Monday, October 7, 2013

Sam Harris and Free Will

I just finished reading Sam Harris's Free Will, a brief defense of Harris's view that free will is an illusion. Harris is worth reading because he is an excellent writer, with a clear and succinct style. He doesn't hedge or avoid the more disturbing logical implications of his position, but addresses them head on and with confidence.

Free Will is also worth reading because Harris, unintentionally, reveals the weaknesses of the modern understanding of free will while leaving the classical understanding entirely unscathed. In fact the classical understanding becomes all the more attractive in comparison to Harris's conception. (By "classical" I mean mainstream philosophy up to roughly St. Thomas Aquinas, with Aquinas representing the pinnacle of the classical tradition).

The key to understanding the classical conception is that it is inextricably linked with the intellect. The intellect and will in classical philosophy are almost two sides of the same coin, and it is difficult to make sense of one without the other. Freedom is found in the interplay between the two.

Harris writes at the start of his chapter "Changing the Subject:"

It is safe to say that no one was ever moved to entertain the existence of free will because it holds great promise as an abstract idea. The endurance of this notion is attributable to the fact that most of us feel that we freely author our own thoughts and actions (however difficult it may be to make sense of this in logical or scientific terms). Thus the idea of free will emerges from a felt experience. (p 15)

The fact that Harris is likely true about this says more about the poor state of contemporary popular philosophical reflection than any failure of the promise of free will as an abstract idea. The old notion of free will did not arise out of any felt experience, but simple empirical observation, and it issued in an idea (aren't ideas by nature abstract?) straightforwardly intelligible. Men observed that inanimate objects  like stones are acted on but have no interior principle of action. In that sense they are entirely unfree. They also noticed that plants, unlike rocks, can initiate their own actions like sinking roots into the soil or growing toward the sun, and so are in that sense freer than rocks. Animals, beyond plants, have the ability to perceive their environment and pursue their desires as well as flee from their fears. An oak tree can't move itself to better soil or run away from a forest fire, but a wolf is free to find better hunting grown or flee a conflagration. In that sense, the wolf is yet more free than the oak tree.

Man, alone in physical nature and by the power of his intellect, can know the truth about himself and the universe, and so perceive his own good through that truth and pursue it as such. The wolf will devour raw meat because it perceives it as desirable and it reacts on that basis. Man also perceives meat as desirable, but he also knows the truth that meat is good for him because of its nutritional value, and the end of nutrition is health, and so he may not devour meat even if his animal nature desires it if he decides it is not healthy for him (e.g. he is cutting down on red meat to lower his cholesterol). Man, then, is free in a way that no other earthly creature is because freedom for him means the power to act in light of the truth and in pursuit of the good as such.

It's easy to see why the classicals stressed the relationship between intellect and will. Free will in the classical sense means a will enlightened by the intellect with truth; absent the intellect's knowledge, the will has no object and becomes impotent. It becomes reduced to an animal or plant will that merely responds immediately to perceived desire or fear.

We can also see that the classical conception of freedom is dynamic. It depends on knowledge, and as our lives move between the poles of ignorance and knowledge, so our will moves between the poles of slavishness and freedom: A philosophically primitive barbarian is in a very real sense not as free as Socrates, but may become so to the extent that he is educated. Thus the classical aphorism that "the truth shall make you free."

The classical conception also recognizes that our behavior is derived from both rational and non-rational sources. I may conclude that it is good for me to lose weight and so begin a diet (a rational cause). But I may have difficulty staying on it because my desire for cheesesteak subs (a non-rational cause) overwhelms my rational determination to diet. The moral life consists, in part, in training the non-rational side of our nature to follow the rational side.

Finally, it is important to see that the classical conception of freedom does not involve rescuing free will from a chain of causation. The free will is caused just like everything else is caused. The difference is that the will becomes free when it is moved in the chain of rational causes rather than the chain of non-rational causes. Why did I write "4" to the answer "What is 2+2?" Because it is true, and mathematically provable, that two added to two is four. This is an explanation in terms of rational causes. There is a parallel explanation in terms of non-rational causes as to how that "4" got written: My brain sent an electrical signal to my hand which moved a pencil to write a symbol of the shape "4." But no matter how detailed this account, it has no bearing on the truth of the account in terms of rational causes that is the basis of freedom: I wrote "4" because 2+2=4.

