Sam Harris is likely the most influential contemporary figure discussing free will. He attempts to demonstrate not only that we don’t have free will, but that the very notion is incoherent, and therefore impossible. Harris delivers a handful of arguments, each of which he takes to be sufficient to undermine possibility of free will. Although Harris has been largely ignored by professional philosophers, his level of impact warrants a response. Here I show that his arguments either fail outright, or don’t establish what they intend to. I will close by briefly discussing the issues of psychological determination and the self.
A central problem subsuming Harris’s critique is his failure to define his terms, which is shown in his equivocation over the terms “free” and “will”.
Generic Free Will: “The popular conception of free will seems to rest on two assumptions: (1) that each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past, and (2) that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present”
Perfect Control: “Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have complete control over those factors”
I want to contrast these claims with my preferred account,
Free will: The will is the capacity to deliberate, make decisions, and to translate those decisions into action, and exercise of will is free when the agent could have done otherwise in a way that is under the control of the agent. Where an agent is anything that is capable of making decisions.
Although standard, GFW is still too strong. A free exercise of will just requires that our conscious intentions be a unique source of our thoughts and behavior, not necessarily the source. For example, the quarks, molecules, and organs that comprise us will be among the sources (causal conditions) of our actions, but their inclusion in no way undermines our intentional contribution. Further, not every decision must satisfy these conditions, for it could just be that we only sometimes act freely, even if most of our decisions aren’t free. With that said, much of his work is spent arguing against the latter (PC) while claiming victory over the former (GFW). The second conception is clearly impossible, so a demonstration of its incoherence can hardly be taken as a serious contribution.
The first of Harris’s arguments demonstrates the problem,
The Incoherence Argument
“Free will is actually more than an illusion (or less), in that it cannot be made conceptually coherent. 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”
Taking this claim apart, we’ll see it only undermines PC, not GFW. It’s not clear what Harris means by “our wills”. This could refer to our character, our deliberative capacity, or any particular decision. However regardless of interpretation, this claim is false. If will refers to our character then it just doesn’t follow that we’re not responsible for them because some of those prior causes could be our own free decisions, which would make us partially responsible for our character. However, if ‘free’ means ‘having complete control over’ and ‘will’ refers to our psychological dispositions, then no one has free will. Neither definition, however, addresses LFW. The proponent of LFW means something different by those terms. Next, if our will refers to our capacity to make decisions in the first place, then it is certainly true that we don’t have free will because no one decides to be the sort of being that can make decisions. Though again, this isn’t what is captured by GFW.
Finally, our will could be any particular decision. The problem here is that the determined/random binary is misleading. It’s true that an event is either determined (causally necessitated) by antecedent conditions or indeterminate (not causally necessitated), but it does not follow that events that aren’t causally necessitated are random. For example, if i’m deliberating on whether I want to read or watch tv, and I don’t have any reason to prefer one over the other, so I just choose one, my decision isn’t random in a control-underming sense. My decision is adequately non-random in virtue of its being rationally authored, and can be made intelligible by citing the reasons I weighed against the competing option.
One might protest that the decision merely seems free, but really there must have been an unconscious neurological process that was the sufficient condition for my choosing one over the other. First, my point here is merely to dislodge worries about incoherence by illustrating how causal determination/indetermination doesn’t of itself render the notion of free will unintelligible, not to argue that we have free will. Second, one would need an argument that all brain activity is necessarily deterministic.
Here Harris thinks the issue is settled
The Empirical Argument
“We know that determinism, in every sense relevant to human behavior, is true…One fact now seems indisputable: Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next—a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please— your brain has already determined what you will do. You then become conscious of this “decision” and believe that you are in the process of making it.”
