Ask Sam: Take two

August 12, 2011 • 5:56 am

Sam Harris has put up a second video, this one an hour long, answering the questions of readers.  I think it’s much better than the first edition of “Ask Sam”; he’s quite articulate, and this is definitely worth watching. (Plus he’s not dressed in black!).  I’m always impressed by his ability to speak extemporaneously, even if he did think out the answers before the video.

And please, can we stay off the topic of torture and just stick to the topics that Sam discusses?

Here are the topics, which I’ve taken directly from the post own Sam’s own website.  My take on the questions comes after the given time. (The time links are accurate for going manually to that point in the discussion, but you shouldn’t click on them.  Best listen to the whole thing).

1. Eternity and the meaning of life 0:42.  Doesn’t atheism rob life of its meaning? Harris thinks that the religious idea of an afterlife “robs life of its meaning,” for it devalues the very precious moments of our life and makes us ignore the finality of death. I agree completely.

2. Do we have free will? 4:43.  Answer: no.  “The problem is free will is just a non-starter, philosophically and scientifically. Unlike many other illusions, there is no way you can describe the universe so as to make sense of this notion of free will.  Now there are many people who have artfully changed the subject and tried to get a version of free will that makes some scientific sense. [JAC: so true!] But this is not what people actually mean by free will. What people mean is that they—their conscious selves—are free to chose their actions You choose what you want; you choose what you will to do. . . they still feel that at every moment, there is freedom to choose.  Now what can this mean? From the position of conscious awareness of your inner life, this can’t be true.  Everything you’re consciously aware of, at every moment, is the result of causes of which you’re not aware, over which you exert no conscious control.”

Sam goes on to explain, in light of this notion, why we should not be nihilists; why we need to do something instead of existing passively.  I am 100% on board with his answer, and am glad that he sees through those philosophers who, through redefinition, try to save “free will” by simply ignoring what nearly everybody thinks is free will.  It’s time to admit—and that means telling the public—that contracausal free will doesn’t exist, and to coin a new term for those philosophical forms of “free will” that aren’t contracausal.

3. How can we convince religious people to abandon their beliefs? 14:52.  His idea is that religion drains away from efforts that can really improve our world.  His solution is to undermine the truth claims of religions that undermine the actions of their adherents.

4. How can atheists live among the faithful? 19:09.  Don’t marry someone who will abuse your children by teaching them about hell and other injurious doctrines, and speak openly, when you can, about what we know about the universe.

5. How should we talk to children about death? 21:52.  His take on the “humility” of science, which precedes his answer, is quite good.  He admits that he doesn’t know what happens after death, although he thinks that we’re “zeroed out” after death just as we were before birth.  However, he asserts that we should not given children false promises that they will “hang out for eternity” after death, for this denies them both the ability to grieve, and also to admit uncertainty before mystery.  He argues that to be afraid of nonexistence after death is as foolish as to be afraid of nonexistence before birth, but I don’t agree with him.  To use Hitchen’s simile, before birth we weren’t at the party, but during life we are, and who wants to leave the party?

6. Does human life have intrinsic value? 26:01.  We have more “value” (in terms of the disutility of harming creatures) than, say, insects, because of the greater range of our experiences. That, of course, leads into the question of whether, then, the lives of some humans have more value than the lives of others. His answer is no, because equal treatment of all leads to the greatest benefits for our society. He does admit, though, that some people are more “important” than others; but the virtues of fairness and justice demand that we ignore this inequality.

7. Why should we be confident in the authority of science? 30:36.  This, of course, is a question that “sophisticated” theologians say is answered by the words “God made the universe scientifically intelligible.” He notes that “there are huge areas of the scientific world that are not up for grabs,” i.e. there are some things we know (i.e., the role of DNA in inheritance) that are not going to be changed.  We have thus made progress in science—and in ways that aren’t the same as “progress” in religion, art, and literature.  I suspect this last statement, particularly with respect to art and literature, will be controversial, spawning accusations of “scientism”, though by and large I agree with Sam. In what sense are Picasso’s paintings “better” than those of Rembrandt?

8. How can one criticize Islam after the terrorism in Norway? 35:43. The Norway massacre has made it more difficult to criticize Islam, but we have to “blow past that.”  We can’t talk about religion as a monolith, and must still fight against the uniquely bad tenets embodied in the Islamic notions of martyrdom and jihad—tenets that he sees as part of mainstream Islam. Yes, right-wing racists also concentrate on these issues, but the potential harm they could cause is  still a concern.  The Muslim world must find a way to marginalize those who call for jihad and martyrdom, but it will be hard, like trying to get Christians to stop thinking of Jesus as the son of God.

9. Should atheists join with Christians against Islam? 41:50.  The problem is that much Christian opposition to Islam is self-serving, based on the desire to promulgate Christianity.  Sam sees no particular reason to link up with such folks, but nor should we pretend that every religion poses the same threat as Islam.  Opposing Islam need not be based on xenophobia or racism, even though that’s the motivation for some opponents of Islam.

10. What does it mean to speak about the human mind objectively? 45:17.  Although we must rely on self report as a starting point for such studies (Sam talks about his tintinnitus), but that doesn’t prevent us from studying such subjective phenomena using the tools of neuroscience.

11. How can spiritual claims be scientifically justified 50:14. If Sam claims, as he has, that meditation is transformative, why can’t we agree that Christian experience is transformative? The response is obvious: only one of these experiences leads to claims about the existence of “invisible others” and the attention those others pay to the world.  An experience is valid; its implications for the universe may not be.

