Sam Harris, Free Will
and Moral Responsibility

5. Choices, Efforts, Intentions

5.1 Harris' Two Theories of Mind

Harris states up front that the purpose of this chapter on choices, effort and intentions is to preserve the important distinction we make between voluntary and involuntary actions, and with it 'our most important moral and legal concerns' [2012: 27]. In this chapter, we'll see Harris go back on his previous Harris v. 1 'helpless puppet' theory of mind to advocate for his v. 2 'rational agent' theory that is more suited to his current purpose.

Let me remind the reader of the Harris v. 1 'helpless puppet' theory of mind. This earlier version looks just like a form of epiphenomenalism in which it is only our brains that cause stuff to happen, with our minds simply going along for the ride. That we are completely unaware of the preceding brain events makes the source of our thoughts and intentions 'perfectly mysterious' [2012: 14]. Recall how in earlier chapters, Harris was certain that true human agency is a chimera.

The choice was made for me by events in my brain . . . [2012: 11]

People feel (or presume) an authorship of their thoughts and actions that is illusory. [2012: 21]

There is no question that our attribution of agency can be gravely in error. I am arguing that it always is. [2012: 22]

The Harris v. 1 'helpless puppet' theory of mind is best captured in the following schematic.

Diagram 1 – Harris v. 1 epiphenomenalist theory of mind

Causal diagram from neuronal events to inert intention to action

The arrows indicate the direction of causation. As you can see, on Harris' v. 1 theory, intentions are causally inert, with the real work only being done by neurons in the brain.

So, to take an earlier morally significant example of Harris', the murders and rapes committed by criminals Hayes and Komisarjevsky were as they both intended. However, Harris [2012: 9] suggests their neurophysiological processes morally exculpatory as it was these physical events in their brains that gave rise to their thoughts and actions.

Harris' shift to his v. 2 'rational agent' theory of mind starts with his recognizing that 'much of our behaviour' depends on 'conscious awareness' [2012: 28]. But how can that be when all along he has emphasized our lack of agency due to the real work being done by neuronal events in our brains? To explain his case, Harris [2012: 28] gives us this example:

I might unconsciously shift in my seat, but I cannot unconsciously decide that the pain in my back warrants a trip to a physical therapist. To do the latter, I must become aware of the pain and be consciously motivated to do something about it. Perhaps it would be possible to build an insentient robot capable of these states—but in our case, certain behaviours seem to require the presence of conscious thought.

But on Harris own account, he can, in principle, explain his trip to the therapist completely in neurophysiological terms, without any reference to the mental. (I refer the reader back to Harris' discussion of Hayes and Komisarjevsky, and the Libet experiments.) To now write that 'certain behaviours seem to require the presence of conscious thought' is a stark contradiction to the key message in Harris' previous chapters.

Another glaring contradiction is his new idea that thoughts can cause other thoughts. His awareness of the pain is now a cause of his intention to visit his therapist. Up to this point, Harris has been telling us that the 'intention to do one thing and not another does not originate in consciousness' [2012: 11] and how the source of our thoughts and intentions is 'perfectly mysterious' [2012: 14].

Paradoxically, Harris in the very next breath continues to emphasize just how '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' [2012: 29]. That's so you don't forget that 'free will' is not a thing.

Harris [2012: 29] most succinctly articulates his new theory of mind v. 2 when he tells us how he wrote his book:

My choice to write it was unquestionably the primary cause of its coming into being. Decisions, intentions, efforts, goals, willpower, etc., are causal states of the brain, leading to specific behaviors, and behaviors lead to outcomes in the world.

Harris' new approach here is akin to that of the Identity Theorist and contrasts sharply with his earlier account [2012: 13] that he gives in his first chapter where he tells us that:

There is no question that (most, if not all) mental events are the product of physical events. 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.

There, mental events are caused by physical brain events that dictate their character. But now, in Harris v. 2, mental events are physical events. This radical change in perspective is essential for Harris' move from viewing our mental lives as being pushed around mysteriously by unknowable brain states to seeing our mental lives as enmeshed in an intelligible interplay of brain systems interacting with a world we perceive in common. The former perspective emphasizes our supposed lack of free will while the latter seeks to reincorporate us into the realm of agency and moral responsibility. Ironically, Harris charges the compatibilists with a 'bait and switch' [2012: 21], but I see this change in Harris' view of mind as the real bait and switch.

Looking back over Harris' earlier chapters, the tension between his v. 1 theory of mind and his v. 2 theory is apparent. Even while touting his v. 1 theory that conscious thoughts cannot be the cause of other conscious thoughts, he is assuming the contrary to be true. In particular, his asking his readers to do some imagining assumes the very truth of what he is denying. On page 12, he writes: 'If the laws of nature do not strike most of us as incompatible with free will, that is because we have not imagined how human behavior would appear if all cause-and-effect relationships were understood.'

Here, Harris is inviting his reader to perform a thought experiment that he assumes will (in part) cause the reader to change another of their thoughts; their belief in free will. If Harris did not think the mental state of imagining would make it possible or likely to bring about that other mental state of forming a new belief, then why ask the reader to engage in his proposed imagining?

Similarly, on page 22, Harris asks the reader to imagine a person claiming to have no need to eat any food as a way for Harris to convince the reader that compatibilists are wrong. On page 25, Harris asks the reader again to imagine a life in which all of their mental states and actions were self-generated with the hope that this will cause the reader to believe that indeterminism is false. Harris includes even more examples further on as he assumes that his asking the reader to imagine certain states of affairs will lead to them change their beliefs. In all of these cases, Harris is assuming that some mental states cause other future mental states. I think we can add this to Harris' ever-growing list of muddles.

Copyright © 2024

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