Friday, 23 March 2012

Free Will by Sam Harris

Lowdown: Free will is but an illusion in a generally deterministic universe.
In last year’s The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris touched briefly on the matter of free will. As I noted in my review that was my favorite part of that book; I wasn’t alone, it seems, because incidental evidence seems to suggest the topic has stirred much emotion. Enough, it seems, to make Sam Harris write a book dedicated to the subject, Free Will. Or rather a booklet, because Free Will is not much longer than his recently published Kindle Single Lying.
Harris goes straight to the point in Free Will: there is no such thing, he argues, by virtue of the fact all the thoughts that come to one’s consciousness do so at their own free will; one can seem to choose between thoughts, but one is in no control over which thoughts pop up in the first place. This matter, the matter of where thoughts pop into our consciousness from in the first place, is purely the result of the specific way our bodies are configured out of specific physical particles. In other words, our thoughts are deterministic: create another person in the exact shape of me and you will not be able to tell us apart, not even at the thought level.
Note that while Harris’ expressed philosophy is put in secular terms (Harris is an outspoken atheist aside of being a writer and a neuroscientist), Harris makes it clear his argument applies to those believing themselves to be governed by souls just the same. Alright, say you are controlled by a soul rather than the atoms of which you are composed; where do the thoughts popping into your soul come from? Why does your soul choose to write a book review instead of thinking of the idea of playing Uncharted on the PlayStation?
From this not so humble start – our society seems in love with free will, and dispelling the concept will not be too popular a move – Harris moves on to discuss counter arguments and implications. I adore the way he discusses rival theories on free will, such as the compatibilism suggested by fellow celebrity atheist and full time philosopher Dan Dennett. Harris discusses counter arguments using a very matter of fact manner that is characteristic of scientific analysis but is normally absent from the more common forms of arguing we are exposed to in the media. No, you won’t find Harris saying those who disagree with him are idiots.
Given my general agreement with Harris’ arguments, I found the discussions on the implications of the lack of free will to be the most interesting part of the book[let]. As Harris points out, our justice system is reliant on the fact people are in charge of the choices they make; but given that is not the case, what should be the implications? What should we change, and can we make these changes in the first place given the majority of us prefers to live under the illusion of free will? Due to the applicability of these questions to our daily lives, I was rather disappointed with the brief discussion granted there by Free Will’s short length overall. Think about it: the implications of having no free will have a long reach, most of which missed by Free Will. On what ethical grounds, to name but one example, does the advertising industry stand in a world without free will? And why doesn't Sam Harris try to address this interesting question?
In a society that is all too happy to throw any real world problem affecting our wishful thinking, Deepak Chopra style, to the hands of mysticism and unfounded interpretations of quantum physics, a book such as Free Will is a major asset. Note the way even the likes of atheist author Phillip Pullman regard the matter of free will in books such as The Subtle Knife: Pullman suggests we have free will by virtue of quantum mechanics hinting at the potential existence of parallel universes, universes where different outcomes of our lives exist. Let’s assume for a minute that Pullman is right and that everything that can happen does happen, somewhere; how does that have any effect on my free will? In each of these multiple universes we potentially live with a still fully deterministic fate.
Overall: Important, enlightening, but way too short on scope for a subject matter this worthy. 4 out of 5 stars.
Added on 15/4/12: Sam Harris uploaded a presentation of his on free will. Here it is:


Uri said...

I don’t get it.

I can read your blog, or an espn column. Let’s say those thoughts came into my mind uninvited. Don’t I still choose between them? Isn’t that free will?

Also, if all you get by determinism is that an exact duplicate Moshe would behave the same, I don’t see what it matters. You can’t get an exact duplicate Moshe. It’s like saying the weather is deterministic. If you can’t make predictions, I don’t see how it matters.

And even if we are just automatons, it does not mean that punishment has no affect.

Maybe I should just read the book. Let.

On a related subject, I could never understand why someone can be found innocent on the grounds of temporary insanity. Doesn’t it follow that people who drink and drive are also blameless (since alcohol impeded their judgment)?

You could argue that they could avoid drinking in the first place, but in that case should drinking be illegal?

Moshe Reuveni said...

