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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).

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

How free is the will? Sam Harris misses his mark

by Russell Blackford

First published, in slightly abridged and different form, ABC Religion and Ethics Portal, 26-27 April 2012. Available at URL http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2012/04/26/3489758.htm

The long conversation

For thousands of years, myth-makers, poets, philosophers, theologians, novelists and others have wrestled with a daunting question: whether, or to what extent, our lives are in our own hands (or minds).

To many people, future events seem to be laid down independently of any say that we might have in the matter. This characterized the worldview of Greek mythology. In Homer’s Iliad, the will of Zeus is depicted as binding on men and women, however much we mortals struggle and complain. Human attempts at rebellion are futile.

Oedipus is one mortal who struggles against his fate: he flees Corinth for Thebes, seeking to escape a terrible prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother. But, once again, his attempt is futile. The very act of journeying to Thebes brings him to a fatal (in every sense) confrontation with his true father, Laius, and to marriage to his true mother, Jocasta.

This theme in the long history of recorded thought finds popular expression even today, whenever we hear talk of how some important life event – when Jack meets Jill, perhaps – was “meant to be” and in the widespread, though perhaps only half-believed, idea that our days are numbered, with an appointed date of death for each of us (decided, perhaps, by God).

It finds expression in many ways in literary narrative and popular culture, as well, though most often the idea is resisted, as when Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day uses a knife to inscribe the defiant words, “NO FATE.”

Behind this lies the fear (or the assurance, depending on your disposition) that the future comes about in a way that is uncoupled from our deliberations, choices and actions. How might this be?

Well, an obvious way – or, at least, one that has seemed obvious to many people and cultures – is that our choices or their outcomes are controlled by overriding forces, such as the stars or the gods or a reified Fate or Destiny.

There are, however, other ways in which our deliberations, choices and actions could be, as it were, bypassed by events (to borrow from Eddy Nahmias). Thus, our deliberations would be futile on some portrayals of the relationship between mind and body.

If (as I tend to think) mental events just are, at another level of description, physical events in our brains, they can have causal efficacy much like any other physical events. Similarly, an interactionist form of mind-body dualism does not entail any scary sort of bypassing of our deliberations and choices.

However, the situation is rather different on other dualist theories of the mind. If our thoughts, emotions, and choices are mere epiphenomena, they cannot affect our bodies or the external world; nor can they do so if, as Leibniz believed, the mind and body are like parallel clocks in a pre-established harmony, but exercising no causal influence on each other. On either of these views, deliberation and choice cannot reach out to touch the physical world. So it goes.

To some thinkers, the very fact that there are facts (by which I simply mean true statements) about future events is sufficient reason for a kind of fatalism. Imagine that I am sick, for example – should I call for my doctor? Well, presumably there is a fact as to whether or not I will recover from my illness. If I am going to recover, then this will happen (so the doctor has nothing to do with it). Conversely, if I am not going to recover, it will happen this way (so the doctor has nothing to do with it). In either case, events will reach their conclusion whether I call the doctor or not. Thus, it is pointless for me to call her, as it cannot affect my fate! By similar reasoning, it is pointless to take any action at all.

Such is the conclusion of what was known in antiquity as the Lazy Argument. Fatalism about the future leads to a recommendation of passivism, though, really, we have no say in that either.  

Although some philosophers deny that there are facts about the future, the idea seems intuitively appealing. Moreover, Einsteinian relativity theory seemingly entails that the universe is a four-dimensional space-time manifold; in that case, there are facts about events that are (relative to us) in the future. Such facts also seem to be entailed by any theory of comprehensive causal determinism, since the current state of the world precisely determines all states of the world in the future.

Ancient philosophers knew nothing about Einsteinian theory, of course, but they were familiar with many such considerations, and they produced sophisticated responses. In particular, some Stoic philosophers developed arguments to counteract fatalist thinking and show that our actions really are “up to us.”

This is not the place to explore all the tendencies of Stoic thought, but the general idea was to accept causal determinism, and even to refer to the causal series as “fate” – and yet argue that our actions proceed by means of our individual characters.

On this approach, our beliefs about the world, our desires, our ingrained dispositions – in short, the motivating elements in our individual psychological make-ups – are the features that bring about our choices and actions, and thereby affect the course of events. If I am offered food, for example, my action of eating it (or else declining it) will be brought about partly by the circumstances of the offer, but also by the way I respond, which will result from my beliefs, desires, character, etc.

