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The freedom to Will?

Harris, Strawson, and related matters


Santanu Chacraverti
viewpoint.earth@gmail.com
Contents
Introduction
Free will: the basic idea and the problem
Free will, responsibility, and moral responsibility
Three positions
A bestseller philosophical
The insights in Harriss book
Harris, Strawson, and the power of the Basic Argument
Strawson and Harris: a few last words
Appendix

Introduction
The debate on free will is an old one in Western philosophy.1 However, since recently, the
debate in the western world has largely been confined to theologians and philosophers,
without the issue attracting public notice to any significant degree.
This has changed. During last couple of decades, the English speaking world has seen the
creation of a sizeable popular readership on free will issues. One important cause would seem
to be the wide publicity of certain findings in neuroscience. Another possible reason is the
growing influence of certain eastern traditions, such as non-dualism and Buddhist
philosophy. But, one definite reason is the publication of Sam Harriss Free Will. 2 This book
has done more for the popularity of this theme than any other publication that one can think
of. To anyone considering discussing the subject, Harriss book might act as a convenient
point of departure.
Quite a few philosophers have contested Harriss arguments. People from the scientific
community, however, have tended to be more receptive. Amidst all this, at least one writer on

The issue, however, exists in other philosophical traditions and, in some cultures, in folk beliefs about divine
omnipotence or destiny. One can recall, for example, the Indian concept of niyati (destiny) or bhagya (lot or
fate) or the spiritual notion of God as the actual doer and the person as the apparent doer or as the deed. The
issue comes up also in connection with astrological beliefsmost astrologers say that the person retains some
freedom of choice, while a few say that a persons fate, determined by planetary or stellar influences, is
inexorable. But, we cannot examine these things in this essay.
2
Sam Harris, Free Will, Free Press, New York, 2012. Harriss own views possibly owe their origins to Buddhist
influencepossibly his experiences with Buddhist meditation.

philosophical issues, Paul Pardi, has seen it fit to compare Harriss arguments with Galen
Strawsons.3 Pardis write-up is instructive and has inspired much of this essay.4
Here, we shall undertake a relatively thorough analysis of Harris book. Though belated, its
excuse is that it clearly identifies the various themes in the book, something not satisfactorily
done so far. Of course, in these days of explosive web publishing, including podcasts, it is
difficult to keep track of comments and discussions. Harris himself, prolific articulator that he
is, has been eloquent on the issue. In reviewing Harriss ideas, however, this essay has not
dealt with Harriss pronouncements outside his book.
Having discussed Harris, this essay goes on to compare his arguments with Strawsons, and
discusses the features of the latters arguments at considerable length. Between Harris and
Strawson, the essay easily covers the entire gamut of good objections to free will.
Like Harris and Strawson, the author of this essay subscribes to the no-freedom position,
and is able to appreciate why Kant found compatibilism to be a pitiful expedient.5 But, this
expedient, even if pitiful, has commanded the allegiance of excellent philosophical minds.
Hence, both its logic and appeal require lengthier treatment than one finds in this essay,
which deals mostly with Harris and Strawson. Moreover, there are other related and
important issuese.g. the strange tenacity of free will; the idea of personhood, Buddhism
and free will, no freedom and non-duality, etc. But these, like a lengthier discussion of
compatibilism, must wait for a later occasion.
Before moving on to discussing Harris and Strawsons arguments, we discuss some
foundational issues.

Free will: the basic idea and the problem


Usually, a person is understood to be in command over her choices. Now, both folk and
judicial wisdom often agree to accept that knee-jerk reactions and activity in a state of stupor
are beyond ones control. However, actions performed in a sober state and on reflection are
seen as bearing the individuals personal consent. At least regarding such actions and the
decisions to undertake them, the individual is seen as responsible.
Since a person is understood to be in command of his conscious choices, it is also understood
that he could have chosen differently. In other words, the conscious person chooses freely
between available options (or between what he considers available options). Here, one must
distinguish between will and action. While will can be free, action can be constrainedfor
there might emerge physical impediments to action over which the person has no control. In
philosophical usage, the idea that the conscious mind is source of choice and decisions is
referred to as the freedom of choice, personal agency, or free will. It is widely prevalent

For references, see later.


Paul Pardi, An Analysis of Sam Harriss Free Will, http://www.philosophynews.com/post/2012/05/15/AnAnalysis-of-Sam-Harris-Free-Will.aspx
5
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason (tr. by Werner S. Pluhar), Hackett Publishing Co., Cambridge,
2002, p. 122.
4

