On Sam Harris and Free Will

Jayme Johnson
4 min readNov 22, 2014
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This is a response to Sam Harris after watching a few videos of his presentations. I should note that I am late in discovering the work of Sam so please forgive me if I go over stuff that he did in the past. He claims that, in a way our thoughts are already in the past — that you can’t have a thought before you think it — that there is activity in the brain that precedes your decisions and can predict them. It would be more accurate to say that you can’t have a belief associated with a thought before you think that thought. Thoughts have a number of characteristics, but beliefs are not the same thing. Beliefs are agreeing with particular thoughts — finding them to be true unlike doubt and disbelief.

I agree that thoughts do simply arise. This happens all the time during the day. Many of these thoughts are involuntary and spring from the unconscious much like dreams do when one is sleeping. But it is a leap to claim that because of that, free will is an illusion. What about the response to these initial thoughts that arise — the beliefs associated with them?

Using examples should be scrutinized to find out if the one who is using one is using it for the wrong reasons. My last post about the tree in the forest is an example of a questionable example. How would you know that there is a tree in a forest to begin with? That being said, I will use an example. Feel free to scrutinize.

Let’s say you go out to the parking lot and your car is no longer there. Most people would be in shock and in a state of disbelief that it was gone. Their initial belief would be that is has been stolen. Not many people would just calmly look around and weigh the different possibilities for what happened. The belief that your car was stolen may stick with you for a long time until you find out otherwise. That belief may even breed other thoughts such as who may have done it, why someone would steal it, and what you’re going to do about it. Many of these thoughts and beliefs happen involuntarily. However, the rational voice in your head also tells you to calm down and find out what actually happened. That part is voluntary. It may be difficult, but it is chosen as a rational course of action. If thoughts like those weren’t voluntary, it would be like everyone was sleep-walking — following every involuntary thought and simply suffering the consequences, like when you’re dreaming and asleep. In many ways beliefs are similar to dreams while you’re sleeping. You are believing what you’re SEEING. This sense of seeing is inward. When you’re awake and active in the world you also believe WHAT you see depending on how you respond to the initial report of what your senses reveal. Much of that is based on expectations and habits.

Just because you can detect with some accuracy the activity in the brain that precedes the decision that one makes by using a machine, doesn’t mean that person has no free will. It just means that technology has now allowed us to detect things that were previously undetected — much like the telescope. The invention of the telescope didn’t make it a fact that people could no longer see very well. That goes for the microscope as well and a number of other devices that amplify things. It’s interesting that the propositions that Harris uses in his experiment were ones that didn’t really challenge them. They were more like facts for some and not true for others. A more accurate test would be one where you rigorously test the fundamental beliefs of the participant. This is usually in cases of shock, or utter surprise.

If one had no free will, they would be a prisoner to the involuntary thoughts that arise when they no longer see their car in the parking lot. Nothing would call on us to question the thoughts. If a machine was hooked up to someone’s brain while this was happening, I’m sure there would be an abundant amount of activity lighting up regions of the brain. The initial disbelief that your car is gone would certainly be like lightning in the brain! It would most likely be replaced by the belief that it was stolen. As time went by, that belief would become fact or turn out to be inaccurate. Maybe they towed your car away for some reason or maybe your actually forgot where you parked — something very simple.

It’s true that you may not be able to explain why you initially believed your car was stolen and that a different belief didn’t reveal itself to consciousness. It could have been merely habit. It was the way you normally react to unpleasant events, which usually involves all of the associated unpleasant feelings. But that doesn’t mean you can’t eventually believe otherwise. Beliefs are malleable. They aren’t set in stone. In many ways they are merely pragmatic. In other words they have a particular use. They are held onto until further evidence comes to light, or in the case of religiously strict people, they are held onto as an act of faith. There are varying degrees to which people cling to their beliefs, or prefer to deal with uncertainty. Sam Harris is certain that free will is an illusion. He believes it. His certainty involving free will is analogues to religious beliefs. Even though it hasn’t been proven that free will is an illusion, he believes that it is an illusion.

Originally published at http://jaymejradio.wordpress.com on November 22, 2014.