July 15, 2012
Have It Your Way
‘Free Will,’ by Sam Harris
By Daniel Menaker (07-13-12)
For centuries, the question of free will — of whether human beings make choices that are not, or not entirely, determined by purely physical processes and causes — nested securely in the aeries of philosophy and religion.
Ordinary people didn’t worry about its having any practical significance for them. Although the issue of individual responsibility has animated novels, poetry, drama and parables, most modern people have gone about their lives believing that their minds were the agents of their decisions.
But the last half-century has seen this ancient subject pulled down from its academic perch and into courtrooms, laboratories, real-world questions about moral responsibility, and even popular culture. (It forms the plot of such contemporary movies as “Minority Report” and “The Adjustment Bureau.”)
Over the last few decades, procedures for measuring, imaging and analyzing mental processes have grown in number and subtlety. During this same period, books for the general reader about the brain and its functions, consciousness and will, thought and reasoning have proliferated.
We have Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Cordelia Fine, Oliver Sacks, Michael Gazzaniga, Daniel Kahneman and scores of others explaining, and extrapolating from, new findings in neuroscience and almost always addressing the matter of free will. (Daniel Wegner’s “Illusion of Conscious Will,” published by the MIT Press in 2002, is a central full-length scientific text about this subject.)
Sam Harris, a Stanford graduate with a Ph.D. in neuroscience from U.C.L.A. and author of “The End of Faith,” a best-selling, Hitchensesque critique of religion, has now, in book form and fully armored, joined the free-will jousters with a kind of tractatus — a pamphlet-like work, “Free Will.”
Parts of this book recycle some of Harris’s earlier writing on the subject (as should have been acknowledged in the book’s front matter and will be in future editions). But the work consists mainly of original text and distills Harris’s position on the crucial issue of human agency.
His absolutist position, I should add, because, as he puts it near the beginning of the book: “Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control.” We assume that we could have made other choices in the past, Harris continues, and we also assume that we consciously originate “our thoughts and actions in the present. . . . Both of these assumptions are false.”
Harris prosecutes his orderly case by explaining what he sees as the illogic of our belief in free will, and the recent findings that have undermined that belief. Probably the most influential among these discoveries were the results of the famous EEG experiments conducted by the physiologist Benjamin Libet and others in the early 1980s. They showed that the brain makes decisions before consciousness becomes aware of them.
As Harris puts it, “activity in the brain’s motor cortex can be detected some 300 milliseconds” — almost enough time for LeBron James to get off a shot ahead of the buzzer — “before a person feels that he has decided to move.”
As Harris’s text and impressive citations substantiate, these experiments and others like them have chiseled away much of the rock of free will upon which religion, jurisprudence and moral judgments have traditionally rested. (One could argue that Judaism and Christianity originated with Adam and Eve’s decision to disobey God’s order.)
For quite a while now, philosophers and public intellectuals, including Harris’s friend Dennett, have tried to rescue something like the common notion of free will from the jaws of science and logic by embracing a position called compatibilism.
Compatibilists believe that “a person is free as long as he is free from any outer or inner compulsions,” Harris writes, and they “have produced a vast literature in an effort” to salvage free will. “More than in any other area of academic philosophy, the result resembles theology,” he continues, consigning it to what one assumes is, for him, the intellectual subbasement.
Like almost all other thinkers who have publicly rejected the traditional model of conscious will, Harris claims that doing so does not entail the end of morality, the idea of criminality and codes of ethical behavior.
“Many people worry that free will is a necessary illusion,” he says. “It is surely conceivable that knowing (or emphasizing) certain truths about the human mind could have unfortunate psychological and/or cultural consequences.” But it need not. We can still condemn “the conscious intention to do harm,” he says, and he goes on to sketch a system of social and judicial evaluations that can lead to making valid moral judgments about people without invoking their wills.
He even allows for the possible usefulness of public moral condemnation: “It may be that a sham form of retribution would still be moral — even necessary — if it led people to behave better than they otherwise would.” But he does acknowledge that “certain moral intuitions begin to relax” with the abandonment of belief in free will. “Once we recognize that even the most terrifying predators are, in a very real sense, unlucky to be who they are, the logic of hating (as opposed to fearing) them begins to unravel.”
Even though Harris assures us that civilized society can survive and might even improve with the abandonment of the concept of conscious agency, it would ultimately affect everything — all of our doings and sayings and thoughts, especially in ordinary socio-moral circumstances. This slender volume is perhaps less important in itself than in its representation of the arguments for accepting that we are not “the authors of our actions.”
As literature, “Free Will” has some mild humor — “If I want to put a rabbit in this sentence, I am free to do so” — and some ringing pronouncements: “We are working directly with the forces of nature, for there is nothing but nature itself to work with.” But it is also generally prosaic, as most such intellectual treatises perforce tend to be.
Harris often resorts to the thought-experimenters’ clichés of inventing examples that involve violence (shooting the President) or the quotidian (“I just drank a glass of water and feel absolutely at peace with the decision to do so”). But if you want to acquaint yourself with the chapbook basics of this essential argument, “Free Will” is a good, cogent and readable . . . um, choice.
Of course, questions persist. What, after the dismantling of free will, is consciousness? Just some kind of afflatus given off by three pounds of wetware? If so — if our conscious lives are nothing but the meniscus covering what our brains and bodies are up to, well then, isn’t that some glorious meniscus? It may not tell us what to do, but it does tell us what what we do means — oh, and what beauty is.
Couldn’t it be that we need the experience of what Wegner and others call “perceived control,” at least as a model of voluntary behavior, to get on with our lives and to have our achievements recognized and to be instructed by our failures? (Doesn’t Harris enjoy his success? I bet he does.)
Finally, what happens to traditional qualities of character like courage, villainy, leadership? Poof! However correct Harris’s position may be — and I believe that his basic thesis must indeed be correct — it seems to me a sadder truth than he wants to realize.
Daniel Menaker is the author, most recently, of “A Good Talk.”
A version of this review appeared in print on July 15, 2012, on page BR20 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Have It Your Way.