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Wed Aug 1, 2012, 06:22 AM

Have It Your Way

‘Free Will,’ by Sam Harris
83 pp. Free Press. Paper, $9.99.

By DANIEL MENAKER
Published: July 13, 2012

For centuries, the question of free will — of whether human beings make choices that are not, or not entirely, determined by purely physical processes and causes — nested securely in the aeries of philosophy and religion. Ordinary people didn’t worry about its having any practical significance for them. Although the issue of individual responsibility has animated novels, poetry, drama and parables, most modern people have gone about their lives believing that their minds were the agents of their decisions.

- snip -

Over the last few decades, procedures for measuring, imaging and analyzing mental processes have grown in number and subtlety. During this same period, books for the general reader about the brain and its functions, consciousness and will, thought and reasoning have proliferated. We have Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Cordelia Fine, Oliver Sacks, Michael Gazzaniga, Daniel Kahneman and scores of others explaining, and extrapolating from, new findings in neuroscience and almost always addressing the matter of free will. (Daniel Wegner’s “Illusion of Conscious Will,” published by the MIT Press in 2002, is a central full-length scientific text about this subject.)

Sam Harris, a Stanford graduate with a Ph.D. in neuroscience from U.C.L.A. and author of “The End of Faith,” a best-selling, Hitchensesque critique of religion, has now, in book form and fully armored, joined the free-will jousters with a kind of tractatus — a pamphlet-like work, “Free Will.” Parts of this book recycle some of Harris’s earlier writing on the subject (as should have been acknowledged in the book’s front matter and will be in future editions). But the work consists mainly of original text and distills Harris’s position on the crucial issue of human agency.

His absolutist position, I should add, because, as he puts it near the beginning of the book: “Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control.” We assume that we could have made other choices in the past, Harris continues, and we also assume that we consciously originate “our thoughts and actions in the present. . . . Both of these assumptions are false.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/books/review/free-will-by-sam-harris.html?pagewanted=all

“Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control.”

Anyone else believe this?

42 replies, 3605 views

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Arrow 42 replies Author Time Post
Reply Have It Your Way (Original post)
rug Aug 2012 OP
trotsky Aug 2012 #1
rug Aug 2012 #2
trotsky Aug 2012 #3
rug Aug 2012 #4
trotsky Aug 2012 #5
rug Aug 2012 #6
trotsky Aug 2012 #7
rug Aug 2012 #8
trotsky Aug 2012 #9
rug Aug 2012 #10
trotsky Aug 2012 #11
rug Aug 2012 #12
trotsky Aug 2012 #13
Jim__ Aug 2012 #14
rug Aug 2012 #18
rrneck Aug 2012 #15
cbayer Aug 2012 #16
struggle4progress Aug 2012 #17
Goblinmonger Aug 2012 #20
struggle4progress Aug 2012 #22
Warren Stupidity Aug 2012 #32
struggle4progress Aug 2012 #34
Warren Stupidity Aug 2012 #40
struggle4progress Aug 2012 #41
Goblinmonger Aug 2012 #19
Jim__ Aug 2012 #24
rug Aug 2012 #28
skepticscott Aug 2012 #31
struggle4progress Aug 2012 #35
Goblinmonger Aug 2012 #36
struggle4progress Aug 2012 #37
Goblinmonger Aug 2012 #38
struggle4progress Aug 2012 #39
Goblinmonger Aug 2012 #42
AlbertCat Aug 2012 #21
struggle4progress Aug 2012 #23
struggle4progress Aug 2012 #25
trotsky Aug 2012 #33
struggle4progress Aug 2012 #26
struggle4progress Aug 2012 #27
rug Aug 2012 #29
struggle4progress Aug 2012 #30

Response to rug (Original post)

Wed Aug 1, 2012, 07:13 AM

1. If you believe free will exists, then prove it.

Should be easy.

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Response to trotsky (Reply #1)

Wed Aug 1, 2012, 07:18 AM

2. Do you believe what Harris wrote?

It's a simple question calling for a simple answer, not deflection.

Do you have the courage to answer it anonymously?

