Saturday, April 7, 2018

Critiquing Sam Harris on free will

Sam Harris, a popular atheist neuroscientist, believes free will is an illusion. He also believes morality exists. This blog post will review Harris' 2012 book Free Will. I'll review the illogic of morals in a universe devoid of free will as well as other characteristics of such a universe. I'll also take a look at other perspectives from scientists on free will.


In Harris' 2012 book Free Will (the current cover of which features marionette sticks dangling the words "Free Will), Harris repeatedly argues against the notion that humans have free will. I could cite manifold examples of this claim from the book, but here are several, including their page number references.
  • 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. (5)
  • The popular conception of free will seems to rest on two assumptions: (1) that each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past, and (2) that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present. As we are about to see, however, both of these assumptions are false. (5)
  • [W]e know that determinism, in every sense relevant to human behavior, is true. Unconscious neural events determine our thoughts and actions—and are themselves determined by prior causes of which we are subjectively unaware. (16)
  • My mental life is simply given to me by the cosmos. (19)
  • But the next choice you make will come out of the darkness of prior causes that you, the conscious witness of your experience, did not bring into being. (34)
  • From the perspective of your conscious awareness, you are no more responsible for the next thing you think (and therefore do) than you are for the fact that you were born into this world. (34)
  • Choices, efforts, intentions, and reasoning influence our behavior—but they are themselves part of a chain of causes that precede conscious awareness and over which we exert no ultimate control. (39)
  • What I will do next, and why, remains, at bottom, a mystery—one that is fully determined by the prior state of the universe and the laws of nature... (40)
  • Every person is "a biochemical puppet" who is "ultimately being steered." (47)
  • People are "neuronal weather patterns." (48)
I'll delve deeper into the science in the second part of this blog post. But it may be worth giving a condensed summary of the science from which Harris derives his claim that humans have no free will. He cites the Libet experiment and a couple subsequent experiments, summarized thusly:
The physiologist Benjamin Libet famously used EEG to show that activity in the brain's motor cortex can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move. ... Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next—a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please—your brain has already determined what you will do. (8-9)
These experiments form a foundation for Harris' quotes in the above bullet points. As Harris insists, we are "no more responsible" for our very thoughts than for being born—meaning we have zero responsibility for our actions. None. What we will "do next" is "fully determined by the prior state of the universe and the laws of nature."

In order to maintain this view, one must believe that group X of automatically interacting atoms are one subjective quality and group Y are of another. We know that Harris believes no one is ultimately responsible for any action occurring in the universe. Yet, Harris still makes subjective qualitative distinctions between one act of nature versus another.

For example, in one place Harris describes someone who is "lazy." (35) But, there is no room for "lazy" in Harris' description of the universe. The action of atoms that resulted in what was called "lazy" did not operate by some substandard of physics. In Harris' strict "chain of causes" universe, everything is operating correctly, so to speak. The laws of nature are just doing what they do, in every person, in every drop of water in a river, in a deserted island in the Pacific, or in any windstorm on Jupiter.

For Harris to make such qualitative judgments on actions of the laws of physics is arbitrary and nonsensical. There are no "hard-working" processes of physics and other "lazy" ones. Similar to concepts like "hard work" or "laziness," which cannot truly exist in Harris' universe, concepts directly associated with free will cannot exist either, for example "guilt" or "regret." 

Arbitrary values are echoed in Harris' view on morality. Consider another example Harris makes specific to crime. He supposes you might think about killing a king in this way:
If, after weeks of deliberation, library research, and debate with your friends, you still decide to kill the king—well, then killing the king reflects the sort of person you really are. The point is not that you are the ultimate and independent cause of your actions; the point is that, for whatever reason, you have the mind of a regicide. Certain criminals must be incarcerated to prevent them from harming other people. The moral justification for this is entirely straightforward: Everyone else will be better off this way. Dispensing with the illusion of free will allows us to focus on the things that matter -assessing risk, protecting innocent people, deterring crime, etc. (52)
If you read this excerpt in light of everything Harris has established prior in the book, it is nonsensical.  In this excerpt, Harris claims it is irrelevant that the killer in question has no free will.  Harris wants to incarcerate the killer even though the killer had no freedom to act otherwise. Could we incarcerate the killer? Sure. But in Harris' universe, whether or not the killer is incarcerated would be the natural movement of physics in either case. It could not be rightly described as just or unjust. In fact, whether or not anyone even thinks killing is good or bad, is dependent on the biochemical puppetmaster, the cosmos. All facets of the scenario can only be described as jostling particles of the cosmos, directed by physics, just doing what they do. In Harris' material universe, the culprit in every "immoral" act would have to be the physics itself. But assigning moral qualities to natural processes of physics is nonsensical.

