Sam Harris and the Narcoleptic Sailor

Having just finished Sam Harris’ “The Moral Landscape,” I feel comfortable in endorsing my prior post on this topic, with only one necessary addendum: Harris is more interested in proving that science is up to the task of mapping out the moral landscape and less interested in whether various “peaks” on this landscape could be occupied by saint or sinner alike. He states, for example that “if evil turned out to be as reliable a path to happiness as goodness is, my argument about the moral landscape would still stand, as would the likely utility of neuroscience for investigating it. It would no longer be an especially ‘moral’ landscape; rather it would be a continuum of well-being, upon which saints and sinners would occupy equivalent peaks.” This successfully obviates my concerns about sociopaths and psychopaths, though weakening the overall strength of Harris’ claims vis a vis moral realism. Having said this, I must also admit that the book is fantastic and the reasoning impeccable (with one exception discussed below). It is truly sad that the world actually needs the sort of reality check that the book offers and my hat is off to Harris for driving home his (somewhat obvious) point. However, in Sam’s attempt to rid his worldview of metaphysics, he has taken much too strong a position against Free Will. At first I thought that he may just be attempting to undermine foolish or “common sense” forms of Free Will, but after re-reading the relevant section it is clear that he has made some mistaken assumptions that lead him to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Though Harris is trying to make us all feel at ease with science moving in on the sacred territory of morality, he is not helping his case at all by lampooning notions like Free Will irresponsibly. For example, he claims that not only is free will an illusion, but “the truth about us is stranger than many suppose: The illusion of free will is itself an illusion,” by which he means that we make reference to our (illusory) “feeling” of free will more than we actually have this (illusory) feeling. Harris is of course correct, but this is the most offensive and jarring way he could put his point. Julian Jaynes makes the same point, but with consideration and fairness:

“Consciousness is a much smaller part of our mental life than we are conscious of, because we cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of. How simple that is to say; how difficult to appreciate!”

Jaynes uses the analogy of consciousness as a flashlight in a dark shed, illuminating only what it is pointing directly at, but seeing only illuminated objects nonetheless. This leads to the illusion that “all is illuminated,” or analogously, “we are always conscious of our own thoughts.” The way Harris puts it, on the other hand, sounds like we are being doubly fooled to even think that we are self-conscious at all, ever! No flashlight–just dark shed! He writes that “we are conscious of only a tiny fraction of the information that our brains process in each moment…and yet most of us still feel that we are the authors of our own thoughts and actions.” He never claims that we are most certainly not the authors of our own thoughts and actions, but it is clear that this is his position. He does claim that “you are not the author of your thoughts and actions in the way that people generally suppose,” but fails to tell us how it actually is; leaving us hanging with the implication that we are certainly not the authors of our thoughts. Harris cites some neuroscience that shows how our brains are primed for action before we are conscious of making a choice as definitive proof that free will doesn’t exist–again making a somewhat true point quite false by hyperbole and over-generalization. Jaynes refers to the same kind of neuroscience experiments, but makes the true point with circumspection and propriety instead. After describing an experiment where people were primed with a word and asked to free-associate, Jaynes concludes that:

one does one’s thinking before one knows what one is to think about. The important part of the matter is the instruction, which allows the whole business to go off automatically. This I shall shorten to the term struction, by which I mean it to have the connotation of both instruction and construction.” -Jaynes

‘Struction’ is the crux of the case here; the piece of the puzzle that Harris glosses over in order to sound edgy and heretical. It is the part that “allows the whole business to go off automatically.” Harris wants to ignore ‘struction’ and concentrate on that “automatic” part. There are two facts that Harris needs to sweep under the rug to pull this off: 1) we self-consciously apply ‘struction’ all the time in order to prime a process of free-association, making “us” responsible for the impetus and direction of our train of thought, and 2) we can take a timeout in terms of action and simply let that free-association play out, for as long as we need to. Harris would have us believe that our own ‘structions’ also just happened to pop into our heads, just as our free-associations did, and thus “we” never “direct” anything; it all just happens to us. He never argues this explicitly, but after re-reading his work, it is clear that he is committed to some such nonsense. This is why he feels comfortable proclaiming that “you are not the author of your thoughts and actions in the way that people generally suppose,” without then telling us how we are the authors of our thoughts and actions in a less conventional, scientifically vetted sense, like Dan Dennett so eloquently does. This seems quite irresponsible to me and quite at odds with the purpose of his book: to make people more comfortable with neuroscience and the light it sheds on our most intimate relationship–that with our selves. He even quotes Dennett once or twice, perhaps failing to realize that Dennett is a compatibalist (a supporter!) of Free Will.