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Response to rug (Reply #2)

Wed Aug 1, 2012, 07:21 AM

3. I see no evidence that free will, as commonly understood, exists.

Do you have any?

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Response to trotsky (Reply #3)

Wed Aug 1, 2012, 07:27 AM

4. I see choices, large and small, made billions of times a day by billions of people.

I see no evidence that these are inexorable acts committed by automatons.

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Response to rug (Reply #4)

Wed Aug 1, 2012, 07:33 AM

5. You see choices being made. So do I. No dispute there.

Do you have proof those choices are caused by free will?

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Response to trotsky (Reply #5)

Wed Aug 1, 2012, 07:38 AM

6. If you see a choice, you see free will.

The opposite is seeing results, not choices.

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Response to rug (Reply #6)

Wed Aug 1, 2012, 07:41 AM

7. Do other animals have free will, or only humans, rug?

I ask because it brings up some very important points either way you answer. So I'd like to know what you think.

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Response to trotsky (Reply #7)

Wed Aug 1, 2012, 07:44 AM

8. Observing my cat, I infer choice. Limited choice, but choice nonetheless.

Do you see inevitability in when, where and how it chooses to lick its ass?

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Response to rug (Reply #8)

Wed Aug 1, 2012, 07:51 AM

9. That doesn't answer my question.

Do animals have free will? Yes or no.

(Psst... yes, I realize this is the point at which you refuse to answer the question and hope that by continuing to hurl snappiness and snark, I'll give up because you're trapped again and can't stand to admit it.)

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Response to trotsky (Reply #9)

Wed Aug 1, 2012, 07:54 AM

10. It does, given the indefiniteness of the question.

Sorry it doesn't meet your approval.

Now, why not answer the question I posed to you?

(Psst... I quite enjoy your extraneous ad hominems. It lends an intellectual patina to our encounters.)

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Response to rug (Reply #10)

Wed Aug 1, 2012, 07:56 AM

11. I learned to fling ad homs from the best, rug.

Since you were given opportunities to change your behavior and refused, you'll continue to get more of what you give.

Clarify for me: do you believe "making a choice" is the same thing as "free will"? Are you OK with using those terms interchangeably?

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Response to trotsky (Reply #11)

Wed Aug 1, 2012, 07:59 AM

12. You haven't learned very well.

I'm leaving for work. I'd rather get paid for engaging in nonsense.

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Response to rug (Reply #12)

Wed Aug 1, 2012, 08:00 AM

13. Thanks again for the lovely behavior, rug.

You take care now, and let the record show you refused to answer a simple question yet again.

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Response to rug (Original post)

Wed Aug 1, 2012, 08:20 AM

14. No.

A brief discussion of Libet's tests and results (mentioned in the cited column) can be found here. An excerpt:

...

However, Libet’s conclusions rested on the use of Readiness Potentials (RPs). Earlier research had shown that the occurence of an RP in the brain reliably indicated that a movement was coming along just afterwards, and they were therefore seen as a neurological sign that the decision to move had been taken (Libet himself found that the movement could sometimes be suppressed after the RP had appeared, but this possibility, which he referred to as ‘free won’t ‘, seemed only to provide an interesting footnote). The new research, by Trevena and Miller at Otago, undermines the idea that RPs indicate a decision.

Two separate sets of similar experiments were carried out. They resembled Libet’s original ones in most respects, although computer screens and keyboards replaced Libet’s more primitive equipment, and the hand movement took the form of a key-press. A clock face similar to that in Libet’s experiments was shown, and they even provided a circling dot. In the earlier experiments this had provided an ingenious way of timing the subject’s awareness that a decision had been made – the subject would report the position of the dot at the moment of decision – but in Trevena and Miller’s research the clock and dot were provided only to make conditions resemble Libet’s as much as possible. Subjects were told to ignore them (which you might think rendered their inclusion pointless). This was because instead of allowing the subject to choose their own time for action, as in Libet’s original experiments, the subjects in the new research were prompted by a randomly-timed tone. This is obviously a significant change from the original experiment; the reason for doing it this way was that Trevena and Miller wanted to be able to measure occasions when the subject decided not to move as well as those when there was movement. Some of the subjects were told to strike a key whenever the tone sounded, while the rest were asked to do so only about half the time (it was left up to them to select which tones to respond to, though if they seemed to be falling well below a 50-50 split they got a reminder in the latter part of the experiment). Another significant difference from Libet’s tests is that left and right hands were used: in one set of experiments the subjects were told by a letter in the centre of the screen whether they should use the right or left hand on each occasion, in the other it was left up to them.

