Book Review: Free Will by Sam Harris

2. Did Harris Succeed in His Objectives?

So, did Harris succeed in demonstrating that we don't have free will and that we none the less are morally responsible for our actions? I don't think so. Harris' case against free will rested on him proving that the popular notion rests on two false 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 [p. 10]

On the first assumption, Harris simply assumes without argument or evidence [p. 17] that 'could have behaved differently' means 'could have behaved differently given the exact same initial state of the universe'. Harris is aware of compatibilist analyses that show that in addition to this unconditional meaning, there is a second conditional meaning. This is one of many instances in which Harris simply refuses to engage with compatibilists. Here, he simply dismisses this rendition of the meaning of 'free will' as impossible, even though there is a wealth of evidence in support.

Harris also fails to follow his own advice. On page 33, he takes back his own rejection of the capacity to do otherwise when he advises us that we are 'free to interpret' the pivotal events in our lives. Later on page 42, he tells us that 'any of us could have been dealt a very different hand in life'.

Did Harris fare any better in his attempt to disprove the second misconception? In the first part of his book, Harris offers us the results of his introspection in which he observes that 'acts of volition merely arise spontaneously' [p. 9], his having no idea what his next mental state will be, 'it just happens' [p. 12], and where his mental life is given to him 'by the cosmos' [p. 18]. I call this the 'helpless puppet' version of Harris' thinking.

Unfortunately for Harris, the examples he gives tell against his own case. Let me give you just one example. On page 11, Harris muses over why he chose to start his day with two cups of coffee and not tea. 'I am in no position to know', he announces. But the answer is right in front of his nose. He chose coffee that morning because that is what he felt like having. He wasn't bribed or threatened, or manipulated by a mad scientist programming his brain. He acted on his liking for coffee in that moment. His other examples backfire in the same fashion.

Contra Harris, the origin of many of our thoughts is not 'perfectly mysterious' [p. 14]. A moment's reflection reveals that conscious control over our thoughts 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.

In prosecuting this 'helpless puppet' view of human beings, Harris blows up his own case against this second misconception. For Harris, as our mental lives are dictated to us by the impersonal forces of the 'cosmos', every reason we give for our voluntary actions is simply a 'story' [pp. 29, 31, 35] we tell ourselves, a 'post hoc' [p. 31] rationalization that 'cannot truly account' for our decisions. If that's the case, then the same must apply to Harris' own decisions. On his own account, he must conclude that his decision to reject the notion of free will resulted from a 'fundamentally mysterious process' [p. 30] that '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 any of his beliefs and for the decisions he makes?

Harris destroys his own case again as he seeks to justify our ordinary notion that we are morally responsible for our actions. Starting in his chapter on Cause and Effect, Harris points out that our thoughts and intentions are comprehensible and predictable within the system of known psychological laws. As Harris puts it on page 24:

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.

On this newly introduced 'rational agent' view of human beings, the source of our thoughts and intentions is no longer 'perfectly mysterious' [p. 14]. Harris uses the example of the pain he felt in his back. He tells us that for him to decide consciously to visit his therapist, he 'must become aware of the pain and be consciously motivated to do something about it' [p. 28]. Now, it's no longer the case that the 'choice was made for me by events in my brain' [p. 11], but that this choice originated from his own internal desires and sensations.

On this new 'rational agent' view, mental states are 'causal states of the brain' that cause behaviours [p. 29]. On a technical note, Harris here is switching from an essentially epiphenomenalist view of mind in which mental events have no causal power, being simply inert by-products of brain processing, to an identity theory of mind in which mental events are brain events, with all the causal power that the latter possesses. This radical change in perspective is essential for Harris' move from viewing our mental lives as being pushed around mysteriously by unknowable brain states to seeing our mental lives as enmeshed in an intelligible interplay of brain systems interacting with a world we perceive in common. The former perspective emphasizes our supposed lack of free will while the latter seeks to reincorporate us into the realm of agency and moral responsibility. However, with the introduction of this 'rational agent' view, Harris' case against the second misconception (that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present) collapses under the weight of Harris' own argument.

A perceptive reader of Harris' book will get whiplash as Harris switches between his two views of human beings throughout his text. Which view is brought to the fore depends on the polemical point that Harris wants to make at that moment. At the end of the day, Harris wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to show us that, on the one hand, we are chemical robots unconsciously pushed about by the winds of circumstance with no agency in our futures, while on the other, we are rational decision-makers morally responsible for our actions. In shuttling between these two incompatible framings, Harris gets lost in one self-generated muddle and confusion after another.

Harris fares no better as he tries to accomplish the second objective of his book. In the chapter titled Moral Responsibility, Harris works hardest to rescue the common-sense notions of 'right and wrong', 'good and evil' and 'moral responsibility' from seemingly unsettling implications of viewing people as 'neuronal weather patterns' subject to impersonal and universal cause and effect [p. 38]. Harris begins by giving a compatibilist account of 'moral responsibility' based on the person's behaviour not being 'totally out of character' [p. 38]. Ironically, his account draws on the same conceptual language used in a compatibilist identification/character-based account of 'free will', an account that he earlier lambasted as a deceptive 'bait and switch' [p. 21] that 'resembles theology' [p. 18].

Harris then draws on five cases studies of the killing of a young woman in the hope of clarifying for us how we assign degrees of blameworthiness. His case 1 is of a four-year-old boy unintentionally shooting a woman. Case 2 is of a 12-year-old boy abused as a child intentionally killing a woman. Case 3 is of a 25-year-old man abused as a child intentionally killing his girlfriend. Case 4 is similar to the previous case with a key exception being that the man was loved as a child. Case 5 is identical to case 4 with the exception that the man suffered an undiagnosed brain tumour.

Unfortunately for Harris, his discussion of his five cases only manages to drown the astute reader in a sea of anomalies. Harris' trigger point for assigning at least some blame on the perpetrator, the 'conscious intention to do harm' [p. 40], does not apply to his fifth non-criminal case of the brain injury victim. It also ignores how we rightfully blame fraudsters who do no physical harm.

Secondly, his assigning level of guilt to the degree the perpetrator carries a risk of harm to society fails to account for the differing levels of guilt we attribute to the killers in his cases 2, 3, 4 and 5. The perpetrators in all four cases may pose substantially the same level of risk. Paradoxically, the reasons he does give for weighing guilt differently in these four cases make no mention of 'risk' [pp. 39–40] while at the same time aligning with contemporary compatibilist accounts of 'free will' that factor in the person's capacity for reasoning and for regulating their emotions and behaviour. The upshot is that on Harris' confused account, he is unable to explain the fundamental distinction we make between harmful criminal acts (such as in case 4) and harmful non-criminal acts (such as in case 5).

Harris manages to dig his hole so deep for himself that he can't possibly crawl out. Even while trying to rescue the notion of 'moral responsibility' by leaning on his 'rational agent' version of human beings, Harris can't help slipping back into his 'helpless puppet' view. He implores: 'The more we understand the human mind in causal terms, the harder it becomes to draw a distinction between cases like 4 and 5' [p. 41]. But this is not just on 'one front' he believes 'our moral intuitions must change'. In removing the difference in culpability between criminal (case 4) and non-criminal (case 5), he's torn down the entire edifice of morality. If there is no moral distinction between a violent brain injury patient and a violent 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. In the end, Harris surrendered his fight to recapture some coherent notion of 'responsibility' from his own disempowering hard-determinist 'helpless puppet' view of human beings.

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