The Serious Flaws In the Popular Dismissal of Free Will

Let me begin by stating up front: I do not claim to know whether we do or do not have free will. We may have free will, or we may not. The only strong claim I wish to make here is the following: if we do not have free will, it is not for the inadequate reasons presented thus far. Since neuroscientist and anti-free-will polemicist Sam Harris has been among the most prominent of standard-bearers for the claim that we lack the power of volition, I will focus here on his arguments as summarized in his book “Free Will.”

The Libet Experiments Do Not Show that We Don’t Have Free Will

Harris begins by asserting an all-but-discredited[1] interpretation of a famous experiment by Benjamin Libet that appeared to show that our physical ‘wetware’ brain causes our decisions before we become consciously aware of them. This much-repeated claim that we passively and unconsciously do whatever our brain tells us to do rests on a highly fallible understanding of the processes underlying spontaneous decision-making, which has been called into serious question [Schurger, Sitt and Dehaene 2012] and apparently refuted by subsequent experiments [Herrmann et al 2005]. For example, Schurger, Sitt and Dehaene (2012) provide an empirically tested alternative model of the measured neural activity preceding a decision and note that:

“Libet et al.’s findings …. suggested that the neural decision to move happens well before we are aware of the urge to move, by 1/2 second or more. According to our [empirically corroborated] model, this conclusion is unfounded. The reason we do not experience the urge to move as having happened earlier than about 200 ms before movement onset is simply because, at that time, the neural decision to move (crossing the decision threshold) has not yet been made.” [my emphasis]

Besides Libet’s prejudicing assumption that volition must be tied to ‘urges’–a debatable notion–more decisively refuting Libet’s interpretation of his experiment was the experiment of Herrmann et al cited above, which showed that the brain’s electrical ‘readiness potential,’ taken by Libet as causing a specific choice, was present in the absence of any choosing situation. It was simply part of a preparation for readiness to respond to an instruction (whether to push a button with left or right hand). Since the subjects always pressed the correct button as instructed (after the RP appeared), their brain did not tell them which button to push.  Therefore, contrary to popular belief (whose continuing popularity may be in large part due to Harris’ promulgating of a claim multiply refuted by his own community of neuroscientists), it has not at all been scientifically established that a choice is caused by the physical brain prior to the chooser’s awareness of the choice. If anything, neuroscience has since shown that there is probably no basis for that claim.

A False Dilemma

Harris then turns to some questionable (even if much-repeated) arguments against volition in the literature. He first repeats the standard argument for what is called ‘incompatibilism’; this boils down to the idea expressed succinctly by Peter Von Inwagen in his Essay on Free will (1983):

“If determinism is true, then our acts are the consequence of laws of nature and events in the remote past. But it’s not up to us what went on before we were born, and neither is it up to us what the laws of nature are. Therefore, the consequences of these things (including our present acts) are not up to us.” (p. 56)

I happen to agree with this assessment–thus, I could be called an ‘incompatibilist’. That is, I agree that under determinism, all our actions are the necessary and unique results of causes that must ultimately be beyond our control. (However, it should be noted here that there are those called ‘compatibilists’ that argue that we can still have free will under determinism. That argument greatly depends on what we mean by ‘free will’. I will not go into the subtle issue of defining free will here, and will just work with the definition that I think Harris has in mind–in which it’s understood that our choices must be ‘up to us’ in some robust way. One way to put this is the idea that we ‘could have chosen otherwise’ than we actually did.)

But then Harris repeats what amounts to a false dilemma.[2] He tries to argue that not only can we not have free will if determinism is true; we cannot have it even if determinism is false. That is, he rules out free will even in the case of indeterministic laws (i.e. laws that do not completely dictate what must happen given a specified set of events). He asserts that indeterminism fails to allow us free will because of his worries about the apparent inability of science to identify what the ‘Self’ is, and to confirm that it allows us be the ‘author of our actions.’

