Sam Harris, Free Will
and Moral Responsibility

4. Cause and Effect

In this chapter on Cause and Effect, Harris counters the arguments of those indeterminists who try to base the reality of free will on random quantum processes. It is interesting to note that the reductio ad absurdum counterarguments that Harris poses can be turned equally against Harris' view of mind. Harris [2012: 24] observes:

And if certain of my behaviours are truly the result of chance, they should be surprising even to me. How would neurological ambushes of this kind make me free?

Imagine what your life would be like if all your actions, intentions, beliefs, and desires were randomly "self-generated" in this way. You would scarcely seem to have a mind at all. You would live as one blown about by an internal wind.

The problem here for Harris is that being blown about by an internal wind (opaque neural events) and neurological ambushes (my brain made me do it) have been the unwavering story he has been telling us for the first two chapters. Does that mean on Harris' account we scarcely have a mind at all?

This chapter marks the point in his book that Harris makes a radical U-turn so that he can rescue the notion of moral responsibility (albeit unsuccessfully). Up to this juncture, Harris has been stressing how we know nothing of the causes of our thoughts and intentions. Here are some examples:

Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. [2012: 9]

Seeming acts of volition merely arise spontaneously (whether caused, uncaused, or probabilistically inclined, it makes no difference) and cannot be traced to a point of origin in our conscious minds. [2012: 10]

Did I consciously choose tea over coffee? No. The choice was made for me by events in my brain that I, as the conscious witness of my thoughts and actions, could not inspect or influence. [2012: 11]

The intention to do one thing and not another does not originate in consciousness—rather, it appears in consciousness, as does any thought or impulse that might oppose it. [2012: 11]

What will my next mental state be? I do not know—it just happens. [2012: 12]

But where intentions themselves come from, and what determines their character in every instance, remains perfectly mysterious in subjective terms. [2012: 14]

Where is the freedom when one of these opposing desires inexplicably triumphs over its rival? [2012: 18]

My mental life is simply given to me by the cosmos. [2012: 19]

In this chapter, all that ignorance, surprise and mystery is gone. Because Harris wants to rescue the notion of moral responsibility (coming up in his chapter on Moral Responsibility), he now needs to claim that our thoughts and intentions are comprehensible and predictable within the system of known psychological laws. As Harris [2012: 24] puts it:

Actions, intentions, beliefs, and desires can exist only in a system that is significantly constrained by patterns of behavior and the laws of stimulus-response. The possibility of reasoning with other human beings—or, indeed, of finding their behaviors and utterances comprehensible at all—depends on the assumption that their thoughts and actions will obediently ride the rails of a shared reality.

I'll call this 'rational agent' version of Harris that we find in this chapter, Harris v. 2. I'll show how this tension between the earlier Harris v. 1 'helpless puppet' view and the new Harris v. 2 view plays out in the coming chapters as confusion piled upon confusion.

Copyright © 2024

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