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Sam Harris, Free Will
and Moral Responsibility

6. Might the Truth Be Bad for Us?

Another disconnect Harris suffers between his earlier and later arguments appears in this chapter in which he asks whether the truth he has been espousing is bad for us. Here, his v. 2 'rational agent' theory of mind comes crashing again into his earlier v. 1 'helpless puppet' theory. Writing of his sense of agency, he writes, paradoxically, that losing his belief in free will 'has increased my feelings of freedom' [2012: 37]. And this is because one can bring about a 'creative change of inputs to the system' to 'radically transform one's life' [2012: 37], such as creating new skills. In line with Harris' v. 2 theory, changing his 'belief' had causal consequences. In this case, losing his belief in free will increased his feelings of compassion and forgiveness [2012: 36]. Now, I'm not disputing Harris' description of his psychological growth. The problem is that his description contradicts starkly his earlier adamant denial of our agency.

How can we be genuinely 'creative' in changing ourselves for the better, as Harris now contends, when in the previous chapter, Harris was telling us that it was even impossible for him to create the thoughts that led him to consider going to his pain therapist? (Recall, there he proclaimed: 'Did I create the thoughts about it [his pain] that led me to consider physical therapy? No. They, too, simply appeared' [2012: 28].) Going by Harris' earlier epiphenomenalist v. 1 theory, what's the point of Harris enjoining us to become 'more sensitive to the background causes of one's thoughts and feelings [to] allow for greater creative control over one's life' [2012: 37] when we have no power to use these more sensitive thoughts to affect our future thoughts and actions?

To put this incongruity of Harris' newly found human agency in perspective, consider also another story he shared in the previous chapter [2013: 34] about his taking up martial arts training after a long hiatus. Notice the complete change in tone. There's nothing there about taking 'creative control over one's life'. There, he had only 'apparent self-control' over his behaviour that he saw as 'utterly mysterious' and for which he had 'no idea' why he was doing it.

Paradoxically, in the previous chapter, Harris [2012: 33–4] took compatibilist philosopher, Nahmias, to task for suggesting that an agent's 'free will' refers to this set of human capacities of the agent to reflect on their situation, their desires and the alternative courses of action open to them, and decide on one without external or internal pressure. There, Harris was at pains to show how the 'actual explanation' for a person's behaviour is 'hidden' [2012: 35] and 'utterly mysterious' [2012: 34]. Why? Because to allow us rationality and agency in making choices lets in 'free will' by the back door (those pesky compatibilists again). However, when Harris wants to show how belief in determinism is not all that bad, his showpiece is how this belief can instil 'feelings of freedom' and real 'creative control' to 'radically transform one's life'. Here again we see Harris wanting his cake (puppet Harris v. 1 proving no free will) and eating it too (creative Harris v. 2 allowing human agency).

Harris exposes this tension for all to see in his concluding remarks for this chapter. Highlighting how being aware of the causes of our thoughts and feelings gives us 'creative control' over our lives, Harris [2012: 37] muses:

This understanding reveals you to be a biochemical puppet, of course, but it also allows you to grab hold of one of your strings.

Well, that's not the image portrayed on the cover of Harris' book, where we see each letter of the phrase 'FREE WILL' dancing to the tune of puppet strings. Will we see future editions of his book sport a revamped cover showing a person in charge of one of the strings?

A further tension in Harris' thinking in this chapter is revealed in his attitude to those who cause us harm. In his untitled introduction, Harris introduced us to vicious criminals, Hayes and Komisarjevsky. Because 'a neurological disorder appears to be just a special case of physical events giving rise to thoughts and actions', their particular brain configurations 'would seem to be as exculpatory as finding a tumor in it' [2013: 9]. The same applies to other violent criminals: As their conscious decisions are caused by events not within their control, 'even the most terrifying sociopaths begin to seem like victims themselves' and 'their culpability begins to disappear' [2012: 17].

However, for Harris, this moral and legal latitude for violent criminals doesn't apply once we get to his hypothetical self-defence class. There, it's quite appropriate to teach women that when attacked, 'Just gouge the bastard's eyes' [2012: 36]. With this sharp U-turn, it's no longer appropriate to put yourself in the shoes of your attacker and think like the earlier Harris: 'if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him' [2012: 9].

When it comes to women's self-defence, Harris retracts from the consequences of his own reasoning. He is blind to his own duplicity. Noticing the tension, he objects: 'There is no contradiction here. Our interests in life are not always served by viewing people and things as collections of atoms' [2012: 9]. Unfortunately for Harris, it is a contradiction, borne of his simultaneously holding two contrary attitudes to human agency. Harris v 1., being scientifically minded, sees criminals as having no real agency (hence no free will). This is counterpoised with Harris v 2. who, being faced with living in the real world, sees criminals as deserving of censure (and hence having agency).

There is a real moral tension here between our acceptance of the view that all of our voluntary actions are the result of deterministic forces and our recognition that we are social beings striving to negotiate our interactions with each other in a fair and reasonable manner. What Harris misses is that contemporary accounts of free will show how the term functions in our moral and legal discourse and its role in negotiating between the neurophysiology behind our actions and the world of human relations. With Harris' fixation against free will, he misses an opportunity to resolve the contradictions he has foist upon himself.

One final observation about this chapter is worthy of comment, and that is on Harris' perceived relationship between the truth of determinism and our ethical obligations. Harris [2012: 36] reports:

Speaking from personal experience, I think that losing the sense of free will has only improved my ethics—by increasing my feelings of compassion and forgiveness, and diminishing my sense of entitlement to the fruits of my own good luck.

The thing is, neither of these feelings follow from the thesis of determinism per se. From using reason alone, it does not follow that embracing determinism requires one to feel more compassion and forgiveness. In fact, one could lean on the truth of determinism to justify maintaining anger and the need for retribution. One could argue that those feelings are simply given to one by the universe and are of a sort over which one has no real control.

When it comes to one's sense of entitlement, one could also view other people as equally not being entitled to the fruits of their good luck. One could argue that without their true ownership, one is at liberty to divest them of their fruits. At the beginning of this chapter, Harris alluded to how learning about determinism leads different people to change their behaviour in different ways. The upshot here is that the truth of determinism is not action-guiding on its own. The thesis must be conjoined with a moral theory—a theory about right and wrong—before one can make justifiable conclusions about how we ought to act in a deterministic universe. (I say more on this in Allan [2024c], 'Determinism, Morality and Human Relationships'.)

Copyright © 2024

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