Sam Harris: his last thoughts on free will

March 14, 2021 • 12:15 pm

Here we have Sam being quite eloquent on the subject of free will, and if you didn’t read his book with that title, this is a good substitute. But if you don’t subscribe to his “Making Sense” podcast (and I don’t, mainly because I can’t listen to many podcasts), you’ll hear only the first 43 minutes. (I have no idea how long the entire program is.)

In the part I listened to (link below), Sam offers some “final thoughts” on free will. I suppose this means that he, like me, is pretty much done discussing the subject, as we haven’t changed our ideas much after having listened to a lot of counterargument. I agreed with what Sam said in Free Will, and I still agree with it; and he says in this podcast pretty much what he said in his book.

After defining what he means by free will, which is contracausal (non-material) free will (the common notion of free will), Sam then asserts that he will show that free will is not even an illusion, and will then show how jettisoning that idea, well, frees us from a lot of our bad behaviors. (If you’re asking, “Why is he trying to persuade me to give up the idea of free will if there is no free will; for doesn’t that mean we can’t be persuaded?”, then he answers that in this segment, too.)

Sam further explains, as he does in his book, why the form of free will to which most people adhere—libertarian or contracausal free will, what I call “you-could-have-done-otherwise” free will—is bogus, since our actions and thoughts are purely the result of deterministic processes, with perhaps a soupçon or quantum randomness thrown in.  He adds,  “Neither determinism nor randomness, nor any combination of the two, justifies the feeling that most people have that goes by the name of ‘free will’. . . People don’t want to believe that they are in any sense like a wave breaking on the shore, but this is how causes propagate, or seem to propagate.”

He notes that the idea of free will is inseparable from our feeling of “being a self”, which means that we feel we’re the source of our intentions and actions, all initiated by our conscious minds.

Here’s the issue: “we don’t feel that we are free to beat our hearts or causing our cells to divide. . but we do feel that we are the source of our thoughts and voluntary actions, and at any moment we feel we are free to think or do something else.” But how can that happen if our thoughts have material origins and material causes?

Then he moves to what I see as the most interesting part of the discussion: why there is no illusion of free will because there is really no experience of free will. His argument for this appears to come from his experience of Buddhism: the view of mindfulness—paying attention to your thoughts and how they arise.

As Sam says,  “Thoughts appear in consciousness and we don’t know what we’re going to think next if we pay attention to them. Our thoughts determine our goals, what we do or say. We feel that we are the author of our thoughts, but there is no thinker to be found in the mind, just thoughts themselves. If we pay attention, we see that thoughts arise, we see that they simply appear out of nowhere, and we can’t choose what we are going to think next. And if we can’t control our next thoughts, where is our freedom of will?” (These quotes may be somewhat off, as I was typing quickly.)

So, he says, if we pay attention to what we’re thinking—and of course what we’re thinking is translated into our actions, views, and entire life—we will see that our thoughts seem to arise at random, coming out of nowhere, and we can’t control what we’re thinking or what our next thought will be. He gives us a demonstration of this by asking us to pick and name a movie. This exercise goes on at length, and it’s pretty convincing.

Sam then dispels some of the many misconceptions about determinism, e.g., how can you convince people that they don’t have free will if our views and ideas are all determined by physics? How can anybody change their minds? (I’ve discussed the answers at length.)

Although lots of people get upset when you tell them they cannot make “free decisions” or think “free” thoughts (I have personal experience of this pushback), Sam asserts that the realization that we don’t have contracausal free will actually rids us of arrogance and hatred, provides a profound basis for compassion as well as a basis for real forgiveness, and is “the only view of human nature that cuts through the logic of retribution: the notion of punishment as justified vengeance.” I agree with this, too.

At least in this segment of the podcast, Sam doesn’t discuss compatibilism (the view that we can still maintain a form of free will despite the fact that we are victims of determinism and randomness), nor does he do more than touch on the notion of moral responsibility. (My own view, which I’ve expressed often, is that rejecting contracausal free will rids us of the notion of moral responsibility, but not of responsibility. Ergo we still need punishment and reward, but not punishment of the retributive sort.)

