Sam Harris’s self-fulfilling prophecy: how to be irrational about being rational about gun control

Fighting Crabs by Petr KratochvilShortly following my last criticism of Sam Harris’ article on gun control he posted a follow-up (FAQ on Violence) responding to various criticisms, many that overlap mine. In his prior article he slowly worked his way out on a limb of irrationality. In this one he takes a leap off of it.

I’ll ignore his initial discussion suggesting that other people “simply do not want to think about this topic in any detail”. It seems pretty clear to me that Sam hasn’t. He is back-end rationalizing and doing a very poor job of it.

Thankfully he lists addressed issues in FAQ format making it easier to respond. If you aren’t interested in the long discussion, here is a quick summary of my new criticisms:

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Sam Harris riddled with errors on gun control

image Sam Harris recently posted a blog article as part of the post-Newtown gun control debates (The Riddle of the Gun). He essentially mimics many of the NRA arguments, himself being an avid gun owner and user. He does nominally criticize the over-simplicity of some NRA argument against sensible gun control laws but he spends the bulk of his effort attacking the idea of gun laws as necessary or effective. As an avid reader of his I find his reasoning to be sloppy, contradictory, and irrelevant and I hope to show you what is wrong with his thinking.

For those not familiar with Sam Harris, he is a well-known author with a well-rounded background. He’s the son of a Jewish mother, Quaker father, and spent 11 years studying and practicing Hindu and Buddhist meditation in Nepal and throughout Asia and dabbled in Martial Arts. He has degrees in philosophy from Stanford as well as a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience and has conducted research into the neural basis of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty. Harris is better known for his books that apply this background in areas such as religion (The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation) and applied moral reasoning and cognition (The Moral Landscape, Free Will, Lying).

I highly respect Sam. He lives what he writes and he usually has a well-thought-out debate style. Watch any video of him debating theists and you’ll see what I mean. I have written before about his book, Free Will, (Free Will Hunting) and criticized his debate with security expert Bruce Schneier regarding airport screening and profiling (Err Lines on Security). I was surprised at the sloppiness of his arguments there, though Schneier was sloppier and Harris more convincing. With this additional sloppiness on gun control, and the less then stellar essay in his book Lying, I’m beginning to think Harris is coasting.

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Err Lines on Security

Sam Harris - author, neuroscientist, and philosopher - recently stirred up a lot of controversy by his suggestion that airport security should make use of profiling to improve security. Harris describe his recommendation more accurately as anti-profiling, meaning that people who are obviously low risk should be paid less attention to than they currently are so that security resources can focus better on the higher risks. That is, little old ladies in wheelchairs from small-town Iowa are nowhere near as risky as a young male Muslim from the Middle East.

The singling out of Muslims is, of course, the biggest source of the controversy. In fact, Harris suggests that the profile of higher risk travelers should include “anybody who could conceivably be Muslim”. Many critics have declared this as impossible since Islam is a belief system so you can’t determine this characteristic by appearance.

Harris added an interesting, and very commendable, twist to the discussion. In response to suggestions by critics he invited security expert and author Bruce Schneier to debate profiling in terms of actual security and posted the resulting exchange on his blog. It is my intent here to evaluate that discussion. I’m particularly fascinated by it because I had originally sided against profiling (or anti-profiling) and I think Dr. Harris has convinced me that it might actually produce net value, though I’m not entirely convinced yet. More importantly, Harris did this in a debate against a security expert. I think he made some very important and valid points and Schneier made some serious errors in argumentation, system evaluation, statistics, and security. (You can skip to the summary section at the bottom if you want to avoid the length, detailed evaluation.)

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Free Will Hunting

New Atheist philosophers Sam Harris and Dan Dennett are well known for their articulate dismantling of religious principles, Sam in his classical direct attacks on religious assertions and Dan tending towards more neutral but esoteric explorations of religious themes in the context of memetic viruses of the mind. Yet it is a mistake to think this philosophical duo necessarily presents a common underlying message. Indeed, their different thought processes seem to have created a bit of a stir recently when it comes the concept of free will.

Courtesy PublicDomainPictures.netHarris has just released his book on this topic, aptly titled Free Will in keeping with his directness. In this 96-page inkling, the newly neuroscientific doctor of philosophy Harris exorcises the demon of free will in both flesh and spirit. He demonstrates in clear language that the evidence unmistakeably precludes the possibility of a free will and this is not surprising because the concept of free will itself is inherently incoherent, at least as classically defined.

