Free Will

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A couple months ago, I read Free by Alfred Mele, who examined the philosophical "free will" controversy. Professor Mele was on the pro-free will side. At the time, I resolved to read someone on the anti-free will side, and here he is: Sam Harris, a relatively famous philosopher/neuroscientist.

It's a short book, with the main text coming in at 66 pages. Acknowledgments, notes, and the index add a couple dozen more. (Still, it's an actual book, and counts toward my yearly total.) I took my time going through it. I wanted to give it a fair shake.

But I was not won over.

Part of the problem was Harris's somewhat surprising sloppiness in language, right from the start. The book opens with a description of a 2007 horrific rape-murder in Cheshire, Connecticut committed by Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky. Harris then considers a thought experiment:

As sickening as I find their behavior, I have to admit that if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him: […]

Wait a minute. That's not right.

What Harris is describing is a entire body swap (the only thing "atom for atom" can possibly mean), kind of a combination of a Star Trek-style transporter with a time machine. But if all the Harris-atoms are magically transported to 2007 Connecticut (while, say, the Komisarjevsky-atoms are transported elsewhere), the result is (simply) Sam Harris. He's incorrect to assert that "I would be him".

So Harris means something other than what he says here. He is not actually proposing an "atom for atom" swap. Instead he's imagining a different magic:

If I had truly been in Komisarjevsky's shoes on July 23, 2007—that is, if I had his genes and life experience and an identical brain (or soul) in an identical state—I would have acted exactly as he did.

From this we can deduce that, far from an "atom for atom" swap, Harris is imagining that nearly nothing is traded. The Komisarjevsky body and brain (with its memories) remains in 2007 Connecticut.

So it's not a Star Trek transporter at all. It's not even like the "Turnabout Intruder" episode of Star Trek where Kirk's personality was switched with that of the homicidal Janice Lester; in that case, Kirk's memories went into Lester's body and vice-versa. (Also: not like either version of Freaky Friday.)

So what does Harris imagine is being traded with Komisarjevsky in his thought experiment?

When Harris uses the personal pronoun "I" above, he is referring to "the conscious witness of my thoughts and actions" (page 7). This is the "I" he imagines is transplanted into the (otherwise intact) murderer's body.

And Harris's position is that this "I" is extremely powerless. It can't stop the 2007 horrors. It's like a toy boat, helplessly tossed on the vast ocean of thoughts, memories, desires, physiology that make up the remainder of our physical bodies, which generate actions that we only imagine are under our conscious control.

Harris relies heavily on the famous experiments of Benjamin Libet, which (he claims) support his assertions that "unconscious causes" in the brain are the true initiator of our volitional acts. Libert's EEG measurements showed telltale neurophysiological activity significantly before his subjects perceived corresponding conscious thoughts. (Interestingly enough, Libet himself was on the pro-free will side, and thought his experiments tended to confirm free will.)

Harris sets a high bar for "free will" (page 13):

Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have complete control over those factors.

Or… not. Isn't Harris making a too-convenient assertion here? Can't free will involve being aware of some (if not all) of the factors that determine my thoughts and actions? Can't free will mean I have incomplete control of some of those factors? This seems to me to be a pretty accurate description of reality, but as near as I can tell, Harris would prefer to refute his absolutist strawman.

A late chapter has gratuitous slams of conservatives. You see, they "often make a religious fetish of individualism". Which Sam is happy to excoriate them for, except the entire rest of the book is an argument that they have no free-will control over such beliefs.

There's more, of course, but this has already gone on too long.