Sam Harris’ Fallacy on Free Will


At 02:51 in this video, the ‘think of something’ example only reveals that Science doesn’t yet know whence the memory or decision came, just as the conscious self doesn’t. Surely Harris would agree this memory is part of the person. From this follows that the predisposition for a decision is in the person (and can be influenced, but that’s beside the point). He must go one level further to prove his point; he must detail the process of producing a single memory or decision perfectly. He is unable to. While that may not hinder him to draw conclusions at a staggering distance from it, it certainly should.

(On an ancillary note, Philosophy has shown that perfect prediction doesn’t prove lack of free will. With a fast enough ‘decision-detector’, the conscious self might always be aware of the decision later than the ‘fast equipment’. Predicting any thought or action proves nothing, but Harris instead seems to desire some such perfect mind-reader as originator of the thoughts – at least this is his terms for recognizing ourselves as the originators of our thoughts!)

Part of the context is that Harris needs this – to justify his special brand of causality and to make scientific morals work for his future efforts. This is important to know. This in no way implies that the assumption that causality is an overwhelmingly successful prediction of behavior of matter and forces (I use the old notation).

But I, and certainly Biologists, hold that consciousness is very different in nature from matter and forces, and that the understanding of it is in its infancy. Nowhere else in the Universe can this phenomenon be observed, that matter becomes aware of itself – thankfully not fully aware or it might become unusable under the weight of it – and specifically that it should not be treated as if it is yet understood as well as matter and forces. Now, I would be subscribing to a speculative world view if I held that the brain doesn’t solely consist of matter and forces, but I don’t; instead, it is here the process which is under dispute, and this process, I claim – with perfect confidence – is not yet understood.

Point #1: the ‘Think of something’ is not the same as ‘try to overcome your impulse to kill the father of two slumbering on the tanning bed’ (from the example in his book): for example, you may comply with a magician asking you to think of something on a whim, instantly (and as you can see in such examples, the rationale behind the coaching etc. to reach the prediction is very accurate, and not based on neurological equipment) – but here’s the nub – even if you’re a murderer with brain damage, as in the example in his book, if asked nobody will comply instantly on a whim, or ever – “evil” person, or “good”. It took said person many minutes to decide.

Even soldiers mightn’t under severe duress – when ordered to by someone who can have them shot for disobedience, fighting for the future of their country, and the product of a nationalist culture where his repute and self-esteem, perhaps even his bragging rights, hangs in the balance.

Now, Sam Harris should be interested in the latter example – the cases of healthy persons acting against supposedly for them overwhelmingly causated choices – but he chooses the example with neurological damage acting without cause (and dismissing the reason for this specific decision taking so long). This, then, is the difference between his research, and examinations of demonstrative examples of free will. It is all too evident in his book that he is too close to his field to notice its lacks.

Surely, if the person is to be considered a separate thing (individual) that can influence (act), perhaps under his own control (will) in a determinist Universe, the murderer’s choice in the book was not out of character at all – it was simply not predicted at the time! (This is also his shaky point – well, not if all you require is ‘barrister’ evidence). What Sam Harris could investigate is what else science yet can’t predict with regards to the biological machinery that produces the thoughts and decisions for us that we identify with. As in, are our own.

Without identity, there is no self, and I doubt Sam Harris is yet equipped to disprove the self. Again, the one level further mentioned is required before science can say it understands.
If we ourselves don’t consciously know where our decisions and memories come from, it’s only because if we knew the origin of them within ourselves, we would be overloaded with recursive information that we don’t need to help us – to quickly produce the memory we need in a situation, for example.

I’m certain the conscious self is flooded with competing memories, and that the consciousness will be predisposed to pick the strongest one among the first to reach the bottleneck of consciousness – or we would be overwhelmed. Imagine being consciously aware of the name and face of every person you have ever met!

But under (well, not very) disciplined control, that it can also discard them and consciously attempt to conjure up more memories. In this example, ‘think of a person’, more than one viewer might certainly have paused the video and tried to think of an old love whose name escaped them at the moment, then followed the a-ha moment, and he or she settled on that choice. Harris’ describes this process similarly, yet doesn’t recognize its effect.

Here’s point #2: if, apart from the person, science also doesn’t yet know where his decisions and memories come from, we and scientists should suspend judgment. In Harris’ case, he can be accused of building a mountain out a molehill, or (the trap of many a knowledgeable man) build an entire ever so coherent world view from ever so unsupported axioms. It would be wise to at least scratch the surface of the origins of human thoughts before doing so.

Now, all of the above is just my thoughts on his book, and shouldn’t affect your instinct to call Dr. Sam Harris’ failure to recognize that the scientific data just isn’t in. Hell, if we are to be intellectual honest, it isn’t in for matter! He just does not yet have all the facts within his discipline to dismiss choice as determined. I don’t wish this task on anyone, but it has to be undertaken before jumping to conclusions.

As a two-liner, the propositional fallacy goes something like this:

Neuroscientists don’t yet understand the conscious or unconscious process, and therefore decisions are determined despite Biology recognizing conscious behavior and unconscious behavior of conscious beings as giving rise to behavior worlds apart from that of plants or amoebas. Perhaps it’s ‘just more complex’, but it’s a problem of enough scope to not be able to call so yet by Science, let alone Neuroscience.

Knowing free will is an abstract and therefore nonexistent, and that Harris is trying to prove a negative (of said abstract(!)), I still accuse him of saying something like, “I don’t know what causes decisions, but it certainly isn’t the person doing them!”, and drawing many and far-reaching conclusions from 3 different propositional fallacies that build upon the conditional “if determinism is true”, a proposition that is not proven.

I also know that this is a free shot, since I’m pretty sure I don’t offend anyone by defending their free will – even if I really want to get published. ;)

(In closing: For myself, I dislike when someone explains how it is not. A fellow blogger asked for a feedback article on an article of his on free will. It’s in draft at the moment, and I hope to go more into detail when this is published. I’m quite sure I still can’t tell you how it is, and for the same reason as above: the conscious-unconscious process is not easily unraveled. )

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About maximilion

I seek truths and try to make you see them. View all posts by maximilion

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