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Will This Post Make Sam Harris Change His Mind About Free Will?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I spent this morning pondering whether I should attack neuroscientist Sam Harris for attacking free will. I thought, haven’t I spent enough time hassling Harris? I already knocked him, twice, for arguing in The Moral Landscape (Free Press, 2010) that science can help us discover moral principles as true—True with a capital T!—as heliocentrism or Euclid’s proof of the Pythagorean theorem. In fact, I have complained about Harris’s disparagement of free will in Landscape. Do I really need to revisit the topic?

But Harris keeps intruding on my thoughts, in part because he keeps emailing me about his writings, and especially his new book Free Will (Free Press, 2012). Also, I admit to a certain voyeuristic fascination with Harris. I wonder, what crazy idea is he going to peddle next? Some of his righteous rants give me a perverse pleasure. I’m simultaneously irritated and titillated. I get the same feeling listening to Rush Limbaugh or Rick Santorum.

But I don’t know anyone who admires the ideas of Limbaugh or Santorum. Harris’s memes, in contrast, are infecting the minds not of right wing and religious cranks but of smart, knowledgeable people. Scientific American columnist Michael Shermer, when he hosted a recent talk by Harris at Caltech, praised him for “cutting through all the obfuscation and getting straight to the point” about free will in his new book. The neurologist Oliver Sacks calls Free Will “brilliant and witty—and never less than incisive.” Michael. Oliver. Really?

Harris’s new book rates orders of magnitude higher on Amazon’s Best Sellers lists than my new book, The End of War (McSweeney’s, 2012), which concludes with a chapter called “In Defense of Free Will.” That rankles. If I criticize Free Will, will I actually counter Harris’s influence or enhance it? Might it look like, or perhaps even be the case, that I’m motivated by base envy rather than a noble desire to defend free will? But how can I not criticize Harris when he’s bashing an idea that I cherish? And promoting determinism, a philosophy that I loathe?

Then there’s the life’s-too-short issue: Harris’s new book is only 96 pages, but that’s still too long. I don’t have the time—I still haven’t done my taxes!—or the inclination to plow through the sort of grimace-inducing reasoning of which Moral Landscape was constructed. Wouldn’t my time be better spent whacking New York Times columnist David Brooks for buying the claim of evolutionary psychologists that we are “natural-born killers“? Or riffing on Immortality, the cool new book by Stephen Cave? Or trying to figure out, once and for all, where I stand on fracking?

And what can I say about free will that I haven’t said before? Maybe I can just focus on what Harris said at Caltech. He called free will not only an “illusion” but also a “totally incoherent idea” that contradicts what science tells us about how the world works. “The illusoriness of free will,” he said, “is as certain a fact, to my mind, as the truth of evolution.” This is one of Harris’s characteristic traits, flaunting his certitude like a badge of honor.

Harris asks us to consider the case of a serial killer. “Imagine this murderer is discovered to have a brain tumor in the appropriate spot in his brain that could explain his violent impulses. That is obviously exculpatory. We view him as a victim of his biology, and our moral intuitions shift automatically. But I would argue that a brain tumor is just a special case of physical events giving rise to thoughts and actions, and if we fully understood the neurophysiology of any murderer’s brain, that would be as exculpatory as finding a tumor in it.”

Harris seems to be advancing a reductio ad absurdum, except that he wants us to accept the absurdum: there is no fundamental difference between me and a man compelled to kill by a brain tumor. Or between me and someone who can’t help washing his hands every 20 minutes, or someone who’s schizophrenic, or a babbling baby, or a newt, or a worm. I mean, if I’m not different from a guy who kills because a tumor provokes him into murderous rages, how am I different from anyone or anything with a brain, no matter how damaged or tiny?

Here’s the difference. The man with a tumor has no choice but to do what he does. I do have choices, which I make all the time. Yes, my choices are constrained, by the laws of physics, my genetic inheritance, upbringing and education, the social, cultural, political, and intellectual context of my existence. And as Harris keeps pointing out, I didn’t choose to be born into this universe, to my parents, in this nation, at this time. I don’t choose to grow old and die.

But just because my choices are limited doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Just because I don’t have absolute freedom doesn’t mean I have no freedom at all. Saying that free will doesn’t exist because it isn’t absolutely free is like saying truth doesn’t exist because we can’t achieve absolute, perfect knowledge.

Harris keeps insisting that because all our choices have prior causes, they are not free; they are determined. Of course all our choices are caused. No free-will proponent I know claims otherwise. The question is how are they caused? Harris seems to think that all causes are ultimately physical, and that to hold otherwise puts you in the company of believers in ghosts, souls, gods and other supernatural nonsense.

But the strange and wonderful thing about all organisms, and especially our species, is that mechanistic physical processes somehow give rise to phenomena that are not reducible to or determined by those physical processes. Human brains, in particular, generate human minds, which while subject to physical laws are influenced by non-physical factors, including ideas produced by other minds. These ideas may cause us to change our minds and make decisions that alter the trajectory of our world.

Some of us have a greater capacity to perceive and act on choices than others. The killer with a brain tumor, the schizophrenic, the sociopath, the obsessive-compulsive do not and cannot make decisions–or change their minds–in the way that I do. When I weigh the pros and cons of writing about Harris, my chain of reasoning is determined by the substance of my thoughts, not their physical instantiation.

Consider: When I watch the video of Sam Harris talking at Caltech, is it the electrons streaming through my MacBook, the photons impinging on my eye, the sound waves entering my ear that make me want to respond to Harris? Of course not. It’s the meaning of the video that stirs me, not its physical embodiment. I could have watched a DVD of Harris’s talk, or read a transcript, or listened to someone summarize his lecture over the telephone. And it’s possible that Harris’s words, instead of provoking me to write a critical response, could have changed my mind about free will, so that I decided to write a column defending his point of view. Of course, if I thought about it for a moment, I’d realize that the fact that Harris had changed my mind and hence my actions was evidence of my free will.

We are physical creatures, but we are not just physical. We have free will because we are creatures of mind, meaning, ideas, not just matter. Harris perversely–willfully!–refuses to acknowledge this crushingly obvious and fundamental fact about us. He insists that because science cannot figure out the complex causality underpinning free will, it must be illusory. He is a throwback to the old behaviorists, who pretended that subjective, mental phenomena—because they are more difficult to observe and measure than planets and protons—don’t exist.

Dwelling on Harris depresses me. All that brainpower and training dedicated to promulgating such bad ideas!  He reminds me of one of the brightest students I’ve ever had, who was possessed by an adamant, unshakable belief in young-earth creationism. I did my best to change his mind, but I never succeeded. I probably won’t change the minds of Sam Harris and other hard-core determinists either, but it’s worth a shot.

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. sharayurkiewicz 5:30 pm 04/9/2012

    I do not understand phrases like “substance of my thoughts”, “non-physical factors”, “changing our minds”, or even “meaning” in this context.

    I guess I still don’t understand what forces beyond the physical you are referring to. There is some invisible magical thing that exists above our neurons and their transmitters that intervenes to make decisions for them?

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  2. 2. tdcochrun 7:24 pm 04/9/2012

    What Mr. Harris seems to ignore is that science is a pursuit and not an achieved destination. Knowledge and understanding are not illusory simply because they are not possessed in total. We seek them, we chase after them, not unlike Alice after the rabbit. In our human drama we gather greater understandings, but they are prone and subject to learning even more. I think Kant may be right in suggesting that sources of knowledge are sensibility and understanding. Of course we are forever
    in pursuit of understanding, because we have the ability, the will power, to continue to question, or not.

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  3. 3. aberganza 8:22 pm 04/9/2012

    Stricto sensu even worms, ants and bees have free will, for there are degrees in the freedom of the will. Bees can opt for one or other cue to search for flowers. Even some human beings are freer than others. Absolute free will would be an attribute only of God or god. Freedom is defined by the originator of the ‘action’ or the movement, whether external or environmental (fully behaviorist, not free) or internal. I like your article very much, John. Congratulations!

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  4. 4. madmanbob 10:14 pm 04/9/2012

    I’m sorry, but this article has completely missed the point. Free will makes absolutely no sense. There are only 3 options for the nature of a decision: it can be completely caused, completely uncaused, or stochastic (a combination of the two). A completely caused decision is determined. A completely uncaused decision is random. Any combination of randomness and determinism does not give us free will.
    A summation: If a decision is not completely determined by the factors influencing it, then the rest of the decision will be random or dictated by probability. Can you really hold someone responsible for the wrong probabilistic outcome?

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  5. 5. BeyondMe 10:21 pm 04/9/2012

    Yeah… For me, this didn’t do much to dismantle Harris’s ideas on free will. Statements like “physical laws are influenced by non-physical factors, including ideas produced by other minds” and “It’s the meaning of the video that stirs me, not its physical embodiment” seems to assume that the mind, and its ideas and meaning-giving, is somehow independent from the physical neurons that underlie it. Of course Harris doesn’t deny that consciousness and these qualities of mind exist. Its just that they arise from physical processes, and even our appraisal of meaning that Jon claims attests to “free will” are determined by brain electricity. So yes, choices are made off of subjective interpretations, but these subjective feelings are run by physical interactions that can’t be changed except by other physical processes.
    What would it even mean to freely choose? How does anything exist without precedent? If one concedes that things must have a precedent, this automatically admits that there can be no independent “I” making decisions. Saying that Harris insists that “because science cannot figure out the complex causality underpinning free will, it must be illusory” is laughable. Harris is rather saying that because, indeed, free will has causal underpinnings that can be discovered, then free will isn’t “free”, but rather some kind of error made by our own subjective bias.

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  6. 6. blackbird79 3:58 am 04/10/2012

    THE GHOST IS STILL IN THE MACHINE — uh, SOMEWHERE (trust me)… The little homunculus still looks out upon the world — er, SOMEHOW… Free Will is still KIND OF “free” — but, um, it has a “causality… underpinning” it… There’s a “substance” to “meaning” [because the word "substance" comes with handy materialistic associations, so let's play word association games to prop up clever Horgan's still utterly nebulous idea that there's causative "meaning stuff" floating around, like, you know... FREE (!) 'out there' or 'in there'] which operates to change a “mind” — SOMEHOW… but, my God, NOT materialistically!

    And the Holy Ghost still flies up your nose… or into your yappin’ hole when you yawn. Yaaaaaaawwwwwwwn!

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  7. 7. naya8 6:31 am 04/10/2012

    Harris is right.He even came up with it first before I can do it. I am scientifically convinced that free will is an illusion. It is not more than a neurons function. I can tell you a personal story: One day when I were on my way home, I decided to buy something.That thing I knew for sure that it is found in a shop far away. But because I wanted to be at home earlier, I hisitated and could’nt decide where I should buy it. Suddenly the traffic lights was green and whithout any hisitation I found my legs going toward the nearest shop. I bought that thing, but after that I regreted that decesion. So this story give an evedence that free will is an illusion and that it is not more than a competition between neuron’s functions,and the winner take the function. FREE WILL IS ONLY PHYSICAL FUNCTION THAT WE ARE NOT RESPOBSIBLE ABOUT.

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  8. 8. IncredibleMouse 7:09 am 04/10/2012

    BeyondMe said everything I wanted to say, but I mention it here to voice my support of that position – that this article does not make a case for free will. The author appears to inadequately understand the power of the illusion of free will.

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  9. 9. xbig_bangx@yahoo.com 11:59 am 04/10/2012

    “Saying that free will doesn’t exist because it isn’t absolutely free is like saying truth doesn’t exist because we can’t achieve absolute, perfect knowledge.” I think these two claims are not similar enough to merit an analogy. Truth with a capital T exists independently of our mental capacity; whether we can perceive it or not, Truth exists. So indeed the logic of the latter claim is faulty. The capacity for human to have free will, however, requires that a person’s pool of options, after being reduced by all constraints, gives him at least two options that are absolutely undeterminable. In other words, it requires that that person must be absolutely “free” of all constraints to choose, when faced with at least two options. The first claim, when applied in appropriate context, is not faulty.

