“Free Will” by Sam Harris

“Free Will”, by Sam Harris, contends that free will as we commonly understand it is an illusion. There is a large and growing literature that demonstrates that we make decisions before we are actually aware of them. He cites several experiments with human subjects showing that certain brain centers are activated early enough to permit experimenters to predict decisions before the subjects themselves are aware of them. Depending on the exact setup, the time lag can be several seconds to several tenths of a second. This is disquieting to the subjects themselves; they are invariably surprised, because most people feel in control of their decisions. Of course, nobody else is in control of these decisions, but large parts of the decision-making process are unconscious, and by the time we become aware of the final decision, it is already made by our unconscious mind. Given that, what level of responsibility do we really have for our decisions?

I think part of our tendency to confusion here is the meaning of the word “we” in the previous sentence. We have an inherently dualistic notion of ourselves – our minds we identify with our consciousness, and we assume everybody else does the same. The conscious self seems to us to contemplate both itself and the body that contains it. And yet we know from science that both are part of our body and its active processes. Those who deny this may believe in a soul or a spirit, but that still does not relieve them of the problem that decisions are made by their brains without their knowledge. So how can we assign responsibility to ourselves and others, when everybody’s decisions are given by the unconscious?

For Harris, moral responsibility still resides with the individual who makes decisions, be they good or bad by their own lights or in the opinion of others. Only the degree to which we feel that individuals are blameworthy changes. This follows when we recognize that so much of what people do is determined by antecedent processes, many of which are hidden from our consciousness, sometimes never to be revealed. Harris discusses this with some intriguing hypothetical cases. Consider for example two situations: a boy of five finds a loaded gun in a drawer and accidentally kills a young girl with it. Here we cannot blame the boy at all, but the person who left the gun loaded and insecure. Next consider a young man who shoots and kills a girl “because he felt like it.” He is very culpable. But suppose it turns out he had a brain tumor that likely made him behave this way. Then his culpability is less. In all these cases we make different estimates of culpability even though the basic facts are the same. Harris is arguing that our condemnation of the healthy young man will be less intense once we understand that he too is the product of forces beyond his own control.

Others, like the philosophers Eddy Nahmias or AC Grayling, feel that free will is fundamental to morality and our system of justice. Nahmias resists the idea that the scientific results really undermine free will. He argues that they are telling us in part how our minds work. In other words, Nahmias thinks free will has not really been falsified by the evidence. Harris thinks that the free will Nahmias believes in is not what most people understand by the term.

Harris argues that what most people understand by “free will” is that, faced with a decision, we could choose freely to follow one or more courses of action. The objection to this conventional view is that the decision we make is completely determined by the mental state we are in before we become conscious of the decision. Thus, the conscious “we” are not really free to make a different decision than the one we make. Most people are assaulted by conflicting desires, and he asks rhetorically, “Where is the freedom when one of these opposing desires inexplicably triumphs over its rival?” Here is another of his remarks: “Am I free to do that which does not occur to me to do? Of course not.” Harris manfully quotes his critics, who claim that even if some of our thinking is unconscious, it is still ours, and so we are responsible for the results. But this, he says, is really redefining free will, so that it no longer means what we feel that it means, that we are in charge of a stream of thoughts. In essence, the idea that free will is compatible with determinism entails assuming responsibility not only for our unconscious deliberations, but also for the bacteria inside us, or the obscure machinations of our bodily physiology.

According to Harris, operationally we still have grounds for law and for the more informal modes of regulating the behavior of individuals in society. What disbelief in free will does is take away the intensity of moral condemnation, replacing that with a consciousness that what people do is a consequence of their prior experience and genetic makeup.


Free Will, by Sam Harris

Free Press, 2012

AC Grayling’s “The God Argument”

The philosopher A.C. Grayling is a Master and Supernumerary Fellow at the University of Oxford. He presents in “The God Argument,” in a few short chapters, many of the arguments that philosophers have used to prove the existence of gods, following each with a critical analysis, and often a critical analysis of counter-arguments, dealing with each in turn. He then turns to one reproach of religious critiques of atheism, the idea that religion is necessary for morality, by proposing humanism as an alternative.

Broadly speaking, Grayling writes, arguments for a belief in gods generally are not the reason people believe in gods. Instead, belief in gods comes first, and it is only to support this belief that appeals to reason are made. Thus, all the arguments for gods are post-hoc rationalizations.

In the first half of the book, after several chapters of introduction, Grayling groups related theistic arguments in separate chapters, dealing in turn with arguments by design, arguments by definition, arguments about causes, wagers, and morals, and finishing up with creationism and intelligent design, which are popular variants of the arguments by design.

