I know this has been discussed before, but I have read Sam Harris' book Free Will and Michael Shermer's book The Believing Brain, and I must say that I agree with both authors. Studies show that our brains make a decision on an unconscious level three tenths of a second and sometimes more before we even consciously know we're going to act. To take a short quote from Shermer's book: "The neural activity that precedes the intention to act is inaccessible to our conscious mind, so we experience a sense of free will. But it is an illusion, caused by the fact that we cannot identify the cause of the awareness of our intention to act".

Tags: Free, Harris, Michael, Sam, Shermer, Will

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Trick, I think you may be missing the point that's being conveyed here by Chang, Allan, etc. You say that ontology is the study of existence. I'm not sure if I agree with the way you've defined that. It's the study of the nature of existence or the nature of being. One of the principle questions in ontology is what can be said to exist? It questions existence itself, and doesn't as you seem to imply, take it for granted. 

To take it for granted would be to fall victim to naïve realism, the concept that you directly perceive existence. It's an epistemological dualism where on one hand, you have the concept of direct realism that says we perceive reality directly, and on the other hand, we have indirect realism which says that what we call "ordinary reality," "ordinary consciousness," even "consensus reality" is essentially a hallucination. Our brains are creating this reality which we know does not resemble the "real world," whatever that is. The instruments of our physics and so on tell us that the world is a quantum world, it's full of vibration, it doesn't look anything like how we perceive it. So, a lot of what our brain does is synthesize a hallucination, essentially, create a model of the world that we proceed to live in. The world you and I share, and everyone shares, this is a model of the world, this is a model reality, not the "real reality." The "real reality" is completely unknowable, and perhaps will always remain so. The world we individually perceive is a biochemical artifact, in a sense.

So, when Chang says, "We are not describing any actual energy with E=MC^2, but the how energy should theoretically relate to mass," he means precisely that. Our notion of "energy" is precisely that, a concept. Our study of it is simply the study of the regularity of the way it behaves. Are these numbers constant? We've only been studying them for so many years. There are some scientists that believe that the speed of light is not constant, but ever so gradually gaining speed over time, of course, this is something beyond our capability to answer right now.

Well if we want to cover all of it "Ontology is the study of the nature of being, becoming, existence, or reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations."

But yes, saying the study of existence is sufficient.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not taking existence for granted. I'm saying that certain claims are "existence" claims, and those (all) fall into "ontology".

Determinism is about "what exists". It is an ontological claim. 

Quantum mechanics addresses the "ontology" of how particles behave "in reality", etc.

Our notion of "energy" is precisely that, a concept.

And as I said, every word is a "concept". We use "concepts" to "model reality". E=MC2 is addressing an ontological composition of energy. What "energy" is "in reality". It's not addressing a presumed fiction, but a presumes relation that "exists".

"There are some scientists that believe that the speed of light is not constant"

If it turns out that the speed of light is not constant (which I doubt - but that's a digression), it doesn't mean that the speed of light being constant wasn't a claim on "existence", it just means it was an incorrect claim on existence.

Also, if it turns out the "chair" you are sitting on doesn't really exist, that doesn't mean "chair" wasn't representing a claim on "what exists".

We don't have "absolute knowledge" (epistemology), but that's not the same as saying we can't make (likely) claims about "what exists".

Trick, it seems to me that you are the one misunderstanding language, not me. Determinism and chair might both be ontological claims, but they do not "exist" in the same sense. While a chair is a concept describing what seems to exist, determinism is a concept describing a relation to what seems to exist. The relation might be an ontological claim, but it does not exist, in the same way that a building might be taller than a tree, but "tall" does not exist.

Determinism and chair might both be ontological claims, but they do not "exist" in the same sense. 

If you mean that they both don't exist as "objects" I agree. I'm not saying they are "the same", only that existence applies to things like "relationships" (e.g. a relationship between object X and object Y exists), properties (e.g. roundness exists inherent in the ball), processes, and so on.

If you want to talk about objects existing AS objects, then I agree, determinism doesn't exist as an "object".  That doesn't make any of these other things "non-existent" (my only point). 

What I'm saying is that existence" doesn't only apply to "objects" we categorize, but many other things we categorize as well.

Does gravity exist? Yes. Is it an object? No. Is it the curvature of space/time produced by objects, yes.

You get the point. ;-)

Okay. :-)

I would add that physical existence is extremely dissimilar than any conception of non-physical existence, such that gravity, despite the noun, only describes the behavior between two objects which exist, and cannot be said to "exist" in a similar conception that objects are said to exist. Properties are merely ways in which we interact with objects, and actions are localized object states over time with a single, relatively distinct cause. Any conception of the "existence" of properties and actions must be extremely dissimilar (I realize the vagueness, but it will remain that for now) to the existence of things.

