The Buck Stops Nowhere

In a new article, Sam Harris argues that common notions of free will are incoherent, and are almost certainly at odds with reality. (I think so too.)

The problem is that no account of causality leaves room for free will—thoughts, moods, and desires of every sort simply spring into view—and move us, or fail to move us, for reasons that are, from a subjective point of view, perfectly inscrutable. Why did I use the term “inscrutable” in the previous sentence? I must confess that I do not know. Was I free to do otherwise? What could such a claim possibly mean? Why, after all, didn’t the word “opaque” come to mind? Well, it just didn’t—and now that it vies for a place on the page, I find that I am still partial to my original choice. Am I free with respect to this preference? Am I free to feel that “opaque” is the better word, when I just do not feel that it is the better word? Am I free to change my mind? Of course not. It can only change me.

There is a distinction between voluntary and involuntary actions, of course, but it does nothing to support the common idea of free will (nor does it depend upon it). The former are associated with felt intentions (desires, goals, expectations, etc.) while the latter are not. All of the conventional distinctions we like to make between degrees of intent—from the bizarre neurological complaint of alien hand syndrome to the premeditated actions of a sniper—can be maintained: for they simply describe what else was arising in the mind at the time an action occurred. A voluntary action is accompanied by the felt intention to carry it out, while an involuntary action isn’t. 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.

Good so far. Next, he acknowledges the concern this raises regarding moral responsibility:

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? And if we remain committed to seeing people as people, some who can be reasoned with and some who cannot, it seems that we must find some notion of personal responsibility that fits the facts.

Happily, we can.

Really? It’s no easy trick, that.

Well, after reading the rest of Dr. Harris’s essay I have to say don’t think he pulls it off; the argument he puts forward leaves very little room indeed for anything most people would recognize as moral responsibility. As Daniel Dennett said somewhere in one of his books on the subject, “if you make yourself small enough, you can externalize everything” — and Dr. Harris seems to be making the domain of responsible human agency very small indeed. He gives specific examples in which responsibility is mitigated by 1) extreme youth, 2) youth + parental abuse, 3) passion + parental abuse, 4) psychopathy, and 5) brain disease; he also tosses in “bad genes, bad parents, bad ideas, and bad luck”. He does offer a sop at the end; a glimpse of what actual blameworthiness might look like:

If, after weeks of deliberation, library research, and debate with your friends, you still decide to kill the king—well, then killing the king really reflects the sort of person you are.

But given what he has just finished telling us about the inscrutable neural processes that underlie even our preferences, valuations, and volitional acts, it’s hard to see why he would see any of the above as conferring “real” responsibility (as opposed to ascribed responsibility, which is, I think, the best we can do, and is in fact quite good enough).

Now he may be quite right about this: there may be an awful lot less “could have done otherwise” in our actions than we’d like to think, and indeed I’d say it’s neither incoherent nor indefensible to assert that there is actually none at all. But the hard job is to make that compatible with a meaningful and satisfying concept of moral responsibility — and I can’t see that Dr. Harris has managed that here, or even given it much of a try.

Am I missing something? Perhaps I am. Read the whole thing here.

Related content from Sphere


  1. Kevin Kim says

    Free will is taking hits on all sides. (I like the notion of “free won’t” in that article.)

    I can’t help thinking, yet again, that philosophy of mind and neuroscience are trending toward Buddhist thinking. Dennett’s “Quining Qualia” deconstructs qualia in a very Buddhist manner, and his compatibilism dovetails very neatly with Buddhist ideas that being an actor and being fully part of the chain of intercausation are not-two; the title of your blog post, “The Buck Stops Nowhere,” calls to mind the Buddhist question of “Who exactly is making karma?” (or “Who is it that attains enlightenment?”) — a question that arises because of the no-self doctrine.

    From your post, it sounds almost as if Harris is something of a holdout in the battle to preserve some little island of selfhood and agency in the classic sense.

    Posted May 31, 2011 at 11:31 pm | Permalink
  2. “But your honor, man, like, the Devil made me do it!”

    Without free will, can premeditation retain any legal consequence?

    Posted June 1, 2011 at 12:14 am | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Hi Kevin,

    From your post, it sounds almost as if Harris is something of a holdout in the battle to preserve some little island of selfhood and agency in the classic sense.

    The problem for me is I can’t figure out just what he’s trying to do. I think Dennett comes closer to a coherent (or at least clearly articulated) compatibilism.

    Interesting points about Buddhism. Sam Harris himself is a Buddhist (or something rather like a Buddhist), I think.

    By the way, here’s a link to Quining Qualia

    Posted June 1, 2011 at 10:12 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says


    Without free will, can premeditation retain any legal consequence?

    No. But “without free will” depends on what we mean by “free will”.

    If by the term we mean that we can deliberate and act accordingly, then we have all the free will we require for accountability, regardless of the inscrutable neurological/microcausal details.

    But if we insist upon a more radical definition that insists on completely uncaused agency (however we can possibly imagine that to work), then the buck never stops.

    Posted June 1, 2011 at 10:19 am | Permalink
  5. “regardless of the inscrutable neurological/microcausal details”


    Perhaps it may be instructive to consider an analogous physical concept, that of a lower bound on analysis, to ever finer granularity of detail, beyond which deterministic causality can not be maintained. For the sake of discussion, consider the level of physical detail at which quantum effects dominate. Above such levels of detail, it becomes plausible that certain physical interactions are more amenable to interpretation in terms of emergent phenomena.

    There may be such a boundary for the philosophical concept of free will, between a top-down and a bottom-up conceptualization. If so, one could conceivably view free will to be an emergent phenomenon (i.e., at “macroscopic” levels of cognition), as well as non-existent at levels of cognition that might be termed “microscopic”.

    Posted June 1, 2011 at 11:04 am | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says


    What lies beneath that lower bound? If deterministic causality cannot be maintained, are we not left with the probabilistic, random causality of QM? Quantum randomness gives us no better substrate for uncaused agency than classical determinism.

    Even emergent properties of neural systems should, one would think, be reducible to some flavor of either probablistic or “classical” causation.

    Posted June 1, 2011 at 11:33 am | Permalink
  7. “If deterministic causality cannot be maintained, are we not left with the probabilistic, random causality of QM?”

    Probably …

    But seriously, Mal, I’m just iterating my thoughts out-loud, so to speak. So, perhaps what emerges from random causality is a semblance of extended cognition in minds having the plasticity to be swayed by cultural influences. And, as such, a cognitive capability can emerge (boot-strapped, if you will) that can be culturally persuaded to believe in free will, and thereby function in a manner that is indistinguishable from whatever definition of free will you wish to adopt.

    It’s probably bullshit, but it kinda feels like maybe it’s not. But, as always, the devil is in the details.

    Posted June 1, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Permalink