Tom Clark’s Transcript of Sam Harris’ Delusion of Free Will Talk

Tom Clark’s Transcript of Sam Harris’ Delusion of Free Will Talk April 26, 2016

Tom Clark, or the Center For Naturalism, and someone whom I have interviewed, has created this transcript of the excellent talk given by Sam Harris at the Dangerous Ideas event in Sydney recently. Tom has kindly allowed me to repost it here. It might not be exact, but it serves as a useful resource. I will also embed the video. Multidimensional learning! For those interested in a great introductory book on the subject, please check out my Free Will? book.

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Sam Harris on the delusion of free will at the Dangerous Ideas festival in Sydney

Sept 28, 2012 at the Sydney Opera House

Moderator asks: Will a culture war break out, as Sam predicts it might, if we take on the question of free will?

Sam’s remarks:

Most sensitive topic he’s had the honor to touch

Without free will religion doesn’t make sense

FW touches everything we care about, that makes us human, e.g., guilt and response, depends on us being the conscious source of our thoughts and actions

Want to convince you FW is an illusion and that it matters

Two misunderstandings:

1) We don’t understand enough yet to reach the conclusion that popular notion of free will is an illusion. Not true, since FW is completely incoherent. [Note he hasn’t defined it yet, the popular notion of FW]

2) Of course commonsense FW doesn’t fit the facts, is an illusion but that’s just academic, nothing important changes when we deny it. Also untrue on my view.

Crocodile vs. human in doing one harm, difference in reactive attitude, feelings of revenge, etc. for human but not for croc.  The idea of FW accounts for the difference. Croc was just being a croc, but the human had free will and could have done otherwise (CHDO) and should have done otherwise (SHDO).

Most folks think morality has to be grounded in FW, and necessary for getting what we want out of life. But not so. We can get what we want out of life without suffering any illusion about human behavior.

Popular conception of free will rests on two assumptions:

1) Each of us was free to act differently than we did in the past. You chose A but you could have chosen B. That’s how it seems to most of us.

2) You are the conscious source of thoughts and actions. Conscious part of you is actually the author of your inner life and behavior.

These are false: we live in a world of cause and effect. Either you’re a product of chain of cause and effect, or you’re a product of randomness. In neither case are you responsible. Or it’s some combination. Free will makes no sense no matter what the combination.

To say someone has free will must mean he could have consciously done otherwise, not based on random influences but because he was conscious author and could have thought and acted in other ways. But no good account of how this could be given chain of cause and effect, e.g., environmental, genetic and situational factors of a murderer. When we see chain of causes that precede a conscious experience and that reach back into childhood or out into the world, then the sense of culpability disappears, the place where we place our blame disappears. [TC: well, we can blame the whole chain, including the agent, in terms of targeting interventions. But we don’t any longer single out the agent as ultimately responsible in the way we used to.] To say he CHDO would be to say he was in a different universe or been a different person. As disturbing as I find that person’s behavior, have to admit that if I traded places with him atom for atom I would be him, and would behave exactly as he did and for the same reasons. There’s no extra part of me that could have resisted the impulse to victimize innocent people.

Even if I have an immortal soul, I cannot take credit for the fact that I don’t have the soul of a psychopath [right, we don’t choose our souls]

“The role of luck in our lives appears decisive.”  17:15  The moral significance of luck seems difficult to admit, it seems to destabilize us, we seem not to know how to think about evil in this context. But when in specific cases we see the cause of evil our moral intuitions shift utterly, e.g., brain tumor. Brain tumor is just a special case. “If we fully understood the physiology of a murder’s brain it would be just as exculpatory as finding a tumor in it.”  18:20

“If we could see how the wrong genes were being relentlessly transcribed, if we could see how his early life experience had sculpted the microstructure of his brain in just such as way as to give rise to violent impulses, the whole conception of placing blame on him would erode.” [Exact quote, ending at 18:45] [Right, in that we put the agent completely in context and see the causal role of non-agent factors]

18:45 Philosophers have put forward a [compatibilist] notion of free will that can withstand the facts.

