Wednesday, April 11, 2012

More On Sam Harris's Case Against Free Will

Suggested by a comment by Robert C. Priddy but much varied.

Harris argues:

“Our sense of our own freedom results from our not paying close attention to what it is like to be ourselves in the world. 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.”

While I can’t control the contingencies framing my alternatives, I do choose among them, sometimes after deliberate weighing and sorting through them: their inherent merit, their morality, their efficacy, their consequences, their costs and their benefits and so on. Yet Harris finds physical determinism vitiating free will. For him, choice among alternatives is illusory.

Harris’ gets to physical determinism by his idea that every event has a cause leading to an infinite regress of preceding causes. I’d say, rather, we are subject to ongoing, dynamic interacting influences such that reductively isolating one event to one cause is missing the forest for one tree and is missing all the other trees by isolating only one of them. Understanding wholes—the brain, mind society, the will, free will, choice— requires transcending that isolation.

Can we not at some point without illusion speak meaningfully of freely willed human choice? After all, all explanations must end somewhere (in practice and in theory). So proving what causes what in the brain which then comes to mind will always remain an open question. But for Harris we are mindless automatons. But if we see free will as a whole with consciousness as its capstone then we need not reduce willed choice to the physical processes preceding it; and it need not make willed choice incoherent that contingencies impinge on our alternatives.

I may want to eat something but just before taking a bite I find out it’s bad for me. I then decide not to eat it on the rational calculation that the cost to my health outweighs the satisfaction of the food.

We should see the as a whole the physical activity leading up to conscious choice, which then takes into account new information that, after some simple reckoning, then alters my decision. Contingencies don’t vitiate the whole; neither do the preceding physical processes, which are inseparable from rational choice.

Harris arguing that that precedence and those processes comprise all of choice means he circularly defines free will away arbitrarily. Similarly, arguing we can never go back and do something different is no argument at all because going back is impossibility. In that sense, there are no do-overs. But there is no argument from their impossibility to the lack of real alternatives preceding choice from among them.

So free will can be seen as having options and distinguishing and so selecting one, (whatever circumstances behind the choice, including conscious intentions and subconscious predilections). That understanding makes free will relative to our control over our circumstances and ourselves.

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