Critique of Sam Harris’ book Free Will – Part 1 – Man as Robot

Summary: The book Free Will, by Sam Harris (2012), rejects the validity of free will and proposes that man is an automaton whose every thought and action is determined by his brain neurology.  In this and following posts, the fallacies in his argument will be identified, the most basic of which is an arbitrary assertion that the physical state of man’s brain at one time necessitates every future action.

“[M]y mental life is simply given to me by the cosmos.”

This remarkable statement is neither the mumblings of a psychotic nor a mystic’s claim to authority. Rather, it represents part of the argument against free will by a highly respected intellectual, Sam Harris.  His 2012 book Free Will is in the top tier of Amazon sellers in its category.  The favorable reviews of this work, by university professors from several different disciplines, demonstrate that he is not only a popular author but an influential writer promoting ideas well-thought-of by his peers.

Despite the popularity and respect this book has garnered, this and subsequent posts will argue that his primary conclusion that free will is an illusion is wrong, and in fact, self-contradictory.  His arguments are riddled with fallacies and arbitrary assertions, some of which have been identified in a prior post.

The primary argument presented by Harris is that everything in our minds is determined by the activity of the brain.  Because the brain has a physical state, all future actions can be predicted by physical laws from that state (in principle if not right now).  Consider the following excerpts (except as otherwise noted, italics are added to emphasize certain of his key ideas):

  1. He says with respect to a depraved criminal who murdered an entire family: “I have to admit that if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him: There is no extra part of me that could decide to see the world differently or to resist the impulse to victimize other people.” (p. 4)
  2. Harris states that he cold excuse a criminal if the criminal had a brain tumor, and further: “…a neurological disorder appears to be just a special case of physical events giving rise to thoughts and actions. Understanding the neurophysiology of the brain, therefore, would seem to be as exculpatory as finding a tumor in it.” (p. 5)
  3. Again, regarding criminals, he says: “To say that they were free not (his italics) to rape and murder is to say that they could have resisted the impulse to do so (or could have avoided feeling such an impulse altogether) – with the universe, including their brains, in precisely the same state it was in at the moment they committed their crimes.” (p. 17)
  4. “And the moment we see that such [brain-induced] causes are fully effective – as any detailed account of the neurophysiology of human thought and behavior would reveal – we can no longer locate a plausible hook upon which to hang our conventional notions of personal responsibility.” (p. 17)

With phrases like “atom for atom,” “physical events giving rise to thoughts and actions,” “in precisely the same state,” and “brain-induced causes are fully effective,” Harris paints a picture of mental activity as being fully explained by the brain and its chemistry/physiology.  The main assumption here is that a physical state of being is equivalent to a deterministic cause.  That is, if every atom or neuron is in some definite physical state, has some particular describable identity, then every action of the mind must be fully necessitated.  In short, identity invalidates volition.

Nowhere, however, does Harris even attempt to support this claim, let alone prove it.  He assumes it is true without question, and he brings this assumption to his interpretation of everything related to free will.  It is apparent that Harris views this point as so obvious as not to need any validation or even discussion.

But this conclusion is not at all obvious. A being that could choose would also have a physical identity, a describable physical state.  How could it not?  Living beings are not immaterial ghosts.  Beings with no physical specificity are a fiction of the mystics.  Every choosing being would still be a being with a particular orientation of its genes, neurons and brain molecules.  Why does that fact alone invalidate free will?  Why is it impossible for a being to be so constructed physically that it has the mental capacity for choosing? Why can’t the ability to choose be the result of the combination of its physical elements, just as the aroma of a rose is the result of the combination of its atoms?  Why would choosing have to be something “extra?”  Harris neither asks nor answers any of these questions.  He simply makes the assumption that specificity (“atom for atom”) contradicts choice.

A basic premise that is so fundamental as to be taken for granted and not even argued for must have at root some assumptions that seem obvious to the author and to others. We can see a hint of what Harris is assuming by looking at what he emphasizes.  His repeated use of phrases like “atom for atom” and “physical events” suggests that for him the ultimate reality is not a living being and its capacities, but rather the chemicals and small corpuscles that make it up – and particularly their actions.  With a focus not on the resulting being and its observed abilities but on the actions of its building blocks, these actions are what he looks to for basic explanations.

