Critique of Sam Harris on Free Will

Sam Harris – The Case Against Free Will

Published on 24 Apr 2017

Sam couldn’t be more wrong, yet at the same time much of what he says is close enough to true.

Cause and effect is limited.

Simply saying that “there is no way of combining chance and determinism that makes sense of free will” doesn’t actually prove that assertion.

I assert quite the contrary.

If you take quantum mechanics seriously, then there is a fundamental balance between order and chaos in every aspect of being. At the lowest level, there is the uncertainty principle, which seems to state that what we can know about fundamental pairs of properties is limited, the more we confine uncertainty in respect of one, the less that we can know about the other (it becomes chaotic in a very real sense).

At every level of life, this boundary condition between order and chaos seems to exist.

The notion that we can actually know anything about the real objective world in detail, seems to be at odds with what quantum mechanics (the best description of fundamental reality we have) is telling us.

It seems that most of the problem we have with understanding what we are comes from holding on too tightly to the idea that we can actually know anything with absolute certainty.

Once one starts to accept what seems to be reality, that all things have a probabilistic aspect to them, then one can accept free will as a cascading set of influences through levels of systems.

Sure there is a sense in which none of us is absolutely free.
For complexity to exist at all there must exist boundary conditions.
Without boundaries, there is no distinction, no differentiation, only uniformity.

So there are boundaries.
The emergence of our awareness requires a complex hierarchy of systems, with influences running up and down the layers of systems that make our awareness possible.

And to appreciate the idea of a level of software on software that has probabilistic influence on the nature of the software system that is its experiential reality, one actually needs to have some substantial experience in software systems. Having over 40 years programming, and over 30 years running a software company does give me that qualification.

So I say to Sam that the idea of hard causality does actually seem to be mostly illusion, and there are certainly many domains in which there is actually a very close approximation to causal rules in operation. If you bring together a big enough collection of probabilistic systems for long enough, then the distributions get sufficiently well populated that the behaviour of the macro system can be very close to fully causal – certainly within the measurement error of our best instruments in some domains.

He states 2 assumptions
3:02 – assumption 1 – we are free to behave differently.
3:48 – assumption 2 – each of us in the author of our choices and thoughts.

Those assumptions don’t need to be hard.
It is all a matter of degrees of influence.
Everyone acknowledges crimes of passion.
Everyone acknowledges that lower level behavioural systems (passions) can take control away from higher order cognition in some circumstances. Crimes of passion have lower punishment than crimes of deliberation.
And there are degrees of that across levels of awareness.
The higher the levels of awareness, the lower the tolerance (the more one has the more that is expected).

In practice, we all acknowledge that these degrees of influence are real, and are important.

To ignore that, and to focus on the purely causal, is not responsible.

We have to have many levels of systems.
We are evolved embodied organisms.
We have to survive in reality, to move, to catch things, to avoid dangers. Consciousness is far too slow for those things.
Certainly we don’t consciously control every aspect of our being. That is true. And we can learn, develop, and practice conscious control of different levels of our being.
And pretending otherwise is not responsible, not at any level. Particularly not at the level you are arguing.
A tumour on the brain may be exculpatory to some, but to someone like myself, I should have sufficient awareness to seek assistance to deal with such tendencies long before they manifest to the level of killing anyone. And many don’t have my knowledge of physiology or systems or thousands of hours of practice at self awareness.

So yes – degrees of responsibility, depending on context – that is a well developed idea in jurisprudence, and there are some things that everyone is expected to know – like – don’t kill people.

At 13:30 – “If you pay attention, then you no more author the next thing you think than the next thing I say.” That is not true.
It is certainly true that we do not consciously choose the thoughts that we think, and we can consciously influence the context that generates those thoughts. So it is authorship in exactly the same sense as me writing these words is authorship. I did not consciously choose each of these words. I consciously chose a context and these words flowed. Then I consciously reviewed what I had typed onto the screen, and corrected a few typos and modified a couple of words. That is as good as authorship gets. We are, each and every one of us, that complex, at all times.
We are not simply the bit that is conscious, we are also all of the other 20 or so layers of systems that allow the conscious bit to emerge.
That is what it is to be an embodied human being – it is really very, very complex – far too complex to ever consciously comprehend in any but the “broadest of brush-stroke” terms.

Why would you think it might be any different, except if you were trapped in a childish notion of absolute truth, and hadn’t yet accepted uncertainty, probability, and eternal ignorance?

You cannot take total credit for subconscious processes, and to the degree that you have put in the time to train and influence them, then to that degree, and no more, you can take some credit (limited in most cases). And some is not none. It is some.

Certainly, there is a degree of illusion involved in anyone who thinks they have total control.
And by the same token there is a degree of irresponsibility in anyone who thinks they have no control.
Both are true.
Degrees vary with context – multi-factor.

At 16:28 Sam says “How can we be free as conscious agents if everything that we consciously intend is caused by things that we did not intend, and of which we are entirely unaware?”
If those assumptions were true, then we couldn’t, but they aren’t and we can.
And it is very much a matter of degrees.
It is something that we start out with having very little of, and something that we can develop with attention and effort.
And sure, lots of luck and chance in that mixture, and they are not the only things present. It is a very complex situation.

