Sam Harris, Free Will, the Brain and Me (or You)

Two items of information have popped up close together on my personal timeline which seem to shine a bright light on the long-debated question of determinism, so staunchly advocated by Sam Harris in his book ‘Free Will’, which I haven’t read and don’t need to read since he has already paraded the gaping flaws in his argument on YouTube.

The delightful Philosophy Tube (thanks Holly) led me to an address by Mr Harris in which he trotted out what seems to be his schtick: free will is an illusion because we don’t create our thoughts, they just occur as a result of all the previous influences coming to bear on the instant of their arising in our brain. Since we don’t create our thoughts, says he, we’re not responsible for them and the idea that we control our mind and therefore our consequent decisions and actions is an illusion.

I was irritated that in both the presentations I viewed that no-one thought to challenge his conflation of spontaneous thoughts with what is clearly a subsequent volitional process. “You might be sitting there, listening to me, trying to pay attention, and you have the thought, ‘Yeah, he does look a bit like Ben Stiller,’” he joked. This is true, but he fails to note that you then have a choice: wander along that pathway – ‘Hmm, I don’t think he’s as funny though, he’s taller,’ whatever –  or tell yourself to stop and pay attention to the content he’s delivering. Nothing advanced by Mr Harris even starts to convince me that this subsequent decision is pre-determined by all previous influential causes. In fact, he doesn’t even raise the subject, perfectly happy to treat random thoughts and deliberation as the same thing. But we all know they are not. Yes, thoughts pop up. But then we – we! – take over. We exercise judgement, draw conclusions, not at all as a deterministic process but by the exercise of will. Free will. Obviously our previous life experience, our genes, whatever, will influence this, but the choosing part is something we are absolutely in charge of.

Volition arises out of desire. What do we want? Science, experience have amply demonstrated that within certain limits we can train ourselves to want certain things and not to want others, the obvious case being addictions. We learn to want something that we previously had no interest in. Millions work every day at ‘becoming better people’ and many succeed. Action-reward feedback cycles kick in. We weed the old lady’s garden, feel good, do it again because we want to, become a better person. We make choices that changes us.

Harris would say that this is also deterministic, because it’s all just synapses arising out of previous synapses in an ineluctable, iron train of events.

For starters we can confound this proposition by using a logical trick. Our every brain moment, says Harris, is nothing more than the product of our past. Therefore our life runs on rails we can do nothing about. Determinism rules.

But life isn’t like that. We can and often do choose randomness, buying a lottery ticket being the obvious example. (I suspect Mr Harris has never bought a lottery ticket.) After that, what happens is greatly influenced by chance. So much for determinism.

But I am sure it’s all just a blind alley anyway because Harris commits a greater sin of conflation, equating the mind with the brain. No-one has ever established that the mind is equivalent to the brain. Harris boldly declares that science says they are the same thing but that is simply not true. The mind certainly operates within the sphere of the brain but it has yet to be scientifically demonstrated that they are the same thing.  In fact we are still not even sure what the mind is.

On the contrary, the other tidbit that came my way would seem to indicate, in a perfectly ‘scientific’ manner, that they are not. Recently a team from Nottingham University conducted research on people who had suffered cardiac arrest and survived. Of the 140 interviewed 37% said that they had coherent, memorable experiences while clinically dead. The brain shuts down within 30 seconds of the heart’s stopping. Yet these people went on having intelligible, often out-of-body experiences after this time limit. One interviewee experienced himself floating above the scene, in a corner, watching and hearing everything that was going on. He recalled a machine beeping twice.

His precise description of the scene was supported by those present. The machine he heard beeps once every three minutes. This man continued as some sort of entity, clearly with a mind, when his brain was dead, his body lying with its eyes having ceased to send signals to his brain. Yet he saw, for a period of at least three minutes.

Let’s just pick at this to be certain we understand its significance. For something to be scientifically provable, it has to be repeatable under the same set of conditions. But scientific proof is not the same thing as truth. If a pig flies once, somewhere, even if no-one sees it, then it is the truth that pigs can fly. It has not been scientifically demonstrated, proved, but it is the truth. This man, dead, continued to have conscious experiences. These were the same experiences, seen from another perspective, that the live people were having in the same time and place. It is not scientifically proven, but unless everyone involved is lying or deluded it happened. It is the truth.

