Commentary on Sam Harris' Free Will

Leslie Allan's page-by-page commentary on Sam Harris' critique of free will and reconstruction of moral responsibility

Citation Information

Allan, Leslie 2024. Commentary on Sam Harris' Free Will, URL = <>.

Publication Information

Harris, Sam, Free Will, New York, NY: Free Press, 2012, pp. 75, (Kindle Edition).

This page-by-page commentary of Sam Harris' book complements Leslie Allan's review of Free Will and his comprehensive analysis of Sam Harris' critique of free will and reconstruction of moral responsibility in his Sam Harris, Free Will and Moral Responsibility.

Untitled Introduction

Harris – Page 9 · Location 59

Whatever their conscious motives, these men cannot know why they are as they are.

Comment: But sure they do. They have some insight. Harris tells us that that Komisarjevsky, 'for as long as he can remember, he has known that he was "different" from other people, psychologically damaged, and capable of great coldness' (page 8).

Harris – Page 9 · Location 61

. . . if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him:

Comment: If it was atom for atom, it would not be you.

Harris – Page 9 · Location 62

Even if you believe that every human being harbors an immortal soul, the problem of responsibility remains: I cannot take credit for the fact that I do not have the soul of a psychopath. If I had truly been in Komisarjevsky's shoes on July 23, 2007—that is, if I had his genes and life experience and an identical brain (or soul) in an identical state—I would have acted exactly as he did.

Comment: Harris does not say what he means by 'soul' and what its causal relation is to genes and life experience. Perhaps having the soul of an immortal psychopath is down to the actions of the soul. If immortal souls are not brains, as they presumably aren't, then perhaps the actions of souls are not completely determined by prior states and events. That being the case, I'm not sure why Harris brings in immortal souls and what they have to do with the relations between determinism and moral responsibility.

Harris – Page 9 · Location 67

But a neurological disorder appears to be just a special case of physical events giving rise to thoughts and actions. Understanding the neurophysiology of the brain, therefore, would seem to be as exculpatory as finding a tumor in it.

Comment: Sure, to a neuroscientist there is no substantive difference in the type of explanation for their respective behaviours. It's all down to brain states, right? But neuroscientists are neither the victims in this case, nor their families, nor the judge and jury trying the criminal case. Harris moving from neuroscientific explanations to moral judgments in one sentence is way too fast. Here lies the persuasive force of many of Harris' arguments. Suggesting rhetorically that morality is fundamentally about neurology, Harris sets the pattern of thinking for his readers from the get-go. Contra Harris, another way of seeing this heinous act as a special case and exculpatory is to think that it is so because violent acts resulting from a neurological disorder are out of character—not of the person's making—as it was not within the control of the executive function of the person's brain.

Harris – Page 9 · Location 70

Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control.

Comment: This just seems nonsense. We know the psychological precursors to many of our intentions and we can control our thoughts. For example, I know my thought that I feel hungry is caused by my missing out on lunch. My intention to get some food into my belly arises from that feeling of hunger. As a second mundane example, my intention to focus my mind in the middle of the night on sleep-inducing boring thoughts (such as counting sheep) comes from my desire to get some sleep. And that intention then shapes the kinds of thoughts I will have until I fall asleep.

Harris - Page 10 · Location 72

Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.

Comment: This is a false dilemma. Our wills could be determined by prior causes and we are responsible for them, as most professional philosophers think.

Harris – Page 10 · Location 75

. . . what can it possibly mean to say that his will is "free"? No one has ever described a way in which mental and physical processes could arise that would attest to the existence of such freedom.

Comment: In fact, many reputable philosophers have described such a way, going back to the time of Aristotle. Most professional philosophers today think that determinism is compatible with free will and moral responsibility. These compatibilist philosophers are in the majority (59.2%), with only 11.2% of philosophers considering this question siding with Harris. (See Philosophers on Philosophy: The 2020 PhilPapers Survey, p. 7).

Harris – Page 10 · Location 77

The popular conception of free will seems to rest on two assumptions: (1) that each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past, and (2) that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present. As we are about to see, however, both of these assumptions are false.

Comment: On the first supposed misconception, Harris never seriously considers current compatibilist analyses of the term 'free will' that elucidate how we can have behaved differently even in a deterministic universe. On the second supposed misconception, Harris has already begun trying to rid us of this belief in this introduction. This effort continues through to the very end of his book.

Harris – Page 10 · Location 81

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.

Comment: This just belies our everyday experience. My decision to go to bed is obviously traced to my conscious feeling of tiredness and my belief that sleep will alleviate it. And even if Harris successfully demonstrates that our 'acts of volition merely arise spontaneously', then this seems to lend more support to the 'popular conception of free will' and not less as it fits squarely with the feeling that acts of volition are untethered.

Harris – Page 10 · Location 82

A moment or two of serious self-scrutiny, and you might observe that you no more decide the next thought you think than the next thought I write.

Comment: Contra Harris' confident assertion, a moment's reflection reveals that this is not a difficult task. For example, I can decide that my next thought will be about the first house I bought, or about the birth of my daughter. I can even decide my thoughts further into the future. I can set my timer for one hour, at which time I've resolved to put my mind to that overdue project I'm working on.

Back to Index

Ch. 1: The Unconscious Origins of the Will

Harris – Page 11 · Location 88

I generally start each day with a cup of coffee or tea—sometimes two. This morning, it was coffee (two). Why not tea? I am in no position to know. I wanted coffee more than I wanted tea today, and I was free to have what I wanted. Did I consciously choose coffee over tea? No.

Comment: But both these responses are patently absurd. He clearly chose coffee over tea that morning because that's what he felt like that morning. If he did not consciously choose coffee over tea, then who did? Or did he choose it unconsciously?

Harris – Page 11 · Location 90

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..

Comment: The problem for Harris here is that he doesn't 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.

Harris – Page 11 · Location 92

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.

Comment: What of the choice of my child's schooling? This did not suddenly appear from nowhere. My intention to send my child to a particular school is the culmination of a long chain of weighing alternatives over which I was involved at every step. This is an example of Harris' 'higher' level thinking (see page 9) [or Daniel Kahneman's slower and more deliberate System 2 thinking].

Harris – Page 12 · Location 99

More recently, direct recordings from the cortex showed that the activity of merely 256 neurons was sufficient to predict with 80 percent accuracy a person's decision to move 700 milliseconds before he became aware of it.

These findings are difficult to reconcile with the sense that we are the conscious authors of our actions. One fact now seems indisputable: Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next—a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please—your brain has already determined what you will do.

Comment: 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 predictive success rate is far from confirming the thesis of determinism. Those results leave plenty of wriggle room for an indeterminist variant of 'free will'.

Harris – Page 12 · Location 106

There will always be some delay between the first neurophysiological events that kindle my next conscious thought and the thought itself.

Comment: Harris is simply guessing here. Harris offers no evidence for this supposition about higher level thinking—a type of thinking that is very much different to button pressing.

Harris – Page 12 · Location 107

And even if there weren't—even if all mental states were truly coincident with their underlying brain states—I cannot decide what I will next think or intend until a thought or intention arises. What will my next mental state be? I do not know—it just happens.

Comment: This is nonsense. I can decide, for example, to next think about my daughter's birth.

Harris – Page 12 · Location 110

You might spend an hour thinking and acting freely in the lab, only to discover that the scientists scanning your brain had been able to produce a complete record of what you would think and do some moments in advance of each event.

