Micro-Reviews #6 Harris’ “Freewill”

Overall rating, 1/10

Recently I spent an hour at a local Barnes and Noble, hiding from the heat-wave, reading Sam Harris’ new, popular, and provocative Freewill.  At the risk of hyperbole (and shedding any legitimacy or credibility), I must say that I found the work to be an unbearable disaster of a philosophical argument.  If only to emphasize my true distaste for this work, I must admit that it took me two separate attempts to finish the book, as I was initially overtaken by frustration by page 9… (I promise to end my complaining and make a real argument now.)

In order to examine this book, I would like to engage a few specific points that I found particularly problematic throughout.

Harris’ first error can be identified in his attempt to ground his thesis–that freewill is an illusion–in the following (false) dichotomy:

“Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them. ” (p.5)

Here, Harris reveals his reductive-positivistic presuppositions with absolute clarity.  For Harris, free-will could only be the product of two sources, either the cause-effect chains of “medium-sized dry goods” (Austin) or the randomness of the quantum level.  Yet, this argument fails to refute, or even acknowledge, the principal topos of free-will within much (or most) of both traditional and contemporary philosophy–that is, the transcendent.  By this, I certainly do not advocate an uncritical reliance upon the religious notion of the soul, but merely point back to the transcendental consciousness of German Idealism and transcendental phenomenology, or the more recent embodied consciousness of existentialism and French phenomenology.  That any phenomenon could find its origin outside of the nexus of physical reality, understood in the most dogmatic and simply unreflective sense, is simply out of the picture for Harris.  The closest he is willing to approach this subject is by way of the casual (and unconvincing) brushing-aside of the “soul” as irrelevant to the question of free-will.

The second, and perhaps crucial error of Freewill can be summarized in the following quote:

“Consider what it would take to actually have free will.  You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thought and actions and you would need to have complete control over these factors.” (p. 13, emphasis mine)

Although (perhaps) initially convincing, this argument relies upon two problematic words, “all” and “complete,” which Harris’ discussion simply does not justify.  The criteria that Harris has set forward for freewill is simply unnecessarily “rigorous.”  As I once stated in a debate concerning this perspective, even Sartre, the champion of freewill par excellence, does not make such stringent requirements of freewill.  Instead, he, like all major thinkers on the subject, recognizes that freewill is consistently limited, pressed, and urged by factors both internal and external to the individual.  What Harris fails to recognize is that desire is not = to will.  The act of “wanting something” (passive) is not correlate to the act of “choosing something” (active).  By identifying the sources of our biases, our desires, etc. Harris believes that he has identified the sole sources of our decision making processes.  On the contrary, it is an undeniable factor of the human condition (as beings in a world) that we will be constantly influenced by our surroundings.  Nonetheless, this does not negate the validity of our will.

If I might take one of his examples, he asks the reader to think of a city.  He then asserts that those cities which did not appear to the mind as options (did not occur as a choice) were not true options.  Thus, he says, freewill is an illusion.  Yet, even if I grant him his specific point (that those “other” cities were not true options)  he has still failed to establish that my decision, chosen from the set of cities which did appear to consciousness, was not a real choice.  Even if Freewill is not unlimited or infinite, it might still be, in a very meaningful sense, free.

I could continue to touch upon various other weakness, including the ambiguity of his “I” (which appears, often [but not always] identical to the brain, sometimes transcendent to the brain, and seemingly never, encompassing the entire person [embodied]).  But I will simply end at this point, reiterating that this work is fundamentally unsatisfying, tremendously philosophically sloppy, and recommendable to no one.

If you’re interested in the relationship between Philosophy of Mind and Freewill, save yourself the trouble and read someone who is worth studying, perhaps Dennett.


About jleavittpearl

Philosopher and Theologian out of Pittsburgh PA.

Posted on July 18, 2012, in Reviews and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I really appreciate your commentary. You have very succinctly itemized a lot of my issues with the contemporary atheistic/scientific milieu’s pseudo-philosophical attacks on free will.

  2. Brilliant. It’s great to stumble on someone with a mind for the largeness of detail! I think my favorite moment is this one: “Even if Freewill is not unlimited or infinite, it might still be, in a very meaningful sense, free.” Yes. In most discussions it does seem as if people are ‘unnecessarily rigorous’ in places, taking almost any excuse to narrow the parameters once and for all, while leaving other places open to the elements and unexamined… hmph.
    What fun! Thank you.

  3. Thank you both for your kind words.

  4. Interesting review. Thanks. What do you make of the fMRI work? For example, < here.

    • Thanks, I have been aware of this influential study for some time (it also makes a notable appearance in Freewill) but nonetheless appreciate the link as a refresher. While I certainly find this study very interesting, I have two problems with its application to the “freewill” debate.

      The first is in regard to certain ambiguities in the methodology, specifically the “reporting” of conscious activity/intentionality by the participants. Such reporting would be difficult enough in normal situations, (how can one pinpoint the precise moment when a decision resolves from potentiality into decision?) but at this studies level of specificity (300-500 milliseconds), it seems simply completely untenable. (Did i decide to start this sentence at 3:14 or at 3:14.005? It seems impossible to distinguish.)

      At a more “philosophical” level, I find that the application of this study by Harris (et al) relies upon a return to a mind/body dualism that I am not comfortable making. Simply put, as one of the most important aspects of myself, of the “I”, the brain cannot be abstracted from the decision making process. Even if the decision-process was found to be located solely in the brain, this would in no case function as a refutation of free-will, but instead would merely emphasize the inability to abstract the body from the “soul”/mind/consciousness/”I”. As Lacoste writes, “The problem of the body is that it is an I [un je]: not some “thing” that we may or may not possess, but something we are: and, more rigorously, something that defines us as man: as someone.” -Jean-Yves Lacoste Experience and the Absolute

  5. Thanks! I agree that we can spend our time more effectively reading Dennett. There is something quite odd about these studies.

  6. I have no idea what it means to say that my brain “decides” X before I do. Am I (or my brain) just being dense or is such a claim meaningful in some important way?

  7. Reducing a decision to a synapse flash seems problematic. The examples (choosing a number or a card) strike me as trivial. What about the decision to participate in the test?

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