Specifically, Harris decides, based primarily on his own personal introspections, that because he doesn’t seem to consciously generate his thoughts, that none of his thoughts really belong to him. Therefore, he muses that none of the actions he takes based on those thoughts can really belong to him either; and he instructs us that we should agree with his assessment because (he believes) it’s obviously true.

However, none of Harris’ assessments and conclusions about the relation of his Self (if any) to his thoughts and actions is so obviously true as he seems to think (or–in Harris’ terms–as the thoughts that don’t belong to him (!) seem to imply). A major problem with his conclusions is that they are based on certain unstated presuppositions that he appears to take for granted, but which are not at all necessarily true. Specifically, he uncritically presupposes that in order to be the ‘author of our actions,’ we must either

(i) consciously generate the thoughts pertaining to those actions, or at least

(ii) always know where the thoughts relevant to our actions come from.

But why should we buy into this formulation of what it takes to be ‘the author of our actions’? Does the author of a book know where his/her ideas come from? Probably not—in fact, especially in fiction works, this is the meaning of ‘inspiration’: the artist ‘breathes in’ the ideas. While we usually think of ‘inspiration’ in conjunction with works of fiction, it holds for nonfiction works as well (indeed, many scientists talk about getting ‘inspiration’ for a new theoretical idea or scientific endeavor). Yet according to Harris’ own arguments, he is not the author of his own book. Should we really grant him this extreme degree of modesty regarding the product of his labors?

Harris does not appear to have considered the possibility that the thoughts and ideas that come ‘unbidden’ to us are like visitors that come to our door. We still have the choice whether to welcome them into our home or not, and whether to take them on as the comrades, instigators, inspirations, or all the other things that that they might prove to be.

Nevertheless, it’s important to note that not all thoughts are wholly ‘unbidden’ in this way. Some thoughts are clearly ‘bidden,’ as any scientist ought to know. Einstein searched and searched, and worked and worked, until he came up with the ideas that he developed into the Theory of Relativity and other groundbreaking theories (including vital components of quantum theory). Werner Heisenberg clearly ‘bid’ the insights that led him to formulate quantum theory. The annals of scientific discovery are replete with instances of ideas having arrived in the minds of scientists as a direct result of their fervent searches.

Of course, Harris would likely dismiss all of that by saying “the curiosity that led to their questions that led to their searching was also unbidden.” But if so, he enters a kind of reductio ad absurdum. Such a reduction of all creative endeavors to knee-jerk passive reactions to causes outside ourselves would seem to nullify any vestige of meaning or value to human life (or any other sentient forms of life for that matter). If active engagements–like curiosity, perseverance, and enthusiasm–are actually no more than passive reactions to causes and forces, then it becomes very difficult to argue for any sort of value or meaning. “The marionette exhibited behaviors characteristic of curiosity.” Nobody cares about a marionette’s utterances–it has no intent or motivation, and it gets no blame or credit for anything it does. It is clearly not a person in the meaningful and vital sense that we all take ourselves (and hopefully each other) to be. Thus, calling oneself a marionette–as Harris effectively does–is essentially self-refuting.

Yet Harris seems anxious to retain some vestiges of meaning and value at the conclusion of his book, where he considers what we should say to people about their alleged lack of free will in order to best ‘serve’ good and valuable ends in society.  Even apart from whether or not he would discount the intent of a scientist to seek and to make active use of inspiration as playing a role in the kinds of thoughts he or she entertains, it seems inconsistent for him to speak as if we have live options about what to say, what to believe, and how to behave. For he has spent his entire book arguing that we are puppets on strings–as depicted on his book cover.