There were two interesting results. One was that the same kind of RP appeared whether the subject pressed a key or not. Trevena and Miller say this shows that the RP was not, after all, an indication of a decision to move, and was presumably instead associated with some more general kind of sustained attention or preparing for a decision. Second, they found that a different kind of RP, the Lateralised Readiness Potential or LRP, which provides an indication of readiness to move a particular hand, did provide an indication of a decision, appearing only where a movement followed; but the LRP did not appear until just after the tone. This suggests, in contradiction to Libet, that the early stages of action followed the conscious experience of deciding, rather than preceding it.

The differences between these new experiments and Libet’s originals provide a weak spot which Libetians will certainly attack. Marcel Brass, whose own work with fMRI scanning confirmed and even extended Libet’s delay, seeming to show that decisions could be predicted anything up to ten seconds before conscious awareness, has apparently already said that in his view the changes undermine the conclusions Trevena and Miller would like to draw. Given the complex arguments over the exact significance of timings in Libet’s results, I’m sure the new results will prove contentious. However, it does seem as if a significant blow has been struck for the first time against the foundations of Libet’s remarkable results.


A more thorough discussion of free will, including an analysis of Libet's tests, can be found in the book, Effective Intentions: The Power of Conscious Will ( http://www.amazon.com/Effective-Intentions-Power-Conscious-Will/dp/0199764689/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1343822210&sr=1-2&keywords=mele ) - a brief description of the book:


Each of the following claims has been defended in the scientific literature on free will and consciousness: your brain routinely decides what you will do before you become conscious of its decision; there is only a 100 millisecond window of opportunity for free will, and all it can do is veto conscious decisions, intentions, or urges; intentions never play a role in producing corresponding actions; and free will is an illusion.

In Effective Intentions Alfred Mele shows that the evidence offered to support these claims is sorely deficient. He also shows that there is strong empirical support for the thesis that some conscious decisions and intentions have a genuine place in causal explanations of corresponding actions. In short, there is weighty evidence of the existence of effective conscious intentions or the power of conscious will. Mele examines the accuracy of subjects' reports about when they first became aware of decisions or intentions in laboratory settings and develops some implications of warranted skepticism about the accuracy of these reports. In addition, he explores such questions as whether we must be conscious of all of our intentions and why scientists disagree about this. Mele's final chapter closes with a discussion of imaginary scientific findings that would warrant bold claims about free will and consciousness of the sort he examines in this book.

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Response to Jim__ (Reply #14)

Wed Aug 1, 2012, 01:04 PM

18. Thoughtful, thorough and informative, as usual.

Thanks for the link.

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Response to rug (Original post)

Wed Aug 1, 2012, 09:03 AM

15. Nope.

We most likely respond to the vagaries of the chemical stew in our heads the same way we respond to the vagaries of the world around us.

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Response to rug (Original post)

Wed Aug 1, 2012, 11:40 AM

16. Very freudian conceptually and I do agree that free will is often an illusion.

We so often feel that we are in control, when it is our lifetime of experience, our seeking pleasure and our avoidance of pain that are really at the helm.

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Response to rug (Original post)

Wed Aug 1, 2012, 11:42 AM

17. I suppose Sammy's view is that he wrote the book because elementary physical laws

forced him to do so; that the stance he takes in the book is similarly entirely determined; that I simply have no choice about whether or not I will read it -- and, in fact, no choice even about exactly what I say regarding the book

This, of course, is an excellent example of why Chris Hedges concluded: Harris is just intellectually shallow

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Response to struggle4progress (Reply #17)

Wed Aug 1, 2012, 03:25 PM

20. Hedges was not talking about the area in which Harris has a Ph.D.

How many neuroscience classes you have under your belt?

