Monday, April 3, 2017
I remain haunted by Sam Harris’ book Free Will. Arguments against his strict determinism pop into my mind at unexpected times, reminiscent of the intrusive recollections suffered by patients with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Fortunately, these ideas have yet to find their way into my dreams. I get no actual actual flashbacks. I have neither hyper-startle responses nor dissociative episodes–so far, anyway.
His conclusions just bug me.
Here are three recent revelations which bolster the idea of free will:
First, emerging mostly from common sense, does it matter if free will is in fact an illusion? I think not. The Taoists and the Buddhists would agree. They view “self” as delusion. Section three of the Tao Te Ching reads, in part:
The Master leads
by emptying people’s minds
and filling their cores,
by weakening their ambition
and toughening their resolve.
He helps people lose everything
they know, everything they desire,
and creates confusion
in those who think that they know.
For example, if I met you at a party, we would exchange various noun-like descriptions of one another. Where do you live? What do you do for money? Are you married, have children? These questions elicit noun-like answers, violating the verb-like nature of our beings.
It’s nice to have the illusion of self, however.
It works for you.
Let’s say you decide to make a few significant, positive changes in your life. You join a gym where you begin exercising daily. You enter depth psychotherapy. You start practicing yoga and meditation. Within a few months, you begin experiencing an increased sense of well-being. The workouts leave you with stamina, tone, and strength; the psychotherapy addresses unresolved conflicts and deficits; the yoga and meditation leave you limber and calm.
As Harris would have argued, these changes would simply result from new “antecedents” you put into place. Fair enough. Nonetheless, you would likely experience some bolstering in your self-image from choosing these self-improvement methods. You might even sport some secondary and pleasing self-delusions, like pride at your self-discipline. So what?
Second, and extending another rebuttal from a few days ago, the purely positivist, determinism viewpoint Harris espouses has a mathematical quality to it. In Capra’s book, The Tao of Physics, he cites the following Einstein quote:
As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.
Even though Harris makes a convincing argument, he leaves out the huge swath of human subjectivity, the human experience–our entire conscious life. He cannot account, for example, for the process of you reading his book, or of you reading this post. His equation-like description of freedom sounds so bare, so desert-like. It lacks warmth. It doesn’t refer to reality.
Celebrate the self, I propose, whether or not it’s a delusion.
And, of course, remember the other.
Third and last, two solid truths with which Harris would agree are complexity and dynamism.
Complexity: If you look through a telescope, you’ll find 500 billion galaxies–but that’s only as far as astronomy can tell so far. If you look into a microscope, you’ll get as far as sub-atomic particles but, once there, many problems arise. You encounter Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. You get into trouble telling waves from particles.
Dynamism: All things are in motion, always. As I write this, and as you read this, the earth is moving around the sun at 18.5 miles a second. While you read this, your mood shifts, you’ve heard sounds and smelled smells.
How does this relate to free will? Because given complexity and dynamism, the antecedents of thought, mood, behavior could not ever be precisely calculated. As soon as you thought you had measured it, change would have occurred, time would have passed, other antecedents would have arisen, and so on, ad infinitum.
I eagerly await moving on to other topics, whether I choose to do so or the antecedents push me along.
Capra, F. (2010). The Tao of Physics. Boulder: Shambala, p. 42.
Harris, S. (2012). Free Will. New York: Free Press.
Mitchell, S. (1988). Tao Te Ching. New York: Perennial.
Alan Karbelnig, PhD, ABPP