Book Review: ‘Free Will’ by Sam Harris

Sam Harris is among the “New Atheist” writers whose ranks include Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell), Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), and the late Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great). Harris’ The End of Faith made a splash a couple years after the 9/11 attacks with its arguments against religion in general and Islam in particular: Harris holds faith to be fundamentally irrational, a bizarre and often destructive ritual in which reasoned cognition is suspended. He recently came out with a book on secular ethics titled The Moral Landscape (you can woefully attempt to look at the Harper’s review here).

Yours truly was pretty heavily influence by Harris’ End, though in the years since I was first caught in the headlights of his polemics, I’ve come to the opinion that he is very good at forcefully stating obvious truths in such a way that less obvious truths get obscured. For example, End begins with a short narrative of a suicide bombing. Harris describes the bomber, the bus he boards, his victims, and his family’s reaction. At the end of this story, Harris points out that in spite of the fact that the narrative does not specify the bomber’s religion, the reader is sure to presume him a Muslim. The rhetorical point (I took it) was that Islam really is a violent and dangerous religion, and everyone knows this already; it is only political correctness which keeps us from publicly saying so. In retrospect, I realize that Harris’ story was the 21st century equivalent of race-baiting: the narrative didn’t expose anything about Islam, but it did expose the way Americans think about Islam. Harris’ deployment of an obvious truth (“You’re imagining a suicide bomber as a Muslim”) obscured subtler truths about e.g. the function of stereotypes in American culture.

The point of the preceding paragraph is just that yours truly is working some personal stuff out vis-a-vis Mr. Harris, who is a compelling and slippery fucker. (Harris also begins Free Will with another little story, this one about a multiple rape/murder–but hey, who can fault a champion of reason for habitually beginning his books with emotionally-charged anecdotes?)

In the tiny tract Free Will, Harris develops one of the claims he made in End: free will is not only false but, indeed, conceptually incoherent.

Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have.
Free will is actually more than an illusion (or less), in that it cannot be made conceptually coherent. Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.
(p. 5)

For Harris, saying that someone has free will is like talking about a square-circle. It just doesn’t make sense. Our thoughts, “choices,” identities, and behavior are all effected by natural causes, just like all other phenomena. There is no extra-causal soul or self which somehow exists outside of, and yet influences, the chains of cause-and-effect which makes up this world. We are caused objects. So how could there be free will? As Harris correctly points out, indeterminism is no help in this: even if, say, quantum indeterminacy means that determinism is false and every new moment is a product of chance, we’re no closer to freedom than we were with determinism.

It’s important to understand at the outset that Harris is not arguing against any sophisticated version of free will put forth by any philosopher, ever. He is opposed, rather, to commonsense notions of free will:

Our moral intuitions and sense of personal agency are anchored to a felt sense that we are the conscious source of our thoughts and actions.
(p. 17)
Though Harris spends a good chunk of the book discussing compatibilism (the position that free will and causal-determinism are compatible, held by e.g. Benedict Spinoza and Daniel Dennett), he’s not interested in refuting it. His purpose is to convince the reader that the so-called ‘free will’ which compatibilists are able to preserve is not really free will. It’s a fake, like tofu chicken or a knockoff iPod. Harris uses the following comparison:
Imagine that a person claims to have no need to eat food of any kind–rather, he can live on light. From time to time, and Indian yogi will make such a boast, much to the merriment of skeptics. Needless to say, there is no reason to take such claims seriously, no matter how thin the yogi. However, a compatibilist like Dennett could come to the charlatan’s defense: The man does live on light–we all do–because when you trace the origins of any food, you arrive at something that depends on photosynthesis. By eating beef, we consume the grass the cow ate, and the grass ate sunlight. So the yogi is no liar after all. But that’s not the ability the yogi was advertising, and his actual claim remains dishonest (or delusional). This is the trouble with compatibilism. It solves the problem of “free will” by ignoring it.
Personally, I don’t find this comparison very compelling. Dennett’s compatibilism may or may not be adequate to the task of reconciling causal determination with human freedom, but it’s much subtler than simply ‘changing the conversation.’ What’s especially weird and alarm-bell-ringing about Harris’ hostility toward compatibilism is that, later in the book, he begins to sound like a compatibilist. He sometimes writes of “choices” without any scare-quotes, and writes:
Therefore, while it is true to say that a person would have done otherwise if he had chosen to do otherwise, this does not deliver the kind of free will that most people seem to cherish…
(p. 35)
 