The point of all this is that humankind has engaged in a sophisticated discussion over many centuries as to whether, in some sense, our choices and actions, and the predictable consequences of our actions, are up to us, or whether, at some point in the order of events, we are bypassed, leaving our efforts essentially futile. The great cultural conversation certainly did not end with the Stoics, and it has continued to the present day. Throughout the medieval period, the issue became entangled with theological considerations, and to some extent this remains so.

Not surprisingly, recent analyses by professional philosophers have become increasingly fine-grained and technical, particularly, though not solely, where arguments about the role of causal determinism are involved.

What is “free will”?

Although we sometimes say to each other, “That’s up to you,” the usual English term for the up-to-us-ness discussed by Greek philosophers is “free will.” Whether or not this expression is very apt, it does capture one aspect of the long conversation – the idea that we are free from the control of Fate or other spooky forces.

More generally, it might be said that we are “free” if we choose on the basis of our own beliefs, desires and characters. If these things are unencumbered, then we can be said to be acting as we want to act, at least within the limits of our opportunities, physical and cognitive capacities, resources and so on.

Like many expressions that have become subjects of philosophical inquiry, “free will” may seem rather vague and elusive. However, there has now been a fair bit of empirical research (by Nahmias and his colleagues, among others) that provides some clues about the way that the idea of free will relates to the concerns of ordinary people who are not philosophers or theologians (“the folk,” as philosophers like to say).

Unfortunately, the published research is open to interpretation and, at this stage, it appears unlikely that there is a single “folk” conception. The folk, or many of them, do seem to have concerns about causal determinism, but mainly when it is described so that it sounds like fatalism or epiphenomenalism.

Speaking very generally, ordinary people are most likely to deny the existence of free will when they see our deliberations, choices and actions being overridden or bypassed in some way or another. For the folk, or most of them, the dominant idea in attributing free will to themselves and others seems to be a denial of fatalism.

Ordinary people are likely to affirm that “we have free will” if they dispute our subservience to forces such as the gods, the stars and Fate; and they are likely to say, in a particular situation, that “X acted of her own free will” if, in addition, X was not subjected to some more earthly kind of coercion (perhaps a gun at her head) or certain other kinds of frightening pressure (perhaps being required to make an important and complex decision in a very short time). Note, however, that I do not claim that these are the only ideas of free will existing among the general population.

Contemporary philosophers have what may or may not be a more stringent concept of free will: we possess free will only insofar as we can be morally responsible for our conduct. It is the capacity to act with moral responsibility. This conception of free will has dominated modern Western philosophy – though,  again, I don’t claim that it is the only philosophical conception of free will (for more, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on the subject).

Moral responsibility for our actions may well require the absence of spooky controlling forces, coercion, unusual pressures and so on, but perhaps it also demands something more. The current debate among philosophers revolves around the circumstances under which people are, or should be held to be, morally responsible agents.

If we are very demanding about what capacities are required for moral responsibility, we may find ourselves denying that human beings possess free will in the philosophers’ more technical sense, but we might still mislead the folk if we say to them, evoking their understanding of the expression, “You do not have free will.” This is likely to convey the false – and perhaps demoralizing – claim that fatalism is true.

Could I have acted otherwise?

Sometimes the question of whether I had free will when I acted in a certain way is said to be a matter of whether I could have acted otherwise – say, could I have had coffee this morning instead of tea? In this example, it seems clear enough: yes, I could have chosen tea instead of coffee. Intuitively, the “could have acted otherwise” formulation works here.

However, this formulation is problematic because we sometimes seem, intuitively, to be “free” even when we cannot act otherwise, provided that we actually acted as we wanted to. At the very least, any intuitions to the contrary are rather murky.

Suppose I was offered coffee or tea, and I chose coffee (for no particular reason other than my preference for the taste of coffee). Unknown to me or to her, however, my host had accidentally filled both pots with coffee, so my counterfactual choice of tea would have been ineffectual: I did not have a live option of acting otherwise, in the sense of actually drinking tea (perhaps there was no time to make some tea even if we’d discovered what went wrong).

Let’s consider the situation: I thought about it briefly – “coffee or tea?” – and I chose what I wanted. Furthermore, I received the coffee I asked for, and I happily drank it. I don’t know about your intuitions, but it looks to me as if I acted of my own free will, in the everyday sense of that expression. Unsurprisingly, philosophers have developed many other examples of situations where I had no actual prospect of acting other than as I did, though intuitively I seemed to be acting freely.

