense I've been programmed this way by my preferences. I'm capable of choosing vanilla, nothing is physically stopping me, but I'm not going to do it because I don't like it.

            Let's looks at a slightly different example, suppose I like both flavors the same amount, but I like variety so I choose differently each time. If I had chocolate last time I'm going to choose vanilla this time. It's predetermined in a sense by my preferences and my history. No one is stopping me from getting chocolate this time except the simple programming in my brain.

            Of course in reality the programming isn't so simple, but perhaps there is a much more complicated version of this happening inside of us. There are a lot more flavors than just 2, I have more nuanced preferences that "different every time", and I can't completely remember my history of flavor choices. But still, maybe there is some incredibly complicated program going on inside of my brain (that my conscious mind can't really see) that will determine which flavor I wind up choosing.

            My recent post Genesis 18: Abraham Negotiates With God

          2. But you're talking about preference, not free will. You might like chocolate ice cream. You might really, really, really like chocolate ice cream. You might not want to eat anything else, day or night, but chocolate ice cream. But when you go to the ice cream parlor, are you saying that you are physically unable to order anything but chocolate ice cream? You open your mouth and the only word you can produce is "chocolate"? Of course not, you can pick anything on the menu. You could order broccoli ice cream if you really wanted to, although I probably wouldn't recommend it. You *CAN* do it, you simply might not prefer to do it. According to the no-free-will people, you could not do it because your brain is pre-programmed to only allow you to do certain things. That's just not how things operate in reality. It's more mental masturbation.

          3. Yes, I can order vanilla, but I won't. That's the whole point. My preferences mean the choice is an illusion, given the same input I will always get the same output, chocolate.

            And yeah, I agree, this is all mental masturbation, I do find it kind of interesting and fun, but ultimately not useful.
            My recent post Genesis 18: Abraham Negotiates With God

          4. This isn't about choices, it's about free will. You are *ABLE* to order vanilla, even if you don't do it. According to the no-free-will people, you simply do not have the capability of ordering vanilla. that's clearly untrue.

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