The argument from design’s most famous proponent was William Paley (Natural Theology, 1802) who argued by analogy from the following hypothetical example: suppose you find a watch while out for a walk. On picking it up, examining it thoroughly and learning its mechanism, you would certainly conclude that somebody had designed it. Likewise, if you contemplate the things you find in the natural world, such as animals and plants, and coming to learn something about the adaptation of structure to function, you similarly conclude that they must have been designed. Hence there must have been a designer. There are two big flaws with this. One is that it begs the question of where the designer came from, and the other is that in principle there could be another reason for the apparent design we find in nature. Despite these problems, sensible men of Paley’s time accepted his view because nobody had a different proposal for how this apparent design in organisms could arise. Today the situation is quite otherwise, as Darwin and Wallace first showed in the middle of the 19th century and as countless scientists have elaborated in detail ever since. Design in nature is the result of natural selection. So the argument from design fails today because it is only an analogy and there is a rational alternative to the designer model with plenty of evidence supporting it.

Arguments by definition are essentially exercises in the concealment of conclusions in the premises of logical argument. Grayling exposes many of these, from St Anselm down, deftly. The most difficult one, for me at least, was the argument recently made by Alvin Plantinga, which merely attempts to show that a belief in god is not irrational. It goes something like this: “There is a possible world in which something exists that is the greatest thing there can ever be (a thing that has maximal greatness). Therefore there is such a thing. And then Plantinga says this thing is god…” Grayling says that another approach to this style of reasoning is to say that “there is a possible world in which there is a necessarily existing x; and therefore x exists. And as with the ‘greatest thing’ in Plantinga’s version, this necessarily existing thing is identified as a god.” Grayling says that neither of these arguments works. “Here is the explanation: anything which is possible exists, by definition, in at least one possible world. If it is possible that there is a necessary x, then there is at least one world in which x exists necessarily. But if x is a necessary being – if it must exist and cannot do other than exist- it must exist in every possible world, including the actual world. Therefore if it is possible that there is a necessary x, there is actually a necessary x.” Grayling points out that “with equal plausibility it can be claimed that ‘there is a possible world in which nothing exists necessarily’ which means ‘there is a possible world in which everything is contingent’ – and if this is possible…then it follows that nothing is necessary, because only if it is not possible for there to be a world in which nothing is necessary can there be any necessarily existing thing – for remember: such a thing would have to exist in every possible world.” (The italics are in the original text.) This is the hardest part of the book! I cannot make it easier, but it does not matter: Grayling later points out that Plantinga has abandoned this argument in favor of just claiming that a belief in god is a basic belief (for example “the past exists” is a basic belief), and that if you do not believe in god, there is something wrong with your sense of the divine. To Grayling, with this assertion Plantinga has moved into a position of complete intellectual irresponsibility.

Grayling then goes on to dispose of Pascal’s wager, the idea that even if there is a low probability that god exists, the consequences of being mistaken about it are so serious that it makes more sense to believe. Apart from being a bit too calculating for some, this has too many hidden assumptions to be taken seriously. As for creationism and intelligent design, Grayling disposes of these with arguments that are familiar to most who have read any biological science. Proponents of these theories introduce unnecessary postulates to explain natural phenomena.

Grayling along the way points out that a huge proportion of people on the earth do not believe in any religion – including almost all the Chinese. This proves that religion is not hard-wired in human beings.

The second half of the book is devoted to humanism, a candidate to replace religion as an organizing principle for society. He points out the need to distinguish among three ongoing discussions: the theism-atheism debate; the secularism-theocracy debate; and the discussion about ethics and morality. The first part of the book deals with theism; the second deals with the other two. It is worth noting that secularism is not necessarily humanist, but could be religious. After all, the goal of secularism is to prevent one religion from taking over the state – something that the non-favored religions would have a strong interest in preventing. Freedom of religion also means freedom from religion, in Grayling’s view.

The main thrust of the second part of the book is humanism, considered as an alternative to a religion-based system of morality. A very attractive aspect of Grayling’s humanism is that it has just two explicit tenets coupled with a willingness to let rational discussion evolve over time. The first is that we do not need religion to have morality, and the second is that each of us is responsible for thinking about morality on our own. Unlike the anti-religious movements of the past, Grayling’s version of humanism does not propose the burning of effigies, churches, synagogues, or mosques, and instead proposes a method of discussion about ethics and morality whose products could grow in merit with the passage of time. He recognizes that some people prefer to have others think for them, to just go along with some formal system. But he resists the idea that humanism needs to specify a detailed moral code.

He does say that the ethical debate depends on people having free will. This is important because there is scientific evidence suggesting that this is not actually the case. I suspect that there is another book in the making here, but he postpones the argument for another time and place.

Personally, I think humanism has a very large foundation in secular law and literature, and it is even possible that science can contribute something to it, in the sense that it may uncover some genetically hard-wired aspects to our ethics and morality. What humanism lacks, to me, is the woo factor, or what Grayling would call the “ineffability move.” The attraction of mystery has been skillfully manipulated by priests, theologians, writers and artists over the ages. Still, Grayling points out that certain kinds of secular events and ceremonies are as impressive as religious ones. Overall, Grayling writes very well and in detail about humanism and what it might do for us, making this part of the book as intriguing as, and a lot less difficult than, the first part.

The God Argument
By A.C. Grayling, Burberry Press, 2013

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