12. Why can’t religion remain a private matter? 54:52.  Why do we worry about the privacy of faith in people’s minds, especially when such faith gives them comfort?  The reason is that it’s hard for those beliefs to remain private: they are foisted on children and acted out in the life of the believer in ways that can harm or mislead others.  He uses the example of a bus driver who is too exhausted to drive, but deals with it by saying a prayer that nothing bad will happen.

13. What do you like to speak about at public events? 58:09.  See for yourself!

60 thoughts on “Ask Sam: Take two

  1. re Free Will — I’ve been following the various commentaries for and against free will, and have not found either side enlightening. In reading this summary, I just had a flash insight into what I’ve been missing in the arguments. (Sorry if the following is simplistic … I’m using the comments to get my own thoughts clear!). The arguments for and against free will depend on different scales of analysis. Arguments for free will function at the level of the organism: given the organism’s environmental context, there are many ways for an organism to respond and so free will exists (else we’d all be behaving in lockstep with each other). Arguments against free will function at the level of the cellular processes that constitute the organism and that create the individual’s sense of self. I.e., the commitment to free will is predicated in a sense of self (or “soul”) that seemingly exists independent of biochemical processes. Do I have this right?

    1. “…given the organism’s environmental context, there are many ways for an organism to respond and so free will exists (else we’d all be behaving in lockstep with each other).”

      This is quite simplistic. For example, this level of analysis ignores historical contingency. We all have experienced differently, and so will act differently given the same set of circumstances.

      It also ignores other factors which determine our personalities, and in terms of brain structure there is significant variance. None of us starts at the same point. Some people are more nervous, others more confident, etc. Much of this is determined in development, far more than we would like to admit.

      There is simply no need to be reductionist to demonstrate that contracausal free will is a myth.

  2. I’ve always found the whole territory of objectivity in art and literature incredibly annoying if not absurd. I would say my biggest passion is entertainment of this nature and to say that a 1.85:1 aspect ratio is better than a 2.39:1 aspect ratio in any objective sense would crumble everything I know about reality. Even if a study was done that showed 90% of people preferred one over the other.

    Speaking of which did you see the study that went around yesterday that was reported to have said that a majority of people enjoy a story more if they are spoiled? Curious what you think of that.

  3. I profoundly disagree with his views on 6 “Does human life have intrinsic value?” both with regard to insects say (that they have less value & with regard to humans. An elephant may live to 60 or so years, so is its life of more value because of a greater range of experices than an unexperienced human child? Because by saying that human life has more value, it means he has to make a fudge when it comes to saying that some humans are/are not more valuable – OK, Important – than others, it seems to me. Have it one way or the other please, not shades of grey! OK, everything is grey I know…!

    1. I don’t think he means the amount of years alive as a range. He’s talking about something like self awareness as a range of experience isn’t he? I imagine he would get around the child thing, because the potential is there for the already living thing to have greater experience.

      1. Yes. And the potential for experiencing suffering. Or experiencing it to a greater degree. Which I suppose could be considered a subset of self-awareness.

  4. In his remarks on free will, Harris is of course right that we don’t have conscious access to the neurophysiological processes that underlie our choices. But, as Dennett often points out, these processes are as much our own, just as much part of who we are as persons, just as much *us*, as our conscious awareness. We shouldn’t alienate ourselves from our own neurophysiology and suppose that the conscious self, what Harris thinks of as constituting the *real* self (and as many others do too, perhaps), is being pushed around at the mercy of our neurons. Rather, as identifiable individuals we *consist* (among other things) of neural processes, some of which support consciousness, some of which don’t. So it isn’t an illusion, as Harris says, that we are authors of our thoughts and actions; we are not mere witnesses to what causation cooks up. We as physically instantiated persons really do deliberate and choose and act, even if consciousness isn’t ultimately in charge. So the feeling of authorship and control is veridical.

    Moreover, the neural processes that (somehow – the hard problem of consciousness) support consciousness *are* essential to choosing, since the evidence strongly suggests they are associated with flexible action and information integration in service to behavior control, see But it’s doubtful that consciousness (phenomenal experience) per se adds anything to those neural processes in controlling action,

    It’s true that human persons don’t have contra-causal free will. We are not self-caused little gods, But we are just as real as the genetic and environmental processes which created us and the situations in which we make choices. The deliberative machinery supporting effective action is just as real and causally effective as any other process in nature. So we don’t have to talk *as if* we are real agents in order to concoct a motivationally useful *illusion* of agency, which is what Harris seems to recommend we do near the end of his remarks on free will. Agenthood survives determinism no problem,

