Monday, December 10, 2012

Something Regarding Free Will

I've been reading a little book, or essay, on free will by Sam Harris (it's about 70 pages).  I haven't read much on the issue, I must confess.  But if this work by Harris is representative of the debate, it doesn't seem like much of a debate.  Alas, this seems to be my reaction to much of what passes for philosophy; that's to say, of course, much of what I read which purports to be philosophical.  It may be I don't read enough, especially regarding the "question" of "problem" of free will.  It may also be that I'm simply stupid.

Regardless, I'm perplexed because a great deal of what he has to say in support of his claim that free will is an illusion seems to me to be relatively uncontroversial.  I think of myself as being a proponent of free will, so I find it difficult to believe that anyone who is supportive of it would be strongly opposed to some of Harris' position.  However, it's evident he believes there to be some significant opposition to his claim.

If I understand him correctly, he notes that we are all influenced by our genes, our hormones, our neurons, our environment, our upbringing, and various other factors regarding which we have no control, and which are not caused by any deliberate action on our part.  He feels that these factors so influence our thoughts, feelings, desires, and conduct that there is clearly no such thing as free will.  We can't really know why we think and feel and act as we do, and we don't really decide what we do, freely, because all these things are the result of such factors.  We may, if asked why we make a certain decision, be able to come up with a rational explanation which seems to be based on our voluntary thought process; but that explanation is not valid.  It, no doubt, is also the result of the many factors over which we have no control.

It happens that I have trouble thinking of anyone who would maintain that our genes, hormones, neurons, environment, upbringing etc. do not influence our decisions.  It may be that there are such folk, just as there are those who think that the earth was created in 6 days about 6,000 years ago.  However, I don't see such folk as serious contributors to the free will debate which apparently is ongoing.

I can conceive of debate over the extent to which such factors influence our decisions, but I find it difficult to accept the idea that a proponent of free will would or must maintain that they have no influence whatsoever.

Oddly, Harris seems to acknowledge that we can, sometimes, come to a conclusion or decision all by ourselves, as it were, with a minimum of influence by these factors, and in that sense have a certain degree of control over what we do.  The examples he uses in this regard make sense to me as well, and lead me to wonder just why he feels free will is an illusion.  I wonder whether he feels that "free will" means the ability to make decisions without being influenced by the factors I allude to; in other words, I wonder whether he thinks there are proponents of what I'll call here "absolute free will" and seeks to persuade us there is no such thing.  Unsurprisingly, because I think that there are few such proponents, I wonder whether he's beating the proverbial straw man.

For me, it's quite possible to believe in free will yet acknowledge that much of what we do is influenced by our genes, etc.  That's merely to say I don't believe in "absolute free will."  What we desire and want to do are naturally influenced by our environment and our nature, as we are organisms having a certain constitution living in a particular environment.  If we weren't so influenced, we wouldn't exist.  Yet we make decisions which cannot be attributed solely to influenced desires and needs.  We can choose different ways to satisfy them, for example, and determine what ways are more effective.

Harris uses as an example the fact that after many years, he decided to return to the study of and training in martial arts which he had engaged in when young.  He claims that while he can think of several good reasons supporting why he returned to marital arts, but he can't really know why he did so, rendering his return to them something different from a voluntary decision.

I fenced when young, stopped fencing for many years, returned to it for about 5 years, and have stopped fencing once more.  I stopped fencing because the club at which I fenced is open only certain evening during the week and on the weekend, and my schedule and the schedules of those who pariticipate in determining my schedule prevent me from fencing.  I suppose I could fence, but would have to skip meals, reduce sleep, and am not inclined to do so.

Am I coming up with reasons a posteriori?  Was I somehow compelled to stop fencing by forces beyond my control?  To a certain extent, yes; as my schedule changed for reasons which it is not important to address.  And, my genes and whatever may lead me to not want to go without meals or sleep.  But is this what is meant when we say that "free will" was not involved in my decision to stop fencing?  If so, it's difficult for me to believe that the free will debate has any significance.

Harris maintains we can dispense with the illusion of free will and still maintain that people are responsible for their actions, morality, and the legal system.  I find this unsurprising, though, because a belief is "absolute free will" is not required to maintain that people have at least a certain degree of responsiblity

Clarence Darrow was a lawyer who regularly argued that his clients, at least, were not really responsible for the crimes they were said to commit.  I doubt, though, that he thought he never voluntarily made a decision in his life.

As with most other things, I think that a determination whether or not a decision is "freely" made must take into consideration the circumstances and the decision-maker.  The extent to which a decision is free will vary.  I doubt most of us ever feel we're absolutely free, or that we're absolutely "unfree" and think that is a reasonable conclusion to make.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't read Harris's book on free-will, but only listened to his lecture about the book. My problem with Harris's lecture is that in the lecture he seems to assume that free-will is Absolute Free-Will often associated with the Libertarianism position (i.e. agent causation). He immediately dismisses compatibalists' attempt to redefine freewill as no better than how theologians try to redefine God. I thought this dismissal was too quick and rash, yet Sam Harris seems too sure of himself that he made the right move.

    I think it's unfortunate that Harris does not even try to familiarize himself with the philosophical literature of free-will, he simply went straight to neuroscience to find the answer, but even neuroscience is having some difficulties interpreting Libet's experiment. Philosophers like Alfred Melee and Daniel Dennett were involved in interpreting whether the Libet experiment disproves free-will, you even have some neuroscientist with background training in philosophy who argued that Libet's experiment doesn't provide enough evidence against free-will.

    While I should read his book, from what I gather from his lecture it seems that Harris is complacent with the idea of free-will as "Absolute free-will" rather than trying to consider variety definitions of free-will that is found in the philosophical literature. I feel like this is a big mistake on Harris's part....