I want to add two fairly verbose points to Peter’s post about how contemporary neuroscience very much does not close off debates about free will, no matter how many times or how condescendingly Sam Harris insists otherwise.
You don’t need to read any of that — in fact, you don’t need to know anything about the debate — to know that Harris is way too far out on a limb. Anyone who writes “there is simply no description of mental and physical causation that allows for [free will]” either hasn’t read enough or is being intellectually dishonest (see point #2 for more on this). Google Scholar shows 600,000+ articles that mention “free will” published in the last 18 months. The Wikipedia entry on the Neuroscience of Free Will has 16 sections and subsections and concludes that “there is no consensus among researchers about the significance of findings, their meaning, or what conclusions may be drawn.” Does it really sound right that all of these people just didn’t get the memo that the debate was self-evidently settled, as Harris snidely insists?
As for the content…
(1) It’s hard to escape the impression that Harris is engaging in philosophical debates the contours and stakes of which he doesn’t quite understand. He sometimes seems to confuse different technical concepts of “free will” and “rationality.” Argumentatively the confusion helps him, allowing him to dismiss one theory on the basis of convincing flaws in a related but distinct theory. But it makes it much harder to untangle what he’s claiming, why he thinks he’s so undeniably right, and how he thinks everyone else just hasn’t been paying enough attention.
Let’s separate out two different theories about why human motivation might be “opaque” to us.
The first theory is the psychoanalytic division between the conscious and the unconscious mind. We are motivated by desires and beliefs that we can’t admit to ourselves we have. Psychoanalytic structures like the id and ego obviously can’t get physically mapped on to parts of the brain, which makes psychoanalysis an incomplete theory, but it’s not a bad approximation for a lot of behavior. Psychoanalytic theory and “the talking cure” are almost totally dead in psychology departments — a June 2008 study in the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association described psychoanalysis as “desiccated and dead” — but practicing psychotherapists still often have Freudian sensibilities about things like reaction formations. Psychoanalytic theory also helps explain why persuasion can work even when you know how it’s working on you, as in when you still kind of tear up at awkwardly schmaltzy movies. It also accounts for the counter-intuitive finding that introspection is often counterproductive, e.g., the more people work on their cognitive biases the more biased they’re likely to objectively become, and why people are so stunningly, horrifically bad at predicting their own future behavior.
Still, psychoanalysis isn’t really the theory that Harris is talking about. He sometimes throws around pop psychoanalytic language when it rhetorically suits him but it’s not really what he’s after. But, for the sake of argument, it’s worth noting just how many different empirical and theoretical accounts of the mind converge on the idea that we don’t really have access to all our motivations. Harris isn’t totally wrong. He’s just at the beginning of a debate he thinks he’s ending (more on that in point #2 below).
In any case, the distinction that Harris relies on is a second one, the neurological division between the mind and the brain. According to Harris, the physical brain generates everything you do and then your conscious mind tries to catch up and figure out what’s going on. In the process your mind makes you think “you” are the one who sent the orders to your brain, when in fact it was the other way around. There’s an intimidating amount of empirical evidence backing this account, enough that plenty of very smart neuroscientists think it’s flat out true (although Peter’s post runs down plenty who don’t). Harris’s book is filled with expert quotes and experiments, many demonstrating that people’s bodies begin acting before those people “decide” to act.
Some of that sensibility has filtered down into folk wisdom. When lifestyle blogs advise people to smile because it will make them feel better — advice backed by experiments, by the by — that’s more or less a mind/brain issue. Very roughly, the mind sees that you’re smiling so it figures that you must be happy.
Harris’s problem isn’t the neuroscience, an area in which he’s quite literally a certified expert (although it can’t be repeated enough that he provides only half the story; see Peter’s post for the other half). His problem is how he thinks neuroscientific findings map on cleanly to debates over morality and free will. His view of what goes into making us moral or immoral is a kind of first-brush intuitive outline of a theory, developed outside of centuries-old debates over distinctions that make a difference, terms that turned out to be confounded, etc.
Human agency and morality extend beyond individual behavior, and into the relationships that we construct and the institutions that we build. Not only does some of what we produce have emergent characteristics — something that already creates problems for Harris’s simplistic “neuron fires / human acts / no one’s responsible” model — but we can even build things that later affect how we act. We can, together, in the context of collective deliberation, design things that incline us to be more or less moral. That remains true even if our individual “decisions” to participate were in a sense unwilled, and if our future “decisions” will come entirely from our brains. Even if each of us cannot be more or less moral, we can together construct more or less moral institutions.