Now, Catholics can agree with Harris in recognizing "harm" done by the killer—but only because Catholics have a concept of man in the image of God (cf. CCC#1700). Understanding man in the image of God opens the door to qualitative judgments about various actions and situations, for something higher than merely natural phenomena is at stake. Only in this context can we say there is "harm," "risk," "innocence," "crime," or even more general value judgements like "better" or "worse." Otherwise, man is just another bundle of molecules tumbling through the universe just the same as a leaf in a gust of wind. As Doctor of the Church St. Hildegard of Bingen said, "No creature has meaning without the Word of God."

Catholics also recognize morals in light of the Natural Law. One cannot have a concept of good or bad, appropriate or not appropriate, unless one has an idea of how things should be. I discussed this principle in a prior blog post on the Natural Law. Something like sickness cannot be known without knowing what is the proper health from which the sickness deviated. In the same way, one cannot know what is "bad" unless one has an idea of what the correct concept of good should be. One has to have an idea of what the proper order should be in order to recognize some evil deviation from that standard. In the material universe espoused by Harris, everything is operating according to physics in a chain-reaction. According to these deterministic principles, there is no other way for the universe to be. Nothing can occur but the order that is unfolding according to the laws of nature. There is no room for "should be" in such a universe. For Harris to argue something wrong or immoral happened is for him to say what he believes to be the true culprit—the laws of nature—as having acted incorrectly. This is nonsensical.

By insisting there is no possibility for anyone to act "otherwise," Harris de facto describes a universe that is always operating as it "should be." There can be no violation of Natural Law in Harris' universe, for there is always one course of action possible, and thus all actions are as they "should be." There is no basis in Harris' universe for anything "bad," because every atom and cluster of atoms are behaving as the should be 100% of the time.

But Harris does not have such a notion of man in the image of God. Man's thoughts and actions are just other forms "natural phenomena" (56) tantamount to a "neuronal weather pattern." (48) Thus, as with the example of "laziness," Harris strays from his own thesis when he assigns such qualitative labels to various acts of physics that are all just atoms following the laws that govern them. He can no more call a group of atoms bouncing around as "harmful" than he could call them "helpful." He can't even think of what label to assign an action unless the cosmos so steers him. What label Harris imposes on an action is completely irrelevant. Because, according to his theory, the jostling particles of the cosmos, directed by physics, are just doing what they do.

Consider the following visual depiction to illustrate this in another way:

If you are reading a text version of this post, the animated image above depicts a row of dominoes falling. Is it rational to call one domino bump "moral" and another bump "immoral"? That is effectively Harris' basis for morality, meaning, it is baseless. Man is just another bump in a "chain of causes" that is "given by the cosmos." Harris' thesis renders some occasions of physics "moral" and other occasions—automatically operating by the exact same laws—as immoral. It is a nonsensical thesis.

In Harris' view, no one can ever have "behaved differently" in any situation. All actions in the universe, including by individual persons, are merely the product of physics, of the "cosmos" behaving as the laws of science govern. Every "atom for atom" is simply behaving as the laws of nature dictate, as an automated "chain of causes." Human thoughts and actions, Harris believes, are a "natural phenomena" comparable to "earthquakes and hurricanes." (56)

When someone claims they could have made a different choice in a situation, Harris denies the claim:
Choices, efforts, intentions, and reasoning influence our behavior—but they are themselves part of a chain of causes that precede conscious awareness and over which we exert no ultimate control. ... [I]f it ever appears that I do—for instance, after going back and forth between two options—I do not choose to choose what I choose. There is a regress here that always ends in darkness. I must take a first step, or a last one, for reasons that are bound to remain inscrutable. ... [T]o say that I could have done otherwise is merely to think the thought "I could have done otherwise" after doing whatever I in fact did. This is an empty affirmation. It confuses hope for the future with an honest account of the past. (39)
In the page leading up to this paragraph, Harris makes additional declarative statements like, "You are not in control of your mind," and "You have not built your mind." But is it really an "empty affirmation" to claim one had a choice? Not based on the train of thought Harris espouses here.

He points out how one must take a "first step" toward a decision or eventually a "last one." He admits he doesn't know why. It's "inscrutable" why one makes this or that decision. But pointing out the necessity of a "last" step is irrelevant to the proof. Whether a single action was "chosen" among many or simply the result of the cosmos steering the atoms of the universe, the action accomplished is still singular. The evidence could be explained just as much by free will than by automated atoms in the universe.

