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Blue Pill or Red Pill? Sam Harris’s Free Will

In Free Will, which I’ve been reviewing here (see Part I), Sam Harris sets forth his position as follows:

Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have.

FreeWillCoverSmall.jpgThe first problem in statements like this is who exactly “we” are. The word appears here six times in four sentences (if we count “our,” its genitive form). Harris is arguing that there is no volitional locus from which decisions emanate: Our minds do not exist as any kind of independent entity, but are rather a part of a network of physical and chemical circuitry that operates according to rules that exclude any part of that circuitry from defying those rules This is one of the many implications of saying that there is no free will. But the very use of the word “we” implies that there is some part of that circuitry which can operate outside those rules — some volitional locus that, being volitional, can escape from the deterministic matrix. But his whole case is that there is no such thing.
In the choice between the blue pill and the red pill, Harris continually hedges his bets. He wants to be seen as a brave and steely rationalist, biting the intellectual bullet and accepting conclusions that are clearly not attractive, but that, being a materialist, he must accept. But his language keeps betraying him: if he is right, there is no “we,” so why keep using it? He pretends that he’s taken the red pill, but he keeps using blue pill language (“we,” “our,” “us”).
Harris and his New Atheist friends like to cast themselves in the role of the existential hero. The problem is that they are precisely the opposite: the existential hero not only can choose, but is defined by his ability to choose to act in a way that takes him out of the matrix altogether. He doesn’t defend the machine; he defies it.
Harris & Co. want us to see them as Neo defying the traditional religious matrix. But in their scientistic mythology, there are only Agent Smiths. In the debate about free will, it is Harris who wears the dark suit and black glasses.