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Free Will
Free Will
Sam Harris
Free Press, 2012
96 pp., $10.99

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Alvin Plantinga


Bait and Switch

Sam Harris on free will.

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Harris' notion of freedom is really an idea of what we might call maximal autonomy. It's obvious that we don't have maximal autonomy; we aren't free in that sense. Indeed, it isn't so much as possible that we be free in that sense. That is because, as he thinks of it, I act freely on a given occasion only if I myself freely choose to have the desires and affections I then act on, and furthermore I myself freely bring it about that I do have them. But note that the action by which I bring about that I have those desires and affections must itself be free. That means that I must have freely brought it about that I had the desires and affections out of which I acted in bringing it about that I have the desires and affections I presently have. You can see where this is going: for every occasion on which I act freely, there must have been an earlier occasion in which I acted freely. This clearly involves an infinite regress (to use the charming phrase philosophers like): if Harris is right, it is possible that I act freely only if it is possible that I perform an infinite number of actions, each one a matter of bringing it about that I have a certain set of desires and affections. Clearly no one has time, these busy days, for that. Harris is certainly right that we don't have that maximal autonomy; but nothing follows about our having freedom, i.e., the sort of freedom we ordinarily think we have, the sort required for moral responsibility.

What we have here looks like a classic bait and switch: announce that you will show that we don't have freedom in the ordinary sense required by moral responsibility, and then proceed to argue that we don't have freedom in the sense of maximal autonomy. It is certainly true that we don't have freedom in that sense: not even God could have that kind of freedom. That is not because God could not have performed infinitely many actions—no doubt he could have—but because God is necessarily all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good. This means that God has not freely chosen to have that character; there never was a time at which he had both the power to bring it about that he had that character, and also the power to bring it about that he did not have that character.

It's not at all clear to me why Harris devotes most of his energy to arguing that we don't have maximal autonomy. But he does also declare that we don't have freedom in the ordinary sense: "we know that determinism, in every sense relevant to human behavior, is true. Unconscious neural events determine our thoughts and actions—and are themselves determined by prior causes." How do we know that? Harris puts it like this: "Either our wills [i.e., our decisions and choices—AP] 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." Another way to put it: either I am determined to do what I do by prior causes, or I do what I do by chance. In the first case I clearly don't have freedom. But the same holds in the second: if what I do happens just by chance, then too I don't do it freely (if I can be said to do it at all), at least not in a way which implies that I am responsible for that action.

This is a familiar argument, and one with a long history. But is it a good argument? I don't think so. Why think that if it is within my power to perform an action, but also within my power to refrain from so doing, then what I do happens just by chance? Maybe I have a good reason for doing what I do on that occasion—then it wouldn't be just by chance that I do it. Last Sunday you contributed money to your church; no doubt on that occasion it was within your power to refrain from contributing. But it surely wasn't just by chance that you made that contribution. It isn't as if you just flipped a coin: "Heads, I'll contribute; tails, I won't." No; you had a good reason for contributing: you want to promote the good things your church does. We Christians think God freely arranged the whole marvelous scheme of Incarnation and Atonement, whereby we sinners can once more be in a proper relationship with God. God did this, and did it freely; it was within his power to refrain from so doing, thus leaving us in our sins. But it surely doesn't follow that he did it just by chance!

This argument is a complete failure. There is one further kind of argument that Harris presents. He considers cases in which someone performs an act of horrifying evil: he enters a crowded movie theater and begins shooting. We then learn that this person is suffering from an invasive brain tumor or a serious psychological disorder; this makes us disinclined, or anyway less inclined, to hold him responsible for his action. That's because we think this person was caused to behave in this way by the tumor, and wasn't really free to act in any other way at the time of that behavior. So we recognize that people are sometimes unfree in their actions. But then, says Harris, can't we see that the same really goes for any other behavior on the part of that person, or any other person? If the killer's behavior is determined by previous circumstances and natural laws, isn't the same thing true of the behavior of any human being in any circumstance? He apparently thinks there is no relevant difference between a case in which a normal person kills someone else just for the thrill of it, and a case in which someone does the same thing, but is suffering from a brain tumor "the size of a golf ball in his medial prefrontal cortex." As he says, "There is no question that our attribution of agency can be gravely in error. I am arguing that it always is."

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