According to the free will claimant, any back and forth was the time he took to consider various factors of the situation. And then he made the decision when he had ability and opportunity to make an alternate decision. As well, he might think it "inscrutable" how his free will works with with his body.

According to Harris, the laws of physics "steered" atoms and neurons in the person's brain until the right combination moved the "biochemical puppet" into the only possible action dictated by the particles jostling in his brain. The sequence of jostling atoms included planting the idea in the person's mind that he was consciously deliberating.

In a couple places in the book, Harris makes statements that absolve brutal criminals of direct responsibility. He states,
[A]ll rapists are, at bottom, unlucky—being themselves victims of prior causes that they did not create. (46)
He also does not address the role of the rape victim here. According to his thesis, the rape victim could not have been violated against her will, for she has no will. 

At the beginning of the book, Harris gives a lengthy analysis of a gruesome detail a murder that occurred in 2007 committed by two men. He asks himself if the murderers could have acted differently in the moments of the crime. He concludes they could only have acted as they did. In fact, Harris argues that had he been in the place of one of the killers, he, too, would have committed the murder:
As sickening as I find their behavior, I have to admit that if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him. There is no extra part of me that could decide to see the world differently or resist the impulse to victimize other people. ... If I had truly been in [the murderer's] shoes on July 23, 2007—that is, if I had his genes and life experience and an identical brain (or soul) in an identical state—I would have acted exactly as he did. (4)
Notice what Harris leaves out of the equation. He does not suppose that he could have inherited the murderer's free will as well. Later in the book, he returns to the subject of crime. He asserts:
[I]ronically, one of the fears attending our progress in science is that a more complete understanding of ourselves will dehumanize us. Viewing human beings as natural phenomena need not damage our system of criminal justice. ... If we could incarcerate earthquakes and hurricanes for their crimes, we would build prisons for them as well.  (55)
Ignore for the moment, the irony in assuring us he is not dehumanizing humans just as he compares them to "natural phenomena" like "earthquakes and hurricanes." And remember his reference to man as a "neuronal weather pattern." But arguing man is just a "biochemical puppet" who is "ultimately being steered" is about as dehumanizing a view one can imagine. It renders man as just another cluster of atoms or a "neuronal weather pattern" in Harris' own words. Hypothetically, if Harris was right, then any meaning of "humanity" would indeed be stripped. In Harris' universe, "humanity" can be nothing more than a label to distinguish one "natural phenomena" from another. By saying his interpretation of science isn't dehumanizing is merely to say he isn't changing the etymological label.

If his thesis ever became the norm, every criminal defense attorney would be wise to insist the client was innocent of the crime and that the crime isn't even really evil. That is, of course, if the cosmos so "steered" the attorney to think of that idea.

Harris also uses the concepts of earthquakes and hurricanes to argue that we can recognize evil even in things that don't have free will. But these things are only considered "evil" insofar as they are natural evils—not moral evils—that harm persons. No one argues a storm on Venus is committing evil that we would "incarcerate" if we could —because no one is harmed by it. And Harris' thesis does not even allow for an Earthly storm to cause evil because man is just as much a natural phenomenon as the storm. We certainly don't say a storm is behaving "immorally." It's just doing what the laws of nature dictate. And, one cannot recognize evil done to man without having a view of man beyond just another natural phenomenon. Catholics believe man is in the image of the eternally good God and only in this light can a hurricane be said to cause evil. Otherwise, it's just one cluster of atoms colliding with another cluster, like a storm on Venus knocking dust around.

To a certain degree, Harris recognizes the absurdity of using language indicative of free will since he doesn't believe in it himself. For example, he writes:
For most purposes, it makes sense to ignore the deep causes of desires and intentions—genes, synaptic potentials, etc.—and focus instead on the conventional outlines of the person. We do this when thinking about our own choices and behaviors—because it's the easiest way to organize our thoughts and actions. (60)
Thus, when you read or hear Harris talking about decisions or culpability, you shouldn't understand him to mean man is actually responsible for his choices. He simply believes it's "easiest" to think about choices that way. To him, it's not accurate to think of choices, but he finds utility in the language and/or concept (Or, to be more accurate, he believes the cosmos made him think it's the easiest way to organize his thoughts.). This makes interpreting his word use in the book a careful enterprise. For when he says choice, he doesn't mean choice. When he says man can "steer" his life, he really means man is "being steered." He just finds the language of free will an easy "way to organize our thoughts."

