New York Times Review of Sam Harris’ Free Will

The July 15 New York Times Book Review ran a review of Sam Harris’ Free Will. Reviewer David Menaker spends most of the review summarizing and quoting Harris’ book and then at the end, after many paragraphs of neutrality, tells us what he thinks.

What Menaker thinks is that Harris is probably correct. He thinks that’s sad, because determinism will no doubt damage virtues like courage and leadership. He opines that we may need the illusion of control in order to get on with our lives.

This is a common package, which we might dub the Humanistic Fatalism. It consists first of all in letting the latest scientific obsession roll over one, because after all science knows best (as it did about the cause of ulcers, right?). Next the victim sees all the negative consequences of the scientific belief. Later still, it is concluded that we have to pretend we have free will (or aren’t beasts, etc.). Lastly, depression, a longing for lost confidence.

There is something disturbing about resignation in the face of claims that are little better than sheer nihilism. It’s as if the so-called leaders of our culture had simply lost their nerve – or indeed their minds. Another chapter in the Decline of the West.

Fortunately, we do not have to let science (or more exactly, science-influenced philosophy) roll over us. There are champions of free will out there, for example Raymond Tallis, who says that man is more than an animal and we are more than our brains. (And he is an atheist, as am I.)

On a smaller scale I would add myself to the list of free will’s defenders. I wrote a response to Sam Harris in which I addressed his philosophical, neurological and introspective arguments against free will. I charge Harris with unwitting dualism – not of mind and body, but of conscious and unconscious processes. I discuss the category of action in which free will most resides and which Harris utterly neglects: actions involving deliberation. And I conclude with a sketch of what free will is actually like.

I don’t claim to have proven that free will exists – that cannot be done any more than you can prove that you are conscious. But I do point out where it operates. Right now it operates in you, as you focus on my remarks and choose to follow them.

I don’t get into this in the essay, but I am increasingly disturbed by Harris’ worldview. He wants everything to be safe and blame-free. He wants brain-scanners to tell us what would make us happy. If there is to be a Brave New World, he will have been one of its Founding Fathers.

6 thoughts on “New York Times Review of Sam Harris’ Free Will

  1. There will be no brain scanners in the Brave New World. It will resemble Anthem. Technology requires active minds to invent and even to reproduce at that level. Someone who genuinely believed determinism could never muster the, dare I say it, will to do the necessary thinking.

  2. Free Will/Won’t —– a different angle
    Before language we lived in groups and members cooperated. When we learned more efficient cooperation it was due to improvements in communication of what the different organisms intended to do. It was done by by signs, sounds and, later, words. The intensions/decisions were formed in the (sub)conscious workings of that organism.
    With time, we got better and better in communications and we even created a word for the ‘announcement’: ‘I’ ! But that did not mean that we added a function to our organism: an ‘I’ that suddenly could deliberate and decide about things!
    Through 1000s of years we then used ‘I’ to give agency to decisions that were communicated and then we started to believe that what was communicated was really made by ‘I’, as we had little idea about how a decision came to.
    We are still in that situation; most people have no idea about how an organism makes decisions….they just assume that ‘I’ did it.
    And …. As ‘I’ did it…’I’ have Free Will.
    My organism is still doing decisions in the same way as it has done for 1000s of years! Only better due to access to more information.
    A big confusion was created when this witnessing and announcing function of my organism’s deliberations and decisions was also supposed to have the powers to do them; i.e. when the announcement got the confusing ID: ‘I’ ? Or rather: Who is there to have Free Will? There is no one!
    Without anybody to own the Free Will/Won’t mechanism; it can not exist.
    But my organism will continue to make decisions and announce them and many people will continue to believe that a Free Will decision has been announced.

    • Thank you, Ake, for that thoughtful comment. You are definitely correct that for there to be free will there must be a self. But you give us no reason to think there isn’t one. Your argument, although provocative, is pure speculation. Speculation is, of course, something that selves do, selves who may or may not choose to follow the evidence, or at least try to follow the evidence. This is directly observable, and it would take an absolutely decisive argument to make me believe that I was wrong in my observations.

      Ah, but there’s the rub! To follow such an argument, I would have to choose to focus my mind, pay attention, deliberate, etc. I would have to do things that only a self can do, and do freely. You cannot subconsciously process an argument, because an argument is an explicit thing that must be engaged explicitly to be engaged at all. Try unfocussing your mind as you write a reply to this and see how far you get!

  3. Could you post the letter you wrote to Sam Harris? I am curious to learn how you parse the conscious/unconscious dualism and the importance of deliberative thought.

    And, about the “fiction” of “I” or “Self”… There is no such thing as a table. In fact, there are lots of individual tables, but the idea of a table is an idea, not a table. It is a fiction – not a fact. It is an idea which refers to tables, and only exists in a human mind. It can be relatively accurate or inaccurate, congruent or incongruent. “flat surface on which we put stuff” vs. “a small furry rodent.”

    AND, the idea “table” helps us understand and work with and integrate many facts into a system of other ideas. It gives us power and understanding. It increases our knowledge, which can always be further expanded and refined.

    In the same way the “Self” or “I” is certainly a fiction, just like “table.” It is a term we use to name a set of fact of experience. The question is, how accurate or congruent is it?

    Which begs the question – what is a self? How do we define it? How does that self “deliberate?” Great questions.

    • Hi Probability Coach,

      I didn’t write Sam Harris a letter. I wrote and published a lengthy essay on Amazon, which you can obtain here for the astounding price of 99 cents. You don’t have have a Kindle to download it.

      I agree with you that there is no such thing as a table in the sense of a platonic concept. There are only individual tables. But I disagree about the self. There is no platonic self, but there are individual selves. It is a mistake to say a self is a bundle, more or less arbitrary, of experiences. The idea of “experiences” is not primary: that is a mistake of the empiricist tradition. “Experience” is a valid concept only in relation to the self whose experience it is. The term “experience” is meaningless apart from the concept of “self” and vice versa. And “self” is the concept that makes experiences over time hang together. Otherwise we couldn’t tell the difference between your experiences and my experiences.

      In reading Sam Harris and his defenders and writing my essay I have found that the doctrine of determinism travels with the idea that the self is illusion. This notion runs so fantastically against common sense that I cannot believe anyone really embraces it. Furthermore, it is a very dangerous idea and will erode personality, responsibility and even the ability to think if one deeply believes it. Please reconsider this notion.

  4. This is a very belated response to your post, but: I thought you’d be interested in this review of Harris’s book that we ran at Reason Papers last year, by Eyal Mozes:

    I like the review as far as it goes, but think it could have gone farther. Mozes argues that Harris’s book is under-argued and dogmatic, but I actually think that Harris’s thesis is incoherent. Harris relies on introspection to suggest that we don’t have free will (because he takes introspection to reveal that all mental action is motivated, hence caused by prior causes); he then relies on supposedly scientific findings to suggest that introspection is unreliable (so as to dispel the common belief that introspection reveals control over our mental processes). He shows no awareness of the incompatibility of the two assumptions, or their centrality to his thesis.

    Either introspection is reliable or not. If it’s reliable, it reveals volitional control, which contradicts Harris’s claims. If it’s not reliable, Harris cannot rely on it to claim that all action is motivated. Nor (in that case) can he appeal to scientific findings, since the interpretation of the findings themselves presupposes the reliability of introspection. If introspection was unreliable, you couldn’t design psychological experiments, report findings, read articles, or remember what you’d read. He makes no effort to deal with any of these obvious objections.

    We invited Harris to respond to Mozes’s review, but he never acknowledged our invitation.

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