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Revisiting “Free Will” by Sam Harris

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:

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Inquiry into Consciousness

Leo Gura of Actualized.org recently dropped a podcast entitled “How to Discover What’s True” wherein he suggests that the Truth of existence can be discovered by thinking and asking questions about existence methodically. He asserts it is possible to arrive at Truth in this way and that he has done this himself. It seems logical to first question the veracity of this assertion. I don’t know that it is true that I can discover Truth simply by thinking and asking about it. So then, the next step would be to test the assertion in some way. The most obvious method to me of testing his assertion is to assume it is true and then to follow it where it takes me. This is the inquiry.

Truth is a rather broad concept. As such, it would be helpful to break it down into more specific areas of inquiry. The truth of consciousness seems like a good starting point. After all, I have direct access to consciousness that I am experiencing it right now. I have been experiencing consciousness as far back as I can remember. But what is consciousness?

According to wikipedia, “Consciousness at its simplest refers to … awareness of internal or external existence”. I can say it is true that I am aware of internal and external experience because I am directly experiencing my internal and external experience. I don’t think I have to question whether I am actually experiencing these experiences because if I can’t trust that I am actually experiencing my experience then I cannot trust this inquiry in the first place. And really, what would it mean to say that I am not really experiencing my experiences? Even if they are hallucinations, I am still (on some level) experiencing the hallucinations. Certainly, my interpretations of these experiences could be untrue but the experience is still there as far as I can tell.

The definition of consciousness refers to two types of awareness: (1) internal existence and (2) external existence. On its face, my experience seems to accord with this bifurcation. But I have listened to enough Alan Watts lectures to question the veracity of this bifurcation. I can conceive of a reality where what I perceive to be external experience to be an extension of my internal experience. This is not solipsism per say. In the Watts explained conception of reality (which corresponds to Hindu and Buddhist thought as far as I know) there is a omnipotent and omnipresent deity that has decided to experience limitation (the one thing it lacks). It did this because it is impossible to have an adventure if one is omnipotent and omnipresent. Nothing could surprise such a being. Nor could it learn and grow from experience. And so it experiences this limitation by experiencing our lives individually. As such, my consciousness is really God pretending to be me. Likewise the experience of other people are God pretending to be them. It’s a big, elaborate hallucination that only God Himself could pull off because He is omnipotent and omnipresent.

Of course, this conception of consciousness is inconsistent with the Christian tradition (specifically Roman Catholic) which is the tradition in which I grew up and with which I am the most familiar. In this tradition there are individual consciousnesses which were brought into being by God and are therefore separate and distinct from God. There is also a real external reality in which these consciousnesses exist and interact.

If I am being honest, I cannot say (at this point in the inquiry) with authority that I know which model is true. It is interesting that Christianity requires belief in its model for salvation. I have explored this odd requirement in a previous blog post. A belief is something a person holds to be true. But how can a person believe something that he does not know with authority to be true? He could pretend to believe it but the belief system seems to require actual belief. And why would God require this belief from a person who is not in a position to know its veracity with authority? Two ideas come to mind to address this question. The first is the concept of faith which is a trusting attitude in the teachings of a higher authority. The second is that belief is akin to the placebo effect. That is, belief in a particular idea, in some real sense creates the reality of that idea. We see this most clearly when a placebo actually heals a person who believes it to work. But belief from a position of faith and as a placebo are not in the spirit of this inquiry which is to see if Truth can be discovered wholly through self-inquiry. I cannot speak for other Christian traditions, but Roman Catholicism is not wholly against the concept of self-inquiry or self-reflection. In fact it encourages it to an extent. But there is definitely a sense within Roman Catholicism that self-inquiry cannot take one all the way across the finish line. Anyway, the point here is that for the purpose of this inquiry, I will need to suspend any Christian requirement of belief. If it ultimately turns out that belief or faith is required then I would like to think that I would arrive at that point on my own through this process of inquiry.

