Monday, September 10, 2012

Criticism of Sam Harris's _Life Without Free Will_

> Life Without Free Will, by Sam Harris

> [...]
> Might free will somehow be required for goodness to be manifest? How, for instance, does one become a pediatric surgeon? Well, you must first be born, with an intact nervous system, and then provided with a proper education. No freedom there, I’m afraid.

No. The kid would need to be interested and/or study the material in
order to learn it. That is his choice. Yes freedom.

> You must also have the physical talent for the job and avoid smashing your hands at rugby. Needless to say, it won’t do to be someone who faints at the sight of blood. Chalk these achievements up to good luck as well. At some point you must decide to become a surgeon—a result, presumably, of first wanting to become one. Will you be the conscious source of this wanting?

Sure. You may first have wanted to be a rock musician because you
wanted fame and women. And then you thought about it a lot and
realized that your chances of actually doing that and then you changed
your mind. So then you did some research and thought hard about it and
decided that you wanted to be a pediatric surgeon. So you were the conscious
source of this wanting, yes.

> Will you be responsible for its prevailing over all the other things you want but that are incompatible with a career in medicine? No. If you succeed at becoming a surgeon, you will simply find yourself standing one day, scalpel in hand, at the confluence of all the genetic and environmental causes that led you to develop along this line. None of these events requires that you, the conscious subject, be the ultimate cause of your aspirations, abilities, and resulting behavior.

Ultimate cause? So Sam agrees that he can be *a* cause?

> And, needless to say, you can take no credit for the fact that you weren’t born a psychopath.

No one is born a "psychopath". A psychopath has bad moral ideas. A baby
has no moral ideas at all.

> Of course, I’m not saying that you can become a surgeon by accident—you must do many things, deliberately and well, and in the appropriate sequence, year after year. Becoming a surgeon requires effort. But can you take credit for your disposition to make that effort?

Yes. Because one of your options was to not think about it much. And
continue smoking weed and being lazy.

> To turn the matter around, am I responsible for the fact that it has never once occurred to me that I might like to be a surgeon? Who gets the blame for my lack of inspiration? And what if the desire to become a surgeon suddenly arises tomorrow and becomes so intense that I jettison my other professional goals and enroll in medical school?

Your preferences come from your ideas. Your ideas become instantiated
when you think. You can choose to think or choose to be lazy and not
think. For example, in the hypothetical I gave above, you could have
chosen to not think much and tried to do some race car driving for a
few years and then failed at it.

> Would I—that is, the part of me that is actually experiencing my life—be the true cause of these developments? Every moment of conscious effort—every thought, intention, and decision—will have been caused by events of which I am not conscious. Where is the freedom in this?

No. You can choose to think. Or choose to stop thinking. I see it all
the time. I’m thinking about a subject and lets say I’m talking to
someone and then they think that the problem is unsolvable, so they
want to quit thinking, because they think its futile and so they don’t
enjoy it and choose to stop thinking.

> If we cannot assign blame to the workings of the universe, how can evil people be held responsible for their actions? In the deepest sense, it seems, they can’t be. But in a practical sense, they must be. I see no contradiction in this.

Huh? X and Not X contradict each other. Notice how he says *deepest
sense* and *seems*. What does he mean by deep? And seems? It means his
own thinking about the subject is unclear.

> In fact, I think that keeping the deep causes of human behavior in view would only improve our practical response to evil. The feeling that people are deeply responsible for who they are does nothing but produce moral illusions and psychological suffering.

No. Psychological suffering is caused by having unmet expectations.

I am responsible for all my problems, all my mistakes. That means that
its my job to solve them so that I prevent those mistakes in the
future. And all of them are soluble. So why should I feel bad about
being responsible for my mistakes?

One of the reasons people feel bad about their mistakes is if they
believe that they will *stay* mistaken forever. So they believe that
not all problems are soluble.

But the reality is that by being (and taking) responsibility for my
mistakes, I can effect change, thus solving my life problems and
reducing/preventing suffering. This is awesome! It's reason to be
optimistic and happy!

If I instead concluded that I’m not responsible, then I won’t work on
changing my mistakes, thus my problems would linger and so I won’t
reduce/prevent suffering. Its a self-fulfilling prophecy.