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Response to Goblinmonger (Reply #20)

Wed Aug 1, 2012, 04:35 PM

22. Over various years I took several neuro-chemistry and neuro-anatomy courses,

and my specialty in mathematics originally arose from an early attempt to model computation by collections of neurons

But it's irrelevant: Harris has really not set out to write an introduction to the neurological issues involved in questions about the boundary between automatic behavior and choice in humans. Rather, he has set out to tackle the philosophical topic "free will" -- and has done so in his usual vacuous manner. I reached this conclusion after thumbing the little book for a few minutes in a book store and deciding that there was precious little in it

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Response to struggle4progress (Reply #17)

Thu Aug 2, 2012, 07:25 AM

32. No it is more that the choices we make are not conciouslly made,

but that instead our consciousness becomes aware of our choices as they are made. This has been measured at a very low level of decision making, the classic experiment being deciding to move your finger while hooked up to an MRI looking at your brain.


these studies were able to detect activity related to a decision to move, and the activity appears to be occurring briefly before people become conscious of it. Other studies try to predict a human action several seconds early (with greater than chance accuracy). Taken together, these various findings seem to confirm that at least some actions - like moving a finger - are initiated and processed unconsciously at first, and only after enter consciousness. The role of consciousness in decision making is also being clarified: some thinkers have suggested that it mostly serves to cancel certain actions initiated by the unconscious.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroscience_of_free_will

The use of free will here means conscious choice. It may very well be that at the lowest level we do not make concious choices, we become aware of the unconscious choices we have made.

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Response to Warren Stupidity (Reply #32)

Thu Aug 2, 2012, 12:03 PM

34. It is clearly true that we do not control everything about ourselves:

most of us do not have willful control of matters such as heartbeat; habit can sometimes produce surprisingly automatic results; and the fact, that unconscious influences can play a role in our behavior, has been known for a century or more

All of that is interesting and useful to know; but none of it demolishes "free will," unless one is an ideologue who is incapable of understanding that our ideas are always approximations with rough edges or that everyone lives subject to various constraints

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Response to struggle4progress (Reply #34)

Thu Aug 2, 2012, 02:56 PM

40. Well the problem is that currently attempts to measure what we consciously control

are coming up with 'not much'. This is why the otherwise despicable Harris has something interesting to say on the subject. Neuroscience is currently probing the meaning of 'free will'.

The experiment I referenced is interesting. It is not about habitual actions, it is about how we 'decide' to do things. On its face it must be that the test subject is deciding to move his finger, that is the exercise being tested. But when they look at how that decision is made, it is made before the test subject is conscious of having done so. A puzzle indeed.

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Response to Warren Stupidity (Reply #40)

Thu Aug 2, 2012, 03:18 PM

41. Free will debates: Simple experiments are not so simple

W. R. Klemm
Adv Cogn Psychol. 2010; 6: 47–65
Published online 2010 August 30
doi: 10.2478/v10053-008-0076-2
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2942748/?tool=pmcentrez

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Response to rug (Original post)

Wed Aug 1, 2012, 03:25 PM

19. Harris has a Ph.D. in neuroscience, for god's sake.

Can we at least pretend he probably knows more about the way the brain works than anyone posting on this thread?

Having choices is not the same as free will. A lot of what I do, I do because of how I was raised.

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Response to Goblinmonger (Reply #19)

Wed Aug 1, 2012, 04:53 PM

24. Dr. Bjorn Brembs (PhD) is a neurobiologist.

Here is an excerpt from his paper: Towards a scientific concept of free will as a biological trait: spontaneous actions and decision-making in invertebrates


...

A corresponding conclusion can be drawn from two earlier studies, which independently found that the temporal structure of the variability in spontaneous turning manoeuvres both in tethered and in free-flying fruitflies could not be explained by random system noise . Instead, a nonlinear signature was found, suggesting that fly brains operate at criticality, meaning that they are mathematically unstable, which, in turn, implies an evolved mechanism rendering brains highly susceptible to the smallest differences in initial conditions and amplifying them exponentially . Put differently, fly brains have evolved to generate unpredictable turning manoeuvres. The default state also of flies is to behave variably. Ongoing studies are trying to localize the brain circuits giving rise to this nonlinear signature.

