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.