More Bad Philosophy From Sam Harris
Free Will and Morality This Time
I wish I had known that one could get rich by packaging breezy summaries of middle-brow philosophy for the internet. Good work, in a way, if you can get it...
I mean, I hate to harsh on people who are genuinely interested in philosophical problems, and who are popularizing them. But when you present only one side of complex discussions and try to make the answers seem not only easy, but obvious...that's not so good. Added demerits if you get it wrong...though at this point, we enter more controversial territory.
Harris here sketches a sketch of a very sketchy case for hard determinism plus a view that hard determinism is not incompatible with morality. The basic determinist argument is not original with Harris, of course. Harris's arguments appear in better forms in Schopenhauer's Essay on the Freedom of the Will
. The bit about morality and punishment is the sort of thing that's also appeared in B. F. Skinners horrifyingly awful Beyond Freedom and Dignity
I'm not going to spend a lot of time on this. I'm not an expert on the freedom debate, for one thing. But one thing to note here is that people like Harris want to pretend that the implications of hard determinism can be easily contained. Harris's basic commitment--like that of Dawkins and company--is to a breezy scientism. His M.O. is to take difficult issues, make them sound easy, and make the solutions sound obvious and painless and quasi-scientific. The point is not that Harris is obviously wrong, of course. The point is that it is an egregious mistake to pretend, as he does, that he is obviously right. He either doesn't understand or doesn't care to think about the implications of the conclusion that we are all just squishy robots.
The objection is not, of course, that determinism is unpleasant. Rather, the problem is that we cannot simply accept determinism without radically revising our view of human beings and human life and its (apparent) value. The view that we have at least some measure of freedom is so central to our view of humans and their value that abandoning that view is not going to be possible with just a few teaks here and there. Rather, it requires a large-scale revision of our thinking. It's not just a matter of a wee revision to our view of moral criminals; rather, we would, it seems, have to abandon the idea (for example) that anyone ever deserved
anything, good or bad. And certainly it would, in this brave new world, make more sense to imprison someone prone to past and future dangerous accidents than it would to imprison someone who had committed horrible, premeditated crimes in the past, but who would not do so again in the future.
We ought also note that metaphysical determinism--the view that every event has a(n efficient) cause--is simply false. It is not, or so the physicists tell us, even true of macroscopic objects like you and me. Harris asserts that no view of causation is consistent with freedom, but that is false. Although mechanistic, efficient causation seems inconsistent with freedom (and: so does randomness), it is in no way clear that final causation is incompatible with freedom. But breezy scientism has no place for hard thinking about final causes.
And, finally, it's important to stress again that the problem isn't that hard determinism makes us sad. The problem is that it is an unproven view built on presuppositions that are largely at odds with current physics, as well as a view which is inconsistent with much of what we're convinced of about ourselves, our lives and our capacities. Hard determinism may be true, though currently I'd bet against it. And if it is true, it's going to force us to radically rethink our place in the world.
Though, of course, one problem with determinism is that it has head-spinning implications even for thinking about its implications. It's very difficult to make any room for any types of obligations if determinism is true--and that includes logical obligations. So, suppose that I come to believe that determinism is true, and I recognize that I am obligated to come to believe the implications of the view. But then I realize that, if determinism is true, I simply either will or will not recognize those implications, and there is nothing that I can do about it. It has been determined since the Big Bang that, for any implication, M, of determinism, I either will or won't believe it. In fact, I can't do otherwise. And since--despite Harris's drive-by of the subject--'ought' does
imply 'can', if I don't come to believe M, then I can't, so it is not true that I ought to. The determinist might point out that determinism does not entail that my actions are ineffectual--it may very well be true that if I thought about it harder, I'd accept M. True, but irrelevant. The fact is that, if determinism is true, then I can't think harder than I do; it has been determined since the big bang that I will think this hard about it and no harder... And so on.