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  10. 10. Punzelbaer 11:59 am 04/10/2012

    Hehe :) Sam Harris comment on facebook:
    “John Horgan of Scientific American subscribes to my email list and complains that I “keep emailing” him. The man’s a genius.”

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  11. 11. TheInsider 12:02 pm 04/10/2012

    All those paragraphs just to say you don’t like his attitude, or more likely, the fact that he has a background in neuroscience and hence doesn’t need to invent infantile stories about the world. It’s like hearing Creationists crying that the truth/specifics about the world aren’t fancy enough for their tastes. Because that’s how the truth works, right?

    Get over your jealously. He’s sold more copies than you because he’s worth reading. As a neuroscientist myself it’s rather embarrassing reading your layman take on how the mind works. Do yourself a favour and read some books on the topic before wasting our time. Scientific American is the chance for you to write something wonderful and interesting for the world, and you’ve instead wiped your butt with the website and decided to use it to rant about your own ineptitude.

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  12. 12. Son Of Rea 12:04 pm 04/10/2012

    “We have free will because we are creatures of mind, meaning, ideas, not just matter.”

    Uh, ideas are controlled by the chemical reactions in your brain.

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  13. 13. brinko99 12:24 pm 04/10/2012

    The article states: “[Other's] ideas may cause us to change our minds and make decisions that alter the trajectory of our world.”

    Yes, this is Harris’ point. Sure you might change your mind as a result of a different experience. Which is to say that if you were not presented with other’s ideas you may indeed have had different thoughts. This is the point; your thoughts are determined by outside influences. Different inputs give different outputs.

    The appearance of free will is that the outputs (our thoughts and actions) are not predictable. They are not predictable mainly because there are too many inputs to consider. In addition there are random influences.

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  14. 14. dnluce 12:25 pm 04/10/2012

    I stopped reading at his fourth paragraph when Horgan wrote, “But how can I not criticize Harris when he’s bashing an idea that I cherish? And promoting determinism, a philosophy that I loathe?”, declaring proudly his emotional bias for his position.

    Very American, but scientific? Not very.

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  15. 15. kevmoo 12:28 pm 04/10/2012

    “I do not understand phrases like “substance of my thoughts”, “non-physical factors”, “changing our minds”, or even “meaning” in this context.”

    I also don’t understand. But it’s more along these lines:

    I don’t understand how the editors of such a prestigious scientific publication could allow such phrases in the context of serious scientific discourse–at least without substantial qualification.

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  16. 16. Nerdicus 12:30 pm 04/10/2012

    Let’s look at expressing your Free Will, to see what experiential evidence we can find in support for or against the claim.

    1) I would like you to express your free will and stop your heart from beating.

    2) I would like you to express your free will by stopping the cells in your body from dividing.

    3) And then explain how much influence you had in when your parents met and conceived you.

    4) Now explain how much influence you had over when your grandparents met and conceived each of your parents.

    5) Now, stop thinking about monkeys. Monkey monkey monkey!

    6) Now tell me exactly what you will be thinking in 5 hours time.

    Do you see now how little free will you have over the things that sustain your life? If you have no free will over those internal things, how much free will can you really have?

    In order to refute a scientific study on free will, one should attempt to use the multitude of tools provided by science, namely the scientific method.

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  17. 17. rdfowler 12:34 pm 04/10/2012

    Actually I admire some of the ideas of Rush Limbaugh. Why do we have to drag politics into this?

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  18. 18. jimbullington 12:43 pm 04/10/2012

    TheInsider said it best – Mr. Horgan needs to do some serious studying and self-reflection. When it comes down to it, we are all prisoners to our brains!

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  19. 19. Spurll 12:44 pm 04/10/2012

    I find the author’s criticism of Harris to be wandering, incoherent, and without substance.

    “Of course, if I thought about it for a moment, I’d realize that the fact that Harris had changed my mind and hence my actions was evidence of my free will.”

    The fact that your internal mental state could have been modified by external (or even internal) stimuli is evidence of free will? How so?

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  20. 20. Marty Gull 12:46 pm 04/10/2012

    I’m not really sure what all the fuss is about.

    Roger Scruton (1994) rejects ‘hard’ determinism on the grounds that we are unable to deduce the future from the past, only to make probable guesses. The real problem is not a predictive model but one of responsibility. To what extent should we be held responsible for our actions given that they be caused or affected by phenomena outside of our conscious control?

    Scruton proposes an ‘interpersonal’ approach based on attitudes which are appropriate to the situation:

    ‘The conflict, therefore, is not between actions that are free and actions that are caused: our science of human nature applies indifferently to both and denies the reality of the contrast. The conflict is between attitudes that require us to overlook causality and attitudes that require us to attend to it, and to define what we see in terms of it.’ (Scruton,1994, p.234).

    Scruton, R. Modern Philosophy: A Survey, London, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994.

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  21. 21. courtlandistan 12:46 pm 04/10/2012

    You subscribe to his email list and then say that he keeps emailing you and intruding on your thoughts? Every week you take a “puckish, provocative look at breaking science”? More like a suckish, schlock-ative leer. Your review is scarred by jealousy and riddled with potholes of ignorance that make for an ugly bumpy ride to nowhere. That is substance of my thoughts.

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  22. 22. sonofrebus 12:47 pm 04/10/2012

    it seems scientific americas criteria for writers is non-exisetent, unsubscribe from his email you foolish man if you do not want Mr Harris’ perspacicity clouding your kalnienk thoughts. Shame on you for making me read this drivel.

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  23. 23. sonofrebus 12:48 pm 04/10/2012

    balls, i spelt existent incorrect, I have a faulty eeeee key.

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  24. 24. Robert_King 1:06 pm 04/10/2012

    Why would it make him change his mind? Given that you have offered a naif ignoratio elenchi–and a shocking one from a self-proclaimed scientist–I would imagine that you will just make him laugh.
    “the strange and wonderful thing about all organisms, and especially our species, is that mechanistic physical processes somehow give rise to phenomena that are not reducible to or determined by those physical processes” How on earth have you helped yourself to such a claim?
    Rather than argue against this bizarre and magical view I would like to show you how bizarre it is in cartoon form, as I fear that argument and evidence might be beyond you:
    http://tiny.cc/gy6jcw
    Sorry to appear rude but if you are going to haul off and get as personal as you have then you bring it on yourself.

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  25. 25. Aks31 1:22 pm 04/10/2012

    “the strange and wonderful thing about all organisms, and especially our species, is that mechanistic physical processes somehow give rise to phenomena that are not reducible to or determined by those physical processes”
    This is scientific american or magical american? I have lost all respect for scientific american after reading this drivel! This man is supposed to be scientist? If physical processes give rise to this phenomena then how is this phenomena NOT determined by those physical processes? This article makes no logical sense.

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  26. 26. carolofcarol 1:22 pm 04/10/2012

    “When I weigh the pros and cons of writing about Harris, my chain of reasoning is determined by the substance of my thoughts, not their physical instantiation.”

    So let’s say after weighing the substance of your thoughts, you go in direction Y. We go back in time and take away the coffee you drank and you then go in direction X. Same substance of thoughts. We go back further in time and slightly change your diet from the age of 8 years old, and then you eventually go in the radically different direction of Z. Each time, you are convinced that you made a choice based on the substance of thoughts. And yet, each time, you really have no idea of what is influencing your understanding of, reaction to and ability to integrate this supposed substance.

    “And it’s possible that Harris’s words, instead of provoking me to write a critical response, could have changed my mind about free will, so that I decided to write a column defending his point of view. Of course, if I thought about it for a moment, I’d realize that the fact that Harris had changed my mind and hence my actions was evidence of my free will.”

    By simply presupposing the independence of this “my”, you actually are forced to always believe in free will, right. I mean, as long as you are certain that this “my” of yours is the thing that has a relative freedom to do what it decides to do, than there could be no arguement that would take that away….I guess that’s a good feeling?

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  27. 27. Vyvyan 1:46 pm 04/10/2012

    One of the issues here is the lack of philosophical training of many scientists (including Sam Harris).They seem to imagine causality as a single bottom-to-top process rather than a complex interaction among different levels in an integrated system. What does determinism mean? Does it mean that every effect has a cause (undoubtedly); or does it mean that every effect has a single cause (nonsense). Can the higher levels of a systemic organization exercise influence on its lower levels? It seems to me self-evident that they can. Since the human consciousness is capable of monitoring some (not all) of brain processes, why should not this monitoring reroute or revise lower-level unconscious motivational programs? This is what is meant by free will and I see no reason for bringing in religion. Btw, many religions in effect deny free will (see predestination)

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  28. 28. carolofcarol 1:50 pm 04/10/2012

    One irony: If Horgan woke up tomorrow and began to notice he was find arguements for random murder increasingly compelling, he’d probably be the first to assume this had nothing to do with the substance of thought but something organic or a psychological process that was interferring with his reasoning. One thing we know for certain: As long as he presumes a “me”, he’ll presume free will. And it hardly matters to the degree that he doesn’t really care and acts with kindness.

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  29. 29. carolofcarol 1:53 pm 04/10/2012

    Vyvyan, Harris never once suggests that “higher levels” don’t exact influence. He argues that they do.

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  30. 30. Tom Paine 2:09 pm 04/10/2012

    This article is so puerile, it’s difficult to believe it was written by a scientist. Despite Horgan’s arrogance and inexplicable comprison of Harris to Rush Limbaugh and Rick Santorum, it’s he who looks like the fool once anyone actually watches Harris’s CalTech talk (viewable at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pCofmZlC72g). Sober, coherent, and persuasive.

    Now contrast that with Horgan’s explicit jealousy, ad hominem attacks, and bizarre and incoherent reasoning. He should save screeds like this for his diary.

    And Vyvyan, Harris has a degree in philosophy, as do I. In my experience, the vast majority of philosophers accept determinism, and most compatibilists will admit that they are redefining free will in an effort to make it make sense. Horgan lacks the sophistication to even make it that far, as he appears to “argue” for a naive libertarianism.

    Scientific American sure looks bad for peddling this tripe!

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  31. 31. carolofcarol 2:15 pm 04/10/2012

    Tom Paine, I think you are right. Horgan doesn’t actually care about arguements. It’s that feeling he’s after.

    I’d like to see who Horgan says makes a strong arguement against free will.

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  32. 32. ABTechie 2:20 pm 04/10/2012

    We are made up of matter and energy and when it works great the illusion is great. However, we see the arguement for free will break down in addictions, OCDs, CIPA, phobias, desires, impulses, Alien Hand Syndrome, hoarding, sleep walking, boredom, obesity, confirmation bias, peer pressure…

    Why do you want what you want? If you can’t control your preferences, then you are not in control of the decisions you make based on your preferences. There is no choice in your choice.

    Update: “Yes, my choices are constrained, by the laws of physics, my genetic inheritance, upbringing and education, the social, cultural, political, and intellectual context of my existence.” – The author does not understand that while his brain has the “freedom” to make a decision, the decision is predetermined by the constraints. He only feels like he has free will. It is an illusion.

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  33. 33. carolofcarol 2:29 pm 04/10/2012

    the problem with people who argue AGAINST free will, like me, is that we do an awful job of showing that the tantilizing mystery of being alive and living responsibly isn’t diminished in the least, necessarily (any veiw can be held by a depressed nihalist), by simply letting go of the thought, “I know that there is a ‘me’ that could have chosen differently”.

    But, more and more of us who recognize the freedom of exploring human nature without the limitation of that ideology are beginning to change that picture. Sam isn’t the best at it, but he’s doing a good job.

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  34. 34. carolofcarol 2:36 pm 04/10/2012

    Horgan says, “Dwelling on Harris depresses me.”

