Sunday, November 28, 2010

Leveraging Harris: making moral progress by denying free will

In his latest book, The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris devotes 10 pages (pp. 102-112) to debunking contra-causal free will and drawing out the progressive implications for our beliefs, attitudes and social practices. This is a most welcome development since Harris commands a wide readership and considerable respect (although by no means universal agreement) among atheists, humanists, skeptics and freethinkers. Such readers are among those most likely to be receptive to the thesis – radical from the traditional dualistic religious perspective, but a scientific commonplace – that we aren’t causal exceptions to nature. The Center for Naturalism has long been promoting the challenge to the soul and its supernatural freedom as a science-based route to more effective and compassionate interpersonal relations and social policies, so we’re very pleased that Harris takes up this challenge so forcefully. Having dispatched the Big God of the major Abrahamic religions in The End of Faith, the little god of free will is a next logical target.

Continued at Naturalism.Org, comments welcome at this location.


Anonymous Clifford G Andrew, MD, PhD said...

As a practicing neurologist, who originally got into this business 40 years ago because of an interest in the brain and the "mind", I particularly appreciate Sam Harris' take on this topic from his combined neuroscientist and philosopher viewpoints.
My favorite quote in The Moral Landscape appears on page 111:
"It is not that free will is simply an illusion: our experience is not merely delivering a distorted view of reality; rather, we are mistaken about the nature of our experience. We do not feel as free as we think we feel. Our sense of our own freedom results from our not paying attention to what it is actually like to be what we are. The moment we do pay attention, we begin to see that free will is nowhere to be found, and our subjectivity is perfectly compatible with this truth. Thoughts and intentions simply arise in the mind. What else could they do? The truth about us is stranger than many suppose: The illusion of free will is itself an illusion."

Nov 28, 2010, 10:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Jim Moore said...

"Contempt and derision" are in no way the same as retributive punishment such as incarceration or corporal punishment, and are effective methods when used in conjunction with logical argument. To equate these as being equally bad is not valid as the former is proven to work. Getting your illogical beliefs damaged is not a punishment, it is un-brainwashing. The only real punishment for people with illogical beliefs was getting originally brainwashed when they were children by their vicious parents, guardians and society who they were led to believe "loved" them. Until you break this spell, which is a form of Stockholm Syndrome, you will not convince them of anything. Of course prevention is better than cure and therefore religious instruction to children should be prevented as it is child abuse.

Nov 30, 2010, 6:20:00 PM  
Blogger March Hare said...

Retribution has no place in a modern society.

However, punishment as a deterrent to others is still a valid option for society as is keeping society safe from people who are criminals.

Any move from punishment to rehabilitation is good, but we still have to disincentivise others in society from committing crimes, perhaps this will, in time, come from the knowledge that rehabilitation changes who you are.

Until we perfect rehabilitation we still have to have some form of punishment, but it won't be retribution.

Dec 1, 2010, 7:50:00 AM  
Blogger bharmount said...

"That revolution might also entail a rethinking of how naturalists, including the new atheists, deploy contempt and derision when conducting their campaigns for rational enlightenment." Contempt and derision for individuals is one thing, and certainly should be avoided, but contempt and ridicule of the irrational ideas themselves should never be avoided! Ridicule of the absurd can be a powerful tool.

Dec 1, 2010, 8:56:00 AM  
Blogger Otis Graf said...


If humans are devoid of free will then they do not have the ability for reason or rational thought. Your assertions (and those of Sam Harris and others) that free will does not exist are self defeating.

By your accounting there is no difference between an addict choosing to buy drugs for his addiction and a philosopher choosing the best of competing arguments. In both cases, the outcome is caused by materialistic forces outside of the control of the individual.

So why should I believe that Sam Harris' arguments are valid when, by his own admission, he is not responsible for them? If what he says is true, then no one can know who or what caused him to say what he did and whether or not it is true.

Best regards,
Otis Graf

Jan 17, 2011, 3:05:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Clark said...


I think you have to prove, not just assert, that reasoning can't be instantiated by fully causal and material processes. There's a vast difference between addicts choosing to use drugs and in how we evaluate arguments, even though on a naturalistic understanding they are both physically based. The latter much more than the former involves representations of the world and inferences using them, which, if they weren't determined by physical laws and logical relations, wouldn't reliably represent states of affairs outside the head. Being free from cause and effect would make us less, not more, rational, see

Jan 17, 2011, 10:03:00 PM  
Blogger Otis Graf said...


I believe that the burden of proof is on you (and Sam Harris and others) to prove that rational thought and reasoning toward truth is possible in a material brain, if proof is what we are after. What naturalists have done instead is to argue that rational thought is no different than any other thought. From Sam Harris: “Thoughts and intentions simply arise in the mind. What else could they do?” So I rest my case. Paraphrasing Harris: “The illusion of no-free will is itself an illusion.” Naturalists have painted themselves in a corner.

It is self-centered arrogance on the part of naturalists to claim that the thoughts of a scientist or philosopher are any closer to reality than those of a drug addict. The addict's sense of reality is just as strong as that of anyone else. In any case, the idea of “no free will” is not rooted in any material evidence. Asserting that neurophysiologists can't find evidence of it in the brain is not convincing. Neither can they find evidence of consciousness, the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus or the rules of logic, which we know are in there. Your appeal to “logical relations” is not successful since nowhere have you “proved” that logical relations exist apart from “thoughts that simply arise in the mind.” If you claim that they “just work” you get into the Problem of Induction and move far away from an empirically based case.

