The Illusion of an Illusion

Juno Walker
Book Title: 
Free Will
Book Author: 
Sam Harris

"The question of free will touches nearly everything we care about...most of what is distinctly human about our lives seems to depend upon our viewing one another as autonomous persons, capable of free choice."

Free will is one of those topics that resurfaces with renewed vigor once every so often, like a comet in near-Earth orbit. The premises and arguments have been mulled over and rehashed by humanity for millennia. When the search for a solution to a vexing problem hits a snag, the best thing to do is to seek out someone with a fresh mind to review the problem alio intuitu - from another perspective. In that respect, Harris offers nothing essentially new in Free Will. But the force of his style and approach may be just what is needed to break up the stagnation, getting the rivers of personal exploration and experimentation flowing again, allowing people to set out for uncharted seas without too much existential angst.

At a mere 66 pages, it is more of an essay than a dissertation. Harris lays out the fundamental concern regarding free will in the first paragraph:

The question of free will touches nearly everything we care about...most of what is distinctly human about our lives seems to depend upon our viewing one another as autonomous persons, capable of free choice.

Harris’ conclusion is, of course, that we don’t have free will as he supposes it is commonly understood: that given all the causes in play in a situation, we could have done otherwise (the libertarian, contra-causal conception of free will).[1] And he addresses the stakes involved right from the get-go: he couches the issue in the context of a nauseatingly horrific crime - the home invasion in Connecticut by two men in 2007. As you may recall, these two men first brutally bludgeoned the father (the only survivor), then raped and murdered the mother, and finally killed the two young daughters when they set the house on fire. Harris gives voice to most everyone’s worry when he writes that, without (contra-causal) free will,[2] monsters like these men are “nothing more than poorly calibrated clockwork,” and therefore they aren’t really responsible for their actions. They’re just damaged goods.

After this emotionally striking opening, Harris then proceeds by briefly delving into areas such as the unconscious origins of human thought; the three main philosophical positions with respect to free will - determinism, libertarianism, and compatibilism (see note 3); the ubiquity of cause and effect with respect to neurophysiology; the phenomenology of willing; moral responsibility, specifically in regard to our criminal justice system; and the political arena. His overview of these areas is pretty much standard fare for those familiar with the topic.

Of special interest, however, is when he takes issue with compatibilists like Tom Clark[3] of the Center for Naturalism and fellow New Atheist Daniel Dennett. It almost seems like a non sequitur, an unnecessary quibble inserted into the discussion of the three philosophical positions in the free will debate. I call it an unnecessary quibble because, at bottom, both Harris and the compatibilists agree that human beings don’t have contra-causal free will. He concedes that the only “philosophically respectable” position is compatibilism, but then says that the free will that compatibilists defend (compatible with determinism) isn’t the kind of free will the man on the street believes he has (but see note 1). This cuts to the heart of the matter regarding whether or not something like the illusion of free will is a necessary illusion. To that end, Harris writes: “Compatibilism amounts to nothing more than an assertion of the following creed: A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings.”

Harris says that we aren’t merely experiencing a distortion of reality when we think we have free will; we are simply mistaken about our experience itself. He says that our sense of our own freedom “results from our not paying close enough attention to what it is like to be us.” I think Harris is correct here; but he takes a distracting detour when he criticizes what he perceives as the compatibilists’ attempt to maintain the illusion of an illusion, so to speak. For example, he takes issue with Clark and Dennett’s position that it isn’t an illusion that we are the authors of our own thoughts and actions; since they originate within our own brain we aren’t puppets. Sam Harris really is a physically instantiated person who deliberates and chooses; after all, unless he’s inside the Matrix, no one else is deliberating and choosing for him.

And Harris admits as much toward the end of his book, which makes his mid-essay tangent all the more baffling. Consider the following passages:

For most purposes, it makes sense to ignore the deep causes and intentions...and focus instead on the conventional outlines of the person.