    And I bet he would say that this ‘depression’ (I don’t take him literally) is the result of the substance of Harris’s thought. Of course many people who disagree with Harris feel invigorated by the reading. Anyway, this ‘depression’ is a clue to Horgan’s massive (yet well intended) blind-spot.

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  35. 35. Freja 2:41 pm 04/10/2012

    I am looking fwd to read Harris’s book after this little comment. Basically I agree with his ideas, I wasn’t aware the book represented this point of view, so thanks a lot, I’ll purchase the book in a minute.

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  36. 36. avaranese 3:54 pm 04/10/2012

    I think the most important feedback you’ll get on this article is an honest appraisal of how petulant and infantile it sounds. With all due respect, entire paragraphs of this piece sound as if they were written by an adolescent with a painfully transparent personal grudge but very little in the way of persuasive ideas to back it up.

    Second, you strike me as someone with passion and conviction, which is commendable, but a good deal of confusion as well. You oddly describe determinism as a “philosophy that [you] loathe”, as opposed to a proposition you merely disagree with or consider invalid, and indulge in what feels like an endless tirade about Sam on a personal level. For an article that bills itself as “critical views of science in the news”, this is rather embarrassing (and insulting to the reader).

    To make matters much, much worse, this less-than-dignified rant doesn’t even culminate in any real counter argument. You make your personal upsets very clear, but you fail to follow up with the kind of reasoned, intellectually substantial response that would justify having written any of this in the first place. There are a lot of substantial arguments out there for and against the various definitions of free will, but this article isn’t one of them. It’s bad enough to be so shamelessly smug, but smugness for no discernable reason is just baffling.

    Lastly, the comparisons to Limbaugh and Santorum are downright absurd (and are especially ironic considering how emotionally blinded and intellectually lightweight your own arguments are). Harris’s views on morality and free will may not convince you, but his work is reasoned and coherent and worthy of an equally thoughtful rebuttal. I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that a lively, intellectually sincere debate between qualified opponents would be an excellent contribution to the literature, regardless of which side you’re on. This article, unfortunately, is the exact opposite of such an exchange and reads more like a transcript of an AM radio call-in show than anything resembling informed opinion.

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  37. 37. Solaricist 3:56 pm 04/10/2012

    I feel that I understand both points of view, however, aren’t you barking up different trees? It would seem that the “physical” nature of free will would be the element that can so simply remove it. Drugs effect free will, people effect free will, tumors, etc. Is it free will if it can be removed by nearly anyone or anything? Free will is just an uninhibited state of consciousness, but once you take any sort of drug or your mind falls victim to a disease and that freedom of choice is gone, what then? Do Alzheimer’s patients have free will?

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  38. 38. carolofcarol 4:30 pm 04/10/2012

    Solaricist, nobody has fee will, just as nobody has the holy ghost. However, many people have a belief that each is real and necessary.

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  39. 39. MattyA21 5:00 pm 04/10/2012

    This whole argument is moot because nothing exists inherently it is all relative and “will” is not special and is neither free nor determined it is relative just like everything else in the universe….you flick a switch and there is “light” examine the parts that give rise to light and you find no light, light is not inherent in any part of the process which gives rise to light it is of dependent origination.

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  40. 40. meisteh 5:10 pm 04/10/2012

    It seems fairly simple to me. The sum of our scientific knowledge suggests that all my actions, such as typing this comment, are the result of a series of reactions between tiny particles. To believe I could have chosen to not type this comment is to believe that something of me exists outside of these particles and can control them (e.g. a soul or spirit). As far as I am aware there is nothing to suggest any such thing exists.

    I think this sums up your position best: “he’s bashing an idea that I cherish.” People seem concerned that if free will does not exist, at least in the common use of the term, that we cannot hold others accountable or punish them for their harmful actions, but I do not agree. We tend to think of animals as automatons, but we wouldn’t see a problem with a pack of dogs ostracizing a member for harming the others. The same applies to us.

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  41. 41. Chad.English 5:25 pm 04/10/2012

    Sorry, John, but you definition of Free Will and Sam’s are the same. You are just lost in semantics and consequently defining properties in different ways.

    Take for instance the effects of other people’s ideas, and how that changes our minds. How do we get other people’s ideas in our minds? The reach us via physical means through our senses and combine with ours via physical means. The effect they have on us changing our minds is fixed by the contents and state of these processes. The same idea can change or not change somebody’s decision, say, by stimulating a certain area of the brain artificially. That tumor isn’t an exception. Every thought and decision are created by the structure and state state of the brain. The tumor merely changes that state, as does education, as do genes, as does life experience. All of those inputs affect the configuration of the brain as does a tumor.

    Our “freedom” isn’t really a freedom. It is an outcome. You also seem to miss the fact that neuroscientists can determine what we’ve decided before we’re even conscious of it. Our conscious of that “free” outcome lags its determination.

    The illusion of free will is because it is an emergent property of a very complex system. Two very similar states with the same “other idea” input can result in very different outcomes, given the appearance we chose something when really we just observed the outcome. We may be aware of parts of decisions in progress as sub-evaluations pass through the conscious brain.

    What’s more important is the practical use of these principles. If somebody’s brain has the tendency towards pedophilia, are we better to lock them away at great cost and with little hope of actually changing their tendency (as free will would recommend), or do we treat the brain structure that causes such tendencies and “cures” them of the problem. The latter is win-win for everyone, except “free will” purists.

    Free will was a reasonable approximation when we didn’t know any better. But hanging onto it now means missing opportunities to improve the world we live in, in real terms. We can do better if people care about how things really are instead of how they imagine them to be.

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  42. 42. carolofcarol 6:28 pm 04/10/2012

    prediction: John will change his mind in about 12 years and it will have nothing to do with advances in neuro-science.

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  43. 43. Orion Thomas 7:57 pm 04/10/2012

    You seem to be attached to the idea of free will because you like the idea of free will. Harris brilliantly illustrates the lack of evidence for it’s existence and more than supports his argument with evidence pointing to it’s non existence.
    Like the idea of gods, if you want to believe you should need proof. Free will is a concept and no concept is worth it’s salt without proof.
    Harris never said he could explain any of the workings of how we think beyond the generalization of prior experience and our biology. The quest for an answer is what research is for. Harris’ Free Will is the start of the conversation not the end.

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  44. 44. cmurtagh 8:20 pm 04/10/2012

    “Human brains, in particular, generate human minds, which while subject to physical laws are influenced by non-physical factors, including ideas produced by other minds.”

    What an absurd thing to say. Brains are not influenced by non-physical things, to suggest this is dualism or some other vacuous metaphysics. Human brains respond to physical stimulus and are themselves physical devices. The only way the thoughts of one brain (which are of course a physical/chemical process) can influence my thoughts is via some physical intermediary; a sound wave for example, or by causing something to move, stain a canvas with symbols, etc.. There is nothing ‘non-physical’ about any of this.

    How about instead of writing ‘a puckish, provocative look at breaking science’, why not write a sensical and intelligent look at breaking science, I think your readers might be better served by this.

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  45. 45. Colin Smith 10:55 pm 04/10/2012

    The connection being missed in this article between the conceptual mind and the physical brain; is the conceptual mind is a manifestation of the physical brain. The analogy between how we perceive Sam Harris on a DVD is a apt one. There is physical causation for all of it. Just because our brains conceptualize these very physical occurrences, does not make them independent from them. Because the brain like all things physical is subject to the laws of the natural universe the idea of freewill is illogical given our scientific understanding.

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  46. 46. mounthell 11:44 pm 04/10/2012

    Right, John. Like Harris’, these kinds of arguments are built on our ignorance of the underlying processes or dynamics: we can’t have ‘free will’ because (assuming our brain works like a steam engine, bicycle, computer …) … ad inf.

    Because we can’t define ‘life’ (or describe its fundamental mechanisms), we can technically opine that it doesn’t exist either. Crudely stated, the wheel of ‘mind’ and its inner tube, free will, result from the limited toolkit available to nature.

    When the answer is revealed, all will be amazed as to how simple it really is, and that Harris, Dennett and other non-free w(h)illers were digging with what, in hindsight, was obviously the wrong ends of their sandbox shovels. Give it a year or so.

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  47. 47. kojina 3:36 am 04/11/2012

    I think Harris agrees most of what you have to say except your conclusion.
    Harris reiterates at different platforms that those who are determined to disagree to no free will redefine free will or misunderstand the concept of free will. And again you seem to be one of them.

    “Consider: When I watch the video of…. Of course not. It’s the meaning of the video that stirs me, not its physical embodiment.”

    It is good and important to be influenced by ideas. But you are still unaware of what caused it to mean what it meant to you.

    And as Harris mentions, the illusion of freewill itself is an illusion. It does not seem to be a big deal to me.

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  48. 48. Piaf12 5:26 am 04/11/2012

    This article reads like it was authored by someone who doesn’t fully grasp the argument, or someone unwilling to give up his preconceived ideas about free will. I fail to see what is so frightening about admitting that our thoughts are greatly influenced by processes that we have no conscious awareness of. It would free us from the most routine sources of prejudice and hatred.

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  49. 49. naya8 1:29 pm 04/11/2012

    To all of the commenting persons who called John Horgan a jealous, please stop using such words that are very far from his true character.He is a good person even an angel of peace.I also don’t agree with his ideas but I like him a lot as a person.

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  50. 50. SteveMillerBand 1:07 pm 04/12/2012

    “Yes, my choices are constrained, by the laws of physics, my genetic inheritance, upbringing and education, the social, cultural, political, and intellectual context of my existence.” Was easy enough to say, without all the ranting you did.

    “But the strange and wonderful thing about all organisms, and especially our species, is that mechanistic physical processes somehow give rise to phenomena that are not reducible to or determined by those physical processes.” Get back to us when your skills are not limited to your writing abilities. It’s apparent you do not know what you are talking about (on this subject), attempting to assert, that you do.

    The rest is just arrogance, or is that ignorance?

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  51. 51. JohnF30 2:05 pm 04/12/2012

    The writer of this article does not belong to the scientific community.

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  52. 52. Jeff_Hayden 5:55 pm 04/12/2012

    Aside from Mr. Horgan’s odious use of his platform at SA to engage in a one-way diatribe hectoring Mr. Harris on a what can only be characterized as mostly personal,not, substantive points.
    Further, Mr. Horgan claims the absence of validated evidence is evidence of absence. A twisted tautology methinks.

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  53. 53. Percival 9:09 pm 04/12/2012

    Harris seems to believe that science is a finished product, that Determinism has been “proven” somehow. I’d like Harris to predict *with absolute certainty* which way any given proton will scatter in a collider experiment. He can’t, because particle interactions *are not* deterministic. Our brains are made of particles, whose interactions are similarly indeterminate. Thoughts are the result of neuron interactions, which depend on electrochemical reactions, which depend on how the chemicals’ constituent electrons happen to interact at any given time. I say “happen to” because we know (thanks to Heisenberg, Brown, et. al.) that we *can not* with absolute certainty predict particle interactions; they scatter (within limits) any way they seem to damn well please. Does Harris believe that sum-over-histories is an illusion? Can he un-hide some “hidden variables” for us?

    When Harris can provide which-way information in a two-slit experiment I’ll *decide* to accept Determinism.

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  54. 54. Dr. Strangelove 11:36 pm 04/12/2012

    Horgan said

    “mechanistic physical processes somehow give rise to phenomena that are not reducible to or determined by those physical processes. Human brains, in particular, generate human minds, which while subject to physical laws are influenced by non-physical factors”

    There is no non-physical factor in the mind phenomena. They are all physical but not reducible to the characteristics of the individual components of the brain.

    Those saying free will cannot exist are constraining the brain to its individual components. The English alphabet has only 26 letters. If we constrain the English language to its individual components, we cannot express more than 26 ideas (each letter corresponding to one idea) But it is not the characteristic of each individual components that defines a language. It is the arrangement and organization of the components that matters.

