Sam Harris argues free will, as people commonly perceive it, is an illusion and does not exist because (1) people are not consciously aware of the formation of their ideas and (2) the decisions people make are influenced by environmental and historical factors outside of their control.
Harris’ argument makes sense to a point. If one thinks about it, the origin of thought is a mystery. It is possible that thought is the product of subconscious processes (in which case one might be able to claim credit for them). It is also possible that thought originates from some external source (in which case one would not be able to claim credit). Regardless of their origin, when a thought appears in consciousness, the consciousness feels entitled to take credit for them. Harris, however, argues that because there is no conscious awareness of the creation of thought, and decisions are a type of thought, that free will cannot exist.
At the same time, any decision a person makes is influenced by an uncountable number of factors leading up to the point of making the decision and most of these factors are outside the person’s control. For example, the person’s culture, education, parental influence and many other prior factors all may play a role in the ultimate decision a person makes. There are many current environmental factors as well that are completely out of the control of the person making the decision. As such (argues Harris), how can the person say that he makes a decision of his own free will?
As Harris asserts, free will resides in an area outside of conscious awareness. Moreover, it is encumbered by historical and environmental forces. All true. However, just because the origin of thought takes place outside of conscious awareness and may have been influenced by facts and circumstances outside of the consciousness’ control, does not mean that there is no agency at all. Let us say that 99% of ideas come from an external source and 99% of the remaining ideas self generated are 99% shaped by external facts and circumstances that are outside of the consciousness’ control. Is it not possible that there is still a minuscule particle of free will that can be in the mix somewhere? Well, if that tiny particle of free will exists at all, Harris’ argument that free will is entirely an illusion must be false. Moreover, consider the following situation. Person 1 (P1) holds a gun to the head of Person 2 (P2). P1 tells P2 to pick up a ball or P1 will fire the gun. P2 picks up the ball. In this scenario we would say that P2 has a low level of free will with respect to his decision to pick up the ball. Now consider P2 is alone in a room and decides to pick up the same ball. In that scenario we would say that P2 has a higher degree of free will. Therefore, if free will can exist in degrees then it exists, and again Harris’ argument must be false. Finally, we can make a similar argument in terms of consciousness. P1 knows he can say something to P2 that will make P2 angry. P2, however, recently began psychotherapy and has become more conscious of this dynamic. P1 says the thing to P2 to make him angry. Normally, P2 would be overcome with rage in response, however P2, because he is conscious of this dynamic is able to not become angry in this instance. In this situation, we might say that P2, because he is more conscious, has a greater degree of free will than he would have had prior to psychotherapy. If P2 can have more free will in one situation than another then free will must exist, and once again, Sam Harris’ claim that free will does not exist must be false.
I will concede that Harris is correct in that “free will” as people commonly consider it is untrue. Most people (myself included) are not aware that their ideas mysteriously enter their conscious awareness. Rather, the default assumption is that they somehow created the thought on their own. But I disagree that Harris has closed the case on whether agency is entirely absent.
It seems that Harris arrives at his conclusion based on his materialist, scientific and atheist perspective. That is, he sees consciousness as merely a byproduct (perhaps accidental in nature) of the physical mechanics of the brain. Because there is no “God” or “spirit,” there is nothing beyond the mechanics of the brain to examine as to the source of consciousness. If therefore, consciousness is a byproduct of material and mechanical processes, then it is easy to see how an idea in the form of a decision (which had been shaped by past experience and environment) pops into consciousness, can trick consciousness to believe that consciousness made the decision. After all, consciousness is an accidental byproduct and probably should not have been there in the first place.
However, there is another possibility that makes more sense in my opinion. That is, that consciousness comes first before the material. This is not a new idea. It has its roots in Hinduism and is spoken about to great extent by Alan Watts and Leo Guara (for example). Essentially, the idea is that all anyone knows about the universe is consciousness because consciousness is the means by which everyone experiences the universe. As such, it is entirely possible that there is no universe “out there” or external to consciousness and that it is all contained within consciousness. Therefore, the hardness of a table and the mechanics of the brain are all the dream of consciousness. In this model, consciousness is God and each person is God experiencing consciousness through the eyes and limitations of that person. As such, free will comes from God which is consciousness because all there is, is consciousness and if there is free will to be had then it must come from there.
To those who doubt consciousness can precede the material world, consider a dream experienced during sleep. When dreaming, consciousness perceives the environment to be real. When we wake, however, we realize that the content of the dream was not real. Who is to say that what we consider to be real in waking life is not another level of dreaming?
The world is deceptively material in appearance. This deception is revealed in that there is always a smaller particle for nuclear physicists to discover and the edge of the universe is always a little farther out than astrophysicists can see. In the same respect, I suspect the material origin of consciousness will likewise, never be located with specificity.
The point of all this is (IMHO): Sam Harris has not successfully proven that free will does not exist. Nor has he convincingly shown that consciousness has a material genesis as it relates to free will or anything else.
See the following video for an EMP discussion of this topic: