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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

More on free will and Harris

Harris has a bit more to say on this issue in a long note, where he says something that he seems to think is obvious (although he does also cite Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen in support).

The first point he makes, in replying to Daniel-Dennett-style compatibilism, is that "people's moral intuitions are driven by deeper metaphysical notions of free will." He adds:

"That is, the free will that people presume for themselves and readily attribute to others (whether or not this freedom is, in Dennett's sense, 'worth wanting') is a freedom that slips the influence of impersonal background causes. The moment you show that such causes are effective - as any detailed account of the neurophysiology of human thought and behavior would - proponents of free will can no longer locate a plausible hook on which to hang their notions of moral responsibility." 

Again, Harris is concerned to claim that the folk believe we are somehow able to act in a way that is not controlled by "background causes" such as our own dispositions (and whatever physical make-up we might have on which these are supervenient) and various events at the neuronal level (or even at a quantum level) that we can't consciously control.

This is a very strong concept of free will that he is attributing to "people".

Once again, I agree with him that we don't possess free will in this sense. Again, though, I really wonder how many "people" Out There really believe that we possess free will in a form anything like this sense and how many would, if taken through the idea, report a view that this sort of free will is needed for such things as moral responsibility.

That is not to suggest that the folk have a concept of free will similar to mine or, say, that of Daniel Dennett. It's more that I suspect most people have an idea that is rather vague, inchoate, and possibly not coherent (which is not to concede that the view that Harris is attributing to the folk is truly coherent, either).

Still, to whatever extent ideas such as Harris is describing are indeed widely held, my own view is that this entails that there's a lot of error around. That is, it looks to me most unlikely that we possess free will in any such sense, and pretty much for the same reasons as Harris puts forward. I'm with him on the metaphysical question as to whether such a form of free will exists, but I question whether as many people are committed to it as he thinks.


NewEnglandBob said...

I doubt most people even think about free will at all. When asked, most people will respond in the affirmative, but they are probably thinking about 'free' in the context of liberty, not in the context of independence from determination.

Felix said...

As a simple 'folk' myself I think it is obvious what, on a day to day level, 'folk' mean by 'Free Will'.

When we are in the supermarket and my 8 year old asks for some sweets, sometimes we buy some and sometimes we don't and _I_ make that decision.

Sure, you can argue endlessly about what possible interaction between the mental and physical realms might exist, or whether I had any actual ability on each occasion to do other than I did.

But these things are totally disconnected to the reality of day to day life.

I don't think that we could exist without, at the very least, choosing to act as though we have free will, and more normally believing it.

Unknown said...

How many people believe in that very strong version of free will? I would actually say most. At least in the US. Libertarian Free Will seems to me to be the default position.

Lyndon Page said...

I agree with much of what you state here, and in the previous "free will" posting.

Though, I think the case that we do not know what "the people" think of free will is overstated. I agree that it is an incoherent position. There were 600 posts to Galen Strawson's recent post in the NY Times blog. I would say many were conceptually poor, but very few were invoking the "compatibilist" version of free will. Additionally, a great many "people" simply give there take on free will through blogs, books, editorials, etc.

Furthermore, I believe that looking at social institutions, such as the death penalty (retribution in general), the way we assert individualism ("don't tax me, I "deserve" all I have worked for), etc., also give us clues as to how we understand free will. In other words, through a discursive analysis of how society is organized we can gleen what the "people's" understanding of free will is, and again I would argue, it certainly falls in with the libertarian/incoherent versions.

Lyndon Page said...

I aslo wanted to give my take on why people accept free will in the manner they accept it. (Certainly taking from Galen Strawson, Pereboom (Living without Free Will, etc.), and Thomas Metzinger (The Ego Tunnel), among others.

This probably falls in line with some of Harris's points, but I have not read him (I aslo disagree with his use of "morality" but that has been hashed out elsewhere). The problem lies in a failure of the transparency of brain processes, processes that are the product of environment, genes, and past brain states. So, the transparency is both of the material of the brain and also of past and present influences which I assume is what has structured the present state of the brain. Since people have the ability to consciously represent counterfactual situations, "I could have done this instead," in the past, present, and future tenses, and also have the conscious experiences of the "I" directing the individual onto only one of those counterfactual possibilities, the "ultimate" power of the "I", that he is choosing outside of brain processes (that are only the product of past environment and genes) creates the illusion of "free will." Even if we fully accept determinism, we will still experience an "openness" to our decisions because of this transparency (Strawson), an illusion that cannot be taken away by anything at this moment. It is hard to imagine how we could get rid of this experience of openness. Through the ability to self-represent your state and to imagine and think of different possibilities, there is an interplay of reason that seems like it is endless. Simply adding more information to what the "individual" knows, such as more information about the brain state itself, should play back onto that state, and set off a different outcome, "choice" for the individual.

But, anyways, the normal everyday experience of an individual is bounded by severe limitations of knowledge, especially of its own functions, and the experience that one is acting "uncaused" cannot be changed. And it requires a massive amout of faith in determinism to be assured that that experience of openness is only an illusion, as we literally experience that openness almost every moment (at least unconsciously).

Lastly, following Pereboom and others, if your understanding and Harris's and most compatibilists' are correct, I would argue it requires great changes to the structures of society, since those structures were built on (and continue to be jusified by) a false understanding that could not reflect properly on the brain and our naive phenomenology of decision making.

Thanks, Lyndon

Friend of Icelos said...

Speaking for myself, and incidentally having grown up as a Southern Baptist in the southeastern United States, Sam Harris's description of free will sounds nearly identical to how I understood it when I was young, that free will was the ability to override any instinct or physical cause that may affect my behavior. For instance, I believed that by free will I could withstand any pain for any length of time, such that relieving myself of the pain was ultimately a choice I didn't have to make.

Needless to say, I never tried to exercise this sort of free will, and I'm now certain it's both untrue and incoherent. I suppose it may also be notable that I did eventually abandon the idea.

GTChristie said...

The problem with "free will" is not the freedom but the "will," which is one of the most metaphysical concepts in the history of philosophy. Show me an actual object (or event) describable as "will," and then we can discuss whether it is free.

bad Jim said...

We still have to make decisions, and some decisions are so hard to make that we lose sleep over them. Within the limits of our particular circumstances, for most practical purposes we are free.

Whether or not we're free, we have to sanction transgressions because the system of rewards and punishments is part of the programming of social animals like us, and there is ample evidence that it's effective, though perhaps only to the degree that we are not enthralled to passion or necessity.

Svlad Cjelli said...

"(which is not to concede that the view that Harris is attributing to the folk is truly coherent, either)"

I actually don't think that Harris would quickly concede it to be coherent either. Remember that his position is that it's a bad notion, not a good one.