I very much enjoyed Harris’s book, Free Will. Many great points were made, and I found myself broadly sympathetic to the main conclusion that “Free Will” as commonly conceived is an illusion, and the secondary conclusion that despite the illusion of Free Will, concepts of morality and justice can still have societal and cultural meaning and utility.
That said, as I read the book I was surprised that Harris did not focus more on the concept of “self” in relation to his main thesis.
If some action is claimed to be truly “Free Will”-ed, clearly this implies that something/someone is doing the Will-ing. Throughout Harris’s book, and indeed in any discussion of Free Will, singular pronouns are always involved — I/you/they presumably refer to some actor (a “self”?) who is exercising Free Will, so a closer look is merited.
I fear that the word “Self” can have meanings that are potentially quite broad and deep, too vague to provide real clarity to this question. Perhaps approaching this with nomenclature more specific than the pronoun, and more narrow than what may be understood by the word “self”, will allow us to bring more precision to bear on the subject. (Similarly fuzzy semantical questions can undoubtedly be raised with the relationship between “consciousness” Free Will, but I’ll leave both “self” and “consciousness” aside until the latter part of this post).
For the moment I’d like to simply use the made-up term “Willer” as a working name for the “self” that is acting in this specific context: the claimed exercise of “Free Will”. I suggest that an oblique but effective attack on “Free Will” can be made by looking at the difficulties I see trying to pin down this narrowly defined concept of a “Willer”.
Anyone arguing that a given action results from “Free Will” can be said to be on pretty thin ground if they cannot simultaneously make clear the nature of the “Willer”. What precisely is the “Willer” here and how does it relate to the act of “Will-ing” and the carrying out of some “Willed” act? Surely the Verb and the Object can only truly make sense if there is a clearly defined Subject. I challenge the conventional notion of Free Will by raising what I see as profound problems with the necessarily implied presumption of a “Willer”.
(An interesting ancillary question that I will not take up here would be in what way this Willer is “Free” - free from what constraints, imposed by what entities?)
Suppose that as an act of Free Will I were to decide to punch my neighbor in the nose. If we initially limit the analysis to the biological, physical realm, obviously my hand and arm action is part of what was “Willed”. Moving upstream, both temporally, physically and functionally, significant parts of the neurological machinery controlling the muscle action, including wetware and brain software that is well into the brain proper, are clearly still part of the Willed and not the Willer.
To find a border where we cross into the realm of some clear, defensible definition of a “Willer” it seems we eventually face essentially three alternatives: either it is 1) something fully separate from the physical realm, a sort of spirit or soul which is non-physical but still in some way capable of interacting with the physical world of the biology, or 2) some anatomically distinct subset of the physical brain/body, or 3) some logically distinct subset of the (practically infinite) state-space which the cells/molecules/atoms could assume.
Explanations of the first type would seem to be inescapably religious or “magical”. I am sure many theories could be argued along these lines; regular visitors in this forum will be well familiar with the counter-arguments. Given this website and its host I will not bother addressing this angle.
As for the second choice, harkening back ideas such as to Descarte’s claim that the Pineal gland was the seat of the soul, modern developments in neurophysiology seem to have pretty thoroughly ruled out easy answers here. Though there is little doubt some distinct components of the brain are more involved with choice-making than are others, I am rather sure that no anatomical bright line could be drawn which could distinguished a neuro-Willer from the flesh that is Willed and the act thus carried out.
Moreover, I suspect that most or all proponents of Free Will would never really be satisfied with a simple, discrete “Willer organ” in the brain. Worse, if there were a Willer organ, its essential function could arguably be shown to be biologically, physically deterministic, leaving as the only redoubt some sort of recursively flawed homunculus-type argument.
This leaves us with explanations of the third type. I am trying to describe a logical, information-theoretical type of realm where we might hope to find our Willer: Starting from the trillions of synapses in a human brain, if we consider that each synapse at some moment is either firing or quiescent, we can image a combinatorial logical state-space which is cosmically vast. If we further consider the chemical milieu in each neuron and synapse at each point in time, defined down to the molecular or even atomic level, the combinatoric vastness becomes even more absurd.
Of course many, surely most of these mathematically possible states would never actually occur in reality. (For example, 100% firing, or 100% left hemisphere firing - 0% right, and similar such extreme, pathologically unlikely states.) Even so, eliminating all of these impossible or unlikely combinations, the state sub-space that remains is still incomprehensibly enormous, and in practical terms infinite.
Now consider that the mind-states of the brain are really a dynamical process, in that a living brain will be moving endlessly from one state to another, and some moves can simply never happen whereas others are fairly likely. And of course we could debate forever whether these paths purely deterministic, or whether there some element of randomness?
In any case, I guess what I am describing here is some sort of rough definition of “mind-space”. To avoid those Willer definitions which are religious or “magical”, or those that are are simplistically anatomical, I think we are left to try to find the Willer in terms of the phenomenology of this sort of mind-space.
