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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?

asked Nov 14 '12 at 12:37

gk1's gravatar image


edited Nov 14 '12 at 14:03

The answer by Ideas is a good one. The link you give doesn't argue for the assertion that free will doesn't exist. It simply, as you correctly describe it in your first sentence, "posits that free will does not exist".

Harris does try "to deny the deniers of his denial of free will". Specifically, the thesis of the article is to reject the view that "accepting [determinism] could have terrible consequences, psychologically or socially". On this, I believe he is wrong. I believe that accepting determinism is highly likely to have terrible consequences, both psychologically and socially.

(Nov 15 '12 at 09:57) anthony anthony's gravatar image

However, note that I am not basing my belief in free will on the fact that accepting determinism is likely to have terrible consequences. Rather, I base my belief that accepting determinism is likely to have terrible consequences (in part) on my belief in free will.

Harris starts off by admitting that it is possible for people to use the acceptance of determinism for "as a pretext for doing whatever they want". Indeed, this is not only possible, but it happens.

(Nov 15 '12 at 10:04) anthony anthony's gravatar image

The paragraph about the person who becomes a pediatric surgeon as a result of innate talent, education which you are "provided with", and "good luck" is just strange. All those years of hard work and dedication were just a combination of talent, luck, and handouts?

"If you succeed at becoming a surgeon, you will simply find yourself standing one day, scalpel in hand, at the confluence of all the genetic and environmental causes that led you to develop along this line." Well, at least he rejects teaching such nonsense to elementary schoolers!

(Nov 15 '12 at 10:23) anthony anthony's gravatar image

In any case, free will is not omnipotence. The fact that I am not President of the United States does not mean I chose not to be President of the United States. On the other hand, the fact that Barrack Obama is POTUS does mean that Barrack Obama chose to be POTUS. Obama didn't simply find himself one day sitting in the oval office.

(Nov 15 '12 at 10:34) anthony anthony's gravatar image

"Every moment of conscious effort—every thought, intention, and decision—will have been caused by events of which I am not conscious. Where is the freedom in this?"

While reading this I couldn't help but think of Peter Keating and James Taggart.

You can choose to have your life determined by your subconscious (in combination with outside forces). But you can also choose not to. The latter is quite rewarding. The former leads to death (and in a way, it is death).

(Nov 15 '12 at 10:38) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Harris also talks about what he considers to be the positives of his deterministic view. "Seeing through the illusion of free will has lessened my feelings of hatred for bad people."

Unwittingly he has just disproven his point. Accepting determinism has had terrible consequences, both psychologically and socially. His ability to judge people has been compromised.

(Nov 15 '12 at 10:48) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Anyway, my responses have focused on the practical problems with denying free will, since that was what this Harris article discussed.

I haven't discussed why I believe in free will in the first place, which is probably a topic for another question.

(Nov 15 '12 at 11:11) anthony anthony's gravatar image
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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:

  • "Traditional notion" of free will. The article doesn't explicitly describe what that is, unless it is being alleged to be the view expressed in the next bullet below. Objectivism, of course, upholds a very non-traditional view of free will. For more information on the Objectivist view of free will, refer to the topics of "Free Will" and "Focus" in The Objectivist Lexicon.

  • The Harris article's opening sentence, which sets the consistent theme for the whole article, is: "One of the most common objections to my position on free will is that accepting it could have terrible consequences, psychologically or socially." Nearly the whole article is devoted to shooting down "the most common objections" to Harris' denial that free will exists. He is trying to deny the deniers of his denial of free will (if anyone can follow that).

  • The question accurately describes Harris' own view of free will as follows: "free will doesn't exist because all of our decisions are the results of genetic and environmental causes over which we have no control." There is one particular paragraph in the Harris article (quoted below) where Harris very explicitly states this -- but utterly fails to offer any further validation of it. The rest of the article is devoted, not to explaining and validating Harris' own view, but to analyzing and criticizing the view expressed in the second bullet above. A refutation of the views of others is not a validation of one's own view.

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.
[. . .]
Understanding the true causes of human behavior does not leave any room for the traditional notion of free will.

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?

Let me stress this. The first question is not: What particular code of values should man accept? The first question is: Does man need values at all -- and why?

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%20for%20Life's gravatar image

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Asked: Nov 14 '12 at 12:37

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Last updated: Nov 15 '12 at 11:11