He then proceeds to use this language of culpability to justify incarceration of criminals. He writes:
[I]t is wise to hold people responsible for their actions when doing so influences their behavior and brings benefit to society. … It may seem paradoxical to hold people responsible for what happens in their corner of the universe, but once we break the spell of free will, we can do this precisely to the degree that it is useful. ... In improving ourselves and society, we are working directly with the forces of nature, for there is nothing but nature itself to work with.  (62-63)
This quote nonsensical in Harris' universe. Harris says here that we should hold people responsible for their actions. Yet, as we've analyzed above, it is meaningless to assign qualitative terms to the automated mechanics of the universe. There can be no "moral" or "immoral" activity in Harris' description of the universe. There are only jostling particles of the cosmos, directed by the laws of nature, just doing what they do.

Remember, Harris says a rapist is the "victim of prior causes." According to Harris' thesis, the rapist is just another cluster of atoms getting "steered" by the cosmos. The whole "murder" scene, in Harris' universe, is just "what happened" because all the atoms lined up as they did. What we call "murder" and "death" can be, in Harris' universe, nothing more than the natural course of jostling particles of the cosmos, directed by laws of nature, just doing what they do.

We see in the previous quotes where Harris speaks of one type of thought as "making sense." He speaks of some actions as being a "benefit" to society. He speaks of "improving" ourselves and society. He speaks of finding an act "sickening." But none of these concepts can actually exist in Harris' universe. The absence or contrary of every action to which Harris assigns these terms would equally be the result of the laws of physics doing what they do. The concept of "sickening" as Harris uses it in this context is to condemn what occurred. But in Harris' universe, everything is happening exactly as the cosmos conducts. No physical collision of atoms is more or less "sickening" than another. There is no "otherwise," as he himself argues. There is no such thing as "improvement" by the same reasoning. Any prior or future state of an object, person, or situation is always in perfect order as dictated by the laws of nature. Nothing can ever be "improved" upon. Nothing can ever get "worse."

In Harris' material universe, there is really only one set of laws, and those are the "laws of nature." These laws, Harris believes, are never violated. "The brain is a physical system, entirely beholden to the laws of nature," (12) he declares of the brain as a physical system. Nothing can happen in physical systems, according to Harris' thesis, that "shouldn't" have happened. So firmly does he believe everything, including every aspect of humanity, is physical, at one point he says:
[C]onsider what would happen if we discovered a cure for human evil. ... Evil would become nothing more than a nutritional deficiency. (55)
But "evil" cannot occur in Harris' universe. Everything that happens is perfectly going according to the laws of nature. There is never a "wrong" thing that can occur, thus no "evil" thing. The only reason Harris even believes "evil" exists, according to his own thesis, is because the cosmic puppeteer, aka laws of nature, delivered that idea to his consciousness.

Any "civil law," according to Harris' thesis, is simply an "idea" in the form of physical particles of the brain, delivered to human minds in a string of particles colliding like dominoes until the idea of that law existed. Any "moral law" one holds would be placed into human minds the same way. "My mental life is simply given to me by the cosmos," (19) Harris believes. Humans are "ultimately being steered," (47) he declares.

Therefore, if the idea that "murder is wrong" was planted into the mental life of many humans, and if one of those humans commits "murder," the entire drama would simply be what the particles of the cosmos did, exactly as the laws of nature "steered." Everything unfolded exactly in the only way it could have unfolded. There can never be an occasion of "wrong" taking place in Harris universe. Harris wants to both believe every action in the universe is just another natural phenomena while still claiming some are "good" or "bad," but both propositions cannot coexist.

Consider this, perhaps more profound, thought experiment. Imagine telling your spouse or child: "I love you only because the cosmos steers me as a biochemical puppet to love you. I'm certainly not loving you of my own free will!"

Yet, according to Harris' thesis, this is the base to which "love" must be reduced. After all, the rapist is just "unlucky...the victim of prior causes..." We saw Harris claim: "I cannot take credit for the fact that I do not have the soul of a psychopath." So too, in Harris' universe, can no one take credit for having the soul of a lover. Neither the concept of "love," nor "evil," nor "harm," nor "morals," nor "crime," etc. can exist in Harris' universe regardless of his claiming as much.

Supposing what an objector might say, Harris claims:
"If everything is determined, why should I do anything? Why not just sit back and see what happens?" This is pure confusion. To sit back and see what happens is itself a choice that will produce its own consequences. It is also extremely difficult to do: Just try staying in bed all day waiting for something to happen... 
And the fact that our choices depend on prior causes does not mean that they don't matter. If I had not decided to write this book, it wouldn't have written itself. My choice to write it was unquestionably the primary cause of its coming into being. ... But the next choice you make will come out of the darkness of prior causes that you, the conscious witness of your experience, did not bring into being. (33-34)
So what is wrong with this train of thought here? For one, Harris does not confront the challenge issued by his hypothetical inquisitor. Why not just sit around all day? If a person did that, it would simply mean the laws of nature orchestrating the universe eventually steered that person into sitting around all day. So what if nature's puppeteer steered that outcome? There wouldn't be anything more or less "consequential" about physics steering a man to sit all day versus write a book. The laws of nature don't suddenly "matter less" when thy direct a person to sit around all day versus read a book. In either case, the laws of nature would just be doing exactly what they do, and the person in question would still be, according to Harris, just a "conscious witness" of what the cosmos handed his brain.