Now, it could turn out to be true that we are just sentient marionettes. But the point is that failing to be able to explain how volition could work is not a demonstration of that. If (based on an actual sound proof–which Harris has not provided) it did turn out to be true, then we would need to face up to the fact that we don’t have live options about what to think and how to behave, and stop trying to have it both ways–as Harris seems to want to do. If we are sentient puppets, that’s all we are: we have no live options; we create nothing that wasn’t already created by whoever/whatever holds our ‘strings’; nothing is up to us; and if someone wants to retain notions of value and meaning in that face of that, they’re going to have to do better than to just presuppose it, as Harris appears to do towards the conclusion of this book. (Of course, I recognize that this is a key motivation of the compatibilist approach; but I remain skeptical of its success.)

The Self as Active Custodian of a Point of View

As a self-described meditator, Harris should know that meditation presupposes that one has a live option of attending or not attending to thoughts. During meditation, thoughts come to us unbidden. The practice of meditation consists in making a choice to disregard those thoughts when we notice that we are having them, and to return to the mantra or to whatever other focus is the vehicle of the meditation. By taking the position he does against the idea that we have any real volitional power, Harris discounts the essential nature of meditation.

In any case, during meditation, Something becomes aware of the thoughts; and then that Something chooses to disregard them and to attend to something else. This “Something” is what we can identify as the Self. How does this work? I do not claim to know. However, it needs to be stressed that, as a purely logical matter, the burden of proof of impossibility claims is on those making the claims. No reputable mathematician will state that because he has not been able to find a proof of the existence of a mathematical entity, it cannot exist. Being unable to conclusively demonstrate the existence of an entity or mechanism or function is completely different from having demonstrated that it cannot exist. Yet what we see in Harris’ discussion of the issue is a narrative of his unsuccessful attempts to understand how the entity or mechanism or function of free will could exist–that is all. For Harris to infer from his lack of success in this endeavor that it cannot be done is to commit a serious logical fallacy (since failure to find an existence proof is logically inequivalent to having found a non-existence proof).

Moreover, as noted above, Harris does not appear to have considered the possibility that the choosing Self is the sentient and active custodian of a point of view. Thoughts may arise from a seemingly mysterious and unknown source according to that point of view, but that does not rule out the fact that Something–to which we feel intimately connected–routinely decides whether or not to pay attention to those thoughts and/or to act on them. In fact, I believe that this “Something” is what Descartes was referring to when he rejected all doubtable knowledge and was left with only that aspect of himself that was a ‘thinking thing’. If, like Harris, we want to go farther and assert that the thoughts are not necessarily generated consciously by that ‘thinking thing,’ then it is really a ‘perceiving thing’–but it is still an actively choosing, perceiving thing.

Note above that I italicized “according to that point of view” (of our choosing Self). Is it possible for us to expand that point of view, and to gain more awareness of where those thoughts come from? (Harris does not seem to have considered this possibility either.) While I do not pretend to possess any special knowledge of this issue, we might look to philosophers of mind, to psychologist Carl Jung (who posited a nonlocalized ‘collective unconscious’ as well as our localized centers of consciousness), as well as to various spiritual traditions (e.g. Buddhism, Western Esotericism) to learn more about this possibility. I believe that this is where much of the interesting work lies in order to understand better what we can mean by the “Self” and what role it may play in the actions we undertake from a sense that we are acting freely.

Thus, Harris’ presentation (besides relying on the repeatedly refuted experimental inference of Libet and his followers) is not much more than a tour of his own unsuccessful attempts to figure out how volition could work in view of the fact that he cannot figure out where his thoughts come from, and how he could be the ‘author of his actions,’ given that observation. Now, this would be acceptable as a narrative of personal introspection, except that he goes beyond that to elevate his own inability to discover or understand how volition could work (based on his formulation of the problem that might be flawed or unduly restrictive, as noted above) into a dogmatic pronouncement that it obviously cannot work, and that others would be foolish to try to think that it could.[3] Besides being a basic logical fallacy as noted above (i.e. equating the lack of a demonstration of existence of free will to a proof of non-existence of free will), this is a form of arrogance reminiscent of the plentiful dogmatic pronouncements against advances and discoveries that have subsequently been refuted by people with more imagination and creativity[4] than the people who uttered them (e.g., “If man were meant to fly, he’d have wings” and many other examples).

