Sam 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.

atheists have morals?

One of the few substantive atheist attempts to explain morality. However, I think he ultimately fails, but I would like to hear your thoughts if you have time mate.



Eli’s Response

I enjoyed it because it presented a calm, logical explanation about the nature of morality. A majority of people would argue that morality is god-given and without God “all things are possible” as Dostoevsky famously said. Harris shows that morality can essentially be reduced to empathy and that it is a discipline we must all practice. Here is a link to a lecture where a scientist shows that this trait isn’t even unique to humans, though humans have a much more highly evolved sense of empathy.

He also touches on the failings of organized religion in relation to what most people in the enlightened Western world would consider moral. The subjugation of women in Islam is the most glaring example, but recently Catholics have been back in the news for protecting child rapist and avoiding secular punishment by refusing to help secular authorities bring these monsters to justice.

We’ve been through a lot of these arguments before, and I can imagine you’re biggest complaint will probably be that Harris can’t find any “objective” basis for morality so it is ultimately meaningless. It is a good objection, in fact it is the only one that has really caused me any significant cognitive dissonance. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately and I think I have a decent reply: Where does God’s moral authority come from? Since God created the universe and decided what is right and wrong how is his idea about what is right or wrong any more valid than anyone else’s? Well, I imagine you would say that God is an “objective” being who is perfectly synced into the universe and is morally correct by his very nature. That begs the question, why does the universe itself seem to have this innate moral code? And do we have to have God to do what is right?

I’m not sure how well I got my point across and I’m sure you will be able to find some gaping holes in my logic, but give me break. I’m just an accountant. Anyway, I hope that gives something to ponder, and I’m sure you’ll likely obliterate it in one fell swoop (maybe two if I argued well.)



Jon’s Response

I haven’t watched the video yet, but I think I can safely say that empathy is not moral. It is an emotion, like anger, which is amoral. Empathy can lead to both good and evil actions. For example, a mullah, out of empathy for his raped daughter, might kill her to spare her the shame of being defiled.

But on to Harris’ video (sorry for the rather dark opening. Take a moment and imagine that you are unicorn riding on a rainbow….. Okay, now resume.). I see three specific problems with his theory. Actually, I do think that Harris’ system is not objective. The problem is that the terms are not defined. In particular, what does “well being” mean? Harris suggests that we rely on at least two different sources: intuition and moral experts. I would agree that intuition is a powerful force that informs us of what is right and wrong. But intuition is not authoritative or objective. We may think a certain action is right, but our thinking it is right doesn’t make it right.

He also suggests that we appeal to moral experts like we appeal to great scientists. But the problem here is that moral experts don’t work with empirically verifiable information. Einstein was great not because he had a beautiful idea about the universe, but because his beautiful idea worked and can be verified. Suppose that we take the Dali Lama as a candidate for being a moral expert. Many would agree that the Dali Lama increases or encourages well being in conscious beings, and is therefore qualified to be a moral expert. However, the Chinese disagree. They think that his religious teachings destroy the fabric of the state and create disharmony and frustration among the people. So there are conflicting moral constructs. What makes the Dali Lama right and the Chinese wrong? Surely it can’t be that more people are inclined to agree with the Dali Lama. That’s not how science works. If it did, we’d still think the earth was flat. What is moral or what constitutes well being cannot be defined by intuitive consensus or moral experts.

It sees that Harris suggests that well being can be scientifically determined. But that is doubtful. It seems a little like saying: “Science can tell us why art is beautiful.” Perhaps science can tell us that we have certain predispositions to particular colors and shapes, but it cannot grasp beauty. The same is true here: perhaps science can help us understand what sorts of environments produce maximally satisfied beings, but that is hardly moral. And there is another, more grim problem. Harris admits that our moral obligations to certain species to the degree that they are conscious. What about babies, the elderly, or mentally retarded people? What happens when we let the potential for conscious experience determine our moral obligations? It seems like certain classes of people might be deemed sub-human. We’ve seen where that sort of thinking can take us.

Second, and I think this objection is more important and easier to understand than the first, Harris system does not obligate humans to do what is morally right. For the sake of the argument, suppose that Harris has provided a way that we can determine what is morally correct in an objective way. Great job Harris! But so what? Why should I do what is morally correct? What is my obligation? Rightness and wrongness have no intrinsic meaning in themselves. They simply describe two ends of a spectrum. Why prefer one end to the other? Why good instead of evil? Even if morality can exist objectively apart from God, for it to be meaningful, it must also oblige me to obey it. Otherwise, it is useless. Imagine that you could break the natural law at will. No one would consider it improper to do so. And you would not consider yourself a bad person if you did. If morality exists objectively apart from God (and is thus another component of natural law), if you could suspend the moral law from applying to yourself, why wouldn’t you?

Third, and this objection flows from the first two, Harris’ system has a “meta-problem.” What I mean is that Harris’ moral imperative “act in such a way that produces the maximum well being in other conscious beings” cannot be supported by his own system. What makes his moral imperative moral? Why is it obligatory? There is no meta-explanation for this maxim. It just sort of floats in space without any justification.

Now, concerning your objection God as the source of morality.
There are actually several different theories concerning the origin of morality in Christianity. Some subscribe to the divine command theory which states that God arbitrarily decides what is good and what is bad. It is by declaration of God that a thing is either good or bad. Personally, I don’t hold to that view.

I would describe goodness this way: goodness is whatever is appropriate or proper. This means that love (which a morally good action) is the proper relationship between two beings. Justice, in a legal context, is the appropriate relationship between citizens and the society. Respect is the proper relationship between two or more parties. Hate would be the improper relationship between two beings. So would lust and selfishness. And you could go on with all the rest of the virtues and vices.

But what does it mean to say something is appropriate or proper? It means that is consistent with God’s nature. When I say I love another person, I mean that I am acting toward them in a way that is consistent with God’s nature. Goodness is whatever is consistent with God’s nature. Evil is whatever is disharmonious with God’s nature. When I act with goodness, I act properly, as God (or Jesus) would if he were in my place.

It’s sort of like this: A morality is a kind of spectrum. On one end there is evil (or inappropriate actions) and on the other end is goodness (or appropriate actions). That is simply what the words good and evil mean. They describe degrees of propriety and impropriety. But that scale is meaningless unless it is attached to some moral system that gives substance to the terms “good” and “evil.” (In utilitarianism, for example, goodness is whatever produces maximum happiness for the maximum number of people).
What I suggest is that goodness be given its substance by the nature of God. Whatever God is, he must be good, appropriate, and proper. Now those terms have meaning. Appropriateness is acting in a way consistent with God’s nature.

So it is God’s nature that determines morality. But it is not arbitrary and neither is God subject to some external moral code. And if God were to disappear, then so would the standard of moral rightness (not to mention or obligation to behave morally). If God is not, then the moral spectrum is without substance.