Sam Harris and Determinism

On his blog earlier this week, Sam Harris argues for “Morality Without ‘Free Will.’” Sam Harris has become an influential public intellectual through his three New York Times bestsellers, his articles in many leading journals and magazines, and in his capacity as the CEO of Project Reason.

In this response, I will summarize his position and then point out a few problems with his position. My goal is not to attack Sam Harris personally; I have respect for Sam Harris as a thinker, writer and speaker, which is why I am responding to him. Instead, my goal is to offer a rational response to his ideas and arguments. (I’ve also written another article on atheism and determinism).

First, Sam Harris completely denies the existence of free will:

In fact, the concept of free will is a non-starter, both philosophically and scientifically.

To deny free will is to say that our actions are determined. If we have “free will”, then we have the capacity, within ourselves, to make independent choices. If we lack free will, then our choices are determined by our genes, our society, or by other forces outside of our control.

Second, he says the denial of free will does not imply that social and political freedom are any less valuable:

To see this is to realize that you are not the author of your thoughts and actions in the way that people generally suppose. This insight does not make social and political freedom any less important, however. The freedom to do what one intends, and not to do otherwise, is no less valuable than it ever was.

On this point the question is, how can Sam Harris deny that we personally have free will, but insist that it is important to have freedom in political or social matters?

Having laid the groundwork, he turns to the main point of his post, which is to argue that though we lack free will, we can still be moral beings:

The great worry is that any honest discussion of the underlying causes of human behavior seems to erode the notion of moral responsibility. If we view people as neuronal weather patterns, how can we coherently speak about morality?

His challenge is to put together the idea that people are “neuronal weather patterns” with the idea that “people are responsible for their actions.”

Fourth, he proposes an alternative definition of “responsibility” by which he thinks we can “coherently speak about morality.” After giving an example to illustrate his point, he defines ‘responsibility’ as behavior “sufficiently in keeping with my thoughts, intentions, beliefs, and desires to be considered an extension of them.” By contrast, if his actions were “totally out of character,” then he is less responsible for them.

This is a very controversial definition of “responsibility” as I explain below.

Fifth, he offers a set of illustrations about men of varying ages and backgrounds killing a woman. In each case, he argues, “brains and their background influences are, in every case, and to exactly the same degree, the real cause” of the killing. Sam Harris’s point here is that the “responsibility” for the killing does not need to come from “any illusions about a causal agent” (like a soul) existing within a human body. So if we can’t hold a “causal agent” like a soul responsible, where do we affix blame?

Sam Harris says that what we can condemn is “the intention to do harm” (italics in his post). Why? Because “what we do subsequent to conscious planning tends to most fully reflect the global properties of our minds.” That is, we need to pay attention to the conscious decision to do harm to others, because this is a reliable way of understanding how likely it is that the person will harm someone else.

If an investigation of their conscious intentions reveals a strong likelihood of a repeat offense, well, “we need to build prisons for people who are intent upon harming others.” The reason for imprisoning these people isn’t to punish them because we know it was their “bad genes, bad parents, bad ideas, and bad luck” that led them to harm others. The goal is “containment or rehabilitation” for people who happen to be wired to harm others, but not punishment, since looking at it scientifically, we can see that these people did not choose their actions.

Again, you can read his thoughts on their own terms, and see other nuances and components of his argument. But with this brief survey in hand, let’s consider a few problems with his argument:

1. A minor point, but an important one: Sam Harris says that he cannot change his own mind. He also says that no one else has the free will to change their minds. So why does he go to such great lengths to change our minds?

On the one hand, he says that no one can change their minds, but on the other, he acts as if people could choose to change their minds. I’m not denying that our minds change over time as we learn new information. The question is whether or not this change is a passive process caused by impersonal forces or a series of personal decisions caused by rational deliberation. The fact that Harris is trying to use reason to change our minds is a subtle indication that it is impossible to really live as if determinism is true. We can’t help but live as if we and others can decide to change our minds.

2. There is an inherent tension between his assertion that “social and political freedom” are valuable and his denial of human free will. Why is it that “the freedom to do what one intends, and not to do otherwise, is no less valuable than it ever was”? If our intentions are frustrated by a neurological change or by a change in our political structures, what is the relevant difference? In both cases, our actions are determined by causes that originate outside of ourselves.

Which would you prefer:

A. Free will, but forced to live under a repressive government or

B. No free will, completely determined to act by causes outside of yourself, but you live in a society with a highly permissive government.

In other words, once you deny that we have free will, it is of little account how much political or social freedom we have.

3. If it is true that people do not, and cannot, choose their actions, then for some people, it may be both inevitable and futile to attempt to change other people’s actions. Inevitable, because we may be the kind of person who is socio-biologically determined to try to change other people, and futile, because everyone else is just as determined as we are. This is a very bleak and hopeless perspective.

4. Once Sam Harris denies that we are “answerable or accountable, as for something within one’s own power, control, or management,” which is a standard definition for “responsibility,” then any talk of “morality” does become empty and hollow. Again, his view is that human actions are determined by “neuronal weather patterns.” So none of our actions or thoughts are under our control.

Therefore, it still makes good sense to say that Sam Harris’s position means that all talk about morality is completely illusory. We cannot first deny that we have responsibility in general and then affirm that we do have a particular kind of moral responsibility.

5. Finally, his redefinition of the word ‘responsibility’ to mean behavior “sufficiently in keeping with my thoughts, intentions, beliefs, and desires to be considered an extension of them,” is the opposite of what most people mean by the word. Why? Because Sam Harris denies that we have any control over what our thoughts, intentions, beliefs and desires are in the first place.

In his view, our actions and what causes our actions are entirely outside of our control, so we are not and cannot be “responsible” for them in the sense that most people mean by that word. This means that his use of the word “responsibility” could become misleading, if he is not exceedingly careful to continually explain his unique definition of this word.

For all these reasons, I think that it is best to both respect Sam Harris as a person (of course) and to disagree that we can have “morality without free will.” Determinism does eliminate human responsibility, because it denies that we have the ability to choose our thoughts and behavior, and this is an absolutely necessary condition for reason, morality, and freedom.