Culture & Ethics
The Medial Pre-Frontal Cortex Did It: Sam Harris’s Free Will
In Britain’s New Statesman, Steven Poole laments the glut of what he calls “neurotrash” — the attempt to explain every human thought and action in terms of neuroscience and cognitive psychology:
An intellectual pestilence is upon us. Shop shelves groan with books purporting to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies. The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer. This is the plague of neuroscientism — aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash — and it’s everywhere.
Free Will, by Sam Harris, must now take its place in this plague of panegyrics to the pre-frontal cortex.
The first thing we must get clear about the book is something that Harris himself, given his thesis, must certainly agree with: he had no choice in writing it. But that has little to do with the neurological state of his brain. He operates under a necessity only a little less deterministic: the necessity that follows on the nature of his dogma.
As an atheist and a materialist, Harris really has no choice but to champion the idea that free will is a delusion. The materialist, said Chesterton, “is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle.” Materialists like Harris keep asking why we make the decisions we do, and what explanation there could be other than the physiological. The answer, of course, is the psychological, the philosophical, the whimsical, and about a thousand others.
But these violate the central tenets of his narrow dogma, and so are automatically rejected.
There is something ironic about the position of thinkers like Harris on issues like this: they claim that their position is the result of the irresistible necessity of logic (in fact, they pride themselves on their logic). Their belief is the consequent, in a ground/consequent relation between their evidence and their conclusion. But their very stated position is that any mental state — including their position on this issue — is the effect of a physical, not logical cause.
By their own logic, it isn’t logic that demands their assent to the claim that free will is an illusion, but the prior chemical state of their brains. The only condition under which we could possibly find their argument convincing is if they are not true. The claim that free will is an illusion requires the possibility that minds have the freedom to assent to a logical argument, a freedom denied by the claim itself. It is an assent that must, in order to remain logical and not physiological, presume a perspective outside the physical order.
And this is not only a mortal consequence for Harris as the one trying to prove his point, it is also problematic from the reader’s perspective: If we are convinced by Harris’s logic, we would have to consider this conviction as something determined not by the rational strength of his logic, but by the entirely irrational arrangement of the chemicals in our brains. They might, as Harris would have to say, coincide, but their relation would be completely arbitrary. If prior physical states are all that determine our beliefs, any one physical state is no more rational than any other. It isn’t rational or irrational, it just is.
If what Harris says is true, then our assent to what we view as the rational strength of his position may appear to us to involve our choice to assent or not to assent to his ostensibly rational argument, but (again, if it is true) in truth it cannot be any such thing, since we do not have that choice — or any other.
Indeed, it is hard to see how, if free will is an illusion, we could ever know it.
But this complication does not appear to have occurred to Harris, so let us confine ourselves to those that have occurred to him and see what we can make of them. More in a future post.