This is an old post (10 March 2012), which I am reposting at the special request of a reader. I do not claim that I share all of these opinions now. Nor, it should be pointed out, is all the formatting in the following preserved. Some italics and other emphases may not have survived the copy and paste operation.
A few days ago I put up a post which I called a placeholder for a later discussion of free will, once Sam Harris’ eponymous book was available (and, it goes without saying, I had read it). Now that both of these exigencies have been fulfilled, it is time once again to address a question which seems to have become a preoccupation with at least a segment of the atheist blogosphere. I have tried to understand why this is considered so important by some atheists, but have yet to come up with an explanation. While it is true that in some of its incarnations the idea of free will seems to be central to religious believing, it is by no means a sine qua non even there, since providential determinism has had a fairly long innings since Augustine, who believed, along with theologians influenced by his thinking like John Calvin, in what is called double predestination; namely, that some are predestined to hell and others to heaven, and nothing we can do can overcome the foreordained purposes of God.
I had specified one further requirement for any subsequent consideration of the issue of free will and determinism: that I should have reread and pondered Daniel Dennett’s book Freedom Evolves. Since I have yet to do this, this post may seem a bit premature, but Sam’s book prompts me to anticipate further work on the same subject, since it seems to me, on its merits, not so decisive as he appears to think it is. Indeed, when I read it I had the distinct sense that Sam is rushing into print opinion that could do with some more penetrating thought and a wider familiarity with the literature on free will. His book is in the nature of an extended essay, running to 66 sparsely populated pages, plus a few pages of notes, but at no point does he address himself adequately to what others have said on the same issues that he explores. This is partly explained, I believe, by his comment on one dimension of the problem — personal responsibility — where he says:
Compatibilists have produced a vast literature in an effort to finesse this problem. More than in any other area of academic philosophy, the result resembles theology. 
Explaining the compatibilists’ position on personal responsibility, he says:
According to compatibilists, if a man wants to commit murder, and does so because of this desire, his actions attest to his freedom of will. From both a moral and a scientific perspective, this seems deliberately obtuse. [loc. cit.]
But this is simply a caricature of the compatibilist position, since, from the compatibilist position, a person might have a desire to do something, and act on it, and yet not be responsible for any number of reasons. Desire of itself does not give rise to freedom of the will, since desire can be attributed to any number of organisms to which freedom of the will is not ascribed.
More serious, however, is the fact that Harris locates lack of freedom in the fact that desires, ideas, options, or different courses of action simply occur mysteriously in the mind, and that choice from amongst these mental contents is inexplicable:
You aspire [he writes] to quit smoking, but you also crave another cigarette. You are struggling to save money, but you are also tempted to buy a new computer. Where is the freedom when one of these opposing desires inexplicably triumphs over its rival? [18-19]
The same thought occurs right at the end of the book, where he says he will perform “an experiment in free will for all to see”:
I will write anything I want for the rest of this book. Whatever I write will, of course, be something I choose to write. … And if I want to put a rabbit in this sentence, I am free to do so.
But paying attention to my stream of consciousness reveals that this notion of freedom does not reach very deep. Where did this rabbit come from? Why didn’t I put an elephant in that sentence? I do not know. I am free to change “rabbit” to “elephant,” of course. But if I did this, how could I explain this? 
In what way, though, is this an experiment in free will (or anything like free will)? What is he trying to prove? Is he suggesting that everything he does has this inconsequential character?
Let’s take one of Sam’s examples: the desire to give up smoking and the craving for another cigarette. I used to smoke heavily, often consuming three to four large packs of cigarettes a day — that is, nearly a hundred cigarettes a day. I realised that smoking so heavily was endangering my health and I resolved to quit. However, nicotine being strongly addictive, quitting was easier said than done, and many of my attempts to quit simply failed. I craved cigarettes and gave in to that craving. At the time I was writing my MA thesis, so, after a number of attempts, I finally decided that, for the time being, I should simply postpone my determination to quit until I had finished work on my thesis. However, I vowed that, on the day I wrote the last page of the first draft of my thesis, I would finally quit. And that is, in fact, what I did, and I have not had a cigarette since that day.
Now, notice, the fact that I had the desire to smoke is perfectly intelligible. At some point, perhaps without consciously deciding, I began to smoke. This was, conceivably, determined simply by the fact that, at the time, this was considered a “cool” thing to do. Many (if not most) adults smoked in those far-off days, and it is not unreasonable to suppose that I chose to smoke because it was “grown-up,” and I wanted to act and be a man, not a mere boy. (I had admired a missionary in India who smoked — and could make perfect smoke rings — and I had determined to be like him in at least this respect, so this was an added reason why, when opportunity knocked, I began to smoke.) It was probably also an act of rebellion, since smoking was deprecated by my parents, who despised such things as drinking and smoking on religious grounds. So, the desire and the decision to start smoking was not inexplicable at all. It had some fairly straightforward and reasonable explanations. But so did my desire and my decision not to smoke. A doctor friend once showed me photographs of lungs: on the one hand, the pink, healthy tissue of the lungs of a 75-year-old Scottish lady, who died of cancer, and then the blackened, shrivelled lungs of a young man in his forties, who had died of a heart attack.
