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Chrissy (Navaboo) Discuss Sam Harris's short piece on free will; do you agree or disagree with his assessment, and why?


Chrissy (Navaboo) Just jammed my way through it in an hour and a half. Harris is kind of an intellectual hero, precisely because he consistently says the things I've thought but had no elegant means of articulating, so I'm a touch biased in my approach to this book. I'd love to hear some thoughts or reviews from people who disagree with material determinism.

My (minimalist, like the book) review is below:

A sharp, concise essay on what is simultaneously the most apparent fact of human nature and the one we most resist: Free will is an illusion. The notion's condensing into 65 pages not only highlights Harris's strengths as an academic thinker and writer, but also underscores how necessary and unavoidable material determinism is; Harris lays out the facts and comes to the only conclusion possible, given the facts. He wastes no words doing so, because the argument does not require them.

Having just finished The Moral Landscape, I took one star off because I was able to pick out long passages that were reprinted from it, verbatim. Had I paid for either book instead of borrowing them from the library, I might have felt cheated.

Given that I disagree with him on no point in the book (except maybe the notion of distinct conscious and unconscious systems in the brain, but he doesn't elaborate on the point enough for me to know whether the nuances in our stances are actually as opposed as I instinctively took them to be-- my cognitive scientist senses were tingling), I will instead write up some quotes I particularly enjoyed the wording of. What can I say, I like the way the man uses words (swoon).

"One of the most refreshing ideas to come out of existentialism (perhaps the only one) is that we are free to interpret and reinterpret the meaning of our lives."

"I, as the conscious witness of my experience, am not the deep cause of it."

"The urge for retribution depends on our not seeing the underlying causes of human behavior."


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Ian Danskin | 26 comments Help, help! I'm thoroughly unconvinced.


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Ian Danskin | 26 comments Alrighty: I actually did read this during the appropriate month (honest!), but I'm just now getting around to writing out my thoughts, mainly because the book is horribly overdue at the library.

At this point I've listened to a podcast about how free will doesn't exist, and read a long chapter in 13 Things That Don't Make Sense: The Most Baffling Scientific Mysteries of Our Time, and now I've read a whole book on the subject (granted, a book smaller than the chapter in 13 Things), and I am still completely unconvinced.

All three have gone back to the same finger-twitching study, where it appears that conscious decisions happen after the actions they think they originate. I haven't read the research itself, but none of these sources has provided enough info to rule out alternative hypotheses - that people don't self-report accurately enough when doing two things at once, that we aren't precise enough at measuring conscious thought, that simple actions like repetitive finger-twitching may be easy to turn over to the unconscious like we do with walking.

But even if the common interpretation, that the body is moving of its own accord and the conscious mind imagines it's responsible for it, it Does Not Follow that this happens with every action a human makes. Likewise, there was a study that shows that the mind can think it performed an action that was in fact performed by the computer - it Does Not Follow that this is what the mind is always doing.

Generally I'd like a red rubber stamp that says Does Not Follow.

I get that this research doesn't jive with our notions of what free will is, but at no point is a proper definition of free will provided. Do we have more than a vague notion of what free will is supposed to be? How do you disprove something without an articulated theory? Harris doesn't offer one. But there have to be terms by which we will consider a theory disproved.

So let's make one!

Harris seems at times to be arguing that free will is defined by having complete conscious control of your thoughts and actions, and most of the research and argumentation he provides (what little there is) adequately refutes this notion. He mentions that our desires come from our unconscious, we do not create them. But I don't think anyone who's ever heard of Freud thinks that - the idea of the unconscious mind is pretty widespread knowledge, and any modern notion of free will has to account for the fact that your mind has never been entirely under your control.

The other definition of free will, which Harris seems to be arguing over, would define free will as having any conscious control over our actions, or even our thoughts. Harris is claiming we have none - no conscious control over these things whatsoever. To me, this is an extraordinary claim, and it would require extraordinary evidence. Or, at the very least, extraordinary rhetoric, but there's not much of that either - Harris makes statements like, "There is no question that our attribution of agency can be gravely in error. I am arguing that it always is."

But no, he really isn't. There is no argument anywhere in the book where he attempts to prove this point with rhetoric. He is merely stating it.

Towards the end, and in the endnotes, he essentially states that, while he can choose a random word to type, he cannot know why he chooses "elephant" over "chicken," or vice versa. The preference of one over the other is not conscious, and any desire to choose the one you like less, just to prove a point, well, that's an unconscious desire as well.

At this point I only have his word for it. There is no research provided, no logical argument, he simply says "if we're honest with ourselves, we know this to be true," at which point I can't even get into a debate. It is my perception that when I have two words that I like and have to pick one, that the decision I make is a conscious one. This seems to be, roughly, the experience of the rest of the world. He will have to go further than personal interpretation to convince me.

In the end, I'm curious what Sam Harris thinks the conscious mind does. If every thought and desire arrives from the unconscious, and we only have the illusion that we have any influence over our behavior, then where did consciousness come from? Consciousness is an incredibly complex evolutionary process, one we still don't properly understand, and one that is shared by every human being on the planet - I'd need a considerable amount of evidence if I'm to chalk it up as a spandrel. If consciousness doesn't affect action, how does it become evolutionarily advantageous?

