Sam Harris Does Have Free Will… sheeesh!

So that I would have some text to quote, I present some text from this article below. Read this to get a sense of the philosophical arguments regarding free will.

If you’ve read my writings you know that the actual basic meaning or purpose of life for human apes is:

Wake, eat, breathe, procreate, drink, sleep …. repeat

It’s not necessary to do these things in that order, but all are basic requirements for continuation of our species. Everything else is extra. We are meat robots with rather complex decision making devices crammed inside our skulls in order that we can be able to complete the six basic tasks of human apes. Our brain is not a single object, but a group of them working together. Our consciousness is not located in a single part of our brains but is emergent from the interactions of all the cooperating parts. What we call our conscious mind is really like the captain of a large vessel sitting in the pilot house watching everything as if it were a movie. When it comes time to think the captain’s very capable subordinates go about making decisions and creating a work plan. Just as the plan is being put into motion they broadcast it to the movie screen the captain is watching. He has veto power and control to make things change. He also has a subliminal channel tuned in so that he knows things are happening even though they are not on the screen.  When you ask the captain if he runs the ship he replies “of course I do, I make all the decisions around here, I do all the work”.  We have the capabilities that we do precisely because the workload is shared around to various well tuned portions of the brain and body. Great athletes move with a kind of instinct on the playing field. It’s not instinct and their captain is NOT telling each muscle when to move or in which direction. Those subordinates of the captain are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing. They are in fact such a close knit team that they cannot be separated. When you allow that the captain speaks for all the crew members the captain does indeed have free will. Those subordinates cannot be elevated to the position of captain and the captain cannot be demoted. These things are fixed. You can lose a subordinate and the ship will still function, perhaps not as good as before, but it will continue to function. Indeed, the captain is useless and without communication … except for the subordinates. They may be a team, but they cannot be separated or considered as separate performers. The communication between them in not instantaneous and never has been. To think so is simply and profoundly bizarre.

To get some reference here is a video or two to get the conversation going.

Sam Harris on Free Will

Roenazarrek on Free Will

Think of it like driving an automobile. When you decide to go faster you make the decisions, press the pedal, and some milliseconds later a surge of fuel gets to the engine. Some milliseconds later you sense the vehicle going faster. Now, who made the decision? Who did the work? That is not a perfect analogy, but it’s kind of close.

Now for Sam Harris’ part. In the excerpt from his book he says:

Even though we can find no room for it in the causal order, the notion of free will is still accorded a remarkable deference in the scientific and philosophical literature, even by those who believe that the mind is entirely dependent on the workings of the brain. However, the truth is that free will doesn’t even correspond to any subjective fact about us, for introspection soon grows as hostile to the idea as the equations of physics have. Apparent acts of volition merely arise, spontaneously (whether caused, uncaused or probabilistically inclined, it makes no difference), and cannot be traced to a point of origin in the stream of consciousness.A moment or two of serious self-scrutiny, and you might observe that you decide the next thought you think no more than you decide the next thought I write.

Clearly he believes that he must have micro-managerial control over every part of his brain. He doesn’t. He won’t. He’ll have to get over it. He would cease to function normally if every decision were made by his conscious mind with  him processing thoughts about it. It would kill him if he had to remember to breathe and make his heart beat. It’s just stupid to think that your conscious mind should be kept busy remembering to breathe. It does not diminish the value of our conscious mind in any way that we relegate mundane repetitive tasks to non-conscious parts of our brain. Think about it. Ever see anyone chew on their tongue when they are focused? Ever see someone twirl their hair when they are thinking? Do you normally consciously decide every movement of your body language? Sam is just wrong on this.

The very idea that we would  NOT use experience and history to make decisions sub-consciously rather than delay them with waiting for the conscious mind. You’d never be able to duck out of the way of flying objects. You’d never have fight/flight actions. You could not survive. We rely heavily upon those parts of our brains which are not actively engaged in conscious thought. The captain is great and all, but to get things done efficiently and effectively you need real highly trained professionals at the controls of the machinery, not a generalist who prides itself on doing all the work. Sam will be one of the first to agree that our brains are huge pattern seeking machines. All our sensory data is processed prior to being sent to that part of our brains which are actively involved in conscious thought. I mean ALL of them. We continuously live our conscious life several hundred milliseconds in the past – with reference to when things really happened.

He continues with:

All of our behaviour can be traced to biological events about which we have no conscious knowledge. In the 1980s the neurophysiologist Benjamin Libet demonstrated that activity in the brain’s motor regions can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move.

As I have described, only a part of our brains are actively engaged in conscious thought. The rest are processing sensory data and doing pattern recognition, preparing to move muscles here and there if there is no veto from the conscious mind. Have you ever been cutting something with a knife and dropped the knife? Did you reach to catch it before your conscious mind could veto that action due to the high risk of injury? Do you consciously turn what you see upside down? Well, when light hits your retinas the image is upside down compared to reality. Parts of your brain fix that for you before your conscious mind gets to deal with the data. There are people whose brains don’t function quite right … they see in 2D not 3D. Babies have to let their brains learn to create 3D information from their visual data. It is not done consciously.

Another lab recently used functional magnetic resonance imaging data to show that some “conscious” decisions can be predicted up to ten seconds before they enter awareness (long before the preparatory motor activity detected by Libet). Clearly, findings of this kind are difficult to reconcile with the sense that one is the conscious source of one’s thoughts and actions.

Again, your conscious mind does not have time to micro-manage all the functions of your body. If you had to remember to breathe and keep your heart beating or which muscles to twitch in which direction so that you don’t fall on your face 30 times a day, you would have no time to think of anything else. It’s just stupid to think that all your actions must necessarily be accomplished at the conscious mind level if you are to have free will. Every one of us has a hive mind. It has always been this way. The effectiveness of this hive mind is so great that we don’t normally realize that it is a hive mind.

For better or worse, these truths about human psychology have political implications, because liberals and conservatives are not equally confused about them. Liberals usually understand that every person represents a confluence of forces that he did not will into being – and we can be lucky or very unlucky in this respect. Conservatives, however, have made a religious fetish of individualism.

This is pure mumble jumble. There has been quite a lot of talk about how differences in the brain or the way in which our brains work lead a person toward liberal or conservative leanings. It’s not some ill-thought-out confluence of forces. cough … cough cough. Sam is simply losing it. Far too much time thinking that there must be some philosophical answer to life’s big questions. Well, he’s off the mark here. From an efficiency and engineering standpoint it simply does not make sense to have every action and thought be originated in and processed by the parts of the brain which are dedicated to conscious thought. Long ago we had to run or hide faster than we could think about it when encountering a predator etc. Evolution gave us a hive mind for a reason – it’s successful. A hive mind does not mean that we have no free will. It simply means that we don’t make the decision based only on the conscious mind’s activities. That’s a good thing. It has kept us alive, made us apes successful, gives us art, dance, athletics and many other things. These thoughts on free will being illusory because of delays in internal communications is too bizarre to be useful.

With that I think we can add a seventh item to the basic functions or purpose in life:

Eat, breathe, drink, procreate, don’t die, sleep, wake … repeat

Of course we have free will. Go do something of your own volition. Be unexpectedly kind or something. Be.

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