among humans. It is often asked whether free will is a cultural universal. 6 Even without
conducting studies in experimental philosophy all over the world or studying anthropological
literature on the several thousand cultures on this planet, one can reasonably suggest that the
notion of free will is possibly a cultural universal.7
The problem with the idea of free will can occur, and has occurred, in terms of two kinds of
understanding. First, in a belief system that sees the world as created and controlled by an
omniscient and omnipotent entity it is easy to question the notion of freedom of choice and
action. This problem has resulted in debate on free will in theology. The history of the debate
in Christendom is better known and studied, but, as I have mentioned in footnote 1, the
controversy, or at least the problem, has been noticed in other traditions. 8 Secondly, the
problem with free will occurs when one starts extending the naturalistic view of the world to
persons. In such a view, nature consists of processes, and events within processes ensue from
other events that occurred prior to it. The nature of processes is determined by their
constituents and their interactions, and one process (in its turn) interacts with other processes.
How a system acts depends on the state of the system and its interaction with other systems.
Observation brings out repeating patterns that are often described as laws. Anyway, when
one applies this approach to individuals, one realizes that a person can also be seen as a
process and a system, and each decision and action can be seen as ensuing from the particular
state of the system in interaction with other systems. At once, the person as the decider and
actor is in serious trouble. Personal identity itself is in danger. An aggregate of natural
elements, following the laws of nature, may bear a name and identity and might be conceived
as deciding and acting in the conventional sense. But, if one thinks carefully, one realizes that
a person is no more responsible for her actions than a meteor is responsible for the crater it
created or a cyclone is responsible for the tree it uprooted.

Free will, responsibility, and moral responsibility


It is a sentence like last one in the above paragraph that accounts for the strong feelings that
the issue of free will evokes. For, free will is about responsibility. Now, as happens with
concepts that are intimately related yet distinct, there can be some confusion over the
relationship between free will, responsibility, and moral responsibility. Let us sort this out at
the beginning. In the free-will view of things, a person acting in his senses can exercise her
free will to do something morally neutrale.g. choose not to go for an outdoor walk because
it is raining and exercise indoors instead. She is deemed responsible for her choice,9 but the
question of praise or blame, and hence moral responsibility, might not enter the picture.
However, when one follows her conscience to stand beside a neighbour being hounded for
6

See, for example, Galen Strawson, The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility, Philosophical Studies: An
International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, Vol. 75, No. 1/2, Free Will, Determinism, and
Moral Responsibility (Aug., 1994), pp.5-24. See also Hagop Sarkissian, et al., Is Belief in Free Will a Cultural
Universal, Mind & Language, Vol. 25, No. 3 June 2010, pp. 346358.
7
To those doubtful of this, we request pondering for a moment on the following scenario: A human individual
has done something consciously. However, he has come to regret his action. How extraordinary would it be for
him to think that he shouldnt have done what he did?
8
For Islamic thinking in this area, see, for example, Ender Tosun, Guide to Understanding Islam,
http://www.islamicinformationcenter.info/understandingislam.pdf, Chapter 3.6 and 8.3.
9
She might also be deemed answerable, say, to her walking partner.

his ethnicity, this decision is often considered morally praiseworthy. Thus, free-willed
choices always entail responsibility. However, whether any of these choices would acquire
moral significance depends on the evaluating moral scheme. Further (and this is cardinal), in
a conceptual scheme where free will has no genuine meaning, the terms responsibility and
moral responsibility are understood as essentially meaningless, though they might be
construed to have a kind of conventional meaning and some practical utility.
This was the problem. It was mostly a problem for philosophers. Ordinary humans (including
philosophers in the ordinary state of mind) continued to feel responsible and hold others
responsible for their actions in a very real sense. Indeed, this manner of looking at things
appears to be the natural state for human beings, arising, no doubt, from the nature of their
being. The common belief is that although I may not be the master of my fate, I am, or can
be, the captain of my soul. Hence, individuals are seen as responsible and persons like
Heinrich Himmler, Behaeddin Shakir, or Ted Bundy are seen as morally accountable for their
atrocities in a fundamental sense. But, to have moral responsibility, a person must have free
will, i.e. he must be more than a mere node through which the various innate and external
influences act to generate events that delight or horrify us. This explains the animation that
often accompanies discussions on free will.

Three positions
Before we proceed further, I shall briefly mention and comment on the three strands of
prevailing opinion with regard to the issue of free will. These are:
1. Libertarian. This philosophical position is very close to common opinion. The main
difference is that the ordinary person tends to accept the individual as free to choose and,
therefore, responsible for his choices in most cases, while the libertarian philosopher
would be far more cautious. He would accept the person as the playground of unconscious
forces and, therefore, admit that only carefully considered decisions (particularly when
one is choosing between conflicting options) are truly the persons own and for which the
person is responsible. This is because these decisions, the libertarian would explain, are
the occasions when the conscious element in the person comes to the forefront and makes
a choice that somehow rises above the chain of neurological causation to become her own
choice. The philosopher Robert Kane calls such choices self-forming actions (SFA). He
analyses in detail how SFAs rise only when the person is forced to choose between two
conflicting options. There is no doubt that the basic biological and social compulsions play
their role, but consciousness chooses after being torn between the various options and, as a
result, the choice somehow becomes the persons own. In trying to explain how exactly
such a decision acquires freedom not granted to others, Kane suggests that the severe
conflict between options creates a chaotic situation where perhaps quantum effects can
play a decisive role 10 (Yet, how even such complex happenings can create a truly personal
element that rises above the natural remains unexplained.) Libertarians correctly describe

10

Robert Kane Libertarianism, in John Martin Fischer; Robert Kane, Derk Pereboom; Manuel Vargas
(2007). Four Views on Free Will (Libertarianism), Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, pp. 5-43.

