Determinism 13 – The Psychological Motives for Philosophical Views and Sam Harris’ Free Will

In this great piece of philosophical polemic (it starts with “What is the silliest claim ever made?”), Galen Strawson draws attention to the psychological benefits philosophers might gain from maintaining certain positions, the weaknesses in human rationality that allow or lead them to do so, and the – possibly unintended – political consequences.

Psychologically, he suspects that:

“it can seem exciting to hold views that seem preposterously contrary to common sense – there’s something Oedipally thrilling about it when the father is an old gentleman called Ordinary Opinion. Herbert Feigl adds another psychoanalytic note: ‘Scholars can cathect [or invest] certain ideas so strongly and their outlook becomes so ego involved that they erect elaborate barricades of defences, merely to protect their pet ideas from the blows (or the slower corrosive effects) of criticism.”

I assume that when we ask ourselves the questions whether we have free will, or not; whether we are entirely determined, or not; and what the consequences are if we answer these questions either way, we have to be on our guard against wanting so hard to answer them in a certain way merely in order to fulfil psychological needs that we blind ourselves against weaknesses in our thinking.

On the one hand, you’d expect us to be heavily invested in the idea that we are somehow in charge of our own lives, that our choices and decisions are ours and that we are – poetically speaking – the “captains of our souls.”

On the other hand maintaining a hard determinist position that we are entirely predetermined in our actions, can be exciting and thrilling, in that it probably goes against ordinary opinion. (I say “probably” because it’s reckless to assume that one has a firm grasp on what ordinary opinion is.)

But it also has the psychologically soothing effect of allowing us to believe that none of the things we think have gone wrong in our lives, none of the areas where we feel we have let ourselves down, and none of the extent to which we feel we have failed to live up to our promise, are in a meaningful way down to choices we made. (There is a flipside in that none of our successes would be due to anything particular merit of ours either. But I imagine that most people are happy to buy the ability to forgive themselves for the mountain of their real or perceived failings at the cost of greater modesty about the molehill of their achievements. Either that, or they just manage to supress the flipside.)

Even more than that, being able to preach that message of hard determinism to the masses, gaining excited followers who are keen to reap determinism’ self-exculpatory benefits, must be quite satisfactory in its own right. I imagine that this fuels to some extent the modern popular revival of Stoicism much embraced by bloggers and podcasters.

Looking at one of the more famous books arguing for a deterministic world view, Sam Harris’ “Free Will,” we can see some of the strange effects of really, really wanting to be able to argue that certain things are true.

According to Harris, “the popular conception of free will seems to rest on two assumptions: (1) that each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past, and (2) that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present.” He claims that both these assumptions are false.

Harris argues for determinism on the general metaphysical basis that nothing happens without causation and the more specific physical and neurophysiological claims that brain processes cause our actions, and that we’re not aware of those processes until the actions are well under way. He quotes in support of his position, among other things, the famous 1980s experiment by Benjamin Libet (which I discussed here – Spoiler alert: Libet didn’t think that his experiments support the notion that we don’t have free will). “One fact now seems indisputable:” Harris claims, “Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next – a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please – your brain has already determined what you will do.”

In Harris’ own life, his lack of free will manifests in particular ways. For example, he says:

“I generally start each day with a cup of coffee or tea—sometimes two. This morning, it was coffee (two). Why not tea? I am in no position to know. I wanted coffee more than I wanted tea today, and I was free to have what I wanted. Did I consciously choose coffee over tea? No. The choice was made for me by events in my brain that I, as the conscious witness of my thoughts and actions, could not inspect or influence. Could I have “changed my mind” and switched to tea before the coffee drinker in me could get his bearings? Yes, but this impulse would also have been the product of unconscious causes. Why didn’t it arise this morning? Why might it arise in the future? I cannot know. The intention to do one thing and not another does not originate in consciousness—rather, it appears in consciousness, as does any thought or impulse that might oppose it.”

