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.

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In Defence of Meat

We are not ideally suited to a vegetarian diet. We can live on it but it has its limitations. So why be a vegetarian?

The front-line argument of every vegetarian I meet is factory farming. Granted, an obscenity. So what’s the best way to get rid of factory farming? Buy all your meat from small, local farms where the farmers live hands-on with their animals every day?  Or persuade everyone to change their fundamental nature, evolved over millions of years to make us supremely not only capable of eating everything, but thriving on an everything diet. We’re quite capable of vegetarianism, of course. But it is not what we’re built for.

Ohh, but the suffering of the poor animals, raised just to be turned into meat.

This is anthropomorphism at its purest. That argument supposes that because you wouldn’t like the idea a cow or sheep doesn’t. Its proponents project their consciousness and life experience on to an animal they know nothing about. I detect in this argument a transference of the individual’s anxiety about his own death.

It also begs the question: are they saying they shouldn’t be born? Would they rather not have been born, knowing they have to die? The gift of life is a gift to all creatures, surely? How can they know a cow doesn’t feel exactly the same way?

But it doesn’t. A cow’s brain is almost entirely devoted to looking for grass, choosing the best grass and getting it down ASAP. And its natural end in the wild is grim and painful and often slow, either taken down by a predator because they have grown weak or slowly starving because their teeth are worn away by all that coarse fodder. A good life eating grass and a sudden unexpected death is far preferable.

Then there is the argument that they suffer while being transported to the works. I worked at a freezing works when I left school. I didn’t see much distress, probably because the herbivores we raise for slaughter are herd animals. The most calming thing for them is to be close to other animals. Look at a truck full of cows or sheep on the way to the works. They don’t seem that uncomfortable, although killing on the farm is obviously preferable. I have a share in a farm that raises some animals, and when we kill our own the animal goes through no suffering at all. A shotgun to the forehead and they’re dead.

But if we can do without it, why not? It’s a good question, and it goes to who we are. We coevolved with the animals and plants we depend on. As hunter gatherers we had a relationship with the natural world which in spite of all our civilisation we still have. We derive a deep, instinctive pleasure from seeing healthy, contented animals in a field. Imagine a world where we never saw that. How grim. Oh, but there’s the dairy industry. There would still be cows in the fields. And sheep and goats in some countries. The animal doesn’t suffer, eats its grass, gets milked, everyone’s happy. That’s the illusion, but cows give milk, bulls don’t. All the bobby calves get sent off to the works. Animals die for milk. I once taxed a lacto-vegetarian with this, one who abstained from meat on compassionate grounds. “Oh no,” he said, “cows will go on giving milk for as long as you milk them.” Perhaps it is possible to force a cow to do that but it’s not what they do naturally and not how dairy farming works. The cows dry off in autumn, get pregnant, deliver their offspring in spring. Then they suffer the misery of separation, something that has them bellowing in pain until the truck finally arrives to take away the calves. Both mother and calf bellow all day and all night, because the truck can’t wait around for the farmer to cut out the calves. They need to be penned and ready to load when it comes. It is far more compassionate on those grounds to eat meat and abstain from dairy.

In any case the compassion argument simply doesn’t hold water. All life competes for food sources. There is no agriculture without killing. Even turning the soil involves the death of the creatures living in it. Here in England that does not just mean insects. There is a little vole living in every patch of ground the size of a cricket pitch, along with field-mice and moles. Death. Just see the birds turn up when ploughing gets underway to feast off the carnage. And once the plants appear creatures we call pests turn up in numbers.  Arable farming is largely the process of controlling, usually by killing, the host of other creatures who attempt to make a living off the farmer’s produce. Organic farmers have organic pesticides, or use mechanical and manual methods of beating off the pests. They shoot pigeons, pheasants and all the other seed- and fruit-eating birds, poison the snails and insects. Storing it leads to another protective war – traps for rodents, poison. There is far more killing involved in raising the diet of a vegetarian than that of a carnivore.

