Atheism · Consciousness / mind · Mockery · philosophy · Religion · sam harris

Sam Harris. Free Will. Just Kill Me.

illusion-of-free-will-sam-harris(Today I went to a philosophy discussion about free will only to be reminded that Sam Harris exists. This led to my finishing this post that was initially started due to some unfortunate internet browsing.)

So rather than investigating the Reddit cult of /r/SamHarris, reading his excellent blog at, or engaging with one of his acolytes I decided to click on a New York Times article. It should have been safe — how could Sam Harris possibly show up in the pages of such a high quality newspaper? Now it’s true that the title of the article – a book review – is ‘Free Will,’ by Sam Harris, and it’s true that I probably can’t get away with pretending to be surprised that reading the review would allow Sam Harris to intrude upon my otherwise delightful afternoon, but there’s no way I could have known that the author, one Daniel Menaker, was capable of writing something so mind-boggingly idiotic (though it’s beautifully appropriate to have a fiction writer review Free Will). In a sense, I’ve no other choice – how apropos – but to make a blog post to explain how aA;SDKJFA;SDKFJSD;AK the entire Sam Harris free will extravaganza is.

Harris, rather than just a random guy being confused, is a special problem because his, as John Horgan writes, “memes, in contrast [to Santorum and Limbaugh], are infecting the minds not of right wing and religious cranks  but of smart, knowledgeable people.” Though I do wonder how he got the impression that Michael Shermer is a smart or knowledgeable person.

This is how things broke down: I whine about the New York Times review, I then offer a strong case for hating Sam Harris (and justifiably call him a pseudointellectual baboon), follow up with an substantial critique of Harris’ position and offer an alternative. End with some random thoughts related to today’s discussion.

The Review Itself

I just need to explain how such a harmless little thing could elicit so much aggravation, and I’ll do so with some choice quotes. Keep in mind that, as I will prove in a little bit, Sam Harris is a pseudointellectual baboon masquerading as an academic.

For quite a while now, philosophers and public intellectuals, including Harris’s friend Dennett, have tried to rescue something like the common notion of free will from the jaws of science and logic by embracing a position called compatibilism.

Portraying compatibilism as some sort of rescue attempt from the almighty forces of “le science and logic” demonstrates a fundamental confusion of the issue. Compatibilism is the majority position among people who actually know what they are talking about (not to mention it is the ‘common notion’), and, unsurprisingly, the ability for a pop author to say that the majority expert opinion is nonsense can only come from a place of total ignorance.

[Harris writes that] they “have produced a vast literature in an effort” to salvage free will. “More than in any other area of academic philosophy, the result resembles theology.”

While these are not his words, choosing this quote from Harris is an implicit endorsement. When someone acts like academic philosophy is in cahoots with theology… you can be 99.99% certain that they have never read any academic philosophy. Somehow Harris is able to write stuff like this while having a BA in philosophy. Not to mention the worst part of this quote is the incredibly dismissive attitude.

As Harris’s text and impressive citations substantiate, these experiments and others like them have chiseled away much of the rock of free will upon which religion, jurisprudence and moral judgments have traditionally rested.

More tethering of free will to religion plus thinking scientific experiments have any real role to play here. Uh-oh, did I just say that? Theology alert!!!

For centuries, the question of free will — of whether human beings make choices that are not, or not entirely, determined by purely physical processes and causes — nested securely in the aeries of philosophy and religion.

This is just false. Plus the “I don’t know what I’m talking about” of treating philosophy as some sort of head-in-the-clouds activity. Probably with some marijuana for good measure. I mean, Waking Up, afterall.

Samuel Harris and Free Will

I feel that calling him Samuel is more condescending. First things first, we should have a general understanding of Harris’ position on free will. Luckily he’s very explicit about this:

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.

More importantly, we get a small taste of what he takes free will to be — that in order to have it we need to both be aware of, and have control over, the myriad factors that shape our decisions. In addition to this, our friend Samuel believes that for free will to exist a person would have to be able to go back in time to the moment just prior to a decision and make a different decision. This is the ‘tape-rewinder’ qualification. Harris then proceeds to defend this position with references to our phenomenology (thoughts just “appear” to us) and neuroscientific experiments (such as Libet 1983) before musing on its social ramifications (given free will’s link to moral responsibility).