When Harris says his "choice" is the "primary cause" of an action, it's important to read the next few sentences. In this context, when Harris says his "choice" is the primary "cause" of an action, he means that "choice" was the proximate physical action in a chain of impersonal physics leading to the action. This is essentially the domino effect illustrated earlier. To amplify the essence of Harris' thesis, consider this scenario: Someone pushes you into a bush instead of a tree. Harris' thesis essentially would assign the word "choice" to you, as the proximate subject that went to the bush instead of the tree. If you are confused by Harris' use of the word "choice" here, you are probably not alone. After all, Harris clearly says in the above quote that your "choice" ultimately comes out of "the darkness" of other "causes" that you "did not bring into being." Only in this instrumental sense are you the "primary cause" of your actions, according to his thesis.

Religious students might recognize the resemblance Harris' thesis has to some deterministic Calvinists.
According to [some forms of] Calvinism we are pots and God is the potter; we are only instrumental causes.
(Kreeft and Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, 1994, Kindle Loc 1616)
These type of Calvinists and Harris attribute "cause" to persons, but only in the sense that they are the instrument through which an act is done. The only difference is the Calvinist says God is steering humans, and Harris believes the "laws of nature" are ultimately "steering" them.

In another section of the book, Harris similarly assigns different values to what would equally be the laws of nature doing what they do. The following quote also includes another example of Harris using words incorrectly.
Becoming sensitive to the background causes of one's thoughts and feelings can-paradoxically-allow for greater creative control over one's life. It is one thing to bicker with your wife because you are in a bad mood; it is another to realize that your mood and behavior have been caused by low blood sugar. This understanding reveals you to be a biochemical puppet, of course, but it also allows you to grab hold of one of your strings: A bite of food may be all that your personality requires. Getting behind our conscious thoughts and feelings can allow us to steer a more intelligent course through our lives (while knowing, of course, that we are ultimately being steered). (47)
So what do we have here? First, the idea that one's body can affect mood is hardly a development in scientific or historical thought, much less one that demonstrates the absence of free will. Jesus said to his disciples: "The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." (Matt. 26:41) Just recently, I happened across a quote from the late sixth/early seventh century ascetic St. Thalassios the Libyan who wrote in his Four Centuries on the Spiritual Life about things that affect "the body's temperament." These include "lack of restraint in our diet" and "a change in the weather." St. Thalassios also believed in acts "freely chosen." Such an understanding of diet and mood doesn't "reveal" anyone to be a biochemical puppet. The concept of "body and soul" still fits the evidence here. The classic understanding of free will recognizes the influence of the body and even the environment, but rejects the notion that these factors must determine human action independent from the will.

Dr. Peter Kreeft and Dr. Ronald Tacelli, SJ, from the University of Boston explain the classic view with a simple formula:
H + E + FW = A 
Heredity plus environment plus free will equals the human act. Heredity and environment condition our acts, but they do not determine them, as the paints and the frame condition a painting but do not determine it. They are necessary causes but not sufficient causes of freely chosen acts.
(Kreeft and Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, 1994, Kindle Loc 1609)
Going back to the bickering scene, notice Harris assigns negative character to "bickering" and a "bad mood." But, remember, according to Harris' thesis, the bickering action and the mood came "out of the darkness of prior causes." All the actions, thoughts, and illusory decisions in this scene were given by the "cosmos." It's just a scene of "neuronal weather patterns" in the form of persons. The bickering and bad mood were the laws of nature operating correctly, so to speak. There is no "could have happened otherwise" in this situation. Harris decrying the bickering and bad mood is tantamount to saying even though only one scenario could possibly have unfolded here, the wrong things unfolded. His analysis is unsound.

Notice also in this very quote, Harris asserts that man is a "biochemical puppet." Despite that, Harris says in the same paragraph that man can get "creative control" and "steer" his life in a "more intelligent" way. Then, he finishes by saying we are "of course...ultimately being steered." These latter words are actually the entire theme of the book. When he says a person has "control," he really means that person is a "biochemical puppet." This is another example among many where Harris uses language negligently in the book.