In another episode he relates:

“For instance, in my teens and early twenties I was a devoted student of the martial arts. I practiced incessantly and taught classes in college. Recently, I began training again, after a hiatus of more than 20 years. Both the cessation and the renewal of my interest in martial arts seem to be pure expressions of the freedom that Nahmias attributes to me. I have been under no “unreasonable external or internal pressure.” I have done exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to stop training, and I stopped. I wanted to start again, and now I train several times a week. All this has been associated with conscious thought and acts of apparent self-control. However, when I look for the psychological cause of my behavior, I find it utterly mysterious. Why did I stop training 20 years ago? Well, certain things just became more important to me. But why did they become more important to me—and why precisely then and to that degree? And why did my interest in martial arts suddenly reemerge after decades of hibernation? I can consciously weigh the effects of certain influences—for instance, I recently read Rory Miller’s excellent book Meditations on Violence. But why did I read this book? I have no idea. And why did I find it compelling? And why was it sufficient to provoke action on my part (if, indeed, it was the proximate cause of my behavior)? And why so much action? I’m now practicing two martial arts and also training with Miller and other self-defense experts. What in hell is going on here? Of course, I could tell a story about why I’m doing what I’m doing—which would amount to my telling you why I think such training is a good idea, why I enjoy it, etc.—but the actual explanation for my behavior is hidden from me.”

“It is perfectly obvious that I, as the conscious witness of my experience, am not the deep cause of it,” Harris concludes. And, of course, this kind of argument holds not only true for relatively trivial matters such as our choice of morning beverage and hobbies, but also more serious actions someone might take:

If a man’s choice to shoot the president is determined by a certain pattern of neural activity, which is in turn the product of prior causes—perhaps an unfortunate coincidence of bad genes, an unhappy childhood, lost sleep, and cosmic-ray bombardment—what can it possibly mean to say that his will is “free”?

These examples look odd to me: First of all, it’s difficult to imagine that Harris lacks the capacity for in introspection and reflection to the degree that he claims. Secondly, it is not clear to me why he thinks that the “story about why I’m doing what I’m doing” which amounts to giving good reasons for his actions, could not be the actual explanation for his behaviour, at least some of the time. Surely reflecting on why he thinks something is a good idea and why he enjoys an activity, would at least have potential to reveal something about the explanation for his behaviour, even if he wanted to go on to claim that these weren’t the motivating factors in the first place.

But then, when Harris wants to sell us the benefits of believing that we have no free will, things get even more odd:

Becoming sensitive to the background causes of one’s thoughts and feelings can – paradoxically – allow for greater creative control over one’s life. It is one thing to bicker with your wife because you are in a bad mood; it is another to realize that your mood and behavior have been caused by low blood sugar. This understanding reveals you to be a biochemical puppet, of course, but it also allows you to grab hold of one of your strings: A bite of food may be all that your personality requires. Getting behind our conscious thoughts and feelings can allow us to steer a more intelligent course through our lives (while knowing, of course, that we are ultimately being steered).

Suddenly now, we can become sensitive to the causes of our thoughts and feelings when before we couldn’t tell why we wanted coffee or decided to spend a lot of time practising martial arts. How can we now realise that our bad mood has been caused by low blood sugar levels, when before we couldn’t even trust ourselves to identify the motivating reasons for how we spent a large chunk of our leisure time? Not only can we identify low blood sugar as the precise cause of our bad mood now, but we can also seemingly decide to counteract it with a bite of food (that is the implication of what Harris says, though he doesn’t explicitly say it). First Harris asks us to completely surrender to the idea that our actions are caused by factors we can’t be conscious of, now he tells us we can choose to take a bite of food, so that we don’t take our bad mood out on others. Not only can we suddenly make choices, but we can steer an entire intelligent course through our lives. Claiming that it is all a quaint paradox, doesn’t make it any less contradictory.

