(Note first published near the publication of Sam Harris’ “Free Will’.  This note was a personal correspondence with a friend who, like I, really like Harris’ work.  Since writing this I’ve heard quite a bit more analysis on Free Will and Determinism via FreeDomain Radio.  My perspectives haven’t changes much.)

Mini book report of Sam Harris’ “Free Will” prepared mostly as a note to Chris Beck

While I thought his ideas on punishment and moral subjectivity (e.g., brain tumor vs. crazy in the case of the murderer) were worth mulling and it was intellectually engaging to read, I didn’t really care for his argument here.

First off, and this is neither here nor there, the whole scope is a little trivial.  “End of Faith” takes a swing at something that’s affecting billions of people, driving mass murder, politics, fundamental truth, so forth.  “Free will” might be a conversation two philosophy PhD’s geek out about over drinks, but does little IMO to push a conversation on much else.  This said, I don’t mind trivia and confess to have spent more time reading about the Patriots’ depth at middle linebacker than this topic.

Second, I was fully satisfied with Dennet’s refutal on Page 20.

In the first chapter, he says that if he was replaced atom by atom with the CT murderer that he would’ve done the same thing.  Well, if a ham sandwich was a pretty girl, you could take it out on a date.

If I do accept all or most of Harris’ points, it just sort of postpones the utility of understanding free will.  I get that our thoughts emerge from some mechanical process and that a lot of what we experience with our bodies and minds are external in a sense to our ability to choose, but this is kind of a semantic game.  We can still rope off what we consider our thoughts and self and make decisions.  To what extent that roping off contains (e.g., just our conscious minds, a bit of our mechanics, etc.) can be a personal preference for all I care.

I think it is necessary to give what ability we do have to choose an identity. If he doesn’t want to call it ‘free will’ then he needs to offer another title.

And what is the point of chalking up being a rapist or being lazy to just being unlucky?  What can we possibly improve about anything if everything is so random and out of our control?  Why can’t we take credit for what we think? Perhaps this is his warning about becoming fatalistic.   I concede that there are unlucky people, but they are also choosers and thinkers, even if a whole bushel of their bad luck came from externalities and things out of their control.

But then he sort of gives himself an out by saying you can choose* to admit that your thoughts are generated without your control but you can then still be well equipped to make decisions about morality, your action, politics, life, etc.  He even says it is comforting.  So again, what was the point of the exercise if we end up with something that has the same features of free will but isn’t semantically so?

And so what if you can’t freely choose to prefer wine over beer?  Just because there are MANY aspects of thought that we cannot control doesn’t mean that there aren’t ANY.

And what about analysis?  What if a thought process requires assembling a lot of data and weighing options and different scenarios with objective outcomes in a manner that requires a lot of complex calculations and review of outcomes?  Even protracted unto paper or a computer.  This isn’t just a manifestation of ideas that pop into your head because of your DNA, upbringing and circumstance.  Even if our cognitive ability still relies on a biomechanic brain.  All of his examples seem to be cases of either 1) human monstrosity (rapists, murderers) or 2) casual preferences (do I like a certain flavor, am I penchant to prefer not working hard, etc.)

I was wondering while reading if this argument was a long wind-up for a progressive view on social justice.  I think he overstates that there are only two political perspectives (conservative and liberal) and that conservatives are all in love with free will and progressives aren’t.  I would bet it is a super-minority of either group who have even muttered the term, and there are a couple of completely bright, sane progressives who fancy themselves as in control of their thoughts and actions.

It does, though, follow the third progressive argument that taxing is OK (I’m making this up without much thought, perhaps at risk of creating a strawman), e.g, 1. Sharing is good (morality); 2. You have to chip in your fair share so we can afford what we do together as a society (utilitarian)  3) the money isn’t really yours anyways (deterministic, luck/fortune, public goods argument); 4) We all decided that it was what we were going to do (democracy).  So, is he philosophically going to sacrifice his ability to rationalize and make decisions to just to support an inductive argument on taxation?  Seems too expensive of an intellectual trade, esp. given that he is probably an intellectual before a lefty.

I doubt he’d think about it this way.  His argument for free will is supposed to be a dissection of reality and facts, not a made-up case point for something else.

Then, at the very end, on the last two pages, he spirals into what seems like insane blather about whether he is writing sentences or just his brain is (?), seemingly unaware that he’s considered a brilliant thinker and unaware that he had otherwise just written 40 previously mostly cogent pages of thought process.

Anyway, that was what I thought (or rather, what the part of my brain that isn’t really me thought and then later convinced the real me to think I thought on my own).

What did you (not) think about it?