If we understand this bickering scene through the principles of Harris ' thesis, the "chain of causes" unfold this way: the laws of nature steered biological processes, which resulted in a man's blood sugar count to reach a certain level, which, induced the man to have a certain "mood" (which Harris deemed "bad"). Because the cosmos had previously "given" the man's "mental life" an awareness of his biochemical puppetry, the brain process known as a "bad mood" caused the man to eat something in order to move the blood sugar level that resulted in him having a different brain process known as a "better mood." The man and the woman in the scene were "no more responsible" for anything that happened in the scene than that they "were born."

According to Harris' thesis, there was no "control" exerted by the characters in the scene (even though Harris wrongly attributes the term to them). In other parts of the book, Harris even says if you tell a story about what you did, that you are describing "events that you did not control" (35) and that "You are not in control of your mind". (37)

And, to reiterate an earlier discussion, the qualitative statements in the quote are gratuitous. When Harris says a mood is "bad" or a course of life is "more intelligent," he is saying some processes of the laws of nature are "bad" or "intelligent." This remains a nonsensical pattern in the book.

Another way Harris attempts to argue against free will relates to will power. He appeals to occasions when a person desires to accomplish, say, a diet, yet fails to do so. At first, Harris supposes the person fails in losing weight.  Then, one day, the person succeeds in losing weight. He writes:
Yes, you can decide to go on a diet—and we know a lot about the variables that will enable you to stick to it—but you cannot know why you were finally able to adhere to this discipline when all your previous attempts failed. You might have a story to tell about why things were different this time around, but it would be nothing more than a post hoc description of events that you did not control. (35)
Willpower is itself a biological phenomenon. You can change your life, and yourself, through effort and discipline—but you have whatever capacity for effort and discipline you have in this moment, and not a scintilla more (or less). You are either lucky in this department or you aren’t—and you cannot make your own luck. (38)
What is peculiar about this whole section of his book is that the conventional idea of free will doesn't say all physical feats are as easy to do as another. Remember also Jesus saying "The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." And a person who believes in traditional free will certainly can understand the dieter as having strengthened his will with practice, just as with any other discipline that improves with practice. To reiterate the classic free will formula as described by Kreeft and Tacelli, human action is heredity plus environment plus free will. Pointing out the influence of the body or environment is not evidence against traditional free will.

But let's analyze Harris' words closer. We already know by this point that Harris has dismissed the existence of free will. So, his example of the dieter trying and failing several times is irrelevant. Harris would deny the dieter free will if the dieter had succeeded on one attempt.

Harris claims that if a person had a "soul" it wouldn't offer any freedom either. He asserts this early in the book:
The brain is a physical system, entirely beholden to the laws of nature—and there is every reason to believe that changes in its functional state and material structure entirely dictate our thoughts and actions. But even if the human mind were made of soul-stuff, nothing about my argument would change. The unconscious operations of a soul would grant you no more freedom than the unconscious physiology of your brain does. (12)
He makes a categorical error here by assuming the soul operates according to the same sort of "laws of nature" that the physical processes of the brain do. His assertion only has merit if the soul operates by the same laws of nature he has assigned to it, otherwise his position unravels. But his assertion is gratuitous. At best, Harris can only say he doesn't know how the soul operates if it existed because he has never observed it scientifically.

When Harris described the murder scene at the beginning of the book, he also briefly touched on the idea of a soul.
Even if you believe that every human being harbors an immortal soul, the problem of responsibility remains: I cannot take credit for the fact that I do not have the soul of a psychopath. If I had truly been in [the killer's] shoes... if I had his genes and life experience and an identical brain (or soul) in an identical state—I would have acted exactly as he did. There is simply no intellectually respectable position from which to deny this. The role of luck, therefore, appears decisive. (4)
Here again, Harris treats the soul as something interchangeable with the operations of the physical brain. And we know Harris believes the brain is "entirely beholden to the laws of nature." After asserting that the soul and brain are subject to the same laws of nature, subject to think only what the dominoes of the cosmos knock into to it, Harris claims no "intellectually respectable position" can be used to deny his conclusion. But, not only will we see scientists later in this article who do not share Harris' understanding of the science, but Harris' categorical conflation of the soul with the brain renders his position logically defective.

Harris denies that his argument depends on "materialism." (11) However, his book is fixated on the material. As we just saw, he dismisses the idea of a soul's influence on the grounds that it, too, must operate by material laws. At one point, Harris imagines a fictional "brain scanner" (23) that can predict 100% of human action. He says of this fictional brain scanner:
We know we could perform such an experiment, at least in principle, and if we tuned the machine correctly, subjects would feel that we were reading their minds (or controlling them)." (23) 
But even this fictional brain scanner can only detect physical activity.  By assuming the soul would operate in the same way, Harris' argument indeed depends entirely on "materialism." His interpretation of material "laws of nature" are his only recourse in the book.

