Food for Thought #14: Fatalist Attraction

Let’s talk about Sam Harris. Sam is a neuroscientist and one of the outspoken “New Atheists.” His most recent book Free Will is a short polemic that argues free will is an illusion.

Here’s a quote:

Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control.

For all of the criticism I level against Ayn Rand on this blog, I have to admit that this is exactly the sort of public intellectual argument she satirizes in Atlas Shrugged. She is (as I think a lot of people are) viscerally repulsed by the idea that, to put it bluntly, everything exists but you.

This is particularly relevant to the blog since the chapter summaries have finally reached John Galt’s Big Speech (itself kind of viscerally repulsive, I might add), and in this speech Galt declares free will to be THE primary, fundamental fact of human nature, what makes a man a man. And like Harris, Galt posits this not as belief but as fact, as unerring truth.

The difference is that Harris backs up his thesis with empirical scientific evidence, whereas Ayn Rand’s mouthpiece makes a purely abstract argument premised on a set of a priori logical axioms. Ayn Rand’s argument fails to live up to its own standards of logical rigor and loses validity rapidly from there. Harris’ argument, philosophically uncomfortable though it may be, is not quite as easy to dismiss. For example, citing influential experiments by Benjamin Libet in the 1980s, Harris points out “activity in the brain’s motor cortex can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move.”

There are, of course, disputes over the Libet experiments’ objectivity. Cognitive scientist David Dennett points out that the subjects’ self-report about the exact moment they decided to press a button (which is to say, exercise will power) isn’t really an isolated objective measurement in the same way that the measurements-by-electrode of neuronal activity and muscle movement are.**

[**More details about the experiment and disputive arguments are available on Wikipedia.]

But however we want to interpret it, the fact of the experiment is that if the increase in neuronal activity began at millisecond 0, and the button was ultimately pushed at millisecond 500, the moment the subjects  identified as the moment of their conscious choice fell about 60% of the way through the actual physical process of the action. This certainly seems to suggest that our subjective sense of self is just interpreting reality on tape delay.

Still, the argument against free will has an unavoidable “Who’re you gonna believe, me or your lyin’ mind?” quality to it. Even if I concede that my subjective experience is really a retroactive interpretation of physically determined phenomena, practically speaking I still have to choose what to eat for lunch, when to text that girl back, and which life goals to work toward. I can “go with the flow” and forsake willful action, but I can also undertake willful action to alter the flow. From the subjective perspective, there is a clear experiential difference, even if objectively it’s all cosmic clockwork. To borrow a phrase usually applied to God by the religious, “You don’t have to believe in free will; free will believes in you.”

Which brings us back around to Ayn Rand and her unshakeable faith in free will’s reality. At the same time she insists on conscious volition, she insists on objectivity and rationality as the only modes of thought proper to its constructive exercise. And at the same time she insists on that, she declares that any science that might objectively, rationally dispute her initial premise is fraudulent and philosophically bankrupt.

So not to belabor a point, but Rand is not actually a champion of knowledge or progress. Though she is a champion of individualism, ambition, and liberty (all of which are clearly relevant to the matter of free will), her opinions about history and the arc of the Atlas Shrugged narrative expose her as a reactionary and a luddite at heart. One of the fundamental questions this blog is meant to explore is: how much value can I grant to Rand’s faith in free will and the value of the individual in light of the fact that most of her other beliefs are absurdly radical and mentally toxic?

The answer in general is not very much; there are plenty of better writers to find defending those ideals without all of the psychopathic baggage. But when faced with a militant logician arguing against the existence of free will, I suddenly find Rand’s similarly aggressive stubbornness in free will’s defense kind of sweet, even charming. In this light, I can almost make out a faint impression of Ayn’s shriveled, callous heart.

But do I actually agree with Rand’s position? I’d like to believe in our minds’ ability to impact the course of physical reality, and I intend to outline a case for that next week, but unlike Ayn I want to genuinely grapple with how difficult it is to reconcile that belief with the reality of physics.

I mean, let’s face it: physical science has a lot of credibility. Every time you use a phone or a car or a plane, every time you ride an elevator or eat at McDonald’s, you are relying on the predictive power of physical science to ensure your safety. And it works! But the whole reason physical science’s predictions are reliable is because it assumes the universe can be computed, that it is a causally coherent, deterministic material system– after all, that’s the kind of universe where one could write an equation that explains gravity consistently across all of space and time. And lo and behold, there is an equation that does just that.

So long before neuroscience entered the, um, equation… the implications of scientific success dating back to the Newtonian revolution would suggest there is no room in the cosmos for human free will.

This is the point where a lot of people start looking for a back door for free will in quantum physics. But as Lisa Randall explains in her 2011 book Knocking on Heaven’s Door, quantum effects by definition don’t undermine macro-level classical physics: if they did, then classical physics’ predictive power would break down. We know that any physical uncertainty due to quantum mechanics is already accounted for once we get to scales where a classical equation accurately describes and recreates the mechanics of the universe, because the classical equation accurately describes and recreates the mechanics of the universe.

As you can see, this thoroughness of logic is totally fucking depressing. And Ayn Rand, of all people, will have nothing to do with it. “You’ve got to stand up,” she says like Howard Beale in Network, “you’ve got to say ‘I’m a human being, damn it! My life has VALUE!'”

Unless you’re poor.

Oops! See, Rand’s obsession with objectivity, rationality, and explaining the world through mechanical and transactional metaphors makes it basically impossible for her to argue against a physically deterministic universe. But in such a universe, free will simply can’t exist. Her philosophy is a paradox.

In this way, Sam Harris is a more intellectually honest representative of Ayn’s metaphysics than Ayn herself, just like Joel Salatin the libertarian organic farmer is a more honest representative of her politics and economics.

Next week, when John Galt tackles the evils of irrational faith in the recap, I will seek to reconcile the paradox of free will with physical determinism in the reax. And I will do this by looking at religious thought, the one place Ayn Rand would never dare to tread.


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  1. #1 by BenjaminTheAss on September 19, 2012 - 5:52 pm

    Funny you should mention the Newtonian revolution. According to Nathaniel Branden, that was indeed exactly as far as her scientific rationality was willing to venture:

    No doubt every thinker has to be understood, at least in part, in terms of what the thinker is reacting against, that is, the historical context in which the thinker’s work begins. Ayn Rand was born in Russia: a mystical country in the very worst sense of the word, a country that never really passed through the Age of Reason or the Enlightenment in the way that Western Europe did. Ayn Rand herself was not only a relentless rationalist, she was profoundly secular, profoundly in love with this world, in a way that I personally can only applaud. Yet the problem is that she became very quick on the draw in response to anything that even had the superficial appearance of irrationalism, by which I mean, of anything that did not fit her particular understanding of “the reasonable.”

    With regard to science, this led to an odd kind of scientific conservatism, a suspicion of novelty, an indifference — this is only a slight exaggeration — to anything more recent than the work of Sir Isaac Newton. I remember being astonished to hear her say one day, “After all, the theory of evolution is only a hypothesis.” I asked her, “You mean you seriously doubt that more complex life forms — including humans — evolved from less complex life forms?” She shrugged and responded, “I’m really not prepared to say,” or words to that effect. I do not mean to imply that she wanted to substitute for the theory of evolution the religious belief that we are all God’s creation; but there was definitely something about the concept of evolution that made her uncomfortable.

    • #2 by Taylor Bettinson on September 19, 2012 - 8:06 pm

      That’s perfect. Branden’s writing on her must be full of tidbits like that. I have to say, as preposterous as she is if you try to take her seriously, she is quite the fascinating character.

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