If you’re new here, and haven’t followed my own arguments on free will, they align almost completely with Sam’s, so you can get up to speed by listening to this bit.  As always, he’s quite eloquent and (at least to me) persuasive—except when it comes to the view that morality is objective!

Click below to go to the first 43 minutes of the podcast:

81 thoughts on “Sam Harris: his last thoughts on free will

  1. Yep – crystal clear. It is quite a skill how Harris can find bright new observations to make about a tired old subject.

  2. Sam doesn’t discuss compatibilism (the view that we can still maintain a form of free will despite the fact that we are victims of determinism and randomness) …

    Another way of regarding compatibilism would be: first, fully accept all of the arguments against contra-casual free will as outlined in the post and Sam’s podcast; then, try to make sense of the language and concepts that we use in everyday life (as opposed to when doing philosophical/theological commentary).

    1. That sounds like a good plan to me. I’ve long held that most intelligent people don’t have the kind of belief in free will that Harris tries so hard to shoot down. Let’s move on to the more interesting part.

  3. Not sure what it says about US society that the election of Trump was determined and inevitable!

    1. I hold on to the view that although many voted for him, what also made a big difference was that too many people chose to not vote, believing the months of polls that said Hillary had a lock on 2016.

      1. Yes, I hold that view, too. In the federal election of 2016, out of all the eligible voters in the USA, the largest number were those who did not vote. Pulling numbers out of my memory, I believe the division of eligible voters shook out to be c.71 million did not vote, c.65 million voted for Clinton, and c.62 million voted for Trump, with a de minimis number having voted for someone other than these two. (As our host might say, I can’t be arsed right now to look up an authoritative citation to back up these numbers. 😉)

        1. Has it occurred to either of you that so many chose not to vote not because they thought Hillary was a shoo-in but because she was such an odious candidate that they therefore couldn’t bring themselves to vote for either candidate?

          1. Yes, Larry, thanks for pointing that out. A fuller explanation of the reasons why the largest percentage of eligible voters chose not to vote at all certainly must include the fact that many loathed both Clinton and Trump along with the fact that many stayed home because they thought Clinton would cruise to victory. Whether Hillary deserved to be so loathed and whether she was indeed an odious candidate are matters open to debate, which I will not engage in here.

          2. That does happen. It is almost always an example of utter irrationality. When two candidates are that (so-called) “hated” (another victim word of inflation such as the word ‘incredible’!), it is very unlikely that a small amount of thinking would not make it clear that one of them is at least somewhat better than the other.

            As an extreme example, suppose that there had been an election in Nazi Germany in say 1940. Suppose you were a German voter at the time, and a (known to be) Jewish person at the time. Suppose the other candidate besides Hitler was known to be either gay or known to be female. Suppose you had a defective brain in which you ‘hated’ all such persons. But suppose that Hitler was known to you to have already murdered many Jewish persons, and planned to murder them all.

            Would you then decide to not vote because you disliked both candidates?

            I had thought irrationality affected a pretty small number of USians, just like anyplace else. But I’d also thought that about racism before November 2016.

            Apologies again for noting the obvious. By the way, 3+3=6, to get into deeper truths than 2+2=4 from yesterday, as long as I’m reacting with obviosities. (That is a word now, apparently.)

  4. By his own argument (erroneous IMO) that “we can’t control what we’re thinking or what our next thought will be” Harris cannot know that these are his final thoughts on free will.

      1. I do not see that. Today, with April 15 coming up, I am forcing myself (not always successfully) to think about my income taxes. It is a deterministic and rational decision to do this I’m sure, but I need to force myself because I’d rather think about something else. I can’t see how consciously disciplining my thinking makes me a dualist.

