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The atheist author and neuroscientist on why we're not as free as we think.
I must say that the current issue is the strangest I have read in the 35 years I have been reading the NS. As for Harris and Free Will it seems that Harris seems to think that if you can’t find the equivalent material reason for something happening, it cannot happen. All events must have a cause which is rooted in the discernible. But how can anyone know this? Surely the point about free will is that it has no identifiable antecedent, there is no neurone marked “free will”. Freedom is part of our subjective, conscious reaction to life. As Nagel puts it, we are condemned to think that we are free. Of course, you can trace every decision you ever make back to preceding causes. That’s just the way humans work, read Hume and Kant. If Harris would pardon the phrase, I am a great believer in the phrase “there but for the grace of God go I” and yes, I am not responsible for any tastes talents and inclinations I have, but morally, I believe I will be judged and within my own conscience I regard myself as free. So whilst Mandy Rice –Davies might well say with great pith “he would, wouldn’t he?” I believe that in this moment the existence conscience means I am free: to be appreciative and to be responsible. An “objective” view might not say I am not but who leads an objective life? Not me that’s for sure.
Very persuasive refutation.
I wonder what made Sam Harris say this? According to him it couldn't have originated with him! So who or what gets the credit for the "brilliance" of such thoughts?
The "evidence" on offer for the proposition that there is no "free will" (hardly a well-defined concept) is that it is possible to detect mental activity shortly before, it is claimed, the conscious brain decides to do something (drink a cup of tea, answer the doorbell, drop a bomb on Japan, etc. -- my examples, not the author's). Isn't it at least a possibility that the process of deciding to do something consciously is more complicated, and less mechanistic, not more so, than is supposed? For example, the doorbell rings, and the brain no doubt receives a very clear stimulus, almost demanding a response. Yet, the hearer, for whatever reason, may decide not to answer it. Just as, upon reading this article, I have decided to provide a comment. I didn't have to do so (unless, unknown to me, some part of the stimulus of reading the article, artfully contrived by the author, triggered my decision to comment). There appears to be more to the idea of "free will" than is imagined by the author.
1. Experience is not free will. I think we agree, but your point (if there is one) is hard to extract.
2. But the "choices" we have to make are presented to use (we do not will them). The limits to the choices we can make are limited (we do not control that). The choices we then make are always driven by our experiences (which by extension are not self selected).
E.g: I wish I could decide if I wanted to holiday in Monaco or Sidney tomorrow, but sadly, I do not have the funds nor the opportunity. Instead, I will almost certainly get to choose how many brussels I want, and since I had a bad childhood experience of brussels i will "choose" zero.
3. Not so fast. The narrative of the "individual" is absolutely a right-wing narrative. The collective narrative, certainly in the UK, is most often a left-wing narrative. Just look at the current political debate about fairness and the role of the state.
In Stephen Hawking's latest book, 'The Grand Design', he makes the case that a thing with free will is something which has behaviour that we cannot accurately predict.
By his logic, even robots have 'free will', so to speak.
It's not an equal retort, but it's an interesting point nonetheless.
Free will is a concept that was gifted to us by our Christian cultural heritage (baggage). Is it any wonder that it does not stand up to scrutiny any more than the idea of a Virgin birth?
"Some of"? Why be vague?
Sam Harris doesn't have free will either so why should we agree with him. He doesn't really think that we are free to agree or disagree with him does he? Of course not. I am determined to believe in the free will so of course I can't be reasoned into believing that we don't have a free will!
But if you really want to know the key to life check out my blog: http://1keytolife.com.
Sam purebred Lizard. The free will meme is always bubbling up with these elites to justify their tyranny. I'm not being flippant.
Anybody who has seriously studied Determinism and Free Will knows that there is no argument that properly stands up the a Deterministic world view, simply because it's illogical. Harry Frankfurt, if I recall correctly, was the last person to have a solid attempt at Compatibilism with his theory of volitions and still we are left with contradictions and paradox.
