• Poking holes at Sam Harris’ bear example

    For some time now I have enjoyed Sam Harris‘ example about the attack of a bear and that of a human assailant to illustrate his point about the illusion of free will:

    Imagine that you are enjoying your last nap of the summer, perhaps outside in a hammock somewhere, and are awakened by an unfamiliar sound. You open your eyes to the sight of a large bear charging at you across the lawn. It should be easy enough to understand that you have a problem. If we swap this bear for a large man holding a butcher knife, the problem changes in a few interesting ways, but the sudden appearance of free will in the brain of your attacker is not among them.

    Should you survive this ordeal, your subsequent experience is liable to depend—far too much, in my view—on the species of your attacker. Imagine the difference between seeing the man who almost killed you on the witness stand and seeing the bear romping at the zoo. If you are like many victims, you might be overcome in the first instance by feelings of rage and hatred so intense as to constitute a further trauma. You might spend years fantasizing about the man’s death. But it seems certain that your experience at the zoo would be altogether different. You might even bring friends and family just for the fun of it: “That’s the beast that almost killed me!” Which state of mind would you prefer—seething hatred or triumphant feelings of good luck and amazement? The conviction that a human assailant could have done otherwise, while a bear could not, would seem to account for much of the difference.


    Understanding the true causes of human behavior does not leave any room for the traditional notion of free will. But this shouldn’t depress us, or tempt us to go off our diets. Diligence and wisdom still yield better results than sloth and stupidity. And, in psychologically healthy adults, understanding the illusoriness of free will should make divisive feelings such as pride and hatred a little less compelling.

    Then, a few nights ago, it hit me — maybe Harris is wrong. Not about the lack of free will, the evidence on that account just keeps piling up; but rather about which would be the healthier reaction towards the human assailant.

    What if what really accounts for much of the difference between the rage and hatred towards a human assailant and the lack thereof when a bear attacks us is not the conviction that the human could have done otherwise? That seems like a gratuitous claim on Harris’ part (that we tend to think that makes sense but, once again, it’s better to back it up with some evidence).

    Of course, I do think that there is a psychological benefit to be gained from letting rage and hatred go when we blame a being with an apparent degree of agency, but we’re talking about psychological traits that evolved over millions of years, so maybe —just maybe— they have some kind of adaptative advantage.

    Humans are social animals, and when you’re living in a society it is helpful to be able to tell apart people who are cooperative and those who are free-riders. And your reaction matters: for if someone wrongs you, and you keep cooperating with that person (after all, we don’t want to get a heart stroke while we’re young or anything), instead of punishing them, you’re setting yourself up for grabs.

    If you cooperate systematically with systematic non-cooperators, you’re enabling them, you become their accomplice. Some could argue that the human assailant goes to jail —and I certainly hope that’s the case—, but the fact is that there are many non-cooperative attitudes and behaviors that are not in the Criminal Codes (nor they should be).

    So, while we do have the administration of justice to deal with felons and criminal offenders, there is a whole range of human activities and interactions where non-cooperators won’t be getting any State-administered punishment (and, again, they shouldn’t get any) but we may need to de-incentivize their free-riding behaviors. Yes, they couldn’t have acted otherwise, but getting people mad at them, and people refusing to put up with their shenanigans, and unwilling to cooperate with them the next time, could account for them behaving differently on future occasions. Teach’em a lesson, so to speak!

    I don’t know, I don’t see myself trying to put a project together with a bear in the short or medium term, but I do see myself working with humans around me all the time, and living together, so maybe getting mad at someone who couldn’t have acted otherwise but nonetheless screwed up is not that crazy after all.

    Harris says that not getting angry at other people if they wrong you (as a result of understanding they lack free will) “could only produce a more compassionate, equitable, and sane society“, but come to think of it, maybe it ain’t so: we need to keep non-cooperators in check, and there are times that getting mad at someone does the trick.

    So we may not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    Category: PhilosophySkepticism and Science


    Article by: Ðavid A. Osorio S

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