Sam Harris: Riding the Philosophic Short Bus

To begin, I would like to tip my hat to Sam Harris. He is an all-star neuroscientist and fantastic author and speaker, but more than that, he’s brave!

Brave? Yes, brave.

Any scientist willing to commit to a strict philosophical naturalism and not allow the element of human thought to escape its clutches has attempted something noble—consistency; something truly rare these days.

But… let us not confuse consistency with “congruence.” Congruence is not simply intellectual consistency, but consistency of being. In psychology, congruence is the idea of agreement between what you think and what you do, i.e. allowing your philosophy to dictate your behavior. Yet, though I praise Harris for going further than many naturalists are willing to go, I fault him for stopping short of acting consistently with his philosophy.

Taking the leap into strict naturalism and aligning one’s arguments accordingly entails not only subjecting human thought to the doctrine, but also one’s method of arguing (among other things). It would be a shame if one successfully argued for the non-existence of freewill only to find that the construction and delivery of his entire argument required the use of freewill for its own validity.

This comical demonstration of proving the non-existence of freewill using freewill was performed by Sam Harris in a lecture available on YouTube. At one point in the speech he asks his audience to test their own belief in freewill with a simple “experiment.” He asked them to think of any city in the world. They were free to choose from any of the thousands of cities in existence without exception. He then systematically tried to show that whatever city was chosen was chosen without the use of freewill (one wonders why the term “chosen” is even used). A summary of his argument goes something like this:

1.)    Because we cannot possibly know every city on the planet, it follows that we cannot freely choose from all cities on the planet.

2.)    Because we cannot think of every city we know at any given moment, it follows that we are not free to choose even from the one’s we know exist.

3.)    Because we cannot control which cities happen to populate in our consciousness, it follows that we are not free to choose which cities to choose from. They simply “occur” to us without our control.

These arguments combine to convince Harris that freewill is an illusion. In essence, he argues that unless a person is omniscient, is capable of perfect instant recall, and is in full control of his sub-conscious functions he cannot possess freewill. But, by what “authority” does Harris claim these parameters for freewill? He does not offer an explanation, it is implicitly expected that his “choice” of parameters are legitimate.

But why are they legitimate? There is a potentially limitless set of parameters. Why these ones? According to his theory, Harris would have selected these parameters not because they are correct—not because they track with the reality—but simply because they are the ones that happened to “occur” to him. He chose nothing; rather, a prior set of conditions, via natural cause and effect, acting upon him made these the only parameters he could choose.

Likewise, Harris’ entire philosophical system is problematic for the simple reason that if we employ his own template of determinism to his system of determinism it is revealed that this is the only view of the world he could have since it was the one that just so happened to “occur” to him. He did not, under his own theory, choose to believe in natural determinism, it was selected for him by mechanical processes outside his control.

Again, enforcing his own standard, Harris was by no means privy to every possible related philosophic musing, he was not able to instantly recall all of his own philosophic musings, nor was he able to control which musings populated in his conscious. Hence, he did not choose to believe his own doctrine. How then does he validate his doctrine since he “had to” believe it?

Note: this point demonstrates that his worldview is very a different ordeal than his simple “city test” and shows a major deficiency in his philosophy when applied to larger, more existential issues.

There are many ways to make this point, but the simplest may be to compare people with opposite beliefs. Take for example a strict naturalist and compare him with an Orthodox Christian. The former believes all things are explainable in naturalistic terms, excluding any possibility of the supernatural. The latter believes all or at least most things are explainable in teleological terms, and is heavily invested in the supernatural. Herein lays a challenge that, I believe, is impossible for the strict naturalist to answer authoritatively: Which theory is correct?

Both people are operating under the same rules of natural determinism. Both are drawing conclusions not through rational inference seated in freewill, but rather through mechanical processes of which they have no control; “control” would mean “agency” and naturalism denies such “illusions.” Who then will be the arbiter of reality since all human arbiters are locked in the same system? Is nature working “falsely” in the Christian and “correctly” in the naturalist? And, in a purely natural, mechanical universe, what does it mean to be “right” and “wrong?” These seem to me to be wholly arbitrary and useless concepts if naturalism were true.

In short, Harris’ philosophy has the same chances of being true as any other philosophy, since all thought is controlled by natural determinism. We did not choose our philosophical views because they are true, but because they are the views that happened to “occur” to us as true. As Harris puts it, “What I do next remains a mystery that is fully determined by a prior state of the universe.” Keeping in mind that thoughts are events, Harris must maintain that what he “thinks next” is also a mystery that is determined by a prior state of the universe and not because it necessarily has any relation to truth. His beliefs could only be true by coincidence.

So, does “Naturalism slit its own throat,” as C.S. Lewis once put it? I believe so, but perhaps I was made to think so by cosmic determinism.

