18 May 2012

For Sylvia Jane

On April  10, while I was working my way through a multi-post exegesis of philosopher Robert Kane’s book, The Significance of Free Will, reader Sylvia Jane asked why I hadn’t commented on Sam Harris’ more recent book on the subject.

I had to admit that I hadn’t even known of its existence until three days before receiving her question.  

But I’ll return to the subject now, just to say that I don’t think Harris brings anything new or interesting to the table.

Harris makes two points: (1) free will is an illusion, and (2) that is a good thing, too: we’ll all be better off when we rid ourselves of it.

As to (1), Harris relies upon Libet’s experiments. So let’s talk about them. Benjamin Libet is a physiologist who, in the 1980s, ran experiments in which he instructed his human subjects to make a certain simple movement , like pressing one or another button. He had their brains wired up for his machines while they were deliberating and when they finally did press one or the other button. His conclusion was that there was information available from their brain hemispheres that disclosed which button they were going to push several seconds before they pushed either of them.

This certainly sounds dramatic. I have the introspective awareness that I am deciding now to do something as a result of my conscious thought processes, but my hemispheres had gone into the appropriate mode for that decision seconds before?  Free will wrong! Determinism right!  Right?  So Harris would have us think.  It even inspired him to start putting quotation marks around the word “decision.” “You then become conscious of this ‘decision’ and believe that you are in the process of making it.”

My problem with this is that I don’t believe we can infer that all decisions are alike, or that all intentional acts are inherently conscious.  Consider the last time you were out driving. You likely did a lot of things without ever having the conscious experience of doing or willing to do them. Consider hitting the lever that puts the left signal turn on. This is an action of which you may never have had any conscious awareness at all, yet we might fairly still speak of it as a conscious intention. I doubt it really matters in which second before you hit the level a machine would show the relevant hemispheric activity.

But now consider the sort of life-changing experience Kane is talking about. Suppose you have sworn off cigarettes. Yet you’ve just had a big meal of a sort that has often in the past been a prelude to cigarettes. You reach for a pack for a moment – then remember your vow and, we will say, pull your hand back. Do Libet’s experiments give us any reason to believe that was set before you were struggling over it? No. The rare and critical decisions that count always seem to happen when one is not hooked up to a physiologists’ machine, and there is no obvious non-question-begging case for generalization.   

Harris’ second point is somewhat more interesting. Maybe free will is a bad idea (even if it does accurately describe some events in our lives) and we’re better off without it.  This is related (as Harris tells us) to the Buddhist notion that the self is a bad idea.  

I’ll come back to that next week.

1 comment:

Sylvia Jane said...

Hi, Chris,

Good start to a rejoinder to Harris. I think you explain what intuitively bothers people about Harris's concept of free will. Am most interested to see where you go with the more openended second issue as to whether or not free will as a useful concept is better dispensed with.

--Sylvia Jane

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.