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Sam’s new thoughts on free will

Total Posts:  14
Joined  18-08-2013
12 October 2013 05:39
GxB - 17 September 2013 04:34 PM

A self protective reaction is somewhat different than a self referential feedback loop that has given rise to an ego. The former can be found in many species, but an ego seems to be specific to humans. An ant probably does not go around saying to itself “I think, therefore I am”. The ego serves a useful function in the survival of humans since we have evolved beyond the point where the number of pounds of dead meat we could drag back to the cave lost ground to ego-based yardsticks- cunning and toolmaking; inventiveness; novel solutions; cooking skills; food preservation; clothing fabrication; language skills etc. etc. Each of these skills began to be associated with an individual rather than being attributed to a species as a whole, although the skill set may spread species wide.

If you can see the point here, then it becomes apparent that debating the existence or non-existence of free will is an entirely human activity and that the existence of free will as a feature of the universe (or even the debate) must be limited entirely to modern homo sapiens. That does not mean it’s a pointless question, but it might better be framed within the context of what is it, physiologically and neurologically speaking, that makes humans even ponder the question.

What I take issue with is that the debate usually casts too broad a net. Once you narrow the scope to humans only, the answer lies in how our brains have evolved. Man my be indeed “DNA’s way of understanding itself”.

The above seems to me a healthy approach: go fishing where the fish swim around.

I would like to add however, that very far away from the full human context, the question of free will can still be asked and get some informed hints: physics.

What can be said about free will from the perspective of physics as it stands today? I would say that both classical physics and quantum physics can give no conclusive answers as to whether free will is possible or impossible. Both deterministic models and indeterministic models have only limited domains of validity, and for that reason already cannot pass final judgement.

In as far as they can inform us about free will, within their limited domains of validity and in combination, the determinism of classical physics and the indeterminism (probabilistic and non-local) nature of quantum physics suggest that both aspects go hand in hand always.

In complex systems like human beings and human societies, those various aspects that include deterministic forces and indeterminate possibilities plus uncertainty.. maybe “add up” to what we experience as this strange thing that we call “free will” that feels both free.. and not-free at the same time.


Total Posts:  36
Joined  30-08-2011
22 December 2013 07:05
TheCoolinator - 09 September 2012 06:23 PM

Seriously though, Sam’s recent argument does underscore a serious problem with his logic.  He criticizes the people who have said that the belief in no free will has negative moral consequences, he then counters that it will have laudable moral consequences.  As Toombaru correctly objected, this all misses the point of whether or not the belief is true.  He is beginning to sound more and more like a religious believer who worships the God of determinism.  His faith is belied by the insufficient evidence for his belief.

That is something quite offensive to say to a person like Harris, and I think he would vehemently disagree with this. He has no stake in whatever turns out to be true, he just goes wherever reason/logic takes him.


TheCoolinator - 09 September 2012 06:23 PM

I know he thinks that he has supplied adequate reason in Free Will, but his reasoning in that work falls prey to two separate fallacies.  First, he appears most convinced by the fact that brain scanning can detect mental activity before we are consciously aware of it.  I say this because he returns to the fact so often.  This is a classical post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.  We can also determine that our brains are going to register an image before that image is actually made available to our consciousness.  This does not prove that we can’t see, only that our measurement instruments are more sensitive than our evolved equipment.  Not every image that registers in our visual cortex will be supplied to our consciousness - this has been shown sufficiently and taken advantage of by advertisers.  However, our lack of control over our inputs does not mean we don’t have free will - it only means our faculties are not as efficient as we experience them to be.  This leaves open the very real possibility that free will is illusory, but it by no means can decide the matter.

I don’t think this is central to his argument. I’ve also heard him use the example you gave of subliminal messages in an answer to a question from the audience in a debate, so he’s certainly aware of this.

Harris’ argument is even virtually airtight without depending on empiric observations. He says the illusion of free will is itself an illusion; meaning that when we turn our gaze inwards, when we use introspection, it becomes obvious that we aren’t as free as we feel we are.


However, I think that this mystery is itself a symptom of our confusion. It is not that free will is simply an illusion: our experience is not merely delivering a distorted view of reality; rather, we are mistaken about the nature of our experience. We do not feel as free as we think we feel. Our sense of our own freedom results from our not paying attention to what it is actually like to be what we are. The moment we do pay attention, we begin to see that free will is nowhere to be found, and our subjectivity is perfectly compatible with this truth. Thoughts and intentions simply arise in the mind. What else could they do? The truth about us is stranger than many suppose: The illusion of free will is itself an illusion.