Comment: Harris' scenario is not well thought out. The predictive success he pictures is simply unachievable using only a brain scanner. Our voluntary behaviour is not just a function of previous brain states, but also of sensory brain inputs and somatic changes to our brain made by other parts of our body. For example, after my brain is scanned only a few moments before, I may end up not choosing that magazine because someone chooses it before me. Or I may choose to answer a phone call on my mobile phone from an unexpected caller. The scientists will not have predicted those prior intervening events no matter how much of my brain data they gathered.

Harris – Page 13 · Location 119

You would, of course, continue to feel free in every present moment, but the fact that someone else could report what you were about to think and do would expose this feeling for what it is: an illusion. 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.

Comment: 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 that are preceded by 'free' 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' 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.

Harris – Page 14 · Location 135

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

Comment: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.

Harris – Page 14 · Location 137

We do not know what we intend to do until the intention itself arises. To understand this is to realize that we are not the authors of our thoughts and actions in the way that people generally suppose.

Comment: Nonsense. For example, I know when I awake tomorrow morning I will intend to get out of bed. With these many ordinary, everyday counterexamples to Harris' notion that our thoughts and actions are 'perfectly mysterious', his argument that we are never the authors of our thoughts and intentions collapses.

Harris – Page 15 · Location 139

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.

Comment: 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? Recall, on page 14 he insisted: 'We do not know what we intend to do until the intention itself arises.' 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. 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 actions with the importance of voluntary choice.

Harris – Page 15 · Location 141

Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have complete control over those factors.

Comment: Harris simply assumes this without argument and it seems manifestly untrue. When I freely choose my meal at a restaurant, why do I need to know all of the genetic and environmental determinants of my choice, and have control over them, for that choice to be free? Harris does not say. No one is holding a gun to my head. I'm not suffering obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or some other mental illness that makes me always choose Singapore noodles. I can give a cogent reason for my choice. By any ordinary folk account of free will, this seems sufficient for granting that I chose freely.

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Ch. 2: Changing the Subject

Harris – Page 16 · Location 149

In the philosophical literature, one finds three main approaches to the problem: determinism, libertarianism, and compatibilism. Both determinism and libertarianism hold that if our behavior is fully determined by background causes, free will is an illusion. (For this reason they are both referred to as "incompatibilist" views.)

Comment: Even though Harris tries to clear up the distinctions later in this same paragraph, what he writes here can only lead to confusion. In the philosophical literature, 'determinism' is not contrasted with 'compatibilism'. Where he writes 'determinism', he should have written 'hard determinism'.

Harris – Page 17 · Location 158

However, the "free will" that compatibilists defend is not the free will that most people feel they have.

Comment: Harris offers no evidence for this assumption. He gives no indication that he has read the literature in experimental philosophy. Has he reviewed the studies undertaken over the last couple of decades that attempt to answer this question about what the lay person means by 'free will'? The evidence to date seems to point the other way; that the person on the street uses a compatibilist sense of 'free will' when making judgments about choosing freely. See my review of four such studies in my Psychological Research on Free Will Intuitions: A Critical Review.

Harris – Page 17 · Location 168

To say that they were free not to rape and murder is to say that they could have resisted the impulse to do so (or could have avoided feeling such an impulse altogether)—with the universe, including their brains, in precisely the same state it was in at the moment they committed their crimes.

Comment: Harris is assuming here that the only possible meaning of 'could have' is in the unconditional sense in which, given the laws of physics and the initial system state, the description of the rape and murder is logically deducible. However, in these kinds of cases, this is not what we ordinarily mean by 'could have' done otherwise. In these kinds of cases, we use the conditional meaning of 'could have'.

For example, we ordinarily think that my car 'could have' been speeding down the freeway yesterday even though it was locked up in my garage at the time. We don't mean that if we wound the clock back precisely to the point where it was locked in my garage, with some of these wind backs my car could have broken the laws of physics to speed down the freeway. Of course, that is nonsense. What we mean is that my car had the capability to speed down the freeway at that time. What we mean is that my car's engine was in good working order, all four wheels were attached, the gearbox was operational, and so on, such that if my car had been taken out, it was able to be driven down the freeway. In the same vein, to say that some rapists and murderers could have resisted the impulse to rape and murder is to say that they had the capacity to not rape and murder. That is, their cognitive capacities for weighing options was intact, they had sufficient regulative control over their emotions, and so on. I give this kind of standard compatibilist analysis in my Free Will and Compatibilism. To his discredit, Harris does not consider seriously this kind of 'capacities' compatibilist account of 'could have' done otherwise and the meaning of 'free will'.

Harris – Page 18 · Location 173

Compatibilists have produced a vast literature in an effort to finesse this problem. More than in any other area of academic philosophy, the result resembles theology.

Comment: This is the first of two attempts by Harris to address compatibilism. His comparison to 'theology' is an early indication of his hurried and dismissive attitude to compatibilist analyses.

Harris – Page 18 · Location 176

According to compatibilists, if a man wants to commit murder, and does so because of this desire, his actions attest to his freedom of will.

Comment: With this account, Harris chooses to engage. However, he is in combat with a straw man of his own making. Harris here is describing a classical compatibilist account from the period of the Enlightenment (e.g., Hume, Hobbes). This kind of account was abandoned by most compatibilists a long time ago because it failed to accommodate those 'inner compulsions' (e.g., drug addiction, mental illness, brain damage) that made certain kinds of acts unfree.

Harris – Page 18 · Location 180

People have many competing desires—and some desires appear pathological (that is, undesirable) even to those in their grip. Most people are ruled by many mutually incompatible goals and aspirations: You want to finish your work, but you are also inclined to stop working so that you can play with your kids. You aspire to quit smoking, but you also crave another cigarette. You are struggling to save money, but you are also tempted to buy a new computer. Where is the freedom when one of these opposing desires inexplicably triumphs over its rival?

Comment: The examples that Harris uses here are not convincing. When our desires compete for attention, why one wins out over the other in many cases is not at all inexplicable. Take Harris' first example of me choosing to play with my children when I'm also wanting to finish my work. In the end, I may choose to play with my children because bonding with them is more important to me than some contrived short-term work goal. With Harris' third example, I may choose to buy the computer even though I want to save money because I reason that buying the computer will save me money in the long run. There is no mystery there.

Harris – Page 18 · Location 184

For instance, I just drank a glass of water and feel absolutely at peace with the decision to do so. I was thirsty, and drinking water is fully congruent with my vision of who I want to be when in need of a drink. Had I reached for a beer this early in the day, I might have felt guilty; but drinking a glass of water at any hour is blameless, and I am quite satisfied with myself. Where is the freedom in this? It may be true that if I had wanted to do otherwise, I would have, but I am nevertheless compelled to do what I effectively want.

Comment: With this counterexample to compatibilists' notion of 'free will', Harris asks 'where is the freedom in wanting what one wants without any internal conflict whatsoever?' One could ask rhetorically from the other side: How is his decision to drink that glass of water not an act of free will? Harris was not threatened with harm if he did not drink the water, drinking the water followed from his basic desire to quench his thirst and he was fully cognizant of his choice. What more does he need? If his choice to drink the water had run counter to his beliefs and desires and had appeared completely out of nowhere, we'd naturally say he had no free will in that instance. His decision to drink the water is a paradigm case of an act of free will.

On the other hand, for Harris to write that in drinking the water, he was 'compelled' to do what he effectively wanted just sounds odd as doing what you want to do without any external coercion is a paradigm case of lack of 'compulsion'. Harris claims that he best understands what the common folk mean by 'free will'. However, it turns out that accepting his advice leads to the torture of other common words in our language.

Harris – Page 19 · Location 190

And there is no way I can influence my desires—for what tools of influence would I use? Other desires?