Where this really becomes problematic for Harris is when the institution that we’re building is language itself. Here things get a little bit complicated and precision becomes kind of important. Even if Harris is right that 100 percent of behavior comes from hardwired subprograms activated in the brain, the subprograms that get activated are influenced (technically, they’re mediated) by language. To take a straightforward example: the people in Texas who felt “we” had been attacked on 9/11 were responding to hardwired impulses involving “us vs. them,” “my territory vs. not my territory,” etc. How did this happen? It can’t be that we evolved on the African Savanah to feel kinship to biologically unrelated animals beyond the horizon. Instead, what happened is that the constructed concepts of nationhood managed to trigger fairly primitive impulses in the brain. The brain may not interact with the world through language, but most of the things that hit the brain have to pass through a linguistic screen.
Our ability to tweak and design language, in other words, gives us the ability to shape how our brains shape us. We can coarsen or purify language, we can clarify or confuse concepts, and so on. We don’t need experimental evidence to show that there’s a give and take between the mind and the brain. It has to be that way, simply based on what we know about how language and meaning get in between our senses and our brains. To his credit, Harris certainly recognizes the centrality of meaning, but he doesn’t seem to follow its implications all the way downstream. If he did, he’d have a much harder time pretending that the people who treat free will as a live debate just haven’t thought about it enough.
Which brings us to…
(2) For a guy making categorical statements about the irrelevance of debates stretching back to the classical age, Harris’s style of thought on free will is striking. Some of his blogged excerpts read like the musings of a stoner trying to sound deep in an undergraduate metaphysics seminar: “Why did I use the term ‘inscrutable’ in the previous sentence? I must confess that I do not know. Was I free to do otherwise? What could such a claim possibly mean?”
Harris oscillates between these skeptical poses, meant to convey the impression of intellectual struggle, and absolutist pronouncements about the free will debate.
The entire act is an echo of Harris’s New Atheist jeremiad The End of Faith, which reads like an undergraduate trying to cut corners in an introductory epistemology seminar. Harris insisted that a society’s belief in God is exactly like any other belief, such that when the proposition “God exists” is disproved, it dissolves as opposed to getting replaced by something equally central but more sinister. Not to step on Harris’s rhetorical shtick, but there is no robust modern theory of persuasion — none — where that’s the case. Thought channeled through language simply doesn’t work that way. Bayesian neural nets sometimes do. Humans don’t. That’s one of many reasons we have trouble getting neural nets to learn natural languages like humans, and getting humans to follow through on probabilistic judgments like neural nets.
All too often Harris acts as if he’s closed an argument when all he’s done is stumble into the fundamental difficulties that set the tenor of contemporary debates. This is a veritable tic with some journalists/public intellectuals who insist that their opponents simply haven’t thought enough about an issue. To take a mundane example, liberal journalists often write as if conservatives oppose Keynesian policies because they just haven’t heard about the multiplier effect. What’s actually going on is that modern debates are precisely over the magnitude of the multiplier effect, with arguments on both sides that liberal journalists haven’t gotten to either because they haven’t been reading long enough or because they don’t read anyone outside their echo chamber.
To take an example closer to Harris, those styling themselves as “New Atheists” often write as if there are self-evident contradictions in religious traditions that should make supernatural beliefs impossible. That there are still people who have supernatural beliefs is ipso facto evidence that they haven’t been exposed to those contradictions. Christopher Hitchens is particularly grating in this regard, which is why he got epically dismantled by Ross Douthat.
So it’s not totally surprising that Harris indulges in strutting, dismissive sentences like “I don’t know of anyone who believes that these animals [chimps, dogs, and mice] have free will.” That’s true in one sense and aggravatingly, typically misleading in another. Dogs and mice and probably chimps can’t symbolize, so they don’t have free will in the same philosophical and moral sense as humans. But they certainly might engage in something approaching motivated willful action, and how that relates to the limits or our free will is very much a live debate. Slavoj Zizek certainly thinks that the question of a mice’s “will” might help unlock how humans experience everything from biomedical implants to ideology.
Zizek’s probably overstating the case, and Harris is probably closer to right than wrong, but it’s just weird to hear a critic boast how he doesn’t “know of anyone who” disagrees with him. It makes him sound like a layman dipping his toes into a debate the implications of which experts have been teasing out for centuries. It’s kind of obnoxious.
On Neuroscience, Free Will, Morality, and Language
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Expect the impossible.
