Scientist, writer and outspoken atheist Sam Harris has posted a series of blog entries recently discussing the topic of “free will”, in the context of the ‘science and morality’ topics he explores in his recent book The Moral Landscape (Amazon US or UK). In “Morality Without ‘Free Will’” Harris says plainly that…
…the concept of free will is a non-starter, both philosophically and scientifically. There is simply no description of mental and physical causation that allows for this freedom that we habitually claim for ourselves and ascribe to others.
In a follow-up post, “Free Will (And Why You Still Don’t Have It)“, Harris notes that many readers had written him “to share the Good News that quantum mechanics has liberated the human mind from the prison of determinism”. However, Harris doesn’t subscribe to the idea, pronouncing that “it is pure hand-waving to suggest that quantum indeterminacy renders the concept of free will scientifically intelligible”.
Reading through these posts, including the third instalment “You Do Not Choose What You Choose“, I get the feeling that Harris is sometimes conflating “free will” with ‘complete freedom to make choices without any previous context or contributing factors’. He also seems to set up a straw man for “what you choose”, often using subconscious intrusions (e.g. using “rabbit” rather than “elephant” in his third post) to illustrate ‘choice’, rather than considered, binary, yes vs no decisions. By combining these two fallacies, his argument looks solid – but I don’t think it actually gets at the heart of the problem.
In an addendum, “My Friend Einstein?“, Harris quotes the great scientist in support of his cause (whilst thoroughly denying ‘argument from authority’, no less). But given Einstein’s (incorrect?) opinions on quantum indeterminacy (“God does not play dice”), his view is hardly a surprise. Though Harris says that free will is a ‘non-starter’ scientifically, there certainly are a number of prominent scientists who believe quite the opposite. For instance, Michio Kaku comes out directly in this video and says “Einstein was wrong”:
Physicist Henry Stapp is another who believes that quantum indeterminacy provides an opening for free will. In his fascinating book Mindful Universe (Amazon US or UK), Stapp describes the philosophical upheaval that is inherent in the ‘new physics’ and, (perhaps presciently) notes how many modern-day intellectuals still seem to be stuck in a worldview that became obsolete 80 years ago). On indeterminacy, he says:
The most radical change wrought by this switch to quantum mechanics is the injection directly into the dynamics of certain choices made by human beings about how they will act. Human actions enter, of course, also in classical physics. But the two cases are fundamentally different. In the classical case the way a person acts is fully determined in principle by the physically described aspects of reality alone. But in the quantum case there is an essential gap in physical causation. This gap is generated by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which opens up, at the level of human actions, a range of alternative possible behaviors between which the physically described aspects of theory are in principle unable to choose or decide. But this loss-in-principle of causal definiteness, associated with a loss of knowable-in-principle physically describable information, opens the way, logically, to an input into the dynamics of another kind of possible causes, which are eminently knowable, both in principle and in practice, namely our conscious choices about how we will act.
All in all, a fascinating (and at times, mind-bending) discussion – from all parties. What are your thoughts (or, if you prefer, what are the thoughts emanating from your mind that were always going to do so)?