It is important to note this dissimilarity, but not necessarily in the context of free will.

Though I am in agreement with most of your writings, Sam, I have found that you have committed the prime mistake of semantics by failing to define 'free will' at all or adequately. This is one of the most ambiguous terms, hardly less vague that 'freedom'. Had you taken a broader view of the entire issue, you would have admitted that the concepts of freedom of choice between alternative courses of action - and limitations on freedom of choice - are totally essential concepts to anything like democratic civilisation. The question is not whether any kind of free will exists but whether we can exist as human beings without it. Who would disagree that some people are more free of restraints than others, hence are less able to employ their will at all freely)

Please see my fuller analysis 'Sam Harris on free will; is all 'freedom' a miasma?'


As I pointed out before in this discussion, freedom as usually understood is a negative concept.  It involves constraint, not being able to do what you want to do. 

So people who think determinism implies no free will, need to show some way in which determinism prevents people from doing what they want to do. 

The "free will" that doesn't exist in a deterministic world, should better be called "transcendental will".  We can't transcend the limitations of who we are in a deterministic world.  It's obvious that a deterministic world without transcendence implies there's no transcendental will. 

There are a few things determinism as a challenge to free  will does not appear to explain. If I wanted to mount a defense of free will, I would challenge determinists to provide a more complete explanation of how choices are made. If determinism is correct, it ought to provide a better view of how choices are made.

1. Malleability of intention. The first task is to explain the enormous ease with which intentions and desires are altered by a few simple words. The single word “No” in response to a proposal of marriage may change one’s whole future as well as one’s entire outlook on life. Merely hearing from a doctor that “Your biopsy was positive for lung cancer” or from a law officer that “The DNA evidence places you at the scene” may cause an individual to instantly, dramatically, and quite willingly alter his strongest intentions and best laid plans. In everyday life a sudden jog to the memory will cause a complete change of direction.

2. Conflicting desires. The appeal of dessert conflicts with your desire to lose weight and avoid  diabetes. You want to love your secretary, but not to abandon your wife and children. You want a bigger house, but do not want to take the financial risk. How is it that a mind rigidly determined by previous states is so often caught between alternatives?  If all choice is determined, how can the individual be so terribly conflicted?  That at least suggests that the illusion of free will, the possibility of choosing—if indeed it is an illusion—is a quite powerful one.

3. Obsession.  We all recognize that people can be in the grips of an impulse so strong they are unable to resist. For example, trichotillomaniacs have an irresistible urge to pull their hair out. The obsessive-compulsive person who is required to wash his hands a dozen times a day, straighten up his room, change his clothes is the clearest example of obsession, but we are all familiar with the person so committed to his work he cannot take vacations and cannot find ways to relax and enjoy life. Obsession ought to be a strong argument for determinism. How is it then that the person who is obsessed wants to be free of his obsession and why do we consider people who are victims of obsession to be unhealthy and those who are able to apparently choose freely to be healthy?

Have you read Dennett's book Freedom Evolves?

People make choices, we all do.  If our choices are an illusion, what "should" it feel like to make choices? 

With optical illusions, there's usually something you "should" be seeing rather than what you do see.  So what "should" it feel like to make a choice? 

The things you mention don't conflict with determinism.  Determinism is the substrate on which our ability to make choices exists. 

You may have a point there. Consider a Turing type test to determine if free will exists. Various options are presented to an unknown entity, perhaps a human, perhaps a computer, and the question is to determine if the answers are determined or chosen freely.

Now imagine that a computer has been programmed to respond with random choices. That is, when a choice of n possibilities is given, the program calls up a random number which determines the choice. The same set of possibilities presented at different times will produce different outcomes. How could you know the difference between this computer and a human being making choices without knowing anything other than the outputs?

(There are real random number generators that base their output on atmospheric noise and are superior to the pseudo-random number generators in standard commercial programs.)

I believe you could not distinguish a determined entity, a human being, and the computer I described. To my way of thinking that means that free will and determinism are not good ways of studying realities.

I believe you could not distinguish a determined entity, a human being, and the computer I described.

The answers such tests yield vary with the knowledge and skills of the people who write the computer code.

Trust computers for ordinary stuff, like doing arithmetic.

They don't do spell checking well enough to trust them with important stuff.

The test I proposed might indeed be decided on the basis of consistency, at least assuming the human being was mentally competent. If the same question was repeated at different times and in different ways, you would expect to detect consistency in human responses and inconsistency in the computer using random numbers.

This is something we use all the time to tell if someone is behaving sensibly. When someone whose political opinions you know well and respect suddenly starts voting Republican, you suspect something has gone wrong.


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