Critique of Sam Harris’ book Free Will – Part 2 – Sleepwalking

Summary:  Harris mischaracterizes choice – describing it only in terms of the split second the choice is made instead of identifying all the thinking, planning and goal-setting preceding it.  This narrow lens on free will is used by Harris to assert that man is essentially sleepwalking, making choices and taking actions for which there is no explanation and no root in conscious thought.

Harris has a second argument that is emphasized throughout the book.  It might be called:  You didn’t choose – the “choice” just appeared.  He says in regard to his choice of coffee or tea on a particular day (p. 7):

“Did I consciously choose coffee over tea? No. The choice was made for me by events in my brain that I, as the conscious witness of my thoughts and actions, could not inspect or influence…The intention to do one thing and not another does not originate in consciousness—rather, it appears in consciousness, as does any thought or impulse that might oppose it.”

And (p. 33, regarding a pain in his back that led him to consider physical therapy):

“Did I, the conscious person, create my pain? No. It simply appeared.  Did I create the thoughts about it that led me to consider physical therapy? No. They, too, simply appeared. This process … offers no foundation for freedom of will.”

As a final example (of many he gives), he says with regard to a person’s idea of starting a website (p. 37):

“Where did this idea for a website come from? It just appeared in your mind.  Did you, as the conscious agent you feel yourself to be, create it?”

The first quote, and much of the discussion around the other quotes, make it clear that this is not really a second, original argument, but depends on his first argument that mental contents are fed to the conscious mind from unconscious physical causes over which there is no control.  That argument and its arbitrariness have been dealt with in the previous post.  There are some additional things to say, however, about Harris’ idea of choices just “appearing” in the mind with no explanation or conscious antecedent.

Harris’ examples are a mixture of two types of choices – simple taste-type preferences (coffee or tea, vanilla or chocolate ice cream) and more fundamental choices like the one to start a website or to seek physical therapy.  The taste-type preferences can be ignored, because they often are made on the basis of physical attraction and do have a strong element of the physical (taste or smell).  They are also very superficial (but still actual) choices where operating on physical desire is perfectly legitimate.  Note, however, that the mixing in of these types of choices with more fundamental ones is used by Harris to lend credibility to the “choice appears” idea.  In effect, what he is asserting in this package deal is exactly that the more fundamental choices are just like those superficial ones in that they are physical and automatic.

In order to make it plausible that the deeper choices are also of this nature, Harris narrows the focus in describing them to the very split second that the thoughts or intentions were finalized by the conscious mind.  Only in this way can he avoid having to explain why one person has those thoughts and intentions and another does not.  This issue of level is critical to his argument, and to a refutation of it.  Essentially, he mischaracterizes choice as something that occurs in discrete, unrelated little bites.  He ignores the goals a person sets, the thinking he engages in and the other methods he employs that integrate those bites.  The way Harris describes his snapshots of choices is designed to make it natural that they would seem inexplicable.  Yet they are not.

This aspect of level has been dealt with admirably by Ghate as well as by Bandura1 (in a devastating critique of neurological determinism).  The essence of their counter-argument to Harris will be recapitulated here, and additional points made.  Ghate’s lecture, directed at a young student audience, discusses Ayn Rand’s view that free will must be identified on a very fundamental level as the method by which a conceptual being uses his consciousness.

Consider, for example, two individuals with back pain and how they arrive at the decision to seek physical therapy.  The first individual is not passive about the issue.  He asks acquaintances with back pain what remedies they used, and which ones were demonstrated to work.  He considers their answers, inquires further, and checks the facts, relying on trustworthy references rather than uncritical web browsing.  He gives himself a mental order to revisit the matter at whatever small intervals of spare time his busy schedule affords.  Via this process, he gradually becomes convinced that his problem requires professional help, and that a physical therapist has the skills and training needed.  He even asks his insurance company whether visits to such a specialist are covered under his plan.  On the basis of all this thinking, he decides to seek an appointment with a particular physical therapist.