In support of this he cites the study performed by Benjamin Libet, where they were able to detect brain activity informative of the subjects behavior prior to when the subject reported deciding; which they took to mean that the “decision” was made prior to the subject’s intention to perform the behavior. In the experiment, Libet asked the participants to spontaneously flex their wrist while watching a clock, after which they would go back and pick out which point the clock was on when they decided to flex. It turned out that the average reading of the readiness potential (the relevant brain activity) started about 550 milliseconds before the flex, but the intention occured only about 200th milliseconds before the behavior. They took this to mean that the decision was settled unconsciously, then generalized this to all decision making, meaning we never act freely
Alfred Mele summarizes the argument:
1. The participants in Libet’s experiments don’t make conscious decisions to ﬂex. (Instead, they make their decisions unconsciously about half a second before the muscle burst and become conscious of them about a third of a second later).
2. So people probably never make conscious decisions to do things.
3.An action is a free action only if it ﬂows from a consciously made decision to perform it.
4. Conclusion: there are probably no free actions (Mele, 23-24)
This argument is superior in that it’s relevant to GFW, but it still fails. First, the experiment can’t establish that conscious intentions aren’t effective. The readiness potential was only recorded after the person flexed their wrist, which means it doesn’t tell us if the readiness potential can occur with no behavior. That is, it could be that the readiness potential is merely a necessary, but not sufficient condition for flexing. In which case, it’s possible that the decision was made later; perhaps even at the 200 millisecond, right where the intention is located.
Fortunately, Libet did another experiment in which he requested the participants to intend to flex, but then not. The results matched the previous experiment, in that the readiness potential would rise prior to the intention, but would drop after 150 to 250 milliseconds. Libet took this to mean that the decision to flex was still unconsciously decided when the readiness potential began to rise, but in addition we have a conscious “veto-power”. The problem is that the participants never really intended to flex; they intended to prepare to flex and then not. Given this, it’s more likely that the earlier activity correlates with preparing to intend to flex, rather than the intention itself (Mele 12).
In another experiment where the subjects were instructed to click a mouse upon hearing a tone, it took on average 231 milliseconds for the muscle burst to to occur after the tone played.Which is exactly what would we should expect if our intentions are causally relevant (the extra 31 milliseconds would be the time it takes to register the sound) (Mele, 21) Combining these two studies, we have the readiness potential without the intention and action, and the intentional action without the extended preconscious activity. This gives us reason to think that the Libet studies don’t demonstrate that ineffectiveness of conscious intentions. However even if Libet did confirm that the intention to flex was settled unconsciously, this gives us no reason to think all decision making is like this. The subjects were specifically instructed to not consciously think about when they were going to flex. These sort of conditions leave little room for conscious reasoning to play a role. So even if the decision to flex was settled unconsciously, that doesn’t mean that conscious reasoning is never causally relevant.
Similar problems show up in the other studies Harris cites. In one done with an fMRI machine, where “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”. First, they were only able to do so with 60% accuracy, which isn’t much better than chance (Mele, 27). Also, the finding is consistent with the idea that what they were tracking is merely an unconscious bias, which is compatible with our actions still being up to us. Finally, he mentions an experiment where they could predict where the subject would report when they felt the urge to move with up to 80% accuracy. First, although eighty percent is high, it still doesn’t entail determinism. Additionally, like the Libet experiments, brain activity could be tracking something other than than the decision, such as the preparation to move. The urges also could be unconsciously determined without themselves determining the intention and behavior. Possibly the subject still could consciously choose to act on them or not (Mele, 32-33). And this is exactly what some of the participants reported to have done in the 2nd Libet study. Finally, as in with the 1st Libet study, we have reason to be skeptical these findings generalize into all decision making, especially where conscious deliberation appears to be playing a more prominent role.
Even if these studies fail to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of conscious intentions, he’s convinced that if we had ideal neuro-imaging technology, we could perfectly predict every single thought and action that a person might perform. However this is just to assert neuro-biological determinism. If neuroscience ever does come to construct such a device or something near enough, I think everyone ought to accept that free will is an illusion. Until then, I think the free will affirmer is justified in not being moved by the supposed threat posed by neuroscience.