  5. 1. For what it is worth, I did listen to & think about the complete episode. There’s a lot (too much, I think) going on here and, frankly, it would take me a very long time to deconstruct what Dr. Harris is saying point x point x counter-point x overlapping points.
    2. Some of my African-American friends & acquaintances as well as some family members would view (some of) the video, responding: “More power to him.” or “Bless his heart!” as if they were speaking to a child or other who simply doesn’t understand.
    3. Most of my Southern friends/acquaintances would dismiss Harris or make him a butt of jokes…as they do me when I, for example, use words such as: “ontology” “scientific objectivity” “untractable scientifically” & the like. I am curious about who Harris considers his audience to be?
    4. I watched the video from 2 perspectives: What do I think about what he’s saying?” & “What might believers or other dissidents think of what he’s saying?”
    5. Addressing the second question 1st: believers might dismiss what is being said not only for my observations above but, also, because believers etc. are thinking/working from a circular schema. Opponents of psychoanalysis have had the same problem opposing the circular system of Freudianism with rational methods.
    6. A problem w/the counter-argument using picking up your child for the last time is that these types of events are preserved in memory while alive; death is pretty final unless one believes life goes on.
    7. The notion of “social Catholocism” returns to mind. Some are “social fundamentalists”. For example, unlike Randy Travis who remains a true believer, Charlie Daniels implies in some of his music that he has lost his faith. However, some of my “redneck” friends explain that CD used to be a “real redneck” but now he is a “long-haired redneck” (CD uses this phrase in 1 of his songs).
    7. It is hilarious for me to think of what my working-class & other friends would say in response to Harris’ phrase: “proctological experiments”.
    8. Briefly, what I think @video. Harris IMO makes a good college try &, on balance, I find myself sympathetic to if not always agreeing w/ what he says.
    8. Similar to a number of neuroscientists/cognitive scientists, Harris has a romantic way of speaking about consciousness & the mind. I agree w/David Barash (attributed): “The brain is just a piece of meat.”
    9. I haven’t a clue what Harris is talking about responding to the Norway disaster…with one exception: “Some people aren’t bluffing.”
    10. I strongly disagree w/Harris’ views regarding the primacy of the human species (Wow, does THIS one have a long history!). I view the matter from the perspective of global biogeochemical stability whereby, for 1 example, earth worms are much more important than humans.
    11. Harris seems to be insensitive to the fact that most people in the world are simply not operational thinkers. To teach abstract logic, etc, to everybody would take forever {sic}.
    12. I consider Harris’ comments about the authority & significance of logical fallicies & science to be the most powerful, winning statements of his lecture.

    1. 10. But why do you care about biogeochemical stability? You care because you want to live on a functional planet correct? Harris would probably say those worms are important to the degree that we need them. The same way that we need to in general treat everyone equal. If we lived in a world where we didn’t it would suck.

    2. What are you trying to say with points 2, 3, 4, and the second 7?

      Concerning point 8, Harris often describes the brain as “meat”, or “the wet stuff between our ears”. I don’t know where or how you’ve gotten the impression that Harris “romanticizes” notions like or having to do w consciousness and the mind.

      Concerning point 10, I don’t think Harris is arguing that we should only value human life, or even that we should act, in our day to day mundane activity, as though we are the most valuable form of life – and screw everything else! I think he’s trying to provide a platform for prioritization. When we are faced with situations that require prioritization, we need to have put some thought into how we should go about it.

      Point 11 – we try to teach abstract logic to everybody already. It’s called math. You took several years of math in school, didn’t you? What’s to prevent us from including formal logic in the curriculum?

  6. I’m not sure that anybody in the arts would really take issue with Harris’ distinction between progress in science and “progress” in arts and literature.

    At least in my education (school of music at a large midwestern university) nobody ever suggested the idea that there was such a thing as linear progress in art.

    There have certainly been movements toward art that requires a greater level of technical sophistication to produce, often enabled by the availability of new technology, but movements in the opposite direction have often been considered to be progressive as they occurred.

    1. Progress in the Art(s) follows from a crucial development in technology, namely the advent of the technology to project (as in “present”) the results of artistic productivity, independent of the area.

      Creativity is an internal, nonverbal “projection”, the medium (namely the digital representation) allows for an external, “verbal” projection, independent of the field of art(s).

      So both the medium AND the process of producing a “verbal”, external representation (song, sculpture, drawing/painting, poem/reciting a poem, photography, capturing a performance as an actor, creating “virtual realities” in which a a performance takes place, etc…) have been revolutionized over the last 10 or so years.

      Writing a score to a self-produced short film, using 3D animation and creating all of the draft material became possible for everyone, even with a limited budget.

      The productive part of what we call creativity became not only affordable, but also extremely fast.
      And there’s another part of the medium and the new tools-revolution, which breaks down the barriers completely; the introduction of mass-, asynchronous (because “on demand”), “broadcasting” of the material via the internet.

      No matter if reading a stream of thoughts via a post on a blog (like mine), writing a book, performing a song, presenting a virtual sculpture or architecture, sharing a movie or broadcasting an artistic performance. It’s not only feasible, but is almost “price-less”, because it is free and free of elitism, nepotism and artistic “opportunism”.

      So the freedom of expression, which all disciplines of art have in common, doesn’t become a one-way-street. It is a multi-directional (and disciplinary) field of exchange; not only as far as the product of one’s creativity goes, but also learning/sharing knowledge regarding the process.

      And this IS not only “progress”, it is a revolution.

  7. In what sense are Picasso’s paintings “better” than those of Rembrandt?

    “Better” isn’t objective so we create our own sense.

    Maybe we can make it more objective by agreeing on predetermined criteria.

    I could show that Picasso’s work had greater cultural influence than Rembrandt’s, (and therefore better) by using the criteria of trend-setting and referencing his ground-breaking investigation of the basic geometric elements of form. I could also point to the uniqueness of works from his Blue Period and higher assigned value.

    We establish agreed-upon criteria on which to base your judgments of “Better” and go from there.

    “In what sense is biology better than physcis?” depends on which scientist you ask.

    1. I’m not arguing with anything you’ve written, just pointing out something that might be worth further contemplation.

      Would having greater cultural influence or impact really be a good criterion for “betterness”? Isn’t that simply an argument ad populum? And we can probably conclude that an ad populum is not a good criterion because of composers like Bach, who were not particularly well-regarded in their day, but have since been given the credit they were due.