themselves as incompatibilistthat is, they see no way to reconcile free will with
determinism.
2. Compatibilist. Among philosophers, this is supposed to be the majority position. It is an
intriguing one. As opposed to libertarians, compatibilists readily accept scientific
naturalism and causal determinism. But, they claim, belief in naturalistic causation is
compatible with personal freedom! In achieving this reconciliation, compatibilists have
usually employed two levels of manoeuvring. First, they take recourse to a different
meaning of freedom. Unlike libertarians, they talk not of freedom of will but of action.
Freedom for the compatibilist means the absence of any external obstacle to a chosen
course of action or the absence of external compulsion forcing a person to undertake an
action. In the compatibilist view, once someone has such freedom, she is a free agent.
This, they argue, is the usual sense of the word free. (By the same token, a flying bird or
projectile in motion can be said to be acting with agency, as long as there is no external
impediment blocking their path. It is precisely such instances that led Kant to describe
compatibilism as a pitiful expedient.) A version of this level of manoeuvring pertains to
the meaning of the word can or could. For example, this morning, when I reached the
platform the train had started moving. I had time in my hands and might not have tried to
board the train. Yet, on an impulse, I ran and jumped on the moving train. On the question
whether I really could have let it go, causality-oriented naturalism suggests that my action
itself provides the answer. My brain state at the moment of taking the decision was such
that the particular decision was taken. In the true sense of could, therefore, it is false to
say that I could have acted otherwise. The compatibilist answer is that we do not
ordinarily employ the word could in that true or ultimate sense. We use it to mean that I
could have acted otherwise had I so wished.
In earlier versions of compatibilism, external meant something like a wall, a threat, a
whip, or a bullet. It might also have been broadened to include physical injuries that
prevented implementation of a decision. Modern compatibilists have further broadened the
concept of impediment. This is where the second level of manoeuvring kicks in. In their
present scheme of things, external impediment would include anything that is not
normal to the person and can affect her choicee.g. a narcotic, a bump to the head, or a
brain tumour. This externalization of brain pathologies and accidents allows them to talk
of freedom of choice as well as of action. For, a brain untroubled by hormonal pathologies
or cerebral misfortunes is seen as being the person. Therefore, the decisions taken by this
normal brain can be seen as decisions by the person and is understood as freely taken (if
unconstrained by any kind of external compulsion: threats, tortures, tumours, traumas and
so on). This is notwithstanding that the brain is governed by physical and chemical
processes. Further, at least one compatibilist, Daniel Dennett, has taken an interesting
position. While libertarians would only consider conscious processes as free, Dennett is
prepared to accept habitual and reflexive actionlike saying a habitual thank you or
answering the door bellas free. This is because Dennett accepts the entire gamut of

voluntary actions as free, on the ground that the person obviously approves of it, otherwise
they would have been discarded.11
In a nutshell, the compatibilists position is close to that of a modern jurist: so long as a
person is considered normal in the medical and legal sense (that is his judgement is not
considered to be impaired) and he is not being forced to act against his will, his action is to
be considered free and he is to be considered a free agent. It goes without saying that
libertarians tend to find compatibilist arguments unconvincing and refuse to be satisfied
with what essentially is a juristic definition of freedom.
3. No-freedom theorist.12 This is the incompatibilist position from the opposite end. They
argue that freedom of personal choice is incompatible with our usual understanding of
how events occur. The usual argument runs as follows: Events and processes in nature
have causes. A human individual, like any other animal, is a part of nature. Therefore, her
thoughts and actions are also caused. Hence, though a person might feel that she has
chosen freely and only after deliberating upon various options, in actuality, however, her
choice is simply an expression of her mental/neurological state right at the moment of
choosing, and that state, like the state of everything else in the universe, is a result of a
causal process. If one argues that human conscious thinking is an element in the process,
then he should be reminded that consciousness itself is a manifestation of brain events.
Thus, our ability to weigh various options and arrive at a reasoned choice is determined by
the configuration and events in the brain. The argument is not necessarily determinist. The
no-freedom theorists would point out that quantum indeterminism does not weaken their
case at all. For, even if uncaused quantum events do affect the brain and, thereby, human
choices, that doesnt help matters for free will. For, quantum events, being uncaused, are
by definition outside ones control. (In response to the compatibilists, a no-freedom
theorist might simply point out that compatibilists actually exits the debate by talking of
something else. That a person can be legally free or that the term could can mean
abstract possibility was never in question. The burning question has always been whether
the following sense or idea has any sort of realitythat, at least in some cases, the
decision to do or not do something is up to me (the conscious person) and not up to
impersonal forces acting through me. On that issue, the libertarian answer is wrong, while
the compatibilist answer is irrelevant.)
These philosophical trends have found expression during the last three centuries of western
philosophy, without ever catching the public imagination in a big way. This, as we know, has
changed. Let us now move on to what is one of the most important reasons for the change,
Sam Harriss pamphlet Free Will.13

11

See Daniel Dennett, Reflections on "Free Will", http://www.naturalism.org/resources/bookreviews/reflections-on-free-will


12
I have borrowed this term from Galen Strawson, Free Will, in Edward Craig (ed.), The Shorter Routledge
Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Routledge, Abingdon, 2005, pp. 286-94.
13
Yes, it is best described as a pamphlet.