If the 2016 presidential election cycle demonstrated anything, it was that Republicans suffer from a crippling lack of imagination. That ordeal should have established that the unprecedented is not impossible. Even now, Republicans seem as though they are trying to convince themselves that their eyes are lying to them, but they are not. The tempo of the investigation into President Trump is accelerating, and a nightmare scenario is eminently imaginable. Only congressional Republicans can avert disaster, and only then by being clear about the actions they are prepared to take if Trump instigates a crisis of constitutional legitimacy.
The events of the last 36 hours unrolled like a cascade. Late Wednesday, the New York Times published an interview in which Trump delivered a stinging rebuke for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, scolding him for recusing himself from the investigation into the campaign’s ties to Russian operatives. In that interview, Trump appeared to warn special counselor Robert Mueller not to dig too deeply into his personal finances, or else.
Hours later, Bloomberg News revealed that Mueller’s probe was investigating Trump’s business transactions and tax records—a leak surely made in response to Trump’s arm-twisting. More leaks from the investigation confirmed that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was being investigated for involvement in a money-laundering scheme, a revelation made more discomfiting by the discovery that he owed pro-Russian interests $17 million before joining the Trump campaign.
With the noose tightening, the lead attorney on Trump’s personal defense team, Marc Kasowitz, and the legal team’s spokesperson, Mark Corallo, resigned. The Washington Post reported that “Trump has asked his advisers about his power to pardon aides, family members and even himself in connection with the probe.” Trump’s spokespeople insist the president has no intention of pursuing the dismissal of the special counsel investigating his campaign, but his every action indicates that this is a lie.
Prominent Republicans reacted to all this incredulously. “There is no possible way anybody at the White House could be seriously thinking about firing Mueller,” Sen. Bob Corker insisted. “We all know the president,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch. “He makes some of these comments that he really doesn’t mean.” Sen. Susan Collins was willing to go a bit farther: “It would be catastrophic if the President were to fire the special counsel.”
Off the record, however, Republican lawmakers are far less circumspect in relaying their fears about what the president is capable of doing to the republic. “Any thought of firing the special counsel is chilling. It’s chilling,” an unnamed GOP senator told CNN. “One gets the impression that the President doesn’t understand or he willfully disregards the fact that the attorney general and law enforcement in general—they are not his personal lawyers to defend and protect him,” another added.
These tepid comments for the record, with courage reserved only upon condition of anonymity, expose how Republicans in Congress have again failed to meet the measure of the moment. These are dangerous days, and it is incumbent upon Donald Trump’s party in Congress to deter the executive branch from overstepping its authority. The only way to do that is to be clear about what the consequences for that kind of transgression will be.
The Congressional Research Service defines how the president could execute a nuclear option against the independent counsel’s office. The Attorney General has recused himself from campaign-related investigations, so Trump would have to insist Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein remove Mueller. If Rosenstein declined, his resignation would likely be on offer, and his acting replacement (Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand) would have to field the same request. At this point, the comparisons between the Trump White House’s behavior and that of the Nixon administration ahead of the 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre” are no longer hyperbolic.
In lieu of any ability to contain or control the special counsel’s office, Trump’s defenders have mounted a public relations campaign designed to undermine its authority and discredit its members. That will rally Trump’s diehard supporters, but the president remains unsatisfied. National Review’s Rich Lowry speculated convincingly that Trump would have little choice but to move against Mueller. Sooner rather than later, the conditions the president said would force his hand—a probe of Trump’s personal finances—will be met. Lowry observed that Trump seems to believe his tax records and business practices should be off limits and his experience has taught him “that fortune favors the recklessly bold.”
Republicans in Congress must stop comforting themselves with the notion that the worst cannot happen. They have to summon the courage to state publicly what they so freely tell reporters on background. If they are so concerned that the norms and traditions that have preserved the rule of law in this republic for 240 years are in jeopardy, they must say so. And they must say what the consequences will be for Trump, his associates, and his family if he goes too far. Republicans in office are disinclined to pursue a course of action against Trump that might jeopardize their standing with the voters who love him. None of that matters. Prioritizing their parochial careerist considerations over the best interests of their party and their country is how they got themselves into this mess.
Republicans may dislike the prospect, but it’s fast becoming time for them to start saying the “I” word if only to save the president from his most reckless impulses. The longer they tell themselves that the unthinkable is impossible, the more likely it becomes.
Are the warplane's secrets safe?
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the newest generation air platform for the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marines. Lockheed-Martin, which builds the F-35, describes it as “a 5th Generation fighter, combining advanced stealth with fighter speed and agility, fully fused sensor information, network-enabled operations and advanced sustainment.” For both diplomatic reasons and to encourage sales, Lockheed-Martin subcontracted the production of many F-35 components to factories abroad. Many program partners—Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Denmark, for example—are consistent U.S. allies.
