April 29, 2012


How free is the will? : Sam Harris misses his mark (Russell Blackford, 4/27/12, ABC RELIGION AND ETHICS)

Allow me to confess, at this late stage, that I think that the concept of free will has problems, perhaps many of them, although I am not at all persuaded that causal determinism is the important issue.

One problem relates to the nature of coercion. How do I draw a principled line between actions that are coerced, or otherwise brought about in circumstances that seem to overwhelm me, and those that are not?

To some extent, this looks like a moral or even political judgment, and it is very arguable that, although not simply arbitrary, these sorts of judgments are not objectively binding. In some cases, at least, there may be no determinate answer as to whether I was coerced or acted freely.

Furthermore, the folk (and perhaps philosophers) are not worried only by outright coercion but also by other circumstances, such as whether there was adequate time to think. But where do we draw the line with something like that - for example, how much time is "adequate"? Again, how should we handle such things as compulsions and phobias - are they just another part of our desire-sets, or are they more analogous to external barriers to our actions?

Another problem relates to the largely-unconsciousness nature of our decisions. No one should doubt this, and Harris is correct to emphasise it and discuss the actual phenomenology of choice. Still, taken by itself it is not necessarily very threatening.

Imagine for a moment that my unconscious mind makes decisions in accordance with the same beliefs and desires that I endorse consciously, and imagine, more generally, that my unconscious and conscious minds are closely "in character" with each other. If that is so, delegating a great deal of decision-making to unconscious processes might even be an efficient use of scarce time for conscious thought.

The issue that Harris ought to press more strongly - and I foreshadowed this earlier - is that our unconscious minds may be rather alien to our conscious egos. I suspect that Freudian theory is largely bunk, but a large body of social psychology literature can be interpreted as confirming that our psyches are more fractured, and some of our true motivations stranger to us, than we like to think.

If this is so, we may be at the mercy of alien forces after all, at least to an extent - these are not external powers, and not exactly spooky ones, but actually components of ourselves.

But even if we press such points as hard as possible, folk ideas of free will might survive. Perhaps whether we act freely becomes a matter of judgment and degree, and the question of whether we do so in various particular cases does not have an entirely compelling answer.

Nonetheless, it might remain more false than true if we tell the folk, "You do not have free will." On the other hand, philosophical ideas of moral responsibility might be in more trouble as we insist on the difficulties. Much more needs to be considered here.

Finally, I acknowledge that some intuitions may favour incompatibilism. On the other hand, it remains the case - doesn't it? - that we are not controlled by spooky powers, that our beliefs, desires and characters are not bypassed in some other way (as they would be if epiphenomenalism were true), and that these aspects of us appear to have causal power: they lead to choices, actions and consequences.

There is nothing especially arcane about these key points, and they are consistent with causal determinism as far as it goes. The worst problems for free will, I suggest, come from elsewhere.

After some two thousand years, the basics of a compatibilist approach remain attractive, and the burden of going forward seems to fall on opponents of free will, and particularly on incompatibilists such as Harris.

Harris himself needs to do more work, particularly in understanding and responding to the strengths in his opponents' arguments. Until then, we should take his pronouncements on the topic of free will with a few grains of salt. So it goes.

...ends at the point where you punch him in the nose.

Posted by at April 29, 2012 7:57 AM

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