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38 of 41 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Lively text that fails to address the modern debate, 2 Jun 2012
This review is from: Free Will (Paperback)
Philosophers debating free will have long understood that the term can be used in many ways, most of which are incoherent. Thus, advocates of "libertarian free will" (founded on the belief that free will requires indeterminism) have had to face the objection that indeterminate events in the brain would be expected to produce randomness, not freedom. And advocates of "compatibilist free will" (founded on the belief that some kinds of free will are compatible with determinism) have had to face other problems, including the one that many people find compatibilism intuitively implausible. Despite these difficulties, most leading philosophers (with a few important exceptions such as Galen Strawson, Derk Pereboom and Ted Honderich), have come to the conclusion that, if used cautiously, the term "free will" can be applied to human beings in a coherent, meaningful and true manner. One of the hard-won achievements of this 200 year old debate has been to separate out conceptions of free will that have a good chance of being coherent and even true, from those that are incoherent or probably untrue. It has been clear to all for many years that unsophisticated conceptions of free will are unlikely to stand up to philosophical analysis.

This 66 page text makes little attempt to contribute to the modern debate, but rather takes the easy option of attacking "the popular conception of free will" which, according to Harris "seems to rest on two assumptions: (1) that each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past, and (2) that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present". Of course, this popular conception gets a thrashing, because assumption (1) is ambiguous and assumption (2) is simplistic (interpreted to mean that we choose what to think before we think it).

Whether this conception is really popular is debatable. There has been research on what ordinary people believe about free will, and popular beliefs actually seem to be rather varied, but let us suppose that at least some people have a conception of free will resembling the one Harris attacks. For such people, the book may be useful. It is certainly much easier to read than the works of professional philosophers.

Harris has not refuted free will, but has mounted a ferocious attack on one rather naïve version of it. He doesn't seriously grapple with modern scholarship. Admittedly, he does briefly discuss two short texts from compatibilist philosophers Tom Clark and Eddy Nahmias. He merely dismisses libertarianism in a single sentence as not being "respectable" (page 16). He wins a cheap victory. Why should anybody be surprised if an unsophisticated "popular" view of free will can be knocked down?

If this easy-to-read 66 page tract stimulates people into reading more serious works on free will, this will be of value (they might start with Bob Doyle's comprehensive but readable book Free Will: The Scandal in Philosophy, 2011). If it lulls people into thinking that the problem is solved and free will does not exist, it may be a victory for obscurantism.
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Showing 1-10 of 10 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 9 Jun 2012 17:51:36 BDT
I recommend that you follow the progress that neuroscience is making - this will be the final arbiter on the question of free will. I cannot conceive of the possibility of a thought so pure, isolated and free of all biological and past experience input and so I cannot believe in free will - in fact, for me, it is a 'no brainer' (to use current jargon).
Philosophy is the pursuit of truth about the human condition and, of course, it will not achieve its goal (the end of philosophy?)

In reply to an earlier post on 10 Jun 2012 10:13:34 BDT
Mr. T Holton says:
Charles,I think you will find that the reviewer is following neuroscience rather closely already, given that it is his profession. This is what makes his review so thoroughly excellent. I am extremely grateful for lucid and expert analysis like this, especially as it saves me the trouble of buying the book.

In reply to an earlier post on 10 Jun 2012 17:28:43 BDT
Peter Clarke says:
Thanks to T. Holton for your support.

Charles, you write: "I cannot conceive of the possibility of a thought so pure, isolated and free of all biological and past experience input and so I cannot believe in free will - in fact, for me, it is a 'no brainer' ". This is a problem about words. I think we can all agree that THAT kind of free will cannot possibly exist. The modern debate is about whether a more limited kind of free will can exist.

In reply to an earlier post on 15 Sep 2012 01:34:06 BDT
Last edited by the author on 15 Sep 2012 01:36:54 BDT
T Bradley says:
Hi Peter,

I don't think your criticism of Harris's definition of free will is fair considering that his conception of free will is how the term is understood by the vast majoirity of individuals. Various compatibilist philosophers, for example, Dennett, conjure their own ivory tower definitions of 'free will' which bares little resemblance or relevance to the popular conception and then proceed to make grandiose statements about human 'freedom'. You cannot blame Harris for failing to pander to this.

