Sam Harris’s Delusional Case for Determinism

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The challenge of free will

Though common sense tells us we make choices, when we probe into the nature of choice, we run into difficulties. Take a familiar choice. It’s Thursday night and you sit down to watch Netflix. You spend a few hours scrolling through your options and then you settle on Stranger Things. At one level it feels like you made that choice. But if someone asked you why you chose it, what would you answer?

To think or not to think…that is the question

Have you ever been reading a textbook for class only to find your mind drifting off? Your eyes kept following the words on the page, but none of it registered? What did you do? You probably stopped yourself and made a deliberate effort to focus on the words and their meaning. Maybe you decided to go more slowly over the material, looking up definitions of unfamiliar words, underlining key passages, jotting down questions to ask your professor.[2]

Evasion

I’ve said that your basic choice is to raise your level of awareness or not. But there is a third basic alternative open to you: not effortful awareness but effortful blindness. You can purposefully turn away from reality and try to cloud your own vision. This is what Rand called evasion:

What do we introspect?

Sam Harris would deny all of this. He goes further than other determinists. They argue that when you experience yourself making choices, the sense that you are doing so freely is an illusion. Harris argues that you don’t actually experience yourself making choices.

Free will and causality

The fact that you control your thought processes is self-evident. You can directly introspect it. And yet many people — and most professional intellectuals — deny it. Why?

Free will and neuroscience

Determinists will sometimes trot out research from neuroscience to undermine the case for free will. Harris, for example, writes:

Free will, genes, and environment

One indication of just how prevalent determinism is comes in the very concept of the “nature/nurture” debate. Scientists go back and forth over whether we’re determined mostly by innate factors or environmental factors, with no one asking: are we determined by anything?

Conclusion

You have free will. It is not some mystical, anti-science force but your power to control the functioning of your mind. Determinism poses as pro-science. In reality, it is groundless.

Notes

[1]. Sam Harris, Free Will, 5.

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