To say that choices are “part of the stream of causality” is something that can be interpreted in many different ways.
If one tries to take it to mean that all things are necessarily causally related, then that fails tests in reality, which is why people find quantum uncertainty such a difficult topic.
If one uses the term “causality” in a probabilistic sense, then it does agree with QM, but hard causality is then entirely illusory (however closely modern computers may approximate hard causal systems).

18:57 “From the perspective of your conscious mind you are actually no more responsible for your next thought than you are for your birth into this world.” Not quite true. To the degree that one has taken conscious effort to train and discipline the subconscious, and to the degree that one relaxes such controls (depending on context) then one has a degree of responsibility. And it is by no means total, or even a major part for most people most often, and it is an important part.

It is not true to say that the only tools we have are those we have inherited from moments past.
We do have creative abilities.
We are not always, or even often, in charge of those creative abilities, and they are present.
So not all things come from our past, and certainly most do.
Very few of the words most people use are of their own invention. Most are inherited from culture, and useful in communication because of that fact. Very few people get to inject new words into the lexicon, and it does sometimes happen.
Very few ideas we have are new ideas, and for some of us new ideas are more common than for others.
If we have 5 ideas a second, and 1 in a hundred is new in any significant aspect, and only one in a hundred of those is useful, then that can still be 10,000 new useful ideas a year – or 500,000 over 50 years of life. Far more than it is possible to communicate (by several orders of magnitude).
For some of us, such numbers are more close to reality than for others.
Those of us with such numbers can be a very long way from any sort of common cultural set of understandings.
At times ideas flood my mind far more frequently than 5 per second, sometimes it is much more peaceful.

When you say no one picks the environmental influences that determine the structure of their brain, that is not true.
To the degree that we can develop awareness of such things, some of us can (and do) make such choices.

On the topic of Moral responsibility. To say “the psychopath was just being a psychopath” dangerously devalues all of us and the moral constraints necessary for the survival of complex society.
One can actually make a reasonable case that in making such a statement you are being a psychopath.
The bear in your example does not carry a high level awareness of itself as a cooperative actor in a complex social and technological setting. It is missing that layer of abstraction that is actually necessary for the emergence of morality.

Certainly we humans all carry the capacity for bear like behaviour in some contexts – we do in fact share a lot of evolutionary history with bears. And we have something the bears don’t and that something is fundamental to what we are.
Getting a reasonably firm grip on what that something is takes a great deal of experience in systems and strategies and games and evolution and biochemistry and computers and …..
And while it may be quite difficult to get a reasonable handle on exactly what that something is, it is actually quite easy to experience that there is a something there.
Pretending else-wise isn’t helpful.

31:58 “Its not so much that there is an illusion of free will, its that the illusion is an illusion. There is no illusion of free will. We are simply not paying attention to the moment to moment character of our conscious life. Its not just that it makes no sense objectively in terms of physics, it makes no sense subjectively either.”

To that claim I say, that anyone who makes such a claim has not been paying sufficient attention.
There are many levels of attention possible.
If one looks merely at the surface, then it can seem as Sam claims.
But if one takes the time to look deeper, and that can take quite a bit of time, then it is not as claimed.

Sure, thoughts do “arise in the mind”, and that process is far from simple. There can be many levels of modifiers to that process. One of those levels of modifiers is conscious attention. To the degree that we make the time and effort to develop conscious attention, then to that degree we have conscious influence on our being – choice.

Agree completely when Sam says at 32:56 “We are not truly separate. We are not separate from one another, from our culture, from the world at large, from our personal history, from our deep past. We are linked to everything, on this view. We are part of a system. And therefore what we do actually matters. It matters more, given the mutually penetrating influences here. Our actions in the world and the actions of others matter even more than they would if we were atomised selves truly authoring our own mind.”

In this sense, we entirely agree.
For me, free will is not something that is absolute. Nothing is absolute.
And free will has an existence, and is a part of the vast interconnected web of systems, every bit as much as cells, bodies, brains, cultures or any other aspect we see as distinctions.
Free will in this sense is not part of an atomised existence.
Free will is one part of a very complex existence that includes everything on Sam’s list.
And free will, in this sense, needs to be on Sam’s list, for it is as real as any of those other aspects.
And it is connected.

He says “So you can’t take credit for your talents, and it matters that you use them.”
To some degree, that is true, and to some degree it is false.
For most people, talents are in part abilities derived by accident of genetics, culture and circumstance, and in part the result of the application of will, time and delayed gratification to the development of those talents.
For the part of the process that involves delayed gratification, and that alone, we can take some form of credit.
How big a part that is can vary substantially.
And it is not to be underestimated.

At 34:32 Sam states “The idea that we as conscious beings are deeply responsible for the characters of our minds, simply cannot be mapped onto reality.”
Certainly, we all start life as very complex entities.
Certainly we are all far more complex than we can consciously comprehend.
Certainly our subconscious systems will always deliver far more action in reality than our consciousness.
And the influence of consciousness matters.
It matters that we train ourselves to exert the degrees of freedom that we have in ways that are socially and ecologically responsible.
Free will exists, and we are not totally free entities.
Free will exists as one component among many.
And it is a very important component.
Almost all of our action in walking somewhere is subconscious, but it matters if we turn off the street into a library or into a pub, and that difference can come from conscious freedom.

About Ted Howard NZ

Seems like I might be a cancer survivor. Thinking about the systemic incentives within the world we find ourselves in, and how we might adjust them to provide an environment that supports everyone (no exceptions) - see
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