Results from studies in walking flies indicate that at least some component of variability in walking activity is under the control of a circuit in the so-called ellipsoid body, deep in the central brain . The authors tested the temporal structure in spontaneous bouts of activity in flies walking back and forth individually in small tubes and found that the power law in their data disappeared if a subset of neurons in the ellipsoid body was experimentally silenced. Analogous experiments have recently been taken up independently by another group and the results are currently being evaluated . The neurons of the ellipsoid body of the fly also exhibit spontaneous activity in live imaging experiments , suggesting a default-mode network also might exist in insects.

Even what is often presented to students as ‘the simplest behaviour’, the spinal stretch reflex in vertebrates, contains adaptive variability. Via the cortico-spinal tract, the motor cortex injects variability into this reflex arc, making it variable enough for operant self-learning . Jonathan Wolpaw and colleagues can train mice, rats, monkeys and humans to produce reflex magnitudes either larger or smaller than a previously determined baseline precisely because much of the deviations from this baseline are not noise but variability deliberately injected into the reflex. Thus, while invertebrates lead the way in the biological study of behavioural variability, the principles discovered there can be found in vertebrates as well.

One of the common observations of behavioural variability in all animals seems to be that it is not entirely random, yet unpredictable. The principle thought to underlie this observation is nonlinearity. Nonlinear systems are characterized by sensitive dependence on initial conditions. This means such systems can amplify tiny disturbances such that the states of two initially almost identical nonlinear systems can diverge exponentially from each other. Because of this nonlinearity, it does not matter (and it is currently unknown) whether the ‘tiny disturbances’ are objectively random as in quantum randomness or whether they can be attributed to system, or thermal noise. What can be said is that principled, quantum randomness is always some part of the phenomenon, whether it is necessary or not, simply because quantum fluctuations do occur. Other than that it must be a non-zero contribution, there is currently insufficient data to quantify the contribution of such quantum randomness. In effect, such nonlinearity may be imagined as an amplification system in the brain that can either increase or decrease the variability in behaviour by exploiting small, random fluctuations as a source for generating large-scale variability. A general account of such amplification effects had already been formulated as early as in the 1930s . Interestingly, a neuronal amplification process was recently observed directly in the barrel cortex of rodents, opening up the intriguing perspective of a physiological mechanism dedicated to generating neural (and by consequence behavioural) variability .

...


I don't believe that Harris's PhD renders his opinion necessarily correct. Nor, of course, does Dr Brembs'. But, as long as there is no real consensus among experts, we are all free to express our own opinions and any supporting documentation that we can find.


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Response to Goblinmonger (Reply #19)

Wed Aug 1, 2012, 05:13 PM

28. How does that go . . . appeal to authority?

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Response to rug (Reply #28)

Wed Aug 1, 2012, 09:56 PM

31. It's not a logical fallacy

If the person being appealed to IS an authority on the subject being discussed. As in this case.

Crash. Burn.

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Response to Goblinmonger (Reply #19)

Thu Aug 2, 2012, 12:57 PM

35. ... Given his other books, one would expect science to drive Harris’s conclusions, but here

his argument is conceptual. Step 1: Define free will in such a way that it is impossible. Step 2: Remind us that we cannot have what is impossible. My response is just as simple: Harris’s definition of free will is mistaken ...

Harris never provides a clear statement of his argument, but it relies on defining free will as requiring some nebulous X-factor: (1) Free will requires X; (2) X is impossible; So (3) free will is an illusion. Harris gestures towards several such X- factors: having “an extra part of me” that transcends brain and soul; being free to “do that which does not occur to me to do”; being unpredictable in principle; not being “beholden to the laws of nature”; and the more reasonable condition that “we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions”. He also says free will requires that we “could have behaved differently than we did in the past”, but he does not focus on this condition and ignores the vast philosophical literature on it ...