Comment: I'm not sure how Harris answers his own rhetorical question here. His following two sentences seem disconnected from this rhetorical point. However, answering either way does not help his case. If Harris answers no, then his is mistaken. There are many times when we use a higher-level desire to influence a lower-level desire. For example, in my earlier years, I drew upon my higher-level desire to be healthy to motivate me to eliminate my desire for smoking. For another example, in order to avoid disrupting a lecture I am attending, I distract myself from my feeling of hunger and urge to go out and eat. Here again, I use my higher-level desire for education to mitigate my lower-level desire for food. On the other hand, if Harris answers yes to his question, he makes a crucial concession to compatibilists in conceding that at times we can control our thoughts, desires and intentions.

Harris – Page 21 · Location 216

Dennett is simply asserting that we are more than this—we are coterminous with everything that goes on inside our bodies, whether we are conscious of it or not. This is like saying we are made of stardust—which we are. But we don't feel like stardust. And the knowledge that we are stardust is not driving our moral intuitions or our system of criminal justice.

Comment: Dennett saying we are our bodies is very different from saying our agency includes every non-conscious biological process. Dennett is not saying the latter. To deny the former, as Harris seems to be doing, entails the absurdity that my left arm is not part of me.

Harris – Page 21 · Location 219

At this moment, you are making countless unconscious "decisions" with organs other than your brain—but these are not events for which you feel responsible. Are you producing red blood cells and digestive enzymes at this moment?

Comment: Harris here is objecting to Dennett's form of compatibilism and his theory of what it is to be an agent. Dennett is correcting the view of hard determinists such as Harris that each of us is like a little observer watching passively as our genes and our environment push around our neurons to their beat. A fair reading of Dennett's view is that we—our bodies—are producing red blood cells and digestive enzymes. But, for Dennett, no 'decisions' are being made by us as agents. Harris wisely puts the word 'decisions' within scare quotes. So, if no decisions are being made concerning unconscious somatic processes, then the question of whether these decisions are free or not does not arise. And Harris counterpoint here turns out to be another furphy.

Harris – Page 21 · Location 224

There are more bacteria in your body than there are human cells. In fact, 90 percent of the cells in your body are microbes like E. coli (and 99 percent of the functional genes in your body belong to them). Many of these organisms perform necessary functions—they are "you" in some wider sense. Do you feel identical to them? If they misbehave, are you morally responsible?

Comment: Again, I don't think this is a fair reading of Dennett's view of agency. E. coli in your body are not 'you' in any sense suggested by Dennett. As symbiotic bacteria, they must be different to you in order to form this symbiotic relationship. If they are not 'you', then the question of your being morally responsibility for their actions does not arise. I feel these kinds of objections from Harris is displaying a certain kind of desperation in the absence of a serious attempt to understand Dennett's position and that of other compatibilists.

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Ch. 3: Cause and Effect

Harris – Page 25 · Location 259

And if certain of my behaviors 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.

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

Harris – Page 25 · Location 262

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.

Comment: 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. See, for example, his pronouncements on pages 9, 10, 11, 12, 14, 18, 19. In this chapter, all that ignorance, surprise and mystery is gone. Harris now needs to claim that our thoughts and intentions are comprehensible and predictable within the system of known psychological laws.

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Ch. 4: Choices, Efforts, Intentions

Harris – Page 28 · Location 289

But from a deeper perspective (speaking both objectively and subjectively), thoughts simply arise unauthored and yet author our actions.

Comment: If thoughts play no causal role in explaining our actions (think Harris' reference to the Libet experiments, p. 12), then how can they 'author our actions'? On page 12, Harris explicitly says of the Libet experiments that 'These findings are difficult to reconcile with the sense that we are the conscious authors of our actions.' This is Harris' dilemma. In order for him to pick out a particular individual in the bewildering totality of cosmic causes as the agent who has done wrong and is now in need of correction to prevent them from harming again, he now needs to resurrect the notion of human agency.

Harris – Page 28 · Location 291

This is not to say that conscious awareness and deliberative thinking serve no purpose. I might unconsciously shift in my seat, but I cannot unconsciously decide that the pain in my back warrants a trip to a physical therapist. To do the latter, I must become aware of the pain and be consciously motivated to do something about it. Perhaps it would be possible to build an insentient robot capable of these states—but in our case, certain behaviours seem to require the presence of conscious thought.

Comment: But on Harris own account, he can, in principle, explain his trip to the therapist completely in neurophysiological terms, without any reference to the mental (go back to Harris' discussion of Hayes and Komisarjevsky, and the Libet experiments). The lesson that Harris drew on page 12 from the Libet experiments is: 'One fact now seems indisputable: Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next—a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please—your brain has already determined what you will do. You then become conscious of this "decision" and believe that you are in the process of making it.' Here, Harris insisted that 'conscious awareness' and 'deliberative thinking' serve no purpose. To now write that 'certain behaviours seem to require the presence of conscious thought' is a stark contradiction to the key message in Harris' previous chapters.

Another glaring contradiction is his new idea that thoughts can cause other thoughts. His awareness of the pain is now a cause of his intention to visit his therapist. Up to this point, Harris has been telling us that the 'intention to do one thing and not another does not originate in consciousness' [p. 11] and how the source of our thoughts and intentions is 'perfectly mysterious' [p. 14].

Harris – Page 28 · Location 293

And we know that the brain systems that allow us to reflect upon our experience are different from those involved when we automatically react to stimuli. So consciousness, in this sense, is not inconsequential.

Comment: Again, Harris contradicts his findings given in previous chapters; that consciousness is inconsequential and is just along for the ride. More particularly, his appeal here to different brain systems to rescue 'our most important moral and legal concerns' [p. 27] doesn't wash according to his own earlier account of these different brain functions. On page 12, writing on that part of the brain that allows us to 'reflect upon our experience', Harris had this to say: 'The distinction between "higher" and "lower" systems in the brain offers no relief: I, as the conscious witness of my experience, no more initiate events in my prefrontal cortex than I cause my heart to beat.' But now, Harris asks the reader to forget about all of that and focus on our capacity for 'conscious deliberation'. It seems to have escaped Harris that his late-comer appeal to our capacity for 'deliberative thinking' and our ability to 'reflect upon our experience' in order to rescue moral and legal responsibility are the self-same capacities that reasons-responsive compatibilists and legal scholars point to in explaining 'free will'. This is a view he dismissed out of hand but now wants to resurrect in order to escape nihilism.

Harris – Page 29 · Location 304

My choice to write it was unquestionably the primary cause of its coming into being. Decisions, intentions, efforts, goals, willpower, etc., are causal states of the brain, leading to specific behaviors, and behaviors lead to outcomes in the world.

Comment: Here, Harris comes closest to explaining what he means by 'choice'. He adopts an Identity Theory of mind (or something very close to it), but makes no argument for why we should accept this theory of the mental. In contrast, in his untitled introduction and first two chapters, Harris consistently writes as if mental states are epiphenomenal, with no causal power. (For example, on page 9 he writes, 'Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control.') Here again, Harris exposes his dichotomous thinking. On the one hand, to show how we are not really responsible for our voluntary actions, he argues that our thoughts and intentions have no causal efficacy. But on the other, in order to rescue our notions of human agency and morality, he needs to imbue mental events with causal power. In the process, he ties himself in knots.

Harris – Page 29 · Location 308

Therefore, while it is true to say that a person would have done otherwise if he had chosen to do otherwise, this does not deliver the kind of free will that most people seem to cherish—because a person's "choices" merely appear in his mind as though sprung from the void. From the perspective of your conscious awareness, 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.