    The brain can manipulate the arrangement and organization of the multitude of its components, corresponding to the firing patterns of the neural networks. Hence we can control our own thoughts even if we cannot control each individual neuron.

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  55. 55. bdsockey 11:39 am 04/13/2012

    This essay has generated some brilliant and provocative comments, making it worth the space.

    Mr. Horgan should do a little research in game theory. Oh never mind. GT assumes rationality.

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  56. 56. Akai Koru 2:38 pm 04/13/2012

    Reading your article was much closer to listening to Limbaugh and Santorum. You obviously really want free will to exist and you direct your argument in that way. The one thing I can’t figure out is why Scientific American would post such garbage on their website.

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  57. 57. aberganza 1:26 pm 04/14/2012

    The idea expressed in the following comment appears frequently: “It seems fairly simple to me. The sum of our scientific knowledge suggests that all my actions, such as typing this comment, are the result of a series of reactions between tiny particles. To believe I could have chosen to not type this comment is to believe that something of me exists outside of these particles and can control them (e.g. a soul or spirit). As far as I am aware there is nothing to suggest any such thing exists.”

    This thought overlooks an aspect of reality known as ‘emergence’. An emerged entity or process is a true novelty, surfaced from a chaotic system, therefore, impossible to predict.

    There is also the independence of layers used in computing devices: algorithms in programs execute the same regardless of the hardware that underlies them, and the executing of ‘logic’ in programs, being impossible away from hardware, is not the ‘result’ of hardware. One thing is the running of a program, and a different thing is the logic of the program: the running itself is the ‘result’ of firing of neurons, but the logic that this running executes is of infinite possibilities, and obeys to factors other than plain firing of neurons, even though the firing of neurons is necessary for all mental activity.

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  58. 58. TaurusLondono 12:51 am 04/15/2012

    A better title would’ve been “Will This Post Make Anybody But Sam Harris Change Their Minds About Free Will?”

    The answer is: Not likely.

    It’s always sad when otherwise perceptive and insightful people cling to plainly stupid or willfully ignorant ideas. Horgan’s insipid defense of free will is just squirm-inducing.

    This devastatingly stupid gobbledygook seems to sum it up:
    “We are physical creatures, but we are not just physical. We have free will because we are creatures of mind, meaning, ideas, not just matter. Harris perversely–willfully!–refuses to acknowledge this crushingly obvious and fundamental fact about us.”

    Surely you understand that the interactions of calcium ions in your brain obey the same laws of physics as the carbon atoms in a cloud in the atmosphere of Mars?

    Are you suggesting that when neurons produce thought, that this somehow takes place outside of the universe? …That your skull harbors a gateway from which a manifestation of your “self” appears, a supraluminal entity unbounded and uneffected (or perhaps unaffected) until it perceives the world outside of your orbital sockets?

    Is this only true of the brains of homo sapiens or does it also apply to the nervous systems of nematodes?

    …or are you saying that an “idea” is fundamentally separate from the universe in which it was conceived and perceived? So if a word written down on a page is more than matter, a word in an internet comments section must be what, hyperspace? Is that true only if you’re literate in modern English or would it also be true if you were a resurrected homo ergaster and saw nothing more than uninteresting black lines? If humanity went instinct tomorrow, would Google’s servers still hold the contents of a supramaterial *other* reality?

    You decry creationism, but like them you’re unable to evince any physical evidence to support your feeble claims. Like many creationists, the best you can do is snide banter and gag-inducing deprecation.

    We’ve all moved on. Like the creationists who still desperately try to pick fights, you’re just desperate for your fast-rotting modality to still be a topic worth debating.

    Beyond Harris’s sometimes-ineffectual analogies (and your own), this is a more stark issue than you seem to appreciate.

    “YOU,” like every rock on earth, every nitrogen molecule in the sky, every drop of liquid ethane and methane on the surface of Titan, every photon hurtling across space from every star, are part of a self-contained system we call the “universe.”

    In fact, like the LCD monitor in front of your eyes right now, you *ARE* the universe. Like the photons hitting your eyeballs, the calcium ions in your brain were set on their specific trajectories a little less than 14 billion years ago when the precursor to the matter in Sam Harris’s nostrils inhabited the same space as the matter in your gonads.

    Although the carbon in the atmosphere of Mars and the carbon in your body have been manifested in different ways, there is no special, magical difference between you and a gas cloud other than the way the atoms are arranged.

    While it’s truly awesome that an arrangement of carbon atoms is able to “perceive” its own existence (thus, the universe is literally able to perceive itself), it’s almost cute that one particular arrangement of atoms thinks it has “free will” while another arrangement (say, a rock) doesn’t.

    “You” move of “your own” volition while the rock doesn’t, but the chemical reactions within every single neuron in your brain were as much a result of the same thermodynamics and sub-atomic interactions that determined the exact point in time at which a Martian avalanche took place, say, 2 billion years ago.

    Oddly, you seem to acknowledge this;
    “Of course all our choices are caused.”
    …and then you ask the plainly *dumb* question…
    “The question is how are they caused?”

    However the incredibly complex workings of the human brain might unfold to produce thought, we know how they’re caused at the most basic level; the radiation going on in your brain obeys the same laws of physics as Jovian storms. The atoms and forces are all part of the same self-contained system.

    Your thoughts are no more outside the material realm than an intangible website on the internet.

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  59. 59. TaurusLondono 1:11 am 04/15/2012

    BTW:
    Obviously meant to type “extinct” rather than “instinct” above. It’s the middle of the night where I am, cut me some slack. My supramaterial outside-the-universe skull-gateway wasn’t working right.

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  60. 60. lhillman 3:55 am 04/15/2012

    I will never understand why so many people, such as Mr. Horgan, cannot grasp the arguments against free will. They’re very, very simple, and yet they’re constantly misconstrued. Is wishful thinking such a powerful obstacle to clear thought?

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  61. 61. Kristoffer 9:01 am 04/15/2012

    So, what’s next on your to do list, John, start a fistfight with Mike Tyson?

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  62. 62. sciamtag 12:34 pm 04/15/2012

    I don’t know why Horgan seems to think that there is something ‘non-physical’ about the fact that we can be influenced by the ideas of others. The way ideas of others are generated and transmitted to us and the processes involved in our subsequent reflection on them are all clearly physical processes.

    I think Harris’ arguments are all more or less sound and persuasive, if not necessarily original. I’m not sure why so many have praised the book for its originality; though Harris is an eloquent writer, I have seen all of these arguments elsewhere. In fact I think the same could be said of all of his books, which I thoroughly enjoyed as well.

    To me the problem of free will has always been overblown. Few educated people deny the material basis of mind and few are ‘disturbed’ by the notion. Much of the resistance that does exist to the material view of mind is, IMHO, fairly obviously rooted in the desire to believe that the mind is at least in part ‘non-physical’ and therefore can perhaps, in some form, survive the death of the brain. I suspect most of those who are ‘disturbed’ by the notion of an entirely material view of mind would not be the least bit perturbed by a entirely material mind that could last forever. There is a certain irony therefore I Horgan’s glowing reference to Cave’s “Immortality”, which touches on the issue of fear and deal of death.

    If I do have a problem with some of the arguments put forth by the “free will is an illusion” camp (of which I am certainly a member), it’s that too much significance is attributed to the fact that the processing associated with making a decision precedes our subjective sense of making a decision. This certainly proves that our sense of when we make a decision is illusory, but does not in and of itself, I think, render free will illusory. Now, if the processing happenned after our subjective sense of deciding, that would present a challenge. But I don’t see why the fact that there is a lag between when the processing occurs and when we think we’re deciding is particularly relevant. Surely what matters is what a process does, not who it occurs. If the processing were simultaneous with our sense of deciding free will would be just as illusory. But our sense of ‘free will’ is illusory because it is the result of many factors beyond our control, not because of when those processes occur.

    I also think Harris seems to dismiss the comparabilist view of free will a bit too quickly, and that his charge that free will compatibilists in general are merely trying to preserve our sense of autonomy unpersuasive. I don’t necessarily accept the compatibilist argument that we may reasonably think of anything our brain does – conscious ply or otherwise – as something “we” are doing, but I don’t think it is an argument without merit and certainly nothing Harris says effectively counters it.

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  63. 63. sciamtag 12:39 pm 04/15/2012

    A few too corrections:

    “There is a certain irony therefore I Horgan’s glowing reference to Cave’s “Immortality”, which touches on the issue of fear and deal of death” should’ve read “there is a certain irony therefore IN Horgan’s glowing reference to Cave’s “Immortality”, which touches on the issue of fear and DENIAL of death.

    “Surely what matters is what a process does, not who it occurs” should’ve read “surely what matters is what a process does, not WHEN it occurs”?

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  64. 64. sciamtag 12:39 pm 04/15/2012

    Uh, typo corrections that is. Damn these smartphone autocorrects…

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  65. 65. sciamtag 2:14 pm 04/15/2012

    I also found Horgan’s derogatory references to Santorum and Limbaugh curious, because his defense of free will would undoubtedly be appreciated by both of them. The reference seems so forced I had the sense that this was perphaps stuck in as a way of reassuring the reader that he was still ‘one of the good guys’ even as he set out to ridicule one of the most articulate defenders of reason and secularism (Harris) while defending an immaterial view of mind that would doubtless bring comfort to the likes of Limbaugh and Santorum. It makes me wonder whether at some level Horgan realizes he is effectively supporting a superstition as contrary to science and reason as creationism.

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  66. 66. calliope45 3:07 pm 04/15/2012

    Suppose I come up with a unique set of thoughts never present before in the world. Let’s call that set of thoughts a novel. You mean to tell me every last word of every last sentence was a pre-determined fact? That I would go through eight drafts before I settled on the final manuscript? That the specific name of my lead character is Hortense Muller? That while doing this I had a cup of tea one day and a glass of juice the other? All of these were choices I made that ultimately arose from my physical brain. How are free choices and their physical origins incompatible?

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  67. 67. mikmik 3:10 pm 04/15/2012

    “This devastatingly stupid gobbledygook seems to sum it up:
    “We are physical creatures, but we are not just physical. We have free will because we are creatures of mind, meaning, ideas, not just matter. Harris perversely–willfully!–refuses to acknowledge this crushingly obvious and fundamental fact about us.”

    Surely you understand that the interactions of calcium ions in your brain obey the same laws of physics as the carbon atoms in a cloud in the atmosphere of Mars?

    Are you suggesting that when neurons produce thought, that this somehow takes place outside of the universe? …That your skull harbors a gateway from which a manifestation of your “self” appears, a supraluminal entity unbounded and uneffected (or perhaps unaffected) until it perceives the world outside of your orbital sockets?”

    – - – -

    Yes, yes, what is the idea made of, not “what caused it?” is the question. If thoughts and ideas are physical, then what part of thinking about something and deciding to do something, eg. take an action, doesn’t result in, or initiate, new physical processes in the brain?

    You hard determinists, Sam Harris included, never seem to grasp that part of it.

    Every single argument for determinism misses the obvious: you always state that our thoughts about choosing are illusory because they have physical causes, yet you then deny that our thoughts can have physical effects, as if the thoughts are not physical.

    SO, WHAT IS IT GOING TO BE? You are so quick to point fingers about this ghostliness, yet it is part and parcel of your arguments, your tirades implicitly USE THIS supposition.
    John Horgan is right, even if his examples are not well, or even correctly, explained. The very first words in the comments start exactly thus:
    “1. sharayurkiewicz I do not understand phrases like “substance of my thoughts”, “non-physical factors”, “changing our minds”, or even “meaning” in this context.”

    You see??!

    Not one single determinist has ever impressed me, no one ever addresses the idea that thoughts are part of the cause/effect chain, not final endpoints with no further participation in the physical universe.