I would like to suggest that even if there is some kind of “Willer”-like (or self-like or consciousness-like) thing going in this context (or some similar logical delineation of a mind (or mind/body) state space), I think any attempt to describe the Willer in this way is destined to be irrevocably theoretical, hopelessly obscure, and of course fatally un-testable. More importantly, any such explanations are certainly never going to satisfying to a person looking for a comprehensible understanding of Free Will which might help them better grapple with daily life and practical moral quandaries.
If we thus conclude that we cannot nail down a really convincing, satisfying definition of the Willer, then any claims that something like Free Will still exists would appear to fall apart.
More generally, I think that the idea of “Free Will” that many people want to believe in is probably tied inevitably to the common understanding of “self” and “consciousness”, as proxies for a well-defined “Willer”. Although in the book Harris touched on some of these ideas, I would have like to have seen him mount a head-on attack on problems of “self” and “consciousness” as a main argument against prevailing, simplistic ideas of Free Will. This is especially true given Harris’s experience in the contemplative disciplines. Any advanced meditator knows deeply and profoundly that conventional notions of self and consciousness unravel pretty quickly upon scrupulous and sustained self-observation. Modern neuroscience has made substantial progress in adding support to the insights coming from experienced meditators.
There are many threads on the forum on the subject of free will. Yours does not offer much to contest and reflects the general view.
With a uni-centric explanation of our minds that includes determinism, we are robots. Any independent control of the robot would have to come from an independent pocket of agency and there is no where to put one.
While this should inform us on matters of justice and culpability, it is not a very satisfying description of a person. The logic is sound but the starting presumption of a unified brain that presents a single sensational experience is not, in this poster’s view, sound.
If our brains are presenting us, in any imaginable fashion, more than one sensational experience, than any contrast between them would need to be resolved before the robot can act. One system’s perceptions and intuitions would inform, overrule, catalyze or combine with another system’s perceptions and intuitions resulting in a choice or decision. The components and the process can be bound by determinism while the moment of determing can be a sensational experience, too. If that were happening right in front of our nose, so to speak, it would easy to look right past it.
That’s not an idealized free will, but it is more like a person.
Interesting. My admittedly first-glance grasp on Sam Harris’ position is that it is more to do with determinism as a logical necessity arising from chains of causality, and whilst it is arguably to some extent borne out by neuroscience, the sequential or temporal relationships between neural firing, conscious awareness of volition and physical action neither prove or disprove the causality argument.
If you take this on board, the question of the ‘willer’ is a bit like a first-cause position: you have the nice paradox of an uncaused cause which I enjoy, or you can go with Avicenna’s necessary existent, which I really like, although the imposition of God on this premise is a bit like Descartes’ reintroduction of ‘‘therefore I am” into his stripped down cogito.
I agree that the neurological AND causality positions on free will don’t really align with experience and intuition. But Hume’s refutation of empiricism is the same and we seem to be able to both accept it and park it at the same time. This is our wonderful elasticity - worth remembering that cognitive dissonance is ubiquitous and normal, we don’t blow up just because life “does not compute” .
I wonder if I can get to a viable but pithy account of volition that might accommodate both the illusory nature of choice as it happens but allow for the cumulative weighting of experiences upon outcomes. This is still a work in progress! But I wouldn’t be surprised if something appealing already exists out there ...
The paradox is not mine.
Why would one envision an impossible uncaused ‘willer’ unless one imagined that a person is a compressed instant of causality? If we bring that premise to neurology or philosophy, then any loyality to the logical necessity of determinism arising from chains of causality can only lead to a conclusion that we are either robots or are somehow supplied with a mysterious bonus element that allows for volition. I can’t argue with that.
Now that starting premise is found to be a wonderfully elastic example of cognitive dissonnance that is largely supported by experience and intuition. But as you suggest, “if it don’t compute, we must refute”.
By all means, tear into those neurons. They will yeild only a cul-de-sac of nonsense until we tear into that premise with the same vigor.
I give you points for pithiness, too.
... can only lead to a conclusion that we are either robots or are somehow supplied with a mysterious bonus element that allows for volition. I can’t argue with that.
I think one of these two positions (Ilet’s say “epiphenomenaism” vs “divine spark of mystery”) are where most protagonists end up. I’m reaching for other models that allow causality and volition to coexist, and you might have something with your sensational catalyst or we may choose to invoke Schrodinger’s Cat to make it both more and less opaque at the same time. My understanding of quantum physics means - and I know this - that I read all the interpretations (Copenhagen, Zeno, decoherence etc.) in a dilettante metaphorical way: there are complex but testable laws in place that offer a strong basis for induction, but that as each variable is stripped away the essential quality is one of multiplicity or coexistent possibility.
Maybe that is a “cul-de-sac of nonsense” I’m not entirely uncomfortable in such places ... you come out the same way you go in, right?
Have you found other models or are you building your own? Why bring quantum issues to the matter? Even the Peoria Interpretation is the wrong non-localized place to look.
My cat got too close to the quantum television (it uses tiny black holes for pixels) and now, while I can still see him, I don’t know if he is dead or alive.