Sam’s whole attack on Free Will rests on one critical assumption: that “we,” the “self” or “agent,” are just an illusory Cartesian Theater where all of the content of consciousness is displayed in its completeness. This is patent nonsense! Once again, however, Harris never gives us a definition of the “self,” but in the process of lampooning the “common sense” notion, betrays the fact that he holds just this same notion himself! This is clear and obvious in the following quote:

“Notice that distinction between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ systems in the brain gets us nowhere: for I no more initiate events in executive regions of my prefrontal cortex than I cause the creaturely outbursts of my limbic system. The truth seems inescapable: I, as the subject of my experience, cannot know what I will next think or do until a thought or intention arises; and thoughts and intentions are caused by physical events and mental stirrings of which I am not aware.”

This is all the “I” is to Harris: a “subject of experience.” His whole attack on Free Will, which includes an attack on this same notion of self-hood, falls apart on this assumption alone. You can in fact “know what [you] will next think or do” beforehand, by receiving a thought or intention whose content is a provisional map of your next successive thoughts and intentions! You can see that he cannot even keep his notion of the self straight from paragraph to paragraph:

“The problem is that no account of causality leaves room for free will. Thoughts, moods, and desires of every sort simply spring into view–and move us, or fail to move us, for reasons that are, from a subjective point of view, perfectly inscrutable.” -Harris

(We will ignore the obvious fact that “we” as “subject[s] of experience” are not limited to only a “subjective point of view” where our motives and reasons are inscrutable) Hold on here, how can “we” be “moved” if “we” are just a “subject of experience” with no causal role in this process whatsoever? Shouldn’t Sam write instead that “thoughts, moods, and desires spring into view and affect other thoughts, moods, and desires; a process ‘we’ passively watch?” What would be the point of having self-consciousness in this view? Evolutionarily it would be quite superfluous. He is of course right that we cannot provide ultimate justifications for our preferences and at some point will just say “because it felt good damn it!” when pressed for such an explanation, but just because we cannot produce a perfect causal account of why something moves us does not mean that our self or “I” was causally irrelevant to being moved! In Harris’ view, you could presumably remove this bare awareness, this illusory self, and the behavior would not change at all! The organism would still appear to “be moved.” Harris continues from the last quotation above:

“Why did I use the term ‘inscrutable’ in the previous sentence? I must confess that I do not know. Was I free to do otherwise? What could such a claim possibly mean? Why, after all, didn’t the word ‘opaque’ come to mind? Well, it just didn’t–and now that it vies for a place on the page, I find that I am still partial to my original choice. Am I free with respect to this preference? Am I free to feel that ‘opaque’ is the better word, when I just do not feel that it is the better word? Am I free to change my mind? Of course not. It can only change me.”

How could it possibly change “me” when “I” am just bare awareness, an illusory Cartesian Theater? Sam is of course right that he cannot simply decide to change his preference for the word ‘opaque,’ but he is quite seriously wrong to assume that his self was irrelevant to either word popping into view. Sam has probably used the world ‘inscrutable’ many times in his life and noticed that he likes the ring of it, which is no choice of his but certainly makes him conscious of this preference. Thus, he cannot claim that this word just popped into his head out of nowhere and that he had no clue, not the faintest inkling, as to which word would pop up to complete his sentence. When he sat down to pen that paragraph, he gave himself a ‘struction’ which produced a bunch of sentences which he could easily anticipate! Believe me, he would notice if he “just happened” to start writing about Star Wars, given the ‘struction’ about demolishing Free Will that he began writing with. For example, before starting this post, I had a vague awareness that I would use the word “nonsense” with an exclamation after it, and thus my doing so was really no surprise to me, even though it seemed to just “pop into view.” This is the illusion Harris should be railing against! This is the illusion of determinism. Instead, Harris would lead us to believe that even the ‘struction’ that started both his and my writing also “just happened to pop into view.” In reality, the things that “just happen to pop into view” don’t often surprise us because we knew they were coming; we already gave them implicit authorization. Let’s examine a simple example that I will call The Narcoleptic Sailor:

Imagine a narcoleptic sailor who can only stay awake for three minutes in each day. He gets up, checks the compass and his map, adjusts the wheel to set the right course, locks the wheel, and then goes back below to crash. While asleep the boat “automatically” heads towards its destination “all by itself!” Then the sailor wakes up the next day and finds that he is 300 miles away from the last location he remembers being awake at. Surprised, he concludes that an intense wind must have kicked up and sent him further than he anticipated going in 24 hours. Now, can we really claim that this sailor was irrelevant to the course of travel simply because he was not consciously sustaining this course for every millisecond it was traveled? There are 1440 minutes in a day and he was only awake for 3 of them, so is he only .208% responsible for the course? Nonsense! David Brooks explains that “we can take in millions of pieces of information a minute, of which we can be consciously aware of about 40.” Though this shows that much of the hard work in cognition occurs unconsciously, this does not mean that we are only some fraction of a percent responsible for our cognition. Even if we are on “autopilot” most of our waking day, the brief spurts of reflective, self-conscious cognition simply count for much more than the rest because they “prime” or initiate the rest. We don’t even have to be conscious of our selves to be exercising our freedom, just like the narcoleptic sailor. Much of unconscious cognition is simply the completion of past moments of reflective activity. William James was correct in asserting that “To be conscious means not simply to be, but to be reported, known, to have awareness of one’s being added to that being.” The strange thing is that we are often most causally effective when we have invested ourselves so deeply into a task that we are not self-conscious at all–and yet we have an awareness of “being added to that being” (sometimes only after finishing the task). A good example is a musician, totally invested in her performance, totally unaware of her “self” and its individual decisions but all the while adding to her being. This happens when the instrument ceases to be like an extension of her body, following linear, individual, mechanical instructions, and is instead wholly accepted as an actual extension of her body, controlled effortlessly by habitual or routinized commands that no longer need be voiced (or made explicitly conscious!), leaving much conscious energy to be expended on more intuitive, holistic guidance.

When Harris sat down to write, the contents of his “mental stream” that seemed to just pop up were really pre-authorized; primed, and initiated by countless moments of prior self-conscious activity. This is the great thing about our executive functions: we can command our mind to remind us of something whenever a certain occasion arises, and our mind will “automatically” do it every time without further conscious commands! Thus, the proportion of conscious to unconscious cognition, both in time and in processing power, simply doesn’t matter as much as Harris would have us believe. Notice that Harris stopped for a moment to question whether he could change his mind, whether he could choose a different word, and low and behold, another word popped into view. Instead of finding it quite amazing and mysterious that he can stop for a moment and pose such questions and that doing so predictably produces more content, he laments the fact that he cannot change his preferences and concludes that we must all be slaves to our minds. Why not take Jaynes’ perspective? “After all, in introspecting we always have hundreds of words to describe what happens in a few seconds. (what an astonishing fact that is!).” -Jaynes

The point is that Sam can’t help but have tons of relevant synonyms “pop into mind” so long as he concentrates on the issue. It doesn’t matter in the slightest which one “wins out” and becomes his preference. It is not as if just one thought alone will “spring up” from the depths–as long as Sam concentrates on the issue more thoughts of equal relevance will keep on streaming in. Sam confuses what “authoring” really is, just as he confuses what human freedom really amounts to. If I give a little girl only four different colors of crayon, does this mean that she is not the author of her subsequent drawings? After all, these colors were just given to her. Am I the author of her drawings because I chose the color pallet she was limited to? Of course not. This is patent nonsense! It commits the Genetic Fallacy. Just because Sam will eventually be limited to using one word only doesn’t mean that he has no freedom in choosing words. He might find that if he concentrates for another ten minutes that a word pops into view which he just so happens to prefer even more! In this case, he has just changed his mind! Can Sam really claim that neither his ‘struction’ nor his choice to introspect for longer and longer was relevant to the written paragraphs that result? Nonsense! (oooh, there it is again…mysteriously popping up out of nowhere). Of course, Sam doesn’t think that introspection is irrelevant at all, but rather thinks that our “choice” to introspect was no such thing–it just happened to happen too. Man is not free and, to use Sam’s words, his “‘choices’ merely appear in his mental stream.” Though there is no clearer way of summarizing Fatalism than this, Harris goes on to attack Fatalism also.

He claims that to just sit back in life and see what happens “is itself a choice that will produce its own consequences. It is also extremely difficult to do: just try staying in bed all day waiting for something to happen; you will find yourself assailed by the impulse to get up and do something, which will require increasingly heroic efforts to resist.”