To the extent that one can make sense of these X- factors, most of them clearly are impossible – people can’t have magical powers to transcend themselves or the laws of nature, nor can they create conscious thoughts from scratch or know everything about why they think or act as they do. So, all the work occurs in premise 1. How does Harris defend the definition of free will required get the argument off the ground? Like other scientists who proclaim that free will is an illusion, he simply asserts that it captures “the popular conception of free will”, without offering any evidence to back up this claim ...

Harris suggests that the conscious capacities for deliberation and decision-making associated with free will are simply along for the ride, observing what our brains have already done: “I, as the conscious witness of my experience, am not the deep cause of it.” I’m not sure what he means by “the deep cause”, but I suspect that when you consciously plan how to get twelve complicated tasks done before lunchtime and you exercise self-control to avoid quitting some of them, your conscious mental activity is playing a causal role in how your body moves ...

Defining free will away
EDDY NAHMIAS
The Philosopher's Magazine
<link to pdf:> http://www.thephilosophersmagazine.com/TPM/article/view/15359/12081

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Response to struggle4progress (Reply #35)

Thu Aug 2, 2012, 01:00 PM

36. OK, let's walk through it

What do you think free will is?

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Response to Goblinmonger (Reply #36)

Thu Aug 2, 2012, 01:20 PM

37. Wait, wait, wait! If we are going to do the negative Socratic dialectic thingie, I think that

I should get to play Socrates and tear to shreds all of your feeble efforts to solve big philosophical conundrums, rather than you playing Socrates and tearing to shreds all of my feeble efforts to solve big philosophical conundrums

Most of the sophist-icated gambits in that game were clearly laid out 2500 years ago, so it's no longer considered a cutting edge technique for deriving Truth, except perennially among the current crop of sophomores. In fact, I wonder if anyone nowadays regards philosophical dispute as a way of obtaining Truth: its use, rather, is to help us clarify our ideas, by exposing the flaws in our notions. The big philosophical conundrums remain simply because some of our notions seem simultaneously both essential and also irremediably fraught with inconsistencies

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Response to struggle4progress (Reply #37)

Thu Aug 2, 2012, 01:24 PM

38. So when you can't use your Google-fu, you won't play

You are the one who said this was a pile of crap. You posted a link to an article saying it was bad. That article said Harris defines free will in a crappy way. I thought it would be a good place to start to find out what YOU think free will is and then see if Harris is right.

But you won't answer that question because...? It's not me being Socratic, it's me trying to get a definition from you.

So, I repeat, How do you define free will?

on edit: even if this is a Socratic game, you should have no problem with it since you have taken classes in the area of Harris' PhD and I'm just a frickin' English teacher.

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Response to Goblinmonger (Reply #38)

Thu Aug 2, 2012, 02:03 PM

39. If there is no such a thing as free will, then what sense can I possibly make

of your demand that I ought to attempt to define "free will"?

The only interpretation I could give, to the assumption that there is no such thing as free will, is that you and I are both physical automata, driven by ambient conditions, and (in particular) that you made no choices when posting your post. That is, to make that assumption means: your post involved no conscious agency. And so the assumption means your post is essentially without content, since you would have posted it no matter what

Now, of course, we all do show some automatic behavior, and (in fact) the attempt to reduce people to automatic behavior is common as a manipulation tactic. This is why (for example), in your effort to provoke some automatic response from me, you attempt to insult me by sneering at my "google-fu" and try to suggest that I hold English teachers in contempt. I will admit that the latter suggestion could actually offend me gravely, but perhaps for the purposes of this conversation, I would do better to recall Chuang-Tzu's discourse on empty boats:

an ill-tempered man, crossing a river, does not become angry when an empty boat collides with his skiff; but if he sees someone in the boat, he shouts "Steer clear!" and if not heard he will shout again and again and curse -- all because someone is in that boat

Thus it is natural to forgive people of diminished capacity when they clumsily offend us

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Response to struggle4progress (Reply #39)

Thu Aug 2, 2012, 04:12 PM

42. So you aren't gong to answer the question.

So you don't have a choice but to forgive me since it is "natural."

How do you define free will?

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Response to rug (Original post)

Wed Aug 1, 2012, 04:09 PM

21. Anyone else believe this?

Since our consciousness is not aware of anything (including our own actions) until after it happens, I'd say he is correct. But it's of course much more complicated than most people think. But to say "Our wills are simply not of our own making." is essentially true.

