Nietzsche is said to have said that he wished to say more in a couple lines than most philosophers could say in an entire book. The scheme may very we...moreNietzsche is said to have said that he wished to say more in a couple lines than most philosophers could say in an entire book. The scheme may very well have been met by the great 19th century thinker, as each sentence could be dissected and interpreted in such ways that they beget numerous debates and discussions still. Sam Harris has expressed no such ambition, but if there is a modern philosopher/scientist to whom such a description could be accredited, it would be him (although he may be less difficult to take in than Nietzsche). The straightforwardly named Free Will could prove to be one of the more important books (or pamphlets) written in the coming years. The recent onslaught of neuroscience books may seem fashionable; an intellectual fad of sorts (as much could be said for the so-called new/neo-atheist ‘movement’ for which Harris was arguably the progenitor), but the merits and contentions of Dr. Harris cannot be chalked up to barren hype. Within his own lifetime, it is not unreasonable to think we may see a book entitled Why Sam Harris Matters (No, not by me, yet) being published. Perhaps he is destined, er, headed for a Nobel Prize. (Hey, it’s likelier than a Templeton Prize).
Controversy: What would the implications be if the scientific consensuses become one of “free will is an illusion”? After all, the notion of free will has long been a definitive characteristic of what it is to be human. Given how many people still reject scientific consensus on matters like evolution, it is safe to assume that such a declaration would not change society at large w/r/t their belief in free will. Some significant portion of the population wouldn’t even find out about the shift, I’d wager. Free Will is largely assumed from the outset. We (or they) initiate conversations on morality with statements like “because we have free will, we…”, and “Free will has allowed for us humans to…”, and my favorite “God gave us free will so that we may choose…” It is used as a tool in a debate about morality, accountability, and responsibility, when it should often be part of the debate itself. Classical moralists (as I refer to them as) seem to think that the aim of those who would argue against the existence of free will is to absolve heinous murderers, rapists and other criminals of any wrong-doing. The problem in this sort of criticism is immediately apparent. Ask anyone (free will advocate or not) if they would feel comfortable with a known serial rapist/murderer/human-organ-collector/explosives-enthusiast/psycopath living across the street from them. The answer would invariably be NO, or perhaps, WHAT THE HELL KIND OF IDIOTIC QUESTION IS THAT? To seriously answer otherwise would itself be indicative of psychopathy. What makes people appeal to such paranoid accusations, as if neuroscience is all a conspiracy to set Charles Manson free? The emotional responses we have to murder are as hard-wired into us as digestion and waste excretion. The desire for vengeance when we feel wronged is entirely natural, but this has no particular bearing on what ‘motivation’ there was on the part of the offender. Free will, in the context of anti-life activities, is an excuse to justify why we want retribution, but to put it as simply (and boldly) as I can, we don’t need an excuse for these desires. Solidarity and empathy account for much in these matters. We empathize with family members of murder victims because we don’t want our loved one taken from us in such a manner. This all seems rather obvious, but people talk about justice as if it depends on punishing people for having the minds they have, which, ultimately, may have been no more capable of choosing to do what they did than we have to sleep when our bodies (or brains) tell us we are tired. We would still have a duty to keep offenders of livelihood and civilization away from functional society. (“If we could incarcerate earthquakes and hurricanes for their crimes…”, we would). Not to dwell too long on the point, but the objections of this sort are purely emotional, and that is justification in-and-of itself for wanting to kill someone for killing someone else. In a roundabout way, it further proves the absence of free will. Do we have control over how we feel about people? Do we really, as religious moralists assume, have the power to forgive? The problem, as Harris points out, is that we have absolutely no say in who we are. We are born with all the proclivities that we will come to live with, whether it be a dormant neurological disorder that will spring up in our thirties, or a predisposition for cancer that develops a tumor in our frontal cortex and could fundamentally ‘change’ who we are. Psychopaths don’t choose to be psychopaths any more than people with down-syndrome choose to have down-syndrome.
Questions to Consider: If we had free will, would we ever be able to do what we did, when we could have done something else instead? Did I have a choice to phrase that question differently? If I went back and changed the way I phrased the question, did I have a choice to keep it as it was? Did you have a choice to read it? Once you read it, do you have a choice to forget it? Are you asking yourself if I have a choice to shut the fuck up? Did you have a choice about whether or not you asked yourself that question?
A Coming Intellectual Feud? Harris ensues a friendly dissent from philosopher Daniel Dennett and the compatibilists, who “generally claim that a person is free from any outer or inner compulsions that would prevent him from acting on his actual desires and intentions.” Whatever we ‘decide’ to do is determined by something that we could not have ‘decided’ to think, or on past events which are already done and irreversible. To make it clear, we are incapable of doing anything which does not occur to us to do. Harris has received much criticism from Dennett’s students and fans. Hopefully I can look forward to a debate between the two greats.
Choosing to Conclude My Thoughts: Where do our ideas come from? When we have good ideas, it cannot be said that we chose to have them. The depressing loathsomeness which shadows a good idea that doesn’t last long enough to make it on the page occurs because that idea had nothing to do with me as a conscious agent determining which thoughts to hang on to and which to dispose of; leaving only the memory that I had a good idea, without allowing me to process again what that idea was. (If this review sucks, the above sentence is my excuse as to the reason).
I can’t think of anything else to write about this book at the moment, and can’t wait to post it any longer, “and where is the freedom in that?”