        1. Harris would probably say that your thinking about taxes is anything but free will. If you had free will you would likely stop thinking about it. It is the same with knowing your license will expire soon so all you can think about is getting the required documents together to go down and renew the damn license. Certainly once you get that done you will stop thinking about drivers license for another 4 years or so. After I no longer had covid-19 I stopped thinking about it. But while I had it I could not think of anything else – no free will in that.

          1. I am not claiming free will, at least not of the magical sort. Just that I (my brain) can plan and discipline the thought process. Perfectly deterministic. My thoughts don’t just pop up out of nowhere, although sometimes they do.

        2. You can remind yourself to change the clock (Spring forward) the next morning by putting a post-it note on the clock the night before. That first thought affects your future behavior which is the whole point of it. Of course that first thought had causes too. I still think of myself as author of that first thought. While I acknowledge it had causes, it is not like the universe told me to remind myself with a post-it note. I came up with that part. 😉

          1. I don’t understand why Sam Harris believes we have no ability to consciously manage our thought processes. Such an ability seems perfectly compatible with determinism to me. Moreover, I think the achievements of science and technology require exactly such an ability. I am certainly not impressed that Harris reaches his conclusions through “meditation.” That is a wholly subjective process. Why should I believe Harris on meditation anymore than religious people who tell me they know God through revelation?

            1. Yes, conscious self-management is perfectly compatible with determinism. If it were not, consciousness probably would not have evolved in the first place.

  5. The most important part of this is that losing the belief in free will “provides a profound basis for compassion [and] forgiveness and is ‘the only view of human nature that cuts through the logic of retribution: the notion of punishment as justified vengeance'”.

    And that is decidedly not a “tired old subject.”

    1. Agreed. In fact, so long as most people surveyed (and this has been done in four countries) think that free will is contracausal free will, and so long as that form of free will is a part of Abrahamic religions, then the topic will NEVER be a “tired old subject.” People need to be enlightened about the hegemony of determinism.

    2. Why can’t I have compassion and forgiveness AND believe that I author my thoughts? Owning my thoughts seems like it would lead to more compassion and forgiveness, not less. Of course, I believe I own my thoughts AND know that they were 100% the result of more fundamental causes.

    1. Well, no, the last word will never be known. We could all be in the Matrix controlled by aliens, or God could somehow violate the laws of physics and give us “selves” and free will. But I’m not betting on that, and the evidence is all in favor of determinism. Saying “the last word is not yet known” is true of all science; I don’t consider that necessarily a “word of caution.”

  6. My thinking on free will is admittedly confused. I tend to lean towards the no free will camp but I am also powerfully swayed by the illusion of free will. And that brings up my disagreement with Mr. Harrison. He claims there is no illusion for free will and I think he is trying to say that if you look closely you can see through the illusion. But the fact that so many people, me included, are swayed by the illusion seems to indicate there is an illusion. Or am I confused here also?

    1. No, you’ve got it right. The difference is that Sam has trained in meditation where you notice your thoughts arising, and he’s noticed that the thoughts seem to be almost random. That’s why he says that it’s not an illusion, but FOR HIM.

      There are evolutionary reasons why we might want to think we have free will, but I can’t get into them there. So the illusory appearance of that idea might have been selected for.

      1. Oh, and I do know it is Harris not Harrison. Don’t know where that came from. You might say it arose at random. (Ok, not very funny, but at least it wasn’t an “I had no choice” joke, kind of.)

  7. I Have not seen any theoretical physicist (Sean Carroll or Steven Weinburg both Compatibilist at the Moving Naturalism Forward conference) or others like Leonard Susskind, make any deterministic statements about Free Will. Why is that?

  8. Dang, I was just out doin’ some cardio, listening to this very podcast. (A former paramour stopped by my pad a few weeks ago with some earbuds and showed me how to synch my mobile phone with this new-fangled bluetooth technology. (And to think, once upon a time a long time ago, I used to be an early adopter. Had a car phone back in the ’80s, when you needed a unit in the trunk and an antennae on the roof and everything.)

    Anyway, I thought Sam was spot on.