And then when he talks about the criminal justice system and moral responsibility, things continue to be a little bit self-contradictory. He wants to sell us the benefits of giving up our notion of free will, whilst persuading us that we can still keep hold of our ideas about moral responsibility and our custom of imprisoning people for crimes.

Some of the things he says about this are:

“What we condemn most in another person is the conscious intention to do harm.”

“Degrees of guilt can still be judged by reference to the facts of a case: the personality of the accused, his prior offenses, his patterns of association with others, his use of intoxicants, his confessed motives with regard to the victim, etc. If a person’s actions seem to have been entirely out of character, this might influence our view of the risk he now poses to others. If the accused appears unrepentant and eager to kill again, we need entertain no notions of free will to consider him a danger to society.”

“Why is the conscious decision to do another person harm particularly blameworthy? Because what we do subsequent to conscious planning tends to most fully reflect the global properties of our minds—our beliefs, desires, goals, prejudices, etc. If, after weeks of deliberation, library research, and debate with your friends, you still decide to kill the king—well, then killing the king reflects the sort of person you really are. The point is not that you are the ultimate and independent cause of your actions; the point is that, for whatever reason, you have the mind of a regicide.”

Now, those making moral judgements about others, and the criminal justice system, somehow have access to personality, personal history, patterns of activity, and confessed motives. They can make judgements based on expressed intentions, beliefs, desires, goals, prejudices, etc.. But, according to Harris, we don’t even have access to our own intentions.

And why didn’t it occur to us earlier to look at our past actions, beliefs, desires and so on, when we were looking to work out why we suddenly found ourselves doing martial arts in our free time, or when we tried to work out why we’re drinking tea on some mornings, and coffee on others? Granted, sometimes others find it easier to analyse our patterns of activities than we do ourselves. But Harris is claiming that we have no insight into our inner life, while others can somehow systematically use their insight into us to judge us morally, or take what we say about our motives to be reliable enough to decide whether society should be protected from us.

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2 thoughts on “Determinism 13 – The Psychological Motives for Philosophical Views and Sam Harris’ Free Will”

  1. We read Harris’s book in Richard Carrier’s on-line course on free will. I ran into a similar problem with Sam’s position which I noted in my write-up of chapter 4:

    Harris appears to be waffling back and forth in chapter 4, Choices, Efforts, Intentions.

    From the beginning of the chapter he asserts (a) the importance of distinguishing voluntary from involuntary actions, and then (b) erases that distinction by convincing you that you are not really in control of anything, but that it only “feels” or “seems” like you are. Instead he suggests we are pawns being controlled by dark (page 34) and mysterious (page 43) forces.

    On page 32, he speaks of the “apparent reality of choices, freely made” and then suggests that “from a deeper perspective” our “thoughts simply arise unauthored and yet author our actions.”

    Then he comes back offering us free will again in the next sentence, “This is not to say that conscious awareness and deliberative thinking serve no purpose. Indeed, much of our behavior depends on them.”

    And then he takes it away again when he says, “This process of conscious deliberation, while different from unconscious reflex, offers no foundation for freedom of will.” (page 33)

    And then gives it back in the discussion of fatalism when he says, “To sit back and see what happens is itself a choice that will produce its own consequences.” (page 33-34)
    And he claims to be the “primary cause” of writing his own book (page 34), affirming that “Decisions, intentions, efforts, goals, willpower, etc., are causal states of the brain, leading to specific behaviors, and behaviors lead to outcomes in the world.” In other words, we, ourselves really do cause stuff.

    But attempts to take it all back in the next sentence when speaking of you, “But the next choice you make will come out of the darkness of prior causes that you, the conscious witness of your experience, did not bring into being.”

    It’s enough to make you dizzy — which is probably a nice state to increase suggestibility in the reader. 🙂

  2. I admit I haven’t read Harris’ book but I’ve listened to a number of podcasts and lectures/debates with him. I simply cannot understand the difference between having conscious control of your body and of being the body that is exerting force in the Universe. Is he just saying that he is not responsible for choosing coffee because he didn’t choose his biological make-up?

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