“That,” he said, “pointing to the picture of the blackened, shrivelled lungs, “is what your lungs look like, or are well on the way to looking like. And,” he added, “you are very likely to die young like this young man, if you continue to smoke as heavily as you do.”
So, I had good reasons to stop smoking, and my determination to quit is perfectly explicable. I did not quit because I no longer enjoyed smoking. I enjoyed it greatly. I quit because it was bad for my health. It was difficult to quit, because nicotine addiction is very hard to break, but in the end, after trying and failing several times, I planned the time and the occasion on which I would finally give up smoking, and kept that determination in mind over the intervening two or three months, and when the time came, I quit. The reasons for taking up smoking in the first place, and the reasons for giving up smoking are perfectly explicable, and in both cases I was responsible. In the circumstances, I considered my success in quitting an achievement, and would have been deeply concerned if I had failed.
And yet Sam would claim that I did not choose what I chose. It was all completely determined, and, like a puppet on strings, it was all done by the puppet master of the laws of physics. “I” had nothing to do with it at all. My smoking, and my decision to quit smoking are perfectly inexplicable. They just occurred, as the word ‘rabbit’ occurred to him when he “decided” to write whatever he wanted for the rest of his book. To my mind, this determination to subvert everything that makes life intelligible as an ongoing project is itself inexplicable, and strictly unintelligible. Whereas Sam thinks that the notion of free will is incoherent — in fact, he says that “[t]he illusion of free will is itself an illusion“ [64; Sam’s italics] — I think the denial of free will makes living a human life incoherent, as the hyperbolic ‘the illusion of free will being itself an illusion’ seems to suggest.
I think Sam gets to this bizarre conclusion because he starts in the wrong place. He begins his book by relating an account of the horrendous inhumanity and cruelty of a couple of “career criminals” — as Sam calls them [1-2]. They broke into the home of a doctor and his wife (and their two daughters aged 11 and 17) in the early morning, apparently expecting a quick uneventful robbery. Encountering the doctor asleep in the sunroom, the man named Joshua decided to silence him by hitting him over the head with a baseball bat. When the doctor awoke and screamed, he beat him until he was silent, and then tied him up. Going upstairs the men found the doctor’s wife and daughters asleep. They awoke them and tied them to their beds. At this point the other man, Steven, left to buy some gasoline. When he returned Steven took the doctor’s wife to the bank where she was forced to withdraw $15,000, believing that the men would let them go unharmed. While Steven was away, Joshua took naked pictures of the youngest daughter and masturbated on her. When Steven returned, they divided the money, and decided that Joshua should take the doctor’s wife into the living room and rape her, which he did. But then he strangled her, which was clearly uncharacteristic, since Steven was surprised. Noticing at this point that the doctor had escaped, the men poured gasoline around the house, set it alight, and left the girls tied to their beds, where they died from smoke inhalation. When asked why they didn’t free the girls, the criminals simply said that it had never occurred to them.
Sam’s comment on all this is that:
Whatever their conscious motives, these men cannot know why they are as they are. Nor can we account for why we are not like them. As sickening as I find their behavior, I have to admit that if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him. 
But none of this is really to the point. Of course, if Sam had been one of the men, then he would have done what that man did. He would, as he says, have been that man, and since that man did what he did, if Sam had been that man, he would have done what he did. But this is simply a tautology; it does not show that the men played no role at all in acting as they did. Sam seems to think that, since they cannot exhaustively explain why they had the motives they had, since these come, Sam thinks, unbidden from the darkness of the unconscious, what they did was completely determined, the outcome of all the cause-and-effect relationships up to the point at which these “events” took place. And notice that, if we accept Sam’s analysis, human actions are not, strictly speaking actions at all, but simply occurrent events that are exhaustively explained by “changes in [the] functional state and material structure” (11) of the brain. Consciousness and the conviction that our actions are the outcome of decisions based on reasons are simply illusions. The “career criminals” are not responsible for the events of robbery and murder, for, like storms and earthquakes, they simply happened. Everything, in the lingo of the insurance industry, is an act of God.
Then why, I ask myself, did Sam choose to call the men “career criminals”? These words bespeak choice, and the description of the men’s actions also suggests conscious intention and choice, which became more frantic and disorganised, and less considered and voluntary, as events unfolded. Confronted, unexpectedly, as it seems, by the man of the house, the criminals undertake to silence him before he can raise the alarm. Having bludgeoned him into insensibility and then tying him up, they go on to act even more erratically. Indeed, the disorganised nature of the crimes they then committed suggests that the men were not prepared for events to unfold as they did. But once they had been seen and could be recognised, it no longer seemed to matter what they did, so they did whatever came into their minds, just as Sam suggests. Their acting in this disorganised fashion is as much the outcome of unexpected developments, as it is of conscious choice; but of course this does not mean that they did not choose to put themselves in a situation where unexpected events might occur.