Turkey, however, is also part of the nine-nation consortium producing the plane, which gives Turkey access to the F-35’s technology. “As a program partner, Turkish industries are eligible to become suppliers to the global F-35 fleet for the life of the program. In total, F-35 industrial opportunities for Turkish companies are expected to reach $12 billion,” the warplane’s website explained. “Turkey plans to purchase 100 of the F-35A Conventional Takeoff and Landing variant. Its unsurpassed technological systems and unique stealth capabilities ensure that the F-35 will be the future of Turkish national security for decades to come.”
But is the F-35 safe with Turkey? In recent years, the Turkish government has leaked highly-classified information to America’s adversaries in fits of diplomatic pique. Back in 2013, for example, Turkey leaked to the Iranians the identities of Israeli spies in Iran. Danny Yatom, former head of the Mossad, told USA Today that the incident would damage U.S. intelligence efforts, “because we will be much more reluctant to work via Turkey because they will fear information is leaking to Iran… We feel information achieved [by Israel] through Turkey went not only to Israel but also to the United States.”
On July 19, the Pentagon criticized Turkey’s state-controlled news agency for exposing ten covert U.S. bases in Syria in a way that can enable both the Islamic State and Iranian-backed forces to target Americans. Bloomberg reported that the leak also detailed aid routes and equipment stored at each base.
Both these incidents raise serious questions about whether Turkey can be trusted with the F-35, especially given Turkey’s growing military and diplomatic ties to Russia, and the wayward NATO state’s recent cooperation with China as well. The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense is rightly concerned about the security implications of a plan to service its F-35s in Turkey, but such concern should only be the tip of the iceberg.
Should Turkey even receive F-35s and, to the extent the program relies on Turkish factories, is it time to stand up quickly a Plan B? To do otherwise might squander the billions of dollars already spent on the program, risk increasing President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ability to blackmail the West, and potentially land America’s latest military technology on Kremlin desks.
Too many martyrs make a movement.
If the GOP is to be converted into a vehicle for politicians who evince Donald Trump’s brand of pragmatic center-right populism, Trump will have to demonstrate his brand of politics can deliver victories for people other than himself. Presidential pen strokes help to achieve that, as do judicial appointments. Nothing is so permanent, though, as sweeping legislative change. On that score, the newly Trumpian Republican Party is coming up short. If the passive process of transformational legislative success fails to compel anti-Trump holdouts in the GOP to give up the ghost, there is always arm-twisting. It seems the Republican National Committee is happy to play enforcer.
The RNC’s nascent effort to stifle anti-Trump apostasy by making examples of high-profile heretics has claimed its first victim: New Jersey’s Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno. The Republican is running to replace the nation’s least popular governor, Chris Christie, and the effort has been a struggle. Trailing badly in the polls and facing the headwinds associated with trying to succeed an unpopular outgoing GOP governor in a blue state, Guadagno needs all the help she can get. That help won’t be coming from the RNC. According to NJ Advance Media, the committee’s objection to helping Guadagno isn’t the imprudence of throwing good money after bad. It’s that she was mean to President Trump in 2016, and she must be punished.
“[The president] is unhappy with anyone who neglected him in his hour of need,” said a source billed as an RNC insider. The specific complaint arises from an October 8 tweet from the lieutenant governor said that “no apology can excuse” Trump’s “reprehensible” conduct on the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape. “Christie was not as stalwart as some people in the party, but at least he didn’t go against him the way she did,” the insider added.
This source’s version of events was supported by former two-term New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman. “She went down there, and the (Republican National) Committee was reluctant to back the campaign in the way one would have expected,” she said. “The implication was, ‘Well you were not a Trump supporter in the primary, and so don’t expect much money.'”
This is almost certainly a pretext. Republicans are facing stiff competition and an unfavorable political environment in November’s gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey. In 2017-2018, 27 GOP-held seats are up for grabs, nine of which are in some jeopardy of falling to Democrats. Republicans are going to have to husband their resources and triage their officeholders. That’s a forgivable, if demoralizing, condition. Declaring Guadagno to have offended the leader and to be cut off from the font of Republican goodwill is not only unjustifiable, it’s terribly foolish.
If Republican women are to be punished for saying that Trump’s comments about sexually assaulting unsuspecting females were unacceptable, there are going to be a lot fewer Republican women. Moreover, the RNC has invited the perception that there is a double standard at play here. A slew of Republicans called on Trump to drop out of the race after that tape, but the RNC is unlikely to withhold support for Senators Rob Portman or John Thune when they need it. Among those calling on Trump to drop out was his own chief of staff, Reince Priebus—a fact the president reportedly won’t let Priebus forget.