      “Trend-setting” is probably just another incarnation of an ad populum.

      1. Appeals to popularity is the whole point and therefore not a fallacy–I’m not talking about truth; I’m not equating “better” with “truer.”

        And the popularity I have in mind is not a populist argument but that of a consensus of opinion among the elite/academics as to which artist has had greater influence, measured by their techniques seen in works by other artists or whose works can be said to better define a movement, etc.

        Questions such as who, Picasso or Rembrandt, has further challenged convention, or re-imagined the possible, or has been copied more. These are all indicators of the oversimplified “better.”

        There is still plenty of room for disagreement over what matters. One being that what I’m proposing as better is the language of consumerism, where better is merely a stand-in for value.

        I could say that Protestantism is better than Mormonism because it commands a larger following. As long as we agree that bigger is better.

        1. No, I realize we’re not talking about “truth.”

          Perhaps this will be a better illustration of what I mean than than the Bach example:

          What if the overwhelming majority of the artistic population, or population in general, changed their minds about your favorite artist? You all admired X before, but now, everyone dislikes X’s work. Would that convince you to change your mind, too?

          This might be an unlikely scenario, but I think it shows that popularity is a flimsy criterion at best.

          I agree with your second paragraph, but the fact that you specifically identify the learned folks as the ones who should establish the consensus means that the consensus – the popularity – needs to be founded on certain other criteria. Criteria that may even approach objectivity.

          One such criterion I often cite is technical skill. Is this piece of music/art/literature a product of obvious and uncommon skill? That should count for a lot.

          1. This might be an unlikely scenario, but I think it shows that popularity is a flimsy criterion at best.

            This isn’t uncommon. Artists fall in and out of favor with the critics (and the public) as fads and trends come and go. To admit this can be seen as a flaw in my reasoning, but I’m confidant it generally doesn’t apply to virtuosos such as Monet, Picasso, Shakespeare, Yeats, Bach, Mozart, etc. Ironically, some of these artists were too avant-garde for their time to be appreciated or understood but they all have lasting power.

            The job, as I see it, of art critics, is simply as a tour guide. But they’re only one person, one set of eyes or ears.

            I agree, technical skill is a good criteria in distinguishing bad art from good art but maybe not good art from great art or lasting art. I think the Guinness Book of World Records is filled with things that take a great mount of technical expertise but aren’t art. A poem, a painting a fugue asks for your empathy. If art doesn’t do something to you then it fails is maybe the only criteria we can agree on. When enough people who know a thing or two about art agree that a certain work moves them we reach a consensus. That’s at least rational and semi-objective.

            But empathy isn’t criticsm and a critic isn’t an enthusiastic fan.

            I’m not sure if I’ve adequately addressed your points.

            1. This is a good conversation.  Thank you for your replies.  These aren’t the clearest of waters, and I feel a bit like Sam Harris, making an uphill argument that even in the arts we can elicit from a variety of sources (perhaps most notably neuroscience) more or less objective criteria by which to evaluate them, or even guide their creation.  So far, I’m the only person I know who thinks this might be possible.

              You are right.  Fads come and go, but when an artist is decisively inducted into the canon, s/he is there to stay.  This is the weeding out process.  What I meant in my example above was if a firmly established artist’s work was suddenly frowned upon for some reason.  I think the reason fads come and go is because people aren’t relying on well-founded criteria for evaluation.  They’re relying on popularity – “all my friends say it’s great!”  It takes a bit of time for everyone to realize “oh, hey; this really isn’t all that great.”  They’ve perhaps been bamboozled by some kind of superficial novelty.

              My original quandary was whether popularity itself (disguised as cultural influence) was a good criterion for evaluation.  I think I’m convinced that it’s not.  There are deeper, more meaningful, perhaps more objective criteria that lead to (or at least should) popularity or the lack thereof.

              But your example of the Guinness BWR is a good demonstration that skill as a criterion only gets a portion of the job done.

              P. S.  I might quibble w the point about today’s artistic mainstays being dismissed as too avant-garde in their day.  In some instances this is true, but (at least in music) I think more often those who were obsessed with novelty are today’s forgotten ones, while the likes of Brahms, Bach, Schenker were thought to be dogmatically clinging to archaic principles.  Heck, even Beethoven’s innovations didn’t really have much to do with how the musical content itself behaved.  They were more superficial.  But now I’m rambling and getting significantly OT.

              1. My original quandary was whether popularity itself (disguised as cultural influence) was a good criterion for evaluation. I think I’m convinced that it’s not. There are deeper, more meaningful, perhaps more objective criteria that lead to (or at least should) popularity or the lack thereof.

                I’m assuming you’re implying underlying, and as yet undiscovered, cognitive mechanisms as the sine qua non to objectivity in art. I enthusiastically agree and I hope we get there in my lifetime. In the meantime however, I think popularity as you say or consensus will have to do. Again, I see art critics as tour guides. I’m a book reviewer in my spare time, so that’s not meant as a slight.

                This conversation reminds me of a retelling of Hamlet to a tribe in West Africa. It’s an interesting read.