Thanks for reading.

19 thoughts on “Sam Harris: Riding the Philosophic Short Bus

  1. Sam Harris is (IMHO) a performing clown for trendy pseudo intellectual ‘TED Talks’ types.

    They like him because he says things that ‘outrageous’ ……but not *too* outrageous – outrageous enough to draw an ‘Oooo’ from the crowds, but not so outrageous that we might be compelled to question or change our actual behaviour (phew!).

    If my mind came up with a city which I had never heard of before then I might find his argument more compelling / interesting 🙂

  2. Excellent post! And, even better title!

    I wrote a few responses to Harris’ work on my blog as well and I am still getting emails (months later) regarding why my disagreements with him are meaningless.

    Ah, if only he read some philosophy prior to making philosophical claims.

    • I notice Sam Harris confuses scientific method with philosophical reasoning. The city test is a perfect example. It seems as though he disqualifies freewill as a category similar to how a scientist would disqualify a poorly chosen test group in, say, psychological research. To have a valid test group it must be comprised of participants who came from a population in which each person has an equal chance of being selected for the testing. In the city case, since not every city had an equal opportunity of being chosen, freewill as a category is disqualified. Valid logic for psychological research, totally irrelevant for philosophy.

      But, this is typical. People tend to solve problems according to their training, and since Harris’ training is in science and not philosophy he has a difficult time solving existential issues.

  3. I was once at a lecture where a surgeon told a story about a trekker in Nepal who was walking down a trail and was killed by a rock which spontaneously rolled down the hillside and struck him perfectly in the head. As he finished the story, the speaker mused, “In a certain sense, the man spent his whole life just walking toward that stone.” In a certain sense, that’s all determinism is – our notion that a causal chain of events connects prior events with current ones, and presumably future ones. Most people would not have a great deal of trouble accepting the surgeon’s interpretation of the trekker’s existence, though they might consider it incomplete. Few would accept a similar account of their decision-making, even concerning what they had for lunch. At the same time, most of us like to think that we choose to do things for reasons – that our choices are, in fact, determined – just by things that we own mentally. Ask, “Why didn’t you choose x instead of y?” and people can provide an answer (provided they are in the mood). So what explains these contradictions? Perhaps our notion of causal relations is flawed? Perhaps our notion of temporal ordering is flawed? Perhaps our notion of freedom is flawed (in one direction or another)? Or perhaps our powers of perception are inadequate (in one direction or another? In any case, this is a much more difficult and interesting issue than you make it out to be, for the theist as much as for the naturalist.

    • Perhaps the surgeon, in lieu of his own impending, tragic and ultimately meaningless death, was trying to make sense of his own life by reflecting on the trekker in the manner he did. Imagining that the trekker was somehow, at least, a cog in the machine of life destined for a stone in the head gave the surgeon some feeling of purpose, however bleak it is. I think what is most terrifying for some people is the inescapable feeling that their life and death is pure randomness. At least natural determinism allows them to view the whole play as an inevitable dance with destiny.

      And, its not that I don’t see the “interesting”ness of the issue. I find it fascinating, but for wholly separate reasons. I find the psychology of it the most interesting of all

  4. Short bus? Really? I love some kids who ride the ‘short bus’, thanks, so perhaps I’m coming in with a bias.

    I’m not getting the argument here, though. It seems to simply be turning the logical conclusion of Sam Harris’s argument (if he doesn’t believe in free will, of course he doesn’t believe that he ‘chose’ his argument, his reasoning, or his conclusions) into a common sense argument that such a thing can’t be true. I don’t see how that follows. Do I have ‘free will’ when you show me 1+1 and my mind produces the answer ‘2’? If I don’t, is this an ‘aha!’ moment where you declare my incorrectness, because of course I didn’t choose such an answer, it simply occurred to me, and therefore what are the odds of it being right? Would someone who was able to freely choose ‘5’ have a higher chance of being correct because he harnessed free will to make his own ‘choice’?

    Their are many, many constraints possible within the universe, yes, and the same logical constraints that cause the human mind to produce 1+1 = 2 may well cause that same mind to produce rational verbal arguments that follow certain types of logic and have a higher probability of being correct. I don’t see what freedom has to do with that concept one way or the other, though.

  5. Lis, what make you say you “love some kids who ride the short bus”? If your thoughts are all mechanical and outside your control what do you mean by “Love”? Further, why do you discriminate which kids on the bus you will love?