The problem of free will is deeper than cause and effect. Most people suppose we have the experience of free will and we can’t map that experience onto reality. But free will doesn’t even correspond to a subjective fact about ourselves and if you pay close attention you can see this: our thoughts simply appear in consciousness. [TC: yes, we don’t see them caused, so we suppose they are uncaused, same with decisions. This supports the idea that we cause without being caused in turn.]

21:15  Thoughts just emerge, we’re not authoring them.  [TC: we are if we are our unconscious as well as conscious processes] We can’t choose them before we think them; that would require we think them before we think them. “If you can’t control your next thought and you don’t know what it will be until it appears, where is your freedom of will?” 21:30  You don’t choose your thoughts.  If you understand what I’m saying you didn’t create that either. {TC: so its’ the conscious self that Sam is identifying that doesn’t have free will]  Everything is just happening, and that includes your thoughts and desires and your most deliberate efforts. 22:20

The present moment is already a memory that is being buffered. The unconscious machinery produces thoughts, intentions, and actions and this is where the notion of free will and moral responsibility begin to get squeezed.  Libet experiments. Time lag between when you think you’ve decided to do something and the moment at which your brain decided. 24:30  [TC: Sam’s residual dualism of the conscious you vs. your unconscious brain]

“The experience of deciding during this period where you feel that you are free to do anything you want has already been determined by the state of your brain.” 25:50  Hard to reconcile with free will since in principle it would allow someone to predict what you’re going to do while you think you’re still making up your mind. But even if the conscious intention were truly simultaneous with the neurophysiological underpinnings, there would still be no room for free will because you still wouldn’t know why it is you do what you do in that moment.  [TC: often we do know. Harris is talking about moment-to-moment spontaneity, not deliberative action.]

Example of mentally picking a movie. No evidence of free will in this. Were you free to choose whatever it is that did not occur to you to choose? You don’t know why you chose Avatar over Lawrence of Arabia. Free will is going back and forth between two options and not suffering any constraints from external world. But it’s a mystery of why you chose it. You can tell a story but it’s usually wrong. [TC: overstates this.] You, the conscious witness of your inner life isn’t making these decisions. All you can do is witness them. [Dualism of witnessing self vs. producing brain]

Our experience in life is totally compatible with determinism. We don’t have this robust sense of free will the moment we actually pay attention to how thoughts and intentions arise. This is true whether or not we have immortal souls. The case against [contra-causal] free will doesn’t presuppose materialism.  The unconscious operation of the soul grants you no more free will than that of your brain. If you don’t know what your soul is going to do next you’re not in control of your soul. 32:40 [On Harris’s view, control means knowing in advance what you want to achieve, not the spontaneous behavior control of the brain and body.]

The endurance of the problem of free will is due to the experience that we freely author our thoughts and actions [TC: note that this contradicts his assertion that we don’t actually have this experience] The only philosophically respectable defense of free will is compatibilism – compatible with determinism. Dennett a compatibilist: if murderer kills acts in accordance with desires and intentions that’s all the free will you need. But from a moral and scientific point of view this seems to miss the point. Where is the freedom in doing what one wants when one’s desires are the product of prior events that one is completely unaware of and have no hand in creating? Compatibilism is like saying a puppet is free if it loves its strings. [Sam’s puppet error] 34:50  Compatibilists push back and say that you are the totality of what goes on inside your brain and body, so your unconscious mental life and physiology is just as much you as your conscious inner life is. But  this seems like a bait and switch. It trades a psychological fact, this experience we have of consciously authoring our thoughts and actions for a general conception of ourselves as persons.  It’s a little like saying you’re made of stardust, which you are, but you don’t feel like stardust. And the knowledge that you’re stardust is not driving your moral intuitions and influencing our system of criminal justice.  Most people identify with a certain channel of information in their conscious minds. They feel that they are in control, that they are the source. And this is an illusion. [TC: but it isn’t an illusion that we are our brains] 36:21  The you that you take yourself to be at this present moment isn’t in control of anything. [TC: but we are our brains and body, and in control of our behavior, and we aren’t puppets.]  Compatibilist try to save free will by saying you are more than this, that you are the totality of what goes on in your brain and body. But you don’t feel responsible for this. Are you making red blood cells right now?  If your body were to stop making them you wouldn’t be responsible for this, you’d be the victim of this change. So to say that you are responsible or identical to everything that goes on inside your brain and body is to make a claim about you that bears absolutely no relationship to the experience of conscious authorship and subjectivity that has made free will that has made free will a problem for philosophy in the first place. [TC: The experience is non-veridical, we agree. But that doesn’t make us puppets or undercut behavior control.]