Before going any further, I want to point out that nowhere has Harris actually argued for his understanding of free will, he has simply assumed it — and this is a perfect example of why this man is a joke. The issue of free will is a lexical dispute, to quote the SEP, “which sort [of action] is the free will sort is what all the fuss is about,” and Derek Zoolander Harris has literally ignored the history of the discussion and jumped into the empirical question of whether or not free will obtains in our world — a question that is only sensible if the philosophical underpinnings are sound.  It is easy for him to ignore this mistake, however, since he finds it intuitively obvious that his qualifications for a free action are the default, common sense ones, even though this is not empirically the case.

Dennett rightly takes him to task on this point when he writes, in his scathing review of Mr. Samuel’s Free Will: 

Harris has considered compatibilism, at least cursorily, and his opinion of it is breathtakingly dismissive: After acknowledging that it is the prevailing view among philosophers (including his friend Daniel Dennett), he asserts that “More than in any other area of academic philosophy, the result resembles theology.”  This is a low blow, and worse follows: “From both a moral and a scientific perspective, this seems deliberately obtuse.” (18)  I would hope that Harris would pause at this point to wonder—just wonder—whether maybe his philosophical colleagues had seen some points that had somehow escaped him in his canvassing of compatibilism.  As I tell my undergraduate students, whenever they encounter in their required reading a claim or argument that seems just plain stupid, they should probably double check to make sure they are not misreading the “preposterous” passage in question. It is possible that they have uncovered a howling error that has somehow gone unnoticed by the profession for generations, but not very likely.  In this instance, the chances that Harris has underestimated and misinterpreted compatibilism seem particularly good, since the points he defends later in the book agree right down the line with compatibilism; he himself is a compatibilist in everything but name!

Harris does similar things in other places, such as in his book The Moral Landscape in which he dismisses academic ethics as boring and redefines science to include all rational thought, thus making himself right by default. This man routinely pontificates on some topic while hand waving away as irrelevant, silly, etc. the opinions of experts, and despite calling himself a neuroscientist what little work he has contributed is of dubious quality. Combine that with some of the terrible and hypocritical things he says, continual whining about being taken out of context (quoting him is defamation anyways) – though the context does not help – and the entire Noam Chomsky debacle, and I have had no difficulty in developing a great hatred for this man. Oh, plus the casual bigotry masquerading as ‘reason and logic’ (ie profiling).  And the religion professor who told me I reminded him of Sam Harris (induced existential crisis). Moving on.

Problems With His Position

At the end of the day this is the (slightly) more relevant issue, but I can never address Samuel topics without going on some tangent about how terrible he is. These complaints will also address his delivery. First things first: he makes the (sort of) correct conclusion that free will, as he understands it, is an illusion.

Because going through his book again is a mental health risk I am mostly going to refer to the quote further up, though my analysis is supplemented by other incidents of Sam Harris exposure. To piece things apart a little bit more, he feels that:

(1) Free will is an all-or-nothing situation; there are no degrees of freedom (hehe), and no action is more free, or less free, than another.

(2) In order for free will to exist, determinism cannot be true. It has to be possible for a person to press the rewind button, stop at the moment just prior to a decision, and make a different decision with all else being equal.

(3) In order for us to have free will we have to be the authors of our own thoughts; our desires etc cannot just pop out of the void. Think of a movie – did you choose which movie to think of or was it ‘given’ to you? All of our thoughts, desires, and actions are ultimately based in factors we have no control over — our genetics, home and natural environment, random tragedies, etc; we are not just physically determined but psychologically determined.

(4) Since freedom cannot possibly exist, our sense of free action must be illusory.

There is an immediate problem with (1), considering that our daily talk depends on there being different levels of freedom and that moral responsibility requires free action. Imagine that a man kills his wife – there is a certain degree of moral responsibility for that choice; however, imagine that we discover the man has a brain tumor that makes him both more aggressive and less capable of controlling his impulses – do we really want to commit to saying that, in both of these situations, the man has the same amount of moral accountability? This erases, absolutely, the possibility of things like mental illness to be a mitigating factor. The difficulty with this point is that he is using criteria that eliminate, a priori, pieces that are integral to our understanding of free will.