> Imagine that you are enjoying your last nap of the summer, perhaps outside in a hammock somewhere, and are awakened by an unfamiliar sound. You open your eyes to the sight of a large bear charging at you across the lawn. It should be easy enough to understand that you have a problem. If we swap this bear for a large man holding a butcher knife, the problem changes in a few interesting ways, but the sudden appearance of free will in the brain of your attacker is not among them.
> Should you survive this ordeal, your subsequent experience is liable to depend—far too much, in my view—on the species of your attacker. Imagine the difference between seeing the man who almost killed you on the witness stand and seeing the bear romping at the zoo. If you are like many victims, you might be overcome in the first instance by feelings of rage and hatred so intense as to constitute a further trauma.

Exactly! You have some underlying ideas about the situation. Those
ideas affect your thinking.

In the bear example, your idea is that its not the responsibility of
the bear to not hurt you. He’s programmed by his DNA to want to kill
and eat you. So you’re not angry because you think its not his fault.

In the human example, your idea is that it *is* his responsibility to
act morally and choose not to kill you. And you get angry about the
fact that he is an evil SOB.

Now even that situation is controllable. There's no law of nature causing
you to get angry. It's your attitude causing it - and you have the ability to
change your attitude.

> You might spend years fantasizing about the man’s death. But it seems certain that your experience at the zoo would be altogether different. You might even bring friends and family just for the fun of it: “That’s the beast that almost killed me!” Which state of mind would you prefer—seething hatred or triumphant feelings of good luck and amazement? The conviction that a human assailant could have done otherwise, while a bear could not, would seem to account for much of the difference.

No. Its the *idea* that I described above.

> A person’s conscious thoughts, intentions, and efforts at every moment are preceded by causes of which he is unaware.

You *can* be unaware, sure. Those are subconscious ideas. But that
doesn’t mean that you have to stay unaware of those subconscious
ideas. You can discover them, i.e. make them conscious and explicit.

Also, many people have all but perfected their skill at fooling themselves.

> What is more, they are preceded by deep causes—genes, childhood experience, etc.—for which no one, however evil, can be held responsible.

Wrong. Because you have the ability to discover those subconscious
ideas, you are responsible for doing so. Why? Because once you’ve
discovered them you can work to change them.

> Our ignorance of both sets of facts gives rise to moral illusions. And yet many people worry that it is necessary to believe in free will, especially in the process of raising children.
> This strikes me as a legitimate concern, though I would point out that the question of which truths to tell children (or childlike adults) haunts every room in the mansion of our understanding. For instance, my wife and I recently took our three-year-old daughter on an airplane for the first time. She loves to fly! As it happens, her joy was made possible in part because we neglected to tell her that airplanes occasionally malfunction and fall out of the sky, killing everyone on board. I don’t believe I’m the first person to observe that certain truths are best left unspoken, especially in the presence of young children. And I would no more think of telling my daughter at this age that free will is an illusion than I would teach her to drive a car or load a pistol.

Ah so Sam thinks its human nature that people are afraid of death.
This is not true. People *learn* to fear death. And parents can help
children learn to think about death and thus not fear it. I’ve
discussed death many times with my girls. I started by watching nature
shows with them so they can see death as a common thing. Now my 5 year
old comes to me and says (without negative emotion), “I know how I
could lose you (Rami), you could die from a car accident… or we could be
in a forest and a bear eats you.”

> Which is to say that there is a time and a place for everything—unless, of course, there isn’t. We all find ourselves in the position of a child from time to time, when specific information, however valid or necessary it may be in other contexts, will only produce confusion, despondency, or terror in the context of our life. It can be perfectly rational to avoid certain facts. For instance, if you must undergo a medical procedure for which there is no reasonable alternative, I recommend that you not conduct an Internet search designed to uncover all its possible complications. Similarly, if you are prone to nightmares or otherwise destabilized by contemplating human evil, I recommend that you not read Machete Season. Some forms of knowledge are not for everyone.
> Generally speaking, however, I don’t think that the illusoriness of free will is an ugly truth. Nor is it one that must remain a philosophical abstraction. In fact, as I write this, it is absolutely clear to me that I do not have free will. This knowledge doesn’t seem to prevent me from getting things done. Recognizing that my conscious mind is always downstream from the underlying causes of my thoughts, intentions, and actions does not change the fact that thoughts, intentions, and actions of all kinds are necessary for living a happy life—or an unhappy one, for that matter.
> I haven’t been noticeably harmed, and I believe I have benefited, from knowing that the next thought that unfurls in my mind will arise and become effective (or not) due to conditions that I cannot know and did not bring into being.

