In Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, author and editor Daniel Menaker evaluates Sam Harris’s new book in a review called, “Have it your way.” I hoped Menaker would engage Harris’s arguments, for book reviews are boring if they merely regurgitate the book’s contents. And though I agree with Sam’s thesis and think his book excellent, the best book reviews are those that take issue with a book’s contents: in such cases we can often experience and learn from from a real clash of intellects. As a famous scientist once told me, “The only good book review is a bad book review.”
Sadly, most of Menaker’s review simply regurgitates Sam’s ideas. While the review is generally positive, Menaker calls parts of it “prosaic.” And there is this weird paragraph:
Even though Harris assures us that civilized society can survive and might even improve with the abandonment of the concept of conscious agency, it would ultimately affect everything — all of our doings and sayings and thoughts, especially in ordinary sociomoral circumstances. This slender volume is perhaps less important in itself than in its representation of the arguments for accepting that we are not “the authors of our actions.”
What, exactly, does that last sentence mean? After all, the purpose of the book is to convince readers that we are not the authors of our actions. That is the book in itself! And Menaker’s ending is lame, sounding as if it were phoned in:
Of course, questions persist. What, after the dismantling of free will, is consciousness? Just some kind of afflatus given off by three pounds of wetware? If so — if our conscious lives are nothing but the meniscus covering what our brains and bodies are up to, well then, isn’t that some glorious meniscus? It may not tell us what to do, but it does tell us what what we do means — oh, and what beauty is.
Couldn’t it be that we need the experience of what Wegner and others call “perceived control,” at least as a model of voluntary behavior, to get on with our lives and to have our achievements recognized and to be instructed by our failures? (Doesn’t Harris enjoy his success? I bet he does.) Finally, what happens to traditional qualities of character like courage, villainy, leadership? Poof! However correct Harris’s position may be — and I believe that his basic thesis must indeed be correct — it seems to me a sadder truth than he wants to realize.
Well, Sam’s book is not about consciousness but free will, yet anyone who has read Harris knows his position on that matter. It is that consciousness is indeed “some kind of afflatus given off by three pounds of wetware.” What else could it be unless you’re some kind of dualist?
As for our need for the experience of “perceived control,” well, had Menaker read the literature he purports to know, he would see that this hypothesis—the idea that the notion of personal “agency” is a neurological result of natural selection—is something that has been suggested several times before. In the end, Menaker assumes the position of many compatibilists: he agrees with Sam that we couldn’t have made different choices in the past, but he just doesn’t like that.
And of course Harris enjoys his successes and mourns his failures, as all of us do. What part of determinism says that this isn’t a part our mental armory? Indeed, natural selection will have instilled in our ancestors feelings of gratification when we garner things correlated with reproductive success, including public esteem. Obviously, genes for pleasure and for enjoying success will spread insofar as they are positively associated with reproductive output. After all, that’s what orgasms are for.