Eddy Nahmias reviews Sam Harris

The newest issue of The Philosophers’ Magazine contains a review by Eddy Nahmias of Free Will by Sam Harris. (For those who’ve missed my own discussions of Harris earlier this year, a good place to start would be this long reflective essay published at the ABC Religion and Ethics Portal.)

I’m a bit free-willed out from writing earlier posts in this series, not to mention the abovementioned ABC Portal piece. Still, I’m largely onside with Nahmias, and in any event this review of Harris by a philosopher who has important and original peer-reviewed publications in the field is worth drawing to the attention of … well, whichever of this blog’s readers might still be interested.

In the end, Nahmias makes a point about how this is not all-or-nothing. We can study what people seem to think free will is, what free will talk is actually conveying when ordinary folk engage in it, and then we can study to what extent we actually have such a capacity.

This sounds like a plausible position to me: “Unlike the impossible self-creation and self-knowledge Harris foists upon free will, a more reasonable and accurate understanding of free will is amenable to scientific study. Science is likely to show that we have less free will than we tend to think, and learning this may move us towards Harris’s practical goals.” Or maybe it won’t. At any rate, I look forward to Nahmias’ own (long-awaited) book on the subject.

And while I’m here, there’s lots of other good stuff in the new TPM, especially relating to the institution of sport: philosophers scrutinising it from many angles just in time for the Olympic Games.

  1. Oh well, same old:
    Namias: “My response is just as simple: Harris’s definition of free will is
    mistaken.”
    So here we have it:
    Harris: “[compatibilists] are changing the conversation”
    Namias:”Harris is changing the conversation”.

    I’m puzzled that the underlying but core issues, raised by Harris and many others well before him, which are societal (retributive justice) but also, metaphysical (can the notion of “divine judgement” and the likes make any sense) are so completely missed by Namias.

    Why aren’t these core issues spelled out?
    Once done, arguments about the “definition of free-will” could resume, although I’m not sure many non-professional philosophers would care anymore.

  2. I doubt that those are the core issues in the historical discussion – going back to the Stoics, Epicureans, etc., and into mythological literature. It was more about how far you are at the mercy of fate or the gods, or in medieval times how free will can be reconciled with the attributes of God.

    But it’s true that the implications for social and retributive justice are getting quite a bit of attention in the current debate. It might be fairest to await Nahmias’ own book, though, don’t you think? He can’t cover every issue at length in a relatively short review.

  3. The philosophical conversation on free will is one of the few places in philosophy where I have no patience for argument. The compatibilist/incompatibilist debate in particular is very hard to suffer through. The incompatibilists are just wrong, and probably incoherent, and I get bored with myself for even thinking about what to say to them. I suppose I should feel professionally ashamed for admitted to such dogmatism, but — oh well, there it is.

    Take this quote from Harris, yoinked out of Nahmias’s review. “Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have complete control over those factors.” This sentiment is utterly alien to me. Hence, me from New Years: “free will and the angst of moral choice are byproducts of limited information, and without a sense of volition the very idea of integrity could not even arise.”

    Well… oh, bother. Clearly I’m not cut out for this conversation.

    Anyway, the free will question is fodder for some pretty riveting fiction. And I’m especially interested in the metacognitive, non-metaphysical sense of free will. I’m also interested in the lack of it: the sense of emptiness, lacking volition; of being toyed with, controlled, or ‘mindfucked’. I’ll happily spend my time with that kind of research.

  4. ” It might be fairest to await Nahmias’ own book, though, don’t you think?”
    Certainly. However it’s surprising (to me) how key underlying elements and implications of the debate seem to be simply bypassed.
    But we’ve already discussed this elsewhere.
    “It was more about how far you are at the mercy of fate or the gods”
    Not always. Monotheisms have been on both sides of the issue: the hardest determinists (absolute God-determined fate, salvation or damnation decided at birth) and hardest libertarians (absolute -metaphysical- freedom/free-will). Ask Sarah Palin about our “God-given freedom”…
    “implications for social and retributive” indeed, this is key. But it goes well beyond this, to the core of what it means to be human. Now that we’ve found the Higgs, with the exponential advances of neurosciences, I’m quite convinced that “free-will” or to be more precise, “freedom of conscious-will”, will be a very next MAJOR subject.
    Could be that we’ll learn that we are deluded automatons. Then what?

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