And later still:
Becoming sensitive to the background causes of one’s thoughts and feelings can–paradoxically–allow for greater creative control over one’s life…This understanding reveals you to be a biochemical puppet of course, but it also allows you to grab hold of one of your strings.
(p. 47)
 
What in the holy hell is going on here? I thought “Our wills are simply not of our own making”; now you’re telling me that “a person would have done otherwise if he had chosen to do otherwise,” i.e. he could have done otherwise? And you’re telling me that I can gain “greater creative control over [my] life”? You’re saying I’m a SELF-PUPPETEERING PUPPET?!?! How the hemorrhaging fuck am I NOT free, then?
 
In the spirit of cartoonish analogies, I’d like to offer my own: imagine someone said that, given the right equipment, they had the ability of flight–and indeed, with the help of an airplane, they do indeed appear to be flying! However, a non-compatibilist like Harris could criticize the so-called pilot: ‘Sure, you seem to be flying, but upon closer investigation we find that what’s really going on is just a series of normal physical events. For example, the movement of air across the wings creates upward lift. This is why you appear to be flying; but where is the flight in any of this?’
Harris, in other words, seems committed to rejecting any version of free will which can be coherently integrated into a cause-and-effect schema as not really free will. Intuitively-obvious free will is the only kind that counts. And, I mean, sure: Harris can decide that that’s what he means when he talks about “free will,” and he’s quite correct to say that (that version of) free will is incoherent and non-existent. Correct, but in a trivial way: suppose I say that all maps are two-dimensional, and then you point out that globes are three-dimensional maps, and I say, “Well, they’re not really maps. What I mean by ‘map’ is the commonsense notion of a map.” Or as Nietzsche put it:
If I make up the definition of a mammal, and then, after inspecting a camel,
declare “look, a mammal’ I have indeed brought a truth to light in this
way, but it is a truth of limited value.
(From On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense)
There aren’t any philosophers who take intuitively-obvious free will seriously. For heaven’s sake, the entire discipline of psychology amounts to an investigation into the ways in the way’s that people’s wills are determined by other factors. And while it’s true that most of us do use the notion of free will in our daily lives, and also true that a lot of good would come from our society paying more attention to the influences which determine people’s behavior, it’s not clear to me how writing a snarky, easy-reading philosophy tract is going to encourage anyone who isn’t already a philosopher to think more carefully about freedom and causality. If this book is for philosophers, then it’s like a fan-fic letter mailed to Jonathan Franzen; if it’s for layfolk, then it’s like a letter mailed to people who don’t read their mail. In any event, why is Harris writing?
One last bone to pick: Harris is deeply inconsistent in his objects of attack. Throughout Free Will, Harris uses other intuitively-obvious notions which are also extremely tricky and problematic when you begin to think carefully about them, yet he concentrates his fire solely on free will and lets other concepts pass unscathed. For example, what do we mean when we talk about “cause?” Is it just reliable correlation? That’s what statisticians mean, but that’s definitely a watered-down version of what everyone else means by “cause.” But what else is there, besides events happening together or not happening together? Or how about “identity”: all of the problems Harris poses for free will are at least as problematic to any notion of “me” or “myself.” Weirdly, Harris notes in End the problematic, illusory nature of selfhood, yet in Free Will he treats it as a non-issue. Or “object”? What is an “object”? Of course we speak of a physical world with stuff in it, but has anyone ever seen this physical world? Of course not! All we see are our impressions, which supposedly correspond to some ‘real world.’ And even supposing that there is a real world, what could it possible mean to say that there are different objects in it? It’s all just one big whole; distinctions between this table and that tablecloth are illusory and incoherent…Etc.
My point is that there are lots and lots of tricky notions which become mottled and incoherent the moment we begin to think carefully about what they entail. This is not new. Pretty much all of our concepts are problematic. To say that free will has conceptual problems, as Harris does, is not to say that it doesn’t exist; and a book concerned with evaluating free will seems obliged to give more consideration to philosophically robust versions of free will than End does.
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