Nov 072014


I agree with Sam Harris on many topics (some quibbles here and there). One position we agree on, of course, is his position on free will (the lack there-of).

In his book “Free Will” as well as various speeches, videos, and interviews, Harris uses a thought experiment that allows people to see that, if they looked a bit deeper,  they can move away from the experience of free will. Keep in mind that this is not Harris’s only device to explain the free will illusion, just one he likes to use for its simplicity and intuitiveness. It’s purpose is to get people to look deeper at where their own thoughts come from and question if they really have the ‘free will experience’ they initially ‘intuit’ if they look from this more introspective perspective.

If you haven’t read his book or watched him talk about this thought experiment, take around seven and a half minutes to do so now. Actually, you might want to watch the video again anyway. Afterward I want to go over some of these points in a little more detail.

Watched it? Great, so lets take a look.

For the thought experiment, Harris goes on to ask the person or group he’s talking (which we’ll say he’s talking to you from this point on) to – to “Think of a city anywhere in the world. You can choose any city you want.” He then asks the you to pay attention to the conscious process. He probably could have selected any number of things to ask you to choose from, but choosing a city seems to work because of the sheer amount of cities you can choose from. You simply can’t say they were limited to only one you knew of (well perhaps some could, but that’s another story).

Afterward he says “The first thing to notice is that this is as free of a decision than you will ever make in your life. You have all of the cities in the world to choose from and I’m just asking you to pick one”. Though some might contend this point, I think it’s fairly uncontroversial.

He then tells you that several cities have probably occurred to you, and for you to just focus on one of the cities. After you have one in mind, he goes on to assess the process of picking one of the cities. Part of the process is to move any of the cities you wouldn’t have known “to the side”. You simply couldn’t have picked one of those because such was not part of your knowledge set.

He then says “there are many other cities whose name is known quite well to the person, but which simply didn’t occur to you as an option at the time.” Those, he goes on to say, weren’t “in the cards” of your neurophysiology. They simply didn’t causally come to the forefront as options in your mind.

He then asks “Were you free to choose, that which did not occur to you to choose?” Of course the answer to that one is no, and I think most people will recognize such. This, for the most part, seems uncontroversial as well.

Next he starts to address the cities you did think of. For example, he says “let’s say you thought of Paris, New York, and Tokyo”. In the end after deliberating you decide on Tokyo. Harris rightly says that “this is the sort of decision that motivates the idea of free will”. I agree with Harris that this is where the ‘intuitive feelings’ of free will arise. We think all of those options are truly available, and that we could pick any one of them. Though you picked Tokyo, you feel like you could have chosen New York. In fact, perhaps you almost did but in the end decided on Tokyo.

Now here is the part that gets a bit tricky. Harris suggests that you often aren’t even aware of why you picked Tokyo, even if you have a story to tell, such as you had Japanese food last night. Even if that story did somehow influence your decision (though he goes on to say how bad we are at assessing such), “you still can’t explain why you remembered having Japanese food last night or why the memory had the effect that it did. Why didn’t it have the opposite effect?”

This point is extremely important here. Even if you remembered the Japanese food, why didn’t you think “Oh, I had Japanese food last night so I’ll choose something different from Tokyo” instead of perhaps “Oh, I had Japanese food so I’ll choose Tokyo”? The fact of the matter is, one of these were forced to the forefront of your consciousness, resulting in your decision. But the chances are you really don’t know why one did and not the other.

Harris goes on to say “The thing to notice is that, you as the conscious witness of your inner life, are not making these decisions. You can only witness these decisions.”

This is where people tend to get a little queasy at the implications, and understandably so. And I think it might have been important for Harris to point out that your witnessing of such decisions does feeds back into the process that may output another decision, even if you aren’t aware of the process while it happens and only witness the next decision. This is where other examples might be more illustrative of such.

For example, if I give you the option between a sphere, cube, and pyramid, (all made out of rubber for example) and tell you to choose the one that will move down a sloped surface the quickest if we place it at the top, you witnessing the various qualities that come into your mind to assess each object ability to move does feed back into the process that will output your witnessing of the decision of the sphere (for example). It’s not like your witnessing of your thoughts isn’t a part of the causal process that leads to the next. In the instance of the Japanese food and the selection of Tokyo you may not know the variables that output the decision for Tokyo instead of Paris. But it truly is a mistake to think that each witnessing is disconnected from the next decision. And unfortunately, I think that is what some may come away with for this thought experiment, rather than the greater power of it.

The greater power of the thought experiment is one that shows how such decisions need to stem from a chain of events (allowing us to see where our conscious thought is located in the process). That, as Harris says in the end of the video, “actually our experience in life is compatible with (the truth of?) determinism“.

This I believe to be the greater point to come from the experiment. Not that each thought that arises is no different from Harris telling them to you and you hearing them – as he suggests closer to the end in the video (and in which I think a problematic analogy), but rather that the process is: thought –> process –> thought –> process. In other words, even if we think to change the process, the very output of the way we think to change the process was the output of the process that preceded such. Which means that the next process that is affected by that thought had to come about due to the way that thought had to come about and so on down the line. And that, if we look carefully at how our thoughts and decisions arise, we can recognize that they come from an unconscious process, which gets configured by both unconscious and conscious processes that came about through other unconscious processes. This is a causal feedback loop that’s created.

This relates to the neuroscientific studies that Harris addresses as well, regarding being able to predict (beyond chance) the button a person will press 7 to 10 seconds before they are consciously aware of such decision – using brain scans. This implies that what we think and decide happens “behind the scenes” before it outputs to our conscious awareness. What it doesn’t imply, however, is that our conscious awareness doesn’t help build the next “behind the scenes” structure (or even a much later structure). Our conscious awareness is not as far removed as the initial thought experiment might make it seem.

Is the thought experiment the strongest case against free will? No, I’d have to consign that to the logical reasons why free will is incoherent (if you don’t know what those reason’s are I’ve written a book on the topic). That being said, it’s a powerful and ultimately helpful thought experiment. Let’s just be careful that people don’t misconstrued it as suggesting that our conscious thoughts don’t feed back into the very mechanism that produces further conscious thoughts. That would be an unintended mistake.

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'Trick Slattery

'Trick Slattery is the author of Breaking the Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind. He's an author, philosopher, artist, content creator, and entrepreneur. He has loved and immersed himself in philosophy since he was teenager. It is his first and strongest passion. Throughout the years he has built a philosophy based on analytic logic and critical thinking. Some of the topics he is most interested in are of a controversial variety, but his passion for the topics and their importance drives him to want to express these ideas to others. His other passions include pen and ink line art and digital artwork.

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  One Response to “Sam Harris on the Experience of ‘No Free Will’”

Comments (1)
  1. “He then asks “Were you free to choose, that which did not occur to you to choose?” Of course the answer to that one is no, and I think most people will recognize such. This, for the most part, seems uncontroversial as well.”

    That question settles the matter for me. So many times I have looked back at a conversation and thought: “Why didn’t I say this instead of what I said.” If I can’t think of it due to lack of knowledge or memory, I can’t do it. I could not have done otherwise.

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