A bestseller philosophical
In only 66 pages of widely spaced text, assisted by some 8 pages of notes and references,
Sam Harris has done a superb job. He has successfully demonstrated that the notion of free
will readily falls apart when examined in the light of introspection, simple reasoning, and
what our sciences tell us about the world. But, if free will is so fragile in the face of
scrutiny, how is Harriss powerful polemic needed? The need resides in that free will (the
notion that notwithstanding the compulsions of character and circumstance, the individual is
somehow the author of her conscious actions) proves to be doggedly tenacious. The reasons
for this tenacity are worth probing. Harris does not undertake the probe. We shall take a look
at the possible reasons, in brief, later on in this essay.
The following are the cardinal themes discussed in Harriss book:
1. The idea that the popular conception of free will rests on two assumptions: (a) That
each of us could have behaved differently than she did in the past; and (b) that we are
the conscious source of most of our thoughts and feelings.
2. Making a clearly stated distinction between a first-person approach and a third-person
approach to free will and to human mental phenomenon in general. It is important to
appreciate the role these two approaches play in Harriss narrative. When a nonphilosophical person is defending or simply asserting her free will, she normally does
so based on what she considers to be her subjective experience of her freedom of
choosing her actions. On the other hand, critiques of the notion of free will tend to
argue from an impersonal or third-person planebrains, neurons, causality, mental
states, and things like that. Immediately, a fundamental debate between philosophical
positions tends to stumble on the unbridgeable gap between the two very different
levels of experience. A key aspect of Harriss strategy is that he is able to confront
free will at the first-person level (thereby, not allowing the gap to be created), in
addition to playing the usual game at the third-person level. The power of his
presentation lies in being able to switch expertly between the two levels. He argues
that if we look closely at the emergence of our wants, desires, and thoughts, we find
that this is a process over which our conscious minds ultimately have no control; if for
nothing else it is so for the fact that our ability to control is beyond our control. The
third-person approach consists in seeing a persons mind as an objective phenomenon,
understood as souls, neural circuits, or whatever. In Harriss case, it consists of a
physicalist theory of the mind as a manifestation of various brain states, which,
because they are determined by basic physical and chemical processes, leave no room
for personal free choice.
3. That the scope of knowing oneself, subjectively and on the first-person level, is rather
limited. Howsoever aware I might be of my own thought process, I cannot predict my
next thought or feeling. Often, a persons assessment of herself is inferior to someone
elses assessment of her inner state. Similarly, a brain scan might provide a better
understanding of what is troubling a person than the persons own introspection. Here,
the Libet experiments and its subsequent variants, which indicate decisions arising in
7

the brain well before they become available to the conscious mind, become
significant.
4. That we tend to take a more sympathetic view of a criminal with a pathological
condition of the brain (e.g. a brain tumour) than a criminal without any such
condition. However, the latters behaviour is no less determined by his brain state than
is the formers behaviour.
5. That compatibilism tries to escape the disturbing implications of determinism by
changing the subject (and indeed, defining away the problem, which Harris does not
actually say). They try to save personal agency by defining freedom as the freedom to
act according to their will. There is no doubt the people often have that freedom.
However, the issue about free will is whether one is free to will and not whether one is
free to act according to the will. Further, the argument that decisions taken by my
brain (in so far as they are not due to brain pathologies or abnormalities) are my
decisions and therefore free stumbles on the point that the person is no more
responsible for the usual configurations of his brain than for his brain tumour.
6. Quantum randomness is no assistance to free will, for the obvious reason that I do not
control the quantum effects in my brain that might affect my own choices and
decisions.
7. The notion that the argument against free will does not rest on materialism: if our
conscious selves are immaterial souls even then the notion of free choice proves
logically incoherent. For, even if it is my soul rather than my brain that is choosing,
that leaves me equally helplessfor I did not choose the nature and proclivities of my
soul.
8. Hence, on all counts, free will proves to be not even a proper illusion. Thus, says
Harris, The illusion of free will itself is an illusion.14
9. That getting rid of the notion of personal responsibility and culpability encourages
compassion and understanding, as opposed to hate. Harris writes that once we
recognize that even the most terrifying predators are simply unlucky to be what they
are, the logic of hating (as opposed to fearing) them begins to weaken. Again, the
picture would not change if one believed that every human being harboured an
immortal soul: for anyone born with the soul of a psychopath has been profoundly
unlucky.15 Compare this to what Einstein said:
...Schopenhauer's words: 'Man can do what he wants, but he cannot will what
he wills,' accompany me in all situations throughout my life and reconcile me
with the actions of others, even if they are rather painful to me. This
awareness of the lack of free will keeps me from taking myself and my fellow
men too seriously as acting and deciding individuals, and from losing my
temper.16

14

Ibid. p. 64.
Harris, op. cit., p. 53
16
Less readily quoted but easily available; see http://www.einstein-website.de/z_biography/credo.html.
15

10. Yet, one can and must accept the necessity of criminal proceedings and punishments,
as deterrents (delinked from moral condemnation). [For a more detailed discussion of
Harriss ideas and arguments in this regard, see Appendix.]
Sam Harriss book became an instant bestseller. A word on its merits would not be out of
place. The prose combines clarity of thought and narrative charm to make the book a rare
read. Anybody who hasnt read it has missed a brilliantly argued piece of polemic. But that is
of less importance. Anybody who hasnt read it has missed a real insight into the variegated
and fuzzy systems that we call our selves.