What does this all mean?  To argue for determinism is not to argue for fatalism [good] 37:53  To sit back and see what happens is itself a choice which has its own consequences. Also very hard to do. The fact that our decisions and efforts depend on prior causes doesn’t mean they aren’t important. [good]  Effort and discipline and attention all matter, goals. These are all causal states of the brain that lead to behaviors and outcomes in the world. So in a way not that much changes. The choices we make in life are as important as fanciers of free will imagine. So fatalism is untrue. 39:30S  The idea that the future is going to be what its going to be regardless of what you think and do, that is clearly untrue. But the next thing you think and do is going to come out of a wilderness of prior causes which you – the conscious witness of your inner life – cannot see and did not bring into being.  You have not built your mind. [TC: Harris has two basic points against contra-causal free will:  no causa sui, no conscious controller. ] When it seems like you build it the only tools at your disposal are those you’ve inherited from moments past.  No one picks their parents, their moment of history or how their nervous system gets shaped… you are no more responsible for the structure of your brain as well as its functional states as you are for your height.

But I’m not saying that you can just blame your parents for every bad thing that happened to you and make no effort to change yourself. [good] This is a way of misunderstanding the argument. It is possible to change. In fact viewing yourself as a system open to myriad influences actual makes change seem more possible. [good] 41:00  You aren’t condemned to be the person you were yesterday, in fact you can’t be that person. The self is not a stable entity, it is a process. But it is a fundamentally mysterious process [TC: not so, we have lots of accurate self-knowledge, and getting more every day. Just because we aren’t privy to our unconscious operations doesn’t obviate useful self-knowledge.]  None of us know how we arrived at this moment of our lives. [often we do have a pretty accurate story, in hindsight] There is a mystery here in the present moment that doesn’t get eradicated even though you have a story to tell about why you think you did something.  We are at each moment simply discovering what our life is. This may sound scary, but it actually can be quite freeing to view the world this way.

So our choices matter and there are paths toward making wiser ones and there’s no telling how much a good conversation could change you or how it might matter to surround yourself with smart people or get an education, but you don’t choose to choose what you choose in life, there’s a regress that always ends in darkness.  You always take a first step, or a last one, for reasons that are bound to remain inscrutable [TC: not sure why he thinks this]  And to declare your freedom in this context is really just a way of saying I don’t know why I did that but I didn’t mind doing it and I’d be willing to do it again. 42:48

Just think of the context of your next decision. You didn’t pick any of the influences that shaped your neurophysiology, you didn’t pick your soul if you have one. And yet this totality of influences and states [TC: that is, you] will be the thing that produces your next decision. 44:00 Yes, you’re free to do whatever you want but where do your desires come from?  [Harris tends to conflate/elide/combine the no causa sui point with the point about the causal role of the conscious controller.]

44:10  It seems that this talk is beginning to undermine a sense of moral order, and in fact this is the position of the US Supreme Court. It said that free will is a universal and persistent assumption of our criminal justice system, that’s a quote and determinism is incompatible with the underlying precepts of our approach to justice. So the idea [of FW] is actually doing work in our world. The problem is that if we view people as neuronal weather patterns it seems to undermine the basis for placing blame. But I think this is a false assumption. I think we can have a very strong sense of morality and an effective criminal justice system without lying to ourselves about the causes of human behavior. [good]45:00

