Sam Harris’ “Free Will” Book Review: A Kantian Critique of the Scientific Notion of “No Free Will”

In his recent book, Sam Harris (neuroscientist and the author of “The End of Faith”) has officially declared the notion of free will to be an illusion (Harris, 2012). He mentions studies that have shown one’s action can be determined some seconds before one is actually aware of them, and this goes against our notion of free will.

Needless to say, this has severe implications for judging people’s actions: If there is no free will, how can we hold people morally responsible for their actions? After all, if they have not freely chosen to do wrong (or right) holding them responsible will become meaningless. (This is not the basis of my argument in rejection of what Harris puts forward against free will)

Harris of course tries to justify why we do hold criminals (and people) responsible for their actions, but still, this can only mean that even we have no free will, and what we are doing is only a projection of our own illusion.

We could make two types of objection to this notion: One is the responsibility associated with each person is indeed different from morality of an action. Thinking about “how” a person has come to do a wrong doing does not change or reduce the wrongness of that action; it can only change the amount of responsibility of that person (Whyte, 2004). But of course Harris does not completely abandon this, as he argues that “Some criminals need to be incarcerated to prevent them from harming other people” (Harris, 2012). If harming people is wrong, then regardless of responsibility we incarcerate criminals.

The other objection, the more important one in my opinion, is purely from philosophical ground, particularly from a Kantian perspective. Kant argues that we understand ourselves from not just one physical standpoint, but also from “an “intelligible” realm of free human agency”, the realm of ideas and beliefs (Sandel, 2009). Just the fact that we are the only creatures that apparently is capable of having abstract thoughts is evidence for that. Ironically, Sam Harris’ thinking about free will is by itself evidence for his autonomous existence, not his heteronomy (i.e. being a slave to the nature). Mere object are incapable of abstract thoughts, and therefore there is no decision making for them, no argument, no responsibility and no morality.

To understand this better, we can have one good example based on one of the most famous philosophical statements of (probably) all times: Rene Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am)”.

By reading the simplest introductions to logic (for example “42 Fallacies” by Michael LeBossiere, 2011) we immediately seem to recognise there is an obvious case of begging the question here: If we want to prove that “I” exist, we should not have assumed the existence of “I” in our assumptions. If there exists an “I” to think, then we are going in circles trying to prove that the same “I” exists.*

But here we can have a defence of Descartes from that Kantian point of view: If the first “I” is the “I” that thinks and the second “I” is the autonomous I with freedom (of the will), then there is no begging the question. The second “I” is the one with both aspects of being: Both physical and rational. It is only obvious that only the rational I is capable of thinking about the physical I, however they may be inseparable.

Back to our subject, let’s consider the case of two murderers: One abused 12 year old boy that has been abused his entire life kills someone that has ridiculed him. And the case of a 40 year old man who murders his wife in order to marry his mistress. The difference between these two cases is the second “I”, capable of rational thought. The boy is almost without an autonomous “I”, acting only what was dictated to his mind based on his lifelong torture. But the man had developed that “autonomous” I, and that is the reason why he is held morally responsible for his actions, not the boy.

In the end, the argument becomes something like “Comprehendo, igitur liber sum (I understand, therefore I am free).” **

___________________________________________________________________

* It has been said (Warburton, 1998) that Descartes was completely aware that “I think therefore I am” is in form of begging the question. The argument in fact is not supposed to be a logical argument, but a psychological fact: It is hard to think that there is no I that thinks. This criticism therefore is a straw man.

** Translation by a dear commenter (Karl) below.

 

References:

Harris, S. 2012. Free Will. Kindle ed. Free Press (A division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.). New York.

LaBossiere, M. 2011. 42 Fallacies. eBook. Amazon Digital Services. [Accessed on 14th March 2012].

Sandel, M. J. 2009. Justice: What is the Right Thing to Do?. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. USA.

Warburton, N. 1998. Thinking from A-Z. 2nd ed. Routledge. USA.

Whyte, J. 2004. Crimes Against Logic: Exposing the Bogus Arguments of Politicians, Priests, Journalists, and Other Serial Offenders. McGraw Hill Professional.

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thetruthfulheretic

Dear fellow Homo sapiens, or if you prefer conscious mammals! And of course, friends nonetheless: I created my blog in order to speak my very weird mind, mostly about three subjects (as I identify myself and my state of mind with them): Atheism, as I was born in the Middle East and saw and felt the affects of Islam; Homosexuality and equal rights, as a gay man who has tasted the Homophobia and also Sexism in that society; and Liberalism and political philosophy, which I think is a good ground for secular values and criticism of fundamentalism. If you wish, visit and join your state of mind to mine. I hope they don't short circuit!

