Sam Harris & The Narcoleptic Driver


“Freedom is the recognition of necessity.” -Spinoza

With one inveterate Horseman passing on this year and another ailing, it deeply saddens me to see the youngest and most promising Horseman choosing to ride such a crippled steed into the Free Will debate. Having just read his most recent essay, Free Will, I must once again warn my readers that my mind is highly likely to generate words like ‘nonsense’ or ‘preposterous’ in the coming sentences. If these words do pop up in the rant that follows, then Sam’s whole argument for psychological determinism is preposterous nonsense. If he is correct that we cannot know our own souls, predict our intentions, or control our minds, then it is just as likely that I will end up singing his praises by the end of this essay instead of mounting what I expect will be a savage critique. Though I intend to highlight the places where Sam contradicts himself, let us not lose sight of the fact that Sam is free to contradict himself; a fact that in itself disproves his psychological or logical determinism. Insofar as man can know himself man is free to refuse to be himself and Sam’s essay is a compelling example of a man refusing to be himself. After all, he is arguing that the self and freedom are illusions that he has unmasked as such: therefore, he is subject to neither illusion and has successfully refused to be himself. Even a desperate argument against human freedom itself bears the remarkable stamp of that human freedom and demonstrates the extent of human powers. A compelling and brilliant argument of this kind only defeats itself more effectively and powerfully! At the very least, such an argument proves that man can know himself (can know that he is subject to illusion, know what caused him to be who he is, etc), only, part of the argument Sam Harris uses to prove his case involves his denying that we can know ourselves!

Mr. Harris has made a career out of courting controversy, despite the fact that his central arguments are generally so trivially true as to appear tautologous to all but the dogmatically encumbered. However, he has apparently run out of simple controversies to harp on and has, in what I can only guess was a moment of desperation, taken aim at Free Will, mistaking this debate for an intellectual brushfire well-suited for his inflammatory but deceptively cool criticism. Predictably, he just pillories the antiquated Libertarian Free Will that views human choices as being magically divorced from prior causation. “Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have complete control over those factors.” So Free Will requires omnipotence and omniscience, eh? That is rather convenient for your argument Sam! Though he takes a small baby-step into the actual philosophical debate by feebly attacking Dennett’s compatibalism, his attack is tragically shallow. The only point of agreement that I found with Harris, other than agreeing that humans are not omnipotent or omniscient, was his attack on our practices of punishment; attacks that are valid regardless of any of the arguments he makes about free will. Sadly, I must admit that after reading this seemingly well-penned and articulate essay I can no longer take Harris seriously as either a scientist or philosopher and will never again pay for one of his books. Even more tragic than my losing a potential intellectual hero is the fact that Harris appears to be rapidly losing his mind, if we are to take his words seriously. Take the following, for instance:

A Moment or two of serious self-scrutiny, and you might observe that you no more decide the next thought you think than the next thought I write.

Do not be alarmed or contact Sam’s psychiatrist, he is really just bluffing with this nonsense. Luckily, his bluff allows me an ample opportunity to cut through all of the bullshit and lay bare his essential argument. Before doing that, however, please note the fact that Harris’ quote presupposes that we can somehow decide to have “a moment or two of serious self-scrutiny,” which will presumably guide our next thought to be one that is serious and self-scrutinizing. Thus, Harris manages to defeat his own argument before even finishing the sentence. Hilariously, this sentence contains a prediction about what we are likely to think if we seriously self-scrutinize, while at the same time claiming that not even the person in question could predict his own next thought! You see, the central point of Harris’ essay is that we cannot predict our own minds and therefore could not possibly control them. “If you don’t know what your soul is going to do next, you are not in control,” he informs us. How he thinks we will manage to pull off this moment or two of self-scrutiny given that we cannot control our minds or even begin to predict our thoughts or the movements of our soul is a bloody mystery if we actually take Sam at his word.