    Not a one ever addresses the ‘hard problem of consciousness’ as a relevant issue. Instead, you pounce on the red herring of what seemingly causes thoughts, instead of trying to understand what part of the process they are other than concluding that they are ‘illusory’, FFS!

    I”m not going to search for the impudent command for Mr. Horgan to learn some philosophy, but I will respond to it myself. Why don’t YOU learn some philosophy, specifically, that between 60% and 80+ % of philosophers think that we do indeed posses volition and voluntary action taking, that we do have a measure of free will.

    All I know is that my deciding and choosing voluntarily, and when I want, to do something exactly corresponds with my actually doing it, and THAT is not an illusion.

    Mike Laing

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  68. 68. mikmik 3:24 pm 04/15/2012

    LOL, calliope45, you get it! In fact, these reducto ad absurdems must believe that not only were our simultaneous posts on the same idea ’caused’, that they were inevitably determined to happen exactly at the same time, but more so, that the snapshot of everything going on at that moment on earth, and the observable universe for that matter, was pre-determined to be exactly in the positions and momentums that they were at: every cloud, billow of smoke, thought, intent, chewing of a bite of food, or nipple!, the arrangement of the exact food particles in those mouths, the exact position of rain drops, etc etc, was all predetermined to be exactly the way it was then, and everything as it exactly is now at this moment – no room for argument, excepting quantum behaviors.

    ffs…

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  69. 69. sciamtag 8:27 pm 04/15/2012

    @mikmik:

    You misstate the ‘hard determinist’ position:

    “Every single argument for determinism misses the obvious: you always state that our thoughts about choosing are illusory because they have physical causes, yet you then deny that our thoughts can have physical effects, as if the thoughts are not physical.”

    Harris doesn’t say this and I am aware of no ‘hard determinist’ (to use your phrase) that does. Please cite some specific examples with references.

    Thoughts are caused by physical processes which have both prior physical causes and subsequent physical effects. This is precisely what Harris is referring to when he says that such things as “will power” and discipline and choice are all important aspects of the human experience.

    Note again that the only alternative to determinism is in indeterminism, which affords no more true ‘free will’ than determinism.

    In fact, the classic notion of free will that modern science has shown to be illusory is actually itself a form of determinism, it merely asserts that it is we who determine our choices. The compatibilist interpretation of the neuroscience of free will accepts the facts Harris addresses (that our sense of chooding is the result of prior unconscious processes etc.) but argues that it is still our decision.

    I am curious if you are aware of Dan Dennett’s views on free will and whether you regard him as a ‘hard determinist’ also. While he agrees with Harris on the basic facts of modern neuroscience as they pertain to free will, his is a decidedly more compatibilist view.

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  70. 70. gyanik 9:49 pm 04/15/2012

    “and everything as it exactly is now at this moment – no room for argument, excepting quantum behaviors.”

    You have the first part right. There is however room for argument, since the argument is just as determined to exist as everything else. (even if its wrong) :)

    As for this comment:
    ” doesn’t result in, or initiate, new physical processes in the brain?”

    Yes. It is called a feedback loop. It is a in no way proof of free will. Its probably not addressed because its insignificant to the argument.

    When I start my car, put it in gear, and press the accelerator pedal, the car engine revs and the car moves. This process is deterministic. When the car engine warms up the thermostat opens and the car pumps coolant through the radiator in order to keep the engine at proper operating temperature. An input creates a deterministic response which results in a feedback driving another deterministic input to the car to then cool the engine… so what. My car doesn’t have free will. The deterministic activity in our brains drives more deterministic activity in our brains. Feedback can’t turn determinism into free will.

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  71. 71. gyanik 10:05 pm 04/15/2012

    Percival

    Quantum uncertainty does nothing for the idea of free will. Since your supposed will has no influence at the quantum level either. The best you get is a deterministic brain subject to some small amount of quantum noise. Quantum fluctuations still happen within constraints. I may not know both the exact position and speed of a sub atomic particle but my house isn’t going to jump 3 feet to the left.

    “When Harris can provide which-way information in a two-slit experiment I’ll *decide* to accept Determinism.”

    Your asking for a simple answer to a complex question as a requirement for consideration of the argument. That’s just an excuse to close your mind.

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  72. 72. thinkyhead 1:08 am 04/17/2012

    In the article you write “Dwelling on Harris depresses me. All that brainpower and training dedicated to promulgating such bad ideas!”

    I don’t know why the ad hominem is required. Harris is putting forth an argument for a given position. You can refute it on its own merits and put forth your own argument for a different position. And if you do it well, Harris might concede some of your points. Throwing in insults and making it a zero sum game is of no use, and Scientific American is an ironical forum for rhetorical arguments.

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  73. 73. aberganza 7:43 pm 04/18/2012

    Free will is a fact. A will can be free without being ‘absolutely’ free. A person can be hungry without being ‘absolutely’ hungry like a black hole.

    Perhaps the confusion that leads to deny the observable fact of free will is that the free will that we observe is not ‘absolute’ free will.

    It is not necessary to posit that the will must be absolute free will in order to be truly free, just like it is not necessary to posit that the only valid attributes for scientifical observation must be absolute: abolute red, absolute heat, absolute sadness, absolute laugh. It is silly to deny melancholy with arguments against absolute melancholy.

    Free will, whatever the gradation, is a fact observable in all animals, even in worms: two worms might behave differently in exactly the same circumstances depending on the reflexes that each one of them has developed in its dwelling with the environment along their underground life. Any two animals of the same especies might behave differently in the same circumstances: one might flee and the other one might fight or freeze, depending on their previous life experiences.

    We should try to explain the observable fact of the different degrees of free will that we see in all animals (not only in humans) -but don’t see in minerals and plants- instead of denying it on the ground that it is not absolute.

    The only absolute physical quantity in our universe, for all we know so far, is the speed of light. Every other quantity or attribute of material objects displays itself in facts that are never denied for not being absolute.

    Free will -not absolute free will- is an observable fact that should not be unscientifically rejected, but scientifically explained.

    Our behavior sits on a chaotic (complex adaptive)system. Only a capability whose best name is ‘free will’ can originate coherent behavior from within a chaotic (inherently unpredictable) system. “God plays dice” at this level, too. The only possible way to deny the datum of free will is to deny the datum of chaos. Chaos, as quantic uncertainty, is not said as evidencing defficiency of measuring instruments.

    Given the intelligent free behavior, its causes can be explained a posteriori, for it is intelligent. But nothing in the network of causality indicates necessity of a particular observable behavior to take place, since genuine choices (not necessary courses of action) can be identified. The free individual is forced, by its nature, to make choices, that is, to be the origin of its (voluntary) movements. The quality of choices and actions will depend on the previous capability to learn and adapt.

    Free will doesn’t want to mean ‘absolute free will’, just like ‘knowledge’ doesn’t mean ‘absolute knowledge’. There are degrees in both. It is not correct to deny the fact of the ability to know on the basis that perfect or absolute knowledge is impossible. Knowledge without free will doesn’t make sense.

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  74. 74. livingston.nat 11:38 pm 04/19/2012

    Mr. Horgan, please answer 2 questions:
    1. If we have free will, what is it ‘free’ from?
    2. If “we are not just physical.”, what else are we?

    Thank you.

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  75. 75. aberganza 3:03 am 04/20/2012

    I don’t know if Mr. Horgan will agree with me.

    1. Free from external commands. ‘Free’ means that the agent is the cause or origin of its movements or its refusal to move. The more the cause is attributed to external factors, the less free is the individual. The more any movement is deterministically predictable by natural laws, the less free is the individual.

    2. Even simple devices such as computers are not just physical (hardware) they are also immaterial logic executable in the form of programs. No two iPads are identical, even though they might be identical in hardware specifications, because iPads (computers in general) are not just hardware. Just like humans are not just physis; we are also Psyché.

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  76. 76. livingston.nat 8:27 pm 04/20/2012

    It doesn’t seem to me that Sam Harris, myself, or any other opponent of free will argues that we are subject to external commands.

    There is no immaterial logic in a computer. No 2 iPads are identical, I agree, but the differences are physical. Even the same iPad is not the same in different temperatures, or when wet. Not because of a difference in the logic (which is identical in different iPads) but in the physical way it responds to input due to its temperature or changes in its circuitry caused by water.

    They are identical in our intent to design them, but because they operate at an electron level, very, very small differences (physical differences) are inevitable.

    If there is something different in our brains (instead of just more complicated) then it needs to be explained. What is it? Where is it? How does it work?

    You say we also Psyche. Great. What is that other than the dynamic blend of physical processes happening in our brain from moment to moment?

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  77. 77. aberganza 8:18 pm 04/21/2012

    The logic of programs is independent (not absolutely, but truly independent) of the dynamic blend of physical processes that underlies them. The result of the execution of a program depends on its logic and not on the underlying physical processes. Of course, the Physis exerts influence on the Psyché, but the Psyché also exerts influence on the Physis. Logic is not a property of material processes: it takes place on a different layer, and it is a constant on top of multiple underlying processes. If logic or rationality where a ‘property’ or ‘attribute’ of physiological processes, dialogue would be impossible and knowledge would make no sense. Exactly the same neural network -same nods, same layers- could yield different results, depending on genuine choices or passions or feelings of the corresponding individual.

    If this is possible in very gross devices (gross, compared to the brain) like computer networks, How couldn’t it be possible in the brain which no technology today or in the foreseeable future can emulate? Take, for example, the 7 layers of OSI (Open Systems Interconnect) Model. Exactly the same software layers could run on ‘completely’ different hardware layers. If this complete independence (logic not reducible to hardware processes) takes place in rustic devices such as computers, How could it not be much more achieved in the brain? Nobody would state that that the output of a program can be predicted by analyzing the Intel chips on which the program runs. Chips are designed precisely to give programs the greatest possible independence, that is, to respond to the most complex demands from the most creative programmer.

    Again, if software is independent from physical processes in simple devices such as computers, How could the Psyché not be independent (I am not saying absolutely independent) from the Physis being the brain the most perfect computer of all existing computing devices?

    The fact that we can know is proof that we can be free. And vice versa. Notice that knowledge is coherent with free will, it systemically demands free will. And vice versa.

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  78. 78. BobLaVelle 4:01 pm 04/22/2012

    Dear John,
    Human beings are quite suggestible. Our choices arise not from free wil but from myriad contingencies that are not of our making. Daniel Kahneman has supplied us with a rich overview of how susceptible we are to unseen forces. The arguments for the uncaused causer are steadily being undone by neuroscience, though, just as with quantum theory, it wil be a long time before the zeitgeist absorbs and reflects this state of affairs. Don’t be the last free will flat-earther. That would not be puckish. That would be stubborn.
    Yours truly, Bob

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  79. 79. aberganza 8:52 pm 04/22/2012

    I see that this dialogue about free will has several basic misunderstandings. Free will does not demand the idea of an uncaused causer to come into play. Doing something freely without any cause at all would mean that the person is crazy. Everything that is rational or meaningful, even if it is mean, can be traced back to its causes.

    But my actions don’t come from causes subject to be formulated in laws, but from the weight I sovereignly give to the different factors that take shape from within the myriad of contingencies (peer pressures, hormones, stimulants, drugs, lures, biological impulses, experiences, studies, training, counseling and a long etcetera) that influence my behavior. I must choose, based on my very own scale of priorities in which I arrange all influences that demand my action, in order to opt for one or other behavior.

    The myriad of *contigencies* -some of our own making (previous studies and readings, food habits, drink habits, previos training,…) and some not (genotype, for one)- that converge into one system to yield different successive actions in time can be correctly described as a ‘complex system’. Complexity means that the internal dynamics cannot be so understood and formulated as to predict, control and manage the behavior: it is a necessary field of statistics.

    One consequence is that a dictatorship is absolutely impossible and “profiling” will never be an exact science.

