Thursday, June 9, 2011

Freewill, Sam Harris and the Dim Lift of Being

Sam Harris, the celebrity atheist, has been running a series of post against the concept of free will. Like much of his thinking, he uses a slippery sense of words that lead to pseudo-intellectualism; he neither defines free will or self, which are key to any argument for or against free will. He rather assumes free will and the self so he can argue that freewill makes no sense. Quote from his latest post:

Yes, choices, efforts, intentions, reasoning, and other mental processes influence our behavior -- but they are themselves part of a stream of causes which precede conscious awareness and over which we exert no ultimate control. My choices matter, but I cannot choose what I choose. And if it ever appears that I do -- for instance, when going back and forth between two options -- I do not choose to choose what I choose. There's a regress here that always ends in darkness. Subjectively, I must take a first step, or a last one, for reasons that are inscrutable to me.

Such a premise ends in any discussion of the question. It also makes the regression he talks about ultimately unintelligible. It is also ironic as he is arguing for an Atheistic version of Calvinism. If we are all determined, then there can be no free will. So, why does Sam Harris write his books, because of some unknown biological forces that cause him to do so. Those who believe in God were biologically destined to believe, and those who reject God were like wise destined to unbelief as well. We, despite our experience of freewill, are really not free at all, but under the forces beyond us.

The problem with such thinking is evident in an old joke among theologians:

What does a Calvinist say when he falls down?
“Glad that’s done with.”

To have a theory that explains everything and all outcomes AFTER THE FACT is not to have a theory at all, but a vague attitude toward life. When I heard my alarm this morning, I experienced several choices with the alarm. 1. Get up 2. Roll over and go back to sleep 3. Hit the snooze for another ten minutes. If Harris is correct, then my choice was predestined. Biological and environmental forces made the choice for me no matter what I think chose. Harris’ theory gives no prediction as to what would be my choice, only that my choice was a non-choice. Whatever I choose, it really was my biology that chooses, hence I have no free will. It is a giant classic cosmic Monday Quarterbacking game. If it cannot predict what I will do, only that once I did, it was predestine. Then what use is theory as a theory?

I am a believer and that was predestined. Sam Harris offers overreaching generalizations for his position and that was predestined.

His position becomes more a matter of faith when he also make use “self” without any working definition of “self.” What is the “me” he refers to? He talks about how the individual has no control over her mental processes any more than she control blood flow or other biological processes. Yet, what is the “self” he talks about? He does not say. Only in his speaking about it, he creates a dualism the “self” that has the illusion of control and the biological processes that are doing the controlling. How do the two relate, Sam does not say or even aware of his dilemma of dualism. If the self is the biological processes that create conscious awareness, yet there is no free will because the biological process are in control. But isn’t self biological processes? Yes, but not the ones that make choices. Do the other biological processes have free will then? No, there is no free will. Other then Freshman Philosophy students drinking beer and playing an intellectual game with words, such thinking can only lead to a hangover.

Sam, like all fundamental thinkers, loves to make pronouncements as a form of argument, which invariantly leads to a fundamentalistic outlook, lacking nuance. These pronouncements, which usually push buttons and sell books, get challenged just by noticing how the world around doesn’t match the black and white world he claims. Under the weight of what Sam places on the free will, self, and choose the concepts break and become meaningless.

Imagine a friend asking him whether he should marry his girlfriend, and Sam answering him with, “Whatever course you choose, you really aren’t the one choosing.”

“Okay, fine, Sam. But should I ask her to marry?”

“Remember, you have no free will.”

“Got it, Sam. I will go ask someone else. You were absolutely useless.”

“You were programmed to say that.”

Other that being the basis of a tired Saturday Night Live schtick, there’s not much to his view to help us morally, intellectually, or in our daily lives.

When the alarm goes off in the morning, thinking that I am predestined to get up and not hit the snooze, makes no difference in hitting the alarm and getting up. To thinking it does is, indeed, a dark regress into nonsense, much like reading Sam Harris. But, I was destined to say so.

I am glad that done with.

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