Recently a post came out titled “Belief in Free Will Not Threatened by Neuroscience”, first appearing on the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog, and then in Wired Magazine, written by Christian Jarrett. Needless to say this article really does quite a job obfuscating and confusing the real “neuroscientific” case made by Sam Harris and others.
In it, and I quote directly from Wired Magazine online:
A key finding from neuroscience research over the last few decades is that non-conscious preparatory brain activity appears to precede the subjective feeling of making a decision. Some neuroscientists, like Sam Harris, have argued that this shows our sense of free will is an illusion, and that lay people would realize this too if they were given a vivid demonstration of the implications of the science (see below). Books have even started to appear with titles like My Brain Made Me Do It: The Rise of Neuroscience and the Threat to Moral Responsibility by Eliezer J. Sternberg.
However, in a new paper, Eddy Nahmias, Jason Shepard and Shane Reuter counter such claims. They believe that Harris and others (who they dub “willusionists”) make several unfounded assumptions about the basis of most people’s sense of free will. (bold my emphasis)
What on Earth? Sorry, Harris’s primary neuroscientific argument concludes that “free will is an illusion” – not that our “sense of free will is an illusion”. Yes, he goes on to say that even the illusion of free will is an illusion. But Harris uses an entirely introspective argument for this, such being that, in his words, “our sense of our own freedom results from our not paying close attention to what it is like to be us” which he elaborates on.
And I simply don’t know where he is getting that Harris or anyone else ever made this claim: “and lay people would realize this too if they were given a vivid demonstration of the implications of the science”. My challenge here is to have the person who has written this article directly quote Harris saying or suggesting such a thing. It is possible that I’ve missed it, so a quote would be nice. Also, even if they did realize it, that doesn’t imply they would drop the belief in free will based on that realization. Something Jarrett seems to be suggesting is being said as well.
In other words, Jarrett is conflating entirely different things: