Friday, November 8, 2013

Sam Harris on Free Will

On the cover of Sam Harris’s book, Free Will, is printed this phrase:

"….the facts tell us that free will is an illusion."

The interested reader should expect to be presented "facts" that will support this conclusion. The interested reader will be disappointed. That doesn’t mean Harris is incorrect, but it does mean he has not proven what may, in fact, be unprovable.

Harris provides this explanation of free will:

"The popular conception of free will seems to rest on two assumptions: (1) that each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past, and (2) that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present. As we are about to see, however, both of these assumptions are false."

Most people would recognize the first statement as an aspect of what they consider to be free will. However, the second statement raises the issue of conscious versus subconscious motivations and impulses. The fact that some, or even most, of our decisions and actions are driven by subconsciously formed suggestions does not prove that free will is an illusion. Harris spends most of his book arguing the fallacy of the second point and assumes the first must therefore be false also.

Harris provides little to support his claims. There are only a few references to experimental data in the main text. The most intriguing involve measurements of brain activity that indicate decisions were made by the brain before the individual was aware of the decision having been made.

"The physiologist Benjamin Libet famously used EEG to show that activity in the brain’s motor cortex can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move."

The implication is that the brain subconsciously made a decision and presented it to the individual who falsely assumed that he had consciously made the decision to move. Data of this sort supports the notion that many human decisions and actions are driven by subconscious impulses; however, that is not a position many would argue with. To prove his claim he must prove that all decisions are arrived at subconsciously—an exceedingly difficult task. Nevertheless, he concludes:

"One fact now seems indisputable: Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next—a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please—your brain has already determined what you will do. You then become conscious of this ‘decision’ and believe that you are in the process of making it."

For some reason, Harris relegates other supporting evidence to the "Notes" section at the end of the book. One suspects that this decision was motivated by the weakness of the data available.

Harris is careful to distinguish between his beliefs and the assumption that the future is already determined. The lack of free will does not negate the importance of human choice.

"Decisions, intentions, efforts, goals, willpower, etc., are causal states of the brain, leading to specific behaviors, and behaviors lead to outcomes in the world. Human choice, therefore, is as important as fanciers of free will believe. But the next choice you make will come out of the darkness of prior causes that you, the conscious witness of your experience, did not bring into being."

What controls our actions is a combination of genetics, chemical state, and an experiential base. One could refer to all of emotional and intellectual maturation as the accumulation of patterns of response to experienced situations. In Harris’s view these stored responses form a subconscious basis for the decisions that are made.

Just because Harris’s arguments have been criticized, that does not mean they are wrong.

The most compelling support for his argument comes from what might be called self-introspection.

"If you pay attention to your inner life, you will see that the emergence of choices, efforts, and intentions is a fundamentally mysterious process."

Let’s take his advice and consider our experiences with the decision-making process. Often decisions are easy to make, but what happens when they are not?

How often, when confronted with trying to determine which of two choices to make, we decide that we have reached an impasse and we will "sleep on it." Lo and behold, the next morning we find the choice has become obvious. Is this not an example of our subconscious brain resolving the issue and making the decision for us?

How often have we been faced with a decision where we conclude that one choice seems to make the most sense, but we choose another because it "feels right?" Isn’t the notion of "feeling right" a recognition that there are subconscious boundary conditions that must be satisfied?

These simple examples support the notion that subconscious activity in our brains plays a significant and often determinative role in our actions.

One of the endorsements on Harris’s book cover comes from V.S. Ramachandran, Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, UCSD.

"In this elegant and provocative book, Sam Harris demonstrates—with great intellectual ferocity and panache—that free will is an inherently flawed and incoherent concept, even in subjective terms. If he is right, the book will radically change the way we view ourselves as human beings."

Note that Ramachandran recommends the book, as do I, but he does not necessarily agree with all that Harris concludes. Ramachandran has written a book: The Tell-Tale Brain. His specialty is studying brain injuries as a means of understanding brain function. In his book he provides many examples of malfunction to illustrate how consciousness is controlled by subconscious brain function.

As an example, consider the phenomenon he refers to as anosognosia, the denial of disability. Often a stroke will lead to paralysis. In some cases the damage from the stroke leaves victims in a state where they are unable to recognize their inability to function. He provides this description of an encounter with one such patient.

"Nora, how are you today?" I asked
"Fine, Sir, except the hospital food. It’s terrible."
"Well, let’s take a look at you. Can you walk?"
"Yes." (Actually, she hadn’t taken a single step in the last week.)
"Nora, can you use your hands, can you move them?"
"Both hands?"
"Yes." (Nora had not used a fork in a week.)
"Can you move your left hand?"
"Yes, of course."
"Touch my nose with your left hand."
Nora’s hand remains motionless.
"Are you touching my nose?"
"Can you see your hand touching my nose?"
"Yes, it’s almost touching your nose."

I this case the normal checks and balances of a healthy brain were not functioning, and what was functioning was desperately trying to maintain its conception of the individual. Images that the patient should have been conscious of were being overridden by her subconscious. Her subconscious was deliberately lying to her.

It is not always wise to assume that "seeing is believing." Everything we perceive is processed before we are allowed to become conscious of it.

This was intended to be an example of how powerful our subconscious is and to suggest that it is dangerous to assume that we are in complete control of our conscious actions.

While I have expressed some disappointment with Harris’s book, I tend toward agreeing with him. What he says "feels right." However, while Harris expresses certainty, I would still refer to myself as having an open mind. People who believe in free will tend to under appreciate the complexity of the human brain. People who are certain that there is no free will might also be underestimating the complexity of the brain.

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