My argument is pretty simple, really: If Sam were correct that we cannot predict which thoughts will come next, or what our soul will likely intend next, and therefore have no control over our own minds, then it would be impossible for him to pen such an articulate essay. He realizes this problem and thus imports an argument for psychological determinism from his book The Moral Landscape without realizing what a buffoon this makes him to anyone familiar with that book! You see, in The Moral Landscape he argues that as he is writing he doesn’t know why certain words pop into his head and not others or why he prefers some and not others when they do. Basically, he is claiming that the thoughts just come to him from out of the blue without his having any conscious control over them or predictive insight into their trajectory. It is as if he is surprised to find arguments against Free Will pop into view when he sits down to write a book about the illusion of Free Will. In “Free Will,” Sam once again tries this trick, but tells us that he still could not possibly predict what he would write next despite nearly copying word-for-word the argument he penned the previous year! This is why I jokingly mentioned worrying about Sam’s mental health: even could predict that this is where his argument was going! How could he possibly fail to predict this? This would be like me sitting down to write this essay, fully expecting to rip Harris apart, but then realizing as I pen the final sentence that I have produced a resounding defense of his argument! Un…fucking…likely! If he is not in touch with his own mind well enough to remember previous arguments that he has put into print, and furthermore fails to reason that these arguments are likely to pop back into mind if he chooses to think on the topic of Free Will, then Sam Harris is mentally ill and doesn’t have the Free Will that you or I might enjoy, only he somehow, mysteriously remains coherent and organized enough to accurately describe what it would be like not to have Free Will. Apparently, he finds his own soul to be entirely inscrutable and unknowable:

However, free will is no more evident when a person does exactly what, in retrospect, he wishes he had done. The soul that allows you to stay on your diet is just as mysterious as the one that temps you to eat cherry pie for breakfast.

Wrong. This would be like saying that animal lust is just as mysterious as the Eros that builds civilizations. The latter is so dramatically more complicated and mysterious than the former that new levels of determinism must be invented to describe and then understand it (ie psychological determinism, etc). Likewise, the temptation to eat calory-rich foods is no deep mystery in comparison to the ability to systematically restrain and tame this drive. If they are both so mysterious, why has the Free Will debate raged for millennium while the question of animal hunger scarcely required explanation? Just because Sam Harris finds his own soul to be a total mystery should not dissuade us from knowing our own. Besides, even if we throw our hands up as he does in exasperation as to why our soul is inclined this way or that, we can at least learn that it is so inclined and thus make predictions about what it will be inclined towards the next day. Is this really so mysterious? Contrary to the above quote, our ability to do things that we retrospectively agree with actually proves that we can in fact know our Will quite well in fact. Any of my readers that happen to own one of those deeply mysterious souls that like eating cherry pie can, I’m sure, attest to the stability of this preference, along with the general reliability and predictability of the Will. Sam does not agree and apparently has no clue what his Will will be inclined towards from one second to the next. It is a wonder that he was able to sit at the keyboard for long enough to write out a few books, given how wily and unpredictable his mind is! It is simply preposterous to claim that human beings are incapable of predicting with uncanny accuracy their next thoughts and intentions. Our thoughts betray our intentions just as our intentions map out the trajectory of our subsequent thought. Without such an ability, I assure you as a writer, it would be next to impossible to compose an essay or book! Perhaps you could compose a poem in this unconscious fashion, but hardly an argument.

Our sense of free will results from a failure to appreciate this: we do not know what we intend to do until the intention itself arises. To understand this is to realize that we are not the authors of our thoughts and actions in the way that people generally suppose.

Oh ya? And what do we “generally suppose”? Do the majority of my readers actually “generally suppose” that every thought and intention of theirs was fashioned from immaterial and omnipotent soul-stuff? I think not. But more importantly, notice the crucial part of the argument: “we do not know what we intend to do until the intention itself arises.” This is just flat out false. For instance, I am not hungry in the least at the present moment. However, I know that I will be in the future, and thus have a perfect and immutable assurance that my Will very soon will require further sustenance and subsequently intend to do so at that time. It is a fact that I have to experience hunger once or twice in my life before being able to make the prediction that this hunger will return, but Sam is just trying to hide behind this fact in a game of intellectual peak-a-boo where he hopes none of his readers will pull his hands from his own eyes. He is very fond of such games. For example, in an hour long talk that he did at Oxford (I think) he made the claim that every one of our conscious thoughts is preceded by innumerable unconscious thoughts, which of course is true, but only part of the truth. It just so happens that each of our conscious thoughts are also preceded by other conscious thoughts! Funny how Sam managed to wave those out of existence with his fun little factoid so that he could imply that all of our conscious thoughts must then be the result of nothing but unconscious thoughts. Very tricky Mr. Harris.

Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have complete control over those factors.

Well, this argument would be pretty good if leveled at Thomas Aquinas, but it is rather pathetic for someone writing for a 21st century audience. To illustrate the absurdity of his point, imagine the following scenario: You are a narcoleptic with serious amnesia, you wake up in a foreign car that is parked on an entirely foreign road with no clue as to how you got there, and you soon realize you only have seven gallons of gas. Now, Sam would claim that because you were thrown into this situation without having chosen any of its variables, you could not possibly be said to be in control of the vehicle or to choose where the car is driven. It is impossible, according to Harris, to take control of anything that you did not entirely create, especially your own Will. Therefore, I could not possibly take control of that car and be responsible for where it goes. After all, I didn’t choose the amount of gas in the tank, how fast the car can go, or any other feature of the scenario, so how could I possibly take control of the vehicle? Well, I could choose to! Just turn the key, hit the gas, and see how far the vehicle you find yourself in will take you. For Harris to claim that you aren’t really in control of the vehicle is pretty much like him saying “you don’t really breathe your breathes.” However, I scarcely need to put nonsensical or preposterous words in Sam’s mouth to get this point across.