The shorter answer is that yes, Sam Harris answers your questions and pretty thoroughly so. The book's cheap and short, and of course I think it's excellent, too, so yes - go ahead and read it.
I will try to offer short answers that don't do Harris' prose any justice:

1. You can choose between my blog and ESPN, and that's free will, but Harris' question is where did these two options pop out of? Why, for example, didn't you think of reading Woman of Substance when considering your options?
Harris actually goes much further than this in his book, citing research that shows people already decide what it is they want to do before they are conscious of the choice they make. In effect, we justify our non-free-will choice in our conscious in after fact, including the choice of blog vs. ESPN.
2. Duplicate Moshe: Harris' point is actually made the opposite way. He presents a psycho killer and asks how free they were in making their choices: if you take Harris and put him in a body that's exactly the same as the killer's, atom for atom, then Harris will be the killer. The point is clearer Harris' way but I was striving for concision in my review.
3. In no way does Harris claim punishment has no effect. He suggests we should put our emphasis on prevention rather than punishment, but states quite clearly that punishment has a deterrent effect.

I'll leave it at that, but add Harris also touches on your insanity point. Read the book: it's good for you!

Uri said...

Ok, I’ve read the book[let] and I’m still not convinced.

For the argument’s sake, let’s agree that there is no free will, and that even the illusion of free will is itself an illusion.

So what?

How does that affect our behavior?

We’d no longer want to take revenge. Except in the cases where it helps us, or acts as a deterrent for future crimes.

Is that really different than what we do now?

Now, if we knew exactly when punishment is working, and how much we need, we might dispense it only in those cases. If everyone believes that, some criminals will not get any jail time at all (if they are no longer dangerous, and punishing them has no affect on others) and some may get life sentences for things they wouldn’t have today (if we know that no matter what, they’ll repeat their crimes).

But we don’t know those things. And I don’t think we’ll ever be able to predict what specific people will do with any amount of certainty (even psychohistory doesn’t work on individuals). It’s that weather thing again – I may be a fully deterministic machine, but you’ll never exactly know what my current state is, and what all the inputs I’m about to receive are, so you won’t be able to make reliable long term predictions.

Harris suggests it should make us more compassionate towards one another. Maybe. I’ve heard claims that being good Christians does that as well.

I’m more inclined to predict people avoiding accountability for their actions with the “I didn’t want to do it, but I don’t really have free will” excuse.

Moshe Reuveni said...

I took a different message from Harris. Perhaps it’s because I was also exposed to other works of his and his style (and you weren’t?), I took his message to be “take it home and think about it”. As in, start looking at the world without taking free will as granted and see how you can make it better (as opposed to providing concrete suggestions on how to make the world better).
In effect, I think we’re both raising the same complaint: while I agree with the book’s main point of “there’s no such thing as free will”, I would have also expected better/deeper discussion on the implications of this [new] understanding.
So no, I’m not going to argue with you*. I do, however, acknowledge that convincing me that there is no such thing as free will was very much worth the admission price, which is why I still think Free Will is a great book.
(Disclaimer: I already arrived to this book “knowing” there is no such thing as free will; I do, however, still find Harris’ arguments convincing enough to change my mind even if I didn’t arrive with this opinion in mind)

*I will make an exception and argue about “good Christians”. Are they that good when they “know” you’re going to burn in hell for eternity? Eternity’s a long time, you know. I wouldn’t classify someone who is totally convinced on this hell assignment of mine “good”, no matter how nice they are to me.

Uri said...

If I believe you’re going to rot in hell for all of eternity, but this has no effect on my behavior towards you, why should you care?
If you believed in a literal Hell, I could imagine you’d be uncomfortable with people thinking you’re going to end up there, even if you didn’t share their belief. But since you don’t, I don’t see how it matters to you.

And going back to free will – it’s just luck that made you an atheist, and just luck that made someone else religious. How can you hold that against them?

Moshe Reuveni said...

I care because I think it's two faced. For example: A complaint commonly raised against atheist conventions is that they're anti everything else rather than pro "something", the way Christian gatherings are; yet in the background of all Christian gatherings is the most anti belief ever.
As for not blaming the religious given the lack of free will: I don't know if you're serious in what you're saying. Are you really claiming to relegate people to the same cognitive level as, say, fish? There is nothing in what Harris is saying that prevents people from rationally contemplating issues in order to make a calculated decision. This, however, is exactly my problem with the devout: instead of rationalizing, they go with wishful thinking. Why should they give a shit about incidentals like evidence?

Uri said...

But if you were in their place, you’d do the exact same thing. You can be happy you’re not, but why do you blame them for something that’s not really under their control?

Moshe Reuveni said...

I think you're making the classic mistake of replacing determinism for fatalism. We don't have free will in the classic sense, but we can still take control over our fate.
As for my particular case: Last I remember I was actually brought up to believe in god. And believe I did, up until the age of 7 or so when I started doubting.

Uri said...

