Sam Harris is easily misunderstood, regularly misrepresented and at times rightly challenged for what he says. All of these can apply on the same topic. Harris is wide ranging, from the nature of belief, use of torture, to his latest book – Free Will. His opponent on free will is a fellow member of the four horsemen of new atheism, Daniel Dennett. There have been more convivial discussions between them in the past.
In The Four Horsemen video filmed years ago, an accord was quite evident when talking about the virtues of rationalism and the principled position of atheism versus religion. Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and (the departed) Christopher Hitchens gave a lively round-table discussion. Whether you agreed or not, it provided an insight as they engaged each other in a civil discussion.
Daniel Dennett has this month done the academic equivalent of breaking into a book wrap party, bad mouthing the author, and showing he can urinate higher up the wall then all the assembled VIP scientists that support Harris. In an impressively long review of Sam Harris’ book “Free Will”, Dennett describes it as a museum of mistakes and that scientists are not thinking clearly on the subject – least of all Richard Dawkins. We need philosophers to remind them that there have been advances in thinking and that we need the concept of free will or else no one will be held responsible for their actions. No punches are pulled as Sam is described as needing instruction as an undergraduate on a philosophy course.
Dennett stresses that we may not have ultimate credit for our actions (e.g. moral education in childhood versus none, the genes we have) but we aid this by our subsequent cultivation and decisions. An endowed disposition is tempered by many actions which are not random or subjective – let alone out of our control – before we intuitively decide to act. An example is a tennis player practices ground strokes, and return of serve. They have a game plan against their opponent. How they return serve when a hundred plus mile per hour serve comes their way will not be consciously chosen at that moment – but it has been influenced prior to hitting the ball.
Dan is body serving Sam Harris, going for long rallies to show up his opponents game. Sam has opted in his reply for trying to keep the rallies short as a counter puncher. Do read both – they go into the concept of free will in more depth than a short blog post should even dare.
However, I will quote this bit from Sam Harris’ reply to Dan:
It is worth noting that the most common objection I’ve heard to my position on free will is some version of the following:
“If there is no free will, why write books or try to convince anyone of anything? People will believe whatever they believe. They have no choice! Your position on free will is, therefore, self-refuting. The fact that you are trying to convince people of the truth of your argument proves that you think they have the very freedom that you deny them.”
Granted, some confusion between determinism and fatalism (which you and I have both warned against) is probably operating here, but comments of this kind also suggest that people think they have control over what they believe, as if the experience of being convinced by evidence and argument were voluntary. Perhaps such people also believe that they have decided to obey the law of gravity rather than fly around at their pleasure—but I doubt it. An illusion about mental freedom seems to be very widespread. My argument is that such freedom is incompatible with any form of causation (deterministic or otherwise)—which, as you know, is not a novel view. But I also argue that it is incompatible with the actual character of our subjective experience. That is why I say that the illusion of free will is itself an illusion—which is another way of saying that if one really pays attention (and this is difficult), the illusion of free will disappears.
That is why I suggest you settle down, with your favourite tipple when you are unlikely to be disturbed, to read Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris discussing free will. Maybe the Richard Dawkins Foundation might even sponsor a discussion between the two of them in the future.
We need to end this with a tie break – if there is a rational way to conclude the subject of free will.
Article written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus’ Weblog