You have not built your mind. And in moments in which you seem to built it–when you make an effort to change yourself, to acquire knowledge, or to perfect a skill–the only tools at your disposal are those that you have inherited from moments past. Choices, efforts, intentions, and reasoning influence our behavior–but they are themselves part of a chain of causes that precede conscious awareness and over which we exert no ultimate control.”

Again we see Harris smuggling in the same half-truth that he tried to slip past the Oxford audience: all previous mental events to any moment of consciousness were unconscious. Patent nonsense! This would mean that we only have a single conscious thought in our lives, flanked by a near infinite number of unconscious ones. You can always smell propaganda in this sort of debate when someone uses a word like “inherited” to describe the mental tools, choices, and actions that we are presently equipped with. Let me use it in a sentence so you all can grasp the absurdity here: it is around noon right now and I am feeling rather hungry because I failed to inherit the choice of an adequate breakfast this morning. Does he not realize that the things he is discussing, choices and the like, are the only things that we are quite certain you do not inherit? He would object that he is speaking metaphorically, but this would commit him to actually supporting a form of self-causation, as my past self and its choices, intentions, and reasoning “give birth” to my present self and its choices. Haha! “Ultimate control:” that is the phrase he uses to smuggle in his preposterous conclusions. Of course we don’t have “ultimate control” over ourselves, or in my narcoleptic driver example over the car, for nothing has “ultimate control” over anything! If you asked Sam what did ultimately control any given thought or action, he can’t answer, because nothing has this sort of control! He is just desperately thrashing a straw man. His big analogy, the one that graces the cover of his book, has Free Will hanging from puppet strings, only Sam can’t come up with any suitable puppet master! He can’t claim that the whole universe is the cause of your action, as this confuses parts and wholes, resulting in counting the atoms that compose your body twice! He would like to claim that natural laws are in ultimate control, but this would put him in the perilous position of claiming that something immaterial causes everything, for a law, and what it represents, is not material!

None of these adventitious mental states are the real you. You are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm.

If I “am” the storm, then the storm is not controlling “me,” because it is me. Obviously a storm is free to be a storm, otherwise it would not be, well, storming! Thus, if I am free to be what I am, and I am a choosing agent regardless of how I got that way, then I too am freely choosing. Even when I am sleeping, the choices my unconscious brain make are in fact choices, they just aren’t the robust, conscious variety that we all rely on to ground moral responsibility. They are perfectly free expressions of my Will, only I must awake before I can exercise my Freedom From Will, which requires consciousness. Harris makes a fatal mistake here because he really wants to claim that the storm causes Me; that the torrent of unconscious thoughts roiling under the surface cause whatever conscious thoughts happen to break through the surface. He has now blocked that route for himself, not that self-contradiction seems to present any large obstacle to him. Case in point:

The brain is a physical system, entirely beholden to the laws of nature–and there is every reason to believe that changes in its functional state and material structure entirely dictate our thoughts and actions.

What? He is now stating that the “storm” controls “me.” But, our brains don’t “dictate” our thoughts, choices and intentions: our brains are our thoughts, choices, and intentions! Sam can’t have it both ways. Changes in the brain do not dictate thoughts: they are thoughts! However, you will notice that he goes one step further and tries to make the laws of nature control the storm, which then controls “me.” Obviously, he doesn’t know what a natural law is. The laws of nature are just our way of succinctly describing how things work in nature: they are not physical things that cause, constrain, or govern matter. Furthermore, what about these physical laws to which all physical systems are beholden makes Free Will impossible? Do these laws make light impossible, or the planet Earth, or the life on planet Earth, or the music played by gleeful super-apes playfully dancing on said planet? No. Do these laws make human beings impossible? No. So why would these laws in any way constrict human freedom or Free Will?  Furthermore, why would you ever use the word “beholden” to describe the relationship between matter and the laws that are instantiated in it? The moon is not “beholden” to gravity, it is gravity. More precisely, the very nature of it’s being produces gravitation, so if anything, gravitation is “beholden” to the moon! The laws of nature are just descriptions of the various “powers” or “freedoms” of matter. So when Harris wants to find some psychological law that limits human freedom, he needs to realize that this law describes an active power or freedom that the human being wields, with the “law” simply articulating how far the freedom extends. In the narcoleptic driver example, the seven gallons of gas sets a limit for distance that the driver can travel, but we would hardly say that the seven gallons of gas provide some kind of obstacle to the driver taking control and going somewhere! The gas is the very fuel that gets you there! Similarly, any given desire in the human will is not some kind of obstacle to human freedom: it is a human freedom. This is all rather confusing to Sam, who does not see how competing powers or freedoms can add up to produce even greater power and freedom. It is like he has never heard the term ’emergence’ or ‘exaptation’ before, let alone ‘downward causation.’ In his view, competing powers or freedoms could only impede each other and thus the overall freedom of the whole. If Sam were to discuss our driving example, he would liken natural laws to the speed governor in the engine, a physical mechanism that impedes the vehicles freedom, instead of seeing natural laws as the quantity of fuel in the tank without which the car couldn’t move.

