Free Will: Why Sam Harris needs to read more Philosophy

Posted on July 29, 2012 by

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In his book ‘Free Will’ (2012) Sam Harris offers up the conclusion that “free will is an illusion”. I can’t say that I’m surprised given the fact that  many neuroscientists have offered up similar responses to the free will problem (Libet 83′, 99′, 01′, 03′, among others) . But, falling in line with Libet and other neuroscientists that have made similar claims, Harris refuses to confront many of the arguments that philosophers doing work on free will have offered. Here, I’ll offer some reasons why we should reject the notion of free will that Harris offers us, and, the notion that we are left with is in fact a notion of free will, at least the sort of free will that we need to have moral responsibility and to justify ascriptions of praise and blame.

Sam Harris suggests that free will is an all or nothing sort of concept, you either have it or you don’t. I argue that this is not the right way to think about free will. Rather, like many philosophers doing work in this area have stated (the list is quite extensive), it’s more likely that free will comes in degrees. Mitigating factors can limit our ability to act “freely”, such as various mental disorders and external factors, however, to claim that free will is an all or nothing sort of concept seems to miss both the folk intuition as to the importance of free will (see Nahmias, Morris, Turner, Nadelhoffer 05′) and our ordinary conceptions of its role in grounding moral responsibility and justifying our conventions of punishment, dealings in relationships, desert, and conscious experience. Harris, like many others that think free will is an illusion, assumes that in order to claim that we have ‘FREE WILL’ (capital letters for emphasis) we (1)”need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have complete control over those factors” and that (2)”free will requires that we could have behaved differently than we did in the past”. But, anyone familiar with even a fraction of the exorbitant amount of philosophical literature regarding Harry Frankfurt’s ‘Principle of Alternative Possibilities’ (PAP) would see that this latter assumption is dubious. The former assumption (1) is also a highly debated topic in philosophical journals, and, some argumentation is needed to support these assumptions that Harris takes as a given. But, what is free will according to Harris? Well, Harris never explicitly gives us a definition, but, what he does give us is what Eddie Nahmias has called “nebulous x-factors“.

To reiterate what I found to be a fine breakdown of Harris’ argument by Nahmias: (A) Free Will requires X; (B) X is impossible; (C) Therefore, Free Will is impossible, or “an illusion”. Harris offers different inputs for X throughout his short (13,000 word) book such as (1)”having an extra part  that transcends our brain”; (2) being free to “do that which doesn’t occur to me to do”; (3) being unpredictable in principle; (4) not being beholden to the laws of nature; and that (5) “we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions”. After claiming that 1-5 are impossible he concludes that free will is impossible, but, he’s not actually warranted in claiming that we do not have free will, he’s only warranted in claiming that the sort of free will implied by the above mentioned x-factors MIGHT be impossible. Many don’t believe that 1-5 are needed for us to have free will, and even for those that are inclined to think that the more reasonable x-factors (4 and 5) are needed to claim that we do have free will, there are robust philosophical arguments available that support alternative understandings of both the laws of nature (4) and what role our conscious mind (5) plays in the neural firings that lead to thoughts and action. Let’s take a closer look at Harris’ claims.

When analyzing the data drawn from numerous neuroscientific studies Harris assumes that the data clearly states that “your brain has already determined what you will do”, but, as Al Mele has forcefully argued in his book ‘Free Will and Luck’ (2006) that same data has a far better (or, at worst, equally plausible) interpretation of the readiness potential (RP) that Libet (and Harris) claims is telling of our brains actually deciding to press a button before the electromyogram shows relevant muscular motion to begin pressing the button. To summarize Mele, Libet (and now Harris) has no good reason to claim that what they are seeing in FMRI scans and other instruments used in RP experiments are in fact one’s decision or intention (or ACTUAL thought of either) to press a button (or perform any action for that matter) before the button has been pressed and not something like “an urge” to press them or perform an action. It should also be noted here that the neuroscientific experiments have not been able to predict with more than (roughly) 60% success if a button would in fact be pushed. Before closing, let me briefly explain why many do not take 1-5 that seriously when thinking about free will.

Why should we reject these x-factors as explaining what it means to have free will? Well, if we think that free will is, to quote Eddie Nahmias in his NYT article ” a set of capacities for imagining future courses of action, deliberating about one’s reasons for choosing them, planning one’s actions in light of this deliberation and controlling actions in the face of competing desires.  We act of our own free will to the extent that we have the opportunity to exercise these capacities, without unreasonable external or internal pressure.” then free will is still viable even in the picture that Harris has presented. This surely sounds more like Free Will  than the notions that Harris would have us consider. Harris’ concept of Free Will implies  something like a Cartesian soul or, the infamous “ghost in the machine”. The concept need not be that spooky.

If we revisit Harris’ claim that “free will is an illusion” in light of the above definition of free will then we see that Harris is wrong and free will is alive and well. No neuroscientific study, surely none that have been conducted thus far, has proven that this concept is gone. And, for those who think that the above mentioned definition of free will is not the working definition of many then I ask you to read the study conducted on the folk intuitions regarding free will entitled “Surveying Freedom: Folk Intuitions about Free Will and Moral Responsibility” in Philosophical Psychology 18: 561-84.

As Nahmias pointed out in his review of Harris’ book and as I’ll reiterate here, it’s ironic that Sam Harris_neuroscientist_ makes arm-chair assertions about what is meant by the concept of free will. It’s ironic because it’s usually scientists who levy criticisms against philosophers for making assertions in a similar vein.

All of this could be avoided if Harris and other scientists would just do as I suggested in my title and READ MORE PHILOSOPHY!But, then again, more radical interpretations of the data tend to sell more books. I’m not suggesting that Harris curtailed his interpretation to fit this mold, but, by failing to wrestle with the piles of philosophical literature written on the topic he was acting academically irresponsible in making his claims.