Moreover, there are real adverse social consequences for leading people to believe that they lack free will (http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01483/full ). So this is not just an ‘academic’ question, and it is irresponsible for authority figures to promulgate the idea that everyone lacks free will when they don’t really know that this is true–and are disregarding scientific findings (even in their own field) in order to maintain their dogmatic negative claims on the matter. (The article cited above begins by acknowledging that “Weakening belief in the concept of free will yields pronounced effects upon social behavior, typically promoting selfish and aggressive over pro-social and helping tendencies,” and describes an experimental finding in which subjects primed to believe that they lacked free will exhibited a diminished sense of personal agency of a specific kind.)

Finally–while this certainly has not been established—it may turn out that the question “What is the Self and its relation to ideas, actions, and volition?” is a question beyond science’s ability to answer. But that does not make volition ‘anti-scientific’ (a pejorative notion). It might make it extra-scientific. To assume that an inability of science to solve a problem must imply that the problem is unsolvable would be a form of scientism—which is itself an extra-scientific notion.[5]  

[Postscript: After writing this blog, I became aware of Robert Doyle’s page on Sam Harris, which makes very similar points regarding weaknesses in Harris’ arguments: http://www.informationphilosopher.com/solutions/philosophers/harris/     For example, Doyle asks: “Does Harris really believe he is no more responsible for being the author of his book than for his birth? His choice to write it was the cause of its being – even if it appeared in his mind sprung from the void, right?”]

 

[1] There is probably a consensus that Libet’s interpretation is discredited; however to avoid an impression of overstating my case, I leave that to the reader to decide, based on the references.

[2] Harris is by no means the only one to claim that indeterminism doesn’t allow for free will either. While I will not address those other arguments here, I address them, at least in part, in this publication.   Harvard astrophysicist/philosopher Robert Doyle has also argued that it is a mistake to conclude that indeterminism fails to allow for free will. He discusses many possible models, and offers a specific model of free will.

[3] In fact, it’s eerily (and ironically) reminiscent of the way in which Descartes relied on his own allegedly ‘clear and distinct ideas’ to make categorical assertions about the existence of God. In adopting this practice of introspection-taken-as-decisive, Harris places himself perilously close to engaging in ‘armchair philosophy’.

[4] Even if those people might not be able to trace (to Harris’ satisfaction) where their superior imagination and creativity came from.

[5] The term scientism denotes a philosophical view that science can answer all possible questions in definitive terms. As an example, if scientific enquiry can find no theoretical or empirical basis for meaning in life, then an adherent of scientism would conclude that life has no meaning. Since scientism is a meta-scientific, epistemological doctrine–not subject to empirical corroboration–it is extra-scientific. For a more in-depth critique, see this essay by A. Hughes. Harris may also be influenced by the writings of philosophers such as D. Pereboom, who has argued that the very notion of free will is ‘incoherent’; or, if coherent, is allegedly ‘inconsistent with seeing human beings as part of the natural world of cause and effect’ (e.g., Pereboom 2001; as described in the entry on Free Will in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). This tendentious language presupposes a specific view of what should be taken as constituting the ‘natural world’ and its relation to cause and effect–a topic that is not at all settled, especially in view of the apparent indeterminacy of modern physics, and the fact that there is currently no ’cause and effect’ account of the most fundamental origins of life. The basic lesson is that we should remain skeptical of assessments that any concept or idea is ‘incoherent.’ The very strange concepts (such as violation of the law of the excluded middle) that are the functioning aspects of quantum theory would likely have been regarded as ‘incoherent’ and unacceptable from the standpoint of 19th-century researchers.