And there is no way I can influence my desires–for what tools of influence would I use? Other desires? To say that I would have done otherwise had I wanted to is simply to say that I would have lived in a different universe had I been in a different universe. Compatibilism amounts to nothing more than an assertion of the following creed: A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings.

And why couldn’t I use one of my desires to influence another of my desires? If I desire to talk to a girl exactly as much as I desire not to be humiliated, I can, for instance, use my desire for wine to overpower my fear of shame. Even if we accept that Reason is the slave of the passions, it can nonetheless influence these passions by exposing them to predicted futures, exposing them to each other, and ultimately by playing each off the other.

You are not in control of your mind–because you, as a conscious agent, are only part of your mind, living at the mercy of other parts. You can do what you decide to do–but you cannot decide what you will decide to do. Of course, you can create a framework in which certain decisions are more likely than others–you can, for instance, purge your house of all sweets, making it very unlikely that you will eat dessert later in the evening–but you cannot know why  you were able to submit to such a framework today when you weren’t yesterday.”

Um…I thought that “you are the storm,” not “part of the storm that lives at the mercy of the other parts of the storm.” That would be nonsensical, as one part of a hurricane does not somehow live at the mercy of the others. But, oh well, this is an easy way for him to reach his desired conclusion without even arguing for it! He can just claim that the part of the mind that we are lives at the mercy of the other parts..case closed! But I’ll bet nobody else caught the juiciest part of the above quote: Sam tells us that it is “very unlikely that you will eat dessert later in the evening,” even though it would be totally impossible for you to do so! So Sam has described an example where a human being uses one desire pitted against another in order to be victorious over his desire for dessert but then tries to hide this successful exercise of freedom by making failure “unlikely” instead of “impossible.” He then shifts the focus of his attack from being able to do the action to being able to know why we were able to do the action. The quote starts with “You are not in control,” demonstrates a situation in which we are in control, and then shifts to “you cannot know why you were in control.” Which is it Sam? Furthermore, who cares if ultimately you cannot know why you were in control? This doesn’t change the fact that you were in control! It only necessitates your inventing a fanciful word so that you can properly discuss the mystery of how you can be in control. Some of us call this Free Will! Sam, you do know that a mystery and an illusion are two different things, right?

Your system of justice should reflect an understanding that any of us could have been dealt a very different hand in life.

At this point I am simply dumfounded that Sam could not see this blatant contradiction. He claims that “You will do whatever it is you do, and it is meaningless to assert that you could have done otherwise,” and asserts that the universe is “fully deterministic,” and yet we all could have been dealt a very different hand in life? How is that? He feels like our station in life, the country we were born in, our sex…all of these things “could have been otherwise,” but choices?!? The paradigmatic case of contingency? God no! We couldn’t have chosen otherwise! Now, let us watch Sam continue to trip all over himself. Having just explained that we cannot predict or control our own thoughts and intentions, he goes and spouts the following:

Becoming sensitive to the background causes of one’s thoughts and feelings can–paradoxically–allow for greater creative control over one’s life. It is one thing to bicker with your wife because you are in a bad mood; it is another to realize that your mood and behavior have been caused by low blood sugar. This understanding reveals you to be a biochemical puppet, of course, but it also allows you to grab hold of one of your strings: a bite of food maybe all that your personality requires. Getting behind our conscious thoughts and feelings can allow us to steer a more intelligent course through our lives (while knowing, of course, that we are ultimately being steered).