  9. It’s the usual strawman argument where my beliefs are concerned. Harris seems to think that belief in free will requires a denial that thoughts have causes. So he tries to convince his audience that their thoughts don’t come from nothing. I’m sure some people might think that but I sure don’t. I doubt whether many intelligent compatibilists think that either.

    I grant that the universe is a huge causal chain or set of causal chains. What I label “free will” is an attribute of those causal chains that occurs inside my brain. I am the author of my thoughts. However, that doesn’t mean my thoughts rise from nothing. It’s interesting he uses this analogy as I doubt whether many in his audience would agree that a book author’s thoughts come from nothing. That would deny the existence of an entire industry that attempts to divine an author’s influences. Harris seems to assume his audience has an overly simplistic view of both authorship and free will.

    I find his stance on free will to share a lot with the so-called hard problem of consciousness. Both are subject to the inherent difficulty of reflecting on one’s own thought processes. Thinking about our own consciousness or free will invites circularities that our brains have great difficulty navigating. Both can at least partially be aided by thinking about free will or consciousness of others. We have less trouble thinking about whether someone else is conscious or has free will.

    This may be his final word on free will but I find it no more convincing than his earlier words on the subject.

    1. I think there is a close connection between the concept of libertarian free will and the dualistic solutions to the hard problem of consciousness. I suspect that most people subscribing to the former also support the latter, mostly for the reasons you mention

    2. “However, that doesn’t mean my thoughts rise from nothing.“

      I thought he means when we focus on following the origin of a thought – or even the absence of thought – the evidence from experience is elusive. Meditation can show this. So “nothing” means nothing obvious. Thus, the only explanation we can point to is the brain, body, prior conditions, temperature – the whole way down.

      The “nothing” is possibly misleading as a word. Because he points to known objects. I think it is when the thought is right in front of is, we can find nothing *else* to explain it – no thought behind the thought.

  10. I listened to most of the longer episode and I’m glad he mentioned two things 1) the difference between determinism and fatalism 2) there is an evolved human yearning for revenge.

      1. I forget what he says but he does distinguish. Seem my own examples to Peter in her somewhere.

    1. I’ve listened to the whole podcast but I am still confused about determinism v fatalism…….can anyone offer insights?

      1. Determinism is simply one thing follows another. I trip on a banana skin and fall. I tell you don’t eat that grape. You don’t. Fatalism is being fated to do something. Cause and effect is out in motion and you can’t stop it. You are fated to not eat the grape. My tell g you not to makes no difference because no matter what you won’t eat the grape. Think of every Greek tragedy ever written where no matter what, the future unfolds as foretold. What is interesting is why you didn’t eat the grape in a deterministic world. You may be the kind of person who is persuaded by my arguments. You may just have the brain state that is open to not eating the grape is told. That is determinism. Various things happen that affect outcomes. Fatalism ignores physics and says it will happen no matter what. For determinism, think of Terminator, “no fate but what we make”. Also for fatalism, the ink of Terminator, Judgment Day happens no matter what.

        1. I get that determinism is a physics concept whereas fatalism is a human philosophy but how is it that determinism doesn’t lead one to fatalism if you are an incompatibilist? If determinism says that one thing follows another and that’s all there is, wouldn’t a person conclude that there’s nothing they can do about how the universe unfolds? Even if we add randomness, we still have no control over the unfolding. What does an incompatibilist non-fatalist believe?

          1. No because you are pet if that universe. You influence what happens in it. You aren’t sitting there riding forces like a fatalist.

            1. “You influence what happens in it.”

              Sounds like you are the author of those influences. How can that be if all your thoughts have underlying causes? This is the crux of the controversy. Your thoughts are your own because you initiate them but that seems to conflict with the idea that you don’t initiate them at all — they are just physical processes that you don’t ultimately author.

              As a compatibilist, I believe our thoughts are both the result of physical processes AND we are their author. When we say “author” or “create”, we are referring to the part of the causality chain that produces our thoughts. If we think of the universe as a directed graph of processes causing other processes. We can label some of those graph edges that occur inside our brains as cognition. Those edges that directly result in behavior significant to ourselves and others, we call “choices” or “decisions”.