Comment: But if choices are 'causal states of the brain' as Harris is telling us now, then why must all of them appear as though 'sprung from the void'? Harris chose to write his book. That choice/causal state is caused by a prior casual state (if determinism is true). In Harris' case, it's obvious that that prior causal state is his belief that philosophers have the wrong idea about free will coupled with his desire to set them straight. On Harris' own newly-found causal model of conscious states, it seems prior conscious states can cause later conscious states and that this chain of mental causation is transparent to anyone who thinks for a moment about their and others' motivations. On Harris' own causal model, this 'sprung from the void' objection to the notion of 'free will' collapses. And so does his objection to us being morally responsible. On his causal model, we can consciously impact what we later think and do.

Harris' flip-flops also lead to mental muddles. If a choice is now a causal state of the brain, how can a person's choices 'appear in their mind'? How can a brain state (a material thing) appear in a mind (an immaterial thing)? Harris' muddle arises from his equivocation between 'choice' being phenomenological and it being a physical brain state.

One reason why Harris gets into his mental muddles is because he equivocates between two senses of 'choice'. His mental somersaults arise because he needs both senses to achieve his objectives. He needs mental states to cause bodily behaviour for his moral theory. But at the same time he needs them to be epiphenomenal (being by-products after the real action has taken place in the neurons) so he can do away with that pesky free will.

Harris – Page 29 · Location 312

Let's say your life has gone off track. You used to be very motivated, inspired by your opportunities, and physically fit, but now you are lazy, easily discouraged, and overweight. How did you get this way? You might be able to tell a story about how your life unraveled, but you cannot truly account for why you let it happen.

Comment: Is it always the case that the reader's story of why they let themself become 'lazy, easily discouraged and overweight' cannot truly account for their slide? If they said it happened because their child died, or their partner divorced them or they were made redundant from the only job they knew, then why is this explanation always false? Harris does not tell us. He does not tell us because he wants us to reject these common-sense explanations for the radical view that there is no free will.

Harris – Page 30 · Location 316

You begin reading self-help books. You change your diet and join a gym. You decide to go back to school. But after six months of effort, you are no closer to living the life you want than you were before. The books failed to make an impact on you; your diet and fitness regime proved impossible to maintain; and you got bored with school and quit. Why did you encounter so many obstacles in yourself? You have no idea.

Comment: Paradoxically, Harris gives some reasons for your failure in that very same paragraph. Even if the reasons stated here are not the real reasons, perhaps some people in this situation do have an idea. Harris suggests that the explanation is opaque in all cases of motivational failure, but he provides no justification for this generalization.

Harris – Page 30 · Location 317

You tried to change your habits, but your habits appear to be stronger than you are. Most of us know what it is like to fail in this way—and these experiences are not even slightly suggestive of freedom of will.

Comment: The obvious question is: What has any of this story about weakness of will got to do with free will? It's unclear what particular claims about this situation Harris is disputing here. Which aspects of my dismal situation would free will advocates claim are open to the exercise of free will that Harris is saying are not, and why? Harris' critique here is opaque and confusing and I'm not sure whether Harris is himself clear on what he is trying to say.

Harris – Page 30 · Location 325

But how can you account for your ability to make these efforts today and not a year ago?.

Comment: Why does the reader need to satisfy Harris' demand for a detailed psychological or neurological explanation for their eventual success for them to have exercised their free will? If I give up my wallet when a gangster puts a gun to my head, is it not enough to give the explanation that I value my life and I believed I would be murdered if I did not comply?

Harris – Page 30 · Location 328

If you pay attention to your inner life, you will see that the emergence of choices, efforts, and intentions is a fundamentally mysterious process. Yes, you can decide to go on a diet—and we know a lot about the variables that will enable you to stick to it—but you cannot know why you were finally able to adhere to this discipline when all your previous attempts failed.

Comment: But Harris gave an explanation just two paragraphs previous: I met a famous lifestyle coach/fitness guru who helped me discover an unrealized reservoir of discipline in myself. So I'm not sure why it's suddenly mysterious to Harris, unless it needs to be for him to make his polemical point against the notion of free will.

Harris – Page 31 · Location 331

You might have a story to tell about why things were different this time around, but it would be nothing more than a post hoc description of events that you did not control.

Comment: First, by labelling all descriptions 'post hoc', Harris is treating his own explanation of how his scenario played out as not believable. Second, there were many events that were within the reader's control in Harris' story. For example, the reader exercised control in going on a diet, exercising and registering a website. These were things that were within their power to do or not to do. Of course, there were external circumstances that were genuinely not within the reader's control. But they have nothing to with whether the reader exercised their free will.

Harris – Page 31 · Location 337

You can do what you decide to do—but you cannot decide what you will decide to do. Of course, you can create a framework in which certain decisions are more likely than others—you can, for instance, purge your house of all sweets, making it very unlikely that you will eat dessert later in the evening—but you cannot know why you were able to submit to such a framework today when you weren't yesterday.

Comment: This seems to me a clear case of deciding what you will decide to do. Deciding to create the framework in which you will decide to not eat desert is just that; a decision about making a future decision. Harris' objection that even so, 'you cannot know why you were able to submit to such a framework today when you weren't yesterday' is completely beside the point. In any case, there are times when you do know why you failed to submit to the framework you instituted. An example from my own life is this: in my late twenties, I decided to decide not to have an early morning cigarette as a way of progressively giving up smoking. One day I failed. I know why. I had a particularly stressful workday coming up and felt I needed a soother.

Harris – Page 31 · Location 342

Many people believe that human freedom consists in our ability to do what, upon reflection, we believe we should do—which often means overcoming our short-term desires and following our long-term goals or better judgment. This is certainly an ability that people possess, to a greater or lesser degree, and which other animals appear to lack, but it is nevertheless a capacity of our minds that has unconscious roots.

Comment: Harris here seems to acknowledge a particular kind of 'identification' compatibilist account in which the agent identifies with what they perceive to be the good and in which a free choice is one in which the agent pursues the good unhindered. (For example, an agent handing over their wallet at gunpoint is considered an unfree act on this account as the agent left to pursue the good unhindered would not hand over their wallet to a thief.) The problem for Harris is that the fact that this capacity for reflecting on and pursuing the good has 'unconscious roots' is not a downside of this kind of compatibilist approach. And that's because roots being conscious is not entailed by the theory and proponents of the theory don't claim otherwise. This is another case in which Harris has either failed to understand the compatibilist case or has not taken it seriously.

Harris – Page 32 · Location 345

You have not built your mind. And in moments in which you seem to build it—when you make an effort to change yourself, to acquire knowledge, or to perfect a skill—the only tools at your disposal are those that you have inherited from moments past.

Comment: In some ways, you do build your mind from the manifold conscious and voluntary actions you take over many years in building your character. That the only building tools at your disposal are ones you inherited is irrelevant to whether you do the actual building or not. For example, by following some strategies, I built a new non-smoking me. That's no different to me building an extra room on my house. For the former, as Harris intimates, I rely on the 'resilience' genes I inherited. For the latter, I rely on some building tools a relative of mine left me. On Harris' reckoning, I didn't really build the new room. I only seemed to build it because I inherited the tools I used. I think that's nonsense.

Harris – Page 32 · Location 348

My choices matter—and there are paths toward making wiser ones—but I cannot choose what I choose. And if it ever appears that I do—for instance, after going back and forth between two options—I do not choose to choose what I choose.

Comment: But we can choose what we choose. We do that whenever we engage in the character-forming activities of building habits or giving up habits. These include giving up smoking, taking up exercise and using study strategies.

Secondly, Harris offers the strange example of 'going back and forth between two options' as a case of it appearing that he chose what he chose. At the supermarket, I go back and forth between low-fat and regular milk. This is not a case of me choosing to choose what kind of milk I choose. This is me simply choosing what kind of milk to buy. This is another case where Harris ties himself up in knots in trying to score a point.

