Sam Harris and the epic self-evisceration

My original intent upon finishing Sam Harris’s latest book was to write a detailed critique of it. However, in reading it, I realized that it actually contained something much more interesting than the expected collection of conventional Harrisian errors, as it amounted to a rebuttal of the man’s previous work! So, although I intend to critique Free Will in the near future, I thought it would be more important to look at how Harris’s latest arguments affect his earlier ones. In The Irrational Atheist, I noted that Christopher Hitchens had committed a marvelous exercise in self-evisceration when he declared that “what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence”, then proceeded to pronounce no fewer than 52 different declarations, each of which was presented completely without evidence. However, it would appear that Sam Harris is more than worthy of filling the late Mr. Hitchens giant clown shoes, as he has effortlessly surpassed that feat of self-defeating logic with his latest adventure in science-flavored polemic. However, to fully appreciate the full scope of Harris’s unique achievement, it is necessary to return to his most popular work, The End of Faith, and revisit that book’s central thesis.

The basic concept at the heart of The End of Faith is that belief is the root of all human action. From this core postulate, Harris then concludes that because belief causes action – he actually goes so far as to state that “beliefs are action” – that some actions are so potentially dangerous that they justify pre-emptively killing people who possess the beliefs that cause them. He then attempts to show that those causal beliefs are generally religious in nature; the end of faith to which he refers in the title is the violent elimination of faith by, (or on behalf of), a one-world government justified by the religious faithful’s opposition to global government as well as faith’s potential danger to the human race as per the extinction equation, in which Religious Faith + Science and Technology = Human Extinction.

This encapsulation of Harris’s argument will likely sound outrageous until one considers the evidence taken directly from The End of Faith:

“A BELIEF is a lever that, once pulled, moves almost everything else in a person’s life. Are you a scientist? A liberal? A racist? These are merely species of belief in action. Your beliefs define your vision of the world; they dictate your behavior; they determine your emotional responses to other human beings.”

“As a man believes, so he will act.”

“It is time we recognized that belief is not a private matter; it has never been merely private. In fact, beliefs are scarcely more private than actions are, for every belief is a fount of action in potentia. The belief that it will rain puts an umbrella in the hand of every man or woman who owns one.”

“Given the link between belief and action, it is clear that we can no more tolerate a diversity of religious beliefs than a diversity of beliefs about epidemiology and basic hygiene…. Even apparently innocuous beliefs, when unjustified, can lead to intolerable consequences.”

“There seems, however, to be a problem with some of our most cherished beliefs about the world: they are leading us, inexorably, to kill one another. A glance at history, or at the pages of any newspaper, reveals that ideas which divide one group of human beings from another, only to unite them in slaughter, generally have their roots in religion. It seems that if our species ever eradicates itself through war, it will not be because it was written in the stars but because it was written in our books; it is what we do with words like “God” and “paradise” and “sin” in the present that will determine our future.”

“The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others.”

“We can say it even more simply: we need a world government…. The diversity of our religious beliefs constitutes a primary obstacle here…. World government does seem a long way off—so long that we may not survive the trip.”

Now, Harris’s argument is as fallacious as it is dangerous, for as I showed in TIA, even if one accepts the logic of the extinction equation, a perusal of history shows that the danger purportedly posed by religion is a second-order one at most, and furthermore, is not supported by the historical evidence, whereas the first-order danger stems directly from science. In 116 centuries filled with hundreds, if not thousands, of diverse religions, all competing for mind share, resources and dominance, the species has not merely survived, but has thrived, while a mere four centuries of modern science has created multiple clear and present dangers to the continued existence of the human race. Even if one accepts the general thrust of Harris’s argument in The End of Faith and believes that the danger to the species demands immediate action, it is obvious that Harris’s target is the wrong one and he should have been advocating the end of science rather than faith.

However, instead of either retracting or revising his argument, Harris has taken the surprising approach of undermining it by destroying its very foundation in his most recent book, Free Will. I suspect, however, that he has done this unintentionally and in complete ignorance of having done so, as he happens to be one of the laziest and most careless intellectuals to ever be embraced by the public. For in Free Will, he completely disassociates action from belief, in fact, he disassociates it from conscious thought altogether. Consider the following quotes from Free Will:

“The popular conception of free will 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. As we are about to see, however, both of these assumptions are false.”