What is it, in our day-to-day lives, that prevents us from stepping back—perhaps lowering the arm presently occupying (or occupied by) some gadget—and...moreWhat is it, in our day-to-day lives, that prevents us from stepping back—perhaps lowering the arm presently occupying (or occupied by) some gadget—and examining the aspects, and indeed limitations, of humanity? We have stuff to do. Time is money. We’re not getting any younger and our daughters have ballet rehearsal at six and oh shit we forgot to pick up our jacket from the dry-cleaner! Is there still time? Nope—I suppose we’ll just—oh wait, it’s our wives/husbands texting us, telling us we’re out of Cheez-Itz®, Clorox® disinfecting wipes, Charmin® Ultra Soft toilet paper, Crest® Extra Whitening toothpaste, and Jif®, not Skippy®, Jif® creamy peanut butter and could we please pick all that up at Wal-Mart® on our way home from our cubicle under which a flickering light we have been complaining about for two weeks has yet to be replaced?
Is this what happiness feels like? Are these facets of the good life? Would we even think about these things, and does any of it matter? Were commerce, the stock market, credit default, et al inevitable? Are we sacrificing happiness for goodness, or vice versa? Can we achieve both? Is one dependent on the other?
If Grayling is correct in stating that philosophy is “opposed to on-size-fits-all nostrums, to authorities ancient and modern who claim to have all the answers”, I think the world at large, and American society in particular, could benefit greatly from a restitution of many such schools of thought. Philosophy is not dead, as Stephen Hawking inappropriately proclaimed, because thinking is not dead. Hawking said this in a rather different context, but without a philosophical curiosity, our everyday lives would still be overcast with shadows of general ignorance, because from whence came the drive to the development of our scientific methods? Discovery is a philosophical endeavor accelerated now by scientific tools, which we acquired by our philosophical quandaries on the nature of things. There are many questions which do not yet have answers, many answers which should continue being questioned, and perhaps even questions which have not yet been asked.
These multifarious, bite-sized essays deliver quick bolts of thought and, importantly, don’t purport to arrive at unassailable truths (even if well-established facts do factor into his quandaries). Neuroscience, for example, is a vast frontier in its infancy which, in time, could erode certain notions about various aspects of the mind, and solidify others. Grayling wonders what implications could be discerned regarding morality and relativism if so-called ‘mirror-neurons’ in the motor cortex can be shown to influence one’s social behavior (with some researchers already proposing a link between mirror-neuron dysfunction and autism). We’re largely treading on speculative and hypothetical ground when it comes to neuroscience, and should be cautious, but moral philosophy should take great interest in this developing field. This specific subject is covered by Grayling in little more space than I have just provided it, and its conciseness has the added benefit of making for a terrific discussion starter for groups and classes, as any of the subsequent essays would. Morality and ethics play parts in several of the entries, as one might expect (moral hypocrisy, Darwinian ethics, human rights, poverty, self-abusive religious practices, water use and conservation, business and profit, remorse), and far from using these terms interchangeably, he scrupulously includes a discussion on the philosophically loaded terms, morality and ethics, and suggests that, for instance, pundits and politicians should be more restrictive in their use of the word moral, because “ethics includes morality”, but I wonder if ethics shouldn’t supersede morality, not only putting an end to the confusion, but also to do away with the buzzing mosquito of religious insistence upon objective morality, the exceptions upon which they are of course equally insistent. Could this be beneficial, or detrimental? Perhaps, after all quibbling, a pragmatic Aristotelian view is superior, if only everyone could agree that “doing one’s moral best” is as easy as being honest and forthright, but who knows how much this flies in the face of human nature?
Interlude: (Don’t get me started on hypochondria versus valetudinarianism because I’ll start naming off all the terminal conditions and viruses with which I have convinced myself I am afflicted. Much appreciated.)
But other questions on health are less anxiety-inducing, such as the benefits of laughter (being a necessary response to the absurdity of life), abstaining from food (specifically calorie-intake, to promote longevity) and the harmful effect of restrictive drug laws, which is important to consider because if addicts could be directed on how much could be administered before it becomes a lethal dose, treatment would conceivably be easier, and they would at least be conscious (recognizing that, as with alcohol, there will still be abusers) of its dangers because it could contain those medical directions right on the box of narcotics (oh, and that drug war is a right fucking mess, isn’t it?)
Those familiar with Grayling’s philosophical canon will know that a frequent target of his critical inquiry is religion, and one of his longer essays in this collection is on the intersection of science and religion. He defines his terms in using science, specifically, in this case, referring to Darwinian evolutionary theory, and religion, or ‘religious belief’, ascribing to it “any belief in the existence and activity of supernatural agencies, or one such agent (a ‘god’), either in the universe or outside it (‘outside it’ because allegedly outside space and time) but somehow operative in or on it.” He stakes his territory on matters such as these, and becomes more tendentious, and I support him in doing so, but we must be willing to hear what others would define religion as, or entailing, provided it’s nominally coherent. This definition however, is simple and clear enough to work with for his piece. A lot of theological and pseudoscientific rhetoric finds its way into the science-religion debate, and it never seems to clarify whether science is of their god, or whether it’s just wrong and heretical. Most educations religionists claim the former now, but go on to deny a plethora of established scientific discovery, most notoriously evolution, but also, and more immediately dire, climate science, because, you know, ‘God destroyed the world with a flood once, and He said he wuddn’t gon’ do it agay-un’, so we’ve got nothing to worry about. Relax.
In short (nudge, nudge), anything discussed in this book could be, and has been, the subject of many exclusive tomes, but it wouldn’t hurt to read one of these daily (if you have time to take your vitamins and brush your teeth, you have time to read one in the morning) and bring it up in conversation with someone along the way, or return to this thread and discuss any specific entry (many of which I haven’t even mentioned), and hopefully they will do the same, and we can be more thoughtful in our daily, wind-and-grind existences that get so tedious we forget to ask ourselves what we’re all doing here anyway. (less)