This floats into (2). Regardless of what his positions actually entail, Harris sees himself as a physicalist and, therefore, accepts causal closure of the physical world – that a physical event can only have a physical cause. From this perspective human beings are integrated into physical causal chains just as much as a rock, we just happen to have a unique sort of complexity. But let’s think about the coherence of this criteria from Harris’ point of view. It seems to be total nonsense to require, for a purely physical human being, decisions to be detached from physical causal relationships. Off the top of my head I would compare it to saying that birds cannot see because seeing requires human eyes – true by definition, but also idiotic and meaningless.

Similar is the issue of psychological determinism (3), the idea that, whether the universe is physically deterministic or not, our mental states are based in factors we had no say over. Let’s think this through for a second — is it particularly useful to say that a human being’s psychological states are determined and that in order for this same human being to possess the capability of free action they would have to be untethered from that psychological story? To put it more bluntly: Bill cannot have free will unless Bill is not Bill. (4) Naturally follows sense we undoubtedly have an experience of – at least sometimes – free action, so if the actual existence of free action is impossible our experience is illusory.

So according to the Sam Harris world we have the following problematic criteria: a purely physical being must be exempt from physical laws and a person must be a different person; this also entails that there cannot be degrees of freedom. But we still have an even further issue in that, should these criteria be met (assume that such a situation is possible), we should still not be comfortable calling it free will because those criteria are not met. Think of it like this – if a person chooses to buy a plane ticket and their wants, desires, connections to the physical world, etc are totally irrelevant then in what sense is that person freely choosing? That sort of history is required (also relevant: Putnam). Harris makes a mistake in even going into scientific experiments or other empirical evidence as, under his treatment, the very idea of free will is incoherent and, unsurprisingly, something incoherent cannot manifest in the world.

Another brief problem that this gets us is the nonexistence of moral responsibility. As mentioned earlier this would mean there is no moral difference between the actions of a man with a tumor and a calculating, standard individual (Harris even points this out himself). This leave us with the issue of justifying the locking up, or even judgment, of criminals. Harris assumes that this will lead to a gentler criminal justice system that focuses on rehabilitation and pragmatic punishments rather than retribution; however, I think that this idea itself is not compatible with his view as it, in practice, cannot be carried out without the assigning of moral responsibility to agents. Let me give an example.

Imagine that two men have each committed a murder. All of the details are the same down to the injuries and blood splatter except that one of the men did so in a fit of rage while the other did it for psychopathic pleasure. Both are convicted of murder, yet we would want to sentence each of them for different amounts of time from a purely pragmatic point of view; the man who did it out of extreme, justified rage would be far less likely to commit the same crime in the future. And here’s the issue: the whole point of the justice system is to say that murder is a bad, harmful thing and should be prevented, but what is the difference in punishing people based on their likelihood of committing a bad, harmful act and traditional notions of moral responsibility? It seems to be in name only. Similarly, how can you say someone needs rehabilitation without making a judgment on their character as an agent — literally the goodness or badness of the actions they are likely to carry out. That seems to be almost exactly what we mean by someone being a good or bad person, yet the whole conclusion Harris reaches is that such good/bad judgments, moral responsibility, cannot exist. I think that there are potential workarounds to this problem, but Harris does not bother to address them if he even realizes them.

Let me be clear that there are sophisticated, thought-produced positions on free will that more or less match up with Harris to the extent that the various deterministic facets of our reality preclude free action, though these still face many of the problems listed above. The problem with Harris is, at least for a charitable construction of his broad opinions, not that he is totally in left field but that the entire process through which he formed his beliefs is not, or directly opposite of, rational or intellectual.

The Case for Compatibilism

Compatibilism is the position that determinism and free will are not intrinsically irreconcilable; at least some of our actions could be determined by causes on the level of fundamental physics, or psychological history, yet still be free. This is far less inconsistent than it might seem at first glance, and it is certainly not an obfuscatory attempt to ‘redefine’ freedom into existence.

An important question is what we should want out of free will, and I think the answer is more or less that it lines up with our intuitions of, and daily talk of, freedom – after all, if we are investigating whether or not something exists the criteria for its existence should not remove its essential pieces. So with that in mind I am going to give a rough definition for what a compatibilist free will is based on and explain how it not just captures our intuitions but is a useful term.

  • A free action is an action carried out for the right reasons. These reasons, broadly, consist of normally functioning cognitive faculties (ie they are linked to the action through a rational thought process and take into account the person’s normal desires, beliefs, and so on) and an absence of coercion.