    And just like the “uncertainty principle” in quantum mechanics: it is not because of defficency in meausering instruments that some day will be overcome, but because it is intrinsically complex, it belongs to the thing itself to be intrinsically contingent to an outside observer. There will always be room for learning and knowledge.

    I think.

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  80. 80. Polednice 1:37 pm 04/24/2012

    I think this is a very unsatisfying “rebuttal” of Harris’s argument. Perhaps you’re unaware of it (I certainly hope so), but your position is really just a variant of the Ghost in the Machine – slightly more sophisticated it may be, but it’s still a Ghost, and it’s still false.

    Essentially, your argument rests on the idea that minds are influenced by non-physical entities such as ideas. However, this represents a gross misunderstanding of how brains function and interact. Having ideas, assessing them, listening to others’ and interacting with them is utterly dependent on physicality – the content of a complex idea may be abstract, but its presence and comprehension in the mind of a human is entirely physical and thus subject to the same physical laws that make free will impossible.

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  81. 81. aberganza 6:38 pm 04/24/2012

    I agree with you completely that all mental activity takes place on a network of firing neurons. All movements of our thought occur because neurons fire accordingly. A ‘ghost in the machine’ -a total impossibility- is not necessary in the discussion about free will. But the fact that mental activity is utterly dependent on physicality (“mens sana in corpore sano”) -which it is, in fact- doesn’t mean that mental activity is reducible to physicality. Logic, such as a theorem, is not an attribute or property of matter, neither “Romeo and Juliet”.

    Take, for example, a program that emulates market trends. Even though all logic that is executed in the computer is utterly dependent on physicality, we can’t reduce the program to the chips on which it runs, that is, to the physicality on which it is utterly dependent in every bit of its execution.

    Or take language. Although language is utterly dependent on letters, we can’t reduce literature to the alphabet.

    The fact that we get to explain how free will (not absolute free will) works, that is, how the brain generates consciousness, doesn’t mean that there is free will no more.

    The fact that an engineer creates a programming language doesn’t mean that he has knowledge about everything that every programmer will program in that computer all over the world in all times, or that he can predetermine positively (not only constrain possibilities) what the programmers will do.

    Layer architecture is key to understand this. The independence of layers (hardware, machine language, operating system, programming languages, application programs…, one on top of the other like in a stack) ‘practically’ creates ghosts, but are ‘emulated ghosts’. Each layer depends totally on the lower layer to exist, but everything that happens in each layer cannot be reduced to the activity in the lower layers: each layer is more or less free, but truly free, from the underlying layers on which it is utterly dependent.

    Add consciousness to this layer architecture in animal life and, voila, there you have free will, even against your will: the animal is, by nature, ‘forced’ to *choose* between several smultaneously valid options in order to adapt and survive.

    The more we study (perhaps we keep reading 5 more minutes instead of going to watch TV) the better able we might be to choose between options or to proactively open new fields of action; even better if we read 6 more minutes instead of only 5. And still, better, if the TV program we watch is about an inspiring rol model.

    Consciousness, which takes place in the uppermost layer, is by force of nature, free, because the layers are independent (not absolutely independent) of strict necessity. No need of help from ghosts in the machine to explain the free will that we see and experience.

    The fact that free will utterly depends on brain processes doesn’t mean that it is not free will: once we know exactly how and were these processes take place in the brain, we will know how free will works.

    ¿Is it possible, by any imaginable scientifical artifact, to know what is the best single concrete option for all individuals continually? If this is possible, then it might plausible to think that free will is an illusion. But it is materially impossible, because the success of my options depends on the future options of others facing my options, therefore, I must adapt, therefore I am forced to have free will, that is, I am forced to truly *choose*.

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  82. 82. gyanik 4:31 pm 04/27/2012

    aberganza

    “But the fact that mental activity is utterly dependent on physicality (“mens sana in corpore sano”) -which it is, in fact- doesn’t mean that mental activity is reducible to physicality. ”
    That’s exactly what it means. That mental activity has meaning beyond that physical activity means nothing to your argument. Romeo and Juliet is a collection of words that when read and understood by humans, plays on our thought processes.

    Car tires are more than just pieces of rubber. They are integral to helping a car go. So what? this does nothing to give cars free will, does it?

    “Add consciousness to this layer architecture in animal life and, voila, there you have free will, even against your will: the animal is, by nature, ‘forced’ to *choose* between several simultaneously valid options in order to adapt and survive.”

    Nobody is arguing that the human mind is not always changing, becoming something different with every input. If humans have free will, and animals have free will, then computers with programs have free will because they fit the description of, weighing criteria for decision making. Some will use past experience in that process, just like us.

    “we can’t reduce the program to the chips on which it runs”

    No, because a functioning computer is a machine capable of being in a massive number of states. You can’t simply look at the machine and its capabilities, without also considering its state (program). Even programs are physical. They are held in the physical state of the hardware.

    A stone tumbles down a mountain side. The mountain determines where it lands. The previous rock may have changed the mountain in such a way that an identical rock would not land the same way if it tumbled subsequently. By your definition the mountain has free will. It decides where the rock goes. It can be changed by the process, and may decide the fate of the next identical rock differently.

    Your amorphous definition of free will makes the term meaningless.

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  83. 83. aberganza 11:17 am 04/28/2012

    Computers, cars, rocks rolling down on mountains cannot have free will, because they have no consciousness; they don’t have a nervous system (central and peripheral) capable of proprioception, and they cannot be the cause of their movement in any circumstance. A nervous system is the necessary condition for free will. The first and most important product of a nervous system is consciousness. A conscious being or entity is necessarily free. Consciousness is not a trivial marginal thing: it makes a difference, the main one being the production of free will. Worms and flies have free will (according to their knowledge capabilities), because they are conscious. It is impossible to explain their *individual* behavior with *only* a behaviorist approach. There might be some behavior differences from individual to individual that can be explained only by reference to the inner of the fly or worm that chooses one or other concrete movement as a result of the dynamics of its consciousness, which is real Consciousness means that the individual is handed the ultimate agency of its actions or movements, that enables it to accept or resist one or other influence.

    So, free will means, univocally said, that the individual who has it is conscious and therefore it/he/she can be the origin of its/her/his own actions by deciding, in a way completely out of the reach of science to predetermine exactly, what external and internal influences to accept in order to originate a movement. Of course, since animals are not omnipotent, there must be instances of ‘force majeure’ that impose movements that don’t contradict free will.

    The only cases of free will that we have knowledge of in this universe and up to this moment are given exclusively in beings with a nervous system, from louses to Einstein. Each species has the free will proportional to its characterictis. The maximum capacity of free will is given, naturally, where the species has the capability of abstraction, that is, to free the representations from the concrete objects that gave them origin.

    I don’t know if I have expressed clearly what I mean by free will in our universe.

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  84. 84. RickDean 9:30 pm 05/6/2012

    I have to say, for a contributing writer to a magazine as prestigious as the Scientific American, Mr. Horgan’s piece is not only unscientific in its response but it also hints of jealousy (quite a surprise given the body of work behind him). He loathes a deterministic philosophy yet offers no alternative accept the fact that he “feels” like he has the freedom of choice and is sure that it is in no way an illusion. How? A simple example would suffice. He also tries (in vain) to rip apart the serial killer analogy and only succeeds in missing the point Harris was trying to make. Harris is simply pointing to the physical presence of a brain tumor which may account for some of the killer’s actions. It isn’t the only factor nor does Harris imply as much. Horgan has built himself a little strawson to gleefully attack, while also inadvertently lending support to Harris’ argument about all of the other causal factor contributing to one’s decision making process (i.e. inheritable traits, education, upbringing, etc.).

    In one of his opening paragraphs Horgan woefully laments that Harris’ book has sold more copies than his own, which apparently also addresses the free will problem (I haven’t read it so can’t comment on its arguments). Is this perhaps part of what “caused” Mr. Horgan to write this piece?

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  85. 85. RickDean 9:36 pm 05/6/2012

    More can be found on the free will debate at http://freewilldebate.com

    Regards,
    Rick

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  86. 86. dyamihayes 12:35 pm 05/12/2012

    “…he wants us to accept the absurdum: there is no fundamental difference between me and a man compelled to kill by a brain tumor… Here’s the difference. The man with a tumor has no choice but to do what he does. I do have choices, which I make all the time…”

    Let me try to put Sam Harris’ argument in a more succinct, and generous form. First, the absurdity is not that there is no difference – there are PLENTY of physical differences, and that’s one of the main points. The absurdity arises when we acknowledge that the subjective experience of ‘free will’ – that is, our evidence for supposing it being a factual concept, and not merely a useful tautology – is (feels) the same whether or not a tumor is manipulating our choices or not. Again, the man with a tumor still EXPERIENCES choice just as you claim to have these choices you experience. He does not say, “OMG! Something is trying to control me!” or “PHEW! I haven’t experienced freedom until now!” You have choices that you make all the time, so does he, however, the parameters of your choices (which you are aware of) as well as what you end up deciding, are CAUSALLY shown to occur in your consciousness AFTER they occur in your brain; they do not ORIGINATE in your conscious experience. If you wish to discuss Free Will as something beyond our consciousness, perhaps we have some Soul controlling our brains, then that is an interesting topic also! : ) I hope that helps!

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  87. 87. dyamihayes 1:01 pm 05/12/2012

    I was going to address another issue, but on reflection it’s clear you haven’t actually understood Harris’ position, and really haven’t talked about any of the arguments he uses, nor do any of your thoughts bare relevance on his.. so this discussion seems best saved for someone who actually is interested. And I feel sorry for you because it’s not your fault, even if it feels like it is.. I hope your environment sufficiently conditions your brain to tell you otherwise someday, as it will likely improve your well-being and book sales :)

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  88. 88. uhl7792 7:12 pm 05/18/2012

    It’s interesting how you just provided a fairly good argument for how real truth does not exist in the world. And the first comment is dead on – there is no non-physical element to the equation. Thoughts ideas and philosophy are physical constructs in our head, otherwise what are they?

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  89. 89. kaushikm88 9:30 am 05/19/2012

    “Consider: When I watch the video of Sam Harris talking at Caltech, is it the electrons streaming through my MacBook, the photons impinging on my eye, the sound waves entering my ear that make me want to respond to Harris? Of course not. It’s the meaning of the video that stirs me, not its physical embodiment. I could have watched a DVD of Harris’s talk, or read a transcript, or listened to someone summarize his lecture over the telephone. And it’s possible that Harris’s words, instead of provoking me to write a critical response, could have changed my mind about free will, so that I decided to write a column defending his point of view. Of course, if I thought about it for a moment, I’d realize that the fact that Harris had changed my mind and hence my actions was evidence of my free will.”

    How does one understand “Meaning” ? How does one understand the English Language ? Isn’t that because of Deterministic effort put forth by society to make you understand Language. Since Language itself was a Deterministic effort, don’t you think that our ideas and thoughts are also “determined” by the language you know and this proves that there is no “Free will” as things are determined.

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  90. 90. Freeeeeedom 8:43 am 05/21/2012

    John, you are getting a lot of flack for bringing up “non-physical factors” but the example you use is perfect. If I read a book and a new idea influences my thoughts, the information that makes up that new idea is indeed coded into physical form (letters on the page, the light reflecting off of it, the signals the light is converted into that relay the information to my brain) but the idea itself is not a physical thing. Yet, if has causal influence.

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  91. 91. daphnesylk 3:10 pm 05/26/2012

    Oh dear, people just can’t release the idea that there is a little ‘me’ inside their head making selections.
    First, there is no substantive difference in a tumor that creates a neuronal malfunction and an ‘idea’ that acts on the neurons. If the tumor didn’t exist, the brain would not have been changed, if the idea didn’t exist, the brain would not have been changed. It is all a physical process.
    Second, lack of free will does not default to determinism. Your brain takes in information, most of which you aren’t even conscious of, out of which arises an action. Given the constantly morphing state of the brain, there can be no determinism as the action is entirely dependent on the state of the brain at that moment and the signals from the immediate environment. If your brain was deterministic, you would eat the same thing every day.
    Third, here’s my free will question. If free will can be called up at…will…how come so many people are fat? Or, if dwelling on Harris depresses you, then where’s your free will button? Just engage that sucker and get undepressed.
    To paraphrase Daniel Kahneman, “You have all the free will your brain allows you.”