The second individual takes a very different approach.  He at first dismisses the pain, attributing it to a short-term sprain that will heal on its own.  He ignores it on and off for months, sometimes resolving to do something about it and at other times simply ignoring it further.  He happens to be at a cocktail party where a woman is rhapsodizing about her chiropractor, ensuring anyone who will listen that the man is the best “back-cracker” in town.  The next day, this second individual calls the telephone number the woman gave him, and makes an appointment with her chiropractor.

By Harris’ description of a choice to “consider therapy,” focusing only on the final result and not on the process that led up to it, both of these individuals would seem to be identical, having automatically arrived at the “same” choice.  Yet the two are fundamentally different.  No one can directly “will” a complex choice like this into being. The first individual wills it into being indirectly via: A conscious decision to pursue the matter, to focus on it over an extended period, to seek and weigh information, and to hold the full context of what is involved (such as how to pay for it).  The second individual makes the kind of “choice” that Harris describes as choice:  He drifts, acts emotionally, weighs no evidence and asks no questions.  In effect, he doesn’t consciously make a choice at all: his feelings make it for him, along with the opinion of some other person.  The final choices made by each of these individuals, far from being inexplicable, are perfectly predictable (in direction, if not the details) from the different methods they use.

Those who read Harris’ book will observe that every single example he describes, including two lengthy examples about a person pursuing martial arts or getting fit, are of this second, emotional, type.

The difference between these two individuals elucidates where the real level of free will is: not at the level of the narrow decision in question but rather at the level of how to go about making that decision.  What is within one’s direct power of choice is not the end product but the method of getting there – not the specific destination but the train one chooses to ride.   There are subsidiary choices, but underlying them is the basic choice: to think, to exercise all the rational methods at one’s disposal to arrive at a solution to a problem, or to default on thinking and drift.

Harris would no doubt criticize the conclusion being drawn here by saying that each individual’s brain mysteriously feeds him even the method he uses.  This could seem plausible with respect to the second individual, since he drifts without control, like a rudderless boat.

With respect to the first individual, Harris’ conclusion is impossible.  None of the things the first individual does is automatic, nor can it be.  Any number of results could have been delivered to that individual from a web search, and the easiest and most automatic thing to do would be to accept the top results listed.  Exerting oneself to seek reputable results, reminding oneself that not everything one reads is valid, takes an act of focus and attention requiring effort.

More generally, no conceptual idea (whether about how to plant a crop or cure back pain) is innate or guaranteed to be true. Truth must be obtained by a definite process, a process that must include free will.  Perhaps in those transitional eras between the animals and the evolution of man there existed beings who got ideas fed to them by their brains but had no way to check their validity, no way to do anything but follow those ideas – unable to distinguish between food and poison, between a safe cave and an impending rock slide.  Such beings would have perished very quickly.  Then there arrived on the scene the human being, with a faculty enabling him to evaluate the evidence, the reasons for and against an idea, and to reject those ideas that were in error.  This being had to have the capacity to look inward and monitor the operations of his mind, identifying not only the correct ideas from all those presented by the brain but also the correct methods of arriving at those ideas.  Making such a selection – choice – is a necessity for that being, if he is to continue to survive.  What choice such a being makes is not necessitated (if it were, he would have his survival guaranteed).  If he chooses to think, like the first individual in the above example, this being succeeds.  If he defaults, like the second individual, this being harms himself, whether immediately or in the long run.

To reverse a pat phrase of Harris’ in condemning choice:  No one has come up with a mechanism by which such persistent, repeated monitoring, evaluation and re-establishing one’s direction in the face of error could be the result of neurological impulses or genes or chemistry.  A thought process can go off track.  Using the earlier analogy, the train one chooses to ride can be derailed.  To keep it going requires grabbing the steering and deliberately keeping it on its course.  Harris denies the possibility of grabbing the steering by choice.  A few narrowly conceived “choice” descriptions, or stories of emotionally driven choices, like the examples Harris provides, might deceive one into agreeing.  The lengthy thought process described with respect to the first individual in the example – not to mention the kind of long-term efforts involved in producing the Oxford English Dictionary, or Les Misérables, or the Empire State Building, or the moon landing – unmask the absurdity of such a denial.

The next and concluding post will identify the fundamental mistake Harris makes in using concepts, and how that error invalidates his argument.

  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.

Comments are closed.