        2. Is it not the case that, in tragedies, preconditions inevitably lead to the fated outcome? Oedipus Rex did all he could to avoid his predicted fate to kill his father, yet circumstances led him to murder a stranger who assaulted him and who later turned out to be his father. The point being, fatalism and determinism are indistinguishable unless a cause and effect sequence is violated, which in any good tragedy doesn’t happen. That is the irony of the story.

          1. The idea with Oedipus is he knows his fate and yet no matter what it happens because it is predetermined. In his universe, you can and do know the future and can’t avoid it. In our universe nothing is predetermined. It happens because of prior causes. If you knew the future or even supposed it and took steps to avoid it, you would be less likely to experience it. Oedipus is a slave to his fate.

            1. That is a good explanation. My only quibble is nomenclature. Is there a difference between determined and predetermined? Is not having prior causes the same as being predetermined?

            2. So does “predetermined” mean that someone (or God?) knows how everything is going to turn out? Does a fatalist know how things are going to turn out? I always thought that a fatalist didn’t know how the future will unfold but feels they have no control so don’t bother trying. Whoever says “What will be, will be” doesn’t know what’s going to happen.

              1. It means it’s fated to turn out one way and only one way and no one can do anything to stop it. Knowing about the future or not knowing about the future. It doesn’t matter. Nothing will stop it. It assumes that there is something going on outside the laws of physics. Determinism is simple cause and effect. The future is determined by actions. I can change the future by my actions. Those actions are subject to the laws of physics and other actions but there is not predetermined future.

        3. “Determinism is simply one thing follows another.”

          Yes, and I like John Wheeler’s (IIRC) phrase “Things are as they are because they were as they were.” Does it follow logically that things will be as they will be because they are as they are?

          OTOH, if time is merely a delusional approximate consequence of deep purely probabilistic laws which themselves are exactly true, does ‘free will’ even have a meaningful definition?

          Yet does “probabilistic” itself mean anything unless time is already there; after all probability refers to the future surely.

          I am clearly very confused on the whole issue and quite willing to admit that.

  11. Speaking of free will, I just received my copy of a new book, “Just Deserts: Debating Free Will” by Daniel Dennett and Gregg Caruso. It arrived a few minutes ago so I haven’t read it yet. It’s only 206 pages so it should go fast.

  12. I agree with Sam Harris that we do not have a sensation of free will, and certainly not of contra-causal free will. But that seems kind of beside the point: a decision is a thought, not an experience. I also agree that conscious thoughts typically arise from unconscious brain activity. We certainly don’t generally decide to decide to take a walk before we decide to take a walk, and a good thing too, because then we’d be stuck in an infinite regress.

    While thoughts do bubble up from the unconscious, that doesn’t mean we don’t control them. Thoughts are in league together. My thoughts after I decide to go for a walk will concern what coat to wear, whether to lock the door, and what route to take. The decision thought has influenced a whole series of further thoughts. A human being is a self-governing system.

  13. “I am in control of my thought” is one level of description. A different level of description is “my thoughts correspond to the evolution of my brain state for that particular time interval”. From the second level of description, given determinism, I can deduce that if the state of the world, including my brain, was exactly reproduced I would experience exactly the same thoughts, including the impression of being in control of my thoughts. That corresponds to the position that there is no such a thing as libertarian freewill

    1. I think there is trouble with “control of my thoughts”. It implies that there is something other than the thoughts that is doing the controlling. It’s a common phrase but I think most people would agree that the thoughts are all there is and that this phrase, on close inspection, shouldn’t be taken literally. Instead, it just means that one’s thoughts were not under someone else’s control or that you weren’t sleep walking or in some other abnormal state of consciousness. The thoughts, conscious and unconscious, flowed normally.

      1. There is a hierarchy of thought patterns in our brains, with some thoughts used to organize others. We think about thinking. Indeed we think about thinking about thinking.