At this point, I can say a few things with authority based upon this inquiry. (1) The experience of my individual consciousness (both internal and external) is transpiring at this moment. (2) On the surface, it appears that there is an external world inhabited by myself and other people who appear to have the experience of individual consciousness. (3) I do not know with authority how the experience of my individual consciousness came into being or to what extent it is separate from the external things it experiences. As I am approaching 1,000 words I will leave it at that for now.

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Spiral Dynamics

Over the past two months Leo Gura of Actualized.org has been creating videos explaining the theory of Spiral Dynamics developed by Don Edward Beck and Clare Graves. Spiral Dynamics is a developmental, psychological model designed to map the historical evolution of both people and the societies of which the people are constituent parts.

There are eight stages to the spiral, each with its own set of characteristics. The first and most primitive stage is Beige characterized primarily through individual survival with little to no cooperation with other people. Modern homeless people are an example of the stage Beige mindset. The second stage is Purple characterized by primitive cooperation among people typically at the family or clan level. Cavemen are an example. The third stage is Red where stronger individuals within the relatively egalitarian Purple start to assert their dominance over the weaker members. Viking civilization and tribal societies are examples. The forth stage is Blue where we see authoritarian, communal societal structures begin to assert themselves in order to reign in the excesses of stage Red. The Roman Empire and Medieval Europe are examples of the stage Blue mindset. The fifth stage is Orange characterized by a rejection of the stiff Blue societal structures with a greater emphasis on individual achievement, science and materialism. Modern, liberal, capitalistic societies are examples. The sixth stage is Green characterized by a rejection of the excesses of Orange and a return to spirituality and communal responsibilities. Modern hippies and left-liberals are examples. The seventh stage is Yellow characterized by a rejection of the excesses and Green’s failure to solve societal problems with an emphasis on systems thinking and individual achievement. Albert Einstein is considered to be an example of a stage Yellow thinker. The final stage is Turquoise characterized by a shift from the individual Yellow to a more holistic world view. Very few people and certainly no societies have achieved stage Turquoise at present.

One important observation the spiral articulates is that humans and the societies they create evolve alternating from an emphasis on the individual to an emphasis on the community in a cyclical manner. From individualistic Beige to communal Purple to individualistic Red to communal Blue and so on. In a sense (according to this model), the development of mankind’s psychology is based on the confrontation between these two opposing forces. When one is taken to an extreme the other rises to counterbalance it.

Of interest to this blog is how well the system of Spiral Dynamics describes stage Blue. Specifically, the Orthosphere and Zippy Catholic (two blogs that I have been reading over the past couple of years) come to mind as two good articulations of the Stage Blue mindset. As described by the Spiral Dynamics Integral website, the general characteristics of Stage Blue thought are:

  • Values and norms, discipline, duty, regularity, and feelings of honor and guilt
  • WE versus They Thinking
  • Searching for meaning, order, routine and security
  • Self-control, discipline and loyalty to the doctrine and the rules
  • Absolute, literal and definite
  • Morality
  • Hierarchy, obedience and willing to sacrifice to a greater cause
  • Control and structures of authorities
  • Obedience based on a sense of duty and a sense of guilt
  • Organize, manage, concretize and structure
  • Values effort and responsibility and shows discipline
  • Rules, rights and duties are significant

This description seems to describe almost perfectly the mode of thought expressed on these blogs both by their contributors and the people who comment there. I suspect these people would reject the notion of Spiral Dynamics entirely. This would fit perfectly within the model. Because (according to the model) they see the world in essentialist terms and by definition reject nominalism they cannot see the world as evolving purposefully or in a healthy way. I suspect they would dismiss Spiral Dynamics without much consideration as a “liberal” idea. If the world is changing it must be for the worse because stage Blue (not that they would embrace the term “Stage Blue”) was the best possible stage. Anything, departing from stage Blue is ugly and it is appropriate to judge those who question stage Blue sensibilities and enforce stage Blue sensibilities through shame and guilt. This emphasis of “obedience based on a sense of duty and a sense of guilt” explains a great deal as to how my interactions with the people who comment and contribute to the Orthosphere and Zippy Catholic have played out.


