The Marionette Who Cuts His Own Strings

Another project I have been working on, which should be ready to publish on Kindle in May of 2012 is called “Free Will: A Response to Sam Harris.” This long essay is an answer to Harris’ short book on determinism, also entitled Free Will.

I very much disagree with Harris’ examples and arguments. His biggest problem is that none of the examples of choice that he deconstructs involve using reason to any serious degree. They are just examples of selecting something off the top of your head. I agree with Ayn Rand that our reason is our free will, so this seems to me to be a striking omission on Harris’ part. It’s pretty easy to say that we don’t have free will in situations where all you’re doing talking about is letting an idea come into your head.

Anyway, I address Harris’ examples, the neurology experiments he cites and the philosophic presuppositions his case rests on. Then I give an account based on Ayn Rand’s, Nathaniel Branden’s, Leonard Peikoff’s and my thinking on the subject.

When Rand described our choice to use reason, she used the metaphor of focus. By entering into a rational state of mind we make the world clearer and can really start “seeing,” i.e. knowing. I think this is an excellent metaphor, but we need to remember that it is just a metaphor. An interesting exercise might be how to vividly describe conceptual level attention to a blind person.

I have a suggestion, which is from the essay. It might also make human volition a little clearer (⇐ note the optical metaphor!).

I would liken coming to attention to — coming to attention, i.e. standing up straight. It takes an effort to stand up straight but ultimately it reduces effort. When you stand up straight you are ready for action. Your joints and muscles are in their optimum relationship. You can move briskly and pleasurably. And you “define” yourself.

All this is true of coming to conceptual attention as well. It takes an effort to sustain but it makes everything easier as you go along. You are ready for action when you enter into a deliberative state of mind. Your inner environment starts to sort itself out as soon as you focus and can be further sorted out if you care to put in the work. It makes life clean and bracing. And you “define” yourself.

This metaphor does not settle the free will issue, of course, but I hope it does make it more intuitive what Ayn Rand meant when she spoke of “focus.”

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