The Explanatory Argument
The Incoherence Argument and the Empirical Argument are the heart of Harris’s case, but they don’t exhaust it. In addition, Harris occasionally performs an experiment on his audience that he claims to show that we don’t exemplify the freedom we take ourselves to have. He requests us to think of a city, any city. That’s it. He then asks us for an explanation for why we choose the city we did, and upon realizing our inability, claims this to illustrate that we merely witness the deliberation and selection of our decisions. We lack control both over the candidates for selection and the selection itself, given that we can’t even say why it was selected. Harris then rightly asserts that we could gesture at some sort of story for why we chose what we did, but it would almost certainly be a post hoc confabulation.
Although not obvious, it’s easy to see the problem. Imagine I were to ask you to choose among a set of options, but not to choose one for any particular reason, and then paraded it over you that you couldn’t tell me why you choose the option you did. You would be justifiably frustrated by the implicit conflict. The problem is the demand for a contrastive explanation in a situation where none should be expected. Contrastive explanations take the form of explaining why X rather than Y, where X and Y are both possible, but some additional factor tips the scales in favor of one over the other. The problem is that contrastive explanations are deterministic explanations because the additional factor in conjunction with the prior state necessitates the future state, but free actions aren’t deterministic, so one shouldn’t be expected to deliver one.
One might object that this leaves our decisions inexplicable, and that an action without any explanation can hardly be free. Although a free action cannot be without explanation, not all explanation is contrastive. I can run my own version of Harris’s thought experiment. I start by taking a moment to consider cities: Seattle, New York, Omaha, Portland, Boston… After a minute, I pick Boston. Upon request, I explain why I picked Boston. First, I wanted to comply because it’s necessary to address the point . Next, Boston was among the options that happened to occur to me. Further, it wasn’t one I immediately rejected (I might have some unfavorable association with a particular city). Finally faced with a number of options where I have no overriding reason to prefer one, but motivated by time, I pick one.
I think this line of reasoning suffices as an explanation despite its being a non-contrastive one. Harris might press the issue further, “I see what you mean, but I want to know why you picked that city rather than any other”. I would respond that based on the criteria given, there’s no answer I can give, I just picked. Where he might reply “Yes, but now don’t you see my point, there is an explanation for why you picked Boston, and you’re not even aware of it; where’s the freedom in that?”
The relevant sense of freedom resides in the space of actions unconstrained by the request. To push this as insufficient merely begs the question, in that it assumes that a decision that can’t be given a sufficient reason undermines the control of that action. By sufficient reason I just mean a motivation that entails that a person makes a particular decision. And a decision that is necessarily implied by a motivation isn’t free in the relevant sense. Harris wants to say that my decision to pick Boston is unconsciously settled in a way that undermines my control, but we need not see it that way. Rather it could be that I consciously give permission to my unconscious to decide for me because I’ve exhausted the limits of what conscious deliberation can do. As long as the unconscious efficient cause is constrained by my conscious reasoning, there’s little reason to see it as a threat to my control.
Alternatively, you could take the explanation I gave at face value. That is, in addition to my reasons and desires, the efficient cause is just me. This proposal is just the agent-causal theory of action. Harris would likely consider agent causation untenable given its inconsistency with reductionism. Reductionism is the thesis that some seemingly distinct entity can be identified with some lower level entity, once properly understood; where X reduces to Y just if X is nothing but Y. For example, a pile of dirt reduces to a collection of rocks, minerals, dust, etc; whatever causal powers the pile of dirt has (e.g. fire extinguishment), is merely an aggregate of the powers of the molecules that make it up. So the pile of dirt is nothing over and above the collection that makes it up. An irreducible/emergent substance on the other hand is one that makes an addition to the inventory of what exists (i.e. a mere collection of things doesn’t make a new thing), which is picked out by its causal powers being irreducible to its component parts. For example, a water molecule being irreducible because it exemplifies propensities (to extinguish fire, or dissolve a solute) and liabilities (to freeze at 32°) that aren’t shared by Hydrogen (a highly flammable substance) and Oxygen(freezes at -361.8°F). In the case of agents, substances that can make decisions, they would have irreducible powers to sometimes freely to decide among a plurality of options. Meaning the nature of the agent’s parts and environments would not be sufficient to settle what happens. The agent itself would settle what happens, even if its severely constrained by it’s own nature and environment.
