Facts Of The Matter

Sam Harris has been addressing the question of free will in a series of short posts (we’ve already commented on the first two, here and very briefly here).

Dr. Harris is forthrightly skeptical that free will, as popularly conceived, exists. He seemed concerned, in the first of his posts, to make some sort of case for moral responsibility nevertheless, but it was a pretty half-hearted effort, and he didn’t pull it off. In the second post he didn’t really even try. He has now published a third item in the series, and it says nothing whatsoever about morality, focusing instead on buttressing his argument that our subjective sense of uncaused agency is an illusion.

As I’ve said before, I agree (though I don’t think that it matters in any meaningful way, in part because I think our familiar notion of “free”, original agency is incoherent).

Dr. Harris reminds us that while we can do as we choose, the choosing itself is opaque to introspection. We enter a deliberative state, and our decision simply appears. He quotes Einstein:

Honestly, I cannot understand what people mean when they talk about the freedom of the human will. I have a feeling, for instance, that I will something or other; but what relation this has with freedom I cannot understand at all. I feel that I will to light my pipe and I do it; but how can I connect this up with the idea of freedom? What is behind the act of willing to light the pipe? Another act of willing? Schopenhauer once said: Der Mensch kann was er will; er kann aber nicht wollen was er will (Man can do what he will, but he cannot will what he wills).

All correct, I think. Where then, does that leave consciousness? Experimental observation has shown that decisions seem to become accessible to conscious awareness only some time after they are made; the simplest account, then, would seem to be that consciousness is quite unnecessary for deliberation and decision-making. (Indeed, were it not for the lethal objection raised by Titus Rivas, Daniel Dennett, and others, and discussed here, I’d say that pure epiphenomenalism — the idea that consciousness has no causal effect on anything at all, and is just a spectator along for the ride — is the simplest and best account of what’s going on.)

But why, then, does consciousness even matter? Harris wonders too. He talks about “the very reason why people believe in free will in the first place: the feeling of conscious agency”:

People feel that they are the authors of their thoughts and actions, and this is the only reason why there seems to be a problem of free will worth talking about.

Each of us has many organs in addition to a brain that make unconscious “decisions”—but these are not events for which anyone feels responsible. Are you producing red blood cells and digestive enzymes at this moment? Your body is, of course, but if it “decided” to do otherwise, you would be the victim of these changes, rather than their autonomous cause. To say that I am “responsible” for everything that goes on inside my skin because it’s all “me,” is to make a claim that bears no relationship to the feelings of agency and moral responsibility that make the idea of free will an enduring problem for philosophy.

Our subjective experience having led us to a chimerical notion of what it means to be “free”, we then imagine that a choice must be conscious to be “free”, and that the choices of which we are conscious are “free”. Wrong all round, it seems.

Why, then, bother about consciousness at all, if it isn’t the seat of free agency? The answer is that consciousness matters because it is all there is to our subjective existence — and because even if our preferences and deliberations only present themselves to conscious awareness after the fact, they can still lead us to practices, to studies, to efforts of the attention, that enhance and deepen our conscious experience and the subjective enjoyment of our lives. Consciousness is what brings us into existence as loci of subjective experience.

As Gurdjieff said:

Life is real only then: when ‘I am.'”

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