    2. I wonder if you could show that Picasso’s influence has been greater than Rembrandt’s? In the modern age, yes…
      And (this is not really directed at you, gillt)I find nothing more pointless and tedious than arguments over whether one great artist’s work is better than another. I would say, however, that there are very good reasons for claiming that Rembrandt’s or Poussin’s paintings are better than those of, say, Bouguereau or Norman Rockwell or my aunt who in her youth painted rather unexciting pictures of flowers, and I think that anybody who has a modicum of intelligence and is not infected with Pinkerian philistinism should be able to work out what those reasons are.

      1. By Pinkerian philistinism do you mean pseudo-reductionism?

        Normal Rockwell is probably the greatest 20th century illustrator. His work certainly isn’t considered “high art” but is no less influential. It’s kind of like comparing Stephen King to Thomas Hardy. Like you say, these comparisons seem pointless…the lack of objectivity, which maybe isn’t such a bad thing.

        1. No, I do not mean ‘pseudo-reductionism’, whatever that may be; I am referring to what Pinker has famously said about the arts (remarks that seem to be endorsed by Dawkins, who nevertheless professes to be moved by poetry).
          On what grounds do you assert that Rockwell is probably the greatest 2Oth-century illustrator? Because – on the assumption that popularity is the only measure of art – you have made a genuine and well-grounded survey of his popularity or influence and believe that the results are ‘objective’? Or because you have actually addressed Rockwell’s work yourself and find something in it? I am perfectly happy to admit that Rockwell was, in many ways, a very accomplished illustrator, but I dislike his sentimentality and can think of many other illustrators whose work is more imagiative and profound.
          And, yes, Thomas Hardy is a far greater writer than Stephen King because he dares to do so much more than King does, and addresses and illuminates our lives in a manner that is far more more profound and exciting than King’s.

          1. Enjoyed the posts here. But I am ignorant, what was the famous thing Pinker said about the arts? Just the idea behind it, not the quote.

            1. Steven Pinker chalks it up to the blank slate is a 22-minute TED video where Pinker talks about his thesis, and why some people found it incredibly upsetting.

              In the book he did ‘stick it in good’ against the post-modernists & of course they were outraged

              Here follows an extract from the transcript:
              Indeed, in movements of modernism and post-modernism, there was visual art without beauty, literature without narrative and plot, poetry without meter and rhyme, architecture and planning without ornament, human scale, green space and natural light, music without melody and rhythm, and criticism without clarity, attention to aesthetics and insight into the human condition. (Laughter)

              …one of the most famous literary English scholars of our time is the Berkeley professor, Judith Butler. And here is an example of one of her analyses: “The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from the form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects …” Well, you get the idea.

              By the way, this is one sentence — you can actually parse it. Well, the argument in The Blank Slate was that elite art and criticism in the 20th century, although not the arts in general, have disdained beauty, pleasure, clarity, insight and style. People are staying away from elite art and criticism. What a puzzle — I wonder why ?

              1. No, I was not talking about Pinker’s assaults on ‘post-modernism’. I am delighted when people attack the pretensions of certain kinds of literary theory, or theatre semiotics, or, say, L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E poetry, particularly when, like Sokal, they do it in a less undiscriminating manner than Pinker manages, and I have done so myself. There are, however, writers and poets such as Cees Nooteboom, Italo Calvino and Christopher Middleton who are often classed as post-modernists and whom I admire greatly. I was talking about, among other things, Pinker’s assertion that music – and not just post-modernist music, all music – is merely ‘auditory cheesecake’. In case anyone is interested, Joseph Carroll is his very good, if over-solemn, ‘Literary Darwin’ takes Pinker’s assertions with respect to literature apart, Jonah Lehrer, in ‘Proust was a Neuroscientist’, addresses his misrepresentation of Virgina Woolf, and Liza Zunshine also addresses his assertions in ‘Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel’.

              2. ‘Sunday afternoon projects’ is how SP dismisses the arts – all of them. Two other important booksin which Pinker’s dismissals are addressed and shown to be wanting: Aniruddh D. Patel’s ‘Music, Language, and the Brain’ (Patel is a very distinguished neuroscientist) and Denis Dutton’s ‘The Art Instinct’, which even Pinker himself has acclaimed. And, you know, it is all very well to spend one’s time chewing over the horrors of post-modernism and trotting the rebarbative rubbish of such hold-outs as Judith Butler, but it is very wrong to suppose or to pretend that that is all that is being produced with respect to the arts. Why not read Patel, Dutton, Zunshine and others who have taken the trouble to acquaint themselves with evolutionary theory and theories about the brain and who are interested in applying them so that we can gain a better understanding of the arts?

  8. Compatibilists aren’t trying to “change the subject”. The average person’s notion of acting freely is nebulous and probably somewhat inconsistent. The point is to formulate an account of free will which meets the two conditions of adequacy of (1) being consistent with modern science and (2) having a reasonably good fit with the pre-theoretic notion of “acting freely”. That’s something that Compatibilism does.

    1. Why would you take consistency with modern science as a condition of adequacy for an account of the notion of free will? People are thinking whatever they’re thinking – there’s no guarantee that it will be consistent with modern science. Many of the other concepts people have in their heads are not; we’re all lousy with notions of God, luck, souls, impetus, the flatness of the earth, the spinning of the heavens.

      If you want to be sure that the notion of free will _you_ have or are proposing actually applies, then of course consistency with modern science is a criterion. But there’s no reason to suppose most people aren’t confused, misinformed, or underinformed in their formation and use of a concept – that consistency with modern science would be no more than a lucky break for their concept.

      1. I think Bernard is saying that the goal is to replace incoherent folk concepts of free will with one that fits well both with physical causality and with with people’s intuitions about agency — just as we’ve been able to replace elan vital with biochemical explanations of life without having deny that we’re alive.

