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Sam Harris, Free Will
and Moral Responsibility

2. The Unconscious Origins of the Will

2.1 A Litany of Muddles

Harris devotes his first titled chapter, The Unconscious Origins of the Will, to the supposed second misconception of free will believers: 'that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present' [2012: 10]. Harris uses a number of examples to make his point. Do these examples really show what he thinks they show?

His first example is his choosing coffee over tea one morning. Why did he choose coffee and not tea? He says, 'I am in no position to know' [2012: 11]. To the question, 'Did I consciously choose coffee over tea?', he answers emphatically: 'No' [2012: 11]. But both these responses are patently absurd. He clearly chose coffee over tea that morning for the straightforward reason that that's what he felt like that morning. Secondly, if he did not consciously choose coffee over tea, then who did? Or did he choose it unconsciously? He relieves us of the mystery. It was not he who chose coffee. 'The choice was made for me by events in my brain . . .' [2012: 11], he tells us. So, it's not people that make choices, it's events in the brain.

The problem for Harris here is that he does not even believe his own conclusion. In the very next paragraph, he recounts how the physiologist Libet chose to use EEG in his experiments and how his experimental subjects chose to press one of two levers. There is no talk here of brains choosing, only this person or that person choosing. And so on for the hundreds of other instances of choosing that Harris mentions in his book. This is Harris' first philosophical muddle.

The second muddle is Harris' idea that because his choice of coffee is 'the product of unconscious causes', this entails that his intention did not 'originate in consciousness' [2012: 11]. This is a false dichotomy. His choice is the result of physical brain events (the 'unconscious causes'), as he says. But they can equally be the result of psychological causes that are part of the inventory of 'folk psychology' that we use every day to explain human actions. So, in this case, we can say that Harris choosing coffee is the result of his love of coffee, the belief that he has coffee in front of him and his stronger desire for coffee over tea. Harris doesn't say why this causal explanation in terms of mental events and properties won't work in parallel with his physical brain-event explanation. This challenge to Harris is especially acute considering that in his fourth chapter he shifts to the view that mental events are causally efficacious in 'leading to specific behaviors' [p. 29].

A third muddle is Harris' thinking that we are simply passive observers of our own mental lives. His example of choosing coffee over tea simply does not show what he thinks introspection reveals to us; that when it comes to choosing, I am simply 'the conscious witness of my thoughts and actions' [2012: 11]. A moment's reflection reveals that we can be actors and not simply observers of our mental lives. I can decide, for example, that my next thought will be about the towns I will visit during my upcoming holiday or about my university days. I can even plan today my thoughts for tomorrow. I can decide now that tomorrow I will spend an hour in the morning finishing off this essay. Likewise, it's within Harris' capacity to decide that next morning he will choose tea instead of coffee.

The fourth mistake is in thinking that even if it is a false assumption that 'we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present' [2012: 10], this is at all relevant to the question of free will. We may be on autopilot most of the time. However, there are times at which we consciously reflect on the choices before us, weigh the reasons for and against each option and then choose accordingly. For example, my partner and I deliberated long and hard over whether to move house. It's just nonsense to say that this act of volition did 'merely arise spontaneously' [2012: 10], as Harris does. This example of uncoerced deliberation about where one lives is a paradigm case of choosing freely.

A fifth muddle is exposed in Harris' [2012: 12] description of a fictitious group of scientists predicting accurately the reader's thoughts and actions throughout the day. Harris' proposed 'perfect neuroimaging device' is able to predict all thoughts and actions a few seconds in advance. In fact, this scenario could never be a reality as there will be unexpected external events that happen in those few seconds following the neuroimaging that change the conditions of choice. (For example, I end up not choosing that magazine because someone chooses it before me. Or I choose to answer a phone call on my mobile phone from an unexpected caller.) Let's leave aside this impossibility and imagine Harris' scenario to be possible.

Harris surmises that this scenario exposes our feeling of free will as 'an illusion'. He urges: 'If the laws of nature do not strike most of us as incompatible with free will, that is because we have not imagined how human behavior would appear if all cause-and-effect relationships were understood' [2012: 13]. But how so? Many of us have imagined how voluntary human behaviour appears in the light of determinism and see no conflict. (In fact, according to a recent world wide survey of professional philosophers [Bourget and Chalmers 2023: 7] who have examined this question, 59.2 percent of them conclude that free will and determinism are compatible.)

Harris' fictitious scenario only has its persuasive force if we assume that the term 'free' in 'free will' means 'uncaused' or 'without sufficient causation'. But why should we think so? Many phrases with 'free' as the first word have nothing to do with 'cause-and-effect relationships'. Here are some common examples: 'free hand', 'free thought', 'free range', 'free mind', 'free market', 'free fall', 'free consent', 'free competition', 'free evening', 'free pass' and 'free skating'. In all of these cases, 'free' refers to something akin to 'unhindered'. Harris gives us no reason to think the locution 'free will' is different. He simply assumes that 'free' means what he thinks it means.

Secondly, even when the underlying 'cause-and-effect relationships' are exposed in these cases of freedom, such exposure does not render the freedom as an 'illusion'. Take a 'free hand' drawing or a 'free range' chicken. We all accept that hands drawing and chickens ranging are constrained by the laws of nature. But we don't think thereby that the freedom of the hand and the freedom of the chicken are an 'illusion'.

These muddles are simply repeated throughout Harris' text. Towards the end of the chapter, Harris [2012: 14] opines:

But where intentions themselves come from, and what determines their character in every instance, remains perfectly mysterious in subjective terms. . . . We do not know what we intend to do until the intention itself arises.

This is nonsense. For example, I know my intention to enrol at university came from my love of studying and of philosophy developed over a long period. I know my intention to eat my lunch came from my feeling of hunger and from not having eaten for several hours. And in many cases, I do know what I intend to do long before the intention arises. For example, I know when I awake tomorrow morning I will intend to get out of bed.

At the end of the chapter, Harris introduces his own mystery when attempting to rescue the importance of the distinction between voluntary and involuntary actions after trying his hardest to demolish it. Harris [2012: 15] urges:

The freedom to do what one intends, and not to do otherwise, is no less valuable than it ever was. Having a gun to your head is still a problem worth rectifying, wherever intentions come from.

But why is having a gun to your head a problem for Harris if we have no idea what we will think and intend when that happens? On Harris' own schema, it may be the case that when someone holds a gun to your head, you may think this a good thing. You won't know until someone does it and you find yourself reacting the way you do. Harris owes us an explanation for why it is now a 'problem'. These are the kinds of knots that we see Harris tying himself in as he tries to reconcile our supposed lack of authorship of our mental states with the importance of voluntary choice.

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