It’s by no means obvious that reality includes emergent substances. It could be that the world wholly consists of fundamental particles and their space-time locations, where the higher level entities we refer to in everyday discourse (e.g. doors, cats, gold, etc) turn out to be little more than mental conventions, and by that very fact, reducible to arrangmentments of those fundamental particles (or some alternative). I don’t think this is the case, but I want to highlight the controversial nature of the issue at hand, and to emphasise that the metaphysical assumptions we hold will frame our evaluation.
Going back, there are three possible readings of the decision to pick Boston; two freedom-friendly readings (one reductionist, one non-reductionist), and one not. Harris’s position is that that our decisions are always going to be determined by something that isn’t up to us, and so like in any instance, the reason I can’t articulate precisely why I picked Boston over the alternatives is because it wasn’t up to me. There was an unconscious determinate, which I had no control over. However as I explained, this is just an interpretation. A fellow reductionist could explain the inarticulable aspect of the explanation as the granting of permission to the unconscious, but I had conscious control over that, so the essential sense of it being my decision is preserved. Finally, if agent causation is true, then it’s completely legitimate to take our self-reports of “just choosing” in these sort of cases at face-value. That is, me and my reasons and desires jointly cause my action. In instances of motivational underdetermination, the efficient cause is just going to be my free exercise of one of my unconstrained powers.
I want to note that nothing about my description of free will and agent causation has involved anything to do with dualism or materialism. This is because those issues are irrelevant. I agree with Harris that dualism does nothing to assist the possibility of free will. Everything about my case is consistent with naturalism. More radically, I would extend agent causation to much of the animal kingdom. So when Harris asks “The indeterminacy specific to quantum mechanics offers no foothold: If my brain is a quantum computer, the brain of a fly is likely to be a quantum
computer, too. Do flies enjoy free will?”, I can say that if humans do, then likely so do flies. My account doesn’t appeal to quantum mechanics, but I also don’t see it as a problem; its influence on the brain is an open scientific question. However, further than that, agent-causation entails a theory of causality which largely side-steps the determinism/indeterminism issue by understanding causes as substances with particular dispositions, not events. My proposal is that the irreducibility of particular substances can be of assistance because it explains how wholes can be causally superordinate to their parts.
You might have noticed that my explanation of free decisions is reliant on motivational underdetermination, but what about cases where I do have an overriding reason to prefer a course of action? Assuming one is mentally stable and adequately rational, in those instances you are in some sense determined to attempt the course of action you do, and therefore are not free in one respect. Is this a problem? Yes and no. For the most part, this is exactly how we want our mental life to be. We want to pursue the courses of action, that all things considered, appears to be the best thing to do, and we want to do so for the reasons we claim to have.
The threat of this control undermining feature depends on how often and in what ways we are determined by our motivations. In the extreme, one might object that we always pursue what we’re most motivated to do, and therefore never act freely. This may sound almost self-evident, but it assumes that we always have sufficient motivation for whatever we do. The central problem around this issue is its dependence on our self-reports. The psychological determinist will almost always claim that their experience of their own decisions fits the description of always being sufficiently motivated, though myself and others don’t see it the same way. For example, I often find myself in situations like the ones described above, where I don’t have a sufficient reason to do anything in particular. The psychological determinist might find this unintelligible; taking this to mean that I either do things that I don’t want to do, with no ulterior motive, or I do things for no reason at at all.
