Sam Harris posits that free will does not exist. If I understand the argument, free will doesn't exist because all of our decisions are the results of genetic and environmental causes over which we have no control. What is the Objectivist response to this idea?
The first Objectivist response to Sam Harris' ideas about free will probably should be to clarify exactly what ideas we are being asked to evaluate. The article linked in the question ("Life without Free Will") provides three different possibilities, the first two of which may have been intended to be the same:
In accord with the "onus of proof" principle, I leave it mostly to others to expand upon Harris' views if desired, and then determine if there is sufficient basis for refutation of his evidence and/or validation, if any is offered. Merely asserting, "Maybe there's no free will," does not warrant a further response, particularly when Harris himself seems to be claiming (in the third bullet) to know that he has knowledge of factors that he says man is unable to know. Here is his own full statement of what he claims to know:
A person’s conscious thoughts, intentions, and efforts at every moment are preceded by causes of which he is unaware. What is more, they are preceded by deep causes—genes, childhood experience, etc.—for which no one, however evil, can be held responsible. Our ignorance of both sets of facts gives rise to moral illusions. And yet many people worry that it is necessary to believe in free will, especially in the process of raising children.
If man is unaware of what moves him and unable to choose a different course of action, how did Harris come to know this? Objectivism classifies this as the inescapable "contradiction of determinism" (leading inexorably to skepticism, and vice versa). The contradiction doesn't entirely prove that man has free will, but it certainly negates determinism.
Free will is not the only topic of Harris' article. The article closely interweaves the topic of free will with moral implications and dependencies. The article is as much about morality as it is about free will. Even the title of the article, "Life without Free Will," expresses concern with life as well as with traditional belief in free will. The article seems to want to deny traditional morality as well as traditional free will, and attempts to do so by attacking free will. Implicitly, the article seems to see a conflict between traditional morality and living, with the former getting in the way of the latter.
Objectivism identifies such a conflict also. A far more fruitful approach in dealing with the relation of morality to living is to ask: if man can choose whether to adhere to a moral principle or not, then he can choose whether or not to adhere to any morality at all. He can ask what the purpose of morality in human life might be, if there is one. He can then identify what kind of morality, what specific code of values, will enable man to achieve that purpose. That is precisely the key question that led Ayn Rand to discover her entire Objectivist Ethics. In TOE (VOS Chap. 1), she emphasizes:
The first question that has to be answered, as a precondition of any attempt to define, to judge or to accept any specific system of ethics, is: Why does man need a code of values?
The Harris article also hints at a closely related, key issue at the foundation of ethics: the nature of values, and the fact that the concept 'value' and a standard of value do not depend on free will. One excerpt where Harris names this but doesn't carry his identification further, unlike Ayn Rand, is the following:
In my view, the reality of good and evil does not depend upon the existence of free will, because with or without free will, we can distinguish between suffering and happiness.
In other words, we can measure values as being life-supporting or life-diminishing, independently of whether or not the valuer has a free choice in valuing. The concept of life as the standard of value is practically screaming for recognition here, but it took centuries of philosophy and the genius of Ayn Rand to comprehend it fully.
Objectivism can applaud Harris' desire to live, yet deplore his means of removing the obstacle that traditional morality too often imposes.
answered Nov 15 '12 at 01:00
Ideas for Life ♦