    It seems as though you are posing a 4th parameter to add to Harris’ construct of freewill. You want to add chaos: in short, unless we are free to choose 3, 4, 5, etc. instead of 2 as the answer to 1+1 then we must not have freewill. This is the sort of arbitrary parameters that only discredits natural determinism. We are free to choose any number we want. The fact that we choose 2 shows that we prefer to be right when counting up how many apples we have. But, we can just as easily pretend we have 5, but it won’t do us any good come feeding time. Don’t confuse habit and learned skills with mechanical determinism. i.e., don’t confuse our ability to follow the rules of mathematics with the rules of mathematics themselves. It would be like confusing your power of sight with a window just because the window allows you to see outside.

    But, again, my argument is not about mathematical reasoning, its about philosophical insight, particularly as it occurs with existential issues.

    I appreciate your reply. Please let me know if I’ve misunderstood your argument. Cheers.

    • “Likewise, Harris’ entire philosophical system is problematic for the simple reason that if we employ his own template of determinism to his system of determinism it is revealed that this is the only view of the world he could have since it was the one that just so happened to “occur” to him. He did not, under his own theory, choose to believe in natural determinism, it was selected for him by mechanical processes outside his control.”

      “Hence, he did not choose to believe his own doctrine. How then does he validate his doctrine since he “had to” believe it?”

      This is not philosophically problematic. Why would somethings validity be different depending on it’s process being “free” or mechanical?

  6. Pingback: On New Blogs and Not So Fine Arguments « The Caveat Lector

  7. Eric, I’m not sure if this topic is all semantics or relevant. We either choose or simply think we do. The thing that really matters is that either our actions will contribute towards fear and pain in the world or not. We either choose to care about this or simply think we do. Harris does not know and neither do we (though we clearly have . thoughts about it). From my position (however I got there!), this knowledge does not matter, and perhaps the conversation is no more than one ego fighting another? Whatever, there is a difference and that’s all that can be agreed upon. If you think it is more relevant, can you say why? If I am missing something I’d like to hear your thoughts on it.

    • It’s relevant to the degree that it shapes one’s philosophic outlook on just about everything. Ex: If I’m not a free-agent and all my thoughts and actions are the result of natural cause and effect then what am I to do with, say, my marriage? Do I love this person, and what could love possibly mean if it is merely a mechanical phenomenon? Further, by what possible logic do we argue for “morals” and “ethics” when whatever we happen to do was determined by the cosmos? Why resist nature, and why believe you’re capable of something like “resistance”? Chemicals don’t resist their natural functions, apples don’t resist falling from trees. Humans could not believe the sham of morality if they were consistent with philosophic naturalism.

      It’s the issue of mechanical determinism vs. teleology, and it makes all the difference.

  8. Sorry Eric, No doubt, I failed to explain. Evidently, It makes all the difference to our OWN lives. I did not lack that understanding! I meant that taking issue with others over it seems pointless. I’m no philosophy expert but I did have a go at arguing the claims made by the piece you gave of Sam Harris’ but found my replies, although plausible, were still rather like a cul-de-sac and reminded me of trying to prove the existence of God. Perhaps you’ve managed to argue the case for teleology, if so, that’s the kind of thing I was looking for, to see if it can be useful. I certainly wouldn’t want to waste your time. Thanks for your attempt though.

    • Well, as far as changing anyone’s mind on the issue, you may be right that it is a cul-de-sac (love that metaphor). But debating it is a lot of fun for me. I’ve been endlessly entertained with the topic since reading CS Lewis’ “Miracles” years ago. It also comes in handy when discussing with strict, “high” Calvinists, who take a similar road of determinism in principle.

  9. Yes, Harris is a moron when it comes to philosophy. If one reads his books critically, they will see that his philosophy is horrible and totally contradicts itself. I do not think it is fair to call the stuff he is doing “philosophy.” This is not surprising though, because he is not a philosopher, he is a scientist. This is a problem a lot of the New Atheists have. They think just because they are a scientist, they are now qualified to talk about philosophy. They are not…Richard Dawkins is another great example of this. He talks about philosophy and makes absurd claims that a undergrad can debunk. I often wonder if these guys even have any type of knowledge about the philosophy of science. If they do, they are ignoring it and lying to people. Scientists should really not talk about philosophy the same as philosophers should not talk about science, because they often look like fools. The exception to this would be like one of my professors, who has a BS in Biology, a MA in Philosophy, a MA in Biology, and a Ph.D. in History and Philosophy of science. He is qualified to talk about both. He teaches a class called Darwin and Design. It goes over the history of the philosophy of science and the design arguments. He taught it so well that no one knew what he believed or which way he leaned. He does not make stupid arguments and claims like Dawkins and Harris. People like Harris really need to stick to talking about science and doing research, because they make crappy philosophers…

  10. Congratulation, he disproved radical, unlimited free will which no one beleives in.

    Next he’ll go disprove Lemarcanism, blood-letting, and the idea that stars are really just very high up fire-flies.

  11. got it Eric. gaither vocal band – thanks muchly for the introduction to them – I adore this one. Keep singing!

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