Sam Harris, Free Will
and Moral Responsibility

5. Choices, Efforts, Intentions

5.3 Acts and Explanation

Even though Harris is in two minds about preserving our notion of moral responsibility, flipping one way then the other, he's unwavering in his aim of killing the 'free will' tiger. Now that he's made that concession to the importance of the distinction between voluntary and involuntary actions and (depending on his mood) to our notion of moral responsibility, he spends the rest of the chapter illustrating with examples that those concessions give us no reason to embrace the idea of 'free will'.

In his first scenario, Harris asks the reader to picture their life going off track and wanting to get it back on track with an 'act of will' [2012: 29]. How did you let it happen? Here is Harris' first overreach. He admonishes the reader with: 'You might be able to tell a story about how your life unraveled, but you cannot truly account for why you let it happen' [2012: 29]. This fits Harris' narrative about the mysterious origin of all of our thoughts. But is this generalization really true? I showed earlier (in the section on 'Cause and Effect') how this narrative conflicts with Harris' [2012: 24] own later turn in his outlook when he writes that our behaviours and utterances are comprehensible, reasoned and predictable.

Is it always the case that the reader's story of why they let themself become 'lazy, easily discouraged and overweight' [2012: 29] cannot truly account for their slide? If they said it happened because their child died, or their partner divorced them or they were made redundant from the only job they knew, then why is this explanation always false? Harris does not tell us.

In Harris' scenario, you, the reader, make a number of failed attempts to get your life back on track. Again, you have 'no idea' [2012: 30] why your habits were stronger than the obstacles you tried to overcome. (Paradoxically, Harris gives some reasons for your failure earlier in the same paragraph.) Harris concludes from this that: 'Most of us know what it is like to fail in this way—and these experiences are not even slightly suggestive of freedom of will' [2012: 30]. The obvious question here is: What has any of this story about weakness of will got to do with free will?

Harris ends his scenario on a happy note with the reader finally exerting some extra effort to overcome their obstacles. Harris asks the reader: 'But how can you account for your ability to make these efforts today and not a year ago?' [2012: 30]. Again, why does the reader need to satisfy Harris' demand for a detailed psychological or neurological explanation for their eventual success for them to have exercised their free will? If I want to buy a holiday house in the country and freely choose to do so with the help of a loan from my cousin, is it not enough to give the explanation that I finally managed to succeed with the assistance of my relative?

But Harris will have none of that. He returns to his mantra of 'mystery': 'If you pay attention to your inner life, you will see that the emergence of choices, efforts, and intentions is a fundamentally mysterious process' [2012: 30]. However, Harris' scenario that he paints showed the opposite. Harris [2012: 30] remarks:

Yes, you can decide to go on a diet—and we know a lot about the variables that will enable you to stick to it—but you cannot know why you were finally able to adhere to this discipline when all your previous attempts failed.

Paradoxically, again, Harris gives those reasons in his own treatment: meeting a famous lifestyle coach and finding a reservoir of discipline [2012: 30]. Harris adds: 'You might have a story to tell about why things were different this time around, but it would be nothing more than a post hoc description of events that you did not control' [2012: 30].

First, by deprecatingly labelling all descriptions as 'post hoc', Harris is treating his own explanation of how his scenario played out as not believable. Second, there were many events that were within the reader's control in Harris' story. For example, the reader exercised control in going on a diet, exercising and registering a website. These were things that were within their power to do or not to do. Of course, there were external circumstances that were genuinely not within the reader's control. But they have nothing to do with whether the reader exercised their free will.

Harris goes on to insist again that you have no real agency: 'You can do what you decide to do—but you cannot decide what you will decide to do' [2012: 31].

He sees a challenge in that:

Of course, you can create a framework in which certain decisions are more likely than others—you can, for instance, purge your house of all sweets, making it very unlikely that you will eat dessert later in the evening . . .

This seems to me a clear case of deciding what you will decide to do. Deciding to create the framework in which you will decide to not eat desert is just that; a decision about making a future decision. Harris' objection that even so, 'you cannot know why you were able to submit to such a framework today when you weren't yesterday [2012: 31] is completely beside the point.

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