 

14 thoughts on “The Serious Flaws In the Popular Dismissal of Free Will

  1. Ruth Kastner,
    That was as interesting article.
    It reminded me of optogenetics,
    for some reason.
    Is there away that an individual
    can tap into his or her
    own subconscious mind, while awake?
    Rickey Estes

    1. Thanks for reading!
      There are many schools of thought that explore that idea. For example, Peter Ouspensky has done a lot of writing about the idea of expanding one’s awareness in this way.

      1. Re your question about consciousness and collapse: according to my interpretation, all we need is the response of absorber(s) to trigger collapse. Then the issue of ‘where does consciousness come from?” is a separate question. I address this in my blog post “Observation is Measurement, but Measurement is not necessarily Observation”

  2. I was an undergraduate student when I read Carl Jung’s essay “On Psychic Energy”. It inspired me to build from scratch concepts that years later I found out other people call: anticipatory systems (Robert Rosen), the fabric of reality (David Deutsch), constructor theory (David Deutsch and Chiara Marletto), the universal constructor (John von Neumann), general systems theory (Ludwig von Bertalanffy), strange loops (Douglas Hofstadter), indeterminism (Ilya Prigogine), linkage propositions (Len Troncale), incomplete nature (Terrence Deeacon), the possibilist transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics, and others. Every single idea and some others were already real to me before I found them in other people’s work. In my figments of imagination they all looked like pieces of the same puzzle. The problem is that in my case it is just coincidence and I for no real reason had thoughts (with or without free will – it’s probably without because I have concluded that I have free will) identical to other people and as such, after 14 years of trying and failing, I must stop being a bore and kick my addiction of pretending to have any chance to contribute to anything that matters scientifically. The situation is so bad that I don’t even understand what I’ve been failing to understand over and over again.

    This is my final comment here (as if it matters).

    1. Oh Aleks, don’t be discouraged! Please stay in the conversation. You have a very insightful mind, and I appreciate your interest in TI. Actually, if at any point you have concerns about its consistency or its ability to explain quantum phenomena and conceptual puzzles, that would be very important to share.
      And I know what you mean about ideas seeming to have their own reality. I came up with Wheeler’s picture of a single electron ‘weaving’ all of spacetime long before I ever read about it.

  3. Another view is that while we experience forward causal flow from past to future, the universe may have been created from the end back to the beginning. Thus all effects were created first and, working backward toward the beginning, causes actually came later in the process of creation. This would explain why we see evidence of apparent influence from the future in some experiments. It would likewise explain acausal events: effects without causes, including the Creation event itself. From a free will perspective this approach might suggest that we cannot modify an extent reality thus, in that sense, we would not have free will. On the other hand intentions and goals might be thought of as macro targets or forms of final causes which drove the retrocausal creation process and thus in that way we might have influenced how things transpired backward in time as the universe was created.

  4. Arguments against free will make me think of Daniel Dennett, who seems to want to assert that consciousness doesn’t exist, or is an “illusion”.

    I’ll invoke what I think philosophers call a “conceivability” argument: I can’t doubt my own consciousness, and I can’t actually conceive of consciousness without free will. One might respond – of course you can, just imagine yourself passively observing the world with no other thoughts; but I’d still be choosing to focus on my sensory input, rather than think of something else.

    Free will is an aspect of how I experience reality. It’s a qualia, like red; I experience red, therefore red exists. I also experience free will, and in fact we define “free will” as that qualia; so its existence is a tautology.

    I’d say that free will is an aspect of consciousness. I can no more conceive of consciousness without free will than I can conceive of consciusness without the flow of time.

    1. Thanks Jim! I certainly agree that we can focus on what we choose to focus on. But I don’t think we necessarily have to define free will as qualia–that seems unnecessarily restrictive to me. It seems to imply that all we have control over is our choice of what we focus on and experience. It’s possible that we have other sorts of free choices as well. Harris and his ilk want to rule that out, but as I’ve argued, they have failed to do so.

