Saturday, February 2, 2013

Sam Harris on free will

Sam Harris has entered the fray with a book called Free Will. Granted he assumes this means the very type of idealistic notions that I am not promoting. But further, at least from one of his blog posts on the subject, he seems to be much more of an eliminative determinist than Churchland, for it doesn't seem he allows much, if any, conscious decision-making ability. He grants the following:

"I’m not saying that you can become a surgeon by accident—you must do many things, deliberately and well, and in the appropriate sequence, year after year. Becoming a surgeon requires effort."

It's just that there were many other factors like genetics, environment and culture that made that opportunity possible which are not at the behest of one's decision to become a surgeon. But that is one of my points, that we can decide to do something about every one of those things, to change one's environment with policies that give economic opportunities to the poor, that provide adult education in child-rearing to give them the necessary tools to get ahead. And we can even now manipulate bad genes. And all of those require some degree of deliberate, self-conscious decision-making of those who have been given every opportunity, like our politicians, to bring that opportunity to everyone.

And all of the above can be from a empirically grounded knowledge that there is no idealistic self apart from our bodies and brains. We don't have to assume that some degree of conscious choice must come from such ridiculous models. We can have embodied, real selves validated by empirical neurological evidence, limited as they are, still produce choices that are not the result of all the lower parts that compose us. Even Churchland will grant this, the supposed queen of eliminative determinism.

I guess part of what I'm getting at above is that many of our unconscious mechanisms controlling much of our lives are not written in stone. We can change them. If we know anything about our brain it is that it is plastic, malleable, can change and be re-programmed. It can grow and evolve. And that requires some very conscious decision-making which can then enlist our very autonomous, unconscious programs to achieve our conscious goals. We are not stuck with what we are given.

In this post Harris elucidates some more in relation to Dennett's position. They agree that the 'conventional' meaning of "free will" makes no sense. And Harris admits that "choice, reasoning, discipline, etc., play important roles in our lives despite the fact that they are determined by prior causes" which leads to cultural progress. But he maintains that this doesn't add credence to the "traditional idea of free will."

He then criticized Dennett for changing this definition, as discussed briefly above. And that something in changing the definition, in grounding it in neuroscience and embodiment, still somehow contributes to or "lends credence to" the 'conventional' notion and thereby aids and abets its agenda. I'm not following (agreeing with) his argument here.

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