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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); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Sam Harris on the illusion of free will

One small part of The Moral Landscape (about 10 pages) consists of a discussion of free will, which is, according to Sam Harris, an illusion. A problem that he faces immediately is how to define this thing that he considers illusory. Unfortunately, even if the folk Out There think that they have free will - which I suppose most of them do - it may turn out that their concept of free will is actually rather inchoate or confused or even incoherent. When the concept is pressed hard, it may be very difficult to explain in a way that makes sense. Even if the concept can be made coherent, it may be at the price of being remote from what the folk originally had in mind.

Still, the folk may believe various specific things that fall within the ballpark of the free will debate and which are actually coherent and true. It may be worthwhile disentangling what they actually do believe - along with how much of it makes sense, and how much of that is actually likely to be true. Oh, and what the implications of that really are.

When you go around claiming, as Harris does, that free will is an illusion, you are going to upset a lot of people, but you may be able to forestall at least some of the upset if you define just what you have in mind by "free will". You probably won't forestall all the upset, or even most of it, because many people seem to be attached emotionally to the idea of having free will, so you run the risk of being misinterpreted and/or misrepresented however careful you are. That's a problem that Harris faces, and I don't want to add to it. Let's see if we can work out what he's getting at.

Harris does not deny that we make choices or decisions, such as his decision to write The Moral Landscape. Nor does he deny that these have consequences; thus, his decision to write the book was "the primary cause of its coming into being." Decisions, choices, intentions, and so on, produce behaviours, and these lead to outcomes, some of them of great importance.

Elsewhere in his discussion of free will, he seems to assume that we have an ability to engage in consciousness deliberation, even though he doesn't think all our decisions are like this, and that it is particularly apppropriate to hold people accountable for decisions that they have acted upon after conscious deliberation.

Harris does not deny the reality of moral responsibility. He says, and I agree: "It seems to me that we need not have any illusions about a causal agent living within the human mind to condemn such a mind as unethical, negligent, or even evil, and therefore liable to occasion further harm." Nor does he deny the importance of social and political freedom - apparently, though he doesn't spell it out, because he thinks it important that we be able to make decisions that are reflective of much about ourselves (our own values, etc.) rather than being the products of coercion and made despite of much about ourselves.

There's much in the above that I'm sympathetic to, but it does raise the question of what Harris is actually denying or calling an illusion. He thinks that there can be circumstances where we deliberate and make conscious choices, that these are important and consequential, that it is at least sometimes appropriate to hold people accountable for their actions (and especially for those that followed conscious deliberation), and that it is both possible and important to have a degree of social and political freedom. I'm tempted to ask: "What more could you want?" As Daniel Dennett might say, what else in this ballpark is worth having?

A clue as to what Harris is getting at may come from his denial that there is "a causal agent living within the human mind", as opposed to different human minds being good, evil, and so on. Harris also refers to "the idea of an immortal soul that stands independent of all material influences, ranging from genes to economic systems." Later, he writes, "... it seems quite clear that a retributive impulse, based upon the idea that each person is the free author of his thoughts and actions, rests on a cognitive and emotional illusion - and perpetuates a moral one."

So I'm getting the impression here that the idea of free will that Harris attributes to the folk is that there is a causal agent that somehow lives within the human mind and is the "real person" in some sense, somehow transcending the individual's brain processes, etc., and that this real person is somehow the author of its own thoughts and actions all the way down - deeper than any material phenomena such as genetic potential, uterine environment, socialisation, and whatever deterministic and indeterministic events happen within the brain. Unfortunately, Harris never offers a definition of "free will", although the meaning of the expression is not at all obvious, at least to me, so I'm trying to glean from clues here and there what it is he thinks the folk think.

I'll say this, though: if Harris' idea of free will is something like what I've patched together above, then I agree with him that we don't possess free will (as defined). Whether free will (as defined) is an illusion, however, will depend on whether we actually do seem to possess it. Harris thinks that even the illusion of having free will is an illusion, and he may be correct about this. The idea is that when we don't attend very carefully to our own experience, we seem to possess free will as he describes it; however, so he suggests, even this "seeming" is an illusion, because it fades when we attend carefully and simply observe thoughts and intentions arising the mind.

Maybe so, but there's still this niggling issue as to whether the folk really do, in the first place, believe that we possess free will in the sense described. From where I sit, it seems like a bizarre thing to believe.