You can know. You can discover your subconscious ideas.

> The negative effects that people worry about—a lack of motivation, a plunge into nihilism—are simply not evident in my life. And the positive effects have been obvious. Seeing through the illusion of free will has lessened my feelings of hatred for bad people.

I too don’t hate bad people. But its not because I think they aren’t
responsible. They *are* responsible. Its just that I don't get angry
about stuff anymore - I know why those people act the way the do.

> I’m still capable of feeling hatred, of course, but when I think about the actual causes of a person’s behavior, the feeling falls away. It is a relief to put down this burden, and I think nothing would be lost if we all put it down together. On the contrary, much would be gained.

I disagree. I think what would be lost is that people would stop
trying to better themselves. If you believe you aren’t responsible for
your actions/thoughts/emotions, then you won’t think about changing
them. Its a self-fulfilling prophecy.

> We could forget about retribution and concentrate entirely on mitigating harm. (And if punishing people proved important for either deterrence or rehabilitation, we could make prison as unpleasant as required.)

Retribution is a bad idea. You can know this without rejecting
free will. Retribution means punishment that is considered morally
right. Its false. No punishment is morally right. No one gains anything
by it. Punishment doesn't cause learning (like learning better moral
ideas and thus bettering one's behavior). Punishment is morally wrong.

> Understanding the true causes of human behavior does not leave any room for the traditional notion of free will.

This is wrong as I've explained above.

> But this shouldn’t depress us, or tempt us to go off our diets. Diligence and wisdom still yield better results than sloth and stupidity. And, in psychologically healthy adults, understanding the illusoriness of free will should make divisive feelings such as pride and hatred a little less compelling.

Well it does in Sam and I guess it would in many people. But, pride
and hatred are wrong for reasons other than the false idea that free
will is illusory.

> While it’s conceivable that someone, somewhere, might be made worse off by dispensing with the illusion of free will, I think that on balance, it could only produce a more compassionate, equitable, and sane society.

And now we see why Sam thinks free will doesn't exist. First he
guessed the theory that free will doesn't exist (or he read that someone
guessed it), and then he noticed himself become *less prideful* and
*less hateful* (which happen to be ideas that he believes are good),
and so that "confirmed" that free will doesn't exist, because he liked his
new self-image more than his old one. So his emotions "corroborated"
his *free will doesn't exist* theory.

But reason doesn't work by confirmation, nor does science. Reason
and science work by refutation.

You don't prop up theories with justifications. Instead, you rule out
theories with criticisms.


Join the discussion group or email comments to


  1. Hi there! I noticed in reading this article--and I don't mean for you to take offense to this--but I couldn't help notice that you must be very dumb. I'm sure this isn't the first time you've heard this and it may be the case that others who have noticed this fact about you have insisted that being dumb leads to, say, unhappiness, no friends, being a loser. And so I understand if you react to the label of "dumb" by attempting to prove that you're, in fact, not dumb by coming on here and posting your ideas. I'm here to tell you--and not in a facetious way--that it's okay to be dumb. Being dumb doesn't disqualify you from being loved and from living a worthwhile life. In the future, when confronted with a task that requires some thinking (e.g. discussing psychiatric disorders, discussing philosophy, voting for a president), make sure to remember that the idea that you are about to have is probably wrong. I think that that will help you out in the long run.

  2. Why should I take offense? You've said nothing substantive. And even if you did say something substantive, why would I take offense? Either your criticism is correct, in which case I've just learned that I was mistaken and I've fixed my mistake, or your criticism is wrong, in which case I will criticize your criticism helping you see your mistake. This is good, not bad.

    But you didn't provide me with any (substantive) criticism. A criticism is an explanation of a flaw in an idea. You did not provide me with any explanations of any flaws in my ideas. All you did was assert that I'm dumb, thereby implying that many of my ideas are flawed. So you've left me with no way of criticizing your unspoken criticisms.