Free Will – Sam Harris (Free Press)

freewillbysamharrisThere’s a thought that strikes me in Sam Harris’ book Free Will that there is a kind of ‘fudge’ at the core of his argument. It’s as if he wants his ‘fudge cake’ and to get to eat it! Okay I’m going to demonstrate this, I trust, in this review – but this ‘fudge’ is my main problem with this otherwise very thought-provoking (and short) book.

Harris argues that we haven’t free will. Now, before going on, here’s a summary of where I am on this issue of ‘free will’. In the book he refers to an experiment I was aware of which seems to show the brain making decisions up to a full SEVEN seconds before the conscious mind appears to ‘decide’. That has had me thinking for some time and probably drew me to this book in the first place. I’ve also been looking at consciousness and am half-way through (probably not clever to admit that) Julian Jaynes book: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind – It’s a fascinating work and has provoked much thought (thus far) on the nature of consciousness.

We certainly do much in our life that is ‘unconscious’. Imagine when we drive a car – most of our actions (once they are learnt) become ‘automatic’ and unconscious. If you were to consciously think about everything you were doing you would most likely crash. We learn one thing, then another – these two learnt actions then become ONE and then we can add another skill and these two can then become ONE etc. When playing the drums, for instance, the four limbs learn their parts in stages. And when playing a new rhythm everything can fall apart when you consciously think about what you are doing. Naturally in learning to drive a car or attempting a new drum rhythm, the amount of conscious effort begins at a greater level and then, gradually, becomes automatic. In certain conditions our conscious mind can be called on (by what/whom?) to ‘take the reins’. I have often gone out in my car and followed – say – a route to a workplace only to consciously realise that I’m not actually going to this place. My conscious mind takes over, manoeuvres the car and puts me back on track. And once I know where I’m going I can continue in an – at the very least – semi-conscious way.

There  is also the idea – I have read – whereby the brain takes in all the information from the various senses and collates them and then our consciousness presents this stimuli to us as if it were all happening ‘at the same time’ – as the speed of sound is slower than the speed of light etc. Because the brain has had to collect all the data then our conscious perception lags behind the ‘real present’. But what is doing this preparation and selection? How is it being done and where is the interface with our consciousness?

Harris introduces his thoughts on free will with a harrowing example of a brutal (and sexual) attack and murder of a family; only the patriarch surviving. This certainly concentrates the mind! (There is in fact a running motif  regarding crime and how we should deal with criminals.) Following on from this example he writes about popular conceptions of free will that:

Each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past. And that: we are the conscious source of our thoughts and actions in the present.

He argues that free will is an illusion and that we do not have the freedom we think we have. That whatever we do is a state of mind we cannot (and could not) change – that it is the sum of many inherent factors. That thoughts and impulses APPEAR in our consciousness and do not originate in it. There is some compelling argument too – can we DECIDE our next mental state? How much control do we have over our thoughts? Do we create thoughts or are they presented to us? Try and think of your next thought!

Harris writes: ‘There is no question that (most if not all) mental events are the product of physical events.’ And were this NOT to be the case then: ‘The unconscious operations of a soul would grant you no more freedom than the unconscious physiology of your brain does.’ Reflecting on this then, perhaps to have total free will, we need to say we control ‘everything’ – every thought. And, I suppose, to be totally aware of that! And if we have no free will where is this seeming will (idea of free will) coming from – where does our consciousness come from? Some argue that as our brains, our neurophysilogical processes, are deciding things at SOME level, then we have free will – it’s just not what we think of as our conscious ‘real self’. In response Harris writes: ‘As we have begun to see, however, this feeling of freedom comes from our moment-to-moment ignorance of the prior causes of our thoughts and actions.’

Now later Harris writes, ‘Losing a belief in free will has not made me fatalistic – in fact, it has increased my feelings of freedom.’ Here’s where the fudge comes in, I think. ‘A creative change of inputs to the system – learning new skills, forming new relationships, adopting new habits of attention – may radically transform one’s life.’ But can we do that other than in a mechanical pre-determined way? ‘Getting behind our conscious thoughts and feelings can allow us to steer a more intelligent course through our lives (while knowing, of course, that we are ultimately being steered).’

Getting behind our conscious thoughts and feelings?

Recently I went for a walk with my son to a water-mill, now converted to a restaurant. Near-by there’s a weir and where part of the river has been channelled to the former-mill’s water wheels. It was a beautiful afternoon – butterflies flitting between plants settled and floating on the water’s surface; two châteaus close by keep silent watch. We were leaning on a small bridge when I noticed a large ant moving across the wood of the side of this bridge. I pointed to it and said, ‘Stop!’.  Now my conscious mind presented that ant to me, I pointed to it, and said ‘Stop!’ – which I think it didn’t! My son was watching me and we laughed about this. Now, evidently, this innocuous act seemed a conscious decision of my free will. Had it NOT been – then there are a number of things to discuss. Firstly: my son thought he was consciously reacting in the present and with free will (as did I). I deliberately pointed at the ant – that was operating in its own way in this world. I pointed to the ant at one particular point. For me to have decided that beforehand I would have needed to know that the ant would appear and that it would follow a certain path and arrive at a certain point that I could POINT at! Was that moment the sum of all three of our experiences of life? My son’s, to have unconsciously ‘decided’ all previous  moments to arrive at that point; mine the same AND the ant to have appeared and moved across the wood? At this point we could UNRAVEL every moment of our lives (including the ant’s) to track back down every event that brought us to where we were THEN. One pre-determined action following another!