Harris – Page 32 · Location 350

There is a regress here that always ends in darkness. I must take a first step, or a last one, for reasons that are bound to remain inscrutable.

Comment: In free will believers proposing that we can choose what we choose, Harris seems to think that they are then burdened with a problem of regress of choices. But Harris does not make it clear why committing to two levels of choosing (choosing what to choose), free will believers are committed to thinking there are three levels (choosing to choose what to choose). Harris pours scorn on the latter idea. Let's say Harris is right in that we never choose to choose what to choose. So what? That we do not choose to choose what to choose is no more an argument against free will than the fact that I do not pay for what I pay for what I pay for is an argument against genuine payment. Say I pay for a new sofa with cash. Say also I paid myself the cash to buy the sofa by withdrawing it from my savings account. Now, the chain of paying may stop here. The money arrives in my savings account from my employer or my investment manager, or whatever. But, contra Harris, the fact that I do not pay into my savings account does not entail that my bona fide payment for the sofa was an illusion. Even if my understanding of the mechanics of how exactly the money is transferred into my savings account 'ends in darkness', my ignorance does not tell against the genuineness of my payment. The same goes for my not choosing what I choose to choose. This does not tell against me freely choosing, even if the neural happenings behind my choice of what to choose 'remain inscrutable'.

Harris – Page 32 · Location 352

Many people believe that this problem of regress is a false one. Certain compatibilists insist that freedom of will is synonymous with the idea that one could have thought or acted differently. However, to say that I could have done otherwise is merely to think the thought "I could have done otherwise" after doing whatever I in fact did. This is an empty affirmation.

Comment: Harris promptly brushes aside his 'regress' problem (after not really explaining how it's a problem) to move on to his second attempt to respond to compatibilists. Here, Harris is either not aware or trivializes the powers/capacities account of "could have done otherwise". This kind of account keeps fixed the intrinsic properties/capacities of the entity/agent while varying other internal and external circumstances to assess whether the instantiation of one or more of those circumstances would have led to the activity/action. I give this kind of account with examples in Section 7 of my essay, 'Free Will and Compatibilism'.

Fatally to Harris' case, in the very next paragraph he introduces his own form of compatibilism when he writes about the freedom we exercise in interpreting our lives. For Harris, to be 'free' to interpret a life event this way or that way simply means that we 'can' choose to think of it this way or that. For Harris, 'We can pursue any line of thought we want', in spite of the fact that 'our choice is the product of prior events that we did not bring into being'. That we 'can' interpret otherwise—this 'freedom' to interpret—in spite of determinism, is the self-same capacity to which compatibilists refer in saying that our wills are sometimes 'free'. Harris seeing freedom to interpret as simply suggesting 'different ways of thinking have different consequences' is no different to the compatibilists seeing freedom of the will in the exact same way.

Harris – Page 34 · Location 374

There is no question that human beings can imagine and plan for the future, weigh competing desires, etc.—and that losing these capacities would greatly diminish us. External and internal pressures of various kinds can be present or absent while a person imagines, plans, and acts—and such pressures determine our sense of whether he is morally responsible for his behavior. However, these phenomena have nothing to do with free will.

Comment: In dismissing free will, we will see how Harris' account of making future choices, lapsing as it does into proposing we are blind travellers on a wild cosmic ride, also does away with our ordinary notion of 'moral responsibility'.

Harris – Page 34 · Location 381

However, when I look for the psychological cause of my behavior, I find it utterly mysterious. Why did I stop training 20 years ago? Well, certain things just became more important to me. But why did they become more important to me—and why precisely then and to that degree? And why did my interest in martial arts suddenly reemerge after decades of hibernation?

Comment: Harris displays an astonishing lack of curiosity and insight into his own behaviours for a person who is very thoughtful and intelligent. Or do his supposedly unanswerable questions only serve his rhetorical purposes here? Especially when he has answered them himself. For example, he offers that he took up martial arts again after reading Miller's book. We can take Harris' exclamation that his behaviour is 'utterly mysterious' as just plain hyperbole, along with his regress of 'why' questions. That he, along with other agents, can't give an infinite regress of explanations for his behaviour doesn't mean that a satisfactory explanation can't be given.

Harris – Page 35 · Location 386

What in hell is going on here? Of course, I could tell a story about why I'm doing what I'm doing—which would amount to my telling you why I think such training is a good idea, why I enjoy it, etc.—but the actual explanation for my behavior is hidden from me. And it is perfectly obvious that I, as the conscious witness of my experience, am not the deep cause of it.

Comment: But why is a psychological explanation in terms of Harris' beliefs, desires and values not an 'actual' explanation? Harris seems to think that the 'hidden' neurophysiological explanation for his behaviour is the only bona fide explanation. If you ask your friend why they went to the bank and they reply that they needed to withdraw some money to pay for repairs to their house, why is this not an 'actual' explanation? Harris doesn't say. Why would anyone expect from your friend an explanation in terms of their genes, upbringing and current neural happenings in their brain? And if they gave you such an explanation, why would that be a better explanation in answer to your question? In fact, if they gave you such an explanation, you would ordinarily think that they had not understood the intent of your question.

In trying to show that he is not the 'deep cause' of his behaviour (in order to sink free will), Harris is faced with a problem. That problem is that if the causes of his behavior are 'utterly mysterious' and he is not the 'deep cause' of his actions, then how can he say he, or anyone else, is morally responsible for their actions? Harris wants to have his cake (no free will) and eat it too (yes to moral responsibility). An even bigger problem is that his argument self-defeating. If, as Harris contends, every reason we give for our voluntary actions is simply a 'story' we tell ourselves, a 'post hoc' [p. 31] rationalization that 'cannot truly account' for our decisions, then the same must apply to Harris' own decisions. On his own account, his decision to reject the notion that we have free will resulted from a 'fundamentally mysterious process' [p. 30]. For Harris, as with every decision we make, it did 'come out of the darkness' [p. 29] and 'did merely appear in his mind as though sprung from the void' [p. 29]. If Harris can't give us valid reasons for rejecting free will—reasons that are not fabrications of unconscious processes he knows not what— then why ought we pay his arguments any attention? In fact, why ought we pay attention to any reasons he purportedly gives for holding of any of his beliefs and for the decisions he makes?

Harris – Page 35 · Location 391

After reading the previous paragraph, some of you will think, "That Miller book sounds interesting!" and you will buy it. Some will think no such thing. Of those who buy the book, some will find it extremely useful. Others might put it down without seeing the point. Others will place it on the shelf and forget to read it. Where is the freedom in any of this? You, as the conscious agent who reads these words, are in no position to determine which of these bins you might fall into. And if you decide to switch bins—"I wasn't going to buy the book, but now I will, just to spite you!"—you cannot account for that decision either. You will do whatever it is you do, and it is meaningless to assert that you could have done otherwise.

Comment: On a minor point, it's hard to take Harris seriously when he insists that I can't account for my decision to switch bins if I decide to switch bins. He gives just such an account in the very self-same sentence; I did it out of spite! Alternatively, I could have refrained from acting out of spite. Far from being 'meaningless', we all understand what it means to say that I could have taken that option.

More substantively, Harris is taking back that with which he started this chapter. He's relapsed into insisting that he is in no position to determine what he does voluntarily. He began this chapter with the intention of rescuing our sense of moral responsibility by appealing to the reality of human agency. Appeasing the compatibilists, Harris agreed that 'much of our behavior' depends on 'conscious awareness and deliberative thinking' [p. 28], that 'consciousness, in this sense, is not inconsequential' [p. 28] and that his choice to write his book 'was unquestionably the primary cause of its coming into being' [p. 29]. However, what Harris giveth, Harris taketh away.