Then there is the carbon cost, high because vegetarians and especially vegans require such a varied diet. The average health foods store has food delivered from all over the world. A carnivore can live happily and successfully, in most countries, entirely on food raised close to where they live. If the world gave up meat the carbon cost would be staggering. Yes, I know the unconscionable carbon cost of raising soy and maize, trucking it to a remote factory farm, stuffing it down the throats of poor creatures who never see daylight, then trucking them to the works and shipping their parts all over the world. But that is driven by the tastes of the many non-vegetarians who eat far too much meat, and only eat the parts of the animal they prefer. Truck farming is not a necessity – it’s just more profitable. An organic farmer friend has proven to me that carefully raised organic animals can easily meet the needs of current humanity.

The dumbest argument of all: I often hear vegetarians presupposing that if all the land currently used to raised animals were used for growing plant foods, then … Most land is put to the use it is best suited to. A sizeable portion of the land currently in pastoral farming would simply not support crops. It would not become covered with good, moral, nutritious vegetables, the harvest of death. It would revert to forest, and what was left wouldn’t feed us.

Finally there is the supposed health issue. Too much meat is bad for us. Yes, it is. Too much. Or at least, that’s the current view, which has changed so many times in my lifetime I have quite lost track. Remember the butter scare? Turns out it was all a cynical hoax perpetrated by the manufacturers of edible oil products. Butter, in small quantities, turns out to be good for us. Whether or not it is bad for us, however, does not change the fact that the average English meat meal contains enough protein to sustain the person eating it for at least three days. Meatless days were common in the life of a hunter gatherer.

That’s why you can afford to support the local farmer. Buy, and eat, 40% less. Don’t buy a chicken, roast it and gorge. Buy half a chicken, or share a whole one.

What is unquestionably good for us is variety, because we’re omnivores, equipped with a variety of cutting and grinding teeth and neither the short, fierce digestive system of the carnivore nor the long, complex and often multi-staged one of the herbivore, but one of medium length, the best of both worlds.

Over millions of years we evolved to eat the diet of a hunter gatherer, a richly varied one of animal products including the fresh or dried meat, blood and organs of foraging animals, birds and their eggs, fish and other seafood, fruit, nuts, roots, leaves, and seeds. And a little honey and even the occasional insect. No refined sugars or starches, nor any milk products. Little salt. That continues to be the healthiest diet a human can consume. Provided the animals are given plenty of grazing and fresh air and water, there is simply no reason this should not continue to be our diet for the foreseeable future, and provide us with the most pleasing environment to live in.

POST SCRIPT: Culture Changing Perception

I was a vegetarian for about eighteen months. I used to tell people the thought of eating meat made me ill, I found it revolting, etc. etc. Of course I was lying, to myself more than anyone. One night I was walking past a takeaway and the smell of meat on the grill prompted an undeniable flood of saliva. Who are you kidding, I thought, and bought and ate a hamburger. It was the most delicious thing I had ever eaten. That was the end of my flirtation with vegetarianism. I often meet vegetarians who say “I just don’t like it.” My natural inclination is to doubt them, recognising the same lie I told myself. But I have come to doubt this. I have friends who affirm with consistency and apparent honesty that they don’t like the taste, even the smell of meat cooking. How can this be? We are designed to eat and like what best sustains us. We can see how cultures such as the Pacific Island people, who had very little meat in their largely fish-based diet, react to the abundance of fatty meat and sweet food. They have such a highly conditioned drive to eat as much of it as they can on the rare occasions when it was available that in a modern Western setting they have huge difficulty avoiding obesity. Our wiring drives our tastes.