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Response to rug (Original post)

Wed Aug 1, 2012, 04:52 PM

23. We’re all schizophrenics now

Jonathan Kay on James Holmes, Sam Harris, and the morally terrifying case against free will
Jonathan Kay Jul 26, 2012 – 11:55 AM ET | Last Updated: Jul 27, 2012 10:54 AM ET

... By way of example, Harris provides a list of five hypothetical killers — (1) a four-year-old who accidentally shoots someone while playing with his father’s gun; (2) a severely abused 12-year-old who kills a tormentor; (3) a child-abuse victim who, as an adult, shoots his ex-girlfriend after she leaves him; (4) a 25-year-with a solid upbringing, who kills a young woman “just for the fun of it”; and (5) a seemingly heartless murderer who later is discovered to have a large tumor that is short-circuiting his prefrontal cortex.

By conventional analysis, #3 and #4 would be branded evildoers; #1 and #5 would be given a free pass on grounds of age and biology, respectively; and #2 would lie somewhere in between. But Harris’ point is that, once you put aside our mythical religious baggage about good and evil (as he sees it), all of these cases are motivated by the same amoral whirling of a human brain’s synaptic gears. But not for the luck of the biological draw, any one of us — in another life — could be #1, #2, #3, #4 or #5: There is no magical, spiritual, free-willed force within our minds that will allow us to overcome the fate that is wired into the physical universe.

As an atheist, Harris is quite untroubled by all this. Indeed, he thinks his readers should be relieved by his revelations, because “few concepts have offered greater scope for human cruelty than the idea of an immortal soul that stands independent of all material influences, ranging from genes to economic systems.” Once we all learn to shed our belief in notions like God and sin, moreover, he believes, we can build a “scientifically informed system of justice.” Under such a system, criminals would be jailed, yes — but only to pursue the explicitly utilitarian goal of preventing them from committing more crimes. Criminal justice would be stripped of any notion of retribution — since “a desire for retribution, arising from the idea that each person is the free author of his thoughts and actions, rests on a cognitive and emotional illusion — and perpetuates a moral one.”

On the level of scientific logic, I could not find a single sentence in Free Will with which I disagreed. Yet from a human standpoint, the book is quietly terrifying. As horrible (am I even allowed to use that word, Mr. Harris?) as monsters (ditto) such as James Holmes and Cho Seung-Hui may be, there is some deeply rooted psychological solace to be found in our collective ability to call them by that name — to make a line in the sand, placing the community of law-abiding fathers, mothers, sons and daughters on one side, and on the other marking “Here there be monsters.” To erase that line is to erase millions of years of evolutionary psychology, which has programmed us with useful moral instincts aimed at identifying and punishing harmful elements within our society ...

http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2012/07/26/were-all-schitzophrenics-now-jonathan-kay-on-james-holmes-sam-harris-and-the-morally-terrifying-case-against-free-will/

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Response to rug (Original post)

Wed Aug 1, 2012, 04:55 PM

25. How free is the will? Sam Harris misses his mark

... Harris appears, then, to think that free will means acting (1) in circumstances such that I could have done otherwise (in the strong, mysterious sense), and (2) by means of a process of deliberation that is entirely conscious. Since, this does not happen, he concludes, we do not have (what he calls) free will.

As always, Harris writes clearly, persuasively, and with a certain rhetorical flair. In particular, he has an enviable gift for describing opposing views in ways that make them sound ridiculous - whether they are or not. Free Will - the book, that is - is entertaining and easy to read, and I'm sure it will sell plenty of copies.

However, I submit that the views Harris ridicules are not, in all cases, ridiculous at all, and that readers of his new book should subject it to sceptical scrutiny. Free Will provides neither any useful historical context (it ignores the long cultural conversation) nor any state-of-the-art analysis of the current philosophical positions and their respective problems (it ignores most of the professional literature).

