The Moral Landscape (3)

Sam Harris on the “the illusion of free will:”

“It means nothing to say that a person would have done otherwise had he chosen to do otherwise, because a person’s “choices” merely appear in his mental stream as though sprung from the void. In this sense, each of us is like a phenomenological glockenspiel played by an unseen hand. From the perspective of your conscious mind, you are no more responsible for the next thing you think (and therefore do) than you are from the fact that you were born into this world.”

It seems to be something of a convention among New Atheist writers to make strong statements, but this one takes the cake. However, it may be too strong even for Harris. If what he says is true, then he seems to undermine the possibility of human beings being guided by reason, something that Harris values very much (after all, he is the founder of Project Reason).

Consider the two systems of laws on the table, the laws of neurobiology (NB) and the laws of logic (L).* Further, consider an action (A) that can be construed as thought or a mental act of reasoning. A is subject to the two systems of laws NB and L. Suppose that A is a product of NB and comports with L. But the story doesn’t end there. A leads to acts B, C, and D, which satisfy NB always and without exception. They satisfy L if and only if L’s requirements coincide with NB’s.

On this scheme the laws of logic are superflous for determining the course of A, because they are inoperative in causing the course of A. Thus, Harris’s position reduces to the absurd conclusion that the principles of inference play no part in guiding our thought to rationally justified conclusions. Yet, this is incompatible with a very plausible principle:

    For a person to be justified in accepting a conclusion the reasoning process must be guided by rational insight on the basis of principles of sound inference. (Hasker, 1973)

Surely, Harris would not want to forfeit that? Perhaps by some way of ingenuity, he could include logic and rationality in his determinism that exercises a powerful independent influence on thinking minds. Unfortunately, the picture he paints of the processes of the brain do not seem to have this in view.

*We could include principles of inference as well but (L) is sufficient for our purposes. For more on this line of attack see William Hasker’s The Transcendental Refutation of Determinism (1973).


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