Sam Harris is a neuroscientist, popular author, and public intellectual who defends scientific skepticism, especially with respect to religious ideas, which he correctly finds have no basis in empirical science. In his 2010 book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Harris calls for scientists to make a contribution, as we do, to morality and "objective" values. But Harris dismisses free will as an illusion and accepts the randomness objection in the standard argument against free will,
If I were to learn that my decision to have a third cup of coffee this morning was due to a random release of neurotransmitters, how could the indeterminacy of the initiating event count as the free exercise of my will?In two-stage models of free will, randomness simply generates new and original alternative possibilities for action. They need not directly cause actions. Harris says that "in the limit, 'self-generated' mental events would amount to utter madness." (p. 104.) But Harris recognizes a biological role for objective chance, particularly the quantum indeterminacy, in the world. Unlike Daniel Dennett, who thinks that biological evolution needs only the classical pseudo-randomness of a computer algorithm to drive species generation, Harris correcty sees biological speciation as depending on quantum randomness and unpredictable in principle.
"Quantum effects do drive evolution, as high-energy particles like cosmic rays cause point mutations in DNA and the behavior of such particles passing through the nucleus of a cell is governed by the laws of quantum mechanics. Evolution, therefore, seems unpredictable in principle."Harris says simply that "no account of causality leaves room for free will."
"Where our intentions themselves come from, however, and what determines their character in every instant, remains perfectly mysterious in subjective terms. Our sense of free will arises from a failure to appreciate this fact: we do not know what we will intend to do until the intention itself arises. To see this is to realize that you are not the author of your thoughts and actions in the way that people generally suppose."For Harris, as for Peter van Inwagen, free will remains a mystery,
It is generally argued that our sense of free will presents a compelling mystery: on the one hand, it is impossible to make sense of it in causal terms; on the other, there is a powerful subjective sense that we are the authors of our own actions. However, I think that this mystery is itself a symptom of our confusion. It is not that free will is simply an illusion: our experience is not merely delivering a distorted view of reality; rather, we are mistaken about the nature of our experience. We do not feel as free as we think we feel. Our sense of our own freedom results from our not paying attention to what it is actually like to be what we are. The moment we do pay attention, we begin to see that free will is nowhere to be found, and our subjectivity is perfectly compatible with this truth. Thoughts and intentions simply arise in the mind. What else could they do?We of course agree, as did William James, that our thoughts arise freely in our minds. But that does not mean that we do not sometimes deliberate, evaluate, and consciously choose between the alternative thoughts that come to mind. First chance, then choice. First "free," then "will."
Anti-ReligionHarris famously argues that organized religions are the source of many of the world's evils. His first book was the best-selling The End of Faith (2003), written shortly after and in reaction to the September 11 attacks. His emphasis is on militant or radical Islam, but he also cites Christian atrocities, from the middle ages to American slavery. He does not spare Judaism, as the source of the ideology that a God can command its followers to exterminate another nation (the Canaanites). And Harris does not limit his criticism of Islam to its most radical exponents. The opinions of a majority of muslims in many countries are abhorrent to him, like the death sentence for a muslim leaving the religion and the horrid treatment of women.
Free WillIn 2012, Harris expanded his brief section of The Moral Landscape entitled "The Illusion of Free Will" (pages 102-112) into a short book simply entitled Free Will Inspired in part by other thinkers such as Daniel Dennett, Galen Strawson, Benjamin Libet, and Daniel Wegner, Harris positions himself as an extreme "illusionist. Following a bachelor's degree in philosophy and a Ph.D in neuroscience from UCLA, Harris has become in many ways the leading hard determinist. This may be because libertarian free will is so widely regarded to be a religious belief and he is so anti-religion? While other neuroscientists ask the question whether our neurons may be in complete charge (e.g., Michael Gazzaniga), Harris has absolutely no doubt about it. He says, "Free will is an illusion," he says emphatically, and gives a Strawsonian version of the standard argument against free will that he thinks proves it.
"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. Free will is actually more than an illusion (or less), in that it cannot be made conceptually coherent. Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.
If determinism is true, the future is set — and this includes all our future states of mind and our subsequent behavior. And to the extent that the law of cause and effect is subject to indeterminism — quantum or otherwise — we can take no credit for what happens. There is no combination of these truths that seems compatible with the popular notion of free will.