4 thoughts on “Sam Harris’ “Free Will” Book Review: A Kantian Critique of the Scientific Notion of “No Free Will””

  1. Google translate perchance? It’s actually given you “I don’t know, so I am I solve.”

    You need “Comprehendo, igitur liber sum”

  2. Harris of course tries to justify why we do hold criminals (and people) responsible for their actions, but still, this can only mean that even we have no free will, and what we are doing is only a projection of our own illusion
    I’m not sure I understand… To say that free will is an illusion is not equivalent to saying that all our experiences are illusions. If we were to hold some sort of skeptical position about all our experiences, then our denial of free will, which itself rests on our experiences, would reduce to an absurdity. This is not a position Harris holds. The statement “the experience of doing something freely is an illusion” is not equivalent to the statement “the experience of doing something is an illusion”. If I am missing something here, let me know.
    “One is the responsibility associated with each person is indeed different from morality of an action.”
    That’s a good way of putting it. Harris thinks the morality of an action is determined by its relation to the health (‘well-being’) of conscious things. There is never anything intrinsically wrong with an ACT or a PERSON, which shifts the focus from punishment and blame to rehabilitation and sympathy.

    In favor of Kant: “…we understand ourselves from not just one physical standpoint, but also from “an “intelligible” realm of free human agency”, the realm of ideas and beliefs (Sandel, 2009). Just the fact that we are the only creatures that apparently is capable of having abstract thoughts is evidence for that.”
    Indeed, Kant believed we had knowledge about our world that ‘transcended’ all experience, through a priori reasoning. He used this to ‘prove’ our freedom, god’s existence, and our dependence on this a priori faculty to comprehend space and time. You need to be a little clearer on how Kant’s views withhold the ideas put forth by Sam Harris. The simple “fact” that we are the only creatures capable of abstract thought doesn’t at all ground his claim that our thoughts can tell us things about the ‘real world’ that our senses can’t. Also, as a side note, there is very little reason to believe we are the only creatures capable of having ‘abstract’ thoughts. Just let me know if you’re interested I can try to dig up some good journals on that! 
    “If the first “I” is the “I” that thinks and the second “I” is the autonomous I with freedom (of the will), then there is no begging the question.“
    Unfortunately, the criticism is essentially the same; you have simply added another presupposed thing; which I believe if you take it all the way through ends up in an infinite regress, similar to what you come across in the cosmological argument.

    “But the man had developed that “autonomous” I, and that is the reason why he is held morally responsible for his actions, not the boy.”
    Even still, if we assume there is this autonomous I: How did the man ‘develop’ autonomy? To ‘develop’ free will, one needs free will, or else whether or not he develops it is not in his control, and he cannot be said to have ‘freely NOT developed it’. The whole argument for free will, even in its most elegant form such as Kant’s metaphysics, has really lost its credibility for me. No matter how nice, useful, or appealing the concept may be, I simply haven’t found sufficient grounds for believing in it.
    SORRY for the length!! So many different philosophers in one post, there’s just so much to talk about lol! : )

    1. Thank you for the feedback.

      First about the cogito, actually I was wondering when somebody will catch me on that. I admit, half way through writing the thing I realized that it does not logically hold, at least not as firmly as one hopes. It was a bit selfish, and frankly maybe even dishonest of me, to put it there the way it is there. But it was such a good example I could not resist. And since the logic of it did not matter much to the point I was makinng, I dicided to keep it there. You could say I did not have freedom about that. 😉

      I agree with much of what you say, I wrote an extra segment on this and suggested that Harris is not ‘wrong’ in his view exactly, but there is more to this than science can figur out. Sort of an epistemological difference here.

      I have not put that segment here yet, frankly I wanted to think about it more. But as soon as I find the courage (i.e. think about it enough), I shall do so.

      //

      The only spot that right now I would disagree with is this: “To ‘develop’ free will, one needs free will, or else whether or not he develops it is not in his control, and he cannot be said to have ‘freely NOT developed it’.”

      But why? If it is, as I argue, that understanding (Conciusness at a certain level) is equal to having free will, then why would it matter where it comes from? It could be the natural process of having the biggest brain, or it could be a ‘soul’ (which I do not believe in). For me it does not matter.

      I must clearify however, that my position does not say we have absolute freedom of will (as religions dictate by the notion of soul). If anything can degrade my understanding, that can degrade my freedom of will. I have had the unfortunate bad luck of these chronic headaches, which frankly disrupt every aspect of my life, and more importantly disrupt my thoughts.

      But the interesting thing about them is the fact that I go almost on ‘autopilot’. Weird as it sounds, I start somehow a sleepwalking process. I ‘do’ things, but I just ‘do’ them. And most of the time I dont even remember. The question is, at that point, am I a free, or maybe a computer that does only what it is programmed to?

      It sure sounds like it. I can do things, but only the ones I am programmed to. In the meantime it is worth asking what makes us (me and me) different? I’d say whatever it is, that is the leap from a program to whatever ‘I’ am (‘we’ are), is that understanding and that freedom.

      It is not ‘free’ from my body, it is not a soul as it is not ‘perfect’ or ‘absolute’ as the notion of soul, it is bound to my knowledge, experience, pain, pleasure, and all this, but still, it is the understanding that is there.

      //

      This discussion requires a lot of time, I think mainly because philosophers and scientists need to know what the others are talking about. That epistemological difference need to be bridged somehow.

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