Grab hold of one of your strings? Sam just got done telling us that the freedom that compatibilism offers us is nothing but the freedom a puppet enjoys if he loves his strings. Now he is telling us we can grab hold of the strings? Now he is telling us we can “steer a more intelligent course through our lives”? Oh, I see…it all makes sense…because we are “ultimately being steered.” By what? What steers All? The laws of nature? And what are those? Immaterial relations we have noticed about the active powers or freedoms of material things! What is the puppet master? Sam does not answer which means that he has not given us a theory of human actions or the human mind, but instead has sought only to tear down existing theories, leaving a big gaping hole in our understanding that he simply fills with the word “mystery:”

What I will do next, and why, remains, at bottom, a mystery–one that is fully determined by the prior state of the universe and the laws of nature (including the contributions of chance).

Sam thinks that he has done away with compatibilism and can thus get away with nonsense like the above. He is quite badly confusing parts and wholes, however, as I have demonstrated in prior posts. Do tell me Sam, what is a “fully” deterministic world versus just a deterministic one, given your parenthetical about the “contributions of chance”? And given how “fully” this determinism works, why has it not ruled out the existence of life, or super-nova, or chance, or other cool shit? Oh, you have no explanation? Then why would you think that determinism is an obstacle to human freedom? If determinism is no obstacle to chance, then how could it be an obstacle to freedom? Furthermore, this quote is in direct conflict with his avowed faith in science, which he believes will eventually illuminate this deep dark mystery. This puts him in a tight spot, as he has just admitted that our “becoming sensitive to background causes of one’s thoughts and feelings…can allow for greater creative control over one’s life.” Make up your mind Sam. Are the causes of our choices mysterious and thus never subject to our conscious control, or is science successfully clearing up the mystery and thus granting us ever greater control over ourselves? He can’t be a mysterion and a non-mysterion at the same damned time!

Am I free to do that which does not occur to me to do? Of course not.

Actually, in a way we can! We can simply choose to ponder longer, allowing more and more things to “just occur” to us. Furthermore, we are free to do things that didn’t occur to us, but which did occur to other people! Does Sam really want to place the limit of human freedom at the bounds of our collective imaginations? A treacherous and foolhardy move for his camp. Humans can have many more things occur to them than they are actually physically free do to, so it wouldn’t matter if Harris’ statement were true or not, because we usually have an overabundance of possibilities that occur to us, not a dearth! The biggest problem for human life is not coming up with novel possibilities that hadn’t occurred to us, but rather, sifting through the torrent of those that already have!

There is no question that our attribution of agency can be gravely in error. I am arguing that it always is.

True, our attribution of agency can be gravely in error. But if it always is, what the hell is the difference between my mistakenly attributing agency while dreaming versus mistakenly attributing agency while fully awake? Surely these mistakes are on different levels. Furthermore, in cases where I actually did cause something but thought that I didn’t, Harris would have us believe that this “error” is actually closer to the truth! According to Harris it is somehow more accurate to say “My body didn’t knock you over on the sidewalk, it was the entire cosmos acting from the past that is responsible!” He uses the example of hypnosis which is quite comical when you think about it. In hypnosis we consciously choose to let go of executive control, to let go of conscious will power. Harris then wants to use this as an example of unconsciousness, confabulation, and lack of freedom? Hahah! Preposterous! If I choose to go to sleep two hours earlier than usual despite how alert I feel and then succeed in falling asleep, it is hardly a valid criticism of the powers of consciousness that I am now unconscious!

In the face of any real independence from prior events, every thought and action would seem to merit the statement ‘I don’t know what came over me.’

But Sam, you just confessed that we can know what comes over us, as in your example about grumpiness and low blood sugar! More importantly, “independence from prior events” has nothing to do with knowing those prior events, or knowing “what came over me.” Thus, the conclusion of this sentence does not follow from its premises.

Human choice, therefore, is as important as fanciers of free will believe. But the next choice you make will come out of the darkness of prior causes that you, the conscious witness of your experience, did not bring into being.

Here Sam smuggles in the claim that he made at the Oxford talk by first characterizing the prior causes as coming from the “darkness,” which implies unconsciousness, and then by labeling the self a “conscious witness of your experience,” which obviously implies passivity. Again, he patently fails to acknowledge that some of those “prior causes” were not unconscious thoughts, but conscious ones! If our prior causes include conscious thoughts as well, which they obviously do, then nearly every point that Sam has made falls to pieces. He must admit that we can remember some of our conscious thoughts and thus they cannot be entirely epiphenomenal. If we can remember these conscious thoughts, then we are being continually updated as to the causes of our future thoughts in each moment of conscious thought! Once Sam catches on to this fact I think it will make it much easier for him to write books, as well as get in touch with himself in a way that his preferred transcendental meditation cannot.

Why is the conscious decision to do another person harm particularly blameworthy? Because what we do subsequent to conscious planning tends to most fully reflect the global properties of our minds–our beliefs, desires, goals, prejudices, etc. If, after weeks of deliberation, library research, and debate with your friends, you still decide to kill the king–well, then killing the king reflects the sort of person you really are.