Cults of personality can be bullied into existence, but they rarely outlast the personality around whom they form unless that personality can claim some lasting achievements. In lieu of any compelling rationale, the effort to remake the GOP in Trump’s image by force will only create dissidents. The ideological conservatives who once dominated the Republican Party are unlikely to make peace with the ascendant populist faction at gunpoint. And the RNC is not solely to blame for this boneheaded move. Even if the notion that Guadagno is being punished for disloyalty is a pretense, it is a response to a clear set of incentives promoted by this White House.
Maybe the most intriguing question of the present political age is whether or not conservatives in the GOP will come to terms with a man they once saw as a usurper. A heavy hand will only catalyze resistance, and Trump needs his own party as much or more than they need him. Guadagno’s gubernatorial bid is on no firmer ground today than it was yesterday, but the Republican candidate’s allies can now legitimately claim persecution at the hands of personality cultists. Too many martyrs make a movement. The White House and the Republican National Committee should tread lightly.
Podcast: Conservatism in shackles while O.J. goes free?
On the second of this week’s podcasts, I ask Abe Greenwald and Noah Rothman whether the health-care debacle this week is simply a reflection of the same pressures on the conservative coalition Donald Trump saw and conquered by running for president last year—and what it will mean for him and them that he has provided no rallying point for Republican politicians. And then we discuss OJ Simpson. Give a listen.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
Hyperbole yields cynicism, not the other way around.
Newly-elected French President Emmanuel Macron surprised almost everyone when he invited President Donald Trump to celebrate Bastille Day with him in Paris, especially after the two leaders’ awkward first meeting in Brussels in May. After all, between now and then, Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, and Macron has become perhaps the most vocal critic of Trump among European leaders.
In hindsight, Macron’s reason for embracing Trump might have been to get the president to reverse course on the Paris agreement. From the Associated Press:
French President Emmanuel Macron says his glamorous Paris charm offensive on Donald Trump was carefully calculated — and may have changed the U.S. president’s mind about climate change…. On their main point of contention — Trump’s withdrawal from the landmark Paris climate agreement — Macron is quoted as saying that “Donald Trump listened to me. He understood the reason for my position, notably the link between climate change and terrorism.”
According to Macron, climate change causes droughts and migration, which exacerbates crises as populations fight over shrinking resources. If Macron really believes that, France and Europe are in for some tough times.
First, droughts are a frequent, cyclical occurrence in the Middle East, the Sahel, and the Horn of Africa. The difference between drought and famine is the former is a natural occurrence and the latter is man-made, usually caused by poor governance. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the Horn of Africa, where the same drought might kill a few dozens of Ethiopians but wipe out tens of thousands of Somalis.
Second, the common factor in the wars raging in the Middle East today is neither climate change nor extreme weather, but brutal dictatorship, radical ideologies, and the militias supported by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Yemen could be a breadbasket. Its terraced fields rising up thousands of feet in the mountains grow almost every fruit imaginable. Yemen also catches the tail end of the monsoon. If Yemenis planted exportable crops like coffee rather than the mild drug qat, which does not bring in hard currency, they might be fairly prosperous.
It is not climate change that denied the Syrian public basic freedoms and liberty for decades, nor was it climate change that dropped barrel bombs on civilian neighborhoods, tortured and killed 13-year-old Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, or used chemical weapons. For that matter, when it comes to radicalization, the problem is Syria was less climate and more decades of Saudi-and Qatari-funded indoctrination and Turkish assistance to foreign fighters.
Regardless of all this, another obvious factor nullifies Macron’s thesis: When drought occurs in regions outside the Middle East, the result is seldom suicide bombing.
Terrorism does not have a one-size-fits-all explanation but, generally speaking, when it comes to Islamist terrorism, ideology plays a key role. Most terrorists are educated, middle class, and relatively privileged. Islamic State caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, for example, has a Ph.D. Many of the 9/11 hijackers were educated. In the Gaza Strip, Hamas recruits inside schools. Simply put, there is no linkage between climate change and terrorism.
Not only would Trump be foolish to buy Macron’s argument, but environmentalists who believe climate change puts the Earth in immediate peril should be outraged. It is hyperbole. Moreover, it is the casual invocation of climate change as a catch-all cause for every other issue that breeds the cynicism that leads so many to become so dismissive of everything climate activists say. Macron may look down up Trump as an ignorant bore, but Macron’s own logic suggests he is also living in a world where facts and reality don’t matter.