What do we most condemn in people morally and legally?  It’s the conscious intention to do harm. Why is this so blameworthy?  Consciousness is the context in which all the qualities of our minds seem activated. It’s where our beliefs and desires and prejudices rub up against one another. What you do consciously tends to say the most about you and what you’re likely to do in the future.  The point is not that you are the sole independent cause of your behavior, the point is that you have the mind of a murderer [after deliberating for 2 weeks to kill your neighbor].  You’re not ultimately responsible that you have that mind, but yet you do have it, and it must be taken seriously.  Some criminals have to be locked up and the moral justification is very straightforward: everyone is better off that way. That still makes sense without free will, but what doesn’t make sense is the motive of retribution, the motive of punishing someone because they deserve it.  48:00 We don’t punish crocodiles because they deserve it, actually that hasn’t always been true. Lynching of an elephant in TN in 1916! [TC: shows that norms about desert have evolved, a matter of culture, understanding causes, mental states, etc.] It may be that certain crimes require punishment in order to be deterred, but this is a pragmatic argument, nothing to do with retribution. [good]

49:30 Dispensing with free will allows us to focus on things that actually matter, like mitigating harm, deterring crime, assessing risk. [good] So I’m not arguing that everyone’s not guilty by reason of insanity. The bad people need to be locked up if that’s all we can do to keep ourselves safe. [TC: but of course prevention, first chances, more economic equity and opportunity are better approaches to ensuring public safety] And all the distinctions we care about, e.g., between voluntary and involuntary action, moral responsibilities of an adult vs. a child, all of those notions can be conserved without this notion of free will. [good]

50:00 In the US we have 13 year olds serving life sentences for crimes..not based on any sane assessment of whether these children can be rehabilitated, it’s based on the sense that they deserve this punishment, they are the true, sole cause of their behavior which was so heinous that they deserve this as a matter of retribution.  That doesn’t’ make sense when you relax this notion of free will. You have to admit in the final analysis is that even the most terrifying people are at bottom unlucky to be who they are, and that  has moral significance. And the existence of the soul wouldn’t make any difference: anyone born with the soul of a psychopath is profoundly unlucky.  Walk back the timeline of Udai Hussein’s life, he became a psychopath through no fault of his own. If we could have intervened at any point in his life to prevent this, that would have been the right thing to do, and compassion would have been the motive.  If you want not to hate your enemies, like Jesus said, one way into that is to view human behavior through the lens of a wider scientific picture of causation.

53:20  I’m not saying it would be easy to adopt this perspective if you or someone close to you was victim of a violent crime; this is how we need to see the world in our more dispassionate moments.  But these moments are the source of our thinking about public policy and scientific truth.  To see how much our moral intuitions would shift, imagine we had a cure for evil and psychopathy. We can make the necessary changes in the brain safely and painlessly and easily. At that point evil is a nutritional deficiency. Imagine the moral logic of withholding the cure for evil from someone as a punishment for their evil acts. He was so bad he shouldn’t be given the cure.  Does that make any sense at all?  55:00 That it doesn’t reveals that the urge for retribution is actually born of not seeing the causes of human behavior. When you see them, if you could trace them in a fine-grained way,  this notion of vengeance, that people deserve what they get in this way as punishment would disappear. [TC: note that some compatibilists vigorously defend retribution, such as Morse and Moore. ]

55:30  Leads me to religion, since of course the notion of God’s justice is entirely a matter of retribution. People deserve what they get since based on their own free will they are misbehaving. The religious answer to the problem of evil is free will [theodicy]. Free will creates sin: people as the sole cause of their behavior can turn away from god. But this can’t be true, and it seems impossible to describe a universe in which it could be true. There’s no mix of randomness and determinism that gets you [contra-causal] free will.

Ironically one of the fears that religious people have is that this way of viewing the world dehumanizes us, but rather I think it humanizes us. [good] What could be more dehumanizing than to say that most people throughout human history are in some crucial way responsible for the fact that they were born at the wrong time to the wrong parents, given the wrong beliefs, given the wrong religion, wrong influences and as a result of that the deserve to be punished for eternity? [TC: yes this is the central point: why do fully determined agents deserve to suffer for no consequentialist reason?]