This paragraph is absolutely key to unraveling Sam Harris’ twisted logic. You see, he previously claimed that we can’t know our minds, we can’t anticipate our next thoughts or intentions, and so forth, but now he is willing to admit that the thoughts and intentions we have while consciously planning “reflect global properties of our minds–our beliefs, desires, goals, prejudices, etc.” But I thought that all of our conscious thoughts come out of some mysterious, dark pit of prior causes that are perfectly inscrutable to our conscious minds? Now it seems that our conscious thoughts and actions betray a whole lot about that dark, mysterious place; in fact, they “reflect global properties” of that mysterious place.

My final objection is essentially that Sam Harris is an atrocious scientist, though I suppose I am not even aware of any legitimate science that he has so far produced for the world. I make this comment because Sam counts himself a scientist and a spokesman for science while nonetheless doing it a great disservice. In Free Will he quickly glosses over Libet’s experiments on volition and a few more without so much as a drop of explicit interpretation or the courtesy to mention that Libet patently disagrees with his implied interpretation! Harris cites a study that showed that students cheat more when prompted by arguments denying Free Will and yet he glibly surmises that his book is no threat to freedom or morality. So basically all of the science that Harris mentions ultimately disagrees with his conclusions, but he just ignores this and puts his hands in front of his eyes. Harris has faced the argument before regarding the morality of stripping people of their religious beliefs and whether this would make them better or worse people. Hithchens totally choked on that question when he debated Lennox and later admitted that the problem vexed him greatly. But when you disabuse someone of a given religious dogma they can still replace many of its teachings with those from other schools of thought, whereas when you disabuse them of their belief in their own autonomy you have removed one of the tools with which they could affect such a salvage job. Harris simply doesn’t know how much harm he is causing by perpetuating this tripe and the fact that science could not teach him this lesson should send chills down your spine. I am reminded that Ptolemy had to prohibit the lectures of Hegesias, a despairing hedonist who turned to a philosophy of pessimism, because they resulted in too many suicides! Furthermore, he simply invents psychological theories out of thin air without bothering to read any existing scientific research on the matter. The following statement, for example, goes against an enormous range of scientific studies (see Roy Baumeister’s new book):

Willpower is itself a biological phenomenon. You can change your life, and yourself, through effort and discipline–but you have whatever capacity for effort and discipline you have in this moment, and not a scintilla more (or less). You are either lucky in this department or you aren’t–and you cannot make your own luck.

Nonsense! “Will power” can be strengthened like any other muscle in the body. You develop self-discipline; you are not born with it! Of course, Harris makes a tautology that works perfectly well: I cannot have more effort or discipline than I do at any given moment. But the same goes for apples! I can have only as many apples in this moment as I have apples in this moment, and not a scintilla more (or less). Is he willing to claim that we cannot make our own luck in the apples department too? Those of us with lots of apples at the moment are just lucky in that department?  He puts the same point another way: “How much credit does a person deserve for not being lazy? None at all. Laziness, like diligence, is a neurological condition.” But with neurological conditions we can “make our own luck,” especially through pharmacology. So even if Harris were right that I was born with only 8 units of will power, I can use those 8 units to go buy some Adderall and obtain my full 10 units! So much for these human “limitations.” And then still, after all of this business about “not a scintilla more (or less)” Sam is going to go ahead and let his ass hang right out there: “We need only acknowledge that efforts matter and that people can change.” Oh ya? People can change, but just not their level of will-power or discipline? People can change, but consciousness has nothing to do with it? Nonsense!

I’m sure that most of my readers are willing to call Sam Harris’ bluff, but in case you remain unconvinced, take a look at Harris’ concluding remarks and then decide whether you think he is being sincere and honest:

In fact, I can’t think of anything else to say on the subject. And where is the freedom in that?

Well Sam, you will discover that freedom the next time you sit down and try to think about Free Will and find that, to your great surprise, yet more thoughts develop on the matter. In fact, if you are really keen you will also notice a correlation between how much you consciously try to think and ponder on the subject and the relative quality and number of thoughts that are produced on that topic. Crazy and mysterious isn’t it! Your Will actually adapts to your Intellect even though the latter is in the service of the former! Not only can you know your Will, but you can change your Will. The Will and the Intellect can develop a relationship of mutual assistance that I think is best characterized by a mysterious term like Free Will. Now, clearly not everybody manages to affect such a relationship, but this shouldn’t stop those of us who have from thoroughly knowing ourselves and exercising our highest freedoms.

