Friday, March 30, 2012

you don't have free will

Sam Harris at a recent Cal Tech talk, opining on the illusion of free will.

Harris's points seem almost to be grounded in Indian philosophy:

• Consciousness is the one thing that can't be illusory.
• The self, meanwhile, is an illusion.*
• Decisions, being based on previous states of affairs that include both previous decisions and random factors, cannot be parsed in such a way as to reveal free will at any point in the decision-making process.

There's more going on in this talk-- much more. If you find yourself with about 80 minutes to spare, I highly recommend watching Harris's spiel and the brief Q&A period that follows it.

My own sense that I have free will is both strong and undeniable, but Harris makes a pretty good case for the idea that a combination of deterministic and random factors can never be a recipe for freedom in the cherished philosophical sense, i.e., that I am somehow the "author" (Harris's term) of my actions. I wish he'd had more time to tease out the moral implications of this way of thinking. The talk heads, somewhat fuzzily, in the direction of emphasizing compassion and understanding-- especially regarding violent criminals-- as core values in this new, post-libertarian ethos, but Harris's spiel does little to unpack these concepts.

I'm wary of attempts at social engineering. When people propose new moral paradigms, I feel as if I'm witnessing a sort of top-down attempt at restructuring human interaction. Of course, Harris isn't seriously proposing a thorough, comprehensive reparadigming; the lack of detail in his talk is enough to make that clear. But as a prominent author and respected neuroscientist, he's in a position to influence a lot of people, and his facility for accessible explanations means he can insert his ideas into the pop-cultural nomos with ease. There is indeed a top-down dynamic at work here, and it's worrisome.

All of this has made me want to read more Herbert Fingarette. Fingarette has done a lot of work in the areas of freedom and responsibility, and I think he comes down on the side of moral agency: there is some sense in which we are morally responsible for what we do. I've cited Fingarette before, mainly because he talks about two senses of the word "responsibility": (1) being the locus of action, and (2) being the locus of moral agency. From here:

In the first sense, being responsible means being the locus of a given action. In the second sense, it refers to being an accountable moral agent. The first sense applies when we think of, say, a bear attacking someone: no one seriously attributes malice to the bear. The second sense is more in line with how we approach premeditated murder: the killer is not only the enactor of the murder; he is also someone who can be held accountable for having done wrong.

Harris's way of thinking detracts nothing from sense (1), but it certainly complicates our evaluation of sense (2). I may watch this Cal Tech talk again soon. If I do, I'll likely have more to say on the matter.

*This is somewhat unfortunately phrased, since the term "illusion" requires a self that grounds the perspective from which illusions can be perceived. Harris might have done better had he said that the self doesn't exist.



  1. If there is no free will, there's no moral responsibility, for that only has meaning if one could have done otherwise.

    We would need a new vocabulary to discuss persons as malfunctioning machines that can either be fixed or not. If they can be fixed, then fix them. If not, then disassemble them so that their malfunction does not affect properly functioning machines.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  2. Harris seems to think there's a way out of this dilemma, but I'm still not sure I've understood him, which is one reason why I plan to watch the vid again. He does, in fact, address the notion of a hypothetical "fix" for problems-- the so-called pill that "cures" evil-- but he's at pains to discuss the unsettling implications of designing such a pill, which would be crafted according to certain people's notions of what counts as evil.

    Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange," based on Anthony Burgess's novel, deals with this very issue.

  3. Bumper sticker seen last year: "You have no choice but to believe in Free Will"



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