  5. Hi, Ruth. One thing I’ve thought of regarding those thoughts that ‘arrive like visitors at our door’. I’m not sure that we need define them as either, ‘not the product of the self’ (Harris) or ‘visitors the self lets in’ (you–though I realize, of course, that you were suggesting this position as a counterargument to Harris and not as your ultimate theory of mind). Why should the ‘unbidden’ thoughts not be consciously initiated as well? Harris, of course, seems to believe that a free-will-producing conscious self must be a puppet-master which knows everything we are going to think before we think it and then ‘manipulates the strings’ to cause our brains to have the thoughts that the self already had. Harris then concludes (rightly, I think) that such a puppet master does not exist, and then makes the completely unjustified leap that this precludes free will. Yet the conscious-self-as-puppet-master is redundant! What would be the point in thinking if we always knew what our thoughts would be before we had them? I think a better way of looking at it is that every thought is a conscious process (and maybe a process without either a clear beginning or ending), and just because we didn’t know we would have an inspiration before we had it doesn’t mean that the inspiration was not consciously reached; in fact, inspiration might be an instance where the process of consciously searching for an idea (as Einstein did with relativity) is simply ‘accelerated’. As for your larger ‘visitors at the door analogy’ I think it’s valid, in that a ‘higher conscious doorman’ lets in the ‘lower conscious visitors’ –yet I think everything is ultimately conscious.
    Hope you had a good fourth of July, by the way. :)

    1. Thanks Eric, good points. I’m not sure I’d say that everything is conscious–I guess it depends on what POV we’re considering. But yes, Harris is missing the boat in so many ways. And he’s being irresponsible in telling people they don’t have free will based on such weak arguments–especially when there are demonstrated negative consequences for believing this.

  6. I was considering the point of view that consciousness exists as a primitive in nature, in which case everything is conscious in at least some way. Though certainly not everything is ego consciousness–which is probably what you mean by saying ‘not everything is conscious’. Still, I wonder if even the sub-ego layer could be part of a person’s conscious self; and even the ego is likely a many-layered thing–as even Sam Harris’s musings seem to indicate. I think where I’m coming from when I say, ‘Everything is conscious’ is that I am thinking, ‘How would we have all of these discussions if the default state of reality is unconsciousness? We debate the existence of free will, the self and qualia–and I think the idea of qualia as properties independent of physical reality is probably wrong, yet the fact that philosophers’ brains posed their existence in the first place is quite revealing. The experience has to be an active part of reality, or else the brain would not pose the idea that there is an experience that needs to be considered in addition to physical phenomena.
    Another example of what I mean when I say everything is conscious–there was a time in my life when I actually became interested in the question of how aware I was of each word I said BEFORE I said it (Neurotic!!!). I examined my speech and seemed to notice that my fullest awareness came after I heard my own words spoken. A less problematic example is to speak aloud ‘to yourself’ while the TV is on–if the volume is turned up, you’ll sometimes be aware of what was said on TV and NOT of what you muttered to yourself. I do not believe that this proves I am speaking unconsciously, however (in fact I have my own refutation of the ‘TV experiment’ I won’t include here). The point is, I think consciousness exists in layers, and the lowest layer is probably ‘wordless’. (In fact, I think we are all to some extent ‘wordlessly considering’ our word-choices as we speak). Yet if consciousness were not fundamental, what is the explanation for my neurotically examining how aware I am when I speak?

    1. Thanks, interesting. When I referred to a POV I was actually considering the idea that what is ‘conscious’ always has to be defined wrt a POV that is having a particular experience and is thus ‘conscious’ of whatever experience it’s having. So that if we don’t notice where a thought comes from, that doesn’t mean that we didn’t generate it–it just means that our “ego POV” did not experience generating it. So I agree with much of what you say here. Just because an “ego POV” of the kind considered by Harris doesn’t notice where a thought comes from doesn’t mean that some other aspect of his Self didn’t generate the thought. I think this indicates that Harris is working with a very narrow, typically Western Ego-based concept of what the “Self” is.

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