How responsible they were for this initial choice is of course a question that can be raised. One might argue that, given the men’s childhood experiences, their actions display diminished responsibility, and that they do not, as Sam suggests, really know why they are as they are or behave as they do. Indeed, every person’s character is shaped by experiences and forces over which we have, at least initially, almost no control at all; and we never have complete or ultimate control over our being the persons that we become. It does not follow from this, however, that we have no control at all, and the suggestion that we do not is really based on the assumption that all our ideas and desires come completely unbidden into consciousness and are unrelated to our conscious awareness of them. Indeed, the idea that we are bodily persons is itself an illusion. As Sam says:
The brain is a physical system, entirely beholden to the laws of nature — and there is every reason to believe that changes in its functional state and material structure entirely dictate our thoughts and actions. [11-12; my italics]
Indeed, so complete is behaviour linked to the functional state and material structure of the brain, that “[w]e do not know what we intend to do until the intention itself arises.” (13) The only difference between an intentional action and an unintentional one is that one is accompanied by the feeling of an intention and the other one isn’t. (12) Of course, this doesn’t mean that we will treat people the same, if one person enjoys murdering children, for instance, while the other only killed a child by accident, but in either case intentionality “is perfectly mysterious in subjective terms.” (13)
I think that Sam is simply making a category mistake. The claim that you do something freely does not claim that you are ”aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and … have complete control over those factors.” (13; my italics) Indeed, Sam is making the reverse of the category mistake that Gilbert Ryle thought philosophers had been making all along when they thought of mind as like a ghost in a machine. Sam is arguing that, unless there is a ghost that can intrude into and change causal outcomes, all we have is a machine; whereas Ryle’s point was that we should not structure mind and body or mind and brain in this way, that this is a category mistake. Of course, Sam knows that this is what he is doing; he just doesn’t think that it is a mistake. The mistake, he thinks, is made by people like Dennett and Ryle who, in his view, simply change the subject, and “trade a psychological fact … for a conceptual understanding of ourselves as persons.” (22) He thinks it is a case of bait and switch, but he thinks this because, humanely, he thinks that the real issue is one of responsibility (and its sequellae in blame and punishment). This is where he starts — and ends.
Dennett and Ryle, Sam suggests, think of persons as “coterminous with everything that goes on inside our bodies, whether we are conscious of it or not,” which Sam then interprets in terms of responsibility. Thus, he says:
To say that you are responsible for everything that goes on inside your skin because it’s all “you” is to make a claim that bears absolutely no relationship to the feelings of agency and moral responsibility that have made the idea of free will an enduring problem for philosophy. 
But saying that persons are coterminous with everything taking place inside their bodies is not to say that they are responsible for everything that goes on inside their skins, and this is a second category mistake. First of all, there are many autonomic events in the body that are obviously outside the scope of responsibility. But, second, even though the felt awareness of making a decision may succeed the choice made by a few seconds (see Libet and others), this does not mean that the choice was not made by the person making it, for the choice is mechanism and consciousness combined. Nor, third, does it mean that, once made, we could have made another decision, or could have done otherwise, for replaying the decision, given the causal structure of the natural world, is not an option. And, last, the decision’s being free is dependent on other factors, for not all apparent choices are in fact chosen.
This is why moral responsibility is the wrong place to start. We recognise that there are conditions that imply diminished responsibility. There are cases in which persons’ actions are, in an appropriate sense, events, and not actions at all. This may occur, for example, because of a brain tumour. Indeed, persons can themselves be aware that they cannot choose otherwise, that their behaviour is compelled in ways that it ordinarily is not. This seems to have been the case with the Texas shooter, Charles Whitman, who asked that his brain be examined for the causes of his uncharacteristic behaviour. That internal distinction, based on the felt difference between chosen acts and unchosen behaviour, is key to understanding in what choice and free will consists. If Sam is right about free will and the illusion of conscious choice, it should be impossible to make this distinction. There is no question about the ability of persons to act outside the cause-and-effect relationship dictated by physics and brain chemistry. This we cannot do. But it seems obvious that the scope of our actions and choices, even within this causally deterministic context, is mediated and enlarged by meaning and purpose.
Sam must at least try to take seriously what Dennett says about “elbow room,” the evolution of freedom, and the bugbears that people think are unavoidable if we explain human actions naturalistically. He should not simply dismiss Dennett’s arguments without argument, basing himself simply on the claim that causality rules out the possibility of anything that can be called free will. As Dennett and Flanagan and others have shown, freedom in the sense of being an originating and ultimate source of causation is unintelligible. The only freedom worth wanting, as these philosophers say, is freedom that arises in the context of the cause-and-effect nexus of natural causality. In order to answer these claims Sam must get down and dirty with the arguments on which they are based. Simply talking about neuroscience is not enough, and is, indeed, much more like theology than he seems to think.
This, then, is my first response to Sam’s new book, Free Will.