I have a reason, but not always a sufficient reason for every feature of my decision. This can take the form of a sufficient reason being unavailable or being equally motivated to pursue two or more incompatible courses of actions (torn conditions). For example, let’s say I’m listlessly bored and trying to think of something worth doing. I consider reading, listening to music, watching a lecture, or going for a walk. None of them sound more appealing than any of the others, but all of them sound better than what I’m doing; so being sufficiently motivated to leave my current circumstance, I pick one of them. Alternatively, in a torn condition, I’m positively drawn to two or more incompatible courses of action. Say I have to pick between pizza and pasta, or between staying home and going out. Both sound equally appealing, but I can’t do both. Ultimately, I have to choose. If agent causation is true, then your reasons and desires are not sufficient for your decision (in these sort of scenarios), what makes the difference is you, which is exactly what we want.
It’s also important to note that the extent to which a sufficient motivation determines your behavior depends on how specific it is. If i’m sufficiently motivated to become a lawyer within the next five years, then a large number of possibilities are closed off to me, such as moving to Antarctica or getting my Phd in chemistry, but that goal doesn’t always determine what im going to do at any moment. The same thing happens at every level of specificity. Let’s say, I’m torn between going out and staying in, and I decide to go out. My friend then gives me a number of bars to choose from; three of them sound terrible, but I’m indifferent to two of them, so I choose one of them. Once at the bar, I’m torn between two different hefeweizens, but I don’t want to hold up the line, so I quickly select one. At each of these junctions, either by indifference or tearing, I am afforded the psychological space for a metaphysically free choice. Even if a lot of the actions in between were determined by my mental states, not all of my actions were. We have to accept that our choices are largely bounded by our goals and desires, but I think these limitations still leave ample room for frequent metaphysically free decisions.
The concept of the self is rightly met with suspicion by much of the scientific and philosophical community, which is a sentiment that Harris shares. More than that, Harris outright denies the existence of the self. I largely agree with Harris’s dismissal of the self as he describes it. This is where there is a central ego that inhabits the body, specifically in the head and between the eyes. I think this cartesian sense of the self is untenable. In addition to the lack of evidence for a homunculus in the brain, there is the regress problem of the seeming need to posit a homunculus in the homunculus to make sense of its selfhood. Although alternatively, we could think of the self as being the whole irreducible substance. On this account, selves would just be substances with intentional states. There is no special part of substance that is the real self; the self is just the whole substance.
This issue is relevant to free will insofar as one could claim that there is no free will because there is no one to have it. Again, I want to note how influential ones general metaphysics is going to be when assessing this issue. There are careful arguments in favor of denying the existence of the self, but there are also good arguments on the other side. Harris might have reasons to deny the self as I described it, but it is by no means obviously false, and is sufficient to supply the sense of self necessary for free will.
Looking back, Harris gives us four reasons to reject free will:
1. Defining free will as the impossible power of perfect control.
2. Asserting that all events, including decisions, are either determined or random; neither of which is inconsistent with being freely performed.
3. The demonstration of the ineffectivity of conscious intentions by neuroscience.
4. Pointing out our own inability to sufficiently explain our own decisions.
I have attempted to show that these strategies are unsuccessful, at least as argued by Harris. Other philosophers have developed more sophisticated, but similar lines of reason, so I don’t want to say that his skepticism of free will is without warrant. Of the four offered by Harris, I take the neuroscientific angle to be the best, but at this point free will remains an open scientific question. My hope is for the reader to leave this piece appreciating that the free will issue has to be understood in the context of the relevant philosophical issues. Until we have a better understanding of the nature of the self, causation, motivation, reduction/emergence, explanation, and the brain, we will remain in the dark about the extent of our own control.
- S. HARRIS, Free Will, Free Press, New York 2012
- A. MELE, Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will. OUP 2014