Free Will: A Devil’s Advocacy

Here are some thoughts on Sam Harris’ Free Will that weren’t in my review. I hope you get a kick out of them.

Much of the strength of Harris’ argument rests on the weak shoulders of the concept of free will, which is vague, flimsy, and usually inadequate. The popular concept of free will, in this sense, is similar to the popular concept of God, which is often argued over but rarely defined. His point, briefly, is that we all inherit accidental conditions when we’re born and throughout our lives that define the range of our experience and reactions. We have no control over these conditions and therefore our will can never be truly “free”.

What Harris does best is to present an argument to the popular, “common sense” assumptions about free will (much like he does with God in this “debate” with a confused Deepak Chopra). Harris’ argument constantly pleads for a causal look at physical phenomena and evidence-based conclusions. He shows over and over again that there is no real evidence to support free will.

Some of the semantic elements of his presentation did not sit right with me, however, so I’ll outline a few of these issues as I see them. I welcome comments and opinions, as I am nothing like an authority on any of these issues. If it’s a bit fragmented, that’s because I agreed with most of what he said, and only took issue here and there.

“Free will is an illusion.”

Rather than open with a working definition of free will—which would put people on the same page immediately, even if it were a weak definition—Harris says that free will IS an illusion. This is his thesis statement. But the “Is”, in this case, as in all subject-predicate propositions, over-extends its authority. When we say what something is, what exactly do we mean?

I can predicate all I want, but my statements will never cover all the facts of reality. I can talk about some fundamental, permanent property in an object, and I can make a definitive judgment about objects—say, “the grass is green”—but my judgment doesn’t close the issue altogether and won’t necessarily be true under all conditions (green grass viewed under a red light appears black).

How do I know what something is? I look, or in the case of a priori phenomena, I intuit and reason. I can sense features of the object of inquiry, but I can never know everything about it. Better I should declare my judgment in terms of my frame of reference. The subject-predicate “is” misleads because it unconsciously assumes ultimate, objective authority and falls prey to misguided is/is-not dual logic.

If I translate his “is” claim with this in mind, it becomes “free will appears as an illusion to me.” This simple and honest change of wording strips his argument of its tone of authority. The “to me” implies his epistemology (i.e. free will appears as an illusion according to principles 1, 2, 3, etc.). We shouldn’t speak authoritatively about facts as though they exist alone in a vacuum. I prefer arguments that avoid claiming what something “is” and instead describe the world as it actually works, through verbs expressing process-transactions with an observer.

“There are no self-sustained facts, floating in nonentity.” – Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality

The other issue I have with his claim is this: labeling a persistent fact “an illusion” doesn’t make the illusion go away. Even if we wholeheartedly buy Harris’ argument, we still feel free to make the choices presented to us. Calling free will an illusion doesn’t diminish the fact that I make conscious decisions that affect my future. The term “illusion” is not so firm a concept that Average Joe can’t easily misapply it. People will continue to live just as they did before, even if they adjust their assumptions about how much freedom is actually involved.

Hindus believe that the phenomenological world is an illusion, that our senses obscure true divine reality. But Hindus still live with the phenomenological world of sense every day. We can reason away sensations as merely neurological events, but this does little to take us out of the experience of that illusion. I find this thought echoing in my head when Harris writes, “[e]ither our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them” because a similar line of reasoning likely led the Hindus to develop their metaphysics of karma.


On this issue I am confused, and I would be happy if someone would clear things up for me. If I accept that physics can explain everything that exists, then material facts must be responsible for false beliefs. If I believe trolls control reality through magic, this belief is explained as an outcome of weird biology or neurochemical activity (psychosis, bad drugs, etc.). So the physical facts of my brain are responsible for my subjective misreading of the world around me. This underlines the importance of communicating my judgments in terms of my own frames of reference (i.e. “I am going under the Great Bridge when I die, according to my beliefs, because I paid the toll and the trolls have chosen me.”).

Science is a semantic activity first and foremost; although it aims at objectivity, empirical testing should always refer to the observer applying tests to the facts at hand (i.e. “Under these conditions, I noticed X.”). The more observers corroborate a fact, the higher the probability that the next observer will see the same thing and further corroborate the observation. By this, the scientific method, we approach facts and laws. But the point here is that experience is the only measure of reality. We can say nothing meaningful about an unobserved world, and if we do we are confusing inference for fact. Free Will takes advantage of this tactic, frequently using absolute, objective language when it is not possible to have absolute, objective knowledge. His use of absolute language is obviously a linguistic dilemma. It doesn’t mean that I disagree with the spirit of his argument.