But is that changing? It may well be that enough social reinforcement can over-ride our instincts to the extent that our tastes actually change. I find evidence for this in the case of cigar and pipe smoke. In my childhood, constantly exposed to tobacco smoke, everyone – yes, everyone – loved the smell of the pipe and the cigar. In my infancy it was the fashion at medical school to take up pipe smoking. The pipe was the smell of a doctor, associated with care and nurturing. I, like everyone, loved it. I suppose the cigar was the smell of luxury and again everyone loved it. But there was none of today’s social opprobrium around these things, indeed my mother used to gather cigar ash and give it to us to clean our teeth because it was known to be a an excellent dentifrice.

Now, people genuinely find these smells unpleasant, something I have difficulty imagining.

So yes, perhaps today’s vegetarians have been so influenced by self-indoctrination and social reinforcement they really do dislike meat.

Is humanity experiencing a new pliability in the face of a bombardment of social programming at every level? Can this be influencing the apparent explosion in child sexual abuse? Surely one of our greatest instincts is to protect and treasure children. Psychologists have identified that the features we find beautiful are child-like in essence – very clear skin, big round eyes. Is this another example of culture causing is to get our wires crossed?

I find this disturbing. To be a member of a species that can be so easily alienated from its instincts worries me. My personal inclination is to keep my perceptions and my behaviour as closely attuned to my instincts as I can.

New Zealand Goes to War. And Gets What It Deserves.

Kiwis, a relative handful of them as always, are up in arms at the decision of the John Key Tory government to send a bunch of soldiers to ‘assist’ in the fight against Isis. ‘Undemocratic!’ ‘No consultation!’ ‘He has no mandate!’

I hate to be such a pedant, but feel obliged to point out that the waging war is a sovereign right of the state. There is no constitutional or legal precedent requiring any government under the Westminster system to seek a separate mandate to commit troops to any conflict. People voted Key and his cronies the right to do this when they elected him.

And that’s the nub of the problem. Few people gave it any thought. People use their vote without even knowing what it is. We have no civics education in our schools and most people have only the most passing acquaintance with what constitute their rights and freedoms. Nor do they care that much. They just go fishing or watch sport on TV as one by one they are stripped away in a manner and to a degree which would never happen in England or the US.

A proof: New Zealand has far more laws and regulations allowing agents of the state to enter and search private property without judicial authorisation than either the United States or the United Kingdom. You would be amazed. Customs officers. Immigration officers. Police, provided they trot out one of several legal exceptions to the requirement for a search warrant. Council officers following noise complaints, even, can enter your home and seize your sound equipment. They certainly can’t do that in the UK. Why not? Because people wouldn’t stand for it. Kiwis will.

One of the most hallowed and precious festivals of my childhood, Guy Fawkes, is virtually finished. The public can buy only a limited selection of fireworks for a few hours before November 5. Give it five years and it will be all over. On my local Gloucester Rd alone there are three full-time fireworks shops. The New Year vista from a hill overlooking the city at midnight was and always is an unforgettable spectacle as the whole city erupts in powerful aerial fireworks launched from backyards, parks and even high-rise patios.

This is important for all sorts of reasons Kiwis neither think nor care about. But in essence, why shouldn’t we launch properly certified fireworks? We are a free people. Oh, but they’re dangerous. People get hurt. One or two houses might catch fire.

Sorry, but on the numbers the simple ladder is a far, far more dangerous item than a starburst. People get hurt and die falling from ladders in numbers which dwarf the statistics of the worst Guy Fawkes night. In sensible England you will never, ever see a tall ladder against a house. Any work at height is done from cheap and effective scaffolding. It’s all emotion and in NZ, I’m sorry, but we follow the emotive issues every time, like children. Not that it’s just tall ladders. Step ladders are just as dangerous. Where’s the ‘ban the ladders’ brigade?

We need to grow up before it’s too late. We need to learn the value of our freedoms the easy way, since the hard and effective ways – the reign of tyrants and the threat of foreign invasion – have never been made available to us.

Think before you cast your next vote. It’s a dangerous thing. People, environments, whole species can die.