The modern version of free will differs from the classical insofar as it separates the will from the intellect. This had its origin in the early modern's dazzlement by the advances of science. Science seemed to provide an account of the world entirely in terms of dumb matter and irrational causes - Newton's clockwork universe. Rational causes - Aristotle's formal and final causes, and which are at the heart of the classical understanding of free will and intellect - were not so much refuted as simply left out of the account, having lost respectability in the non-rational account of nature provided by science. The classical intellect and will simply disappeared from view as invisible to modern science.

The result was that free will, which was not particularly mysterious for classical philosophers, became an impenetrable mystery for modern philosophers, for what could freedom mean in a clockwork universe devoid of rational causation? The issue of causation becomes the central focus of modern thinking about the will because the only way moderns can conceive of freedom is as some sort of escape from the chain of non-rational causation (which is why free will can only be felt rather than demonstrated, because demonstration necessarily involves an account in terms of causes, and for moderns free will is a mysterious uncaused cause).

Sam Harris puts great stock in experiments like the Libet experiments that detect neural evidence of our decisions before we are actually conscious of making the decision:

The physiologist Benjamin Libet famously used EEG to show that activity in the brain's motor cortex can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move. Another lab extended this work using functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): Subjects were asked to press one of two buttons while watching a "clock" composed of a random sequence of letters appearing on a screen. They reported which letter was visible at the moment they decided to press one button or the other. The experimenters found two brain regions that contained information about which button subjects would press a full 7 to 10 seconds before the decision was consciously made. More recently, direct recordings from the cortex showed that the activity of merely 256 neurons was sufficient to predict with 80 percent accuracy a person's decision to move 700 milliseconds before he became aware of it. 
These findings are difficult to reconcile with the sense that we are the conscious authors of our actions. (p. 8-9)

They are certainly difficult to reconcile with modern attempts to find some space for freedom within the clockwork universe thought to be heralded with the advent of modern science. Those attempts, e.g. those of Descartes or Kant, attempted to save freedom by removing it to a realm beyond the reach of science, either in an immaterial soul mysteriously attached to the body (Descartes), or another realm beyond the reach not only of science but of rational inquiry altogether (Kant). They are all, in the end, attempts to rescue free will as some sort of spontaneous uncaused cause. It is not surprising that this conception of freedom would fall apart as soon as human choice was shown to be susceptible to physical causes (something, incidentally, the classical philosophers never denied because they had no need to.)

But experiments of this type say nothing about the classical understanding of free will. I am free to the extent that I act in light of the truth. Suppose I take a math test, and write down the answer "0" to the question "What is the limit of 1/x as x goes to infinity?" I am free because the answer to the question "Why did I write down 0" is "Because it is true." It is entirely irrelevant that Benjamin Libet could detect my impulse to write the answer down a few milliseconds before I actually decided to move the pencil. And it means nothing that someone could predict with 100% accuracy what my answers will be to a simple math test before I take it. They can safely predict that I will get nearly all the answers right because I am educated enough to know the answers to simple math questions.

It is fascinating, and revealing, that all the examples Harris cites in his book to refute free will involve non-rational decision making, i.e. they do not involve the engagement of the intellect with the will that is the foundation of the classical conception of freedom. In the above cited case, subjects were asked simply to press a button based on a visual cue; in other words, a test suitable for a monkey. That the resulting decision is something that might be explained in terms of purely physical causation is nothing that would surprise Aquinas or Aristotle, for it is only when we consciously act in light of rational causes that we are free in the sense of human freedom.

Here is another example of free will in terns of non-rational causes that does not survive Harris's deconstruction:

I generally start each day with a cup of coffee or tea - sometimes two. This morning, it was coffee (two). Why not tea? I am in no position to know. I wanted coffee more than I wanted tea today, and I was free to have what I wanted. Did I consciously choose coffee over tea? No. The choice was made for me by events in my brain that I, as the conscious witness of my thoughts and actions, could not inspect or influence. Could I have 'changed my mind' and switched  to tea before the coffee drinker in me could get his bearings? Yes, but this impulse would also have been the product of unconscious causes. (p. 8)

But as we have seen, the really relevant distinction crucial to free will isn't between conscious and unconscious causes, but between rational and non-rational causes. From the classical perspective, the decision to choose tea over coffee (unless it involved a rational deliberation about the good) was never really an instance of free will in the first place. It was on the level of a dog choosing which bowl of food from which to eat; something entirely explainable in terms of the physical chain of causes involving non-rational desires and stimuli.

