Sam Harris Talks About Free Will April 1, 2012

Sam Harris Talks About Free Will

Sam Harris spoke about the topic of his new book, Free Will, at Caltech recently and there’s video of the talk:

As always, if you notice a particularly great clip, leave the timestamp and summary in the comments!

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  • Anonymous

    His “rebuttal” of Compatibilism is absurdly bad.  Who cares about your subjective experience of being a conscious agent?  Are we doing phenomenology here or science?  I can only think that Sam’s well-known love of Eastern meditation has something to do with his blindness here.

  • Stefan

    @ortcutt: As if quieting and observing your own mind at work is a bad thing?  There’s nothing superstitious or supernatural about the kind of  practices that Sam describes in his writings.   I’m not saying you have, but careful not to confuse his stuff with TM or some other mystical practices…

  • Kyle Anderson

    I just started listening to the the talk, but Sam says this at around 3:40:

    The illusoriness of free will is as certain a fact
    as the truth of evolution, in my mind. And unlike
    evolution, understanding this truth about the
    human mind has the potential to change our sense
    of moral goodness and what it would mean to create
    a just society

    I was reminded of a passage in “Orthodoxy” by G.K. Chesterton. His point is to refute the idea that belief in no free will leads to a more just society than belief in free will. 

    It seems to me untenable to believe both that people have no free will and that they can be convinced.

    I also don’t understand how, if you *really* believes that there is no free will, you can even speak about moral goodness or justice. If there is no freedom to do good or bad, how can one even do either, let alone be held responsible any actions. Do things that are unchangeable even have a moral quality? If we are in some inescapable mode of action, how can what we do be called good or bad if it is unavoidable?

    I hope he responds to some of these throughout the video, they seem like major difficulties to me.

    Anyway, on to Chesterton’s passage:

    I may note that there is a queer fallacy to the
    effect that materialistic fatalism is in some way
    favourable to mercy, to the abolition of cruel
    punishments or punishments of any kind. This is
    startlingly the reverse of the truth. It is quite
    tenable that the doctrine of necessity makes no
    difference at all; that it leaves the flogger
    flogging and the kind friend exhorting as before.
    But obviously if it stops either of them it stops
    the kind exhortation. That the sins are
    inevitable does not prevent punishment; if it
    prevents anything it prevents persuasion.
    Determinism is quite as likely to lead to cruelty
    as it is certain to lead to cowardice.
    Determinism is not inconsistent with the cruel
    treatment of criminals. What it is (perhaps)
    inconsistent with is the generous treatment of
    criminals; with any appeal to their better
    feelings or encouragement in their moral struggle.
    The determinist does not believe in appealing to
    the will, but he does believe in changing the
    environment. He must not say to the sinner, “Go
    and sin no more,” because the sinner cannot help
    it. But he can put him in boiling oil; for
    boiling oil is an environment.

  • Later, Harris addresses the meaning of the phrase “free will”. This is obviously the important in justifying why it is illusory. He basically says that we conflate free will with choice.

    “If there is no freedom to do good or bad, how can one even do either?” You ask. Harris would say “While you could do either, (in any particular circumstance) you only will do one of them.” Over time, everyone will make some variety of choices that allow us classify them however we want.

    In his words, free will requires that you exist outside of some chain of determinism. In order to be free, you have to be in control of your actions. If you can’t control the subatomic reactions and external circumstances that control you, then you aren’t really in control. (and even if some non-deterministic events exist within that chain, for the purposes of your “free will” the causal effect of a deterministic chain remains)
    Sure, now there’s also the issue of what exactly are you. Harris says that whatever you are, free will at least must be confined to your consciousness. So for the purposes of his argument, you are only your consciousness self (not some infinite regression of magic small mysteries).

    “how can what we do be called good or bad if it is unavoidable?” This is a large part of what he hints at for social justice. I assume he delves further into this in his book The Moral Landscape but I’ll take the liberty of my own interpretation here: Think of the person doing “bad” like a wind-up clockwork “bad” machine. Others are aware of this person, and possess the knowledge of how to change the behavior of the “bad” machine. They also want to change that behavior, for the sake of some pre-existing societal values. We can call them “social” machines. They will enact some kind of justice system in an attempt to reduce the impact or behavior of the “bad” ones. The original machine doesn’t need free will to do better. It will be manipulated into doing so. If everyone was left to figure out “good” from “bad” on their own, we’d live in a world of insane toddlers. In fact, our very concepts of “good” and “bad” are consistently derived from the pressure of this kind of social consensus.

    TL:DR? We can still call the behavior of the free-will-less people “bad” within the context of some social values. Free will isn’t necessary for the problem of determining right and wrong.

  • We care about what a conscious agent is because we have to deal with the concept of a distinct agent within an indistinct network of interactions.

  • Anonymous

    If free will is a myth punishing people for the sake of punishment becomes pointless, cruelty becomes pointless, becomes exposed as simply schadenfreude. Jails are full largely because of useless dogma, most criminals are separated from society as punishment for sinning against an idea not for any practical purpose.

    People have a tendency to do certain things under certain circumstances. Less harsh punishments than jail would be just as effective, but they leave people the impression that the criminal is “getting away with it”. Harsh punishments simply satisfy the emotional needs of a portion of the population. Without free will we can take a much more pragmatic approach to crime, simply use the minimum punishment necessary, the course of action that costs society the least, minimizes suffering and increases the chance that when the ‘criminals’ sentence is served they more easily reintegrate and get on with their lives.

    At the moment criminals are scapegoats, harmless, normal behaviours are criminalized while much more harmful behaviours are overlooked.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, his book was just as bad. The one star reviews over at amazon do a good job of pointing out just how poorly he treated the subject. One guy gave it a four star review and still demolished it.

  • Jon Hanson

    If you had kept on listening you would have heard Harris complain about people reading the first part of his books and then whining that he’d missed something that he’d actually addressed further on. Everything in that quote is answered later in the talk.

    It’s a really frustrating quote because it is certainly well worded but entirely off-base, Chesterton is casually conflating determinism with fatalism, and to top it all off the whole thing stinks of denying the facts because of the possibility that acknowledging reality might have unforeseen consequences.

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