Friday, September 7, 2012

“Free Will”, by Sam Harris; review and commentary

“Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have.

“Free will is actually more than an illusion(or less), in that it cannot be made conceptually coherent. 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”. pg. 5

This is an odd statement. I am simply being told what the facts are. Not convinced by any sort of method. Are these two paragraphs meant as an introduction?

Imagine a perfect neuroimaging device that would allow us to detect and interpret the subtlest changes in brain function. You might spend an hour thinking and acting freely in the lab, only to discover that the scientists scanning your brain had been able to produce a complete record of what you would think and do some moments in advance of each event.” pg. 10

"Imagine what it would be like to see the time log of these mental events, alongside video of your associated behavior, demonstrating that the experimenters knew what you would think and do just before you did.” pg. 11, Bold text added.
At this point in the book, it would seem that Sam Harris is giving us a completely hypothetical situation; posing a rhetorical question, but yet – somehow – expecting us to take it as fact. Let's hope these ”facts” materialize later in the book.

Unfortunately, what I find later in the book is disappointing. On page 24 we find more speculation.
If we were to detect their conscious choices on a brain scanner seconds before they were aware of them, they would be rightly astonished – because this would directly challenge their status as conscious agents in control of their inner lives. We know that we could perform such an experiment, at least in principle, and if we tuned the machine correctly, subjects would feel that they we were reading their minds (or controlling them)".
This is followed by a footnote, but a footnote worth taking notice to. This footnote, number 11, states, ”Unfortunately, there is some uncertainty as to whether the experiment was ever performed”.

Later (page 40) has another footnote (number 17) noting, ”...this notion of counterfactual freedom is also scientifically untestable. What evidence could possibly be put forward to show that one could have acted differently in the past?” Once again, dealing in speculation.

I have always attempted to be careful in my life and my decisions. I think it is important to ask yourself, can any good come of this?

"We did not know what we intend to do until the intention itself arises... this insight does not make social and political freedom any less important. The freedom to do what one intends, and not to do otherwise, is no less valuable than it ever was”. pg. 13
I agree and I am forced to question what is the intent of this book, this thesis? Can any good come of it? What is Sam Harris' actual goal? It makes me wonder if this entire premise – free will or no free will – is little more than a clever exercise, either as an intellectual argument, or simply being right.

In the introduction, he suggests that the question of free will touches a great many things, including morality and religion. Stating that without free will we lose our concept of sinners and criminals, guilt and innocence, and punishment. Although I do not believe he has a 'chip on his shoulder' about religion, there is definitely something at stake in the debate over free will.

What I find interesting is that he states,
"Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have complete control over those factors. But there is a paradox here that vitiates the very notions of freedom - for what would influence the influences? More influences? None of these adventitious mental states are the real you. You are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm”. Pg. 13-14

Interestingly, this is ”emptiness” in Buddhism, or ”dependent-arising” (or interdependence). Nothing - most especially the mind – has independent existence. (Although an argument can be made that Buddhism isn't a religion, but rather a scientific/empirical 'system' or philosophy. I think I may have 'bumped' into Sam Harris on the Buddhist discussion forum New Buddhist. It confused me as to exactly what he might be 'selling' here).

It saddened me to see the methodology of debate present. In the opening of the chapter entitled Changing the Subject, Sam Harris throws out the terms, determinism, libertarianism, and compatibilism - clearly addressing an audience well versed in the Free Will debate. (It is also the chapter where a couple of the uncertain and untestable results are mentioned. This is religiosity for the Atheist). This entire exercise reminds me of attempting to learn and hear the various theological Christian camps' debates over Eternal Conscious Torment, Universalism, and Annihilationism. At some point, the arguments become so self-absorbing, basic practicality has long since become secondary or even abandoned. (I mean, outside of the fun and joy of debate, how important is it really, and what good can come it?)

What I believe Sam Harris sets out to do is establish - scientifically – that we do not have Free Will. But ultimately he fails to scientifically prove the point. (I'm starting to believe that scientifically it cannot be proved either way). I think the book is reaching for scientific certainty where certainty might not exist. I cannot decide who would be this books targeted audience. A friend of mine (and self-proclaimed Atheist) suggested this book for me to read, stating that it makes some great (and empirical) points as well as scientific tests and experiments that prove our choices are completely predicable. Clearly, this individual saw the points he wanted to see but looked no deeper, as many of these tests and experiments are somewhat questionable.

Maybe a better direction to pursue would have been the implications of whether Free Will exists or not. How this can shape how we view and relate to other people. Do we see those guilty of crimes as terrible sinners deserving little more than punishment, or do we see them as victims of circumstances far beyond their control and deserving of help? Do we see our own successes are a reflection of how great and important we are, or humbly concede our fortunate luck? Or maybe we should question the danger of allowing ourselves to absolute ourselves of any and all responsibility for our actions. I would have been much more interested in seeing this line of thought, exploration, and reasoning followed.

The conclusion of this book is anything but conclusive. At best what I gleaned from this book is that in the debate over Free Will, nomenclature – how one chooses to define Free Will – become critical in winning one's argument.

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