But perhaps some do believe it, especially if they've been taught that free will takes such a form. Speaking for myself, I find it very confusing working out just what the popular, pre-theoretical understanding of free will really amounts to beyond a readiness to use the words "free will" in certain contexts. Judging from my experience and from teaching philosophy to bright young students, I think our pre-theoretical idea of free will is something inchoate and possibly incoherent. But it's worth trying to get a handle on what important capacities we might actually have that are related to the pre-theoretical notion of free will. And I think it's clear enough (and Harris doesn't deny this) that we do have some such capacities.

But anyway, some people possibly do have the belief - backed up by an illusory sense of their own experience - that they possess something like free will as Harris portrays it. I agree that those people, at least, are labouring under an illusion. To that extent, I'm with Harris. Whether it's most perspicuous to convey this by saying that free will is an illusion may be doubtful, but Harris is correct, I believe, to deny the existence of free will in this sense.


Brian said...

Isn't free-will as popularly understood the idea that we could've done otherwise? That we're free or above how other animals are determined?

I'm not saying that's coherent, but that's the gist. When you think about it, it falls down, because the question is how could we have done otherwise? If it wasn't a choice I made, who made it? If it was a choice I made, then I made it based on what I was thinking, feeling etc, which didn't puff into being from nowhere, so they were determined in some sense by whatever processes and life histories. Of course, you know all of that regarding free will much better than I. I guess Harris is having a go at the concept of free-will that religions and folk psychology teach us or 'gift' us.

March Hare said...

"there's still this niggling issue as to whether the folk really do, in the first place, believe that we possess free will in the sense described. From where I sit, it seems like a bizarre thing to believe. "

Your problem may stem from "where you sit." Get out from the philosophy department and have a look around:
Look at the court system, our punishment/revenge prison culture must rest on this type of free will or it is insane;
Look at the many religious adherents, who actually have no problem with ultimate free will, who believe in a soul and an ultimate, supernatural justice. Should they think their actions were based on biology and environment then in what sense could or should their eternal should be punished?

Our sense of free will is obvious in our language:
When we do something strange we weren't ourselves or weren't in control (so who was?);
when we have a twitch our arm is acting like it belongs to someone else - but in reality it is the same brain controlling it but getting the messages muddled;
There is always some sense of a general that is you that is aware of most operations in the brain and can over-rule any that don't fit in with his plans.

Svlad Cjelli said...

I agree with Brian's perception of the popular idea. It's the idea that mechanical materialism denies a range of things around responsibility and even emotion, and it is rather common. Somehow, we are told, being affected by the world around us, or even just lacking an immortal soul hovering above us, means that we have no internal life at all.
It's also the idea that there is a third, magical way of making decisions, beside causality and randomness.

Is it sensible? No, and that's the point.

Eamon Knight said...

FWIW, when I was religious what I believed was along those lines, ie. that we possess something (call it soul or spirit) exempt from physical causation that had at least some influence on our decisions. Assuming substance dualism, I don't think it's incoherent in itself. How typical that is of believers or of people in general, I can't say. It is probably true that I thought about my beliefs more than most people do (bad idea, that: tends to end in apostasy).

Vashta Nerada said...

I think the concept of "free will" that Harris is saying many people believe in is that of the pop-culture or religious idea of a "transcendent spirit" or "immortal soul" that is ultimately the instigator of our thoughts and actions. The idea that some kind of ineffable, invisible force lives inside of us which actually guides our actions, which is independent of our brains and physical processes, and which presumably can be judged for all of our actions. At least that's what I got out of it. This is a very common idea among the general public.

Of course Harris obviously does not believe that this is the case. I believe what he was trying to say was that most of our thoughts and ideas initially come from "nowhere", and can be attributed to random fluctations on a molecular or subatomic level in our brains, or to unconscious physical processes in our brains which we are not aware of. People then take actions or deliberate based on these seemingly random thoughts. Therefore, although there is deliberation and reasoning occurring at higher levels in the brain after the fact, at their base level all of our initial thoughts and ideas are completely out of our control. This sense that "I" came up with whatever thought or idea just popped into my head (or indeed, the concept of an "I" at all) is an illusion that my brain created. I think this is the illusion that Harris is referring to. So, ultimately, our experience of initiating our own thoughts and ideas is simply a random (or semi-random) feedback loop within the biological machinery of our brains. There is no "I" there. Nature has just cleverly designed us so that our brains trick themselves into thinking that there is.

Kirth Gersen said...

