In the 2nd chapter of “Free Will,” Harris accuses the compatibilist of “changing the subject.” Ironically, he himself immediately changes the subject by talking about bacteria in the following paragraph, but still –if we are to take Harris’ argument seriously, then there is only one subject. That subject is to be the sum of its previous parts, arisen as it were from Harris’ described “darkness.”
In this sense, any conversation or conscious act is a change of subject – even a conversation on determinism, or the act of writing his book. Posited in his millions of hardwired neural transactions were the precursors to an automaton that would one day write a book on his “automaton-ness.” But any reflection on his “automaton-ness” is changing the subject from his being an automaton if we are to take his argument seriously. By reflecting on his reflections of free will, he changes the subject once again. Harris’ ultimately gives us a tautology of agency and I find it difficult to take seriously.
Better I believe to say that Harris creates the subject when he reflects on agency, and yes – compatibilists do too… they create a subject (as opposed to changing it).
Consider very simply Leonard Reed’s famous essay, “I, Pencil.” In the case of an ordinary pencil, we find that its assembly, or creation, is the result of many different specializations. No single person on earth, not even the owner of the pencil company, has the specialized knowledge to create a pencil. For the pencil to be, it depends upon a combination of specializations that no single individual could possibly possess. To make a pencil one would need intimate knowledge of tree felling, rope binding, tool and dye fabrication, graphite mining, smelting to make saws and axes, logistics and transportation, lacquer making, castor bean farming, sulfonated tallow composition, and much, much more.
The pencil itself is greater than the sum of its parts. It is a product of what Adam Smith called “the Invisible Hand.” It’s very easy to say that the pencil didn’t create itself. It’s easy to say that all the individual parts when assembled together had no choice in becoming “pencil,” and that all the inner workings of the pencil were beyond any one guiding hand or solitary thought process, or controlled specialization. Not one of the parts is capable of the whole – the graphite miner can’t make pencils any more than the man who poured the coffee on the tailgate of the truck he drove to the lumber yard.
Harris’ analysis of Free Will is exactly this, but he doesn’t stop there. He acknowledges all the uncontrolled aspects of pencil making, but he does so by failing to acknowledge that the pencil truly is an assembly of matter which transcends the sum of its individual parts. It is a working whole, a combination of individual events that has become its own category of being. The pencil has been created, to the tune of hundreds of millions made per year, through a combination of deterministic specializations but whose ultimate agency has purpose beyond those specializations.
For a seventh grader that utility might be sticking into ceiling tiles when the substitute teacher exits the classroom to use the bathroom. It might be used to load a homemade slingshot (and has in our home many times). And yes, it might also be used to journal about the terrible effect reading Sam Harris books has on a human person too.
But the pencil is its own entity. It isn’t a subject that was changed because we didn’t like the deterministic mechanism employed to bring it into being. It’s a subject that was created, and having been created it becomes something other than the sum of its parts.
All those pesky neurotransmitters in our brains are busy doing their own little “specializations.” What arrives is the product of deterministic activity and to apply a reductionist view to them in no way says anything about what they create. And one of the things they create, is in fact free will.
It’s not changing the subject. It’s the creation of a brand new one. And that subject is larger than the sum of its parts.