Why You are Probably not an Automaton: A Response to Harris

When The Moral Landscape came out a while ago, Harris suggested that free will was just an illusion. Not the typical compatibilist sort of illusion that most people can live with, but something substantially more discomforting. Compatibilists about free will generally say that though we can’t do anything other than what we do, we nevertheless do what we will to do. It was impossible for me to not eat that turkey sandwich I had earlier, but I still acted according to what I wanted to do. So I am a still a moral agent responsible for my own actions, at least according to the compatibilist. The illusion for the compatibilist is not that he has a will, but that there are really other choices.  Harris took things a step further. He suggested that the will itself is illusory. The experience we have of “willing” is just an artifact of some brain chemistry. The sense of being in control of one’s actions is just completely wrong. Our thoughts are just moved along via external stimuli and brain chemistry. Obviously, such a view has radical implications for how we do justice, psychology, and just about every field that has something to do with human beings.

The Moral Landscape was already controversial, but when Harris added his remarks about free will, it caused some real problems. Harris took so much flak that he felt obligated to respond to the criticism on his blog as a sort of addendum to the book. Several months later, and critics not yet satisfied, Harris releases Free Will. Here Harris more fully addresses the problem of free will. The center piece of his argument flows from a couple of studies he mentions in the book.

In one study, a physiologist used an 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.” In another study, a random series of letters was flashed on a screen in front of some subjects while they were asked to push one button or another. Later, they were asked what letter they perceived on the screen when they made their decision. “The experimenters found two brain regions that contained information about which button subjects would press a full a full 7 to 10 seconds before the decision was consciously made.” Another study showed that by monitoring a handful of neurons, scientists could predict the decision a subject would make about 700 milliseconds before the subject made it and they could do so with about 80 percent accuracy.

Apparently, only a little while after the brain makes a decision, do we become aware of it, mistakenly believing that we consciously made such a choice. With these insights in hand, Harris constructs his argument against free will. As best I can tell, it looks like this:

(1)    Studies show that brain activity precedes conscious awareness of making a decision.

(2)    This brain activity leads to relatively accurate predictions about the decision a person will make.

(3)    If we are not conscious of relevant factors in the decision making process, we do not have free will.

(4)    Since (1) and (2), and given (3), we do not have free will.

There a couple of problems here. The most obvious issue is that even if Harris’ interpretation of the studies is correct, all that follows is that some decisions are not made consciously. At best, I think Harris has shown that some decisions might be entirely impulsive and not “willed.” That fact alone makes the conclusion (4) invalid. Just because we know that some decisions are known to be made before we are conscious of them, doesn’t mean that all decisions are. Harris would have to show that there really is no significant difference between, say, pushing a button and picking a profession. There certainly seems to be a real difference. I’d want Harris to explain why there isn’t.

Aside from that, I also wonder whether Harris’ interpretation of these studies really makes sense. Why do we think, for example, that activity in certain parts of the brain indicates that the brain has “decided?”  Correlation doesn’t equal causation. Here’s another plausible interpretation: maybe, in response to certain stimuli, the brain automatically turns on certain parts which our consciousness will need later, sort of like a computer warming up.  The hardware is getting ready for the software to run. In that case, we might be able to predict what a subject will eventually choose based on the hardware that was turned on, but the hardware doesn’t determine the decision.

Imagine if we applied Harris’ interpretation to a personal computer. We notice that before the computer ever reads from the CD drive, it spins up the CD drive.  In fact, in about nine out of ten cases, we can accurately predict that once the CD drive spins, the computer will read the CD. Therefore, the CD drive spinning determines whether the computer will read the CD. Obviously, this interpretation is false.

What is actually going is this: the computer spins the CD drive in response to stimuli; someone put a CD in the tray and then closed it. But whether the computer actually reads the drive will depend on the software running at the time. If, for example, it’s a music CD and the media player is open, then software will “decide” to read the CD. It seems plausible that consciousness works in the same way. In response to certain stimuli, the brain “spins up” certain parts of the brain which the mind (or consciousness) then utilizes to make a decision.

Depending on the stimuli, I bet we could make very accurate predictions based on brain activity as to what a person’s decision will finally be, just like we can guess that when a computer spins the CD drive it will almost always read from the drive.

So even though Harris’ reasoning is flawed and his interpretation of the data is questionable, there is still another, more fundamental problem: Harris’ commitment to materialism. Harris begins his essay by arguing that “Either 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.”  If we take these as the only two options, then we begin to understand why Harris has taken the track he did. We are more disposed to think that brain activity is the cause of our conscious experience, after all, what else could be the cause? It can’t be random, then, if we had an experience at all, it would be totally incoherent.

The problem is that Harris views the world as a closed system.  All effects are attributable to some cause that, in turn, is explained by some other effect, and so on until we get back to the beginning of the universe. Harris states this rather clearly: “In physical terms, we know that every human action can be reduced to a series of impersonal events: Genes are transcribed, neurotransmitters bind to their receptors, muscle fibers contract, and John Doe pulls the trigger on his gun.” But not everyone takes this view; Harris doesn’t allow for what philosophers call agent causation.

To understand what agent causation is, just think about how God’s actions must work. What is the cause of God’s actions? Are his actions determined by prior causes or randomness? If so, then he could hardly be called God. We actually think that the source of God’s action is his will. God wanted to do such and such so he did. There just is no further explanation than that.  When an agent, like God, causes something to happen, we call that agent causation. It seems plausible to think human beings could be capable of the same sort of causation, within the limitations that go along with being human.  

So if there is a thing as agent causation, then Harris’ dilemma is a false one.  And it turns out that if we allow for the possibility of agent causation, then we are not so inclined to think that Harris’ argument is successful.

Frankly, I don’t think Harris himself really thinks that there is no such thing as agent causation. About half way through Free Will, Harris tries to give us some advice about living our lives as collections of causes and effects. He suggests that

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 bite 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).[emphasis added]

Here Harris uses the euphemism, “getting behind our conscious thoughts,” to describe the process of manipulating one’s own environment to generate a desired outcome. But who, exactly, is doing the manipulating and what is it, precisely, that is behind our conscious thoughts? What Harris is suggesting here is that we can actually influence our actions, even if it is indirectly. There is a new cause in the closed system. Contradiction.

The trend these days is to view human beings in a reductive way. They are just bundles of causes and effects.  Or they are just odd arrangements of matter and energy.  The trouble is that such a view human persons entails number of recalcitrant facts. For Harris, the fact that human beings apparently can and do influence their own actions is difficult to explain.  If Harris wants a more robust view of human persons, one that accommodates the sort of life he thinks is worth living, I would encourage him to adopt a worldview that allows for such a view. I don’t know if he knows it, but the Bible says that man is made in the image of God. That seems rather robust to me.


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