What if my choice is about something morally significant, rather than about whether to choose coffee or tea for breakfast? Should I, or shouldn’t I, save this nearby drowning baby? Imagine that I don’t like babies, so I deliberately let the baby drown – but I would have failed to save it in any event, since, unbeknown to me, an invisible monster with a taste for adult humans was swimming between me and the baby. I might still be considered morally responsible for my conduct, since I actually acted as I wanted.

The upshot is that the idea that notions of free will are best conveyed by talk of “could have acted otherwise” is out of fashion among philosophers, though we still see this sort of talk in many popular discussions. Accordingly, it is worth saying a little more about it.

Note that the idea that I could have acted otherwise in a situation is ambiguous. In one sense, it is merely a formula that conveys roughly the following: I acted as I wanted, given the opportunities available to me. Here, saying that I “could” have acted in some other way means that I had whatever capacities, resources, equipment, proximity to other people and things, and so on were needed to do so (and, of course, I was not constrained by, say, another person’s coercion or an overriding spooky force).

Hence, what action I took depended upon my beliefs, desires, character and so on. If these psychological aspects of me had been different in some relevant way, my choice would also have differed. This idea does seem to capture much of what is meant by ordinary talk about “acting of your own free will,” and to reflect much of what is found in the cultural conversation dating back to the Stoics and beyond.

Alas, this first conception of “could have acted otherwise” has problems when tested against sufficiently ingenious counterexamples, perhaps involving people who suffer from inner compulsions, phobias, or special blocks on their ability to form certain desires. In some of these cases, we seem to get a “wrong” (that is, unintuitive) answer to whether someone acted of her own free will.

Still, this weak form of “could have acted otherwise” talk may be a harmless way of thinking about free will for many purposes. It conveys a rough idea of ordinary conceptions of what it is to act freely, though it probably can’t be used as a strict definition. At the least, it would need to be refined.

In another sense, however, to say that I “could have acted otherwise” might mean that, at the time of my action, there was some non-zero probability of my acting otherwise, even given my beliefs, desires, character and so on. That is, there is some non-zero probability of something different happening even if everything that could conceivably influence the outcome is the same, including everything that seems relevant about me and my motivations.

On this interpretation of “could have acted otherwise,” it might be argued that I am never able to act otherwise. I fail to do so even when I act as I want, perhaps with alternative opportunities available to me, and in circumstances where ordinary people would say unhesitatingly that I acted “of my own free will.”

But is this idea of “could have acted otherwise” even intelligible? What could possibly make a difference to how I act when seemingly everything that could affect my choice has been stipulated as being exactly the same? This is very mysterious.

On the weak interpretation, then, the idea of being able to act otherwise has problems as a strict definition of when actions are “up to us” or “of our free will.” However, unusual examples are needed to bring out the problems, and perhaps the idea will do as a rough indication of what we’re getting at with free will talk.

What we must not do, however, is adopt “could have acted otherwise” as our definition of free will, attracted by the common sense in the first, weak, meaning of the phrase, and then claim that human beings lack free will because (we triumphantly point out) no one can never “act otherwise” in the far stronger, more mysterious, perhaps unintelligible, second meaning. We’d be tying ourselves in logical knots.

Free will and Free Will

All this brings me to the short book Free Will by Sam Harris. Throughout, Harris argues two things.

  • We can never act otherwise in the strong and mysterious sense, mainly because this is precluded by the fact, as he sees it, of causal determinism.
  • We are not “the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present.”

Harris appears, then, to think that free will means acting (1) in circumstances such that I could have done otherwise (in the strong, mysterious sense), and (2) by means of a process of deliberation that is entirely conscious. Since, this does not happen, he concludes, we do not have (what he calls) free will.

As always, Harris writes clearly, persuasively, and with a certain rhetorical flair. In particular, he has an enviable gift for describing opposing views in ways that make them sound ridiculous – whether they are or not. Free Will – the book, that is – is entertaining and easy to read, and I’m sure it will sell plenty of copies.

However, I submit that the views Harris ridicules are not, in all cases, ridiculous at all, and that readers of his new book should subject it to sceptical scrutiny. Free Will provides neither any useful historical context (it ignores the long cultural conversation) nor any state-of-the-art analysis of the current philosophical positions and their respective problems (it ignores most of the professional literature).

Importantly, the concept of free will that Harris attacks so relentlessly bears little resemblance to either the dominant folk ideas (roughly speaking, that fatalism is false, and that we commonly act without coercion, with adequate time to think) or the technical concept used by most philosophers (we have the capacity to act in such a way that we are morally responsible for our conduct).