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Consciousness as the Basis of Reality

In a recent Actualized.Org podcast entitled “What is Consciousness” Leo makes the assertion that consciousness is the basis of reality. This is opposed to the materialist paradigm which holds that matter is the basis of physical reality. It seems that materialists can be either atheist or theist. The atheist materialists would hold that there only exists matter and the physical laws that govern its interaction and that this makes up the entirety of reality. The theist materialist would hold that there exists a spiritual realm that is separate from the material but that we humans inhabit or are in contact with primarily the material realm.

I would describe the friendly folks over at the Orthosphere as theist materialists, believing they reside within a material universe created by God who declared it to be good and therefore the goodness of the material is not to be questioned. To them there is unquestionably a spiritual realm with which those of us inhabiting the material realm (if we’re good) will choose to align ourselves. Of course, I would not presume to speak for their point of view as I have been told on numerous occasions that I lack the capacity to fully understand their wisdom. I am merely presenting my interpretation of their world view based on what I have read from their contributors. I am sure Terry Morris will correct me if I have inaccurately described their beliefs.

It is unquestioned that most people are materialists of one sort or the other. One probable reason most people believe the materialist paradigm to be the correct description of reality is because it is easier to understand. Our senses seem to readily confirm the assumption that we are each individual units of consciousness living in a physical body, in a three dimensional, physical world of other physical objects. Some of these physical objects are living creatures with varying degrees of consciousness. In this model, consciousness seems to be an emergent quality of the physical universe. That is, consciousness naturally results when matter is arranged in a specific way.

By contrast, under the paradigm where consciousness is the basis of reality, consciousness is not an emergent property of physical reality but rather the fundamental property of physical reality. That is, the universe is created from consciousness. Two  counter arguments to this assertion readily come to mind. First, consciousness as I understand it is the quality of being aware and mere awareness which has no physical properties cannot logically be used to construct a physical universe. Second, (I suspect an Orthospherian would argue that) in order for there to be awareness there must first be someone or something that is aware which in turn presupposes that materiality precedes consciousness.

Leo contends that although consciousness has no physical properties, this allows it to take on all the infinite possibilities of physical reality. In other words, consciousness is a vessel for content. One could also justify consciousness as being the basis of physical reality through a thought experiment similar to Descartes “evil demon” scenario. In this thought experiment we acknowledge that physical reality is rendered through the mind therefore there is nothing necessarily physical or material about it but merely consciousness interpreting it as such. If one were to hold the point of view that consciousness is the fundamental basis of reality then one would have to discard the notion that in order for consciousness to exist there must first be a person who is conscious. In other words, consciousness would have to be able to exist independently which I suppose is not inconcievable.

Another aspect to consciousness is that it is both aware and self-aware. So not only is consciousness a building block (so to speak) of reality but it is also by definition aware of itself. Under this model consciousness is diffused throughout everything in the universe including biological objects and non biological objects. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that everything in the universe is diffused through consciousness. Of course certain things have greater degrees of consciousness. A chimp has more consciousness than a rock for example. From this perspective it seems entirely plausible that artificial intelligence will be able to have consciousness on the level of a human or perhaps greater because it was constructed in such a way so as to allow the underlying consciousness to manifest itself.

I suppose one might reasonably ask what difference does it make whether material or consciousness is the basis of reality and how might one confirm whether this is indeed the case? Leo contends that this can in fact be confirmed through spiritual practices such as meditation and use of psychedelics. If this has been so confirmed to an individual then I assume this knowledge will change the way he or she looks at the world. I am certainly open to this perspective but I cannot say that I have yet confirmed it one way or the other.





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