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  92. 92. hacksoncode 5:59 pm 05/26/2012

    I’m going to have to go with “ignostic” on this one.

    I have never even heard a coherent definition of “free will” that wasn’t circular.

    What do you *mean*!?!?!!?

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  93. 93. jodaph 4:51 pm 06/22/2012

    I do find it odd that you start with a divisive statement: “Harris’s memes, in contrast, are infecting the minds not of right wing and religious cranks but of smart, knowledgeable people.”

    And you conclude with this: “We are physical creatures, but we are not just physical. We have free will because we are creatures of mind, meaning, ideas, not just matter.”

    A suggestion that the human consciousness and its decision-making capabilities are more than the sum of its parts is entirely faith-based. You’re teetering on the edge of religion.

    And concluding that people are, in the end, responsible for their own actions is a very libertarian, right-of-center political concept, wouldn’t you say?

    So why the vile remarks, when you seem to be throwing your lot in with “them”?

    I’m a right-of-center, intelligent libertarian, and I agree with your column. But I think its time you did a little self-reflection.

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  94. 94. Jester123 9:32 am 08/9/2012

    Is anybody else here a fan of Robert Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality? In “Lila” he addresses free will; to the extent that you are ruled by Static Quality you don’t have free will, to the extent that you embrace Dynamic Quality you do.

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  95. 95. stu12 11:35 am 11/5/2012

    It’s clear that behavior is partly the result of how a person’s brain is wired. If your brain were wired like a dog’s that you would bark there is no doubt. Speech would be beyond you.

    How you are treated by the physical world, this includes interactions with other humans, also clearly effects how you behave. If it didn’t you would never learn that one thing was good to eat and another wasn’t.
    And so we have heredity and environment making a human what he is. We can propose more ingredients; God magically bestowing free will for instance. But nothing more is actually needed.

    Harris is correct in his rejection of free will. Human behavior is as complicated as the interaction of the intricately wired human brain and the environment’s effect on it.
    If you knew fully how an individual’s brain was formed and what environmental influences it had encountered, you could predict with 100% certainty how he would behave in all circumstances.
    An individual appears to act according to free will only as a result of our imperfect understanding of his environment and heredity.

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  96. 96. Brain1 2:49 am 12/1/2012

    Always trying belittle us.

    WHAT’s HYSTERICAL is he talks about those with tumors or mental illness yet seems to consider himself normal. The overwhelming majority of humans that have ever lived believe in God or a spiritual world.

    So when it comes to thinking correctly, atheists are in the abnormal category. In the medical field we deal with mental illness regularly and convincing them they dont see the world correctly is almost impossible. But somehow atheists have convinced themselves *they are the normal ones.

    So confidently you say ” supernatural nonsense”–accusing the entire world mental illness yet you cannot see how your jumbling of ideas can never allow mind to move matter. At least you see you’re a real person but its amazing you cant connect deniers of freewill with atheism’s consequences.

    You seem to want it both ways but no matter how you want to tap dance around the hard facts–electrical signals, particles, and chemicals cannot decide to form a conscious mind capable of telling it that it can. But thats where denial leads –to ascribing God-like powers to matter.
    In the end I surely doubt a Boson will be sitting there to greet us all. But with the power atheists ascribe to mindless matter– I think I’ll take hand washing over that any day.

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  97. 97. 0ShinAkuma0 12:18 am 12/14/2012

    Haha, this John Horgan is hilarious. He doesn’t even bother to hide his blatant irrational dislike of Harris. Why? Maybe because Harris’ books “rates orders of magnitude higher on Amazon’s Best Sellers lists than my new book, The End of War”.
    Then Horgan writes, “I admit to a certain voyeuristic fascination with Harris. I wonder, what crazy idea is he going to peddle next? Some of his righteous rants give me a perverse pleasure. I’m simultaneously irritated and titillated.” He links to one of Harris’ blog posts in which Harris replies in a harsh tone to Chris Hedges (read what Hedges wrote, hear what he said and you’d understand). But what’s funny is, that Horgan is pointing out Harris’ “righteous rants” at the same damn time that he himself is going off on a righteous rant against Harris.
    Oh the irony.

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  98. 98. Iskrahol 10:17 am 01/18/2013

    A particle physicist once contended that because of the vast spaces between elementary particles , we don’t really touch anything. Tell that to a braille user.

    Clearly, if I am sick of reading proponents of Harris here, I could go out into the freezing garden and catch pneumonia. Stohastic probability tells us that I am more likely to go upstairs and fetch my current paperback. Not a huge range of choices then, but still…….yours not frozen yet iskrahol

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  99. 99. kebil 10:53 pm 01/30/2013

    John H, why do you say the killer has no choices but you do? His criminal choices are the product of neural wiring and firing, and this supposed damage has induced in him a desire to kill, but how are you different? Obviously you are not driven to kill, but your decisions are still the product of wiring and firing, it is just that you don’t have the particular “damage” that drives on to kill.

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  100. 100. kebil 11:18 pm 01/30/2013

    Aberganza: I understand what you are saying, but even the program itself is represented physically – it is the series of zeroes and ones stored in memory that the computer uses to run the program. Even a program stored entirely in RAM is still present in a physical form, albeit fleetingly. The human brain can be looked at as a hard wired computer program running on hardware, and is capable of altering the hardware it runs on (slowly, when it comes to actually changing the wiring), or more quickly when it comes to things like LTP (long term potentiation), etc. It still is, nonetheless, entirely understandable as being totally in a physical state (and remember, energy is part of the physical state). This explains everything.

    It is very hard, and painful in some ways, to accept that we, our decisions and feelings and thoughts, are entirely physical. It does not “feel” that way, but how could it feel any different. I do not operate on a moment to moment basis thinking of myself as being a deterministic biological machine, I still use the artifice of free will, but when I stop and think about, it is all physical. Even if it were something other than physical, that something would still have to be explainable by some set of rules, instructions, laws, that frame a coherent program, anything else is randomness – which is far worse than deterministic.

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  101. 101. cc_ctc 10:54 am 02/13/2013

    If you read my post on your materialism blog you would realise that as a biologically trained person I am happier with the status quo than other nonsense. However this is a really difficult topic which I must say as a person who deals with animals not humans I am not really equipped to discuss. However I’ll give it a go.
    It seems to me if you believe in a “consciousness” as being a non-material component of the mind then you can believe in “free will” but you can’t believe in one and not the other. That is because these seem to me to be manifestations of the physical mind, whose neuronal connections and genetic factors are a product of both inheritance and lifelong influences. That is, we are the sum of parts. So just as our personalities (what is that?) are the sum of parts, and can change throughout life due to circumstances and influences, or to physicochemical disturbances, so do these other esoteric things.

    Therefore we are entirely and utterly the product of the neuronal and physicochemical state of our brains at any given instant, but no instant is the same as any other. Thus as our brain state changes so do our personalities, our attitudes, and hence our decisions. At any given instant therefore our decisions are entirely the product of a huge combination of factors that have resulted in our current brain-state at this particular instant. And in the next instant I may change my mind about all of this! So therefore “free will” is a cumulative state, that ends up with particular neurons firing that result in a particular decision, right or wrong for us or others.

    I believe consciousness is also a cumulative state, and personality. Hence all these are manifestations rather than being particular entities in one particular part of the brain. As the ecosystem is a manifestation of the many links that make it function, so the brain is an accumulated state. And it is a physicochemical state, there is no question about that. But because it is a cumulative state, it may in some cases function as though separated from its individual parts, giving us consciousness and free will. Neither of those probably exist in the purely reductionist view, but all of us feel alive as an individual identity, and feel as if we make decisions using free will, because our sentient nature and sophisticated makeup enables that cumulative state to function as though it is “I” who is making the decision. And it is “I” because no-one else is doing that to me or deciding for me. But “I” is a product of genes, influences, and brain and body physiology and chemistry. Therefore without consciousness there is no “I” and there is no free will. But just as the ecosystem is not an entity in its own right, so the mind that makes the decision is a set of cells. But because of consciousness, it is “me” making the decisions.

    Thus it is not the decision itself that is free will, that is a neuronal response, it is the “I” doing it. And because of sentient nature, and physicochemical changes within the body both in response to the external world, and to ones own bodily processes, “I” am not constant. Thus free will COULD be seen as a separate product of our lives and bodies, just as personality could be. They are descriptions of products or manifestations of the current state of the mind and body which may change from moment to moment, and could be seen as separate like consciousness is. Otherwise, does consciousness really exist? Probably not.
    The issue of consciousness goes to the issue of sentience. When the bacterium moves away from the pipette or communicates with another one, is it sentient? Is a tree sentient? Is that a property of life? When does that awareness of the pipette, or response to the leaf-eating beetle evolve into “consciousness”? Is the feeling of experiencing something actually the same as experiencing it? Because I EXPERIENCE that I am “I” and that “I” make decisions, does that mean it is a totally separate process from the normal machinations of the brain? Is the experience of sentience and consciousness and free will something separate than the living body and brain that enable it?? Or is experience of consciousness and thus free will just a manifestation of physicochemical processes?

    These questions somewhat answer themselves by taking the reverse. Is it possible to be sentient and not be a living creature? Is it possible to make a decision if you are brain-dead? Is it possible to be conscious without a body?
    The reductionists are right about these things, because without A then B doesn’t happen, but at the same time, the cumulative nature of our brains, enabling mind, personality, consciousness, morality, free will etc., and thus of very complex manifestations, make us feel as though we are in control of the process, that the experience is “owned”. And perhaps because of the sophistication involved, we are in control to the extent that “I” exists.

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  102. 102. Agroves 8:14 pm 03/24/2013

    “Saying that free will doesn’t exist because it isn’t absolutely free is like saying truth doesn’t exist because we can’t achieve absolute, perfect knowledge.” You’re putting words in his mouth. Sam Harris never said that the reason we should believe in determinism is because free will isn’t absolutely free. I’ve never heard Harris argue for determinism this way, because obviously it’s a bad argument.

    “I’d realize that the fact that Harris had changed my mind and hence my actions was evidence of my free will.” This is no evidence at all. Just because “you” changed your mind, doesn’t give evidence of free will. This is simply evidence that you don’t get it… yet. What Harris is saying is that you are your beliefs, you can’t decide to believe something different just because you want to. You can’t just decide that you want to now believe that the TV show Game of Thrones is now real history. Your logic determines your believes. You don’t. The reason you “choose” not to believe in determinism really has nothing to do with “choice” at all and everything to do with what your logic dictates and what your logic dictates is ascribed to the evidence your logic is given.

    Now while it true that you may believe in something based off of faulty evidence, or faulty logic it doesn’t mean that you have a choice in the matter. Free will is said to be an illusion because it “seems” like we have a choice.

    Lastly, I’d like to make a quick comment about the the argument of Freedom and Free will. When we talk about Freedom in the political sense, this simply means we have a larger playing field in which to make our determined choices. It doesn’t mean we all the sudden have more free will. Free will is an argument for a way of thinking, you can’t have MORE free will, but you can have MORE freedom. Slavery limits our ability to act in the world, while freedom simply allows more opportunity to act in deterministic ways.

    While I’m not fully convinced of determinism, Harris’ logic does seem sound. I would actually like to see a well thought out argument against determinism… because I can’t change my mind against determinism otherwise. My logic won’t let me.

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  103. 103. gdeveaux1 5:05 pm 04/8/2013

    “We have free will because we are creatures of mind, meaning, ideas, not just matter.” Then why is it that small changes in the physical structure of our minds can have such significant changes in our personality? Why is it that certain character traits or behaviors can be associated to certain patterns in our brain?

