Sam Harris, Free Will
and Moral Responsibility

2. The Unconscious Origins of the Will

2.2 Libet Experiments

In this chapter, Harris not only relies on the results of introspection. He calls upon the experiments of Libet and his successors to show how functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) can be used to 'predict with 80 percent accuracy a person's decision to move 700 milliseconds before he became aware of it' [2012: 12]. As a defence of determinism, Harris needs to say much more here. A libertarian can justifiably respond that Libet's 70 percent and later fMRI studies' 80 percent predictive success rate is far from confirming the thesis of determinism. Those results leave plenty of wriggle room for an indeterminist interpretation of 'free will'. (For a much more comprehensive review of these kinds of experiments and a more cautious conclusion drawn from them, see Sapolsky [2023: ch. 2]).

Another example of Harris' overreach here is his dismissal of the distinction between 'higher' and 'lower' systems in the brain as a response to Libet-style experiments. Harris [2012: 12] boldly announces: 'There will always be some delay between the first neurophysiological events that kindle my next conscious thought and the thought itself'. However, he offers no evidence for this supposition about higher-level thinking—a type of thinking that is very much different to button pressing. But no matter for Harris if a time-delay can't be found for higher-level thinking: 'I cannot decide what I will next think or intend until a thought or intention arises' [2012: 12]. We're back to repeating muddle number three to reject free will out of hand.

He drives his point against freedom of the will home with his next question and his own answer: 'What will my next mental state be? I do not know—it just happens' [2012: 12]. His final rhetorical question seals the coffin on free will: 'Where is the freedom in that?' If all mental states arise from unconscious and unknown prior physical states, then, for Harris, the case is closed.

The picture that Harris paints in this chapter is that of his conscious mind always being on autopilot, with his brain sitting in the driver's seat. Harris is just going along for the ride. He doesn't have a blindfold on, so he's aware of where he is. But each moment in his journey is a complete surprise as he's never told his next stop. He just suddenly appears, without any forewarning. I'll call this 'helpless puppet' version of Harris that we find in this chapter, Harris v. 1.

It's important to note that what Harris seems to be suggesting here is known as an 'epiphenomenalist' account of mind-brain interaction. With this kind of account, mental events have no causal power. They are simply inert by-products of physical processes in the brain. This way of looking at mental events suits Harris' purpose here in denying genuine human agency (e.g., 'The choice was made for me by events in my brain . . .' [2012: 11].) However, Harris will later take back this view, switching to an idea more akin to the Identity Theory of mind as he wants to bring back the view of human agency in which our minds actually cause stuff to happen. As he writes later: 'Decisions, intentions, efforts, goals, willpower, etc., are causal states of the brain, leading to specific behaviors, and behaviors lead to outcomes in the world' [2012: 29].

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