  14. Thanks, ladies and gents, for a stimulating back-and-forth on this crucial subject. I feel I have to hang this question out there for your consideration: Who is the “I” who manages and controls thoughts. I’ve practiced Zen for decades and I’m in Harris’s camp. There’s no “I” or self. I believe we are in the thrall of language structure that channels us to speak and think in terms of subjects and objects. The “I” in the sentence, “I think thoughts,” is as mysterious as the “it” in, “It is raining.” Perhaps we can disabuse ourselves of the sense of self by moving to a language that is structured primarily around verbs, like Navajo or Cree.

    1. I have great aversion to podcasts as I find them very hard work. However I found that Susan Blackmore’s book “Zen and the Art of Consciousness” (or “Ten Zen Questions ” in the USA I believe) to be a very accessible written narrative about consciousness – and what that means.

      Short summary that doesn’t really do justice: When you really, really, look there’s nothing there.

      …and if there is nothing there, there is no substructure for Free Will to rest on.

      1. I am considering writing a book entitled ‘Zen and the Art of Electric Bicycle Maintenance’, after my excellent year which ended finally with an artificial replacing an arthritic hip.

    2. My view is that there most certainly is an “I” and that the only issue is figuring just what “I” is and accepting that.

      Language gets difficult quickly and when discussing complex subjects, especially ones that still have large areas of terra incognita, damn near every single word has to be clearly defined to really be sure we understand each other. What precisely is meant by “I,” what precisely is meant by “author” in author of our thoughts, etc.

      It seems to me that no matter how you slice it there is an I and we are definitely the author of our own thoughts. Simply put, if we did not exist then our thoughts would not exist either. The catch is that we are not necessarily what we think we are. We are a protoplasmic bag of intricate biological machinery that has a nervous system and a variety of sensor systems that enable us some experience of our reality and some ability to model it, and all this chugs along obeying the laws of physics. Whether the mental entity that each of us are is a singular I, or a multifaceted I, or a collection of many, or something else, we are still an entity comprised of whatever is in our individual physical body. Whether a thought, or impulse, or any cognitive activity, occurs subconsciously or consciously, in all cases it is still “I.” Perhaps not the I we think we are, not the I of our day to day conscious experience, but still I.

      1. What is it?

        Where is it?

        Is it different from 10 minutes ago? 10 hours? Days? Years?

        If so, then how can it be one object?

        What is an operating system when it is running? Can we point at the operating system?

        1. “What is it?” Not enough data yet to answer. Could be awhile.

          “Where is it?” It is something that happens in nervous systems.

          “Is it different from 10 minutes ago?” Sure it is. Everything is constantly changing, even “inanimate” things like rocks.

          “If so, then how can it be one object?” I may not understand what you are asking. I don’t see any correlation at all between how many objects something might be composed of and whether or not that thing is constant or changing. In a sense all macro things are composed of “lower order” things until you get down to strings, or something. There is some degree of arbitrariness to how we define and categorize macro things, but how we do it does tend to have some useful correspondence to reality. Animal bodies are made of an enormous amount of smaller objects but for many contexts it is very useful to consider a single animal body as an individual.

          “What is an operating system when it is running?” Not sure. A process? It’s definitely something. It’s a phenomenon we can reliably detect.

          “Can we point at the operating system?” We can point at the device in which the operating system is running, or body in the case of a human, and we can read the software. If the device is destroyed the operating system will not operate.

          1. “What is it?” Not enough data yet to answer.”

            Yet the known priors are clear and sufficient to explain experience. What “data” do you propose to find on such a fishing expedition? Are you concluding a self exists even though there is insufficient data?

            ““If so, then how can it be one object?” I may not understand what you are asking. ”

            The “I” as a 3 year old is not the “I” as a 30 year old and so on. Where is the demarcation between these distinct selves? If the self is not a single entity, what is telling us the self is identical from moment to moment? Is the self just the pile of molecules in a body? If so, that too is changing, and far from equilibrium.