“The intention to do one thing and not another does not originate in consciousness—rather, it appears in consciousness, as does any thought or impulse that might oppose it.”

“The intention to do one thing and not another does not originate in consciousness—rather, it appears in consciousness, as does any thought or impulse that might oppose it…. 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.”

“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.”

“Our sense of free will results from a failure to appreciate this: We do not know what we intend to do until the intention itself arises. To understand this is to realize that we are not the authors of our thoughts and actions in the way that people generally suppose.”

“Unconscious neural events determine our thoughts and actions—and are themselves determined by prior causes of which we are subjectively unaware.”

“People feel (or presume) an authorship of their thoughts and actions that is illusory.”

As he declares that the illusory nature of free will erodes the concepts of moral responsibility, punishment, and the religious concept of sin, Harris appears to be completely unaware of how he has also destroyed his previous case against faith and religion. Being either the product or the resident of the conscious mind, belief can no longer be equated with action or serve as its causal factor, indeed, we are informed that the very possibility that belief can even be linked with action is nothing more than an illusion. He not only abandons, but actively attacks the basic concept upon which all the arguments in his previous book rest, the idea that belief is the root of all human action. Now he insists that a man will not act according to his beliefs for the obvious reason that he cannot; at most, his beliefs can only be seen as consequences that run more or less in parallel with his actions and therefore cannot serve as indicators of his future actions. This severing of the link between belief and action completely eliminates the viability of Harris’s claim that religious beliefs are intrinsically dangerous as well as any justification for the sort of lethal pre-emptive action he previously declared to be ethical.

Therefore, in light of the new material, one of his previous declarations quoted above must be rephrased thusly: “Given the absence of the link between belief and action, it is clear that we can tolerate a diversity of religious beliefs as well as diversity of beliefs about epidemiology and basic hygiene…. Even apparently deadly beliefs, whether they are justified or not, cannot lead to harmful consequences.”

One imagines that one of his more intelligent fans will eventually notice the way in which Mr. Harris’s latest arguments have rendered his older ones incorrect and bring it to Mr. Harris’s attention, so I’m sure we can all anticipate a retraction of the various anti-religious claims presented in The End of Faith in the reasonably near future.

Free will and the utilitarian objective

Sam Harris disagrees with Daniel Dennett concerning the existence of free will:

Dan seems to think that free will is like color: People might have some erroneous beliefs about it, but the experience of freedom and its attendant moral responsibilities can be understood in a similarly straightforward way through science. I think that free will is an illusion and that analogies to phenomena like color do not run through. A better analogy, also taken from the domain of vision, would liken free will to the sense that most of us have of visual continuity.

Take a moment to survey your immediate surroundings. Your experience of seeing will probably seem unified—a single field in which everything appears all at once and seamlessly. But the act of seeing is not quite what it seems. The first thing to notice is that most of what you see in every instant is a blur, because you have only a narrow region of sharp focus in the center of your visual field. This area of foveal vision is also where you perceive colors most clearly; your ability to distinguish one color from another falls away completely as you reach the periphery in each eye. You continuously compensate for these limitations by allowing your gaze to lurch from point to point (executing what are known as “saccades”), but you tend not to notice these movements. Nor are you aware that your visual perception appears interrupted while your eyes are moving (otherwise you would see a continuous blurring of the scene). It was once believed that saccades caused the active suppression of vision, but recent experiments suggest that the post-saccadic image (i.e. whatever you next focus on) probably just masks the preceding blur.

There is also a region in each visual field where you receive no input at all, because the optic nerve creates a blind spot where it passes through the retina. Many of us learned to perceive the subjective consequences of this unintelligent design as children, by marking a piece of paper, closing one eye, and then moving the paper into a position where the mark disappeared. Close one eye now and look out at the world: You will probably not notice your blind spot—and yet, if you are in a crowded room, someone could well be missing his head. Most people are surely unaware that the optic blind spot exists, and even those of us who know about it can go for decades without noticing it.

While color vision survives close inspection, our conventional sense of visual continuity does not. The impression we have of seeing everything all at once, clearly, and without interruption is based on our not paying close attention to what it is like to see. I argue that the illusory nature of free will can also be noticed in this way. As with the illusion of visual continuity, the evidence of our confusion is neither far away nor deep within; rather, it is right on the surface of experience, almost too near to us to be seen.