Importantly, the concept of free will that Harris attacks so relentlessly bears little resemblance to either the dominant folk ideas (roughly speaking, that fatalism is false, and that we commonly act without coercion, with adequate time to think) or the technical concept used by most philosophers (we have the capacity to act in such a way that we are morally responsible for our conduct) ...

http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2012/04/26/3489758.htm

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Response to struggle4progress (Reply #25)

Thu Aug 2, 2012, 07:31 AM

33. LOL

You guys are more obsessed with tearing down Harris and other "New Atheists" than you think atheists are about tearing down religion.

Thanks for the laughs!

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Response to rug (Original post)

Wed Aug 1, 2012, 04:56 PM

26. The cold, cramped, atheistic world of Sam Harris

... Harris does not go on, in this excerpt anyway, to posit what kind of world it would be if children were taught that they had no free will, and that they were basically programmed to act out inbred impulses and responses to their lived experience. I am assuming that just as Harris would not want children “lied to” about the existence of God, as he would perceive such teaching, he would not wish them to be lied to about their so-called “accomplishments.”

I am trying to imagine a scenario in which the Harris belief system would unfold in real life. Kid: “I’m going to be a fireman when I grow up.” Mummy: “That will depend on your genes. So far I have not seen any indication that you are genetically programmed for empathy, so I doubt that will happen.” Kid: “Maybe I could be a scientist.” Dad: “Your IQ would preclude that, son.”

If children are taught that everything is written in their genes, how is that any different from fatalistic religions that teach people’s karma governs their lives, and that they were destined in this life anyway to be beggars? We would not wish to have the kind of social indifference to suffering such a belief system engenders. If Harris’ belief system were actually put into practice, we would live in a Hobbesian universe where it was useless to strive for an ideal society or for justice – science cannot define justice for us – and where every man’s hand was against his brother. Where there is no sense that one can transcend one’s background and imposed limitations through free will, there is no motivation to aspire collectively for a better world ...

http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2012/07/31/barbara-kay-the-cold-cramped-atheistic-world-of-sam-harris/

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Response to rug (Original post)

Wed Aug 1, 2012, 05:03 PM

27. Will This Post Make Sam Harris Change His Mind About Free Will?

... I admit to a certain voyeuristic fascination with Harris. I wonder, what crazy idea is he going to peddle next? Some of his righteous rants give me a perverse pleasure. I’m simultaneously irritated and titillated. I get the same feeling listening to Rush Limbaugh or Rick Santorum.

But I don’t know anyone who admires the ideas of Limbaugh or Santorum. Harris’s memes, in contrast, are infecting the minds not of right wing and religious cranks but of smart, knowledgeable people. Scientific American columnist Michael Shermer, when he hosted a recent talk by Harris at Caltech, praised him for “cutting through all the obfuscation and getting straight to the point” about free will in his new book. The neurologist Oliver Sacks calls Free Will “brilliant and witty—and never less than incisive.” Michael. Oliver. Really?

... Then there’s the life’s-too-short issue: Harris’s new book is only 96 pages, but that’s still too long. I don’t have the time—I still haven’t done my taxes!—or the inclination to plow through the sort of grimace-inducing reasoning of which Moral Landscape was constructed. Wouldn’t my time be better spent whacking New York Times columnist David Brooks for buying the claim of evolutionary psychologists that we are “natural-born killers“? Or riffing on Immortality, the cool new book by Stephen Cave? Or trying to figure out, once and for all, where I stand on fracking?

And what can I say about free will that I haven’t said before? Maybe I can just focus on what Harris said at Caltech. He called free will not only an “illusion” but also a “totally incoherent idea” that contradicts what science tells us about how the world works. “The illusoriness of free will,” he said, “is as certain a fact, to my mind, as the truth of evolution.” This is one of Harris’s characteristic traits, flaunting his certitude like a badge of honor ...

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/2012/04/09/will-this-post-make-sam-harris-change-his-mind-about-free-will/

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Response to struggle4progress (Reply #27)

Wed Aug 1, 2012, 05:17 PM

29. Calvin meet Harris, er, Hobbes.

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Response to rug (Reply #29)

Wed Aug 1, 2012, 05:37 PM

30. Maybe it's only fate if it happens to somebody else?

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