Why does Harris having a bet each way matter? Because by reverting to the denial of real human agency, Harris has given up his grounds for rescuing moral responsibility. Harris initially concedes to compatibilist Nahmias that our sense of moral responsibility comes from where Nahmias says it comes from (our capacity to deliberate options free from pressures) [p. 33]. But with Harris' back flip, if our deliberations do not in the end cause our actions, then how can we be morally responsible for what we do? Harris goes back to emphasizing how we are simply passive observers as our lives unfold. As Harris insists, the causes of our behaviour are 'utterly mysterious'. For why he read a certain book, Harris has 'no idea'. Exasperatingly, he asks of his voluntary actions, 'What in hell is going on here?', and concludes 'the actual explanation for my behavior is hidden from me'. For Harris, with our conscious voluntary behaviours, we are being taken for a ride that is not of our own making. On this scheme, sure, Harris can say people are 'morally responsible' for what they do. He can pretend people are 'morally responsible'. However, he can't say they are really morally responsible in anything like our usual sense of that term. Harris wants to have his cake (assent to moral responsibility) and eat it too (deny free will).

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Ch. 5: Might the Truth Be Bad for Us?

Harris – Page 36 · Location 401

Speaking from personal experience, I think that losing the sense of free will has only improved my ethics—by increasing my feelings of compassion and forgiveness, and diminishing my sense of entitlement to the fruits of my own good luck.

Comment: However, any increased feelings of compassion and forgiveness do not follow automatically as a logical consequence of accepting determinism alone. Any such action-guiding reactions can only follow in conjunction with the acceptance of some normative theory; some moral theory about which reactions are morally appropriate. Accepting determinism can even be used by an agent to justify their feelings of anger and retribution with the reason that the universe has determined that that is how they will feel and that is how they will continue to feel until their brain 'decides' otherwise. I say more on determinism and moral reactions in my 'Determinism, Morality and Human Relationships'.

Harris – Page 36 · Location 402

If I were teaching a self-defense class for women, I would consider it quite counterproductive to emphasize that all human behavior, including a woman's response to physical attack, is determined by a prior state of the universe, and that all rapists are, at bottom, unlucky—being themselves victims of prior causes that they did not create. There are scientific, ethical, and practical truths appropriate to every occasion—and an injunction like "Just gouge the bastard's eyes" surely has its place. There is no contradiction here. Our interests in life are not always served by viewing people and things as collections of atoms—but this doesn't negate the truth or utility of physics.

Comment: This is a very telling concession of Harris'. First, his advice here is a real contradiction to all of his earlier admonitions against moral blame. Harris does not say how this expression of real moral anger and indignation has a place within a determinist's frame and I'm not sure he himself knows how to reconcile the two attitudes. Here, he is very much tipping his hat to the compatibilists without giving them due credit. Harris, all the way through, has been admonishing his readers to see us as 'collections of atoms' so buffeted unconsciously by cosmic vortices that no one is really morally responsible for their actions. It's the compatibilists that have been arguing for two different but not contradictory ways of viewing human beings: as physical entities on the one hand and as human beings with which we cooperate and form genuine relationships on the other. It's this latter frame that Harris now steals from the compatibilists to justify the appropriateness of moral anger at one's attacker.

Harris – Page 37 · Location 410

A creative change of inputs to the system—learning new skills, forming new relationships, adopting new habits of attention—may radically change one's life.

Becoming sensitive to the background of one's thoughts can—paradoxically—allow for greater creative control over one's life.

Comment: How can we be genuinely 'creative' in changing ourselves for the better, as Harris now contends, when in the previous chapter, Harris [p. 28] was telling us that it was even impossible for him to create the thoughts that led him to consider going to his pain therapist? Going by Harris' previous epiphenomenalist theory of mind, what's the point of Harris enjoining us to become 'more sensitive to the background causes of one's thoughts and feelings [to] allow for greater control over one's life' [2012: 37] when this newly found sensitivity can have no such causal impact on our mental states?

Harris – Page 37 · Location 414

This understanding reveals you to be a biochemical puppet, of course, but it also allows you to grab hold of one of your strings. A bite of food may be all that your personality requires. Getting behind our conscious thoughts and feelings can allow us to steer a more intelligent course through our lives (while knowing, of course, that we are ultimately being steered).

Comment: This paragraph is a good illustration of Harris' dichotomous thinking. On the one hand, he makes the stupendous concession to the compatibilists that you actually can 'grab hold of one of your strings' in order to steer your own destiny. Perhaps in the next edition of his book, he will edit the cover photo to an image of a puppet pulling its own strings! One the other hand, he can't help himself. By the time he gets to the end of his sentence, he remembers his mantra that all this pulling of our own strings is an illusion anyway, as there is cosmic steerer steering our lives for us. The point here is that Harris is happy to dip into the compatibilists' well when his thesis is getting too dry, but then quickly returns to the desert of hard determinism once his lips are wet enough (until next time).

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Ch. 6: Moral Responsibility

Harris – Page 38 · Location 426

To say that I was responsible for my behavior is simply to say that what I did was sufficiently in keeping with my thoughts, intentions, beliefs, and desires to be considered an extension of them.

Comment: But this can't be 'simply' what being morally responsible means as Harris' definition is purely descriptive. 'Morally responsible' is a normative concept that is action-guiding, and yet there is no directive aspect to Harris' definition. To say 'simply' that a behaviour stems from a person's character says nothing about how that responsible person ought to act and how we ought to treat them.

Harris – Page 38 · Location 427

If I had found myself standing in the market naked, intent upon stealing as many tins of anchovies as I could carry, my behavior would be totally out of character; I would feel that I was not in my right mind, or that I was otherwise not responsible for my actions. Judgments of responsibility depend upon the overall complexion of one's mind, not on the metaphysics of mental cause and effect.

Comment: Harris' character-based compatibilist account here is akin to an identification/character-based account that some contemporary compatibilists give of 'free will'. Of these accounts, Harris complained that they are a deceptive 'bait and switch' (p. 21) with a result that 'resembles theology' (p. 18). Why then is his compatibilist account of 'moral responsibility' not equally suspect? Why does Harris surrender to the (what he thinks) majority religious and metaphysical meaning of 'free will' but resists such capitulation when it comes to 'moral responsibility'?

Harris – Page 40 · Location 450

What we condemn most in another person is the conscious intention to do harm.

Comment: Harris' first problem is that his trigger for what we 'condemn most in another person'—the 'conscious intention to do harm'—does not always act as a trigger. For the killer in his case 5, Harris rightly regards him as divested of 'all responsibility' (p. 40) because he is 'purely a victim of biology' (p. 41). In legal terms, the killer's brain tumour is considered 'exculpatory' (i.e., clears guilt entirely) even though he intended grievous harm. No condemnation is warranted in this case. The second problem for Harris is that for which we 'condemn most' is not always the 'conscious intention to do harm'. We ordinarily regard the embezzlement of ten million dollars of shareholders funds as more condemnatory than twisting someone's arm in a bar room fight.

Harris – Page 40 · Location 451

Degrees of guilt can still be judged by reference to the facts of a case: the personality of the accused, his prior offenses, his patterns of association with others, his use of intoxicants, his confessed motives with regard to the victim, etc. If a person's actions seem to have been entirely out of character, this might influence our view of the risk he now poses to others. If the accused appears unrepentant and eager to kill again, we need entertain no notions of free will to consider him a danger to society.

