Sam Harris on Free Will: Determinism and Incompatabilist

It may seem odd to spend an article discussing Sam Harris’ positions on Free Will, when the author and neuroscientist has already written an entire book on the subject. Though extremely brief (Philosopher Eddy Nahmias joked it was merely a ‘pahmplet’), the book clearly elucidated Sam’s position and immediately inserted him into the age old Free Will debate.

Presumably if you’re looking into Sam’s arguments on Free Will you’re already familiar with the subject matter. However if you’re unfamiliar with the conversation, then we encourage readers to look into the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that’s loaded with peer reviewed Free Will content. Alright let’s get to it, starting with Sam’s positions.

On the issue of Free Will, Sam Harris is a determinist and an incompatablist. A determinist believes that all events in the universe are the cause of some previous event, all of which obey the laws of physics and therefore cannot be altered. As Philosopher Daniel Dennett (more on him in a minute) phrased it: You can change the future no more than you can change the past.

Though not universally accepted, Determinism is a widely held dogma in many academic departments. As a Physics colleague once said about the possibility of not living in a deterministic universe, “I go into the lab with assumption that no one’s fucking with me.” In other words, if Determinism is true there’s underlying laws of nature that would allow us to predict future events if we knew and understood how to apply them. If it’s not true, we may be wasting our time in the lab. However, accepting Determinism does not mean one rejects Free Will. This is where the second part of the conversation comes in and the real crux of the ongoing debate on Free Will: is the notion of Free Will compatible with Determinism?

Sam Harris is an incompatibilist. An incompatibilist believes that Free Will is impossible (or even nonsensical) if determinism is true. As Sam has said over and over again: “you are just your genes and your environment. You didn’t pick your genes. You didn’t pick your environment.” A sentiment that almost all sides of the argument agree with (though there are many sides in this ancient argument). In the following passage, Sam makes his case for connecting determinism to incompatibles (p. 64 of the book): 

“It is generally argued that our experience of free will presents a compelling mystery: On the one hand, we can’t make sense of it in scientific terms; on the other, we feel that we are the authors of our own thoughts and actions. 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 our experience. Not only are we not as free as we think we are—we do not feel as free as we think we do. Our sense of freedom results from our not paying attention to what it is like to be us. The moment we pay attention, it is possible to see that free will is nowhere to be found, and our experience 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.”

Here Dr. Harris is arguing that thoughts appear spontaneously and consistently in our heads that we can not control. These thoughts lead to actions and all the while none of it was something we could control even though we feel like we do control it. However Sam’s contribution to the debate is the final piece of this passage where he argues that “The illusion of free will is itself an illusion.” To put it succinctly, Sam is saying that if you focus, really focus, on how thoughts arise in one’s own mind you’ll have that feeling of agency cease to exist. As he once said about monitoring his thoughts in realtime “I don’t even know how I get to the end of the sentence that I’m currently in the process of saying.”

For Sam the ramifications of this realization should have wide ranging impacts outside of the halls of academia. Sam Harris argues that jails are useful societal establishments but only as means to keep dangerous individuals out of society. Ideally, the neuroscientist believes that if the science were sufficiently advanced to the point where we could change the psychological disposition of an otherwise dangerous person so that they are less likely to be of harm to society then it would immoral not to do so. Thus he believes we should be rehabilitating our prisoners and not punishing them since, if free will does not exist, they cannot be blamed for their actions because they had no control over their actions.

The Compatabilist Rebuttal and Sam’s argument against Compatabilism

Sam Harris’ contentious correspondence with Philosopher and Cognitive Scientist Danniel Dennett was probably among the most famous series of debates, among the many Harris has had on the issue. We’ll probably have a full write up of that exchange at some point, but for now we’ll outline the core components of the compatabilist position.

The compatabilist, as implied by the name, believes that free will can be reconciled with the notion of Free Will. For a compatabilist, to have free will one just needs to be able to weigh different options and make a decision in order to be morally culpable. There are some people, for example those with brain tumors or some other psychological limitation, that are unable to weigh different options due to this cognitive limitation. That is precisely why we distinguish those people (i.e. “pleading insanity”) from others. 

Two different thought experiments from Dennett who championed this rebuttal.

Imagine you’re playing the lottery and there’s two different worlds. In the first world the winning numbers are not drawn until the following evening live on T.V. In the second world, the numbers have already been drawn and stored in a box that no one can ever see until the winning numbers are revealed on live television. Did anything change? Here Dennett is arguing through analogy the compatabilist belief that the question of determinism is irrelevant to the question of free will.

Finally Dennett argues, quite movingly, against the notion of rehabilitation over punishment. “If I cheat on my wife, or steal money, don’t rehabilitate me. Don’t tell me ‘it’s ok because you’re not responsible.’ Punish me. I don’t want to live in a world where people get fixed when they commit an infraction, because I want to live in a world…with promises.”

Sam’s rebuttal, as argued in his book is that combatabilists “are changing the subject” by framing the free will debate in this way. That the real feeling of free will that most people think they have is closer to the version that he is trying to attack with his arguments.   

As always, should we become aware that Dr. Harris has changed his opinion or should new evidence be submitted that we have either misconstrued his opinion or failed to include important statements from him, we will 1) make the correction, 2) note the correction here, 3) issue a mea culpa that attempts to explain and improve on how we missed this. 


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