10 March 2012

'Free Will' by Sam Harris

The question of free will has been bouncing around for a long time, and recent neuroscience is leading some to conclusions that I find needlessly restrictive in their outlook.  I decided to read Sam Harris's latest short piece on "Free Will" to test my thinking.  Here are some thoughts, driven by my reactions to various lines from the eBook.

Harris doesn't do a good job, to my taste, of defining what he means by 'free will' or 'freedom'.  Early on he writes: "Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making." (p 5).  The closest thing I saw to a common definition is this:  "The popular conception of free will seems to rest on two assumptions: (1) that each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past, and (2) that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present." (p. 6).  I'm going to ignore part 1, since it's impossible to experimentally test whether one could 'repeat' a choice situation and choose something different.  So I'll focus on #2.

My take on freedom is that there is no such thing as 'complete freedom' - this would seem to me to indicate that there are absolutely no constraints in any way, and I don't see such a situation ever existing.  So freedom is always a relative concept.  One is more free when there are fewer constraints on one's actions, and less free when there are more constraints.

Harris does a great job in pointing out that there are many constraints on our choices.  He writes:  "Unconscious neural events determine our thoughts and actions—and are themselves determined by prior causes of which we are subjectively unaware." p.16.  I think this is largely true - though in a way it's simply a tautology to say we aren't conscious of that which goes on unconsciously.  But I think the focus should be on that which we are consciously aware: situations where we consider alternatives, think about possibilities, and finally decide upon a course of action.  Even if our preferences aren't consciously created, and we don't understand the basis of our decision-making, we still subjectively face decisions and make choices.  Decisions are sometimes difficult, and over time our decision-making may change, notably because we have learned something from past decisions and behaviors.

Frequently Harris poses the question "Where is the freedom?" if so much is constrained by the past, and we can't account for where our desires and preferences come from.  I would say that if freedom is about movement with constraints, then it doesn't necessarily matter that we don't know why we want what we want.  We also don't know why there is gravity, but there is, and we are constrained by it.  So too we are constrained by certain preferences, some of which we could probably alter if we choose to, and some of which seem to alter over time without any conscious effort.

Harris dwells on the fact that we did not choose much of our past experience.  "Take a moment to think about the context in which your next decision will occur: You did not pick your parents or the time and place of your birth. You didn’t choose your gender or most of your life experiences. You had no control whatsoever over your genome or the development of your brain." (p. 40).  As you would expect from this blog, I dispute the last point, on the development of your brain.  I believe that choices and behaviors we choose today will impact our brain and our unconscious processing in the future.  When we attempt to learn something, we have to concentrate consciously, and think about each new choice.  As we master a subject or learn how to do a physical task, we don't have to try so hard consciously - we've absorbed it in our brains, we can take action unconsciously.  This adds some weight to the compatabilist position that Harris rejects, in which the individual must be considered as more than just the conscious awareness.

So my sense is that Harris does describe many of the true constraints on our will, but I don't agree with his take that you must understand and control every underlying process to achieve 'freedom'.

1 comment:

Ron Krumpos said...

Sam Harris does feel that free will is mostly an illusion. I believe we can make choices, but seldom freely. In my (free) ebook on comparative mysticism, "the greatest achievement in life," is a chapter called "Outside the box." Here are three paragraphs from it:

What if you had to make all your decisions about living while detained in a jail cell? The cells may be open for brief periods each day, but the prisoners are still surrounded by walls. There are also walls around cells of everyday life. We are restricted by our ability to control our emotions, mind and body. Even with full command of our “self,” we must live within the restraints of Nature and society. Freedom is relative.

“Free will” is really quite limited, despite belief that we control ourselves and our lives. We think we have endless choices...until we try to make them. Each decision must not only be based on what we “want to do,” but also on our own capabilities and what is expected of us. Nature and society imprison us, whether we like it or not. The key to release is mystical realization. All in One and One in All, the divine unity, opens the gate between a universal consciousness and most people’s constrained awareness.

Outer walls are the boxes of Nature and of society. Inclement weather, lack of sunlight, gravity, and/or other natural phenomena may restrain our movements. Our own natural aptitudes, practiced talents and learned skills are always lacking in some areas. Human nature is controlled mostly by society. What we believe that other people expect of us greatly influences how we feel, think and act. Considering the reactions of our family, friends, business associates, community, and/or nation determines much of what we do. Those “laws” of Nature and society govern our lives, usually more so than we wish. Mystical awareness can allow us to obey divine law here and now.

Sam Harris has written positively on mysticism and said "“I see nothing irrational about seeking the states of mind that lie at the core of many religions. Compassion, awe, devotion and feelings of oneness are surely among the most valuable experiences a person can have.” Harris' personal background reflects his own search toward that goal.