First let’s quickly dispatch with the idea that determinism and free will are incompatible. Harry Frankfurt famously argued that in order for a person to be morally accountable for their actions they did not have to have alternative possibilities; it does not matter whether or not they could have done otherwise. Rather than Jones and Black I want to talk about a much less complicated example. Imagine that I am sitting in a chair and that there is a force field surrounding that chair that makes it impossible for me to get out of the chair; however, I do not actually want to get out of the chair. In this situation we can have a free action, as broadly defined above, despite the fact that I could not get out of the chair no matter what. Interestingly it seems that, if I had desired to get out of the chair, then I would not have been free. To apply the concept further just imagine that an evil demon greatly desires that Bob kill Bill the next time that they meet; however, because the demon is lazy, he is only going to possess Bob if Bob is not going to kill Bill of his own volition. When Bob kills Bill without interference of the demon we can comfortably assign moral responsibility to Bob despite the fact that Bill would have been murdered no matter what. I am  going to be responsible and point out that maybe Bob’s ability to have forced the demons hand implies the determination is not what makes or breaks his moral responsibility and the thought experiments do not work.

So now let’s look at the non-exhaustive benefits of compatibilist free will:

  • Moral responsibility is possible
  • Freedom comes in different degrees
  • Acknowledges the unique cognitive abilities the human species possesses
  • Counterfactual could have done otherwises make sense
  • Differentiates between brain tumor actions and normal actions
  • Respects the genetic and experiential history that makes up a person
  • Does not require magic

As far as I can tell this gives us everything that we mean when we talk and think about freedom. Not only that, but note that it requires physical and psychological embeddedness. Compare that to the long list of problems that Harris-incompatibilism has and we can easily, and to be honest joyfully, tell Samuel to go fuck himself.

Various Notes

So the impetus for my finishing this post was an overally pleasant experience at a philosophy meetup discussion of free will, and the almost immediate integration of Sam Harris into the conversation. Obviously I have dealt with that part, but a few other related things came up that I wanted to quickly talk about.

Quantum Mechanics

This does not matter – well, for the most part. Not only are very few people actually qualified to talk about quantum mechanics, and not only is the “interpretation” of experimental data at issue, but a random action hardly gives us freedom; imagine doing whatever a die roll tells you to do when you never agreed to that process. This just needs to be left alone as nobody has the expertise required and it just distracts from the interesting parts of the problem. It also tends to involve a certain operating assumption about free will being incompatible with determinism (in our conversation the very reason quantum mechanics showed up is because of the presupposition that free will and determinism are irreconcilable).

The Existence of the Self

A couple people were adamantly denying the existence of the self, but this was due to treating the self as some mystical, immutable soul as well as conflating self and personal identity. I agree that anyone should discard the idea of a self that is mereologically simple (ie partless); however, looking for such a self comes out of a mistake in language. When I say something like, “I think, therefore I am,” the is indivisible; it is a pure, partless unity. This is how we end up thinking there is a countable-minds self of the type mentioned above; however, this is a confusion. The is empty — it merely denotes and does not represent, and there is no analytic truth to be found there. Rather than looking for something that is a single, indivisible subject we need only be concerned with something capable of representing itself as such a subject, and we should not draw any conclusions of necessity about how this might be realized. Kant delves into this in his critique on The Achilles of Rationalist Psychology (see both the chapters on Kant and contemporary neuroscience’s binding problem).

Further, as Harris fans tend to have some appreciation for Dennett (though his aforementioned review probably destroyed some of that), our zombie friend treats the self as a ‘narrative center of gravity,’ and talks about it as a real pattern. Don Ross writes an interesting paper, Rainforest Realism: A Dennettian Theory of Existence, about the ontological implications of Dennett’s paper (see: structural realism).

The Causal Efficacy of Mental States

There is an interesting issue that comes about from the sort of physicalism espoused in our discussion (and elsewhere) – if all of the causal work is done by microphysical structure then what room is there for mental causation, especially since the two are not identical? The problem can be illustrated clearly along the lines of exclusion arguments. Read the link, there’s no way to sum it up sufficiently and more succinctly, but it seems to be the case that whether or not the world is determined free will would be undermined by our mental states (desires, beliefs, etc) having no causal power. I personally like this paper by Campbell and Bickhard that talks about complex systems and downward causation as a solution, specifically in reference to Jaegwon Kim’s version of the exclusion argument.

Alright that’s it. I cannot spend anymore energy on this topic.


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