In reply to an earlier post on 15 Sep 2012 15:09:53 BDT
Last edited by the author on 17 Sep 2012 17:58:49 BDT
Peter Clarke says:
Hi Thomas Bradley,

I disagree with you for at least two reasons.

First, I disagree with your claim that Harris's "conception of free will is how the term is understood by the vast majoirity of individuals". That is what he claims, without evidence, but I don't think it's true. I have never met anybody who used the term in Harris's sense. The most usual use of the term in English is in sentences such as "I did it of my own free will", which has very much the sense that compatibilists give it. The term is also used in many other ways, by both philosophers and ordinary people, and the variety of usage has been studied by Eddy Nahmias and others. It turned out that the majority of ordinary folk had conceptions fairly close to the compatibilist one http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/13/is-neuroscience-the-death-of-free-will/ . But having said that, I would point out that my objection to Harris's definition did not focus on his rejection of compatibilism, but on the ambiguity of his first assumption and on the simplistic naivety of the second (the idea that free will implies choosing what to think before we think it).

Second, even if Harris's definition was commonly adopted by a significant number of people, that would hardly justify the blatant claim that free will does not exist. Would you be impressed by a book claiming that electrons don't exist, on the grounds that the popular conception of electrons as minute billiard ball-like particles with a negative charge is too simple? I suspect not! A popular book on such a difficult subject should first explain that the popular conception is too simple, and then go on to explain why most (or all) physicists nevertheless maintain the concept of an electron as useful. Would you dismiss the modern conception of electrons as "ivory tower" on the grounds that the vast majority of people don't hold it?

Finally, even though I defend compatibilist definitions in this reply, I think a popular book on free will should be fair to libertarian conceptions as well. Harris is even worse here, dismissing libertarianism in a single sentence as not being "respectable".

Posted on 20 Nov 2012 15:41:03 GMT
J. S. Shokar says:
Thank you for this review. I'm a Sam Harris fan, and though I've not read this book, I completely agree with what you're saying based on his lectures on this area. I was hoping that this naive and readily dismissible notion of free will was just to garner interest for his book, but it seems to be the basis behind it. I wonder why he's written such a short book that so obviously ignores so much of the literature. You'd blast an undergraduate for this sort of thing...

Posted on 7 Apr 2013 14:51:03 BDT
Last edited by the author on 7 Apr 2013 21:16:33 BDT
Hi Peter

In your reply Charles R. Day you refer to the "modern debate" as if it were at the real cutting edge, rather than the misdirection that I think it actually is. I am assuming here that you are refering to the various forms of Compatibilism that have arisen, as you say, due to confusion regarding the definition of Free Will.

To be clear: "Free Will" is, looking backwards, the ability of an "Agent" to have "done otherwise" than some action, even though the universe would have been in exactly the same state as when the action was performed.

I would further argue that to claim the agent had free will merely because it was not constrained by any external forces, such as, a kidnapper, a locked door or an evil neuroscientist (we shall call him Dr Frankfurt), is a simple category error; what is being referred to here is the normal operation of the will (ie deliberation and choosing), so that if determinism is true, then the subject is merely "A will" (it wills - but not freely), and cannot be considered a "free will". This is a matter of logical necessity, and has been understood as such by philosophers since ancient times. And many, and historically, perhaps most, have realised that the claim that having "a will" at all (guidance control) is a sufficient condition for the predicate "free" to be attached to it with meaning (with the end in view of providing underpinning for the concept of moral responsibility) is, at best, to change the subject, and at worst, philisophical subterfuge.

Sam Harris is, of course, aware of this, and I would argue that it is perfecly in order that he does not address what you call the modern debate in too much detail.

I would recommed that you spend some time considering whether compatibilism really is as compelling as you appear to think that it is. It is also worth considering why professional academic philosophers may have taken this position in the light of recent developments in neuroscience. It is my view that they are clutching at straws and are as guilty of wishful thinking as any religionist. Indeed, they should not be criticised too harshly for this, as it would be the natural reaction of most people, since we have all been inculcated with the belief that we have free will, in strongest way imaginable, since the day we were born. It is extremely disconcerting, therefore, for us all to accept the conclusion that free will, and the possibilty of moral responsibility, it is, in fact, an illusion.