    “The man with a tumor has no choice but to do what he does. I do have choices, which I make all the time.” In what way are you more free than the serial killer? IS free-will only applicable to those who have tumor-free brains? Do we for some reason turn into robots when we have a mental illness? No. I think it is quite clear that serial killers or people with mental illnesses would claim to be as free as you and I.

    “When I watch the video of Sam Harris talking at Caltech, is it the electrons streaming through my MacBook, the photons impinging on my eye, the sound waves entering my ear that make me want to respond to Harris? Of course not. It’s the meaning of the video that stirs me, not its physical embodiment.” The way you receive the information and what the information is are external stimuli that will cause you to react. How you react is based on what kind of impact this information has on you and how relevant it is to what you’ve experienced. Any external stimuli will cause you to react in a way that you are already programmed to, be it by evolution or what you’ve experienced so far in your life.

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  104. 104. Wadigzon 12:57 pm 06/28/2013

    Theinsider says it all (#12), if this John guy keeps writing nonsensical rants he should not be at SA.

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  105. 105. zeprichiche 10:13 pm 07/27/2013

    this is a scientific journal? are you kidding me?

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  106. 106. seanterry7 2:30 pm 08/23/2013

    Free will, as I understand it, is the ability to consciously control one’s actions. Harris claims that because of a plethora of influences, or mental constraints, we do not actually consciously control our decisions, and that they are made because of our influences. Horgan agrees that we have mental constraints but disagrees that they remove us of all free will and claims that we still have a say in what goes on. To back this up he states that ideas can change our minds, and that if, while listening to Harris’ video from Caltech, it had changed his mind and caused him to write an article defending Harris’ point of view, that this change of thought process would be evidence of free will.

    I am truly shocked that a man intelligent enough to write for Scientific American would be this incompetent as Horgan is claiming that an outside influence, someone else’s idea, causing him to change his mind is evidence of free will. If free will is being able to make a decision despite outside influences, how would an outside influence causing you to change your mind be evidence of free will? If anything it would be evidence against it, because while you thought you willfully changed your mind, and believed it to be evidence of free will, it’s actually an external influence, causing your brain to think that way.

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  107. 107. practicalmanife 5:09 pm 12/29/2013

    Hi Mr. Horgan. It appears to me that your views and Mr. Harris’ may not be all that different after all. Mr. Harris argues that the old concept of an individual with absolute “free” will, which is to say man is independently responsible for every thought and every action, is dead due to modern scientific findings. The new view is one of the individual’s thoughts and actions being dependent on everyone and everything else in the universe—man does not act alone. What Harris seems to avoid stating explicitly is that not all influences can be completely ruled out by science at this point, namely those of the conscious mind. Statements such as these are not typically explicitly made by the mainstream because, as advised by Newton’s Principia, modern science admits only those forces which can be physically proven to exist. The mind cannot be proven to exist, thus the impact of the mind, consciousness, etc are not admitted. The old view of free will appears to be dead, but the new view takes into account the past, present and future and considers the individual’s role in the entire universe at any given moment. Depending on one’s religious or philosophical beliefs, this might entail a merging with strictly physical phenomena or both physical and nonphysical phenomena, which is one of the main points of contention you have with Mr. Harris’ claim. So in the end you seem to both be right. As Mr. Harris points out, the old view of free will is dead, but as you point out, all the influences over our thoughts and actions have yet to be defined by modern science. Thus we return to the old question of whether or not nonphysical phenomena can affect the physical universe, and as modern mainstream science only studies physical phenomena, we will continue to try to explain everything in terms of physical influences until we change our approach. Some believe it is the best approach while others disagree…it is a matter of beliefs.

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  108. 108. Mr. Brainwash 2:40 pm 01/1/2014

    Am I the only guy who agrees with Mr. Horgan?

    Sam makes a huge truth claim about free will. The burden of proof is on him, but he dodges it. “free will is totally incoherent idea that contradicts what science tells us about how the world works.” How so, Sam? You simply don’t say.

    My point is this: if free will doesn’t exist, how has anything novel ever been created by man? Take the DeLorean car. We know with 100% certainty that there is not another DeLorean in the Universe. Why? Because they’re not naturally occurring. They were born of creativity. Does creativity exist? Obviously. Where? In mankind’s mind, exclusively. But Sam would have you believe that the designer of the DeLorean didn’t choose to sketch out the plans, smelt the metal, bolt together the panels, etc. until this entirely novel thing came into existence. Sam says “prior causes” are what brought anything created by man into existence, not man himself.

    Do you still buy his argument?

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  109. 109. practicalmanife 8:57 am 01/11/2014

    @practicalmanife: I believe we just don’t have enough information to prove or disprove free will. Mr. Horgan suggests that science needs to look at non-physical causes, but that won’t happen until science, more specifically mainstream science, is redefined (see quote below from the US National Association of Sciences). This is like suggesting God caused the Big Bang–mainstream scientists are just not going to back you up. I think Mr. Horgan has a stronger argument in pointing to the fact that Dr. Harris admits thoughts come from the subconscious mind, and the physical processes of the subconscious mind have yet to be fully understood.

    Since Dr. Harris claims future events all arise out of previous conditions, Mr. Horgan can argue this by pointing to the fact that modern physics has overturned determinism (defined below).

    Thus, since we do not understand where thoughts come from and we cannot predict with absolute certainty that a certain thought will lead to a specific decision/action, it seems the jury is still out on this one. Mr. Horgan doesn’t even need to argue about supernatural influences.

    QUOTE FROM NAS:
    “In science, explanations must be based on naturally occurring phenomena. Natural causes are, in principle, reproducible and therefore can be checked independently by others. If explanations are based on purported forces that are outside of nature, scientists have no way of either confirming or disproving those explanations. Any scientific explanation has to be testable — there must be possible observational consequences that could support the idea but also ones that could refute it. Unless a proposed explanation is framed in a way that some observational evidence could potentially count against it, that explanation cannot be subjected to scientific testing.” –National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine, Science, Evolution, and Creationism, National Academies Press, Washington, 2008.

    Definition of determinism: if all of the conditions of the universe at the present moment were somehow knowable, and so too were knowable all the natural laws that govern how conditions change from one moment to the next, one could predict with 100% certainty what will happen in any moment to follow.

    Thank you Mr. Horgan for your post,
    @practicalmanife

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  110. 110. JayScottGreenspan 6:26 pm 01/24/2014

    Mr. Brainwash, there won’t be another Emperor penguin elsewhere in the Universe either, but that doesn’t mean it’s requires free will to occur.

    To all, I ask you to consider two possible Universes:
    1) One in which free will is an illusion. Conscious experience consequentially follows from micro-scale physical processes.
    2) One in which free will is real. There is some spirit that intervenes in the physical to make the conscious calls.

    Now, how can you know for certain which type of a Universe you’re in? You can’t. I think the best you can do is ask which is more likely.

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  111. 111. elzorro 10:44 am 01/28/2014

    Something that I have not seen mentioned is that Mr. Harris’ book was perfectly anticipated by Mark Twain’s essay, “What is Man” (1906). Taking the form of a Socratic dialogue between the “young man” and the “old man”, Twain systematically and, I believe, conclusively demolishes the ideas of free will and the “self-made man”. (Man is all machine, no ghost, no “daemon”.) The young man tries tack after tack to refute, but is stymied in each effort. He goes on to deal with many of the implications of this for the questions of ethical behavior, crime and punishment and “moral responsibility”, making the point that regardless of a person’s inability to have not acted in an anti-social manner, society has the right and the responsibility to protect itself from anti-social behavior, as a purely practical matter. While Twain does get a bit over-the-top toward the end of the essay, it is an excellent read and is available on line at a number of sites. I commend it to your attention.

    As for the Horgan piece, it is unworthy of a scientific publication. It is, as Mr. Spock would say. “illogical”.

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  112. 112. LewSouth 4:24 pm 03/1/2014

    My favorite sentence in this essay is the utterly nonsensical “Of course, if I thought about it for a moment, I’d realize that the fact that Harris had changed my mind and hence my actions was evidence of my free will.” The absurdity of this statement is breathtaking.

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  113. 113. archaictext 6:15 am 06/21/2014

    The author of this article definitely missed the point. Sure, you can still make choices based on what you encounter. The things that arise in the minds of others inspire you to think what you do. But what is this inspiration? Thatbis the key. All the things you have ever experienced, plus your genes etc, have given you a set of possible reactions to your environment (other people’s thoughts included), and based on the circumstances you “choose” one of these reactions that are available to you. Why did you choose thay action or response? Because you are a compilation of events and processes that has it’s own subjective understanding of what makes sense. The fact that you can make mistakes supports this. You make decisions all the time based out of emotion and physical dependence on certain nutritional or chemical needs. How is this some free will in the sense that most people would like to see it? You can’t get away from it. Many people have already pointed out how you’ve just failed to understand, and it’s because you are questioning things that Sam has already answered. So either you failed to read closely what he has written, or you just didn’t understand it.
    I mean, you waste the first 6 paragraphs (almost half) of this article, borishly whining about whether or not you should address Sam’s assertions again. Then finally you get to your first big (erroneous) accusation “So Sam think I am no different than a murderer with a tumor, or a worm”. No that is not what he said at all. You are not a psychopathic murderer. There are many differences. And not what you said. The guy with the tumor can make choices to. In his example, they actual did an autopsy on a murderer who had a tumor which was pressing on his pituitary gland causing him to have chemical imbalances which instigated his murderous inclinations. Sam’s point is that people who commit violent acts are similar in their brain chemistry and there are many reasons for them to have this chemistry, known and unknown yet. Some nuture leads to chemistry like this, some genes, some of both. You are failing to see the obvious here.

    Then you go on to say that our minds are influenced by non physical factors such as thoughts which arise on other people’s minds which are then shared with your own. These are the results of physical actions and experiences. You are not proving anything here. Physical things occur such as the birth of a human. That human experiences life and other beings. These other being explain thier own experiences with them through the physical use of their brain to mouth. Ghe person accepts this ear to brain and then their physical mind process this information and produces chemical reactions which produce emotions which drive their own actions etc, thus the cycle continues. Your point that this is not a physical process really doesn’t hold water.

    This is an answer to all the other points you try to make, which are all the same really. You believe that the process of thinking ( of the physical mind functioning as a biochemical organ) is not a physical action. This makes no sense. You say Sam is missing the “cruchingly obvious” but really it is you who is missing the crushingly obvious about how the mind functions. Take another look buddy. You’re deluded. It’s understandable as most people are. You need to be more self aware.

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  114. 114. Sreceiver 2:21 am 08/30/2014

    The mere fact that he talks about book sales completely discredits him. I can’t imagine someone refuting Einstein with a lead-in like that. Each of those sentences are a waste of the readers’ time.

    Sam Harris’ argument is simple: even if we can choose between alternatives, we cannot choose our desires. Just because you experience vacillation and it precedes an action, this does not imply that it caused the action; deliberation may simply be promoted to consciousness after a decision has been made – see Benjamin Libet’s experiments for more information.

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  115. 115. James8 1:52 am 10/11/2014

    This is just another instance of someone chasing his tail trying to defend free will. Everything you said is based on either a misunderstanding of, or a refusal to understand what Harris said. Though I agree we differ from people with tumours, Harris is clearly saying that we ‘do not’ differ on the basis that we are all bound by physical reality / constraints, and are determined beings. That is what makes us similar to anyone else.

    You keep arguing that he has thrown the baby out with the bathwater by dismissing free will, and yet you have not provided a single plausible point to refute his argument. There are flaws in his thesis, but you certainly haven’t found any. The reason why you won’t change the minds of ‘hardcore determinists’ is that you haven’t bothered to put a well-thought out argument together.

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