Critique of Sam Harris’ book Free Will – Conclusion – Anti-hierarchy

Summary: Harris repeatedly commits the fallacy of hierarchical inversion, which consists of denying a concept or idea on which one’s own argument rests.  This fallacy is committed with respect to concepts such as “science,” and with respect to the very descriptions he provides of the experiments supposedly proving that free will is an illusion.

One principle that has emerged in the discussions in several posts is hierarchy.  It was observed in the discussion of methods that methods come in a hierarchy, from simple techniques to tactics, strategies, and more abstract and all-encompassing methods like logic and scientific method.  It was observed in several other discussions that knowledge has a hierarchy:  Later conclusions depend, implicitly or explicitly, on earlier ones.  It was observed that violating the hierarchy – advocating ideas higher up in the chain while denying those lower-level ideas on which the higher-up ones depend – was a fundamental error made by those who deny free will.  This post will expand on that theme.

As an example, an individual such as Harris can write an entire book denying the existence of free will, advocating strenuously that man is an automaton whose every idea and action is programmed by his brain chemistry.  During the writing of that book, this individual made thousands of choices, framing words, sentences and paragraphs as carefully as he could to convey his thesis.  Further, he cited many examples of scientists conducting neurological experiments – scientists who chose one experimental design over another, who corrected error by making careful and repeated measurements, and who designed experiments to methodically support or reject hypotheses.  Yet Harris fails to see the contradiction between all that is alleged to support his thesis, and the thesis itself.  The thesis depends on a hierarchy in which the lower levels are used yet simultaneously repudiated.

That is why all Harris’ interpretations of neurology experiments are invalid, whether the experiments themselves were valid in their particulars or not. (The famous Libet experiment, shown to be in violation of hierarchy in an earlier post, has also been critiqued persuasively in its experimental design by Bandura. 1)

It was also observed in the previous post, and other posts, that the locus of choice fundamentally rests not on any specific, higher-level, choices, but on the choice of whether and how to use one’s consciousness.  In other words, the fundamental choice is not whether to take this job or the two others on offer.  It’s about how one will make the choice.

It can be seen, therefore, that choice itself has a hierarchy – there is a fundamental choice that conditions and frames the higher-level choices.  Those higher-level choices are not possible without the context set by the fundamental choice.  Those higher-level choices may be said to have reasons that explain them (one’s values, interests, skills), but the fundamental choice about whether to think about the issue at all is a primary, always open to one’s own will and not explainable in the same sense.

Harris and the free will deniers say that the nearly ubiquitous observation of turning one’s thinking or focus on or off is a delusion.  We can’t trust our observations.  We don’t observe ourselves choosing, they say.  We don’t even observe ourselves making the fundamental choice of bringing focus to our minds.  Rather, we simply “find” we go one way or the other (the choice just appears), and misinterpret that as “choice.”  The last post discussed in detail what is wrong with the idea that the choice just appears.

Consider another example of how writing a book involves issues of hierarchy that the writer who denies free will must ignore.  That writer is writing the book for a purpose, namely to convince others of his position.  He is relying on an audience of thinkers who will read and evaluate his ideas, accepting those ideas because they view the arguments as logical and convincing.  It would be absurd for the author to state that his ideas are no more logical than the ideas of the person who holds the opposite view, that he simply spewed those ideas out automatically rather than their opposite, and that members of his audience only accept those ideas because they are necessitated to by their own brain physiologies.  Such a statement would make the author’s attempt to convince us a ludicrous exercise in self-deception.  Yet that author implicitly asserts all of this by rejecting free will.  Ignoring the hierarchical dependence of his motivation for writing on the existence of choice in his audience, he can simultaneously depend on them and wipe out that foundation.

Harris’ most egregious and morally reprehensible violation of hierarchy is in the use of the term “moral” itself.  He cashes in on his denial of choice by objecting to moral condemnation of monstrous criminals:  “Once we recognize that even the most terrifying predators are, in a very real sense, unlucky to be who they are, the logic of hating (as opposed to fearing) them begins to unravel.”  (“Hating” is not actually a moral term – it’s an emotion – but Harris means it as a consequence of a moral condemnation.)    This kind of amorality is to be expected from someone who rejects personal responsibility for any action.  Harris goes further, however, saying “it seems immoral not to recognize just how much luck is involved in morality itself.”  Get that?  He is accusing his opponents – those who support free will – of being immoral.  He is using the concept “immoral” while having denied the base of the concept – choice.

There has to be a method and a motivation behind such a blatant contradiction.  Apparently, he wants to reserve for himself the use of that concept, so he can condemn his opponents, while denying that concept to them.  He violates hierarchy to do so, whereas his opponents do not – they are simply following the implications of free will in using the concept.  Readers who do not deny choice and morality may form their own moral judgments of such a motive and such a tactic.

Hierarchy is not something we happen to observe, as some accident, in issues as different as scientific method and free will.  Hierarchy is inherent in the nature of conceptual awareness.  It is inherent because concepts themselves, the building blocks of all knowledge, are hierarchically dependent.  The concepts formed from the lowest-level concretes of perception (like “dog,” “elephant,” “fish,” “bird”) can then themselves be treated as constituents in a later act of abstraction, for example to form the concept “animal.”  That new concept would be both unnecessary and impossible without the earlier concepts.  “Animal” distinguishes all of the above concretes, and innumerable others, from concretes such as “tree,” “bush,” and “flower.”  This holding of abstractions as “units” that can be treated as a base to go forward, is a distinctive capacity of a conceptual consciousness.

When one denies hierarchy, it is a mistake, an error of thought that necessarily invalidates any further thought process.  Just as a car without a chassis has nothing to support its body, an idea or concept that is proposed while denying its logical roots has no support – it’s a self-contradiction.  With respect to concepts, this fallacy is called the “stolen concept fallacy.”  But the broader kind of “stealing” employed by the free-will deniers is much wider in scope and deeper in its pathology.  So much territory must be wiped out, so many facts must be ignored by such stealing, that it is hard to imagine a mind going forward from that point on.  Nothing but absurdities can result from such a flawed reasoning process.  And those who respect reason and logic should diagnose it as contradictory and dismiss it.

To summarize all of the posts on Harris’ book, Free Will:  The first part of this review identified the arbitrary underlying premise behind Harris’ view that past brain states necessitate all future actions.  He simply ignores, without any argument, the possibility that a being could possess capabilities that are enabled by and emerge from the brain yet are not completely necessitated in every detail by the brain’s neurology.  The second part of this review analyzed the gimmick that gives plausibility to the argument, namely focusing only on a straw man (the last split second of the process of choice) rather than the true nature of free will (the entire sequence of mental events and choices from the primary choice to focus and leading up to a final, higher-level choice).  Finally, the present post identified the conceptual inversion involved in denying the validity of free will while depending on it for an argument.  This vast collection of fallacies – arbitrariness, use of straw-man tactics and hierarchy violations – are the means used by the neurological determinist to deny the universal experience of free will.  Any one of those transgressions alone would be sufficient reason to reject Harris’ arguments, and to accept what one grasps from personal experience rather than deny it as a delusion.  The combination of all three logical insults should make one recoil from the poisonous free-will-denier’s doctrine.

  1. Bandura, A. (2008). The reconstrual of “free will” from the agentic perspective of social cognitive theory. In J. Baer, J. C. Kaufman & R. F. Baumeister (Eds.), Are we free? Psychology and free will (pp. 86-127). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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