        1. And Jeff is (I believe) saying that that’s a misguided goal. If you replace a concept that fails to meet your preferred criteria with one that does, then you’re no longer talking about the same thing. You’ve changed the subject.

          Specialists (including philosophers) may adopt their own technical, more precise senses of ordinary words. It may be OK to conflate the technical sense with the ordinary (pre-theoretical) sense if the technical sense captures the central features of the ordinary sense. But we need to do so with great caution. If in doubt we should add that what we’re saying is true in the technical sense, but not necessarily in the ordinary sense.

          The analogy with elan vital is poorly chosen. In that case scientists did _not_ find a meaning that enabled them to save the concept, so they dropped it. They didn’t rescue it by changing the meaning.

          In the case of “free will”, compatibilists and incompatibilists are adopting different technical senses of the term, so are coming to different conclusions about whether “free will” exists. You’re welcome to argue that your technical sense captures the central features of the ordinary sense, while the rival technical sense doesn’t. But you can’t reasonably say that it’s OK to choose your sense just because “free will” in your sense can be reconciled with science.

          In my view the ordinary concept of “free will” is insufficiently meaningful to be useful, and it’s a waste of time imposing technical meanings on it or asking whether it exists. If we want to talk about some specific human capability, e.g. the ability to consciously scrutinize alternatives, then we should give it a more descriptive and less misleading name than “free will”.

          1. P.S. A clarification. There are two different things we may be reasonably be doing when we propose a definition:
            1. Reporting a current meaning of the word.
            2. Stipulating a new meaning, e.g. a technical one.

            If we’re doing the first, then then there should be no goal of making the concept epistemically useful. If we’re doing the second, then making the concept epistemically useful is probably our goal, and consistency with science is conducive to that goal.

            I think philosophers often conflate the two when they claim to be giving a “philosophical” definition. In doing so, they’re conflating their technical sense of the word with the ordinary sense. That may be OK if the technical sense captures the central features of the ordinary sense. But I’d be happier if philosophers were clearer about this.

            If you conflate a coherent and unambiguous technical sense with an excessively incoherent or ambiguous ordinary sense, then you’re probably going too far. Suppose that the ordinary sense is sufficently ambiguous that it can include both compatibilist and incompatibilist technical senses. Then it would be pointless for the compatibilist to proclaim that “free will exists”, when the incompatibilist would be equally justified/unjustified in proclaiming that “free will doesn’t exist”. It makes no sense then for the compatibilist to insist that his definition should be preferred because it makes the existence of something called “free will” consistent with science. That’s just begging the question of whether the existence of free will actually is consistent with science.

  9. It’s time to admit—and that means telling the public—that contracausal free will doesn’t exist, and to coin a new term for those philosophical forms of “free will” that aren’t contracausal.

    Elan vital doesn’t exist, but biologists don’t seem to feel the need to abandon the word “life”. Zeus doesn’t exist, but we’re perfectly comfortable with redefining “lightning” to work without him. This is how scientific knowledge gets assimilated: we give up supernatural explanations in favor of naturalistic ones, without abandoning the everyday experiences they explain.

    1. Well, but nobody has the “everyday experience” of actually engaging in contracausal free will; nobody backs up the videotape of time and is able to make a different choice in the same circumstances. In fact nearly everybody has the experience of concluding that the choices they made were reasonable and “right”, right for them at least, on the basis of what they knew and felt at that time. When people later regret their choices, it’s most often on the basis of consequences they did not anticipate or something they learned later than would have made them change their mind. That’s not an experience of free will. In fact, that’s exactly the opposite – it’s the recognition that our choices are more the product of contingency than of a free and unconstrained act of will.

      So, to counter your post, lightning and life are real things for which supernatural explanations have been supplanted by natural ones. But “free will” doesn’t at all seem to be something that people experience that we have to explain. It just seems to be a narrative that people in our culture are pressured to participate in.

    2. –Elan vital doesn’t exist, but biologists don’t seem to feel the need to abandon the word “life”.–

      But they did feel the need to abandon the term “elan vital”. If your analogy holds, we should abandon the term “free will” and find some more meaningful term for whatever thing it is we want to describe.

      The best approach is to decide what useful concept you want to refer to, and then choose the most descriptive and unambiguous name for it. Searching for a useful concept to fit the word is putting the cart before the horse.

      1. We didn’t need to search for a more meaningful term for “life”; we already had a perfectly serviceable one, even though the presumed basis for it turned out to be imaginary.

        Similarly, we shouldn’t need to search for an alternative to “choice” when the existing word works fine to describe what we actually do. Yet incompatibilists (at least on this website) insist that we don’t really choose, which seems to me to be equivalent to saying we’re not really alive.

  10. “Sam goes on to explain, in light of this notion [of free will], why we should not be nihilists; why we need to do something instead of existing passively.”

    “It’s time to admit—and that means telling the public—that contracausal free will doesn’t exist, and to coin a new term for those philosophical forms of “free will” that aren’t contracausal.”


    Well, if the Big Bang has decided that that is the manner in which history will come to pass, then that is how it will, regardless of whether you or I happen to want it to or not. If the desired events do not occur, then, hey, no hard feelings – the great physical cascade sparked from the Big Bang simply didn’t play out in our godless camp’s favor. And of course this conception of cosmic history makes insensible the idea that there exist events in cosmic history – human or otherwise – that should not have happened.