In fairness to Harris, some philosophers who define free will as a capacity to act with moral responsibility think that we can have moral responsibility only if we can “act otherwise” in the mysterious sense that I’ve discussed, one that makes us the ultimate sources of our own actions (somehow preceding or transcending even our own beliefs, desires and characters). However, this is neither a consensus view among philosophers today nor a view that especially dominates the long conversation about free will and related concepts. Nor does Harris himself offer much of an argument as to why anything like this is part of the very definition of free will.

To be fair, again, some philosophers do seem to resist the idea of unconscious decision-making. However, the idea that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions is not the standard philosophical definition of free will. Nor does it seem to dominate the thinking of the folk.

In fact, no plausible story could be told in which we make any of our decisions entirely consciously. Many are probably made entirely unconsciously. And I find it difficult even to make sense of consciously choosing my next thought. How is that supposed to work?

Harris defines “free will” as he does because he thinks that it is “the popular conception” or “the free will that most people feel they have” while offering no evidence to support these bold assertions. Thus, even if he succeeds in showing that “free will,” as he defines it, does not exist – I agree that it doesn’t – that will not entail that either philosophers or the folk are incorrect when, employing their definitions or conceptions, they claim that we have free will.

Let me be clear on this: Harris may, indeed, have isolated one tendency in the thinking of some philosophers and some ordinary people. Perhaps he has met people who think about free will in a way that matches up with his definition, and I’m sure some readers will find that the definition rings true for them (the evidence suggests, remember, that ordinary people do not all think alike about free will – and philosophers certainly do not).

But Harris does not claim to be attacking one tendency, perhaps a dangerous one, in ordinary thinking or the philosophical literature. Nor does he limit himself to claiming (against the evidence to date) that it is the dominant tendency.

As far as he is concerned, he is writing about the true conception of free will, and anyone who disagrees is changing the subject. They are not talking about free will, he thinks, but only about “free will” – about an intellectual construction of their own making. That is almost the reverse of the truth, and if anything it is Harris who wants to change the subject by insisting on his own pet definition.

Harris on compatibilism

When Harris turns to the views of compatibilists, philosophers who think that the existence of free will is logically consistent with causal determinism, he accuses them of changing the subject, but that is unfair and untrue.

Rather, the views of the compatibilists, whether correct or not, have been a key component of the conversation for over two thousand years. He accuses them of producing a body of literature that resembles theology, primarily aimed, he suspects, at “not allowing the laws of nature to strip us of a cherished illusion.”

Just how offensive compatibilists ought to find this will depend, in part, on how they regard theology. If I think that theological discourse frequently contains clever, distracting rhetoric, duplicitous manipulations of standards (such as interpreting texts literally when it suits the theologian’s agenda to do so, but interpreting them in some other way whenever this is more convenient to her), and other slippery methods of argument, I might well think that I’ve been insulted if told that I write like a theologian.

Harris does not spell out the features of theological writing that he has in mind. However, it seems clear enough that he does not intend the comparison as a compliment, and that the thrust of his remarks at this point of his book is to accuse compatibilist philosophers of some form of intellectual dishonesty or at least wishful thinking.

That, however, is unfounded. From ancient times to the present day, compatibilist philosophers – whether Stoics, early modern thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, Enlightenment figures like David Hume, or contemporary successors to the tradition such as Daniel Dennett – have attempted to do what philosophers do at their best: they have tried to reason clearly and carefully about a deep but elusive topic of general importance.

In doing so, they have needed to make distinctions, examine and refine concepts, and reveal nuances (and possible inconsistencies) in everyday thought. Unfortunately, this process can lead to a thicket of new conceptual problems.

Inevitably – so it goes – compatibilist theories have become more detailed and ramified than the relatively brief pronouncements from earlier writers such as Hobbes. At a minimum, recent compatibilists have had to elaborate and qualify their views as they’ve encountered objections, baffling science-fictional examples, and troubling classes of cases (such as whether psychiatric patients have free will if they are physically unimpeded when acting on their delusions).

But incompatibilists must face the same sorts of problems, and the resulting garden of competing analyses, each one making finer points than its predecessor, is no different from what we see in any other area of philosophy. If compatibilist philosophers write like theologians in some (unexplained) sense, so do their opponents.

Nor is there anything that, to a fair critic, “seems deliberately obtuse” about the idea of someone acting freely on her desire to commit a murder. Harris is correct that we often have conflicting desires, some of which we would rather not have (that is, we have second-order desires about our desires). But this is old news and exhaustively discussed in the philosophical literature.