It may be helpful to consider the following.

A magician saws an assistant in half, and puts him/her back together again unharmed. Following the perfomance the magician explains to the audience that what they saw was a carefully constructed trick, and that the assistant was not, and could not have been, cut in half: that it was an illusion, in fact; but members of the audience react in different ways to this information. One of these, Mr Swinburne, thinks that the magician is mistaken, and that something supernatural (or outside the current scientific paradigm) occurred. Another, Mr Kane, also believes there was no illusion, but that the magician had somehow done something remarkable, by way of a mysterious combination of indeterminism in nature and his/her extraordinary gifts. Another, Mr Pereboom, accepts the magician's explanation and can appreciate its logic. Another group, however, including a Mr Fischer and a Mr Dennett, think that the Magician, given the laws of nature and everything, did play some kind of trick on them, but they are not prepared to accept that what they saw was an illusion. They prefer intospection: to focus on the thrill that electrified the audience, their own subjective experiences - enhanced, as they were, by the atmosphere, the music, and the lights etc; and after much soul searching, and intellectual anguish and somersaulting, they conclude that they know that the magician was telling the truth when it was said that the performance was a trick and the assistant was not really cut in half, but also that they cannot go as far as to agree that what they experienced was an illusion: they argue that in some real and substantive way, the assitant was sawn in half and put back together. Accordingly, I would define a compatibilist as someone who must have their cake and eat it - have the penny and the bun: whatever it takes; reality has to somehow conform to their own subjective intuitions. I believe that there is a kind of confirmation bias at work in their reasoning, that explains why, and how, they can continue to believe that two mutually exclusive propositions are true at the same time. Indeed, the fourth group have fallen, hook, line and sinker, for the misdirection in the magician's performance, but, worse than that, have also refused to acknowledge the misdirection, even when the magician has pointed it out to them.

In respect of the four responses to the magic trick, I would ask, which of them is the most untenable?

Thanks for reading this far

In reply to an earlier post on 8 Apr 2013 09:37:56 BDT
Last edited by the author on 8 Apr 2013 09:52:16 BDT
Peter Clarke says:
Hi P.J. Staples,

Yes, I do consider that the "modern debate" is at the real cutting edge. No, by this term I do not refer only to the various forms of compatibilism, and one of the complaints against Harris in my review is that he merely dismisses libertarianism in a single sentence. I think that the arguments of all sides - compatibilists, libertarians and hard determinists need to be answered.

I find your post well written and amusing, but I don't think your magician analogy gets to grips with the deep questions about free will.

Posted on 12 Apr 2013 11:38:54 BDT
Last edited by the author on 12 Apr 2013 11:40:30 BDT
Hi Peter

I take your point that the modern debate is about more than compatibilism, but it does seem that compatibilism has somehow hijacked the debate - it does seem to have taken a compatibilist turn. Indeed, it would appear that even Robert Kane's Libertarianism is very close to compatibilism - mostly compatibilist with a thin veneer of Libertarianism.

I don't know if you are aware of a new book by Richard Oerton - The Nonsense of Free Will: Facing up to false belief - but if you haven't read it yet, I would highly recommend it. The writing is extremely clear and, I think, the philosophy sound; although it is not written by a professional academic philosopher. Obviously, the title gives away the position that is taken, but I do think he deals with the modern debate adequately; and he does go on to discuss possible ramifications of deterministic belief, particulary in respect of the criminal justice system, but I am not sure whether he loses his way a bit at this point.

If you do read it and go on to write a review, I will be very interested to read it.

In reply to an earlier post on 12 Apr 2013 13:24:51 BDT
Last edited by the author on 12 Apr 2013 13:30:36 BDT
Peter Clarke says:
Thanks PJS for this recommendation. I will buy and read Oerton's book, but I also have a pile of other books to read, so this won't be very soon.
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