While he is right to denounce Fatalism here, he unwittingly undermines every point he has since made while attacking Free Will. He has admitted that regardless of our preferences (which we can’t choose) we can choose to sit in bed all day, though this will be difficult. But hold on, I thought that because we cannot choose our preferences that we were totally unfree and that it would be impossible for us to perform this “difficult” task. What does Harris even mean by using the world “heroic” to describe the difficulty of such efforts? One displays courage or heroism only when one does something against all inclinations towards pleasure, comfort, and safety; when one does something that one does not have to do! But Harris is denying freedom, in which case such heroism is both impossible and incomprehensible. Either one just happens to be a hero, or one just happens not to be, in his view. Harris fails to see that this heroic resolve, this “doing nothing” against every impulse, is exactly what Free Will is! We can choose to have a moment of silence and to make that moment stretch on as long as we need it to as we watch ever more options and possibilities materialize before us. It doesn’t matter that we cannot help but prefer certain options and possibilities over others. So long as we know what we prefer, we can enact a ‘struction’ on one of those preferences and pause while every conceivable possibility involving that ‘struction’ moves into view. Sam is making the Cartesian mistake of thinking that this “heroism” happens to “me,” instead of realizing that they are the same thing…”I” am the “hero” performing this “heroism.” This is because “I” am not just the bare awareness of consciousness, but instead “I” am “my mind” itself–or if we literally limit our selves to higher functions, “I” am “initiate[d] events in executive regions of my prefrontal cortex,” to use Sam’s words. Sam is not just the bare awareness that receives the content, he is also that content! He makes the mistake of assuming that “he” is just the “mental stream” and not also the water in it! In fact, of course, the stream and the water are identical. The “illusion” of Free Will is the assumption that the stream and the water are different, and that the stream causes the water to flow. After disabusing us of this very illusion, Sam manages to be fooled by it himself in his claims that the water causes the stream to flow (the mind can only change me).

Sam is willing to admit that “Brains allow organisms to alter their behavior and internal states in response to changes in the environment,” but he is not willing to admit that human brains allow human selves to alter their behavior and internal states with great freedom. This is because Sam thinks that the self is something distinct from the brain or mind; namely an epiphenomenal illusion. He is willing to admit that “Making a conscious assessment of your life, career, or marriage feels a certain way in the present and leads to subsequent thoughts and behaviors,” but is not willing to admit that conscious assessments are things that we “do.” Instead, they just happen to us. Strangely, Sam seems to be vaguely aware of this predicament. He even corrects a colleague in the following:

“Firth…has, however, conflated two facts about the mind: while it is true that all conscious processes, including any effort of reasoning, depend upon events of which we are not conscious, this does not mean that reasoning amounts to little more than a post hoc justification of brute sentiment. We are not aware of the neurological processes that allow us to follow the rules of algebra, but this doesn’t mean that we never follow these rules or that the role they play in our mathematical calculations is generally post hoc.”

Right on Sam! You tell em! But then how does this incredibly brilliant man, a personal friend of Dan Dennet no less, conclude the following?

“All of our behavior can be traced to biological events about which we have no conscious knowledge: this has always suggested that free will is an illusion.”

How can he claim that “Our frontal lobes are what allow us to select among a vast range of responses to incoming information in light of our prior goals and present inferences. Such ‘higher-level’ control of emotion and behavior is the stuff of which human personalities are made,” but deny that this is also what human freedom is made of? He has simply taken the common sense illusion of Free Will as the only kind in existence. To set the matter straight: we are quite simply “free” when “our frontal lobes…select among a vast range of responses,” even despite the fact that many responses in this range were unanticipated or only vaguely so. Harris, along with most people working in neuroscience, mistake consciousness for some kind of repository or space in which ready-made unconscious content is displayed. This Dualism didn’t stop Harris from correcting Firth in the above quote regarding mathematics, but it does stop him from seeing consciousness for what it is:

“Subjective conscious mind is an analog of what is called the real world. It is built up with a lexical field whose terms are all metaphors or analogs of behavior in the physical world. …Like mathematics, it is an operator rather than a thing or repository…And it is intimately bound up with volition and decision.” -Julian Jaynes (emphasis mine)

This entry was posted in Free Will and Responsibility, Human Movitation, Morality & Ethics. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Sam Harris and the Narcoleptic Sailor

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