The insights in Harriss book


Why do I choose one commitment over another? I cant rightly tell. I cannot determine the
web of influences in which I will be caught, nor can I determine which idea will occur to me
the next moment, and which might even change my life. How does my friend succeed in
conquering temptations more successfully than I? Yet, why wasnt he able to quit cigarettes,
while I was? And, how do I succeed in quitting now, when I had failed repeatedly before?
Could I have truly predicted that I would succeed this particular time?
Harriss strength lies in his seeing this basic truth of lifethat it unfolds with no real control
over the energies that drive us. Of course, there are as many instances of premeditated actions
and amazing self control as there are of unfortunate lapsesbut one persons successes in
planned and disciplined behaviour and another persons sorry lack of determination are both
equally mysteriousthey appear to have their roots in the strange alchemy of nature and
nurture, which appears to be unique for each individual. The book shows that the person is a
process where basic propensities, formed habits, disciplined behaviour, twinges of
conscience, sudden influences, unexpected inspirations, unforeseen self-control, and startling
loss of control run into one another to create a course that defies foretelling and explanation.
Until the very end, life remains a mystery. Placed in the context of this mysterious flow, the
idea of free will is exposed as absurd.
Lets get back to actual Harris
You are struggling to save money, but you are also tempted to buy a new computer. Where is
the freedom when one of these opposing desires inexplicably triumphs over its rival?17

Moreover,
...I just drank a glass of water and feel absolutely at peace with the decision to do so...Why
didnt I decide to drink a glass of juice? The thought never occurred to me. Am I free to do
that which does not occur to me to do? Of course not?18

In reading such lines, one is reminded of the famous words of Einstein:


Honestly, I cannot understand what people mean when they talk about the freedom of the
human will. I have a feeling, for instance, that I will something or other; but what relation this
has with freedom I cannot understand at all. I feel that I will to light my pipe and I do it; but
how can I connect this up with the idea of freedom? What is behind the act of willing to light
17
18

Sam Harris, op. cit., p. 19.


Ibid.

the pipe? Another act of willing? Schopenhauer once said: Der Mensch kann was er will; er
kann aber nicht wollen was er will (Man can do what he will but he cannot will what he
wills).19

The third person approach can help in clearing up certain aspects of our mental life.
Psychologists might discover the roots of a strange aversion in a certain childhood trauma.
Medical science might provide clues to unexplained lethargies and irritationssuch as low
sugar, vitamin deficiency, or certain hormonal problems. More severe emotional disturbances
might be traced to cerebral pathologies like brain tumour. Although Harris does not discuss
examples of cerebral pathology, another neuroscientist, David Eagleman, doesin his book,
Incognito: The Secret Life of the Brain. 20 One of his chilling examples is of a patient
exhibiting strong paedophilic tendency, which gets cured after a massive tumour is removed
from his orbitofrontal cortex. 21 While study of a persons life history, present conditions,
physiological situation, and state of the brain can often provide clues and even answers,
mostly it cannot. Therefore, while science has provided sufficient material to provide strong
support to the idea of that the physiological and neurological system and the history of their
relationship with the rest of the universe22 determines how the organism feels, decides, and
acts, we do not have a knowledge system that can predict how the person will feel, think, and
act 5 seconds from now.23 The first-person stream of experience still remains sufficiently
unpredictable to appear as a mysterious saga without either point or plot.
However, there is a chance that the full significance of Harriss beautiful depiction of choices
arising in the flow of life could be lost on philosophers who concentrate on conscious and
premeditative choosingwhere the person is deciding on a course of action after weighing
the options and, therefore, choosing consciously and freely. Such actions appear to provide
the impression of purposeful action and control and help to reinforce the idea of a
commanding personhood.
Interestingly, Eddy Nahmias, in his critique of Harriss book, also offers an example of
premeditated and determined behaviour to prove that conscious agency plays a role in the
world. Nahmias writes:
Im not sure what he (Harris) means by the deep cause, but I suspect that when you
consciously plan how to get twelve complicated tasks done before lunchtime and you exercise
self- control to avoid quitting some of them, your conscious mental activity is playing a
causal role in how your body moves.24

Thus, conscious planning and self-control are seen as hallmarks of personal agency.

19

This is widely quoted and easily available on the net. See, for example, http://www.eoht.info/page/EinsteinMurphy+dialogue and http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/human-will.
20
David Eagleman, Incognito: The Secret Life of the Brain, Digital Edition, Canongate, 2011.
21
Ibid. p. 154.
22
In the form of ambient conditions, adversities, toxins, nutrients, and informational intake.
23
Here, I am discounting amazing reports of astrological performance, for these appear to be little more than
anecdotal.
24
Eddy Nahmias, Defining Free Will Away, The Philosophers Magazine, 3rd Quarter, 2012, pp. 111-12.

