By Anton Drake
If you haven’t read Sam Harris’s book on free will I’d highly recommend it; it’s a very quick, fun read and you’re sure to find it very stimulating and educational. This article is geared for those who have previously read the book and have spent some time thinking about it; I’m jumping right in at the deep end here to contest what I perceive as a few weak points in the arguments constellated within the book, so if you haven’t read it you might consider starting there first. [link]
First off, there seems to be a certain circularity to the assertion that the perception of personal free will is an illusion, because our supposedly “free” impulses, desires, choices, decisions etc are all based in unconscious processes. For instance, in the chapter titled “The unconscious origins of the will” Harris cites some very interesting neuro-imaging research work, and then concludes:
“These findings are difficult to reconcile with the sense that we are the conscious authors of our actions. One fact now seems indisputable: Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next— a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please— your brain has already determined what you will do. You then become conscious of this “decision” and believe that you are in the process of making it.” — Harris, Sam (2012-03-06). Free Will (Kindle Locations 168-171)
“Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have complete control over those factors.” –Harris, Sam (2012-03-06). Free Will (Kindle Locations 210-211).
And in a later chapter:
“Today, the only philosophically respectable way to endorse free will is to be a compatibilist— because we know that determinism, in every sense relevant to human behavior, is true. Unconscious neural events determine our thoughts and actions— and are themselves determined by prior causes of which we are subjectively unaware.” — Harris, Sam (2012-03-06). Free Will (Kindle Locations 225-227).
Again, this is very interesting and compelling material and I would encourage anybody to read the book. That being said, the weakness that I see with this line of argument is that it essentially conflates consciousness and absolute conscious control of our actions with “free will.” This may seem trivial, however the thrust of the argument (which I agree with) that what we call “consciousness” arises directly from the “unconscious” (and from unconscious processes) directly undercuts consciousness as something autonomous and differentiated from that which is “unconscious.” This begs the question of what exactly “consciousness” is… (more…)