A related point about psychic fractures could indeed be developed into a problem for free will, so let me flag that for later, but there is nothing obviously obtuse (let alone “deliberately” so) about assuming that the murderer acted on her strongest desire, and that her action revealed something important about what she was like as a person.

In the same passage, Harris goes on to claim that the deeper problem for compatibilists is that there is no freedom in doing as I want, such as when I reach for a glass of water to quench my thirst.

But really, where is the unfreedom? Where, as Hobbes would have put it, is the stop? Where is the thing that impedes me from doing what I want to do? Are there any spooky forces (the gods, the stars, Fate) in the vicinity, preventing me from acting as I want? How has anything in the situation, as described, led to my efforts being bypassed or blocked, or to my desires being frustrated?

Unless, I am employing my own pet definitions, or unless, perhaps, I am one of those philosophers who is haunted by a very demanding notion of what is required for moral responsibility, I will have no good reason to see my action in drinking the water as other than having been up to me – or as a “free” one.

Perhaps compatibilism is false, but the various attempts by Harris to dismiss it with little argument should not convince anybody – however robustly or amusingly he words them (“changing the subject,” “resembles theology,” “seems deliberately obtuse,” “a bait and switch,” “nothing to do with free will”). This sort of dogmatism and abuse can be fun, but it does little to advance philosophical understanding.

The future of free will

Allow me to confess, at this late stage, that I think that the concept of free will has problems, perhaps many of them, although I am not at all persuaded that causal determinism is the important issue.

One problem relates to the nature of coercion. How do I draw a principled line between actions that are coerced, or otherwise brought about in circumstances that seem to overwhelm me, and those that are not?

To some extent, this looks like a moral or even political judgment, and it is very arguable that, although not simply arbitrary, these sorts of judgments are not objectively binding. In some cases, at least, there may be no determinate answer as to whether I was coerced or acted freely.

Furthermore, the folk (and perhaps philosophers) are not worried only by outright coercion but also by other circumstances, such as whether there was adequate time to think. But where do we draw the line with something like that – for example, how much time is “adequate”? Again, how should we handle such things as compulsions and phobias – are they just another part of our desire-sets, or are they more analogous to external barriers to our actions?

Another problem relates to the largely-unconsciousness nature of our decisions. No one should doubt this, and Harris is correct to emphasise it and discuss the actual phenomenology of choice. Still, taken by itself it is not necessarily very threatening.

Imagine for a moment that my unconscious mind makes decisions in accordance with the same beliefs and desires that I endorse consciously, and imagine, more generally, that my unconscious and conscious minds are closely “in character” with each other. If that is so, delegating a great deal of decision-making to unconscious processes might even be an efficient use of scarce time for conscious thought.

The issue that Harris ought to press more strongly – and I foreshadowed this earlier – is that our unconscious minds may be rather alien to our conscious egos. I suspect that Freudian theory is largely bunk, but a large body of social psychology literature can be interpreted as confirming that our psyches are more fractured, and some of our true motivations stranger to us, than we like to think.

If this is so, we may be at the mercy of alien forces after all, at least to an extent – these are not external powers, and not exactly spooky ones, but actually components of ourselves.

But even if we press such points as hard as possible, folk ideas of free will might survive. Perhaps whether we act freely becomes a matter of judgment and degree, and the question of whether we do so in various particular cases does not have an entirely compelling answer.

Nonetheless, it might remain more false than true if we tell the folk, “You do not have free will.” On the other hand, philosophical ideas of moral responsibility might be in more trouble as we insist on the difficulties. Much more needs to be considered here.

Finally, I acknowledge that some intuitions may favour incompatibilism. On the other hand, it remains the case – doesn’t it? – that we are not controlled by spooky powers, that our beliefs, desires and characters are not bypassed in some other way (as they would be if epiphenomenalism were true), and that these aspects of us appear to have causal power: they lead to choices, actions and consequences.

There is nothing especially arcane about these key points, and they are consistent with causal determinism as far as it goes. The worst problems for free will, I suggest, come from elsewhere.

After some two thousand years, the basics of a compatibilist approach remain attractive, and the burden of going forward seems to fall on opponents of free will, and particularly on incompatibilists such as Harris.

Harris himself needs to do more work, particularly in understanding and responding to the strengths in his opponents’ arguments. Until then, we should take his pronouncements on the topic of free will with a few grains of salt. So it goes.

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