It is so bizarre: Sam Harris has spent his career railing against nonsensical religious dogma only to be done in by an inability to see past Buddhist psychology. As an enemy of mysterionism Harris has every faith in the human intellect in combination with the scientific method, but yet has precious little faith in human introspection, imagination, and self-dialogue. How can he view one aspect of the human mind as so imminently powerful as to eventually solve all practical and moral problems while at the same time viewing this human mind as powerless, unfree, constantly subject to illusion, and pitifully inept to understand, guide, or predict its own movements? I think that he should heed the advice that he levels at his readers and somehow affect a moment or two of honest self-scrutiny, which I assure him is well within his actual mental and physical powers to do. Once this mental state arrives, whenever it manages to do so in such a disorganized and chaotic brain, Sam might find that moments of honest self-scrutiny are of a different quality altogether than moments involving passing thoughts or associations, which seem to harry him like a flock of angry, shitting birds. He will find that he can choose which birds land and which birds fly, which birds live and which birds die. Though he might not choose their song, he can choose to sing it back to them and see where the duet goes. But you see, Sam is not constrained by logical consistency, which allows him to declare a lack of freedom in the case that you get the thought that you wanted or in the case in which you get a surprise thought instead. It doesn’t matter if the surprise thought is prescient or close to the intended thought, or if it is entirely random and unconnected to any other thought you ever had; either case proves your lack of freedom to Sam. It doesn’t matter if you were trying to have a random thought, or an unexpected one, or whether you were asleep and therefore not trying to do anything. To him only omniscience and omnipotence would qualify as “freedom.” (the following has been added following comments from Ron) As there is nothing in the known universe, including that universe itself, that fits such a description, Sam is stuck claiming that everything is “unfree:” a meaningless term without at least one example of something that is free. Instead of correctly realizing that the speed of light (“c”) is simply the extent of freedom that light enjoys or embodies, he seems to think that “c,” as a law of nature, actually constrains or governs that light! Light is a puppet hanging from the strings of the evil puppet-master “c.” In Sam’s little world, my giving him 10$ for his book of nonsense does not increase his financial freedom, but enforces a financial limitation on him that bars use of the term “freedom.” After all, 10$ does not grant one “ultimate” financial control or freedom. He doesn’t seem to grasp that in a finite economy owning a billion dollars is just as good as this elusive “ultimate” financial freedom. Likewise, he fails to see that in the finite economy of animal freedoms, the human being can become a virtual billionaire!

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10 Responses to Sam Harris & The Narcoleptic Driver

  1. Ron Krumpos says:

    Sam Harris does feel that free will is mostly an illusion. I believe we can make choices, but seldom freely. In my (free) ebook on comparative mysticism, “the greatest achievement in life,” is a chapter called “Outside the box.” Here are three paragraphs from it:

    What if you had to make all your decisions about living while detained in a jail cell? The cells may be open for brief periods each day, but the prisoners are still surrounded by walls. There are also walls around cells of everyday life. We are restricted by our ability to control our emotions, mind and body. Even with full command of our “self,” we must live within the restraints of Nature and society. Freedom is relative.

    “Free will” is really quite limited, despite belief that we control ourselves and our lives. We think we have endless choices…until we try to make them. Each decision must not only be based on what we “want to do,” but also on our own capabilities and what is expected of us. Nature and society imprison us, whether we like it or not. The key to release is mystical realization. All in One and One in All, the divine unity, opens the gate between a universal consciousness and most people’s constrained awareness.

    Outer walls are the boxes of Nature and of society. Inclement weather, lack of sunlight, gravity, and/or other natural phenomena may restrain our movements. Our own natural aptitudes, practiced talents and learned skills are always lacking in some areas. Human nature is controlled mostly by society. What we believe that other people expect of us greatly influences how we feel, think and act. Considering the reactions of our family, friends, business associates, community, and/or nation determines much of what we do. Those “laws” of Nature and society govern our lives, usually more so than we wish. Mystical awareness can allow us to obey divine law here and now.

    Sam Harris has written positively on mysticism and said “I see nothing irrational about seeking the states of mind that lie at the core of many religions. Compassion, awe, devotion and feelings of oneness are surely among the most valuable experiences a person can have.” Harris’ personal background reflects his own search toward that goal.

    http://www.peacenext.org/profile/RonKrumpos

    • Hi Ron, thank you for your comments. I agree that Free Will is not omnipotence, of course. However, it seems that you still see the various laws of nature or the various “givens of existence” purely as obstacles to individual freedom, which no doubt some of them can be at times. But culture enables as much as it constrains: exactly as much, in fact. That is, the culture you were born into is largely responsible for granting you the freedom to think, to use a common language and communicate with people, to have numerous examples of how to think and how to live, and so forth. Instead of viewing these gifts as constraints, couldn’t we view them as powers that we can turn to our advantage in our pursuit of personal freedom? Sometimes this line of argument sounds to me like the following scenario: “someone gives you exactly 123$ and you start complaining about how the people around you limit your freedom to only 123$.” Well, compared to life without those other people, it seems you have made a net gain, unless you view this newfound financial freedom as a newfound financial limitation of 123$. Do you see how this all hinges on what a freedom is, whether we define it positively or negatively? A freedom is just a power…and not all powers conflict with each other, so why would we worry about ALL powers somehow thwarting human freedom?