I will quote him as an example: “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.” Remove superlatives from this sentence. “Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of some of the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need some control over those factors.” Well, we are aware of some of the factors, and we do have some control, so the statement simply begs the definition of “free”. In this case, “free” doesn’t mean “completely free”, but there is wiggle room for free will if we admit that we have some freedom in our conscious actions.

I’d like to return to my question: are thoughts and semantics purely material? Can the various levels of abstraction, the nuance and individuality of human brains and nervous systems be completely accounted for with only empirical evidence? I don’t think so. If you take strict material determinism as your view, you do not have the empirical evidence to claim that all of human experience can be explained by physics, even if it really, really seems that way.

There seems to be some missing explanation, some mystery that translates these so-called simple neuronal firings into complex visible, audible, tactile experiences that we can actually think about in infinite (indefinite) degrees of abstraction. It’s easy to say, “Thought A is caused by the firing of neuron X,” but a thought has a subjective, omni-valent presentation to it and a neuronal firing does not. How consciousness translates neuronal firings into experience seems mostly mysterious to me.

We can measure the brain activity of someone who is meditating or sleeping or doing a puzzle or looking at a red Chevy Nova. We can get reams of data, collated and colour-coded, and that makes us think we have the facts. But try going the other way here. Try looking at brain activity on the page and tell me exactly what it is like to live in that brain, complete with all itinerant facts, all the memories of each element of the event, the fantasies the person calls up consciously and unconsciously because of personal, historical correspondences, etc. It’s impossible. Numbers and data are not experience itself. Math and science are only models of experience. They are usually more correct models than primitive superstitions, sure, but still only models.

If beliefs have a material basis, the materialist says his nervous system and brain is more correct than a faith-based person’s nervous system. But both generate models for consideration. New and different models help guide us toward understanding reality as long as we eventually eliminate the false models. There will always be new models of reality because models reflect our collective subjectivity, which evolves and reacts to environmental conditions. To ossify any one model into dogma is to insist on an end to our development in understanding reality.

The Neuroscience of Consciousness

Harris refers several times to the fact that brain scans reveal activity significantly sooner than a person feels he has made a decision. “These findings are difficult to reconcile with the sense that we are the conscious authors of our actions.” But is it possible that the complexity of the brain and nervous system, with our conscious and unconscious abstractions on multiple levels, simply takes longer to register cogently in consciousness than it does to register on an EEG? We don’t know of a more complex machine than the brain/CNS. Since all signals travel at finite speeds, might the time delay be explained by the abstract processing and reprocessing, the neuronal and physiological feedback loops we perform unconsciously to fit events into our worldviews?

He notes that seemingly random neuronal firing originating in the brain has been observed. But how do we know something is random? We call a signal random if it doesn’t follow our idea of patterned stimulus (in this case, it doesn’t fit our ideas of material determinism). Of course, what appears random may in fact be purposeful and not random at all. Pi, for instance, looks like a completely random string of numbers (3.141592654…), but we know it isn’t random. It signifies a concrete relation.

If I were to argue for the existence of a soul, I might argue this so-called random firing is not random at all, but direct material evidence of the soul’s activity. The neural action rises from unknown causes in a manner that material determinism can’t explain. Of course if I were to make this argument, I would be stepping outside of the materialist paradigm. Naturally, using a complete unknown as “proof” for anything is totally backwards…but weirder arguments have been made (by Deepak Chopra).

Since it would be impossible to trace all the contributing factors in any decision, many human activities must seem on paper to be randomly generated (from a window of possibilities, tendencies, etc.). If there was an immaterial soul and free will, it would be immeasurable and we could only detect its impulses after the impulse worked through the nervous system and was processed on different levels of abstraction, so the conscious mind might be the last to know of the soul’s impetus.


While Harris can safely kill the concept of “freedom” in any argument for free will, he concedes that we do have will and we do make conscious decisions that affect our futures. Our apparent “freedom” falls within a bracket of possibilities. But with intellectual and/or spiritual growth, we continually understand more of our unconscious tendencies and open the window of possible outcomes, thereby increasing our freedom.

“Willpower is itself a biological phenomenon. You can change your life, and yourself, through effort and discipline—but you have whatever capacity for effort and discipline you have in this moment, and not a scintilla more (or less).”

Even arguing against free will, Harris believes willpower exists and is effective. Rather than thinking about humanity as a purely clockwork organism, he grants that our wills are unique to us and we do have a measure of control over our own lives.

     “A creative change of inputs to the system—learning new skills, forming new relationships, adopting new habits of attention—may radically form one’s life.               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 bit 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).”