            1. “What “data” do you propose to find on such a fishing expedition?”

              I have no idea what you mean. I am not proposing any fishing expeditions. I’m saying that the current state of scientific knowledge about human brains and how they function is insufficient to describe or model brain function or consciousness well enough to definitively answer such questions. I assumed brain function / consciousness is what you meant by “it.” That’s what I’m talking about anyway.

              “Are you concluding a self exists even though there is insufficient data?” Yes, I am. I’m saying we know enough to be reasonably sure that “selfs” exist, whatever they may be, simply because we can be reasonably sure that individual human bodies exist and that individual nervous systems in them give rise to consciousness. Of course, that depends on your definition of self. I’m talking about a practical meaning of words like I, self, you. All I’m saying is that whatever your brain function is, that is you, for any meaningful definition of you.

              I’m saying that when people say things like, “you didn’t make that decision, your brain did 1 second before you were conscious of it,” that while that is fascinating I don’t agree with that characterization. I’m saying, yes, you did make that decision it’s just that you isn’t exactly what you thought it was. I’m saying you includes the subconscious functions as well as the conscious functions and whatever else is going on in your brain. That’s you, no one else, and isn’t just the deterministic unfolding of the universe, it’s the deterministic unfolding of a uniquely identifiable blob of stuff that is you.

              Regarding the self changing over time, I understand what you are saying and I understand that this is a common category of “puzzle,” but I don’t see the quandary at all, never did. It’s all true. You are not the same you you were 1 second ago and the more time goes by the more different you are from any previous you. In every moment they are all still you. I don’t see how it is a problem that “objects” change.

            2. Actually our cells in the brain, the neurons, are not being replaced all the time, unlike all other types of cells of our body. I wonder if that could be significant in terms of explaining our sense of permanence of the “I”.

              I guess that also depends on the theory of consciousness we are using: if we take a functionalist approach where consciousness is independent from the substrate, then it probably would not make a difference. If we use a theory of consciousness where the biological material of the substrate is important, then the permanence of neurons might have some significance.

              It is the paradox of you being disassembled atom by atom, tele transported to a different location and then reassembled: is it the same “I”? And what if I make multiple copies?

              1. Even if brain cells mostly last a lifetime, the molecules that comprise them are constantly turning over. And, of course, energy within the brain doesn’t stay put. So the self exists but only as a pattern that is constantly changing. It’s a coherence. In fact, everything is a pattern, even a rock. Its molecules change over time: it gains and loses molecules from its surface, radioactivity, and other kinds of activity. Objectness is a human concept, albeit a very helpful one.

              2. Let’s say that brain cells are persistent patterns, while other cells are patterns of a limited duration. So there is a difference. But I am not sure whether it is significant in terms of the permanence of the self. Your entire body, for example, is a persistent pattern, and that is certainly significant in making you an individual rather than just a loose assembly of biological components

  15. Back in 2019, on this very blog, and with my tongue firmly in my cheek, I stated

    I exercise my free will by choosing not to have my very next thought.

    which, of course I cannot choose to do, nor anybody else, I should think. Sam Harris seems to agree 😉

  16. I’m am confused regarding (at least) two things.

    1. How does one avoid falling into fatalism if there is no free will? That is, is an event in the future inevitable?

    2. If there is no free will how does punishment for wrong doing prevent further wrong doing?

    Note: I’m not trying to argue for free will.

    1. My short answer. We don’t know what is going to happen, even if many events are inevitable, so we still face a future that is unknown. Also, I am not a fatalist (though I’m lugubrious, but that long preceded my realization that we have no free will), nor are the other hard determinists I’ve met, like Sam Harris.

      Re point #2: our brains are conditioned, largely through evolution but also through learning, to respond to punishment by trying to avoid it in the future. It’s simply a computer program that you could program into any computer. It’s the same principle that enables your body to pull your hand out of the flame before you’re aware of it–that’s built in as well.