    Ask Sam Harris or Hitchens (or pretty much anybody for that matter) whether 9/11 should have happened. I guarantee you they’ll forcefully say, “No!,” and then proceed to look at you as if you belonged in a mental asylum. Ask one of the few genuine nihilistic determinists out there like me? They’ll tell you that the question makes no sense. It’s on par with asking, “Should the Milky Way Galaxy have formed?”

    So, I think Sam is thoroughly out of touch with reality on this point, since most people (particularly New Yorkers) won’t take kindly to answers like that.** The form of free will he’s disparaging (“libertarian free will”) is the form of free will that the vast majority of human beings that have existed, are existing, and will ever exist, consider to be the very “essence of man” – the very definition of what it is to be human. Sans perpetual, State-backed force, Sam’s thoroughgoing determinism will never be popular. Most human beings simply cannot live with the inevitable consequences of that idea. And as long as it’s not popular, people will continue to believe in contracausal “souls,” which of course means that religions will be around forever, and will be just as ubiquitous as they are now.*

    In this vein, I think the idea of a future utopia bereft of belief in the supernatural is worse than quixotic.


    *Again, only if the Big Bang has determined that that is how the story of humanity will play out, which is how it probably will given observable facts about human nature.

    **And I’m just posting this for my own satisfaction, not in the hopes of changing anyone’s mind. That’s really not ultimately up to me. In fact, nothing is. 😉

    1. “Should the Milky Way have formed” isn’t equivalent to “should 9/11 have happened” because the latter is actually asking “should we have allowed 9/11 to happen,” or “should we have done things differently so that a situation like 9/11 wouldn’t have come about?”

      That last one is what most of us here are all about: trying to get people to “do things differently”, that is, abandoning dangerous irrationality and adopting stability-inducing rationality.

  11. Shall I fight yet again for compatibilism? I suppose I shall . . .

    Sam says:
    “What people mean is that they . . . are free to chose their actions. You choose what you want; you choose what you will to do. . . This can’t be true. Everything . . . is the result of causes of which you’re not aware, over which you exert no conscious control.”

    Yes, our actions are the result of causes that we don’t control, but it’s silly to suppose that this means we don’t have free choice.

    We sometimes go through deliberative processes and reach (uncoerced) decisions based on our desires and commitments.

    The mere fact that most people are dualists and think that we also have some supernatural ability to violate the laws of physics should give us no reason to take this magical ability as the core meaning of “free choice.”

    Let’s try to avoid doing too much damage to our language and concepts while we’re pruning out false beliefs.

    (More here if you’re interested.)

  12. “…and to coin a new term for those philosophical forms of “free will” that aren’t contracausal…”

    “Coyne” was missplelt.

    I suspect modesty might be an issue, but I modestly suggest that “Coyneing” such terms should be the SOP (standard operating procedure) in this… um… website from this point forwordth.

  13. Thanks for the summary. Just one point – we need to find a way of talking about free will so that we differentiate between the psychological difficulties of being clear about our motivations; and the freedom to choose whether to assault someone or not. Our laws assume (unless the person is psychotically crazy), that we can make this choice. I think there are a couple of things being conflated that need to be distinguished. Otherwise, I can keep saying to you, ‘you can’t help but say that’ and your discourse becomes a nonsense flowing from your neurons. Wish you would pick up this point and answer it.

  14. Oh yeah… thumthin of thubthinth…

    The only thing that made me wrinkle a nosehair was the example of the Einsteinian overturning of the Newtonian physics as being the prime example of a Kuhnian paradigm shift…

    I’m not a physics major (though I originally majored in Physical Engineering before switching majors to biochem and never progressed beyond a BA academically – and have had a lifelong love of physics thereafter)

    I agree with others (Stenger has been forceful on this point) that even the relativity “revolution” was not a complete overturning of the stuff that came before, but merely a tweaking. The whole process that guided the transformations (LaGrangian, Hamiltonian, etc.) were based on a Newtonian foundation. The Newtonian stuff is, in a basic sense, still “true” — at least, it was still good enough to get ourselves to the moon and back with slide rulers. It still is “true” in that sense. The relativistic reality that we now know is “true” in a better sense was completely informed by the earlier efforts. One of the prime edicts of physicists working on more sublime rules for the way the universe works is that it “reduces” to Newtonian mechanics at reasonable (middling) scales of measurement of physical phenomena.

    So I guess I’m still having trouble with Kuhn, at this late stage in life. I still see no fundamental paradigm shifts… just tweaks. Hmmm. paradigm tweak.

    I think I just Coyned a “paradigm tweak”. Got to Google it now. Maybe there’s a paper in this.

  15. I have a question about free will. Suppose you and I decide to meet each other 20 years from now at some specific place in the future. You live in Chicago, I live in Brooklyn and we both make a pact to see each other at the base of the Eiffel Tower on July 4, 2031. If successful, wouldn’t that argue towards some sort of willful decision making that we both made happen? Our future rendezvous couldn’t have had merely occurred, we would have had to attenuate all the intervening causal circumstances in order to ensure that meeting. Clearly two people could do this, so why wouldn’t this argue for some sort of free will?

    1. Your example shows that decisions do have real-world effects, and the compatibilist will take this as evidence that we do have the sort of freedom that matters.

      Hard determinists like Coyne and Harris, however, will argue that because you were determined to “decide” to meet at the Eiffel Tower, you had no “real” choice in the matter. You weren’t free to decide otherwise and you weren’t free to avoid your meeting in 2031. (They’re wrong, but that’s their view.)

