Saturday, 20 May 2017

Free Will: A Response to Sam Harris

Free Will: A Response to Sam Harris
Kurt Keefner 

Sam Harris’s Free Will (Simon & Schuster, 2012) crams lot of ideas that I find irrational. Consider these lines from the beginning of the book:

“Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control.”

Harris claims that a murderer may not be responsible for his choices, and that a brain tumor may transform a normal man into a murderer:

"Imagine this murderer is discovered to have a brain tumor in the appropriate spot in his brain that could explain his violent impulses. That is obviously exculpatory. We view him as a victim of his biology, and our moral intuitions shift automatically. But I would argue that a brain tumor is just a special case of physical events giving rise to thoughts and actions, and if we fully understood the neurophysiology of any murderer's brain, that would be as exculpatory as finding a tumor in it.”

Kurt Keefner’s monograph Free Will: A Response to Sam Harris offers good arguments to show that Harris’s ideas on free will make no sense. In what follows, I will give a brief account of Keefner's philosophical case. In the first chapter, “Why It Matters,” Keefner points out that if we take free will as an illusion and the rational world as deterministic then hardworking and enterprising men will not get the credit for their success, and the serial murderers won’t be blamed for their depravities.

According to Keefner, the roots of Harris’s denial of free will lie in his dualism. While Harris does not believe in body and soul dichotomy like Descartes, he is still a dualist in a broader sense because he believes that the self constitutes of pure consciousness and unconscious processes. The idea of separating the pure consciousness from the unconscious, says Keefner, is “a philosophical move, even a theological move, but not a scientific one. His preposition that consciousness is “pure” is what underwrites his version of determinism.”

Consciousness is an attribute of an organism—it cannot exist on its own. The separation between pure consciousness and unconscious processes has no basis in science. In the chapter 3, “The Integrated Self,” Keefner identifies four levels of consciousness:

“There are non-conscious processes, such as the filtration of blood by the kidneys and the neural process that give rise to perception. Next there are the unconscious processes, such as our knowing how to speak our own language without being able to enunciate the rules of grammar explicitly. Third are the preconscious processes, such as remembering my sister’s name when I’m not thinking about her. Fourth are the conscious processes such as looking at my computer or taking about free will.”

All four processes of consciousness are fully integrated with the organism. “To act consciously is also to act preconsciously, unconsciously and non-consciously. They are a nested hierarchy. Being conscious intrinsically involves processes one is not directly conscious of. The idea of a “pure” consciousness is a fiction unrelated to real awareness.”

But with his idea of a dichotomy between conscious self and the unconscious self in place, Harris goes on to deduce the argument that “if any factor outside our awareness determines any part of our thoughts and actions, we don’t have free will.” This is an invalid argument and Keefner points out that “there is no reason why unconscious forces could not shape part of our mental lives while we consciously exercise some kind of decisive control.”

To defend his theory that the brain makes decisions before consciousness becomes aware of them, Harris uses the experiments conducted by the physiologist Benjamin Libet. But Keefner questions the validity of Libet’s experiments—he points out that it is illogical to see consciousness separately from the brain. “On the integrated view of the self, a conscious decision is something a person makes, not parts or aspects of a person, like a brain or a consciousness.”

On Harris’s controversial contention that murderers are not responsible for their actions, Keefner says that “such men often have exceptional disorders that diminish their power of choice so that their situation is not relevant to rest of us. Also, criminals are not known for their power of introspection—which may be part of the reason they become criminals in the first place—and thus their cases cannot be generalized to ours.”

While refuting Harris’s idea that free will is illusion, Keefner does not aim to prove the existence of free will. This is because “free will” is an axiomatic concept, like consciousness—you can’t prove the existence of free will for the same reason for which you can’t prove the existence of consciousness. Free will cannot be proved, but it can be observed. In the chapter, “Conclusion,” Keefner says:

“Apparently, for Harris if human beings are not created in the image of God, they are squalid animals driven by dark urges for things like beer and murder. Reason is not worth considering as a motivation. For Harris we not only do not have the dignity of being free, we do not even have the dignity of being intelligent. This diminution of man is actually worse than that of some religions.”

I will end this article with a question to Harris: Does he enjoy the fact that he is a successful writer and not a murderer? Well, I am sure he does.

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