Much of Harris’ argument will sound familiar to free will philosophers. A decent portion of this work revisits the classic Dilemma of Determinism, recognizing that if thought processes follow deterministic laws then they are directly caused by prior events and hence aren’t free, and if they don’t follow deterministic laws then they are random by definition and hence also aren’t free, where “free” here means a personal choice that elicits first cause responsibility. (There is room for statistical patterns in this dichotomy but that only results in a mix of the two, where the pattern is caused but the variation is random.)

What makes the discussion timely and interesting is new technology. Neuroscientists, including Harris via his recent Ph.D., are able to monitor people’s brains via fMRI and see just what processes are involved during thinking. To cut to the chase, in some cases it is possible for such scientists to know what decisions you will make before you are even aware you made them. This is because your conscious brain only really observes the decision. In other words, you aren’t choosing an option, you are observing your choice (for useful definitions of you).

Free will therefore not only can’t exist, it doesn’t exist. (This backward sounding phrasing is rather common in science. Theorists, who are essentially philosophers armed with math, often “know” what can or can’t exist long before an empiricist observes it to be true, unless it is observed to be false in which case the theorist was merely mistaken about the details. Read Lawrence Krauss’ A Universe from Nothing for a more comical exploration of this phenomenon in cosmology.)

While I highly recommend reading Sam Harris’ Free Will, you can get a decent overview from his recent Caltech presentation as part of The Great Debate event, particularly if you are cheap or lazy or both. (Come on, it’s only 96 pages, and only about 60 are text of the main essay.)

So that’s it then. No free will. Well, except that Dan Dennett seems to disagree. His books Freedom Evolves and, going much further back, Elbow Room, look at free will in terms of what kinds of free will are worth wanting. Dennett also has a video summarizing his thoughts on this topic, taken at Edinburgh University in 2007. (Given Dennett’s rigor and verbosity I would never accuse you of being lazy for watching the video instead of reading the books. But judging by the fading faces in the audience, his talk is also quite esoteric.)

While I find Dennett’s talk quite interesting, his opinion is best summarized in the question and answer session at the end. It is here that he clearly states that he fully believes that the “Laplacian demon" with perfect knowledge could exactly predict people’s thoughts. He states that free will is complex determinism. His talk is not aimed at convincing us that free will is real, but that the type of free will worth wanting is real. If this sounds odd, it is.

Dennett distinguishes between free will as it is classically defined and the reality of complexity. In complex systems, particularly those governed by non-linear and chaotic behaviour, a small variation in a state at one time can result in a very big difference at a later time even though every step along the way is deterministic. This is essentially the Butterfly Effect that describes the unpredictability of weather, noting that the flap of a butterfly’s wing can deterministically be linked to, say, a hurricane much later that would never have happened had it not flapped its wing.

In this version of free will, your choices may be deterministic but very small changes in circumstances can greatly affect those choices. This may seem like an odd definition for free will, but Dennett addresses that at end of this talk too. Quoting from the book Net of Magic by Lee Siegel, he notes that “real” magic is not real, but illusionary magic is real. Likewise, “real” free will is not real, but illusionary free will is. Unfortunately it’s not very clear in his talk how that links back to practical uses of free will such as punishment theory for crimes, but his point eventually comes through.

I think I can best summarize the difference of opinion as follows: Sam Harris claims that free will is an illusion; Dan Dennett claims free will is the illusion.

There really is no disagreement. They are simply defining the term differently. Harris means classical free will, and claims it is a illusion of complex but deterministic processing. Dennett agrees classical free will is an illusion, and re-defines the complex processing itself as the “real” free will. Harris’ version is a fairly common belief these days and one I’ve held since my first course in non-linear dynamics and chaos. Dennett’s version, while an interesting perspective on the topic, seems to muddy the waters by re-defining the term such that readers may be prone to homonymous confusion. If you pay close attention to his competing chess algorithm example, and his Q&A description applying them to moral questions, Dennett is talking about a complex mechanism that essentially evaluates game theory problems (as in moral dilemmas). I agree with this entirely. I just wouldn’t call it free will.