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Sam Harris, Free Will
and Moral Responsibility

9. Conclusion

9.2 Did Harris Succeed?

The other thing I would have liked Harris to have done in his concluding chapter, as is usual for final chapters, is recount concisely what it is he achieved with his book. He set out to show that free will, as popularly conceived, is an illusion and that determinism is compatible with some sense of moral responsibility. Was Harris successful? Taking his first objective, in his untitled introduction Harris [2012: 10] points out the two false assumptions upon which he thinks the popular conception of 'free will' rests:

  1. that each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past, and
  2. that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present

Let's call these Misconception 1 and Misconception 2. Did Harris disprove the first? I don't think so. In his second chapter on Changing the Subject, Harris simply assumes without argument or evidence that 'could have behaved differently' means 'could have behaved differently given the exact same initial state of the universe'. Harris is aware of compatibilist analyses that show that in addition to this unconditional meaning, there is a second conditional meaning. This is the first instance in which Harris simply refuses to engage with compatibilists, simply dismissing this rendition of the meaning of 'free will' as impossible, even though there is a wealth of evidence in support.

In addition, Harris fails to follow his own advice. On page 33, he takes back his own rejection of the capacity to do otherwise when he advises us that we are 'free to interpret' the pivotal events in our lives. Later on page 42, he tells us that 'any of us could have been dealt a very different hand in life'. In sec. 3 of this essay, I illustrate this compatibilist meaning of 'could have' that we ordinarily use for entities subject to cause and effect.

Did Harris fare any better in his attempt to disprove Misconception 2, 'that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions'? Here, Harris displays a mass of contradictions as he flip-flops between his v. 1 (helpless puppet) epiphenomenalist view of mind and his v. 2 (rational agent) identity theory of mind. When he is out to kill free will, he leans on his initial v. 1 (helpless puppet) view. From introspecting on his own mental processes, he reveals to us that his mental life is simply given to him by the cosmos, with his volitions arising spontaneously in a way that is perfectly mysterious. He never knows what his next mental state will be and our sense of agency is illusory. (See sec. 4 for more examples.)

Harris' appeals to his own and our supposed ignorance of the psychological causes of our choices are simply unconvincing. His many examples simply backfire. With just a little reflection, they reveal the opposite to be case. Why did Harris choose coffee and not tea that morning? He says, 'I am in no position to know' [2012: 11], but the answer is obvious. Because that is what he felt like that morning. Why does one desire inexplicably triumph over another? Considering Harris' [2012: 18] examples, the answer is no mystery. The person who chose to buy the computer even though they wanted to save money did so because they realized that buying it will save money in the long run. How did that person get their life back on track? Harris implores us that they 'cannot know why' [2012: 18], just after Harris tells the story of how they did it!

When Harris wants to move to his next objective of rescuing our ordinary notion of moral responsibility, he flips completely to his v. 2 (rational agent) view of the mind. His work on showing how we are not the conscious source of our thoughts and actions goes out the window. Now, our thoughts are constrained by the laws of stimulus-response, we are able to reason and our behaviours are comprehensible because our thoughts share a common reality. (See sec. 4 for more examples.) Far from disproving Misconception 2, Harris shows how we do cause some of our own thoughts with his reference to the brain systems that allow us to reflect upon our experience [2012: 28]. He even gives examples of how thoughts can impact other thoughts, such as when a person deliberately structures their environment in a way designed to constrain their choosing sweets [2012: 31] and how the 'free' mental act of reinterpretation of a failed marriage empowered future growth [2012: 33].

Harris blows up his own case against Misconception 2 in other ways. In reinforcing his v. 1 ignorant puppet view of the mind, he tells us that our reasons for choosing are simply a 'story' [2012: 29, 31, 35] we tell ourselves, a 'post hoc' [2012: 31] rationalization that 'cannot truly account' for our decisions. In that case, Harris' own reasons for rejecting the notion of free will are just as much fabrications not worthy of our trust.

Harris hits the self-destruct button again when he admits that 'we continually influence, and are influenced by, the world around us and the world within us' [2012: 47–8]. If we regularly influence our own internal worlds, then there is the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions. In sum, I think Harris' case against free will based on disproving its two key assumptions is a failure.

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