Of course, we could take Dan’s approach and adjust the notion of “continuity” so that it better reflected the properties of human vision, giving us a new concept of seamless visual perception that is “worth wanting.” But if erroneous beliefs about visual continuity caused drivers to regularly mow down pedestrians and police sharpshooters to accidentally kill hostages, merely changing the meaning of “continuity” would not do. I believe that this is the situation we are in with the illusion of free will: False beliefs about human freedom skew our moral intuitions and anchor our system of criminal justice to a primitive ethic of retribution. And as we continue to make advances in understanding the human mind through science, our current practices will come to seem even less enlightened.

Ordinary people want to feel philosophically justified in hating evildoers and viewing them as the ultimate authors of their evil. This moral attitude has always been vulnerable to our learning more about the causes of human behavior—and in situations where the origins of a person’s actions become absolutely clear, our feelings about his responsibility begin to change. What is more, they should change. We should admit that a person is unlucky to inherit the genes and life experience that will doom him to psychopathy. That doesn’t mean we can’t lock him up, or kill him in self-defense, but hating him is not rational, given a complete understanding of how he came to be who he is. Natural, yes; rational, no. Feeling compassion for him would be rational, however—or so I have argued.

We can acknowledge the difference between voluntary and involuntary action, the responsibilities of an adult and those of a child, sanity and insanity, a troubled conscience and a clear one, without indulging the illusion of free will. We can also admit that in certain contexts, punishment might be the best way to motivate people to behave themselves. The utility of punishment is an empirical question that is well worth answering—and nothing in my account of free will requires that I deny this.

How can we ask that other people behave themselves (and even punish them for not behaving) when they are not the ultimate cause of their actions? We can (and should) make such demands when doing so has the desired effect—namely, increasing the well-being of all concerned.

Given his intellectual track record, one of the more powerful arguments for the existence of free will is that Sam Harris believes it does not exist. One could easily go through life with far less effective guides than simply assuming the precise opposite of what Sam Harris asserts to be true. Harris has always been intellectually careless and lazy, but his latest foray into free will appears to border on barely bothering to show up. His new “book” is all of 66 pages and apparently those are generously-margined pages filled with large type as it’s only 13,000 words; a trade paperback has 410 words per page, a mass-market paperback 310; Free Will has only 196. I haven’t read it yet, but I will soon, if the deterministic processes that wholly dictate my actions regardless of my perception of control happen to permit me to do so. Since we are reliably informed that our notions concerning our future actions are illusory, it is entirely possible that I will instead move to Albania and devote myself to writing homosexual love poetry in their guttural, but hauntingly beautiful language.

Isn’t it fascinating how what passes for the thinking of the most popular atheists so closely resembles that of the omniderigent Christians? The sovereign God of the hyper-Calvinist and the nonexistent God of the atheist lead the adherent to the same conclusion: Man is not responsible for his actions.

Harris’s analogy is a poor one because free will is more analogous to vision than to visual continuity. We fail to understand our own motivations and even our actions in much the same way that we cannot simultaneously focus on everything in our field of view. And yet, accurately or inaccurately, we still see something. Regardless of whether our brains light up before our finger moves or afterwards, our finger moves and something connected to our conscious minds made it move. Harris completely fails to realize that the Libet experiment is at least as indicative of a trialist Body-Mind-Soul construction consistent with free will as the mechanistic singular one consistent with its absence.

Harris’s real purpose in attacking free will is no different than his real purpose in attacking both the existence of God as well as Christianity. He’s a pan-global utilitarian and his books are neither philosophy nor science, they are political polemics intended to provide intellectual cover for the global, macro-societal restructuring he envisions. This is not readily apparent, but it is the one clearly identifiable theme besides intellectual laziness that is woven into all his works.

UPDATE: I haven’t finished the book yet, but I got through about three-quarters it in between sets at the gym. It’s that short and it’s that fluffy; the contrast with the Popper I’ve been reading over the last week or so is rather glaring. Anyhow, I’ve already identified the core error in his reasoning and will explicate it tomorrow. The short summary: Harris believes he is his feelings. This goes a surprisingly long way towards explaining the man’s oft-demonstrated intellectual shortcomings.