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Many people seem to believe that morality depends for its existence on a metaphysical quantity called “free will.” This conviction is occasionally expressed—often with great impatience, smugness, or piety—with the words, “ought implies can.” Like much else in philosophy that is too easily remembered (e.g. “you can’t get an ought from an is.”), this phrase has become an impediment to clear thinking.

In fact, the concept of free will is a non-starter, both philosophically and scientifically. There is simply no description of mental and physical causation that allows for this freedom that we habitually claim for ourselves and ascribe to others. Understanding this would alter our view of morality in some respects, but it wouldn’t destroy the distinction between right and wrong, or good and evil.

A common question of skeptics and science-based thinkers is “How could anyone believe that?” People do believe some really weird things and even some obviously false things. The more basic question is how we form all our beliefs, whether false or true.



In fact, the concept of free will is a non-starter, both philosophically and scientifically.

Eh, I would argue that the origin of the idea is about the relationship between Man and God.

That man's actions are not the will of God, for God's will is always moral and man's actions are not always moral. Therefore man's will is free from God's will.

Since I don't believe there is a god so obviously I believe my will is free of any supernatural beings plans for me.

Really, morality can only exist if you believe in that sort of free will.

The two more modern ideas about predetermenence, or free from our biology and experience are perhaps more interesting to discuss, but I am not sure who was advocating that our will was free of all things.

Since I don't believe there is a god so obviously I believe my will is free of any supernatural beings plans for me.

Really, morality can only exist if you believe in that sort of free will.

true dat.

I also fail to see how "a deterministic view" would have any impact on our criminal justice system.

If you believe Criminal behavior is determined by factors of human nature and experience, then wouldn't you have to believe that our criminal justice system is determined in the same way?

So their fated to commit the crime and Texas is fated to fry them in the electric chair.

What the heck is the point of that discussion?

So you can feel smart.

It occured to me before Sam Harris is incredibly intellectually dishonest.

But I always withheld my condemnation, because I knew that Sam didn't have free will, and could not choose to tell the truth.

But now Sam gives me an out, and allows me to condemn him, despite the fact that he can't choose to be honest. I can condemn his "intention" to lie, because "intention," despite its common usage in reference to choice, reflects the "global quality" of our minds. If I murder or lie "after weeks of deliberation, library research, and debate with friends," that reflects "who I really am."

This leaves me puzzled, because the OPPOSITE seems to clearly be the case. If I kill those who simply displease me, and lie just because I think it's fun, and don't give it much thought, that would indicate much more clearly "who I am" (and how likely I am to kill and lie again), than my murder of one person who terribly wronged me or my family after many sleepless nights, or my lie, carefully considered as to consequences. To me, this is self-evident. The fact that the act needs to be subjected to this process called intention indicates that the action is OUT OF CHARACTER for the actor, not the opposite. Even if one were to disagree, it is hardly a given that Sam's point of view should stand without some scientific or at least anecdotal support.

Culturally, we punish intention because of a belief in free will. If Harris wants to propose a moral system apart from free will, then he probably should discard the notion of "intention." However, honesty is never Sam's agenda: propaganda is. THAT is the character of Sam's mind.

I suppose I need to read the book on belief, but the evolutionary thesis strike me as illogical:

"If our ancestors assumed that the wind rustling the bushes was a lion and they ran away, that wasn’t a big problem. If there really was a lion and they didn’t run away, they were in trouble. Natural selection favors strategies that make many false causal assumptions in order to not miss the true ones that are essential to survival."

But no other animal seems to find making false assumptions adaptive. The squirrels in my backyard fear the neighborhood cats, but take pleasure in taunting my dog. They can be taught to eat out of my hand, but remain skittish around other humans. Recently, this blog cited a fascinating study which demonstrated that crows made fine distinctions regarding humans who might do them harm. Animals seem to make few assumptions about patterns, and are quite adept at recognizing finer points of agency. Why should humans be an exception?


That's just Mike cribbing off Dennett's arguments in 'Breaking the Spell' I suspect.

The argument as it appears in BtS has more to do with 'Superstition in the Pigeon' really; you have an agent detection mechanism which assumes the presence of agents in the event of unknown but possibly agent-caused behaviour. If you, as a more advanced cognitive creature still possessing this basic architecture, encounter phenomena that exhibit complete causal patterns you don't understand (the weather) you might attribute agency to it and if you do and try to 'barter' with it (ala sacrifices) given the ((rather strange)) tendency of all natural creatures to exaggerate hits and ignore misses you'll soon end up with a sort of animism. And if you're a smart epileptic the stage is now set for you to take this folk animism and steer it in the direction of your delusion's choosing.


1) I wish Sam Harris wouldn't write about moral philosophy.

2) I wish Sam Harris wouldn't write about free will without reading the work of compatibilists on the subject e.g. Dennett.*

3) I sometimes wish Sam Harris just wouldn't write. Or that he'd at least apologise for his double standard regarding Buddhist nonsense.

4) @RedSeven - The debate is reasonably well explained in the Greene and Cohen paper "For the Law Neuroscience Changes Everything and Nothing". Dennett has responded to the paper in a talk I saw him give at Edinburgh but his views on the subject (that is, on the relationship between free will and retributivism) seemed a little confused.

*Seriously; the awareness that compatibilists exist is not an unreasonable standard to demand. If you're presenting yourself as a 'thinker' on the subject you might at least be expected to have as much knowledge as can be found on the wikipedia and Stanford Encyclopedia pages.


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