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Disclamer: I am striving to understand the point of view, not to examine if it is right or wrong (makes sense or not, etc.).


I have listened to two audio excerpts by Sam Harris, discussing his views on the concept of free will. (The audios themselves came from Sam's Waking Up app, though I don't think they differ from the views on the subject he expressed elsewhere.)

The point (as I grasped it): there is no such thing as free will. Everything (our thoughts, intentions, motivations, actions etc.) is caused by the external factors, that are out of our control.

I can grasp the viewpoint (as expressed above) with no problem. Though in the same audio excerpts Harris says:

there is a difference though between voluntary and non-voluntary action

and that voluntary actions can be 'deterred'. He also says that:

our beliefs matter, because there is a difference between knowledge and delusion


I don't see how such claims fit together with the idea of absence of free will. Our beliefs would be defined, based on all prior causes. Our actions would be (pre)determined, as well based on prior causes, and they could not be 'deterred'. All we can do in a framework without free will is observe what is happening. We can't even control our judgements about what we are observing (as judgements themselves are based on prior causes).

I read somewhere that most of Sam Harris's philosophical views are sort of distilled from Buddhism, so maybe something similar is stated there as well.

I would like to understand two things:

  1. What is there left to do for an individual accepting absence of free will (as it seems to me it'll be like watching a movie — you can influence nothing, only observe)?
  2. How do ideas of changing one's beliefs and 'voluntary'/'non-voluntary' actions fit in the picture?
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Voluntary vs Involuntary

If you accept Harris's view on free will then it clearly seems that all actions an actor can take are in some sense involuntary, because they were brought about by physical processes that the actor did not have control over. There is however a difference psychologically for the actor. For example, take the following two scenarios:

1) Person A is driving a car, obeying all driving laws, and a cat runs into the road. A, being an extreme cat enthusiast swerves, narrowly missing the cat.

2) Person B is driving a car and sees a cat in the road up ahead, being a staunch dog-lover and cat-hater, B swerves the car and intentionally kills the cat.

Now, both acted the way they did because it was exactly the only way they could act. So are they equally good, equally blame or praise worthy? I would argue yes, we should not judge one more harshly than the other because neither chose the person who they are, it was given to them by the circumstances of the universe. However, I would also argue that B should still be punished because B's action shows us that is in some sense they are the type of person who hits cats when they have the opportunity. While them being this type of person is not their fault it can inform what their future behavior might be like (it at least tells us they are more likely to act this way in the future than A). So perhaps we as a society might judge that B should not be allowed to drive a car so as to prevent further cat catastrophes, but also not morally blame B for acting the way they did.

What is there left for an individual accepting the absence of free will

Cal tech physicist Sean Carrol writes about how, while he from a physics point of view believes that free will does not exist, he thinks that it is a more useful to talk about the world as if it does exist. This can be likened to classical mechanics being a useful way of talking about how a ball will fly through the air, even though using principles general relativity or quantum mechanics is in some sense true-er.

So perhaps in day to day life, unless you are a judge deciding the punitive and moral fate of a cat-killer, it is better to abstract away the lack of free will for a happier existence.

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    "we should not judge one more harshly than the other because neither chose the person who they are," In what way would it be meaningful to use the word "should" in this context, especially since this framework will indicate that those who judge do so as a result of physical processes, not as the result of free will. – Don Branson Jul 18 at 18:40
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    @Don Branson it means that people who will make decisions taking into account the fact that person B acted without free will will make a more informed decision. Yet, you are right to point that our language is riddled with "free will friendly" formulations and idioms. Another exemple of how every day language is charged is the theory of evolution: almost anybody could accept the sentence "crabs have a carapace to protect them", although it makes no sense. From a strict evolutionary viewpoint, one should say "crabs have a carapace which happen to protect them", quite an unnatural mouthful. – armand Jul 19 at 1:49
  • @DonBranson I use should in the sense that a world where we act in the way outlined above is, to me, preferable to a world in which we do not. I do not think we can enact that change, due to our lack of free will, but we can still prefer a moral world rather than an immoral one. For example, if you live in another country besides the US you have pretty much no way of deciding who is elected to be president of the united states (or at least assume that for argument's sake) but, despite this lack of control, you might still prefer one candidate over another. – Zane Koch Jul 19 at 15:54
  • @ZaneKoch Hmm. There's a contradiction with your post. The word "should" is an indicator, but not the core issue, though armand seems focused on that. Your comment continues in this contradictory vein when it calls for the existence of morality in the absence of free will. Chemical reactions and physical interaction are completely amoral. – Don Branson Jul 19 at 16:19
  • I doubt you would dispute that these chemical and physical interaction create consciousness in many groups of particles -- humans included. Consciousness then precipitates various states of being (suffering, happiness). As a being that experiences these states I can clearly identify those that I prefer. The fact that I do not control the creation of these states or preferences does not make them any less real. From these preferences of conscious beings I think a system of morality can be constructed, but I do not claim to know how to take into account everythings' preferences to do so. – Zane Koch Jul 19 at 17:30
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Listening to audio version of a book by Sam Harris, aptly titled "Free will", somewhat clarified his views on the subject, for me.


Below are answers to my own questions, based on understanding I have gained.

  1. What is there left to do for an individual accepting absence of free will (as it seems to me it'll be like watching a movie — you can influence nothing, only observe)?
    • What helped me grasp this one, was understanding that Harrise's point is that cause of our own actions, intentions, thoughts etc. is out of our control, rather than pre-determined (the objective reality might still be that it is, in fact, pre-determined, but the focus is on the fact that they are out of our control). One might draw analogy with experience of meditation, when things that we do not control (e.g. sounds or thoughts, for that matter), simply arise and go away (we can not know where they come from and were they are passing to); so: yes our thoughts and intentions control our actions, but where the former come from — we can not know. With that said, the question itself is "invalid", if there is no free will — we simply will do what we will and there is no way to "do" something otherwise (this, by the way, includes "(not) accepting absence of free will").

      Finally, here is a quote from the book, somewhat, related to the question:

      This gives rise to questions like “If everything is determined, why should I do anything? Why not just sit back and see what happens?” This is pure confusion. To sit back and see what happens is itself a choice that will produce its own consequences. It is also extremely difficult to do: Just try staying in bed all day waiting for something to happen; you will find yourself assailed by the impulse to get up and do something, which will require increasingly heroic efforts to resist.

  2. How do ideas of changing one's beliefs and 'voluntary'/'non-voluntary' actions fit in the picture?

    • Statement "our beliefs matter" does not mean we can control them. They do matter, as they will directly influence our actions, but we, again, can not control their arising and/or declining.
    • And here is a quote from the book, which answers 'voluntary'/'non-voluntary' actions part:

      There is a distinction between voluntary and involuntary actions, of course, but it does nothing to support the common idea of free will (nor does it depend upon it). A voluntary action is accompanied by the felt intention to carry it out, whereas an involuntary action isn’t.

      So, action being 'voluntary' or 'non-voluntary' just reflects feelings of an individual, who performed the action, towards the action itself (which individual can have, despite absence of free will).

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