So Harris’ argument hasn’t damaged our humanity, it has just given us an honest look at what we mean when we say we are free. We definitely are not completely free, and there is no conceivable behavior we can adopt to prove we are free from background causes.

He is a neuroscientist, and his arguments imply material determinism, as when he says, “if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him: There is no extra part of me that could decide to see the world differently…” So although he seems to write as though agnostic about the existence of a soul, Free Will is in fact an argument against the soul. This hidden message shouldn’t surprise anyone, as he is the founder of Project Reason, and their modus operandi is to spread science and secular values to the world.

Free Will is a fine piece of work and I recommend it. It does away with a shabby, ill-defined concept in favor of evidence-based conclusions. It might seem a colder way to look at the world, but feeling cold or feeling warm and fuzzy doesn’t change the facts of reality. Nor does his work strip us of spirituality. I am eager to read Harris’ upcoming book, Waking Up: Science, Skepticism, Spirituality, due in 2014.

Change Your Brain – Pt. 1

One of the most exciting areas of modern science is the study of neuroplasticity. Neurologists and behaviorists have known for decades that most behaviors are learned through repetition. Synapses fire between neurons when the brain is working, and after enough repetition these neurons form relatively permanent bonds.

In recent years scientists have been showing us that brain training is not just reserved for psychologists, behaviorists, or neurologists. Meaningful change is available for everyone. Neuroplasticity is for the end-user, meaning those of us who have brains.

When we think of changes we would like to make in our lives, few of us choose things that are impossible. I doubt serious people get depressed because they cannot levitate themselves or read minds clearly. Most often the changes we would like to see are practical – we want more money, a change in career, or to be happier.

Real changes like this are achievable, and the answers to our problems are often obvious. Work hard and ask for a raise, find a better job, stop sweating the small stuff. But we are all creatures of habit and often lasting changes like these can seem unattainable. The reason these changes seem unattainable is because our neurons are simply not used to firing in the particular way we want. This means that even conceiving of life as we would like it to be is a challenge to our existing thought patterns.

If we agree that behaviors are learned through training, reiteration, and neurological fortification, why should any realistic change be out of reach? Being unfamiliar with something is a lame excuse not to try it and we all know it. If we want change we should be willing to challenge the things we value, to reassess things we find distasteful, and to search out ideas we haven’t even heard of.

These three books challenged my beliefs and enriched my mind.

"The Sacred and the Profane"1. The Sacred and the Profane by Mircea Eliade

Mircea Eliade is a Romanian scholar who takes an academic approach to spiritual problems. He has written profoundly on yoga, shamanism, mythology and philosophy. The Sacred and the Profane is a study of holiness, giving new language to concepts I previously only intuited. With incredible scholarship Eliade relates the idea of the “sacred” with time, space, and psychology in a way that simply makes sense. The approach to the sacerdotal is likened to erecting a pillar in space. This pillar is obviously not literal, but extends away from the world toward our conception of the “holy”. This justifies the idea of holy places and non-temporal states of being while placing them firmly in our secular world. I would recommend this book to atheists and materialists.


"The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind"2. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes

This groundbreaking work posits that early man actually spoke with the gods, as most ancient literature asserts. It asks why early literature is replete with references to the gods, why most theurgic speech comes in metered form, and why this is much less common now. The thesis is that the human brain was different back then – that the right and left hemispheres of the brain were more distantly connected because the corpus callosum had not yet solidified as a bridging structure between the lobes – and that the so-called dialogue with gods was actually the two hemispheres of the brain communicating with each other. This sounds far out, but this long essay puts forward a fascinating argument that sheds new light on ancient history. What this means if true is that our conception of human consciousness as something that has gradually evolved since the time of the neanderthal is wrong, and that human consciousness as we know it is a relatively new phenomenon on earth. This is the kind of book that, while you read it, your eyebrows raise higher and higher. Since I have heard nothing like this theory anywhere else, I recommend this book to anyone.


"Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer"3. Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer by Dr. John Lilly

Using computer language, this beautiful, bizarre little manual describes the behavioral patterns of our body-brain complex (the biocomputer), and implies how we might reprogram our software (ideas and behavioral patterns) to achieve personal change. The language can seem tough to wrap one’s head around at first, but there’s nothing quite like learning a new jargon to get those synapses firing in new ways. The book also talks about metaprograms, which are the subconscious routines that set the table for behavioral programs. For example, I will be less likely to appreciate hip-hop (program) if I am subconsciously racist against black people (metaprogram). Once the learning curve of language is mounted this book reads like a slender, elegant volume of instructions on creating new behaviors. Recommended for wordy sad-sacks.