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Sam Harris, Free Will
and Moral Responsibility

5. Choices, Efforts, Intentions

5.2 Flip-flop, Flip-flop

Getting back to Harris' later theory of mind, let me illustrate it with this diagram:

Diagram 2 – Harris v. 2 Identity Theory of Mind

Causal diagram from neuronal events to intention to action

Harris is consistent in arguing against Dennett that he himself is (and only is) his conscious mind. The upshot is that on his new theory of mind (v. 2) in which his mental states are brain states, his decisions, intentions, efforts, goals, willpower, and so on, are part of him and so have causal efficacy in bringing about his voluntary behaviours. One serious problem for Harris arises from his continuing to insist that his conscious states seem to appear from nowhere (so no free will). For Harris, he is the driver pushing things, but he himself is being pushed by unknowable and mysterious physical forces.

Here is where Harris v. 1 and Harris v. 2 collide. If, as Harris now says, his intentions are causal states of his brain, causing his voluntary behaviours, then why can't some of those intentions themselves be caused by previous brain states that are identical to previous mental states (including previous intentions)? If some mental states are causal states operating on physical things outside of the brain, then why can't some mental states operate on physical brain processes that are identified with other mental states (such asĀ  intentions)?

Harris gives us no reason for excluding this possibility. In fact, he appears to endorse it when he writes: 'And we know that the brain systems that allow us to reflect upon our experience are different from those involved when we automatically react to stimuli' [2012: 28]. Likewise, in the previous chapter, Harris [2012: 24] refers to how intentions, beliefs and desires operate according to the 'laws of stimulus-response'. Harris gives his most explicit endorsement of this idea in his response to Dennett when he writes, 'The things we say to one another (and to ourselves) are simply part of the chain of causes that determine how we think and behave' [Harris 2014].

So, if mental states can cause later intentions, then the causal flow of our mental lives is no longer exclusively from intention to behaviour. There is an additional flow from prior mental states (including prior intentions) to intentions. Mental events such as decisions, intentions, efforts, goals and willpower, then, are no longer epiphenomenal as suggested by Harris v. 1.

This more sophisticated theory of mind explains why our choices, as felt subjectively, do not appear out of the blue, mysteriously, as Harris had stated time and again. With that revision, Harris' attempted disproof of free will falls flat. It's just not the case that our belief in free will rests on the mistaken assumption that 'we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present' [2012: 10]. That assumption turns out not to be mistaken at all.

Moreover, Harris wants to legitimize our moral and legal practices in the face of determinism. However, in transitioning to his theory of mind v. 2 so that he can rescue our crucial moral and legal distinction between voluntary and involuntary actions, Harris has inadvertently opened up the real possibility of us being the source of some of our thoughts and actions, and thereby allowing for free will.

Harris' flip-flopping results from his desire to reconcile the absence of free will with our ordinary moral intuitions. But even here, he's unsure whether he wants to rescue moral responsibility or not. He begins this chapter with the stated aim of wanting to preserve our 'most important moral and legal concerns'. However, two pages on, Harris [2012: 29] abandons our key notion of moral responsibility when he declares:

From the perspective of your conscious awareness, you are no more responsible for the next thing you think (and therefore do) than you are for the fact that you were born into this world.

But then five pages on, Harris is back to accepting that we are 'morally responsible' [2012: 34] and two chapters later (on 'Moral Responsibility'), he's back on task for showing what it means to 'take responsibility' [2012: 38]. If you've got whiplash from following Harris' train of thought, you can be well-excused.

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