Compatibilist Free Will: What It Is & Why It’s Wrong (Sam Harris)

Do external factors determine our choices and behaviors? Or, do we operate freely?

Compatibilists say “Yes.” Compatibilist free will describes the belief that both external factors and free will cause our behavior. Compatibilists bring together the ideas of determinists and libertarians, contending that we’re dealing with an “and” rather than an “or” when it comes to the way our will works.

Continue reading to get an explanation (and an argument) from Sam Harris on the matter.

Compatibilist Free Will

Compatibilists believe that we have free will, and they also believe in determinism. That means they accept free will and determinism as compatible truths (unlike both determinists and libertarians, who believe that these two are incompatible). According to Harris, the view of compatibilist free will contends that past events determine our decisions and that those decisions are still our own. This means that compatibilists define free will differently than Harris does: as an ability to act in ways that are consistent with your preferences and reasoning, without outside forces stopping you. In other words, compatibilists believe that, while your actions are caused by prior events, they’re also free as long as they accord with what you consciously decide and desire.

(Shortform note: Harris presents a succinct overview of compatibilist free will, but some experts view this theory in ways that differ substantially from Harris’s interpretation. According to philosopher Daniel Dennett, compatibilism is a point of view that’s separate from determinism and indeterminism, so Harris makes a mistake in rejecting compatibilism just because he believes that determinism is true. Dennett also criticizes Harris’s portrayal of the compatibilist idea of free will as doing what we want to do, as well as Harris’s rejection of the idea on the grounds that this isn’t absolute freedom (a theoretical form of free will where we could choose our desires). Dennett writes that in arguing that this is a failing with compatibilism, Harris has created a straw man version of compatibilism so he can dismiss it.)

Harris rejects the idea that choices can be both caused and free because he says that this point of view can’t be reconciled with what scientists have discovered about the brain. In particular, he writes that compatibilism doesn’t make sense if our thoughts and choices are caused by unconscious processes, which in turn are influenced by myriad external factors. He argues that simply becoming aware of a choice after it’s been determined by the brain and then acting on it isn’t the same thing as freely and consciously choosing it.

(Shortform note: Some say that the point of compatibilism is to offer a solution to the problem of free will: to reconcile our sense of free will and moral responsibility with determinism. Philosopher Gary Gutting writes that compatibilism provokes debate because freedom is hard to define and test. To illustrate, he contrasts two scenarios: staying at home because you’re having a panic attack and staying at home because you don’t want to stop reading a good book. In both cases, your decision to stay home has a cause, but free will seems to be more active in one scenario than the other. Gutting says that scientists and philosophers must work together to come up with a more precise account of free will that incorporates these nuances.)

Compatibilist Free Will: What It Is & Why It’s Wrong (Sam Harris)

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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