I have read your response to Alvin Plantinga and I find that it does not disarm Plantinga's arguments. The fundamental error you make is in imagining that scientific progress primarily comes about by encountering, explaining and being confirmed by empirical evidence. It does not. Many different models can accurately fit the data; so which one is closest to reality? If we claim, as you do, that science is the best arbiter of truth, then how do we decide between disparate models?

There are ways to do that and all rely on rational argument. Empirical evidence is secondary and often not even available. In his book “The Fabric of Reality,” physicist David Deutsch makes the case that successful theories are arrived at primarily by argument and competition of ideas. In his book “The Cosmic Landscape – String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design,” Leonard Susskind claims that all of the advances in physics in the early twentieth century could have been accomplished by pure thought (and mathematics) alone. In almost all situations, the models of string theory and cosmology have no hope of ever being empirically confirmed. Albert Einstein's development of general relativity supports Susskind's case. Einstein arrived at his theory through pure thought and the fortuitous encounters with the pure mathematics of curved space and tensor analysis. The mathematics were developed years earlier with no thought of physical applications. These men were not motivated in any way by problems with existing data or discrepancies in existing models. On the contrary, Einstein famously said that if the data disproves his theory then the data is wrong.

So your case against Plantinga fails because you rely on a view of science that is incomplete. In any case the models have to be conceivable by the human mind and naturalists have no way of explaining how that mind has evolved the ability to understand the universe that science describes. Even worse, they do not even acknowledge the existence of that mind.

Otis Graf

Jan 18, 2011, 1:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Alice :) said...

I'm interested in this debate regarding punishment and criminals.

March Hare, has said that "Retribution has no place in a modern society. However, punishment as a deterrent to others is still a valid option for society as is keeping society safe from people who are criminals."

These people who are labelled criminals - what is their crime?

I believe that it is natural human nature to want to survive, and that when humans have their needs met, they will naturally want to help others meet their needs.

When you look at the labelling of people as criminals from this perspective, you can see that these people are people who can't see how to meet their needs without breaking laws or hurting others. This is a matter of education from ignorance or providing services that meet everyone's needs.

From my perspective, punishment only causes pain, shame, fear and resentment - all of which are going to negatively effect self esteem and further hamper a person to successfully meet their needs, in a socially acceptable way - especially as they are already hampered by their inability to meet their needs without breaking laws and/or hurting others; and have received no education on this matter during their punishment.

Jan 22, 2011, 6:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Jack Angstreich said...

I re-post below a previous exposure of Mr. Graf's intellectual dishonesty, on the naturalism Yahoo forum:

We also know that orthodox Christian theism is logically incoherent and, therefore, must be a false system of belief, as explained here previously, so whether accounts in the Bible are compatible with scientific investigations or not is an entirely moot issue. I repeat here the links to the exposition of Galen Strawson's "Basic Argument" against "free will":

All of us here are still awaiting Otis's acknowledgment of the logical force of Strawson's argument. He then must provide us with an account of how Christianity is reconcilable with the impossibility of man's (and God's) possessing the faculty of "free will"; this is an account that he shall be unable to provide since a deterministic Christianity is logically incompatible with eternal damnation and, in any case, the robust version of moral realism which Christianity requires is also logically untenable.

I call Otis's attention to our previous discussion which he has, seemingly (and conveniently) forgotten:

No doubt a few months will pass with Otis conveniently silent before posting here again, once more ignoring the previous arguments.

--Jack Angstreich

Jan 22, 2011, 7:47:00 PM  
Anonymous ckeelan said...


It is self-centered arrogance on the part of naturalists to claim that the thoughts of a scientist or philosopher are any closer to reality than those of a drug addict.

You're not even wrong. Start here


It is intellectually charitable and responsible, if not to use an author's exact words, then to at least make a specific reference (page numbers) to the part of there work where they are saying the things you attribute to them.

Your knockdown against the scientific method is supposed to consist of appeals to the authority of David Deutsch and Leonard Susskind and even Albert Einstein.

I have read neither The Fabric of Reality, nor The Cosmic Landscape and I strongly suspect that you haven't, either.

Unless he's undergone a significant reversal since 1997, there's no way that the David Deutsch who gave this TED talk would agree with your characterization of his position.

In a short essay, The Landscape, Susskind concludes by specifically defending the landscape concept against Cardinal Archbishop Schonborn's assertion that "Scientific theories that try to explain away the appearance of design as the result of 'chance and necessity' are not scientific at all, but, as John Paul put it, an abdication of human intelligence". Susskind responds "Abdication of human intelligence? No, it's called science".

How could anyone charitably assume that either author intended the meanings you attribute to him?

As for Einstein, your refusal to quote him accurately further calls your honesty into question. Did he actually say what you typed? Was he joking at the time? It matters.

So yet again you've tried to strike a body blow against a naturalistic worldview not through insightful analysis and thoughtful critique but by trying to marshal a body of "experts" to whose inappropriate authority you appeal.

Do you not understand that if Susskind is right about the landscape and the anthropic universe then God is forever excluded from the picture? Do you not understand that it's your worldview that is self-defeating if you really insist that there are at least two categories of human cognition and only one is caused by a supernatural mind? Of course you don't. Understanding isn't your motivation; ideological opposition to naturalism is.

Jan 22, 2011, 9:09:00 PM  

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