In his next chapter, Harris outlines the three philosophical schools of thought on the matter of free will. They are, respectively, the determinist, the libertarian, and the compatibilist schools of thought. The determinist says that we have no free will, deal with it. The libertarian says that we do too have free will, and that we are therefore not determined. The compatibilist grants that we are determined, but that free will is consistent or compatible with this. Harris spends this chapter showing that the compatibilists are yelling up the wrong drainpipe, and thus far I am with Harris.
Someone will say that I am contradict myself when I try to agree with Harris on this, for is not the third chapter of the Westminster Confession a compatibilist approach to the question? It says on the one hand that God freely and unalterably ordains whatsoever comes to pass, and on the other hand that violence is not offered to the will of creatures, and that the hinges of secondary causes are not thereby unscrewed, but rather screwed in tighter? Or something like that.
Not really, because the existence of the triune God is not a detail. It is not like compatibilism is sitting there like a bowl of neutrality, waiting for the condiments of God’s existence to be added to it. If God exists, He does not exist as an add-on to make our philosophical theories go. I have written on this a great deal elsewhere, and to develop these thoughts further — however worthy an exercise — is not my point here. Rather, I want to show how Sam Harris, and his atheism, and the horse he rode in on, are floating, like Ezekiel’s wheels in the old spiritual, “way up in the middle of the air.”
Some commenters have thought I have been unloading some snark in these posts, which is not the case at all. I am just having a good time. God catches the wise in their craftiness, and when the conditions are right He sometimes lets us get popcorn and treat it like an episode of Mystery Science Theater.
Here is the central problem that Harris has, and it is not a trivial one. He has himself all snarled up. Take just a few quotes from this chapter to set the stage.
“My mental life is simply given to me by the cosmos” (p. 19).
“People feel (or presume) an authorship of their thoughts and actions that is illusory” (p. 24).
“How can we be ‘free’ as conscious agents if everything that we consciously intend is caused by events in our brain that we do not intend and of which we are entirely unaware? We can’t” (pp. 25-26).
“People feel that they are the authors of their thoughts and actions, and this is the only reason why there seems to be a problem worth talking about” (p. 26).
Okay, you sold me. Now what follows? Well, not this . . .
“There is no question that our attribution of agency can be gravely in error. I am arguing that it always is” (p. 25, emphasis mine).
You should see the problem at once. If we have accepted what he has been telling us, then one of the very first conclusions we must come to is that he is not arguing at all. The act of arguing is as illusory as the act of deciding, and for the very same reasons.
I mean, think about it for a minute. His mental life was just given to him by a blind cosmos. Why, so was mine! That blind shuffling of atoms produced Presbyterian thoughts in my head, and atheistic thoughts in his, but neither of us are thinking, any more than we are choosing.
Harris disclaims any authorship for his thoughts. What does that mean? It means that an impersonal blind chance wrote his book, which undercuts my confidence in its veracity, which in turn undercuts any reason for believing that it was written by blind processes.
Put it this way. Why did Harris drink a glass of water? He claims that he has absolutely no idea (p. 19). Now I have a real stumper for him, given all that he has been affirming here. Why does he affirm atheism? The answer has to be the same. He has to acknowledge that he has no idea. If atheism is the case, the first thing we should settle in our minds is the fact that the atheists don’t and can’t know it — given the premises, knowing, arguing, choosing, and deciding are all as illusory as Farley’s ghost.
Harris acknowledges that we feel like we have free will. We also, just as powerfully, feel like we are arguing and that our statements of fact correspond to realities in the external world, which just goes to show you how powerful these illusions can be. But Harris is made in the image of God, and he is arguing, just as he is choosing to argue. His argument isn’t faring well — it is auguring in, actually — but he is making a valiant attempt. But in the cosmos that he has described for us, he has no right to make that attempt.
If free will is an illusion, one of the first questions we should ask is how many other cherished illusions are there? One of those illusions is that Sam Harris thinks he wrote a book.