Here are some of the other putative examples of free will Harris examines:

"For instance, I just drank a glass of water and feel absolutely at peace with the decision to do so. I was thirsty, and drinking water is fully congruent with my vision of who I want to be when in need of a drink.  Had I reached for a beer this early in the day, I might have felt guilty; but drinking a glass of water at any hours is blameless, and I am quite satisfied with myself. Where is the freedom in this? [Nowhere, because there is no freedom in water buffalos going to the watering hole, which this essentially is. DT] It may be true that if I had wanted to do otherwise, I would have, but I am nevertheless compelled to do what I effectively want. And I cannot determine my wants, or decide which will be effective, in advance. My mental life is simply given to me by the cosmos. Why didn't I decide to drink a glass of juice? The thought never occurred to m. Am I free to do that which does not occur to me to do? [italics in original] Of course not. (p 19)

Harris has essentially described the life of a bear or a fish. Animals are driven by their desires, not rational consideration of the good, and so are not free. What's interesting about this example are the words in italics at the end, which present the possibility of recovering something of the classical understanding of freedom. The will cannot choose that which is not presented to it as an object; the will cannot choose that which we do not know. So the more we know, the more freedom we may have as the range of our options increases. This, again, is why knowing the truth can make you free - and why the best way to keep someone a slave is to keep him ignorant.


Thoughts like 'What should I get my daughter for her birthday? I know - I'll take her to a pet store and have her pick out some tropical fish' convey the apparent reality of choices, freely made. (p. 32)


For instance, in my teens and early twenties I was a devoted student of the martial arts. I practiced incessantly and taught classes in college. Recently, I began training again, after a hiatus of more than 20 years. Both the cessation and the renewal of my interest in martial arts seem to be pure expressions of the freedom that Nahmias attributes to me. I have been under no 'unreasonable external or internal pressure.' I have done exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to stop training, and I stopped. I wanted to start again, and now I train several times a week. All this has been associated with conscious thought and acts of apparent self- control. 
However, when I look for the psychological cause of my behavior, I find it utterly mysterious. Why did I stop training 20 years ago? Well, certain things just became more important to me. But why did they become more important to me...?" (p. 43)

and the final and clearest example of an attempt at non-rational free will:

In fact, I will now perform an experiment in free will for all to see: I will write anything I want for the rest of this book. Whatever I write will, of course, be something I choose to write.  No one is compelling me to do this. No one has assigned me a topic or demanded that I use certain words. I can be ungrammatical if I pleased. And if I want to put a rabbit in this sentence, I am free to do so. 
But paying attention to my stream of consciousness reveals that this notion of freedom does not reach very deep. Where did this rabbit come from? Why didn't I put an elephant in that sentence? I do not know. I am free to change 'rabbit' to 'elephant,' of course. But if I did this, how could I explain it? It is impossible for me to know the cause of either choice. (p. 65)

This is a perfect example of the muddle into which modern thinking about free will has gotten itself. The search for a truly free act is seen as the search for an act immune to any intelligibility; somehow an act can only be free if we can't find any reason for it, rational or otherwise. This is freedom as the Uncaused Caused, i.e. a freedom only God could possibly have.

Thomas Aquinas would be baffled at this understanding of human freedom. Surely the best evidence of Harris's free will would not be the random insertion of words into the text - again, something a well-trained monkey could do - but rather the intelligible content of the book as a whole. Harris's freedom is expressed in his attempt to grasp the truth about free will and communicate it to the rest of us, something monkeys, trees and rocks are not free to do.

Free Will is a relatively short book (82 pages), but then the case against freedom in the scientistic worldview of Harris is straightforward and brief:

Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them. (p 5)

This is surely true if you only recognize as causes non-rational efficient causes. But if the reality of rational causes (Aristotle's formal and final causes) is acknowledged, then we can be responsible for our actions, and our actions be free, even if they occur within a chain of rational causation. Socrates made the distinction a long time ago in the Phaedo:

I felt very much as I should feel if someone said, 'Socrates does by mind all he does'; and then, trying to tell the causes of each thing I do, if he should say first that the reason why I sit here now is, that my body consists of bones and sinews, and the bones are hard and have joints between them, and the sinews can be tightened and slackened, surrounding the bones along with flesh and the skin which holds them together; so when the bones are uplifted in their sockets, the sinews slackening and tightening make me able to bend my limbs now, and for this cause I have bent together and sit here; and if next he should give you other causes of my conversing with you, alleging as causes voices and airs and hearings and a thousand others like that, and neglecting to give the real causes. These are that since the Athenians thought it was better to condemn me, for this very reason I have thought it better to sit here, and more just to remain and submit to any sentence they may give. For, by the Dog! these bones and sinews, I think, would have been somewhere near Megara or Boeotia long ago, carried by an opinion of what is best...

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