      Re: “Free will is really quite limited.” Well, compared to what? What is the “really-super-free thing” that you are using as a comparison? Or, similarly, what is the “super-really-constrained-thing” that you are using as a comparison? I think that you will find, along with David Hume, that humans actually project their internal experience of Will or intention onto the external world to form a concept of causal power. Therefore, it would be rather insane to then go on to say that the very paradigm of freedom or power (Will or intention) happens to be completely controlled by all of that external power/freedom that we call the World. We wouldn’t have even been able to conceive of external causal powers without experiencing our own internal causal powers! Given that these internal powers of choice or intention are actually the model that we use to compare the relative power or freedom of inanimate objects, it would seem rather silly to suddenly deny this model any freedom as being “really” powerful in favor of the power that this model demonstrate to be present in inanimate objects.

      Yes, gravity can constrain my movements, sort of, but then again, human beings have not let this stop them! We thwart gravity every time we jump up into the air, let alone escape into outer space. Furthermore, without gravity it would be rather hard to walk along the Earth’s surface…so gravity constrains us in some ways (that are ultimately possible to get around!), but ENABLES us in others. If you follow that same line of logic with every law, object, or natural phenomenon that you mention, you will come to the realization IMHO that each one enables us in some ways, constrains us in others, and that we can use the enabling features of one determinism to get around the contraints of another!

      Yes, Sam Harris has written positively on mysticism, and frankly, I think his love of Buddhism has blinded him to any real understanding of the human mind. But to your point, I must add that Harris doesn’t seem to think that it is possible to “see[k] the states of mind that lie at the core of many religions.” He doesn’t believe that we have any control over what we seek, do, think, prefer, or find valuable….all of these things just happen to us. Thus, if you agree with Harris’ position, then you will admit that you have come to your mystical awareness by accident and through no effort of your own, where “you” are the conscious ego. Your mystical truth just happened to you…lucky! I don’t think you really buy that though.

      • Ron Krumpos says:

        Wow! That was quite a response. I’ll have to “think on it” before commenting again. In the meantime read a little more on what Harris says about mysticism:
        “Rational Mysticism” by Sam Harris atr http://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?page=harris_25_6&section=library

      • Hi Ron, will do. Actually I remember hearing Harris speak at one of the “beyond belief” events rather eloquently about how western science may have missed something important about immediate experience. He sounded so hopeful and parsimonious back then and was one of my favorite writers. What happened since “the end of faith”?

        In the link you provide he writes: “I used the words spirituality and mysticism affirmatively, in an attempt to put the range of human experience signified by these terms on a rational footing.” I simply cannot fathom why these terms help him put things on a rational footing while the word ‘freedom’ leads only to error. In his worldview the word holds no meaning…there is nothing that we could point to as free, as something that is an unconstrained force or impetus. But if there is no freedom, how exactly do we come up with examples of things that are unfree? How do we reach the conclusion that all is constrained and unfree if ‘freedom’ has no meaning in the first place?

      • Btw Ron, I have enormous respect for those like you that publish for free. I have begun to trust free literature more than expensive literature, and for my own part plan on publishing a free ebook simply to avoid being influenced or seduced by the power of money. I look forward to reading some of your thoughts. Cheers man!

  2. Ron Krumpos says:

    It was inspired by my meeting with 19 mystics, of five faiths, in 12 countries. They gave their advice freely which is why my ebook is free. At age 72 money is less of a motivating factor.

    • Ron I just started reading your book and was quickly astounded with the following two quotes that you included:

      “I went from God to God, until they cried from me, ‘O thou I.” Bayazid of Bistun

      “I am He whom I love, and He whom I love is I. We are two spirits in one body. If thou seest me, thou seest Him. And if thou seest Him, thou seest us both.”
      Hallaj

      I sense a strong synergy and look forward to absorbing everything in your book. Thanks again Ron!

  3. Na Tonsil says:

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  4. Kim Baber says:

    I really like what you’ve done with the thmeme but I was asking myself if you are the one that created it or you just bought it and customized it?

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