58:30 The illusion of free will is itself an illusion. There is no illusion of free will. Thoughts and intentions simply arise, what else could they do?  This may sound depressing but it’s actually incredibly freeing to see life this way. It does take something away from life: it takes away an egocentric view of life.  We are not truly separate, we are linked to one another, we are linked to the world, we are linked to our past and to history [TC: connection]  And what we do actually matters because of that linkage, because of the permeability, because of the fact that we can’t be the true locus of responsibility [good – he means sole, ultimate locus]. That’s what makes it all matter.  You can’t take credit for your talents, but it really matters if you use them. [nice] 59:50  You can’t really be blamed for your weaknesses and your failings, but it matters if you correct them.  Pride and shame don’t make a lot of sense in the final analysis, but they were no fun anyway, these are isolating emotions.  What does make sense is things like compassion and love. Caring about well being makes sense, trying to maximize it makes sense. All of this still makes sense without free will.  And nothing that I’ve said makes social and political freedom any less valuable. [good] The freedom to do what one want’s is still precious.  But the idea that we as conscious beings are deeply responsible for what we want needs to be revised.  [good] It just can’t be mapped onto reality, neither objective nor subjective.  And if we’re going to be guided by reality, instead of the fantasy lives of our ancestors, our view of ourselves has to change. [yes!]

1:03:00  Question: How close do you think we are to a universal declaration of the illusory nature of free will?

Sam: The current state of affairs is that most people just don’t want to think about it. Most people’s intuitions are powerfully shaped by the illusion the sense that they have the freedom to consciously author their thoughts and actions, so people feel that there’s a compelling subjective mystery, and no one has been able to give an argument about how it would map onto physical reality. But the experience is so compelling that people feel there’s no reason to worry about it. Then there are people like Dan Dennett who essentially change the subject.  I want to say free will doesn’t exist. Dan wants to say that free will exists but it is really something else. He’s responded to me by saying that I’m saying free will in this redefined [compatibilist] sense doesn’t exist. So there’s a fair amount of talking past one another.

Answer to a rather confused question:  epiphenomenalism re consciousness not implied by my argument against free will because it could be that certain things have to be promoted to consciousness in order to have the effects they have [TC: but still phenomenal consciousness per se isn’t adding anything to what the brain does, it’s the neurally instantiated processes associated with consciousness that do the work from a 3rd person perspective.] It’s just that their promotion isn’t something that we as conscious witnesses ever engineer.    I can’t unconsciously decide that this pain in my hip warrants a trip to a doctor.  Something has to arise into consciousness and begin a cascade of other effects. Consciousness could be the difference that makes a difference and it is in many cases, but its still a mystery as to why that particular thought patter arose in that moment.  In the present moment it’s always true to say you don’t know what’s coming next as a matter of consciousness. And the larger picture is that you didn’t make yourself who you are. So you can’t truly own it, so the role of luck and its moral significance is something we have to talk about.

Question about real world effects of no free will in his life:  the emotion and ethical component is important in my life.  I don’t always see the world this way, I have to remind myself to see it this way, and when I do it completely undercuts the basis for hatred. No rationale for hating the person.  In a situation where I’m liable to take their hostility personally, see them as the source that inspires anger and hatred, but viewing with the wider lens about how we both got into that situation makes the bottom drops out and the logic of indulging that mood falls away. And that seems to me an intrinsically good thing.  Can you still love people view them this way (a worry for some people)?  I find that there is no sacrifice to the good stuff.  To think in those terms doesn’t cancel desire for my daughter’s happiness.  The love survives the truth.

In response to next question about wife not deciding to love him: stripping off the illusion does have certain costs, you lose certain kinds of pleasures, you can’t take them as seriously as you otherwise would. When you lose Santa Claus you actually lose something, but it has too many costs. 1:21

On the whole the change [in giving up the free will illusion] is almost entirely positive. All the negative states of mind that motivate people to waste their entire lives are anchored to this illusion. The moment I begin to take it personally there’s nothing good about it. The ability to disengage from that and see the illusion of that does come at the cost that you can’t indulge the good stuff at the same level you otherwise would, and pride and hatred are on a similar level: how proud can I be? When I do something really well and look closely at that moment I can’t really make much out of it [take credit/blame]. So I can’t be so motivated by that turn of events [by credit/blame]. I see how much luck was involved and other people’s contributions and stuff I wasn’t aware of. You can wake up from the dream of [self-credit and self-blame] but you still want to do things it’s just your less miserable.

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