Sam Harris, Free Will
and Moral Responsibility

3. Changing the Subject

3.3 Harris–Dennett Dialogue

Harris ends the chapter with a critique of Dennett's account of human agency, where he thinks Dennett has done a 'bait and switch' [2012: 21]. For Harris, compatibilists like Dennett 'change the subject: They trade a psychological fact—the subjective experience of being a conscious agent—for a conceptual understanding of ourselves as persons' [2012: 21]. Dennett [2014] has made his own reply, so I won't repeat here the incisive points that Dennett makes. (I make some further minor remarks on Harris' reply to Dennett in my page-by-page commentary [Allan 2024a] of Harris' text.)

In his response to Harris, Dennett [2014] tries to untangle Harris' argument. However, in his reply to Dennett, Harris [2014] seems to have girded the position of the compatibilists he is trying to counter. Harris [2014] writes in his defence: 'The popular, folk psychological sense of free will is a moment-to-moment experience, not a theory about the mind. It is primarily a first-person fact, not a third-person account of how human beings function.'

As with other compatibilists, I agree here with Harris' metaphysically agnostic interpretation of 'free will'. I try to prosecute the case for this agnostic approach by drawing extensively on common usage in Allan [2016b], 'Free Will and Compatibilism'. It's that first-person feeling of not being compelled to choose by external forces that I incorporate in my 4C model of free will as the criterion of being free from 'Compulsion'. As an expansion of Harris' idea here, I also incorporate as key criteria for choosing freely two other felt senses. First, the sense of having the cognitive capacity ('Cognition') to be aware of one's situation and to make informed decisions. Second, the sense of choosing in a way that expresses one's personhood ('Character') in line with one's established beliefs, desires and values.

After encouraging Dennett to stay with the 'first-person fact' of (illusory) felt experience, Harris then shifts abruptly to a 'third-person account', a type of perspective he has been railing against. Harris [2014] writes:

The moment you show that a person's thoughts and actions were determined by events that he did not and could not see, feel, or anticipate, his third-person account of himself may remain unchanged ("Of course, I know that much of what goes on in my brain is unconscious, determined by genes, and so forth. So what?"), but his first-person sense of autonomy comes under immediate pressure—provided he is paying attention.

Let's leave aside the question of why this person would feel under immediate pressure to give up his sense of autonomy after they were informed of a fact (i.e., his thoughts and actions are determined) that he already knew to be true. Importantly, what started out as Harris' idea of 'free will' as expressly excluding a 'theory about the mind' and avoiding an 'account of how human beings function' shifts dramatically. By the end of the very next paragraph, Harris' meaning of 'free will' presumes the truth that the mind is a mechanistically determined entity.

Harris is right that the ordinary person's notion of 'free will' is metaphysically neutral. So, it is disappointing that after pointing out the subjective feeling of willing and acting freely, Harris so quickly falls back into his mantra of dismissing 'free will' because of its supposed metaphysical assumption of mind independence from physical causality. In his reply to Dennett, Harris [2014] repeats: 'And if what a person is unconscious of are the antecedent causes of everything he thinks and does, this fact makes a mockery of the subjective freedom he feels he has.' However, it can't be a mockery if the 'subjective' feeling is neutral about the metaphysics of mind, as Harris at first insisted. Let's add this to the list of Harris' flip-flops and muddles.

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