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Sam Harris, Free Will
and Moral Responsibility

5. Choices, Efforts, Intentions

5.4 Compatibilism Revisited

In this chapter, Harris makes another counter to a compatibilist analysis. This time, it's in answer to an identification account of free will. On this account, an agent's character is identified with what that agent perceives to be good, and they choose freely in those cases where their pursuit of a worthy action is unhindered. (For example, an agent handing over their wallet at gunpoint is considered to be performing an unfree act on this account as the agent left to pursue the good unhindered would not hand over their wallet to a thief.)

Harris' complaint with this account is that our capacity for 'overcoming our short-term desires and following our long-term goals or better judgment' 'has unconscious roots' [2012: 31]. This is not a problem for this kind of compatibilist account as these unconscious roots are not denied. Being compatibilists, they accept these unconscious determinants of our behaviours.

Pushing further on how these 'unconscious roots' starve the concept of free will, Harris [2012: 32] states:

You have not built your mind. And in moments in which you seem to build it—when you make an effort to change yourself, to acquire knowledge, or to perfect a skill—the only tools at your disposal are those that you have inherited from moments past.

In some ways, you do build your mind from the manifold conscious and voluntary actions you take over many years in building your character. That the only building tools at your disposal are ones you inherited is irrelevant to whether you do the actual building or not. For example, by following some strategies, I built a new non-smoking me. That's no different to me building an extra room on my house. For the former, as Harris intimates, I rely on the 'resilience' genes I inherited. For the latter, I rely on some building tools a relative of mine left me. On Harris' reckoning, I didn't really build the new room. I only seemed to build it because I inherited the tools I used. I think that's nonsense.

Some things that Harris writes are truly enigmatic. Choices matter, 'but I cannot choose what I choose' [2012: 32]. Harris concedes that sometimes it appears that I do choose what I choose, 'for instance, after going back and forth between two options' [2012: 32]. But isn't this simply a case of choosing, and not a case of choosing what I choose? If I go back and forth between two menu items at a restaurant, it's seems obfuscation to describe this as 'choosing what meal I choose'.

Even more strange is Harris thinking that if we allow him to choose what he chooses, this inexorably leads to an infinite regress of choosing. He prefaces that comment with his insistence that 'I do not choose to choose what I choose. There is a regress here that always ends in darkness' [2012: 32]. What he means here is that he must always 'take a first step, or a last one' [2012: 32]. Fair enough. But then why does he say in the very next breath that our act of choosing leads to a 'problem of regress' [2012: 32]? This is the frustration I experience in reading Harris. After starting the paragraph with the observation that '[m]any people' believe the problem of regress to be a false one, he's back to the meaning of 'could have done otherwise' and those pesky compatibilists. Harris doesn't tell us to which people he is referring and whether these people and the 'problem of regress' have anything to do with the compatibilists. The reader is left to guess at the connection.

Harris' treatment of the compatibilists' analysis here reveals, I think, a real blindness to the implications of his own reasoning. Harris [2012: 32] begins his response to the compatibilists thus:

Certain compatibilists insist that freedom of will is synonymous with the idea that one could have thought or acted differently. However, to say that I could have done otherwise is merely to think the thought "I could have done otherwise" after doing whatever I in fact did. This is an empty affirmation. It confuses hope for the future with an honest account of the past.

However, in the very next paragraph, Harris introduces his own form of compatibilism when he writes about the freedom we exercise in interpreting our lives. As Harris [2012: 33] states it:

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. You can consider your first marriage, which ended in divorce, to be a "failure", or you can view it as a circumstance that caused you to grow in ways that were crucial to your future happiness. Does this freedom of interpretation require free will? No. It simply suggests that different ways of thinking have different consequences. Some thoughts are depressing and disempowering; others inspire us.

For Harris, to be 'free' to interpret a life event this way or that way simply means that we 'can' choose to think of it this way or that. For Harris, 'We can pursue any line of thought we want', in spite of the fact that 'our choice is the product of prior events that we did not bring into being' [2012: 33]. That we 'can' interpret otherwise—this 'freedom' to interpret—in spite of determinism, is the self-same capacity to which compatibilists refer in saying that our wills are sometimes 'free'. Harris seeing freedom to interpret as simply suggesting 'different ways of thinking have different consequences' is no different to the compatibilists seeing freedom of the will in the exact same way.

Our 'choice' to interpret this way or that is just another kind of thought, along with our 'choice' to do this or that. If Harris recommends that we exercise our freedom to choose our interpretation, then how is it that we don't have the freedom to choose other kinds of things? The irony here is that Harris seems completely oblivious to the fact that he himself is giving the kind of compatibilist analysis of 'freedom' that has been warning us against all the way through.

A Harris-type interlocutor can justifiably advance a skeptical critique of Harris' 'freedom' to interpret. The 'freedom' skeptic can turn Harris' guns on himself by pointing out that 'interpretation' is a 'thought' just as much as 'will' and as such can never be uncaused and 'free'. The skeptic can insist that for Harris to say you could have interpreted a life event differently is equally an 'empty affirmation'. Harris seems hoist with his own petard.

Harris [2012: 33–5] has another crack at the compatibilist analysis in his critique of compatibilist philosopher, Nahmias. Harris declares that the human capacities to which Nahmias refers (imagining future courses of action, deliberating about one's reasons for choosing them, planning one's actions in light of these deliberations and controlling actions in the face of competing desires) 'have nothing to do with free will' [2012: 34]. How so? Because when Harris took up martial arts training again after more than two decades, he is unable to answer a multitude of questions about why he initially gave it up and another plethora of questions about why he took it up.

