So the other day I was listening to Sam Harris blather on about free will. I need to stop doing this because every time I listen to him talk on this subject I feel the desire to buy an assault weapon and build a bunker somewhere in Montana. I was so upset that I had to take some time to figure out why his discussion of this topic angers me so much. After a long period of experimentation, I finally was able to recreate my emotional response under controlled conditions and thereby narrow down the exact issue that bothers me. I thought it would be worth a quick discussion.
Wow man! You are big! I bet you are completely arrogant. I am a martial artist and I would love to kick your ass, break your jaw and put you in the hospital. The problem is I have been looking forward to a beer all day and if I beat you up in public like this I am going to have to spend the night in jail. Your lucky day. (Loose paraphrase of a conversation with a colourful character on a bus.)
I don’t drive because I view myself as a threat to public safety when I am behind the wheel. One of the drawbacks of using the public transit system at night is that you occasionally run into a “colourful character” who makes you wish you were in your own private space. Normally, the fact that I am 6′ 5″ and more than 300 pounds protects me from such encounters, but on this occasion the “colourful character” claimed to relish the challenge. Now perhaps this guy felt threatened by me and was exhibiting an aggressive posture as some kind of a deterrent strategy. I had not said anything to him, though, and was minding my own business when he made his comment. Having been bullied extensively in school and having met people who enjoy street fighting, I am inclined to take such threats seriously.
As I experimented with my own emotional state while thinking about various implications of what Dr. Harris was saying, I identified this issue as the one that was causing me so much upset. Do I care that Sam Harris doesn’t believe in free will? No emotional response. Do I care if Sam Harris thinks I am an idiot for being a Christian? No emotional response. Do I want to live in a country where liberals like Sam Harris empty out the prisons and there is no punishment for violent crime? Anger off the charts. Bingo! When Sam Harris argues that “colourful characters” are not deterred by the possibility of punishment and suggests that we should empty our prisons of violent offenders it is like he is carelessly waving a loaded pistol in front of me and everyone that I love.
Sam’s thinking on this topic is so muddled that it seems like lunacy to me. His argument seems to be:
- I can conduct a simple “Name a famous person” or “List a number of cities” thought experiment that demonstrates there is no such thing as free will.
- Because there is no such thing as free will, there is no basis for believing that punishment and reward behavioural conditioning works.
- Because punishment and reward behavioural conditioning does not work, we should release everyone in prison and make them wear a bracelet and give them a stern talking to and perhaps some therapy.
Why is this lunacy? Let us leave aside the issue of free will as irrelevant to our discussion. The effectiveness of punishment and reward behavioural conditioning is an empirical fact demonstrated by countless scientific experiments. Zap a dog with electricity every time he crosses a line, and he will stay on the safe side of the line. Give the dog a treat every time he rolls over and he will roll over on command. Denying the effectiveness of these techniques is worse than claiming the earth is flat! Human beings have domesticated billions of animals over thousands of years using these techniques, but we have only been able to empirically verify the shape of our planet for a few hundred years. Artificial intelligence experts can even write simple software that governs the behaviour of virtual creatures that learn from past experience. Would any sane person argue that these programs exhibit free will?
It seems to me that a pre-requisite of getting your official liberal card is believing in some kind of lunacy that is destructive to society. Obama, Merkel and other politicians seem to think that flooding our society with people who do not share our cultural priorities of equality, hard-work and freedom will never do any harm. Socialists like Bernie Sanders ignore examples like Venezuela and assert that decoupling labor from its rewards is beneficial to society. The worst of all, however, are those like Sam Harris who deny basic nature of living creatures and want to release criminals on the streets.
Obama’s errors will destroy the country on the timescale of generations as differential birth rates exterminate freedom and equality. Sander’s would follow in the shoes of Chavez and destroy our country on the timescale of decades as our economy slowly strangles. Sam Harris and those like him, however, are far more dangerous because they are lining us up for a societal “headshot”. It would take many years of Islamic immigration or socialism to do damage equivalent to releasing millions of violent criminals onto our streets with no deterrent for violent behaviour.