Over on the ABC Religion and Ethics Portal, I’ve written a long response to the new book, Free Will, by Sam Harris. I say “response” rather than “review”, because much of it discusses my own reflections on fate, free will, determinism, and the long cultural conversation that we’ve been having about these things in the West, going back for thousands of years.
My problem with the Sam Harris book is not so much that I disagree with his conclusions – although I do disagree with some of them – so much that I disagree with the way he approaches the problem. First, he uses a rather idiosyncratic definition of free will that doesn’t have much to do with definitions that have been used by philosophers or with whatever intuitive idea of free will the folk might have (if, indeed, they even have a unified idea of it – I suspect that the folk talk past each other on this to a large extent). Thus, much of the book has an air of attacking a straw man.
Second, and worse, Harris responds to compatibilists by accusing them of changing the subject (notwithstanding that attempts to work out what it might be for actions to be “up to us”, including the plausibility of compatibilist accounts, have been part of the conversation at least since Hellenistic times) and of writing like theologians (whatever that actually means, it is not likely to be true of Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, A.J. Ayer, Daniel Dennett, or other leading compatibilists). There’s a certain insouciance, at best, about all this.
As for whether “we have free will”, I remain of the opinion that libertarian views of free will are ultimately unintelligible – this seems to me the case with agent causation views, and I doubt that event causation views of libertarian free will, such as Robert Kane’s, can fare any better. Indeed, I’d argue that they eventually rely covertly on agent causation intuitions to give themselves any plausibility. About the best libertarians can do is claim, rather lamely, that all ideas of causation are mysterious when pushed far enough.
I agree with Sam Harris on the non-existence of libertarian free will – if the idea even makes sense – though Harris shows no sign of having read at all deeply in the literature. I also think that compatibilists have enough problems to make free will, at best, a matter of judgment and degree. But the naked claim, “You do not have free will,” uttered to ordinary people, still seems to me more false than true. More research is needed on what this claim actually conveys to people (and it may convey different things to people from different social classes, educational backgrounds, parts of the world, etc. (experimental philosophers take note)), but it looks to me that what is likely to be at stake for many people is not so much the truth or falsity of something like agent causation but the truth or falsity of some kind of fatalism. Saying “You do not have free will,” is likely to convey, to many people, in many circumstances, the false (and perhaps demoralising) message that some kind of fatalism is the truth of it.
I’m painfully aware of a similar issue in metaethics. I deny that there are objective moral truths of the form, “X-ing is morally wrong.” That’s because I take a particular view as to what this conveys, and I consider what it conveys to be false. On the other hand, I’d want to explain myself very carefully before saying to the folk, “Torturing babies for fun is not morally wrong.” That can all too easily convey the false message that torturing babies for fun is not, in my evaluation, bad. And when I say bad, I don’t mean as in, “That was baaaad, dude!”