Response to Sam Harris on the illusion of free will

Final Thoughts on Free Will (Episode #241)

[ 18/Mar/21 Comment on Youtube]

It seems to me that Sam has such faith in determinism, that he really cannot conceive of what free will might be.

And I grant the truth of many of the arguments he makes, but not all.

I certainly agree that all levels of structure require stability of constraints, and we are the most complex entities we know of, with more levels of structure than anything else we know of. And when dealing with such complex stacks of complex systems, the nature of the connections does not need to be hard, but can be probabilistic.

Influence is essential for structure.
Hard determinism is not.

So while I can align with much that Sam says, the idea that he seems to have that there can be no meaningful sense in which free will can exist because all things are the result of hard determinism, does not seem to me to be how things actually work; and it is 50 years since I started to take a serious interest in the levels of structure present in reality, from the quantum level through the biochemistry of neurons, to the process of creating abstraction, to the abstract notions of classes of truth values (not simply the simplest binary one of True/False, but Trinaries like True/False/Undecided, and higher orders through to the fully probabilistic), and the different sorts of logics and systems that can reside in different classes of system constraints (including constraints on truth values and influence).

The degree to which systems can emerge with degrees of freedom (and of course there must also be degrees of influence), seems clearly (beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt) to be significant.

And there is a sense in which I agree with Sam, that the notion of a system free of all constraints is a nonsense, as such a system would be, by definition, completely random, and devoid of pattern at any level. That is not what people mean or talk about when they speak of free will, so Sam invoking such a notion is a Straw Man argument in this sense.

When I look closely at the notion of free will, then I see that I have some degrees of influence in some sets of contexts; and that is all that anyone could ever expect free will to be. There is far too much going on for us to even be conscious of it all, let alone be author of it all in any meaningful sense. Thus there is a sense in which free will can only exist (to the degree that it does) within the context of the attention of the individual claiming to exercise it (and there is a sense in which all such experience is within a subconsciously generated model of reality that is our personal experiential reality – and that model is predictive in nature, and we tend to have our attention directed by subconscious processes to any divergence between prediction and sensation).

I do not have Sam’s faith in hard causality.

To me, the evidence is clear that if one looks closely enough then there are fuzzy boundaries to all things, and that large collections of stuff tend to behave in ways that very closely approximate classical causality. But that is a very different understanding from that of classical causality (with very different sets of systemic consequences). In such an understanding, there is room for systems to develop degrees of independence, and degrees of influence. It is in this context only that the notion of free will has real meaning and significance – to me, and I suspect to many others.

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 www.tedhowardnz.com/money
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