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Sam Harris, Free Will
and Moral Responsibility

9. Conclusion

9.4 The Verdict

Here is my overall impression of Harris' book. The first thing to note is its format. It is an easy to read text written in a conversational style. Harris deserves credit for making his book accessible to novices not formally trained in philosophy. On that account, readers ought not expect a tightly argued case against free will that considers seriously competing points of view. Harris' book is a mishmash of half thought-out arguments laced with a strong dose of rhetorical questions that in large measure are irrelevant to the topic at hand. These polemical flourishes serve to divert the serious reader's attention from the lack of substance in the argumentation.

The book is replete with muddled thinking, from proposing that our brains do the choosing, not us, to thinking that physical causes of our behaviour excludes psychological causes. More serious muddles include defending the popular notion of 'free will' as being metaphysically neutral, but then claiming that it entails physical indeterminism. Harris also insists that thoughts can't cause other thoughts, yet repeatedly asks the reader to imagine a scenario with the expectation that with that thought, the reader will change their view. One last example is his attacking the compatibilists' notion of 'could have', yet employing it in the very next breath in appealing to the freedom each of us has in interpreting our own lives.

I've already recounted some of the absurdities that sprinkle Harris' text, usually complemented by his trademark bizarre rhetorical questions. I can count here Harris [2012: 18] asking strangely: Where is my freedom in my drinking a glass of water when that is what I wanted and I met with no coercion? As with his choice of coffee over tea, his 'brain' made him do it [2012: 11].

In his discussion on punishment, Harris [2012: 42] posits a possible future scenario in which we have the ability to treat potential criminals chemically before they even commit the crime. He asks bizarrely whether withholding the treatment before or after a person commits the crime is a suitable form of punishment, as if this is an option suggested by any of his interlocutors. This line of reasoning reaches its most absurd level when Harris asks rhetorically whether it's proper to deny surgery to a killer suffering from a brain tumour as a punishment. As if that lands a blow in the debate over free will.

Strangely, in recounting Wegner's version of compatibilism and sounding sympathetic to his case, Harris abruptly dismisses it with the single rhetorical question: 'Would I magically reclaim my freedom if I decided to spite my preference and order wine instead?' [2012: 46]. Finally, finding he can't think of anything else to say, Harris ends his book with the rhetorical question: 'And where is the freedom in that?' [2012:50]. As if this is at all relevant to the question of free will.

Along with the many muddles and absurdities is Harris' incessant vacillating from one view to its opposite. Harris flip-flops more than a pair of Aussie thongs on a hot summer's day. Does he want to reconcile the absence of free will with our ordinary moral intuitions? He begins his sixth chapter with the intent to preserve our 'most important moral and legal concerns' [2012: 27]. But just two pages on, Harris declares that 'you are no more responsible for the next thing you think (and therefore do) than you are for the fact that you were born into this world' [2012: 29]. Two chapters later, he's back on task for showing what it means to 'take responsibility' [2012: 38].

Harris also flip-flops between telling us that we have no real control over our lives [2013: 34] to inspiring us with the news that we have genuine creative control [2012: 37]. What about the permissibility of revising the meaning of a popular concept? Early on in his book, he chides the compatibilists for attempting to do that with 'free will' [2012: 18, 21]. But later on, all that language policing is forgotten as he goes about naturalizing the meaning of 'responsibility' [2012: 38]. Perhaps his most consequential flip-flops are those in which he incessantly switches from his v. 1 (helpless puppet) epiphenomenalist view of the mind he uses when he wants to ditch free will to his v. 2 (rational agent) identity theory of mind he leans on in trying to preserve moral responsibility.

A reader of Harris' book could be excused for thinking that it was originally written by two different authors, each with their own account of how the mind works and the nature of moral responsibility. A later editor then took the two loose-leaf manuscripts, threw them into the air and then collected the randomly fallen pages from the floor into the sequence we see in the final publication.

I think what more likely happened is this. Harris wrote his text hurriedly, perhaps over a one-week period. If you have published yourself, you will appreciate how writers revise their original manuscripts, noting that some parts are unclear and some parts seem to conflict with the ideas expressed in other parts. This initial self-editing process is important for clarifying the author's thoughts into a lucid and coherent message. I suspect Harris was in a rush to get his book into print and missed this important step in the process.

I am grateful to Chris Guest, David Aiken and Jim Fennel for their many corrections to and comments on the pre-release version of this essay. I remain wholly responsible for any errors and omissions in the published version.

Copyright © 2024

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