Harris, Sam (2010-10-05). The Moral Landscape (pp. 111-112). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

I ask you to pick any city in the world, but it can’t be your first choice.

Made your choice? Remember, this is as free a choice you’re ever gonna make.

Now, are we free to choose that which does not come up in our mind?


TheCoolinator - 09 September 2012 06:23 PM

Second, Sam’s arguments rely heavily on our absence of power. This is a false dilemma.  It is not necessary that we have complete power in order to be free.  Look at his example of the surgeon.  He is correct in that there are innumerable things that disqualify people from achieving that outcome which are beyond their power to control.  However, we need not have complete control for there to be an element of freedom to our will.  Any amount of control will suffice.  So do we have any?  I’m still waiting to for the evidence that can convince me either way.

I don’t know where he refers to this in his book ‘Free will’, but I doubt very much that he considers this particularly relevant. This is the first time I explicitly come across it, and I have read his book and seen many of his debates concerning this. I would greatly appreciate sources about this.

The fact that we are limited by our intelligence and physical abilities, and that this prohibits us to become what we want, seems to obvious for words. To say then that this is a central argument of Harris would be rather naive and reductive.

Free will has two assumptions, each of us is free to behave differently as we did in the past. And that we are the conscious source of our thoughts and actions.

The central argument of Harris, according to me, comes down to this:

We identify ourselves with our conscious mind, with this constant stream of thoughts. Intentions/thoughts appear here, so we think ourselves the author of these thoughts. “But we live in a world of cause and effect, and there is no way of thinking about cause and effect that allows us to say the buck stops in our mind/brain. The buck never stops. Either our wills are determined by prior causes, a long chain of prior causes, and we’re not responsible for them, or they’re the product of chance, and we’re not responsible for them. Or there is some combination of chance/determinism, but no combination seems to give the free will that people cherish.”

Intentions/thoughts appear in our conscious mind, but this is a consequence of prior causes that are unknown to us. They just rise up, and because they rise up in the place where our sense of ‘i’ resides, we think ourselves the author. But that’s just it, they appear there, but do not originate there.

More evidence can be given to substantiate it, but this really is sufficient when one truly grasps it;


Total Posts:  36
Joined  30-08-2011
22 December 2013 07:36
maxt - 14 October 2012 02:46 PM

After reading Sam Harris, I wonder if anyone has thought about what the consequences of not believing that one has free will, will be?

One obvious thing, one should also not be as impressed by good deeds as before.

Not having a free will makes me think about a few other things too. What about feelings? Why do we have experienced feelings if we do not have a free will, what are their benefits. Why should I feel anger when I lack the free will to use it? Why are the emotions not connected directly to one’s behaviour? Remorse and guilt are very strange feelings if you do not have free will, are they not?

The next question is about consciousness, why have a mind at all if you do not have free will? What function does the mind have?


The illusion of free will entails some trade-offs, that much is sure. Feelings like pride, shame, hatred become irrational. So one can pity the loss of pride, if you find this important, but with this ‘loss’ comes ‘gains’ as well. Shame for being a ‘failure’ or something becomes unnecessary. These are isolating emotions to begin with. Instead of hatred against the so-called evil actions of people, compassion is in order. This is the biggest consequence of the illusion of free will in terms of feelings, that we should become more compassionate in our attitude towards others.


Why should I feel anger when I lack the free will to use it?

What an odd, and confused, thing to say. You seem to think that some sort of fatalism is in order if there is no free will. Why does it matter to have a mind? Why do feelings matter? Of course our actions do matter, if SH didn’t have such a deep feeling to increase the well-being of humans in the order, if SH didn’t take the time to write his books, his books wouldn’t have been written and most of us would have continued living in ignorance.

What function does the mind have?

Again, odd question. But it can be interpreted in two ways. Scientifically, from the point of evolution, it is just one instrument to insure the survival of the species whom have it. Spiritually, you mean what is the point of life? Is there some finality or purpose? I think this goes a little beyond the scope of our knowledge. But to say it with Carl Sagan: the mind is a way for the universe to experience itself.

Celebrate the miracle that is life. If the illusion of free will feels as a loss to you, this is only because culture has planted the idea in your head of the existence of free will in the first place. Isn’t it marvelous just to be, to experience? To ride out this grand majestic play and see where it leads?

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