  16. His videos seem to be about product placement as much as anything:

    The Apple computer

    The Mahalo logo

    The Mahalo mug

    The the last question at 58:09 was from Harris’ pal Jason Calacanis the founder of the struggling crowd-sourced search engine Mahalo . This was the only question from a named individual & actually a poor question to boot.

    What next for video III ~ a Fred Perry polo neck ?

  17. “… coin a new term for those philosophical forms of “free will” that aren’t contracausal.”

    How about “will”?

    (A distinction might still be needed in legal contexts of extorted will. I’m no lawyer.)

  18. I listened to Harris’s remarks and conclude that he continues to pontificate on important subjects about which he knows little and is quite possibly willfully blind.

    Specifically, Harris’s remarks about Islam posing a unique threat are nonsensical, immediately falsifiable using available evidence, and, in my opinion, dangerously singles out a single group.

    Harris says, “there is no set of beliefs … more imperiling of the future than the beliefs of martyrdom or jihad in the Muslim world which are central to the doctrine of Islam.”

    Let’s see how well supported is this claim using the very recent history that motivates Harris. The National Counterterrorism Center maintains a Worldwide Incidents Tracking System (WITS). Here is the tabulated data, by religion, since the height of the Iraq War in 2004:

    Matching Perpetrator Records: 63,876
    Grouped By Perpetrator Characteristic
    Group Type / Victims
    Christian Extremist 5,757
    Environmental/Anti-Globalization 4
    Hindu Extremist 131
    Islamic Extremist (Shia) 5,324
    Islamic Extremist (Sunni) 130,525
    Islamic Extremist (Unknown) 1,520
    Jewish Extremist 74
    Neonazi/Fascists/White Supremacists 9
    Other Religious Extremist 0
    Secular/Political/Anarchist 56,685
    Tribal/Clan/Ethnic 4,229
    Unknown 114,692
    Total 318,950

    Clearly Islamic Extremism is a huge problem that must be confronted. Thankfully this has been done, and continues to be done.

    But can we conclude from this data that Islam, and implicitly Muslims, must be singled out? On a separate chart the largest number of victims (130,525) by Sunni Islamic Extremists is seen to be in Iraq, so this huge number is directly tied to the Iraq War.

    But the number victims of Christian Extremists (5,757) exceeds the number of victims of Shia Islamic Extremists (5,324) during this same 7 year period. And the number of victims of Secular/Political/Anarchist attacks (56,685) is nearly half the huge number of victims of Sunni extremists during the Iraq War.

    These facts alone contradict Harris’s unsupported opinions. Beyond this data, the uprisings in Sunni and Shia Muslim countries from Iran to Tunisia to Egypt to Bahrain to Syria are all motivated by Muslims yearning for basic human fairness and freedoms, and specifically not motivated by Islamic extremism, which has been greatly delegitimized by the very jihadist activity that Harris says is the greatest threat.

    Furthermore, Harris characterizes criticism of his position as political correctness, which neatly evades the problem of actually supporting his claims. I find it troubling that in citing the Christian extremist attack in Norway, Harris completely ignores the well documented fact that the perpetrator Breivik was himself motivated by extreme anti-Islamic western writers.

    We were requested to address only what Harris says in this video and ignore what he has written about torture and other subjects such as preemptive nuclear war, but I find it difficult to ignore this when Harris considers these subjects only in the context of his unsupported statements about the unique danger of Islam.

    1. Yes, you may disagree with him on this issue,and that’s fine. But you implied in your first sentence that there’s more than one subject on which he “pontificates” without support. Does what you say hold for the 12 others, too? I thought he had some really good stuff to say on those issues.

      1. you implied in your first sentence that there’s more than one subject on which he “pontificates” without support. Does what you say hold for the 12 others, too?

        I was referring to subjects that I cover in my post: Islam specifically, and torture and preemptive nuclear war implicitly (which I agree we won’t discuss explicitly here).

        For all the other stuff he covers above, I can only add “+1”, which reinforces my disappointment in what Harris gets wrong, because he gets these dangerously wrong.

        1. Thank you Steve Smith, for bringing actual facts into the constant drumbeat of the New Atheist propoganda that Islam is uniquely evil among religions.

          Religionists believe whatever they want to believe, when it suits them. That’s why Jews and Christians don’t avoid mixing fibers in their clothing. Dawkins, Harris & co. seriously seem to believe that Islam just has more powerful magical mojo than Judeo-Christianity, that Islam, alone, is capable of transcending the usual self-serving practices of the religious, capable of transforming any and all Muslims into raging terrorists just because of some texts in some of their books.

          Proving that being an atheist is not a prophylactic against irrationality or bigotry.

          And it is alarming that these men are promoting irrational bigotry in populations not normally prone to bigotry. I’m all in favor of promoting atheism, but there are plenty of atheists who are better thinkers and better people than Harris and Dawkins.

  19. How can we convince religious people to abandon their beliefs?

    Religion is in many ways like a contagious disease. Treating the sufferers is not enough. You also have to prevent further infections. In other words, in an ideal world, children should not be allowed to be indoctrinated by the religious. Children should be taught how to make or recognize a logical argument. They should learn the value of evidence. In short, they should learn to think. Later on they can be exposed to a subject called Comparative Religion, which informs them about the tenets of the major world religions. And if they have been educated properly, this subject will be a source of endless merriment.

    One can hope…

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