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February 10, 2014 / compassioninpolitics

My Critique of Sam Harris’ Neo-Determinisitic Theory of Free Will (Or Lack Thereof)

Lack of Absolute Free Will Doesn’t Mean Everything Is Determined:

Here are a number of choices we have based on sense experience:

We have the choice of what to put into our brain.
We have the choice of who to hang out with. (brain inputs)
We have the choice to do other things to augment our brains positively (eat a healthy diet, choosing an environment, etc…)
We have the choice of deliberation, time, and focus.
We have the choice of paths.

Its probably the case that we don’t have absolute free will. Duh. But our experience and the experiences we learn from others directly contravene an all inclusive determinism (including choice over thoughts)

Also, we know what the experience of having non-freeness feels like and looks like (both from the inside and the outside). We can make distinctions between the two.

Science, probabilities, and Cause and effect don’t make the universe deterministic–they make the universe intelligible.

The burden of proof is on those who suggest the universe and our thoughts are determined given the sense experience of the above as well as the cognitive dissonance indicated below (As well as the arguments I make in my other posts on free will & determinism. Although, my arguments aren’t necessary to shift that burden–only the agreement on sense experience and the human condition).

This is both a top down (science) and a bottom up question. The laws of physics–don’t seem to fully understand or human choice or deliberation. (Harris’ rhetorical flourishes about the “Iron Law of Determinism” not withstanding). This demonstrates the problems of the mechanistic worldview–its an attempt to see humans as objects rather than deliberative and dignified beings.

The Fundamental Nature of Human Choice:
Science in terms of human behavior–where choice is involved–deals in probabilities (thats why we have bell curves and other fancy graphs to describe human reactions). Science, often doesn’t deal in absolutes in terms of human behavior–because choice presents too much dissonance. Probabilities certainly erode the case for determinism. Otherwise, we would end up with nice & tidy science of human behavior–we could predict and control everything. But this fundamental failure–is the failure of the materialist and mechanistic view of science on humanity.

And what for those people who break out of crime or break out of poverty? What made Sam Harris different from all his HS and college classmates that had the same basic upbringing….but didn’t end up with best-selling books and speaking engagements? Choices–and perhaps some luck, but thousands and thousands of choices Mr. Harris made along the way over decades.

Through our choices–we create habits in our lives–and those habits can become well worn ruts. But people break free from those ruts (witness the million who).

If genes and environment were so determiniative of our lives, wouldn’t twin studies always end up the same (in a radically predictive way, I might add)? Wouldn’t you end up like virtual carbon copies of your parents with a few changes here and there?

Whats the difference between the cancer patient who exists after the cancer diagnosis and the one who is resilient? I would argue some luck….but a series of choices about attitude, goals, values, and determination.

Also, Sam’s analysis leaves out the million choices a person makes every year X number of years old we are. He leans on genes and violent impulses too much in terms of their influence. There is a decent amount of evidence that we can shape our own brains–and our choices certainly do that.

By Way of Analogy:
Does the force of wind, gravity, frictions, and inertia mean that the driver of a car is not in control?

No. Not in a meaningful way. Perhaps in extreme situations which represent .0001 of cases wind (aka a tornado), but those extremes are representative of what we are dealing with here–and they don’t deny the core point.

First, influence is not a lack of total control. Influence alone is not determinism.
Those physical laws shape my behavior, but they only slightly shape it. Also, the walls constrain my movement sure…..they only slightly shape it.

Second, choices as inertial and additive. Early choices have significant effects later in life.

Radical Cognitive Dissonance?:
This is not quite a fair question–but at the same time given what Harris is claiming:

What force wrote all the answers on the thread, wrote Sam Harris’ speech and his book?

So, did this deterministic force of the universe write the book? Word for word?

If we don’t have free will….Sam Harris doesn’t deserve credit for his book and likely doesn’t deserve speaking fees either.

Also, you can’t consistently argue for freedom and lack of coersion in the legislature and the punishment of criminals and consistently hold this view.

More Reasons for the Above:
If you are looking for a deeper look at the free will versus determinism question, you can read my answer on this thread which backs up some of these arguments: Nathan Ketsdever’s answer to Free Will: Does free will exist?

Pre-Empting Objections & Overturning Assumptions:

Libet proved deliberation and building of urges and intent….reading more than this into the Libet experiments is pure spin.

Bill Newsome suggests this kind of top-down analysis, without understanding the subjective dimension is missing the point. [This isn’t an indict of Sam Harris on point….but the framework and worldview he’s using]. Bill Newsome is suggesting a more systems theory approach–that also deals with the concept of emergence.

Dr. Bill Newsome at Stanford on the failure of reductionistic and physical understandings. Its only a partial picture–its an impoverished one. “Its not practical or desirable. Its not a useful project…its not useful for understanding complex systems”:

Choice shapes brain–this follows my habit argument above:

Update & Criticism of Harris:
Sam Harris seems to be more of a compatibalist rather than an extreme determinist:
Compatibilism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

This is also worth pointing out:

As Nahmias pointed out in his review of Harris’ book and as I’ll reiterate here, it’s ironic that Sam Harris_neuroscientist_ makes arm-chair assertions about what is meant by the concept of free will. It’s ironic because it’s usually scientists who levy criticisms against philosophers for making assertions in a similar vein.

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