10

Harris, Strawson, and the power of the Basic Argument


There would be those like me who think Harriss analysis adequately covers the conscious
instances of choosing. In fact, those looking for concrete instances would find one very
important example in p. 43 of the book.25 However, in his narrative, the example comes as
just another unexplained turn in the baffling saga of human life. To those receptive to the
mood that Harris tries to create, this example helps to reinforce the mystery underlying our
desires and choices. However, some others might miss the point that Harris tries to make
that even when choosing consciously a person is not really in control, for he is governed by
internal and external factors not of his own making.
Harriss not focusing strongly on considered decisions possibly explains his statement,
quoted earlier, that the illusion of free will itself is an illusion. For, when you are thinking of
the mindscape as a stream of thoughts, it is easy to see ideas as arising to a passive
consciousness and wonder why one should be deluded by the flimsy fraud of free will.
However, in a more active mode of decision-making, the notion of I as an active creator of
decisions takes firmer hold. Perhaps, had Harris focused more narrowly to conscious
decisions, he would have been less bemused by our folly. This is not to say that Harriss
reaction is fundamentally wrong. It is that he could have probed a little more into why we are
so easily taken in.26
Long before Harris entered the field, the philosopher Galen Strawson wrote:
As already remarked, many human beings are unable to resist the idea that it is their capacity
for fully explicit self-conscious deliberation, in a situation of choice, that suffices to constitute
them as truly morally responsible agents in the strongest possible sense. 27

Therefore, Strawson discussed the issue of free will specifically with reference to conscious
choice. 28 Technically speaking, and as evident from the above citation, he was writing about
the possibility of moral responsibility. However, his discussion develops around the
following:
A. A person can be morally responsible for her actions only if she is able to choose her
actions freely
B. Hence, it is important to find out whether freedom of choice is possible
Thus, a treatise on the possibility of moral choice actually becomes an analysis of the
possibility of free will.
In his fundamental argument (his so-called Basic Argument, hereafter BA), Strawson
discusses neither science, nor metaphysics, nor experience. He simply analyses an imaginary
instance of action resulting from conscious and considered decision. His exposition comes up
with a remarkable findingthat we cannot even begin to conceive of a conscious choice that
is genuinely free. Strawsons early presentation of BA is found in his groundbreaking 1994
25

See his discussion of giving up martial arts training 20 years ago. Harris, op. cit., p. 43.
There is certainly much more to believing in free will than making conscious decisions. But, we cannot take
that up in this essay.
27
Galen Strawson, 1994, op. cit. p. 16.
28
Ibid., p. 6
26

11

article. 29 His more recent, and perhaps more elegant, presentation is found in his 2005
article.30
The argument may be presented as follows (the exposition here is closer to the 1994 version):

Conscious decisions are the result of the state or condition of the mind undertaking the
decision. This state or condition would include such elements as propensities,
preferences, values, availability of relevant information, reasoning ability, and so on.

A conscious mind M makes a considered decision D at the moment T to undertake a


particular action.

Obviously, the decision D is determined by the state or condition of the mind M at the
moment T.

Therefore, to claim even a little responsibility for D, the mind M must be able to claim
responsibility for at least some elements of S.

However, M can claim responsibility for some elements of S only if it has actively
contributed towards bringing about S (obviously at a point of time preceding T; we can
call this preceding point of time PT).

However, mere active contribution to bring about S will not be sufficient for claiming
responsibility, because that contribution could have been accidental and unintentional.
To claim responsibility for bringing about S (even partly), M must be able to claim
responsibility for consciously deciding to undertake this particular action to bring about
S (this is likely to be at a point preceding PT; we can call that point of time PPT).

Again, to claim responsibility for this last bit of deciding, M must be able to claim
responsibility for some elements of its state or condition (say Sp), which resulted in such
deciding at the point of time PPT. Then again, in order to claim responsibility for some
elements of Sp, it must be able to claim responsibility for deliberately fashioning, at least
partly, those elements of Sp. This again brings about the question of claiming
responsibility for this deliberate fashioning, and the process goes on without ever
reaching a point where we can be satisfied that M can claim genuine responsibility for
fashioning a part of itself. (Note: this is the case if M has been around for an infinite
time. However, if M is an entity with a beginning, we will have a point where M has
come into being, endowed with a particular nature and propensities for which it could not
have been responsible, for obvious reasons. We shall examine this more naturalistic case
in a moment.)

The presentation of the BA here differs slightly from Strawsons but the essential argument is
the same. The changes worth mentioning are as follows: The presentation above speaks
pointedly of a mind M, categorically avoiding any suggestion of a material basis (e.g., brains
or neurons). Further, Strawson, in his presentations, speaks of the responsibility of action or
deed, but the presentation above concentrates on the responsibility of decisions.
The argument serves three purposes at once. First, it is able to talk of decision-making in the
abstract, without even vaguely referring to the nature of the entity that is taking the decision.
Mind here is simply a system capable of making a moral choice (no doubt in addition to its
29
30

Ibid. p. 5-7.
Galen Strawson, 2005, op. cit., p. 289-90.