Comment: The problem with Harris asking us to measure the degree of guilt of the perpetrator in proportion to their level of 'risk' of being a 'danger to society' is that the degree of moral blameworthiness does not map neatly to the perpetrator's level of risk of harm to society. During trial, it may be determined that the killers in Harris' cases 2, 3, 4 and 5 pose a commensurate degree of threat to society. Yet Harris, along with our ordinary moral intuitions, attributes differing levels of moral blame in each case.

Harris – Page 40 · Location 454

Why is the conscious decision to do another person harm particularly blameworthy? Because what we do subsequent to conscious planning tends to most fully reflect the global properties of our minds—our beliefs, desires, goals, prejudices, etc.

Comment: This view of human beings as rational agents whose decisions are understandable in terms of prior beliefs, desires and values and are the causal consequences of those prior psychological states is completely at odds with his earlier 'helpless puppet' theory of mind. On Harris' former epiphenomenalist view, our decisions seem to have no causal antecedents in our psychological makeup. They 'merely arise spontaneously' (p. 9), do 'not originate in consciousness' (p. 9) and 'over which we exert no conscious control' (p. 9).

Harris – Page 41 · Location 464

Why does the brain tumor in case 5 change our view of the situation so dramatically? One reason is that its influence has been visited upon a person who (we must assume) would not otherwise behave in this way. Both the tumor and its effects seem adventitious, and this makes the perpetrator appear to be purely a victim of biology.

Comment: The obvious question for Harris here is, 'Is this not the case, according to Harris, for all criminals?' For Harris' cases 2, 3 and 4, Harris initially allows some measure of moral blame (p. 39). But in all of these cases, equal to the brain tumour, the killer didn't choose their genes and upbringing. All these prior causes are 'adventitious', outside of the killer's control.

Harris – Page 41 · Location 458

Certain criminals must be incarcerated to prevent them from harming other people. The moral justification for this is entirely straightforward: Everyone else will be better off this way. Dispensing with the illusion of free will allows us to focus on the things that matter—assessing risk, protecting innocent people, deterring crime, etc.

Comment: We do need to incarcerate violent criminals for our own safety. However, criminality/moral blameworthiness does not map neatly to violent intent. For some people, we need to restrict their movements for the safety of others not because they are morally blameworthy, but because they are suffering some kind of mental abnormality, such as a brain tumour, severe drug addiction or from brainwashing. And this is where the concept of 'free will' serves as a highly practical criterion for separating the morally culpable from the blameless. When the person has their cognitive capacity or volitional regulation compromised by brain disease, mental illness, drug addiction or brainwashing (i.e., their capacity to act freely is compromised), then to that extent their moral culpability is reduced.

Harris – Page 41 · Location 461

Once we recognize that even the most terrifying predators are, in a very real sense, unlucky to be who they are, the logic of hating (as opposed to fearing) them begins to unravel.

Comment: Sure. For a judge dispensing justice in a criminal case, 'hating' the convicted is not required. But sometimes it is entirely appropriate, such as in the case of the victims of brutal Nazi war crimes. Even Harris sets aside his own advice here, telling trainers it's OK to urge the women in their self-defence class to 'Just gouge the bastard's eyes' (p. 36).

Harris – Page 41 · Location 466

Of course, if we couldn't cure his condition, we would still need to lock him up to prevent him from committing further crimes, but we would not hate him or condemn him as evil.

Comment: Harris' confused conflation of criminality/moral blameworthiness with violent intent continues with this advice. Take note. We 'lock up' criminals, but not people suffering from a brain disease. In addition, patients who commit violent acts because of their brain disease can't be at risk of 'committing further crimes' because they are not criminals to begin with. The killer in case 5 is absolved of all blame because he did not commit the act of his free will. In leaving that crucial consideration out of the moral equation, Harris keeps tripping over himself in trying to account for our ordinary moral judgments.

Harris – Page 41 · Location 468

Here is one front on which I believe our moral intuitions must change: The more we understand the human mind in causal terms, the harder it becomes to draw a distinction between cases like 4 and 5.

Comment: But this is a gross understatement of Harris'. It's not just on one front he is trying to revise our moral intuitions. In removing the moral distinction between criminal and non-criminal, he's brought down the entire edifice or morality. If there is no distinction between a harmful brain injury patient and a harmful criminal with a well-functioning brain, then there is no moral distinction left to make. What started out as Harris' big promise 'to find some notion of personal responsibility' (p. 38) that we can use to 'make sense of these gradations of moral responsibility'(p. 40), is now completely forgotten. This is what's so confusing about Harris. He starts by accepting and wanting to justify gradations of moral responsibility and ends here by saying, because determinism, we can't really grade cases 4 and 5 differently. First, he grants us moral responsibility, but then pulls the rug out from under us.

Harris – Page 42 · Location 473

To see how fully our moral intuitions must shift, consider what would happen if we discovered a cure for human evil. Imagine that every relevant change in the human brain could now be made cheaply, painlessly, and safely. In fact, the cure could be put directly into the food supply, like vitamin D. Evil would become nothing more than a nutritional deficiency.

Comment: The big question here is: Who would decide which behaviours are 'evil' that need this chemical adjustment? Who ought to have the ear of the government in making this decision? I bet Harris would say the ethicists who think along with him that immorality is centrally about the 'conscious intention to do harm' (p. 40). And what of those ethicists who disagree; those who say that it's centrally about displeasing the deity, or that it includes committing 'unnatural' acts or aborting the unborn? For Harris, are these dissenters creating egregious harms that need to be targeted with his chemical solution? It is ironic that Harris' suggestion for the medicalization of 'evil' behaviour as some kind of utopia occurs in the same chapter in which he begins with the intention of saving our ordinary notions of 'right and wrong' and 'good and evil' by 'seeing people as people' (p. 38).

Harris – Page 42 · Location 475

If we imagine that a cure for evil exists, we can see that our retributive impulse is morally flawed.

Comment: How it does that is not clear to me. Bizarrely, Harris asks whether withholding this chemical cure from a murderer after they commit the crime is a suitable punishment. That we say 'no' is meant to show that it's wrong to think that the murderer 'deserves' this punishment (p. 42). Sure. But that goes no way to showing that another form of punishment may be justified. Just because garrotting the murderer is an unjustified form of punishment does not entail that there is no justified method of punishing.

Harris – Page 43 · Location 485

Within a religious framework, a belief in free will supports the notion of sin—which seems to justify not only harsh punishment in this life but eternal punishment in the next.

Comment: Sure. But religious folk don't own the concept of 'free will'. In fact, they get it just as wrong as hard determinists such as Harris. The notion of 'free will' is consistent with humane moral attitudes and penal practices. This is where I wished Harris had engaged with compatibilist notions of 'free will' instead of being obsessed with mistaken religious notions.

Harris – Page 43 · Location 488

If we could incarcerate earthquakes and hurricanes for their crimes, we would build prisons for them as well.

Comment: I'm not sure how to read this seemingly nonsensical remark.

Harris – Page 43 · Location 489

We fight emerging epidemics—and even the occasional wild animal—without attributing free will to them.

Comment: That's because they are not beings who plan for the future, who weigh alternate possibilities for action and with whom we can reason. Again, it is ironic that Harris begins this chapter with the intention of saving our ordinary notions of 'right and wrong' and 'good and evil' by 'seeing people as people' (p. 38).

Harris – Page 43 · Location 491

We will still need a criminal justice system that attempts to accurately assess guilt and innocence along with the future risks that the guilty pose to society.