We have heard these stories forever. They tend to be more or less similar. I conclude that what I have long suspected is true: my mind, me, inhabits my brain but it is not my brain. The preconditions of my brain do not absolutely determine what I do and the choices I make. They certainly exercise a very powerful influence. Changing course is difficult. I have always had major difficulties with impulse control so I know what I’m talking about. This is my personal life challenge: to not follow every impulse, to guide my actions by will and reason. It’s hard, but I do it.

I also detect in Harris’s presentations a common corrupter of scientific objectivity: the promotion of a virtuous outcome. Science is objective. It doesn’t care whether the world comes to an end, whether we are good to each other. Science is the study of what is. These days we see the scientific discussion about climate change high-mindedly distorted by the wish to achieve a desirable result, the continuation of comfortable human life. Data are suppressed, exaggerated, knowingly misinterpreted, because it’s good that they should be.* This is where science stops and preaching starts. Scientists should not preach.

Harris is preaching. He goes quickly to arguments for compassion. “If we truly understood that even the worst criminals really had no choice in the moment of their crime,” he trumpets, “we would have no hatred, seek no retribution. We might have to lock them away, but we wouldn’t hate them.” Which would certainly make for a better world. He advances logical reasons for philanthropy, saying that people who help others need have no religious reason for doing so, it makes sense anyway.

In fact in the two of his presentations I saw he spent more time preaching than discussing theory. That alone, casts a long, dark shadow over his credentials.

Sorry Mr Harris. You have not proved one damn thing.

* For the record, I’m a climate change doubter but not what is commonly called a sceptic. It is simply a fact that some of the IPCC data has been fudged in the ‘right’ direction, which doesn’t prove or disprove global warming. It’s just the truth.

4 thoughts on “Sam Harris, Free Will, the Brain and Me (or You)

  1. I find free will to be wholly compatible with perfect determinism. Any version of determinism that fails to recognize us biological organisms with evolved mental process that choose for ourselves what we will do next is not determinism, but fatalism.


  2. If we set a bird free from a cage, do we say that it is not really “free” because it is not free from causation? And if it were actually free from causation, then what happens when it flaps its wings?

    Free will requires a deterministic universe. Without reliable cause and effect (determinism) the will can never implement its intent, and becomes irrelevant.

    The determinism “versus” free will paradox, like all paradoxes, contains a subtle fraud. Ordinary freedom is replaced by absolute freedom (which doesn’t exist).

    Ordinary determinism and ordinary free will get along just fine together.

    And any version of determinism that fails to recognize us as purposeful packages of causation is nothing more than fatalism in disguise.


    • All this is true, but like so much in philosophy I find little content beyond word play. I’m not a philosopher and in referring to determinism I was using what seemed to me to be Sam Harris’ take on it, which I agree is probably closer to fatalism than determinism.
      I was once in a teaching session with Kalu Rinpoche, a revered and deeply learned Tibetan Lama, when some highly intellectual French students raised this question, trying to trap him into equating the law of karma with absolute determinism/fatalism.
      He laughed and pointed to the forest of Himalayan sal trees outside the monastery.
      “Go for a walk out there. Wander around for a while. If you have paid attention, you will have your answer.” The Buddha’s primary injunction was to rely on our own experience, to value that above the words of any teacher. Clearly, the act of wandering about in a forest, following passing whims and curiosity, gives us an immediate, unmistakeable experience of the exercise of free will.
      It is interesting to note that Christians in colonial Asia glossed the notion of karma as representing that worst of Asian qualities, a hideous, hopeless fatalism.


      • My knowledge of Buddhism is pretty shallow. I read Alan Watts’ “The Way of Zen” back in college, but never pursued it much beyond that. Sometimes I’ll throw “first there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is” out there. It’s a Donovan lyric based on a story from D. T. Suzuki which I was able refresh in my mind from Wikipedia:

        “The lyrics refer to a Buddhist saying originally formulated by Qingyuan Weixin, later translated by D.T. Suzuki in his Essays in Zen Buddhism, one of the first books to popularize Buddhism in Europe and the US. Qingyuan writes” “Before I had studied Chan (Zen) for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and rivers as rivers. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and rivers are not rivers. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and rivers once again as rivers.[2]”

        I suspect that determinism “versus” free will is like a koan. And a lot of times in these discussions I want to ask the other guy for his rice bowl so I can popped him on the head with it.


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