If I had to offer a theory of free will, I'd say this: free will is the conscious mind having any control over behavior. Disproving this theory would not be a debate over the quantity of control, but demonstrating that there is none. To argue that there is no freedom of action because we don't know the "deep roots" of our minds is like saying we're not really gardeners if we can't grow apples from a bonzai tree. You never control the roots of a bonzai tree, you influence the shape it grows into.

(Wow, that got long-winded. I could say more, but I'll stop here. Chrissy, you're the neuroscientist - is there some wealth of data on free will that I'm missing? Every free will denier talks like there's tons of supporting research and then just quotes the same finger-twitching studies.)


Chrissy (Navaboo) The Libet studies were really the beginning of this line of inquiry in neuroscience, and hence are most frequently cited. I wil be honest, I haven't closely followed the field (which remains terribly small). There was a more recent fMRI study in which the outcome of a binary decision could be predicted from functional scans up to 7 seconds before subjects made the decision, perhaps indicating a cascade of thought leading to the decision. I don't remember the reference, however, and I don't recall if Harris ever discusses it. Free will deniers saying that there is "tons" of research DIRECTLY supporting determinism would be wrong. But pretty much all neurscientific research INDIRECTLY supports determinism.

Anecdotal as it is, I have actually never met a single neuroscientist or cognitive scientist who accepts free will; the very nature of neural organization excludes it. Our brains are nothing but the product of our experiences (with some "leanings" from genetics, and some tendencies in organization from evolutionary history), and our conscious decisions are nothing but the output of neural activity in that experience-derived network given some input.

Neuroscientists tend not to study the nature of consciousness (or, relatedly, free will) because of how complex, controversial, and amorphous a topic it is. So there is very little data in existence that would speak to the neurological basis of consciousness, which we might define as the 'self' that a believer of free will would argue is the agent of free will. A massive problem is that the granting agencies to which neuroscientists owe their livelihood are not keen to give money to projects relating to more philosophical questions like consciousness, free will, dualism, determinism, etc. The very inclusion of such philosophical terms (i.e., intended for the ARTS) can turn a science granting agency right off.

As becomes quickly apparent, a lot of the debate is a semantic one. You argue that free will is the conscious mind having some control over behaviour. It may be so, but we have to define what is meant by 'conscious mind'? What is meant by 'unconscious mind'? Are they actually separable? What constitutes control, and what distinguishes conscious from unconscious control, if anything?

My personal understanding of the conscious mind (and one that I've proposed to a granting agency to study in my PhD work-- albeit without ever saying the word consciousness haha), is that it is an epiphenomenon. Harris uses the word "illusion," but it's ultimately the same thing. The conscious mind is a thing that emerges from or falls out of the basic processes of memory storage and retrieval (such poor terms for what I mean...). Our experience, then, is an interactive outcome of the nature of complex systems and our unique linguistic capacity to give meaning to everything we do. This is something psychologists call attribution, and thanks to the known speed of neural transmission and the relative longer latency of speech, it necessarily occurs post-hoc, or after the neurological event that prompted it. I think there is an interesting recursive interaction between the emergent outcome (consciousness) and the networks (in my view, memory), so that in some sense the conscious self DOES contribute to the deterministic system supporting it, but only as a function of what that system provides to it. It becomes a chicken/egg problem that I don't really find interesting or difficult.

Harris draws a distinction between hard (incompatabilist) and soft (compatabilist) determinism. I would say that you are of the latter, as most free will believers argue for full control, and don't make the same distinctions you do between conscious and unconscious. To them, these are both of the self, and so the self is in control. I would also consider myself compatabilist in practice, but incompatabilist in theory; our experience of free will is just as real as the determinism of the system that supports our conscious experience, they simply operate on different levels of analysis.

(sorry if this is unintelligible haha. Next time I'm in your neck of the woods for a conference, please let's get together over a drink and discuss it with mouths instead of fingers)


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Ian Danskin | 26 comments I would enjoy such immensely! What kinds of events might bring you to Boston?


Chrissy (Navaboo) Psychonomics is in Boston in 2016! lol.


message 8: by Jeff (new)

Jeff (unrgnl) | 4 comments Chrissy, have you read Daniel Dennett? Your "operate on different levels of analysis" reminds me of his "stances". You'd like him.

My take: once one formulates a self-consistent definition of free will, the question answers itself and there is no problem/concern about whether we have it or not. Everything's determined by the universe & laws of physics... but we're part of the universe, so we are part of what determines our own thoughts/choices/etc. To suggest the universe-outside-of-us doesn't in part determine our choices is a strange non-physical dualism that thoughtful persons don't tend to stick with for long.


message 9: by Michael (new)

Michael T. Bee | 2 comments Proust was A Neuroscientist speaks to some to this issue. In Jonah Lehrer's essays about Walt Whitman and Virginia Woolf. He describes how we make muscle memories I'm
the one on Whitman and our 'multiple selfs' in the one on Woolf. Although Sam Harris is eloquent in his argument-I don't think he fully makes the case for me. We humans tend to judge ourselves and others from the outside in.


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