Later, Harris goes on the offensive against religion:
This shift in understanding [i.e. what Harris believes is a movement toward his way of thinking] represents progress toward a deeper, more consistent, and more compassionate view of our common humanity—and we should note that this is progress away from religious metaphysics. Few concepts have offered greater scope for human cruelty than the idea of an immortal soul that stands independent of all material influences, ranging from genes to economic systems. Within a religious framework, a belief in free will supports the notion of sin–which seems to justify not only harsh punishment in this life but eternal punishment in the next. (55)
His assertions are nonsensical. First, his qualitative assertions of "progress" and "deeper," "more compassionate," "cruelty," and "harsh" are not merely unscientific claims, but, again, cannot exist in Harris' universe. The culprit for all those things is ultimately the laws of nature, not the idea of the immortal soul, which Harris believes was planted in human minds by the cosmos anyway.

Second, Harris has his own concept of "sin." As we saw earlier, we saw Harris refer to some acts as evil. He even hypothesizes about a "cure for human evil." His doctrine includes some type of "sin" in his material world (which, of course, makes no sense since everything is steered standardly by the laws of nature and never deviates from those laws). Harris merely doesn't use the word "sin." He just argues for different consequences to such evil acts, such as "incarceration," an imposed medicinal "cure," or no consequence if the subject can get away with it.

Third, his aversion to an "immortal soul" is stated with no apologetic but rather that sin can lead to "eternal punishment." Yes. But so what. Harris also ignores the selfless virtue many saints believing in the immortal soul have achieved. But the truth of a concept is not dependent on whether it can lead to harsh or nice consequences. Harris commits here a basic Appeal to Consequences fallacy.

Harris might do well to be less hasty in rejecting the idea of an immortal soul. For an immortal soul endowed with a free will would account for everything about this issue that confuses him. Consider Harris' admitted confusion in this sample montage from his book:
Why didn't [a different choice] arise this morning? Why might it arise in the future? I cannot know. (8) Why didn't I decide to drink a glass of juice? (19) [H]ow can you account for... How can you explain... How can you explain... you cannot know why... you cannot know why... reasons that are bound to remain inscrutable... (36-37) What I will do next, and why, remains, at bottom, a mystery (40) [W]hen I look for the psychological cause of my behavior, I find it utterly mysterious. ... But why did I read this book? I have no idea. And why did I find it compelling? And why was it sufficient to provoke action on my part? And why so much action? ... What in hell is going on here? [T]he actual explanation for my behavior is hidden from me. (43) Why did I order beer instead of wine? ... Why do I prefer it? I don't know... (60) [W]e can't make sense of [free will] in scientific terms (64) Why didn't I put an elephant in that sentence? I don't know. ... [H]ow could I explain it? It is impossible for me to know the cause of either choice. (65)
It would serve the likes of Harris well not to deride what he sees as a "religious" answer when he has "no idea" what is truly behind his choices. Imagine the irony of Harris writing a book about a mystery solved by the very things his thesis denies.


Let's take a closer look at where Harris derives his view that free will does not exist. He describes early in the book an experiment known as the "Libet experiment" and others like it. The Libet experiment of the early 1980s showed certain activity in the brain prior to a person's conscious awareness of making a decision. Subjects were told to identify at what moment a moving dot on a clock they became aware of having made a decision. Harris describes it thusly:
The physiologist Benjamin Libet famously used EEG to show that activity in the brain's motor cortex can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move. (8)
In the remainder of that paragraph, Harris cites two other similar experiments since that time. He then asserts:
One fact now seems indisputable: Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next—a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please—your brain has already determined what you will do. You then become conscious of this "decision" and believe that you are in the process of making it. (9)
You can see from this conclusion why he elsewhere asserts he is just the "conscious witness of my experience." (42) You can see why he asserts "My mental life is simply given to me by the cosmos." (19) You can also see how, in Harris' understanding of the universe, man can be understood as nothing less than an automaton, equally enslaved to the laws of nature, a "biochemical puppet, a "neuronal weather pattern."

Is Harris' conclusion that neuroscience disproves free will universally accepted by other scientists?

