Sam Harris on the reality of Free Will, no, really.

Just a quickie: People keep telling me that Sam Harris supports the idea that Free Will is an illusion.

I don’t support that view, and despite finding quite a few things to disagree with in what Sam Harris says, I generally consider Harris a heavyweight intellectually when it comes to philosophical thinking. People also tell me he cites Libet in support of his view. If he does he’s wrong, he’d be misinterpreting Libet (as many do of course), but something tells me people must be misunderstanding what Harris is saying. So I decided to check up this one point …

Indeed, in his book Free Will – immediately after the thought-provoking and ambiguous case-study on criminal responsibility which he uses as an introduction – he launches straight in with the simple, unequivocal, declarative statement:

Free will is an illusion.

His emphasis. QED surely? Well, no. A few sentence later he adds:

Free will is actually more than an illusion.

My emphasis. And a couple of paras later:

That we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions …. [is false].

My emphasis again. Agreed. For now, I rest my case.

Some, indeed many, maybe even most, aspects of our conscious will are illusory,
but our free will is nevertheless real.

Indeed what Libet shows – think of a professional tennis player returning a serve – is that the crucial core of our conscious will is the power of free-wont over the major part of our decision processing, maximally delegated for reasons of efficiency and speed, to lower, more mechanistic, pre-programmed, biological functions. Permissive supervisory control, for those who prefer a cybernetic machine view. The permissive control is so consistent with other relationships between brain and mind functions too.

That mechanism of free-wont still requires a more explanatory, less reductionist description, but we shouldn’t doubt it exists.

[A quickie – so refs and links will be added as needed if anyone wants to discuss.]

3 thoughts on “Sam Harris on the reality of Free Will, no, really.”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.