      1. Thanks.

        Re fatalism and an unknown future. Are you (we) saying the future is determined and unchangeable, but Laplace’s Demon could describe what is going to happen?

        1. Not speaking for anybody else, but it seems to me that even given that determinism is as per current physics that we don’t know enough to say the future is unchangeable in the way I think you mean.

          For one example, the current state of knowledge in physics, as I understand it, is that the book is still open on whether or not determinism reigns in all contexts. The general consensus seems to be sure that it does reign locally, but there are unknowns. The elephant in the room is that we don’t know if quantum mechanics is probabilistic or deterministic. There are, famously, different interpretations.

          To me it also seems likely that we can not, at least as of yet, understand the implications of determinism as applied to such a huge number of variables. Our simplified model is that if you know all the variables then you can calculate any later states. Most of our models don’t map to reality with perfect accuracy so I don’t think it is a given that this one does. And even tiny perturbations can end up having drastic affects.

          Long story short, I don’t think we know enough yet to be confident about whether or not the future is determined and unchangeable.

          1. Deterministic vs. Probabilistic is a red herring in the discussion of free will. Even assuming a probabilistic behavior, in order for it to be relevant for libertarian free will you would have to show that your free will can actually change the probability profile of a microscopic event, as compared to not applying your free will to that same type of event. Never seen any indication of that: discovering such a behavior would be worth more than a Nobel prize

            1. I agree, but we weren’t talking about free will. We were talking about whether or not determinism is functionally equivalent to predeterminism.

  17. Thinking this out, based on commentary here.

    Harris focuses on experience. I think even if a program could compute our experience in each moment, to be useful, it would make such a scenario meaningless – the individual would compute their experience and in doing so would instead interpret the program output, instead of experiencing.

    As things are now, an individual cannot take all factors into account to know what their experience is in each moment anyway. They are forced to rely on their moment to moment experience – forced to remain ignorant of a multitude of influences and chain reactions, sometimes going the way we plan, other times not exactly, always ignoring how little it takes to change an outcome.

  18. Sean Carroll, in his last Ask Me Anything episode:

    2:05:36.5 SC: Sure, so I did not cleanly dispel free will. If anything, I cleanly dispelled libertarian free will, right? Libertarian free will is exactly the idea that we talked about earlier, that somehow you are a law unto yourself, you are not beholden to the laws of physics. Okay, I don’t believe in that. Very few people do believe in that, some do, actually probably the majority of people in the world, very few philosophers and neuroscientists than physicists believe in that, let’s put it that way. But I’m a compatibilist, so I think that it is still useful to talk about free will. For example, I give advice to people to take initiative. So what I would say is that the laws of physics are the laws of physics, my will power does not overcome them, my will power is an emergent creation of the laws of physics, so there’s no libertarian free will in that sense. And yet, when I describe human beings, when I talk about human beings, when I interact with human beings, including myself, it is overwhelmingly useful to use that description of human beings as decision-making agents, as people who can think about reasons for doing things, and on the basis of those reasons, they can make decisions.

    2:06:46.1 SC: Okay, that’s what a compatibilist is. A compatibilist is someone who recognizes that the laws of physics are the laws of physics, I cannot overcome them, and yet there is an absolutely clear sense of volition and decision-making and free will that we have at the emergent level of being human beings. And honestly, in my less generous moments, I think that literally everyone is a compatibilist, but some of us are willing to admit it, and some of us are not. I have never met a free will skeptic, someone who doesn’t believe in free will, who also refuses to use the language of people making choices, who always refuses to try to convince people of things. Right, I mean, if you don’t have the ability to be convinced because everything is pre-determined, why would you ever convince people of anything? Why would you ever think that anything is right or wrong? You can’t believe in morality if you don’t believe in free will, you can’t believe that I could make a right decision ’cause you don’t believe I’m making decisions. So I think that a lot of people are compatibilists, they just don’t like to use that language, that’s my theory. Like I said, in my less generous moments.


    At 2:45:51.1 He talks about Sapolsky and free will

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