Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Free Will by Sam Harris No1

Being atheistic with regards to the existence of a creator, but agnostic with regard to the possibility of transcendentals, my not-strictly materialist cosmogony is one that finds itself intermittently beleaguered by the strident philosophical naivety of certain men of science and other commentators who march under the banner of Neo-Atheism.

This does not mean however, that I wish to count myself amongst the present wave of more accommodating cuddly atheists, in whose ranks the former Mistress of my college, Baroness Mary Warnock was recently listed largely on the grounds that she has a partiality for a bit of religious sing-song though on that basis even Richard Dawkins is a bit of a soft toy.

Sam Harris, American author of The End of Faith and now this little volume, which could be subtitled The End of Human Agency, clearly has no intention of being either snuggly or caressible. The book is written in the tone of the man setting out the sort of hard facts most of us simply won't face up to. And he sets them out with just the sort of obstinate determination not to admit the possibility of a bigger picture that the Neo-Atheists have made themselves notorious for, even managing to present his colleague Dan Dennet as callow and limp wristed on the matter of our apparently non-existent free will. (More on that later...)

In essence Harris's argument is based on the following observation: thanks to modern neuroimaging techniques, we can see that the human mind operates in two separate streams, one objective, one subjective. In the first of these brain events occur, in the second the feeling that the owner of the brain has authorial control over these events. Given the detectable delay between the two streams, our sense of having free will is an illusion, Harris therefore concludes.

There's nothing wrong with the facts in Harris's polemic. Yet its a wonder that he believes them to be so compelling a proof against our ability to shape our own actions. Scanning a human brain from the outside can indeed tell us many new and interesting things about its function, but we are still a long way from a comprehensive scientific understanding of the mind.

But the real weakness of the case Harris is making lies in its assumption that the two streams of activity in the brain are stuck in real time mode (or at least one is in real time and the other thinks it is, but isn't) and entirely disconnected from each other. In other words, there is no kind of feedback loop in place between the personal and the impersonal mind. It doesn't take a great deal of subjective brain scanning to realise that this is unlikely to be the true state of affairs...


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