If you have studied Determinism to a reasonable extent and still do not believe it then it is the same as being an Atheist who wants to believe in a Christian God. Not only does it go against basic logic, but it is an absolute betrayal of what you know to be true!
Free will was assumed by all, long before Jesus. It was evaded by Islam, that made Muslims by birth, and evaded likewise by Roman Catholicism. Then someone not paid by the Vatican opened a Bible and realised that mass evasion was going on. It was then said that only believers should be baptised in water, not infants. This terrified Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists, who with common accord murdered those who upset them with this inconvenient revelation. Mankind has been squealing about the inevitability of choice, off and on, ever since.
"Surely that would be legitimate grounds to place them in a secure psychiatric facility, but a bog standard prison?"
But who would be left to put in a bog standard prison? Everybody would be a blameless piece of meat controlled by random involuntary urges to act in various ways. Criminals would be those people who were unlucky enough to draw an illegal urge from the tombola...and then get caught.
Now obviously these 'lottery draws' would be taking place within differently constructed mechanisms. Some devices get a mild random destructive urge roughly once in a decade; others would get high intensity urges, on average, five times an hour...but it's all just random in the end. Some people just have better devices:'better', in this case, meaning 'more efficient in eradicating the number of destructive urges 'you' produce.
But who would 'you' be? It can't be the conscious introspective part of 'you'; it's some purely mechanistic material part operating in a probabilistic way.
It seems obscene to punish inanimate matter for being matter and behaving in a constrained and determined manner...but you'd still lock up a Komodo Dragon if it walked into Romford and went for a mooch. It's just that its involuntary mental apparatus is firing random messages to bite people...not his fault, but what you gonna do?
We'd just call all prisons 'mental institutions' so nobody feels left out. They're all just innocent victims of random 'emissions'; although some were certainly under heavier fire. Since we're also devices designed to believe we're not devices, it's not like it's gonna be a frequent overriding consideration; we'd just elide the question by convincing ourselves that we and prisoners are all rational free agents...problem solved.
"I wonder what made Sam Harris say this? According to him it couldn't have originated with him! So who or what gets the credit for the "brilliance" of such thoughts?"
So are you saying the 'author' of Sam Harris's creativity lies 'outside' Sam Harris. If not, it makes perfect sense to credit 'Sam Harris'; the insensate random part is still a part.
The law of "cause and effect" or "outside influence" applies to everything.
Free will, is the ability to fight it, anyone who has had a habit knows what it means.
That habit is created from free will and can only be ended by it. Universal Laws are amazing aren't they
Each thought has a precurser, whether it be percieved by us as another thought, an idea or a belief. Which is another way of saying every event has a cause and thus falls into the determinists rule book. Agood challenge is to ask any 'nay sayer' : "give me an example of uncaused event post the Big Bang?"
@spud How can you speak of Sam Harris' creativity? According to him it isn't him. And what makes YOU say that? Likewise I'm not saying anything. Silly, isn't it?
What utter rubbish. The guy mixes up psychology and Biology at will and pretends the two are interchangeable. You cannot change biology, on a basic level for instance; you cannot change the need to eat, but you make conscious decisions on what and when to eat. Now these may also be governed by Biology, cravings of the pregnant for example, but can always be combatted by willpower or other factors.
In essence - Biology is unchangeable, Psychology is changeable. Although both influence each other, (one leading to free will, the other to evolution) conflating the two is a con trick. And if Psychology does not exist, then evolution cannot exist, because there is nothing to act on biology.
I excersise my free will by refusing to subscribe to the New Stateman run by a bunch of Atheists.
This is reminiscent of the book someone (?) wrote to argue that human language cannot convey meaning! So postmodern. Yet "Harris's" argument does, interestingly for an atheist, give the belief in Biblical inspiration a whole new platform.
If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motion of atoms, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true -- J B S Haldane
Agreed Colin. The New Statesman seem to have played somekind of wierd ironic move by pushing atheism during a theistic festival time of year. Distatesful and dissapointing...
Someone also said, you only control 1percent of your life, so make sure you control that bit.
George Eaton (@georgeeaton) is editor of The Staggers blog