Harris tells us why he stopped training: because 'certain things just became more important to me' [2012: 34]. He also tells us why he took it up again: reading Roy Miller's book. But for Harris, that's not good enough as explanations. To have chosen freely, Harris opines, he needs to know much more than this. 'But why did I read this book? I have no idea. And why did I find it compelling? And why was it sufficient to provoke action on my part' [2012: 34] and so on and so on. For Harris, any explanation he gives is inadequate. As he says, 'the actual explanation for my behavior is hidden from me. It is perfectly obvious that I, as the conscious witness of my experience, am not the deep cause of it' [2012: 35].

Now, I've already questioned Harris' key thesis that the causes of our behaviour are 'utterly mysterious' [2012: 34] (see section on 'The Unconscious Origins of the Will'). Harris pleading ignorance here just seems hyperbole. For a highly educated and reflective individual as Harris is, it's simply not believable that he has 'no idea' why he read Miller's book and what it was about the book that he found compelling.

Secondly, it's not at all clear why an agent needs to give a finely-grained causal explanation for their choices for them to be free. In this chapter, Harris is asking about the 'psychological cause' of his behaviours [2012: 34]. In failing to find them to the nth degree, he thinks we are therefore not the 'conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present' [2012: 10]. And hence, for Harris, free will is an illusion. However, why can't the conscious source of our thoughts and actions be a starting point listing a short and finite set of interests, desires, beliefs and motives? These are the psychological drivers to which we usually appeal in our explanations for our behaviours? Once again, Harris does not tell us.

Take the water flowing into the Ganges River delta in India. What is the source of this freely flowing water? One cause is the water flowing from Patna. We can ask Harris-style, but what is the cause of that? Well, it's the water flowing from Kanpur. Yes, but what's the cause of that? It's the water flowing from Hardwar. Yes, but what's the cause of that? We can keep answering till we get to the source, which is the glacier in the Himalayan Mountains. Any ordinary questioner is satisfied with that answer. However, it seems Harris would not be satisfied with saying the water is flowing freely because we haven't answered his next question: but what is the cause of that? I suspect that his need for an ongoing string of answers is behind his cryptic allusion to 'this problem of regress' [2012: 32] two pages back that he thinks the free willer is lumbered with.

In the case of the freely flowing water into the Ganges River delta, that next question is about the cause of the glaciers that release the water on melting. But note that this answer is not relevant to the question about the source of the flowing water. If it were, any answer we give would not be adequate unless we trace the causes back to the Big Bang. If this requirement for an exhaustingly long string of answers is too stringent in the case of the source of the Ganges, why is it also not too stringent in the case of the source of our thoughts and decisions?

Why am I labouring this point about what makes for an adequate explanation regarding a source of something? Because one of the two assumptions that free willers rely on that Harris' wants to dispel in order to prove his case is that 'we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present' [2012: 10]. I've tried to show here that answering an endless supply of 'But what's the cause of that?' questions is not a requirement for providing a conscious source of our decisions when those are made freely.

Harris could object here that he is not requiring an unmanageably large set of answers to 'what's the cause?' questions. He simply wants answers in terms of unconscious mental processes and subjectively unknowable neural events. My response is that when we are asking about the source of freely made decisions, Harris' demand is akin to asking for the cause of glacial melt when we are enquiring about the source of the Ganges River. Locating causes anterior to glacial melt is simply irrelevant to the initial question. Just as referring to glacial melt is sufficient to source the free flowing waters of the Ganges, referring to Harris' reading of Roy Miller's book and Harris' intrinsic interest in martial arts is sufficient to source his decision to take up training again.

Sure, there is more to the story of the psychology behind Harris' decision to take up training, just as there is more to the story of how the glacier formed and melts annually, and any interested person can delve in more detail into the causes. The key point I'm making here is that to find the source of the free flowing water on the one hand and the source of the free decision to take up training on the other, one is not reasonably required to go further back in the causal chain beyond the glacier and beyond Harris' interest in training and reading Miller's book.

So, Harris' account in this chapter of the relation between thoughts, decisions, neural events and free will seems plagued with problems and unanswered questions. The biggest challenge I have with Harris' critique of Nahmias' compatibilism is that it is wholly irrelevant to the case Nahmias presents. Harris has failed to engage with Nahmias' account, which he could have done by exposing any internal inconsistencies, vagueness, factual errors and the like. Harris is content to simply repeat his own confused and confusing account of hard determinism.

A related but fatal flaw to Harris' account is that it is utterly self-defeating. If, as Harris contends, every reason we give for our voluntary actions is simply a 'story' [2012: 29, 31, 35] we tell ourselves, a 'post hoc' [2012: 31] rationalization that 'cannot truly account' for our decisions, then the same must apply to Harris' own decisions. On his own account, he must conclude that his decision to reject the notion of free will resulted from a 'fundamentally mysterious process' [2012: 30]. For Harris, his decision did 'come out of the darkness' [2012: 29] and 'did merely appear in his mind as though sprung from the void' [2012: 29]. If Harris can't give us valid reasons for rejecting free will—reasons that are not fabrications of unconscious processes he knows not what—then why ought we pay his arguments any attention? In fact, why ought we pay attention to any reasons he purportedly gives for holding any of his beliefs and for the decisions he makes? Again, Harris seems hoist by his own petard!

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