12

other faculties, not relevant here). There is no hint of brain or neurons and materialist
causation. Thus, even a person believing in mind as something non-physical should have no
trouble with it. Secondly, it makes no reference to empirical facts about the world. As
Strawson says, ...you can see that it is true just lying on your couch. You dont have to get
up off your couch and go outside and examine the way things are in the physical world.31 It,
therefore, is a priori. 32 This argument shows that if we really think about the logic of
decision-making, we find that genuine free will or moral responsibility is not even an error, it
is something that we cannot comprehend, something that, conceptually, cannot even begin to
stand on its feet. 33 Thirdly (and this applies specifically to the argument in the above
modified form), concentrating on decision that leads to the action rather than the action itself
allows one to discuss freedom of choosing or deciding rather than freedom of actionfor the
latter can mean, as in the case with compatibilists, the absence of some physical
impediments.
It is interesting is that in his 1994 paper Strawson also translates his Basic Argument into the
language of naturalistic common sense. His translation reads as follows:
1) It is undeniable that one is the way one is, initially, as a result of heredity and early
experience, and it is undeniable that these are things for which one cannot be held to be in
anyway responsible (morally or otherwise).
(2) One cannot at any later stage of life hope to accede to true moral responsibility for the
way one is by trying to change the way one already is as a result of heredity and previous
experience.
For (3) both the particular way in which one is moved to try to change oneself, and the degree
of one's success in one's attempt at change, will be determined by how one already is as a
result of heredity and previous experience.
And( 4) any further changes that one can bring about only after one has brought about certain
initial changes will in turn be determined, via the initial changes, by heredity and previous
experience.
(5) This may not be the whole story, for it may be that some changes in the way one is are
traceable not to heredity and experience but to the influence of indeterministic or random
factors. But it is absurd to suppose that indeterministic or random factors, for which one is ex
hypothesi in no way responsible, can in themselves contribute in any way to one's being truly
morally responsible for how one is.34

A tighter presentation of the above might seem desirable:


1. A human being has a natural beginning (whichever one marks as a beginningan embryo,
foetus, or a newborn).
31

You cannot make yourself the way you are, interview with Galen Strawson, by Tamler Sommers, The
Believer, March 2003.
32
Ibid.
33
Pardi notices this clearly. See Paul Pardi, op. cit. Interestingly, Robert Kane calls this the problem of
intelligibility, and describing why critiques find it simply unintelligible. Therefore, he proceeds to show that it
can be made intelligiblean argument that not only falls short of its objective, actually defeats the objective.
But that is something we will not explore here. See Kanes arguments in Robert Kane Libertarianism, op. cit.
34
Galen Strawson, 1994, op. cit., p. 7.

13

2. What one is at the beginning is a result of genes and intra-uterine/foetal/natal environment,


for which one cannot be held responsible.
3. What one does subsequently is the result of (a) how one actually is at the beginning and (b)
what one subsequently gets from the environment (ranging from nutrition to education).
However, one is not responsible for either the item numbered a or the item numbered b.
Therefore, one is not responsible (morally or otherwise) what one does at any point in ones
life.
4. One might think that how one is and what one does can be affected by some random and
indeterministic factors.
5. However, one cannot be responsible for such factors and therefore for how one is or what one
does.

In its naturalistic incarnation, of course, the BA becomes the usual common sense argument
and no longer retains its abstract beauty (where free will falls down the drain of infinite
regress). One then realises that the BA is nothing more than an ingenious logical abstraction
of the usual common sense argument. Strawsons merit lies in having been able to see the
power of the abstraction.
The driving power of Strawsons BA (and its naturalistic rendition) is best seen if we reduce
it to the following tercet:
1. Moral responsibility of decision making or the true ownership of decisions is possible
if, and only if, there is the possibility of self-formation
2. Self-formation is impossible (any attempt to see whether it is possible leads either to
an original entity and an environment that are not self-formed or to a sterile
infinitude)
3. Therefore, moral responsibility of decision-making and genuine responsibility of
decisions is impossible35
The indispensability of the possibility of self-formation for free will is the reason that Robert
Kane is so keen to find the possibilities self-forming actions somewhere in the human
system. The BA shows that self-formation makes no sense and Kane could have spared his
efforts.
Here, we come to what we can describe as a genuine weakness in Harriss book. As Paul
Pardi correctly notes,36 in Harriss book two themes occur simultaneously and occasionally
overlap: (1) the idea that the notion of free choice is incoherent and we cannot even
understand how free choice can come about (somewhat on the lines of Strawson, but less
strikingly enunciated). (2) Empirical arguments (both first-person and third-person views) of
how the fundamental drivers of our choices are beyond our conscious control. Pardi notes
that Harris, by not distinguishing between the two kinds of argument (the purely logical and
empirical), leaves scope for misunderstanding.

35

The self-formation or causa sui trap of free will was noticed by Nietzsche (in his Beyond Good and Evil) as
Strawson points out. Strawson, 1994, op. cit., p. 15.
36
Paul Pardi, op. cit.

14

Strawsons arguments leave no room for free will. It covers all possible issues, without going
through the tedious process of examining the various libertarian or compatibilist arguments
one by one.