Well, I guess that’s possible – a fait accompli if you will. We all WERE there and I certainly pointed and cried, ‘Stop!’. So in this ‘play out’ of unconscious direction EVERY consciousness is (must be!) part of the great PLAY we find ourselves in. Because if I am not aware I’m going to do something and I interact with someone else (who is also not aware) then we are part of some vast, intricate, script that unfolds, amnd is still unfolding, from the very beginning of time. We are here because of the actions of others.

Yet I could only point to the ant if the ant had been there – that was empirically so. I think Harris would say that no other person could have been in the place and with that mental state that I was in and that I would have been unable to be anywhere else or in any other state. Also – what is tricking our conscious minds to make us think we are doing things of our own volition? Where is the bridge between unintentional decision and apparent consciousness of that decision? When does ‘consciousness’ take over from the deeper decision?

Now the motif I described earlier that runs through this book is the idea of crime, punishment and guilt (or otherwise). We certainly look at crimes differently given our perception of the intentions of the criminals. And if someone has a brain tumour – say – we don’t regard their criminal actions in the same way as someone we believe acts with ‘free will’. And Harris continually argues that we cannot have had any other mental state but that which we had at the time and therefore we need to look at ‘guilt’ differently. He writes that criminals might have: ‘Some combination of bad genes, bad parents, bad environments, and bad ideas…’ Looking at this though – how can we introduce a moral definition (‘bad’) to these actions if what he says is true? There cannot be any ‘bad’ – only ‘what is’. Later he argues the idea that human behaviour can be modified by punishment and incentive…I am slightly confused. More cake? Or maybe it’s me!

In the chapter headed ‘Politics’ we get the ‘liberal’ idea that one must be ‘lucky to be able to work.‘ So it’s luck. I’ll get back to that idea. He writes, ‘Laziness, like diligence, is a neurological condition…’ Luck again? ‘But this does not mean we must be taken in by the illusion of free will. We need only acknowledge that efforts matter and that people can change.’ Well he says they can’t change any past actions…and how are they to change? ‘We do not change ourselves…but we continuously influence, and are influenced by, the world around us and the world within us.’

Okay – so ‘we’ are influenced by our internal world – but how can we escape that influence or use it through volition. I THINK he is arguing for a kind of change through osmosis. Such that, as we are a product of things we have no control over (including our supposed free will) then our past, set actions, history, biological influences can only be added to. He writes: ‘Am I free to change my mind? Of course not. It can only change me.’ Maybe that could be highlighted or achieved say, for example, by forcing folk to have a good iodine intake, especially those living far away from the sea. The intake would have a subtle influence on their well-being and maybe influence their unconscious actions? An outside force would have an impact on their internal world. But someone would have to decide to do that! And that – one presumes – is also decided for them.

It is the concept of ‘free will’ that gave rise to sin – he argues. And, in this, perhaps he is correct – for Adam and Eve were seemingly given ‘free will’ (and not at the same time!).  Their actions have affected all of us – if we believe so. But God would have known the outcome. If he gave them free will knowing they would act the way they did, and take the fruit from the tree – how free were they?

What if you are controlled by others? Your actions and thought directed by others? Would that be a form of double ‘non-free will’?

Are we Beings experiencing this world from the point of view of our consciousness – with no control…as if we are on a roller-coaster that could take us anywhere it desires? Hold on…sit back…tighten your seatbelt and enjoy the ride. Are we puppets of a Greater Being? Are we a strand of conscious experience that snakes back to a greater, composite experience? In fact – even without free will – are we living a spiritual life? Are we simply the observers of our life?

I’ll leave you with two quotes from the book, one in the body of the text and the other in the notes.

Harris: ‘The illusion of free will is itself and illusion.’

And in the notes, Schopenhaur’s: ‘Man can do what he will but he cannot will what he wills.’

And finally – we may/may not have free will, we may/may not be fully conscious – but the life we lead APPEARS as if we have free will and that is the ONLY way we can lead it. Be thankful for whatever life you have – it’s a one and only experience.

Thanks.

Reviewed by Tim Bragg

Tim Bragg is the author of the recently published Lyrics to Live By: Keys to Self-Help, Notes for a Better Life

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Comments »

  1. […] interesting review of Harris’s book (found HERE) discusses the fact that we can learn to do tasks unconsciously. When we learn to drive, for […]

    Liked by 1 person

  2. drummertimbragg said

    The Wolfe Review is really well worth a read. See the link above.

    Like

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