I thought you were pretty specific before: if you were the same - atom for atom - as someone else, you’d behave the same. If that’s the case, you can’t take credit for your doubts. Your mother (for example) would have the exact same doubts were she in your place, and you’d share the same beliefs if you were in hers

Moshe Reuveni said...

I don't get your point. All adult humans (barring exceptions such as retards) still share the potential to rationalize.

Uri said...

You said “if you take Harris and put him in a body that's exactly the same as the killer's, atom for atom, then Harris will be the killer"

You think your better than Bob Religious because you use logic and doubt, whereas he just blindly repeats what he was taught. But it was just luck that made you this skeptic doubting machine. If Bob were you, he’d be just as much of an atheist, and if you were him, you’d be deeply religious. Of course, you wouldn’t be you anymore.

You can’t take pride in your accomplishments if they’re just the result of luck. You have this view of yourself as someone who was indoctrinated but managed to rise above it. But that’s not really impressive, since it wasn’t really your choice.

Moshe Reuveni said...

I finally understood you (and agree with what you're saying). However, allow me to still wonder at people's inability to ask questions as they accept their indoctrination "of choice".
Just a disclaimer to add: we are walking the thin line here between fatalism and determinism. I can be fully proud of my achievements if I had an active part in them, regardless of whether they were predetermined or not. My qualm, therefore, is with those that accept their fate (=indoctrination) as it is.

Uri said...

I guess this is where we differ. If I follow Harris’s logic, I don’t see how I can be proud of anything I did. Sure, I can be happy. But proud?

Let’s say yesterday I saw a large tub of chocolate mousse. Two options came to my mind: Eat the whole thing, or don’t touch it. I chose not to touch it, and I’m proud of myself for that restraint.


I didn’t really raise those two options – they came to my mind on their own. Not much credit in that.

I did choose one, but how did I choose it? and why? What made me resist the temptation today, when I wasn’t able to the day before, and I might not again tomorrow?

And just at that moment, you had the same opportunity, and pig that you are, you ate half of it even though you planned to eat just a small portion. Should I be proud that in the same situation I behaved better? No, because it wasn’t the same situation. By definition, since the outcome was different, it could not have been exactly the same situation.

Moshe Reuveni said...

In my view, taking pride of what you've done is more than valid. You spend the energy, you made the effort, why should it matter if your choices were predetermined? By your way of looking into things, there is no such thing as an immoral act; I argue that whether you really have a choice or whether it's predetermined, there are still ethical consequences.

Uri said...

It’s not my way of looking at things, it’s my interpretation of how Harris tells us to look at things.

And it’s not what I’m saying. Sure, actions have consequences. Whether or not we have free will, you’ll get fatter (and probably nauseated) from all the chocolate, and I won’t.

And I might even rebuke you, or make fun of you, if I think it’ll influence your behavior in the future. But I have no possible way to interact with you, I shouldn’t think of you as weak willed, or stupid or whatever, because at that specific point in your life, you didn’t really have a choice. Sure, you thought you did, but as we’ve said before, you don’t really know why you had those options to chose from and why you made the choice you did.

The point I’m trying to make is my original one – that I don’t see how the question of free will matters. You still behave the same. You still take pride/regret of your own choices, and judge others’. You still think there’s a You that does this.

Moshe Reuveni said...

Again, I will go back to my main problem with Free Will in that it failed to discuss the implications as well as it should. You may be right, but I would still argue that even if the individual doesn't see the difference society as a whole should. It should turn away from old perceptions and, for example, prevent fast food products from being freely advertised.
I would also recommend you read some Dan Dennett. He writes on this matter a lot, and he often disagrees with Harris.

P.S. Let me know if you want me to get Harris' signature for you. I will be seeing him on Sunday (as well as Dennett, Dawkins and many others).

Uri said...

no thanks (and probably too late anyway). it would be cool to meet him (and the others) but the signature won't do much for me.

BTW, why fast food? why not any advertisments?

Moshe Reuveni said...

Wouldn't have done it anyway: the queue was huge! And rightly so - Harris' was today's most impressive presenter (rumor has it Leslie Cannold's the overall winner). Our Leslie Cannold!
As for fast food: I brought an example for advertising of a product about which there can be no doubt with regards to harm. There's also debate about it, here: Tony Abbott objects to limiting fast food advertising, saying it's the parents' responsibility to control their kids.

Moshe Reuveni said...

I've embedded a recent Sam Harris video discussing free will to the post. Hopefully it would clarify some of the issues I've found missing from the book (I'm currently watching it).

Moshe Reuveni said...

Further clarifications from Sam Harris: