The Illusion of the Illusion of the Illusion of Consciousness
Responding to more arguments from Sam Harris
By MARTIN REZNY
There’s a new interview featuring Sam Harris, where he insists that free will is not just an illusion, but an illusion of an illusion! I guess I have a few points of logic in response to that, which I was apparently compelled to think, write, and publish. So, too bad, it’s not my fault,“you” can’t hold it against “me”.
I recommend you watch it first, or what I wrote would only make a limited amount of sense to you:
Amusingly, I posted a version of this response as a comment under the video and it got immediately deleted. Someone in the charge of the channel just looked at it, saw that it’s long and not in full agreement with Harris, and went NOPE! I guess I can’t blame them, it was destined to happen that way.
I was actually on the fence about whether I want to turn this into an article here, which may mean that this act of censorship is probably the only reason you’re reading this right now. Well, along with search algorithms and your reading addiction.
But let’s not dilly-dally any longer, these were my thoughts when watching the video, in order:
- The fact that you can’t fully explain your process of choice doesn’t mean it’s not a choice, meaning that there couldn’t have been different outcomes arrived at by the same person following the same stimuli in the absence of external interference. Choice doesn’t have to be fully conscious, fully rational choice.
- Modern science doesn’t really have a solid theory of mind or personality anyway, or of qualia (like all of experience), so it’s entirely possible that some parts of our psyche are more mechanistic than others. Free choice doesn’t have to mean choice about everything all the time. The belief that we have proven enough already to make declarations of how any of this works is the illusion here, of proof, meeting at most the burden of *poof*.
- If something cuts off justification for hate, it cuts off also justification for love. If you cannot attribute one’s negative characteristics and outcomes to one’s agency, you also can’t attribute their positive characteristics and outcomes to them. Also, if you don’t really have self and agency, then “you” aren’t really having those feelings in the first place. The perspective of no-self and a world without agency are those of indifference.
- 100% agree with let’s not create a robot hell. It’s good to see that Harris cares about the suffering of conscious creatures, organic or synthetic. If he went a step further into philosophical zombieism, calling all of consciousness an illusion, he might decide not to care about suffering.
- The whole “giving yourself a pep talk” paradox (who are these voices talking to each other in your mind) is very easy to explain in a model like that of Zen Buddhism, where mind is not singular, but composed of components. “You” simply may not be every single component of your mind. According to Zen Buddhists, we are the observer (experiencer, understander) component, not the talking mind (“monkey mind”) component. This is still a rather passive model of ego, but even then, it is compatible with negative choice at least — resisting versus enabling your impulses, steering the trajectory of your life over longer time periods.
- The entity that isn’t really me is getting strong vibes that the entity that isn’t really Sam Harris isn’t being allowed to contemplate that agency or self may be only some real components among other real, but more mechanistic components of who we are. You don’t have to be able to choose your genes or not to hear sounds to have free will. Also, different people may be agential to different degrees — there are clearly people who are more or less affected by external or mechanistic impulses like peer pressure or physical desires. What is enabling some people to be highly resistant to society or physicality? The only thing you could say is genetics, but good luck proving that at the effect size level of 100%.
- So, there is voluntary action according to Harris, just always a predetermined, inescapable action. I wonder how scientifically testable this hypothesis is. I guess we will have to find a way to travel between parallel universes or in time to test and prove what we already know.
- I’m sorry Sam, you really don’t know that the process of volition must be fully deterministic, or partially chaotic, or nothing else. It isn’t scientifically knowable at this point. You can only guess or assume that, if you believe that our current physical model is sufficiently complete. Which it really may not be, for example because it doesn’t explain consciousness or experience, at all. I don’t mind people guessing that, I mind them declaring it as a scientific fact, which it simply is not.
- 100% agree with the breakdown of ghosts. You can explain what those could be and determine all kinds of tests for that.
- So, mindfulness evidently gives us a larger degree of freedom, according to Harris. Not free will, no, not that. :) Well, yes, zen meditation is supposed to facilitate self-awareness, which is supposed to affect what we choose to do, about our impulses. It is entirely possible that becoming aware of impulses changes them, meaning that you afterward will do, or will maybe even want to do, different things than you would have otherwise. I guess you could still say that you didn’t really choose to meditate or become mindful in the first place, but to me, that just sounds like moving the goalposts. If free will is real, it is in some way a function of self-reflection, a recursion of our impulses, shorting them out by forcing them into an infinite feedback loop. That’s somewhat difficult to conceptualize experimentally to verify it, I’ll grant you that, but not that hard to practice and see the results of for yourself.
- Circles are circles by definition, sure, because they’re an imaginary, virtual construct of mathematics. Consciousness could be a real physical phenomenon, and therefore not like a circle at all. Also, skeptics keep bringing up optical illusions as proof of everything else they doubt also being a “real” illusion, but I’m not sure they ever demonstrate that they’re applying them to their true analogues or parallels. And even if free will is exactly like an optical illusion, the existence of optical illusions only proves that our brain can be mistaken about reality, not that it definitely is mistaken in any other particular case.
- I don’t doubt that self-lessness is a particular type of experience. It is its own thing, usually what Zen Buddhists aim for. The problem with it, like Slavoj Zizek criticized it, is that being present in the moment and embracing the universe is an amoral mindset, which is why it’s very useful to warriors or stock traders. It really feels like the true underlying point behind this position is to find a scientific-enough way to detach ethics from any religious conception of good and evil, the traditional concept of personal moral accountability. I’m very much not against zen, but the fact that you can live it doesn’t negate in any way the potentially real good-evil dimension of existence.
- The “no one really made themselves, it’s all luck” perspective is a step too far, I’m sorry. Sure, nobody fully “made” themselves, which is why forgiveness is generally a good idea, but attributing all kinds of malice to bad luck like “bad parents” isn’t something you can easily get away with in philosophy. One doesn’t have to hate an evil person to be able to recognize that whatever vile thing they did, they clearly didn’t have to do. There’s a world of nuance in the philosophy of culpability, and within legal systems, and I personally support corrective rather than punitive justice, but if you want to disprove that something bad exists, it’s not enough to conclude that on the basis of it being too much of a bummer if it were real, in your opinion.
- Sure, anger is functional, bringing awareness to problems. This fact doesn’t connect with the problem of evil, though.
- Regarding random new words being uttered, I actually came to believe that that’s how the center of generating new ideas in our mind works, chaotically recombining existing concepts and bringing them to our awareness, after which point we can decide whether we will want to keep them or throw them away. Mining new words in the Library of Babel is one of my favorite pastimes, and it’s how I think AIs can be easily made “creative”.
Now my (biological?) destiny beckons me to go no further. What do you think about Harris’s arguments? Do you have a “you”? Are you in control over any aspect of your self or life? Personally, I have just realized the extent to which Harris’s philosophy is just Zen Light. I don’t mind that, I don’t think it’s a terrible way of being or anything, but it’s just not as solid as Harris makes it out to be. Stating something with confidence doesn’t make it proven.
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