One of the most important activities of science is the study of underlying mechanisms.  It is perfectly legitimate for scientists to do so.  The field of neuroscience, the study of the brain and neural system, has resulted in many valuable discoveries, especially in the field of medicine and health (some examples are: spinal cord disorders, stroke, dementia and Parkinson’s disease).  However, properly, when an underlying mechanism is discovered, scientists do not deny the existence of the phenomenon they are studying.  For example, when it was discovered that the eye’s experience of color is made possible by the existence of cellular structures called “cones” on the human retina, the phenomenon of color vision was not made synonymous with those structures.  No scientist (only certain philosophers) came along to deny the existence of color vision, saying it is just an “illusion.”  Even in the purely physical sciences, observations are not discounted as illusions when underlying explanations are found.  The table in front of you is no less real, and it continues to be flat, hard and level, when you learn that it is composed of atoms, and those atoms composed of protons and electrons.  In all such cases, mechanism does not obliterate the observed phenomena.

Harris and those determinists who agree with him take the unique approach of saying that since there are underlying physical mechanisms that enable choice, choice doesn’t exist.  He is perfectly willing to grant that we observe choice, experiencing it on a day to day basis, but he claims it isn’t really real. “For most purposes, it makes sense to ignore the deep causes of desires and intentions – genes, synaptic potentials, etc. – and focus instead on the conventional outlines of the person.  We do this when thinking about our own choices and behaviors – because it’s the easiest way to organize our thoughts and actions …  Knowing that I like beer more than wine is all I need to know to function in a restaurant.  Whatever the reason, I prefer one taste to the other.  Is there freedom in this? None whatsoever.” (p. 59) Why does Harris believe that there is no freedom in this?  Because it’s enabled by those underlying mechanisms.  In other words, because a capacity has its roots in the brain, the capacity doesn’t actually exist.

The argument Harris presents, it should be noted, would not only invalidate choice, but consciousness as such (this was identified by Ayn Rand in her critique of Kant – see below).

Harris goes further in his attempt to make this plausible.  He argues (p. 25): “How can we be ‘free’ as conscious agents if everything we consciously intend is caused by events in our brain that we do not intend and of which we are entirely unaware?”  He is asserting here that these underlying events do not just enable man to intend things (i.e. make choices) but that those underlying events cause those intentions.  He denies that this is real choice.  The emphasis on actions of the brain as causal is a key theme with Harris, as when he states that “the next choice you make will come out of the darkness of prior causes that you the conscious witness of your experience, did not bring into being.”

This causation argument is nothing more than he has argued so far:  an assertion that everything is necessitated from the prior state of the brain.  He is merely adding that beyond future actions being necessitated, the causes are mysterious and inaccessible to man.

There is a trend in modern philosophy since Kant to view everything regarding man’s consciousness in this way.  Kant’s categories are built-in structures (Harris’ “events in our brain”) that fully determine what we think we perceive.  We only think we actually perceive spatial relations, says Kant.  In fact, that appearance (the “phenomenal” world) is caused by the categories, and isn’t really real.  In addition, Kant’s categories are inaccessible to man (like Harris’ “darkness of prior causes”).  Man cannot get under them, or know true reality (the “noumenal” world).  Harris, then, is simply applying Kantian argumentation to the phenomenon of choice.

The tie to Kantianism adds no validity to Harris’ argument that identity invalidates volition.  The assertion is still arbitrary and presented with no evidence to support it (and as shown elsewhere, Kant’s own argument that identity invalidates perception is also arbitrary and self-contradictory).  The fact that Harris is in the mainstream of modern philosophy merely helps one understand how his underlying premise could be held by him as so unquestionable as to need no discussion.

Harris has many additional and subsidiary arguments.  Several of them, however, involve erecting straw men as descriptions of what free will entails – straw men that he can easily knock down.  These and other arguments will be addressed in upcoming posts.

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