Strawson and Harris: a few last words


Strawsons 1994 article did not make as great an impact on general readership as it has
among philosophers. One can think of four reasons:
1. Strawson published his article before the internet captured the world. Harris, on the
other hand published only 4 years ago. Moreover, he is a formidable web publicist
whose well-articulated views on controversial issues have earned him fame and
notoriety.
2. Strawson presented a philosophical coup de grce against self-formation (and,
therefore, free will). Moreover, he wrote (and writes) with enviable simplicity and
ease. Yet, his argument is abstract and philosophical, possibly of greater appeal to the
philosophical community than to the general readership. Harris, on the other hand, has
written a tract that combines a neuroscientific approach to the mind, a meditators
experience of the strange dynamics of the mindscape, and an amazing facility of
expression. In discussing free will, he talks not merely about its logical incoherence
but about the nature of human thinking and choosing and about the actual role of
consciousness. Here, naturally, the Libet-type experiments become relevant. Harriss
treatment point towards the fact that not only are we not free in the philosophical
sense, but that we tend to dwell in a state of constant delusion. His book has the great
merit of converting a philosophical issue into a matter of vital human interest. He
achieves this in a manner that easily compares with the finest popular tracts ever
written on philosophical issues.
3. The recent popularity of certain strands of non-dual teaching, e.g. those that trace their
lineages to Nisargadatta and Ramesh Balsekar, has created a large clientele for nofreedom points of view. The same could be said for certain strands of Buddhist
influence. Harriss book was published at just the right time to take advantage of this
constituency.
This, I guess, is a good place to end this essay.

Acknowledgement: I am grateful to Galen Strawson for giving me permission to use a long


quotation from his article.

15

Appendix
Criminal proceedings and punishments as deterrents (delinked from moral condemnation)
A discussion of Harriss views in this regard
With free will goes the question of moral responsibility, leaving no logical grounds for moral
condemnation.
Does this rule out the moral necessity for a criminal justice system? It does. But it does not
rule out the need for a system of judging when to correct or punish a person for her actions,
when these are seen as patently harmful for society. Such punishments are necessary to instil
fear that would act as deterrent. Moreover, it might be necessary to lock-up persons who are
identifiable as incorrigible offenders or who are criminally insane.
In such cases where biological reasons for harmful behaviour can be identified and medical
measures available, such measures must be taken to help the concerned person behave in a
socially harmless manner. Harris mentions such possibilities but he does not amplify on this
issue. Here, David Eagleman, who is far less concerned with the issue of free will and far
more concerned with how the scientific knowledge of the brain can help the criminal justice
system, is much more informative. He discusses the various scientific findings and
medical/technological means of helping people to get rid of or to manage their harmful
behaviours.37 Yet, like Harris, Eagleman accepts that there would be plenty of cases where
criminal behaviour cannot be connected to an identifiable neuropathology or other medical
condition. In such cases, even when one understands that there is no question of
responsibility on the part of the criminal and that he is the victim of a causal chain over
which there is no question of anyone having any control, some form of deterrence of
punishment is socially necessary.
Criminality, lack of empowerment, and injusticea special note: What neither Harris nor
Eagleman attend to is that a great deal of crime ensues from people not having access to
legally permissible economic opportunities or requisite resourcesfunds, training, etc. The
situation is perhaps more prevalent in developing countries. Punishing people who are
breaking the law in order to survive does not address the real roots of crime. It ought to be
business of the government to empower such people in terms of economic and educational
opportunity. In absence of adequate measures in this regard, meting out punishment is not
likely to solve the problem of such crimes in the long run. A related issue is that the
overwhelming majority of those who get convicted are poor people. This is because of two
reasons. First, dire poverty tends to provoke survival behaviour, some of which might be
categorized as crime by the law of the land. Second, poor people have less opportunity of
covering up their crimes and hiring efficient legal aid. Therefore, people with economic or
political power are often not booked for their crimes, let alone convicted. It is legitimate to
ask what kind of deterrence would prove useful in these circumstances. Obviously, a more
democratic and less unequal social situation is likely to lead to more conviction for powerful
offenders. Unfortunately, unequal social situations and business-politician-bureaucrat-media
nexuses tend to self-perpetuate. How far these things can change is questionable.
37

Eagleman, op. cit., pp. 151-289.

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Further, things get really difficult at the level of international relations, war, and global
intrigue. Here, what we could consider criminality in normal circumstances is often the way
of life. Here, people who enjoy killing and inflicting pain and are good at these things tend to
have high value. Once again, we do not know of practical means whereby these things can
change.
Harris squarely addresses one issue that highly educated and liberal-minded people tend to
forget. The desire to avenge the wrongs done to oneself or to ones near and dear ones is
deeply rooted in many of us. Evolutionary biologists would be able to suggest the
evolutionary roots of such desire. Hence, even if one accepts the logical groundlessness of
moral condemnation, one might have a deep desire for revenging such wrongs. Though
Harris does not specifically suggest this, he might be thinking that the criminal justice system
should be sufficiently efficient and punishments for serious offences should be sufficiently
harsh to satisfy the urge for revenge. If that doesnt happen, people might be encouraged to
take law in their own hands. Once again, societies which do not book and punish powerful
offenders generate serious discontent among the unprivileged and discriminated, which may
find vent only in bloody uprisings. At the international level, a Saddam Hussein might
receive what is his due, but a George Bush can get away with waging a criminal war,
resulting in hurt and humiliation and resulting consequences. However, one who realizes that
humans are not masters of their destiny might learn to accept that the desire for justice and
just revenge will only be satisfied occasionally, and things will be what they will.

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