And it is wise to hold people responsible for their actions when doing so influences their behavior and brings benefits to society. But this does not mean that we must be taken in by the illusion of free will. We need only acknowledge that efforts matter and that people can change.

But this is essentially what Clark is saying in the personal communication Harris quotes, and what Clark has written in Encountering Naturalism. There isn't anything to call a puppet being manipulated by the "strings" of the cause and effect processes that make up the brain and body, since after all that's what we consist of. And most of the time we aren't concerned about what’s going on at the neuronal level inside our brains - what Dennett calls taking the physical stance. Instead, taking the intentional stance, we can rightly consider ourselves autonomous individuals who deliberate and choose; we focus on the conventional outlines of ourselves as persons.

Interestingly, it’s in the section’ of Harris’ book called “Changing the Subject” where he attempts this dismantling of the compatibilist position; interesting because these are the words Owen Flanagan uses to describe his own view on the subject of free will (he calls it neo-compatibilism) in his book The Problem of the Soul. Flanagan writes: 

Change the subject. Stop talking about free will and determinism and talk instead about whether and how we can make sense of the concepts of “deliberation,” “choice,” “reasoning,” “agency”...

Though Flanagan himself has written approvingly of Harris’ book on the dust jacket, Harris doesn’t seem to have taken his advice. The reader is left wondering exactly what Harris is trying to accomplish by picking this battle.

As with his most recent book, The Moral Landscape, in Free Will Harris offers less of a solution than a more fervent case for changing prevailing perceptions. This in itself isn’t necessarily a strike against the book; some of the most influential writers have excelled at stoking the fires of critical thinking and discourse. An ‘Old Atheist’ like Nietzsche is well-known for his provocative rhetoric and acerbic polemics.

When Harris discusses the unconscious origin of our conscious will, he says that we are only aware of an infinitesimally small amount of our brain’s activity. This is undoubtedly true. Since our brain is the CPU for our entire nervous system, we certainly aren’t aware of how our heart keeps beating, how our lungs keep breathing, or how our metabolism turns food into energy. Similarly, in his posthumously published notes, Nietzsche asserts that everything of which we become conscious is a ‘terminal phenomenon’; that is, all of the processing has gone on below the surface, and only the final product is presented to our consciousness, presumably like a Magic 8-Ball. When we make a choice, Harris says, the decision has already been made somewhere in our brain; when we become conscious of it, we believe we are making it. We then take ownership of it and call it free will.

 In Beyond Good & Evil, published in 1886, Nietzsche writes: 

I shall never tire of emphasizing a small, terse fact...namely, that a thought comes when "it" wishes, and not when "I" wish; so that it is a perversion of the facts of the case to say that the subject "I" is the condition of the predicate "think."

What Nietzsche is saying here - and what he goes on to elaborate - is that the “it” that allegedly does the thinking is also a misinterpretation of the facts; that is, “it” is a process and not a thing that has a will. Of course, Nietzsche wasn’t the first person to realize this. Most notably, the first Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, realized that there is no persisting self. And if there is no persisting self, there is no self to have a will, free or otherwise.

In Buddhist Vipassanā meditation, one focuses on the breath while thoughts continually arise and fade. This is what most people associate with the ‘stream of consciousness’ as  William James called it in 1890. Prima facie, it may sound easy, but this type of meditation is deceptively difficult. You start by focusing your attention only on your breath, and every time a thought arises and you notice your attention dwelling on that thought instead of your breath, you must bring your focus back to your breath. If you try this for even 5 minutes, you realize just how fecund the brain is, just how much it quite literally is a thought-generating machine. And, what is most germane to the issue at hand, you realize that you have no control over the next thought that enters your mind.

