Tag Archives: Sam Harris

Sam Harris and Free Will

By Socrates

Sam Harris wrote a book called Free Will (2012). He argues that freewill is an illusion. A remarkable thought, by Zeus. Harris explains that because our choices are made for us by processes in our brain, we are not free. He asks: “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.”

His argument is straight forward:

Premise 1. If something makes all my decisions for me, then I am not free

Premise 2. My brain makes all my decisions for me

Conclusion. Therefore I am not free

I know that Harris is wise and is surely consistent in his thoughts. That’s why I am confused about this quote. In his artful writing, Harris has generated something of a contradiction. In suggesting that choices were made for him by his brain, he seems to view his “self”, or perhaps more accurately, his mind, as something other than the brain. He is not free because all his decisions are made by something other than himself—his brain. But Harris certainly does not appear to think the self and the brain are separate in his other writing.

Shall we attempt to reword his quote? I do not pretend to be as wise as Harris, so I must beg his forgiveness in my presumption that I can help. But let us reword his quote to align it with his view that the self is the brain, or perhaps more precisely, brain activity. So we will replace the terms “I” and “conscious withness” with “my brain”. The new quote reads: “Did my brain choose coffee over tea? No. The choice was made for my brain by events in my brain that my brain could not inspect or influence.” Worded this way, the problem of free will appears to vanish.

If Harris believes that the self is the brain, then I am my brain. So his argument looks like this:

Premise 1. If something makes all my decisions for me, then I am not free

Premise 2. My brain makes all my decisions for my brain

Premise 3. I am my brain

Conclusion 1. Therefore I make all my decisions for me

Conclusion 2. Therefore I am not free

To my old mind this looks confused. How can it be that I make all my own decisions and yet not be free? I shall therefore propose a new argument:

Premise 1. If something makes its own decisions, it is free

Premise 2. My brain makes its own decisions

Conclusion 1. Therefore my brain is free

Premise 3. I am my brain

Conclusion 2. Therefore I am free

Being unaccustomed to thinking of the mind and brain as the same thing, I may well be misguided in my argument. Nevertheless, I hope my humble thoughts have helped identify a contradiction in Sam Harris’s position.

— Socrates

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Science, what it can’t tell us about morality


By Socrates

How do I behave morally? This has been a central question in my search for wisdom. In recent discussions I have found that some people think that science can answer all questions relevant to human lives. This belief has been called “scientism” and is held in particularly high regard by people such as Sam Harris. But I am not sure it is true. Are all questions answerable by science? Can a scientist tell me how to behave morally? Let us look at how Sam Harris might answer this question.

Based on his writings, Harris is likely to answer the question in the affirmative — yes, a scientist can tell me how to behave morally. If this is true, I may have finally found the wisdom I have been seeking since my time in Athens. Let us examine the argument he puts forward in his wonderful book “The Moral Landscape”:

Premise #1: Morality is all about improving the well-being of conscious creatures

Premise #2: Scientific investigation reveals facts about the well-being of conscious creatures

Conclusion: Therefore scientific investigation reveals facts about what is objectively moral

This is deductively valid. Can Harris use science to answer my ancient question? Let us reword the argument with a specific example.

Premise #1: Morality is all about improving the well-being of conscious creatures

Premise #2: Scientific investigation reveals that altruism improves the well-being of conscious creatures

Conclusion: Therefore scientific investigation reveals that altruism is objectively moral

By Hercules, it appears that Sam Harris has used science to tell me what is moral. But appearances do not always reflect that which is true. To be sure, we must check the premises.

Premise 2 can be easily established through observation. Premise 1, on the other hand, defines what morality is about. Oh dear. I am now afraid that my question has remained unanswered. Harris suggests that science can tell me what is moral, but his argument only works if he starts with a definition of what is moral. That definition is assumed and was not established through science. Harris, therefore, has not explained how science can tell me how to behave morally. It is as if he is saying “Allow me to use science to tell you how to behave morally. But before we begin, we need to state up front that behaving morally is improving the well-being of conscious creatures”.

Harris was promising, but he has not convinced me that science can answer my question. I shall continue my search for wisdom elsewhere.

— Socrates

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