I've always sort of felt that -- even if what passes for free will is actually pre-determined by weird quantum interactions or whatever -- so long as it's not susceptable to absolute prediction, it's as good as free will in the "truer" sense. So why split hairs over it?

Russell Blackford said...

I'm not sure that the court system needs anything like the sort of concept that Harris is discussing and debunking, though that's controversial. I do accept that some, perhaps many, religious teachings seem to offer a concept like this.

It's true that philosophers will have more elaborate/theorised ideas than most people out there in the wider world, but I'm actually quite interested in what first-year philosophy students think - what concepts do bright young people have in their minds before they are exposed to much academic philosophy?

Unfortunately, I can only go on impressions with this. Although I've taught a lot of such students on issues to do with free will, I don't do that anymore and it's not like I've done any systematic study. I can only report that very few (by which I mean about one in hundred) seemed committed to a strong view of libertarian free will. When I've talked to colleagues with even more (sometimes much more) experience, they've said that their problem in classes is in getting students to take positions other than compatiblism seriously, once compatibilism is explained to them. I.e., the students quickly find compatibilism very plausible and intuitive.

However, your mileage may vary with this. I can imagine that other philosophy teachers may have quite different experiences, even in Australia (Neil might want to comment if he turns up). I can also imagine that the experience in America, where I imagine far more young people are taught religious accounts of free will long before they get to college, might be totally different.

March Hare said...

You don't think that philosophy students self-select to have an opinion on a controversial topic? You don't think that maybe those students are more likely to be open to the idea of a materialistic world? You don't think that your sample is massively more likely to be more aware of the issues, less religious and more logical/rational than the average man in the street?

Russell Blackford said...

Oh, it's very likely that philosophy students are more open to ideas such as compatibilism than other people. There could be several reasons why that might be so. So you make a fair point, and I'm not at all suggesting that my personal encounters with a certain number of philosophy students are like a statistically valid survey of the general population (in Australia or anywhere else).

I am, however, suggesting that we not be too confident of any intuitions that the general population "must" think in such and such way. I'm giving my own experience of how some people think, just FWIW as one consideration of some interest, and I don't put all that much weight on it.

And I'm certainly not claiming that everyone else's experience is epistemically unsatisfactory or something of the kind. If someone tells me insistently that Australian philosophy students are universally attracted to the idea of libertarian free will, I'll scoff because I have a lot of rather direct experience to the contrary. But if someone points out nicely, as you have, that this experience can't be generalised very far and that many other people have life experience that is relevant to the overall question, I'll totally agree.

Generally, I think it's good to compare notes on our experiences, and to see how much we can kind of triangulate to get a picture. Relying too much on our individual experiences can be a trap, and so can too-rapid scepticism about others' experiences. In the absence of precise sociological studies a fairly modest and non-dogmatic comparison of impressions, and what they might be based on, is often the best we can do.

Richard Wein said...

I don't think the folk notion of free will is dependent on dualism. I would say roughly that it's the (supposed) property of the self that allows the self to have the final say in one's decisions. That's vague, but it needs to be. Some people might replace "self" with some other vague term. I think it's a mistake to be any more specific than that, as we are liable to attribute unnecessary commitments or exclude commitments which people consider essential to the concept (such as our decisions not being determined by prior states).

This definition is vague enough to sound coherent. But when you try to analyse exactly what it means, you eventually end up with something either incoherent or not true to the commitments people consider essential to the concept.

I think it's debatable how best to describe free will: illusory, incoherent, non-existent? I'm not sure the usual meaning of any of these words is precisely applicable. But I think any of them is near enough.

March Hare said...

Sorry Russell, but I just can't see how anybody with (monotheistic) religious beliefs can not believe in some sense of you that is not a simple "matter reacting to matter and energy".

I'm sure you can describe your version of free will in a sense that people in your class are quite happy with - and you may even be able to convince the man in the street but in a way that reminds me of the tribe first shown a TV: They initially think there's little people inside and are then told exactly how it works which they go along with and seemingly understand, then they turn and ask, "but how do the little people get inside?"

As for your comment regarding the courts, I cannot disagree more. When anyone is found to be acting "in a way they are not able to control" they are let off or placed under medical care. That "control" happens to be free will, the Sam Harris version of it.

If you don't believe me look at any discussions online about free will (I know online isn't a great sample of the public) and you'll see people immediately go for the argument that you cannot punish people if they don't have any free will in what they do. No matter how much you try to explain compatibalism to them they still require a separate choosing entity, free to do otherwise, in order to punish. They can't grasp the concept of punishing people when there was no choice in what they did. Hence sexsomniacs get away with rape. Which is a whole other discussion...