Comment: Harris wants to jettison our ascriptions of 'free will' in light of our enlightened scientific knowledge. It's hard to see why he does not then also argue for moral eliminativism considering that scientific thinkers such as he argue that metaphysical moral realism is built into our moral language. For consistency, Harris should also be advocating that the outdated notions of 'guilt' and 'innocence' can equally be replaced with talk about risks of harm.

Harris – Page 45 · Location 516

It may be true that strict punishment—rather than mere containment or rehabilitation—is necessary to prevent certain crimes. But punishing people purely for pragmatic reasons would be very different from the approach that we currently take.

Comment: Harris here places an each way bet on Pinker's compatibilism. That current approach is the one appealing to the metaphysical notion of uncaused causes and a 'deep sense' of desert (p. 7). Harris is unsure here whether our conventional notion of 'free will' and 'moral responsibility' is compatibilist or whether it is metaphysical and indeterminist. And yet he has written his book with the utter conviction that 'free will' is an 'illusion'. Is the pragmatic compatibilist rationale that Pinker gives really that different from convention? In jurisprudence, the five purposes of punishment are standardly stated as retribution, incapacitation, deterrence, rehabilitation and reparation. In legal practice, the one punishment can serve multiple aims.

Harris – Page 45 · Location 520

As the psychologist Daniel Wegner points out, the idea of free will can be a tool for understanding human behavior. To say that someone freely chose to squander his life's savings at the poker table is to say that he had every opportunity to do otherwise and that nothing about what he did was inadvertent. He played poker not by accident or while in the grip of delusion but because he wanted to, intended to, and decided to, moment after moment. For most purposes, it makes sense to ignore the deep causes of desires and intentions—genes, synaptic potentials, etc.—and focus instead on the conventional outlines of the person. We do this when thinking about our own choices and behaviors—because it's the easiest way to organize our thoughts and actions. Why did I order beer instead of wine? Because I prefer beer. Why do I prefer it? I don't know, but I generally have no need to ask. Knowing that I like beer more than wine is all I need to know to function in a restaurant. Whatever the reason, I prefer one taste to the other.

Comment: This seems a major concession to Wegner's compatibilist analysis and the idea that the concept of 'free will' is metaphysically agnostic.

Harris – Page 46 · Location 527

Is there freedom in this? None whatsoever. Would I magically reclaim my freedom if I decided to spite my preference and order wine instead? No, because the roots of this intention would be as obscure as the preference itself.

Comment: Just when Harris seems to be willing to consider seriously a compatibilist view, he takes another sharp U-turn, ending the chapter quite abruptly. How Harris choosing wine when he likes beer is a defeater to Wegner's analysis is left unexplained. If Harris was not interested in critiquing Wegner's compatibilism, I'm not sure why Harris even included his view.

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Ch. 7: Politics

Harris – Page 47 · Location 534

Consider the biography of any "self-made" man, and you will find that his success was entirely dependent on background conditions that he did not make and of which he was merely the beneficiary. There is not a person on earth who chose his genome, or the country of his birth, or the political and economic conditions that prevailed at moments crucial to his progress.

Comment: Sure, no person can choose those preconditions of their situation. However, a person can choose to enrol at night-school, or to start a business, or to sacrifice and invest their money. It's not always the situation that a person finds themself in. It's what a person does with the opportunities presented to them. For example, not all the "background conditions" for my success in my career are ones that I did not make. My education is one such "background condition". I worked hard to get that education; not my genes, not my environment.

Harris – Page 47 · Location 538

Even if you have struggled to make the most of what nature gave you, you must still admit that your ability and inclination to struggle is part of your inheritance. How much credit does a person deserve for not being lazy? None at all. Laziness, like diligence, is a neurological condition.

Comment: Well, short-sightedness is a part of my inheritance. But poor vision is not my destiny as I can make the effort to get a pair of prescription glasses. People can both enhance and inhibit their inherited traits. Secondly, laziness and diligence are not classified by professional neurologists as a 'neurological condition'. It's plainly misleading to co-opt a term that applies to disorders of the nervous system.

Harris – Page 47 · Location 540

Of course, conservatives are right to think that we must encourage people to work to the best of their abilities and discourage free riders wherever we can. . . . We need only acknowledge that efforts matter and that people can change.

Comment: What is left unanswered by Harris is that if other people can influence me to change my behaviour, then why can't I do that to myself? Harris rails against the 'illusion of free will' because we 'do not change ourselves, precisely—because we have only ourselves with which to do the changing—but we continually influence, and are influenced by, the world around us and the world within us' (p. 47–8). This admission seems to let the cat out of the bag. If we can influence the world within us, then why is that not a capacity to change ourselves?

Harris – Page 48 · Location 544

It may seem paradoxical to hold people responsible for what happens in their corner of the universe, but once we break the spell of free will, we can do this precisely to the degree that it is useful.

Comment: This paradox can't be resolved by Harris simply by pointing to the distinction between people who are able to be influenced by reasons and those who aren't. Because for Harris, there is no substantive difference between them. Even when we think we are acting on reasons, Harris (p. 22) tells us that we 'confabulate' those reasons and that 'our attribution of agency' to ourselves is always 'gravely in error'. If 'everything that we consciously intend is caused by events in our brain that we do not intend and of which we are entirely unaware' (p. 22), then how can we be morally responsible for any of our actions? If it's always 'meaningless to assert that you could have done otherwise' (p. 35), then how can I be morally blamed for not doing other than what I in fact did?

Harris – Page 48 · Location 546

Where people can change, we can demand that they do so.

Comment: Harris can say that certain people do change as a historical fact. However, he never provided an analysis of how people "can" change, given that for Harris people can only do what is dictated by their genes, upbringing and environment. For Harris, 'our attribution of agency' 'is always 'gravely in error' (p. 22). He rejected all compatibilist accounts for how we can do otherwise without offering a replacement hard determinist account.

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Ch. 8: Conclusion

Harris – Page 49 · Location 560

But paying attention to my stream of consciousness reveals that this notion of freedom does not reach very deep. Where did this rabbit come from?

Comment: The question of depth is not really relevant to the question of freedom of choice. All that's relevant is that Harris' choice was not coerced and was not out of character. It's like complaining that this ball is not really hard because I can't say where the hardness comes from. The fact that my characterisation of hardness "does not reach very deep" does not entail that my characterisation is false.

Harris – Page 49 · Location 561

Why didn't I put an elephant in that sentence? I do not know. I am free to change "rabbit" to "elephant," of course. But if I did this, how could I explain it? It is impossible for me to know the cause of either choice.

Comment: But Harris can give an explanation for why he put 'rabbit' in that sentence. It's because he wanted to make a point about the arbitrariness of free choice. And had he chosen to put in 'elephant' instead, it would have been to further drive home that point.

Harris – Page 49 · Location 563

Either is compatible with my being compelled by the laws of nature or buffeted by the winds of chance; but neither looks, or feels, like freedom.

Comment: But in what sense are the laws of nature compelling Harris in this instance? Why not describe the laws of nature 'enabling' him to write what he wants to write. I mean, when Harris goes for a drive in the country, it seems strange to say that the laws of nature are compelling him to drive to his destination. It seems more apt to say that the laws of thermodynamics, the laws of chemistry, and so on, are enabling him to arrive at his destination. Without the operation of these laws, he and his car would go nowhere. Similarly, without the operation of the neurobiological laws governing his brain processes, the laws of physics governing the operation of the computer he is working on, and so on, he would not be able to even form the intention of writing the next word, let alone to then go on to tap the keyboard.

Harris – Page 49 · Location 569

In fact, I can't think of anything else to say on the subject. And where is the freedom in that?

Comment: But who says there is freedom in not being able to think of anything else to say? This seems to be a rhetorical Harris quip not directed at anyone.

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