Sam Harris, Free Will
and Moral Responsibility

9. Conclusion

9.1 One Last Absurdity

Harris begins his concluding chapter by reiterating one of his key points: We don't have free will because introspection reveals that our '[t]houghts and intentions simply arise in the mind' [2012: 49]. To demonstrate this (yet again), he performs an experiment on himself. Through introspection he finds he is free to write 'rabbit' or 'elephant' in the next sentence he writes. But, he exclaims, 'this notion of freedom does not reach very deep' as him not knowing the cause of that which he chose is 'compatible with my being compelled by the laws of nature or buffeted by the winds of chance; but neither looks, or feels, like freedom' [2012: 50].

This is a well-worn theme. Harris explains that no person is 'compelling' him to write what he will write, and yet the laws of nature are doing just that. But in what sense are the laws of nature compelling Harris in this instance? Why not describe the laws of nature as enabling him to write what he wants to write? I mean, when Harris takes a drive in the country, it seems strange to say that the laws of nature are compelling him to drive to his destination. It seems more apt to say that the laws of thermodynamics, the laws of chemistry, and so on, are enabling him to arrive at his destination. Without the operation of these laws, he and his car would go nowhere. Similarly, without the operation of the neurobiological laws governing his brain processes, the laws of physics governing the operation of the computer he is working on, and so on, he would not be able to even form the intention of writing the next word, let alone to then go on to tap the keyboard. Of course, describing his choice as 'compelled' serves his polemical purpose here of attempting to prove free will an 'illusion'.

The second reason for thinking that Harris' description here is just plain wrong concerns the nature of compulsion. When a person is 'compelled' to do something, necessarily, what they are being compelled to do is against what they desired or intended to do. When a thief 'compels' a person to hand over their wallet at gunpoint, the victim was desiring and intending to keep their wallet. So, in this case, when Harris ended up writing 'rabbit' while being compelled to do so, what was he otherwise desiring and intending to do? To make sense of Harris' story, I think we are owed an answer.

Harris ends his book on an even more absurd note. He opines that because he can't know precisely when he is going to stop resisting the urge to eat, this tells us something important about free will. Here, Harris is the master of the rhetorical question, asked with such boldness that it lures the philosophical novice into thinking that his question must be relevant to the free will debate. His polemical style is stretched right through to the very last sentence where he ends with: 'In fact, I can't think of anything else to say on the subject. And where is the freedom in that? [2012: 50]'. Well, that settles the matter then.

Instead of conjuring up fictitious rabbits to be put in print and hungers to be resisted, I would have liked Harris to have dealt with some real-life paradigmatic cases of choosing freely and contrasted with unfree choices. For example, take the case of George giving his wallet to Jim on the beach. In one scenario, he gives up his wallet after Jim holds a gun to his head. In the other, he hands Jim his wallet for safekeeping while he goes for a swim in the sea. In the first scenario, we all agree that George gave his wallet to Jim not of his free will. In the second scenario, we all agree that George gave his wallet of his free will. In ordinary discourse and in law, we distinguish between the two cases on the basis that George was coerced by a third party in the former scenario, but not in the latter.

Clearly, when the ordinary person on the street and a judge in court ask whether George's choice was free, they are not asking about the posited existence of a chain of causes stretching back to before George was born. They are also not asking about whether George could give an account of precisely when he formed the intention to give his wallet. George, however, is required to be able to give a reason for his action in both scenarios for us to decide whether he chose freely. And this is what brings out the absurdity of Harris' 'rabbit' and 'elephant' quandary. In both scenarios, George, unlike in Harris' contrived scenario, knows why he handed over his wallet. In both cases, his intention is a function of his beliefs, desires and values. Unlike Harris feigning surprise and ignorance about intentions that simply pop into his mind out of nowhere, George knows he gave up his wallet in the first scenario because he believes he is about to be killed and because he values his life more than his wallet. Likewise, in the second scenario, he knows he handed his wallet to Jim because he believes Jim is trustworthy and because he desires to go for a swim. I wish Harris had at least made a start in assessing seriously these paradigmatic examples of free willing and unfree willing, instead of engaging in diversionary and absurd rhetorical questions that may sound cute but add nothing to the debate.

Copyright © 2024

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