Russell Blackford said...

March Hare, there's a lot there and I can't comment on every point ... but I don't know why you make the comment in your first para. The sort of free will you describe may come in handy for theodical purposes (at least until you look at it closely), but if anything believing in a omnipotent creator should lead you in the direction of not believing we have free will, but that everything is predestined from eternity by the creator.

As for the legal system, if it was on this thread I couldn't disagree more with you. I don't think any spooky notion of free will is needed. Harris himself explains why we can make distinctions such as you refer to without relying on such notions. The may play some residual role - which may be what Harris thinks - but all you need is something vaguely (and it may be very vaguely indeed) like utilitarianism to justify the legal system in something very like its current form.

March Hare said...

Russel, in reverse order... please don't get me wrong, I have a fully functioning criminal justice system that requires no free will, but what I am saying is that most people - and the system itself - doesn't see it that way at present.

Also, I don't disagree that an omnipotent, omnibenevolent god and free will are totally incompatible, but is cognitive dissonance really that unexpected from the people who think as they do? Frankly, this is really basic theology. Most religions spell out free will and have why free will and prayer can co-exist (the fact neither can is irrelevant!)

Russell Blackford said...

Okay, okay, at least we're a bit closer on those issues than it sounded.

The Unrecorded Man said...

"When you go around claiming, as Harris does, that free will is an illusion, you are going to upset a lot of people, but you may be able to forestall at least some of the upset if you define just what you have in mind by "free will". You probably won't forestall all the upset, or even most of it, because many people seem to be attached emotionally to the idea of having free will, so you run the risk of being misinterpreted and/or misrepresented however careful you are. That's a problem that Harris faces, and I don't want to add to it."

Wow. I have to say that all this talk of upsetting 'the folk' due to possible non-existence of free will is really patronising. Not because I attribute more intellectual sophistication to the folk than anyone else, but simply because 'the folk' aren't going to read Harris's book in the first place. The only people likely to read it are the sophisticates, who are already familiar with the doubts surrounding the existence of free will. I don't think we need to worry too much about upsetting them.

This being the case, perhaps we can stop all this wringing of hands that really only serves to make us look oh-so-wise and above the comforting illusions of the plebs.

March Hare said...

On the court issue

There are 3 areas for 'punishment':
Vengeful retribution;
Protection of the public/rehabilitation;
Disincentives for people to commit certain acts.

If we accept that no-one has a choice then the vengeful retribution is mean spirited, illogical and morally wrong.

But that still leaves us with protecting the public (which includes making people who commit crimes safe [less likely to re-offend] upon their re-entry to society) and showing people that when a crime is committed there is a consequence [incarceration]. These two factors are entirely sufficient to have a fully functioning criminal justice system that has absolutely no requirement for free will or for retribution.

This is categorically not what the current western system of justice is based on though.

TMS said...

The debate over free will and its bearing on holding others morally responsible is misguided in my opinion. A recently came across a paper that explained the evolutionary function of anger as being to make the other person place more weight on your well-being. So what makes us angry and makes us want to punish another person is when their behavior has been undertaken with insufficient consideration for our well-being. Whether the offender had any control over whether they were to give sufficient consideration to our well-being has no bearing on the function of anger. If they hurt us due to a lack of consideration for our well-being we will be angry and will want to hurt them back. The focus on free-will is a diversion because it is really irrelevant whether they could have helped themselves. They didn't care whether they hurt us and that is why we want to punish them. The next time if they are facing a few years in jail they may be able to help themselves. If not maybe they need a few more years in jail. As long as they don't care whether they hurt us we don't want them around. Why should we care whether they can help themselves? They don't care about others. That's the poing of justice. Its to punish those who don't care about hurting others. Free-will is irrelevant.

Blamer .. said...

Vashta's comment provides the context in which Harris is talking about free will.

Harris notes how "intention" is a weak spot in the case for free will. Whether using a technical definition or otherwise, free will looks to be underpinned by unconscious and uncontrolled brain activity stemming from ("random") neuron firing. At the level of the brain, fMRI experiments are showing intention before awareness of it.

thoughts and intentions are caused by physical events and mental stirrings of which I am not aware

we do not know what we will intend to do until the intention itself arises

consciousness is, amongst other things, the context in which our intentions become completely available to us