Though Harris doesn’t explicitly discuss the idea of self versus no-self in his new book, he does place a good deal of emphasis on personal experience and critical introspection, which is precisely what the Buddha was engaged in when he attained his putative enlightenment. Harris repeatedly calls attention to the fact that we don’t know what we intend to do until the intention itself arises in our mind, as well as the fact that we are conscious witnesses of our inner lives, which nevertheless comes out of the darkness of the mind that is inaccessible to our conscious self. Aside from his confidence and wit, this is arguably the most valuable aspect of Harris’ book.

Harris spends a good deal of time on the impact of his hypothesis on our notions of moral responsibility, whether within the context of our criminal justice system, or with regard to political conservatives’ social and economic policies, which they defend and justify with the notion of 100% personal responsibility. But there isn’t much emphasis on the conception of personal meaning and value that compatibilists like Clark (see note 3) and Dennett, as well as the nascent movement of Religious Naturalism, attempt to salvage. Are the things we value really valuable even if we don’t freely choose them? Do our personal projects and plans have any meaning if impersonal Life itself is simply working through us?

Harris flirts with the problem of meaning briefly when he warns us, when we contemplate not having free will, against falling victim to fatalism - the idea that no matter what we do, a particular outcome will eventuate, so why do anything at all And he mentions the fact that giving up a belief in free will has not made him fatalistic, but has given him a greater sense of freedom. I believe Harris when he says he can live without the feeling of having free will. Sue Blackmore, a British psychologist and freelance writer for The Guardian in the United Kingdom, has written about her daily experience of living without free will. Even I can do it, though I accepted the philosophical arguments against free will long before I accepted the experiential aspects of it. It wasn’t until I began the discipline of mindfulness meditation that I genuinely experienced not having free will. Now it’s become part of my moment-to-moment awareness.

Some readers new to the conundrum might be convinced that thoughts do in fact arise spontaneously in the moment, and that they don't really have control over them (other than a sort of last second veto power perhaps); but they will most likely say that it is our overall 'character' or 'personality' that we're responsible for, though if pressed they won't be able to offer a coherent account of exactly when in their lifetime that could have happened. And this just pushes the problem back a little further, albeit with the palliative effect of still maintaining some semblance of a cognitive comfort zone.

Maybe they think it's like an athlete - a tennis player, let’s say - who of her own ‘free will’ chooses to practice hard every day until her skill set becomes almost like instinct. In the heat of the match, she finds herself reacting and making decisions and movements that her conscious mind can't possibly process in so little time. It just comes 'naturally' because of her choice to practice the way she did. The problem, again, is: what made her decide to practice hard every day? Sam Harris would say that she literally can’t answer that question (although she would probably and with good justification cite such things as her desire to achieve athletic excellence, win competitions and prize money, etc.).

Unfortunately, in order to effect any significant and pervasive change in perception and attitude about free will, we’re going to need a Copernican revolution in our understanding of human nature, one which may already be underway in cognitive neuroscience. Think about this: If you and I were having a picnic and overnight camp-out back in the 16th Century, such that we would watch the sun go down at night only to watch it rise again the next morning while we remained in the same spot, and you said to me that this guy Copernicus makes a good argument for the idea that it is actually we who circle the sun and not the sun that circles us, I would have said you had too much wine, or that you were just trying to get a rise out of me.

Needless to say, we know how that turned out. Let’s hope for the same thing with regard to freedom of the will.

Juno Walker, 2012


[1] Work in so-called experimental philosophy suggests that people have mixed understandings about human agency and free will, some contra-causal and quasi-supernatural, some compatible with determinism and naturalism.

[2] Henceforth “free will” refers to contra-causal free will.

[3] Compatibilists define free will such that it’s compatible with naturalism and determinism, should determinism be the case, and most hold that moral responsibility is compatible with naturalism and determinism. Clark (personal communication) generally eschews talk of free will (agreeing with Owen Flanagan, see later on in this review) and parts company with the latter variety of compatibilists in that he sees moral responsibility, defined as giving people their just deserts (e.g., punishing offenders whether or not it produces good outcomes), as incompatible with progressive, humanistic naturalism; see for instance The Scandal of Compatibilism.