No. Let's take a look:
First of all, it does not show that a decision has been made before people are aware of having made it.  It simply finds discernible patterns of neural activity that precede decisions.  If we assume that conscious decisions have neural correlates, then we should expect to find early signs of those correlates “ramping up” to the moment of consciousness.  It would be miraculous if the brain did nothing at all until the moment when people became aware of a decision to move.  … The early neural activity measured in the experiments likely represents these urges or other preparations for movement that precede conscious awareness. (Eddy Nahmias, associate professor at Georgia State University department of philosophy and the Neuroscience Institute, Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will? Nov. 13, 2011). 
The evidence for conscious causation of behavior is profound, extensive, adaptive, multifaceted, and empirically strong. However, conscious causation is often indirect and delayed, and it depends on interplay with unconscious processes. Consciousness seems especially useful for enabling behavior to be shaped by nonpresent factors and by social and cultural information, as well as for dealing with multiple competing options or impulses. It is plausible that almost every human behavior comes from a mixture of conscious and unconscious processing. (Roy Baumeister, social psychologist, Florida State University - College of Arts & Sciences; E. J. Masicampo, post-doctoral fellow in Psychology, Tufts University; Kathleen Vohs, PhD in psychological and brain sciences, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities - Carlson School of Management, Do Conscious Thoughts Cause Behavior? Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 62, pp. 331-361, 2011)
In a modified version of Libet’s experiment in which participants were asked to press one of two buttons in response to images on a computer screen. The participants showed “readiness potential” even before the images came up on the screen, suggesting that it was not related to deciding which button to press. (Steve Taylor, PhD, senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University, UK, Benjamin Libet and The Denial of Free Will: How Did a Flawed Experiment Become so Influential?, Psychology Today, September 5, 2017)
In addition to that quote, Dr. Taylor's article lists at least 4 other problems with citing the Libet experiment as evidence disproving free will:
  • It relies on the participants’ subjective claim of intention.
  • The complexity of most decisions aren’t clearly binary as in the experiment.
  • It is not clear that the electrical activity of the “readiness potential” is related to the decision to move.
  • Others have suggested the “will” is associated with a different part of the brain that what Libet measured.
Benjamin Libet has argued that electrophysiological signs of cortical movement preparation are present before people report having made a conscious decision to move, and that these signs constitute evidence that voluntary movements are initiated unconsciously. This controversial conclusion depends critically on the assumption that the electrophysiological signs recorded by Libet, Gleason, Wright, and Pearl (1983) are associated only with preparation for movement. We tested that assumption by comparing the electrophysiological signs before a decision to move with signs present before a decision not to move. There was no evidence of stronger electrophysiological signs before a decision to move than before a decision not to move, so these signs clearly are not specific to movement preparation. We conclude that Libet’s results do not provide evidence that voluntary movements are initiated unconsciously. (Judy Trevena, Department of Psychological Medicine, Dunedin School of Medicine, University of Otago, New Zealand; Jeff Miller, Department of Psychology, University of Otago, New Zealand; Abstract of Brain preparation before a voluntary action: Evidence against unconscious movement initiation; Consciousness and CognitionVolume 19, Issue 1, March 2010)
Another interesting scientific perspective on this matter comes from Dr. John-Dylan Haynes of Charit√© - Universit√§tsmedizin in Berlin. The following two quotes suggest he reversed position on this matter between 2008 and 2016. Compare:
Our decisions are predetermined unconsciously a long time before our consciousness kicks in. I think it says there is no free will. (Haynes, quoted in Machine detects our decisions before we know them, New Scientist, April 16, 2008) 
A person’s decisions are not at the mercy of unconscious and early brain waves. They are able to actively intervene in the decision-making process and interrupt a movement. Previously people have used the preparatory brain signals to argue against free will. Our study now shows that the freedom is much less limited than previously thought. (Haynes, quoted in Neuroscience and Free Will Are Rethinking Their Divorce, February 3, 2016)


There are at least two ways to react logically to Harris' thesis that free will is an illusion.

First, consider the character of the universe Harris asserts. Everything is physical and "beholden to the laws of nature." Man is a "biochemical puppet," a "neuronal weather pattern," who is "ultimately being steered." Man's mental life is "given" to him "by the cosmos." Every action is "fully determined" by preceding states of the universe, like dominoes obedient to physics. Due to these and similar sentiments in Harris book, the idea that morality can still exist in such a universe is nonsensical. His arguments about "good" or "evil" contradict a universe that is always unfolding exactly as the laws of nature prescribe. In Harris' universe, the "wrong" thing can never happen.

Second, according to comments by many other scientists, Harris' interpretation of certain experiments is by no means universally accepted. It's important to recognize Harris' view on free will is an interpretation of science, not something he empirically observed. Professor Nahmias articulates this when he states of Libet-esque experiments: "[I]t does not show that a decision has been made before people are aware of having made it.  It simply finds discernible patterns of neural activity that precede decisions."

Related post: Why science can't answer moral questions

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