In response to Reflections on Free Will, by Daniel C. Danett, Sam Haris wrote The Marionette’s Lament. In this Sam refutes with the criticism of Daniel about his book Free Will. In the beginning Sam is quite vociferously reactive of the style and tone of Daniel’s criticism. In particular Sam finds the reflections of Daniel quite sneering. This may not have been the case with an ordinary reader whose native language is specially not English. In reality, an ordinary reader may have been unglued by a lot of intricacies of the subject as soon as he/she may have started reading the reflections. For instance, on one occasion Daniel describes the reflections as a museum of mistakes. An ordinary reader may not have noticed it as sarcasm or ridicule. Sam did! And responded quite vociferously to it. The fact is that a reader whose native language is not English might have found it quite difficult to appreciate this and other such comments specially because of lack of familiarity with the sense of sarcasm used in the English language or English cultures. A museum is just a museum at the end of the day. And there are so many museums around the world. So why make so much of a big deal about a museum of mistakes, which is just another museum. Isn’t it? Oops! I have started to sound like Al-Capone!
After addressing Daniels reflections Sam goes on to explain his own conception of free will. This is done specially nicely when he tries to change the topic in his section “changing the topic”. Otherwise, at least I would still have been baffled about the notion of free will he is trying to project. Free will is free will at the end of the day and we all have it. Some of us use our free will in one way or the other depending on how we wish to choose. (More Al-Capone!)
Sam’s vantage point becomes specially clear when he distinguishes between first person and third person experiences or influences that shape the personality of a person. For instance, according to what a common person may understand about his notion of free will can be explained with the help of the following example.
Consider a person who has chosen to become a cobbler. He chooses to become a cobbler because he thinks that it is a benign man’s profession. A man can mend shoes and also be safe from many a distractions and dangers in his daily life. All he needs to do is to learn to sew and stitch the shoes well. He hones his motor skills to suit for speedy stitching. This way he gets better and better at making/mending shoes and becomes better and wealthier day by day. Doing so he also evades many chances of getting involved in unnecessary conflicts he would have been involved in otherwise. Had he been a truck driver, he might have been dead already in a road accident. Had he chosen a more sociable profession, such as that of a car mechanic, for instance, he may already have been badly injured due to a dispute with a client or burnt due to exposure to radiator overheating. As a cobbler all he needs to do is to find a solitary corner, sit there and hone his skill to stitch shoes and not his own hands. Pretty safe!
Common man, or folk, would obviously think that the cobbler made some really nice decisions in his life and became what he became, a successful cobbler. Does not the cobbler then have free will? To the common man, he really has that. He thought about a career choice at some stage of his life. Then he took a step to starting working on that. And as he started working he also learnt to have better self control and added to that, better motor skills due to which he can stitch more shoes in a given span of time that he would not have done otherwise.
Sam argues that this is really the illusion of free will the common man, or folk, suffer from. Daniel comes along to agree with the folk for their respite. According to Sam’s framework of free will, however, the cobbler exactly does not have that freedom. Sam would argue that the circumstances, that shaped the cobbler to become a cobbler, have/had been governing his decisions throughout. The external environmental threats and influences forced him to become a cobbler. For instance, the cobbler may have feared at some stage of his life that taking up a more sociable profession was hazardous for him in some sense. His yearning for personal security urged him to take a professional choice he would not have taken otherwise. What if the cobbler had wanted to become a news editor instead but was too shy to have become that.
Sam would also argue that the cobbler’s yearning for becoming something other (a mechanic, a driver, or a news editor) than what he actually became (a cobbler) also does not show in any way that the person had any free will. All his desires emerged from circumstances and influences that were out of his control. To this end, Sam indeed does have a point and he also takes us out of the misery of endlessly wondering about the real point of his argument.
How does then Sam’s theory of free will cope up with the cobbler’s acquiring better motor skills. His decision to learn to become a better stitcher can be ruled out using the same reasoning as above to show that free will is an illusion. The fact that he somehow acquired motor skills can also be ruled out same way. It is just a part of his decision to learn better shoe stitching and since he made that decision under the influence of external factors (factors emerging from events happening in systems other than his self), he simply does not have free will. However, how about his experience of dextrous stitching. The experience one can observe fast, near perfect mechanism of stitching shoes, with almost no flaws. How does one account for this fast stitching process as one observes it as what Sam calls a moment by moment experience of life? Sam would argue that this also suggests that the cobbler does not have free will.
The robot-like skills that the cobbler has acquired through years of hard work and practice also suffers from third person influences. Actually, as any experience does, it may as well suffer from bunch of external influences.
Grave Consequences: By suggesting that people do not have free will what Sam intend’s to show is that people cannot be held responsible for their actions. Here, Sam’s intention can sound both innocent and astute at the same time. Does not it make sense to say that since people are not the ultimate designers of their decisions and actions, it is irrelevant to hold them responsible for what they do.
Actually Sam has a deeper point when he suggests this. In a meaningful sense, he wants to liberate people from many things, such as a sense of guilt and sin and to free them out of prisons when they have been considered wrong and morally defunct by the society and the judiciary. This is done by saying that since people do not be held responsible for their actions it is absolutely irrelevant to hold them responsible for what they have done. In some sense this is what it means.
It is, however, not understandable at this point that how Sam actually thinks or would propose a newer judicial system to look like. A person who has murdered now is considered a murdered presently and accordingly he is sent to jail. If Sam’s framework became applicable at some stage, how would that take into account this aspect and the associated repercussions at some latter stage.
A Deeper Point: I thought about Sam’s work for quite a while. I have been reading him for quite a few years now and I know that he is an atheist. Indeed, as it appears from his writings, it is one of the life goals of Sam Harris to systematically argue against religion and hence existence of God. I seriously hope and pray that that would change at some stage of his life. But this is not the point I am trying to make, it is just a comment. So, as Sam is an atheist, one can wonder that how would Sam argue about an act of, let us say, terrorism (a bombing or whatever, we know of many such things) committed by someone. In particular how would Sam argue about the action of the person in light of his framework of free will? This is a very cogent question indeed. If a person does not have free will and he has committed a heinous crime such as creating a huge bombing event, how would Sam propose a justification of that or of his conception of free will. I propose, that Sam would propose, that that person, like all the other people, also did not have any free will. The person did that under the influence of things that have influenced him over his lifetime. More explicitly Sam would argue that it is not the person who should be held responsible for his action. Instead, it is the religious teachings he had had during his lifetime that should be attributed responsibility to. In short, Sam would argue against the religion instead of the person. This point would have far reaching consequences specially if his theory of free will is to be taken seriously. Allah Karim!