Bait and Switch: Plantinga’s response to Harris

Alvin Plantinga is perhaps one of the greatest Christian philosophers of the past century.  He has recently offered a response to Sam Harris’ book, Free Will, and has dispatched its claims handily.  Plantinga notices an equivocation in Harris’ argument and ultimately this is why it fails.  If there’s one reason why many otherwise good arguments fail, in any context, it’s probably due to some equivocation.

(Books & Culture) — Sam Harris claims that free will is an illusion. What we ordinarily believe in this neighborhood, he says, is completely mistaken: “You will do whatever it is you do, and it is meaningless to assert that you could have done otherwise”; “we know that determinism, in every sense relevant to human behavior, is true.” Doesn’t that imply that we human beings are not responsible for what we do? Harris is willing to bite the bullet: “we can no longer locate a plausible hook upon which to hang our conventional notions of personal responsibility.” Indeed, he thinks that the illusion of free will is itself an illusion: what he means by this is that when we introspect very carefully we find that we don’t really believe what we think we believe about free will.

The first thing to see is that there is a serious problem, in this book, about precisely what free will is supposed to be. As we usually think of it, free will has to do with actions and decisions; it is actions and decisions that are free or unfree. You have free will on a given occasion just if you could have done otherwise—i.e., just if it was within your power, on that occasion, to act differently from the way in which you did act then. And the fact is we instinctively believe that, on many occasions, we could indeed have done otherwise; we go on to think that on these occasions, we are accordingly responsible for what we did.


Now as far as I can tell, Harris does indeed mean to argue that we do not have free will in that sense, and I’ll examine his arguments below. But his main target, at least the one on which he expends the most energy, seems to be something quite different. It’s free will thought of in a wholly different way that he chiefly attacks. How does Harris think of free will? “Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and action, and you would need to have complete control over those factors.”

His thought seems to be that first, there are some factors that determine my thought and action—i.e., factors that make it the case that I can never think or do anything other than what I do think or do; among these factors would be my desires, my character, various neurological factors, and so on. And second, I would have free will only if I had complete control over those factors—only if I freely chose them. I have free will only if I choose the sorts of desires and affections that I actually have; I am free only if I choose to have the character I do have, and indeed freely bring it about that I have that character.


Now this is vastly stronger than freedom as we ordinarily think of it. Harris notes that freedom is deeply involved in our notions of responsibility, guilt, and punishment. But freedom in his maximally strong sense is not required for responsibility or guilt or punishment. Suppose I know what is right on a given occasion, have the power to do the right thing but also the power to do something wrong, and in fact do something wrong.


Harris’ notion of freedom is really an idea of what we might call maximal autonomy. It’s obvious that we don’t have maximal autonomy; we aren’t free in that sense. Indeed, it isn’t so much as possible that we be free in that sense. That is because, as he thinks of it, I act freely on a given occasion only if I myself freely choose to have the desires and affections I then act on, and furthermore I myself freely bring it about that I do have them. But note that the action by which I bring about that I have those desires and affections must itself be free. That means that I must have freely brought it about that I had the desires and affections out of which I acted in bringing it about that I have the desires and affections I presently have. You can see where this is going: for every occasion on which I act freely, there must have been an earlier occasion in which I acted freely. This clearly involves an infinite regress (to use the charming phrase philosophers like): if Harris is right, it is possible that I act freely only if it is possible that I perform an infinite number of actions, each one a matter of bringing it about that I have a certain set of desires and affections. Clearly no one has time, these busy days, for that. Harris is certainly right that we don’t have that maximal autonomy; but nothing follows about our having freedom, i.e., the sort of freedom we ordinarily think we have, the sort required for moral responsibility.

What we have here looks like a classic bait and switch: announce that you will show that we don’t have freedom in the ordinary sense required by moral responsibility, and then proceed to argue that we don’t have freedom in the sense of maximal autonomy. It is certainly true that we don’t have freedom in that sense: not even God could have that kind of freedom. That is not because God could not have performed infinitely many actions—no doubt he could have—but because God is necessarily all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good. This means that God has not freely chosen to have that character; there never was a time at which he had both the power to bring it about that he had that character, and also the power to bring it about that he did not have that character.

It’s not at all clear to me why Harris devotes most of his energy to arguing that we don’t have maximal autonomy. But he does also declare that we don’t have freedom in the ordinary sense: “we know that determinism, in every sense relevant to human behavior, is true. Unconscious neural events determine our thoughts and actions—and are themselves determined by prior causes.” How do we know that? Harris puts it like this: “Either our wills [i.e., our decisions and choices—AP] are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.” Another way to put it: either I am determined to do what I do by prior causes, or I do what I do by chance.


This is a familiar argument, and one with a long history. But is it a goodargument? I don’t think so. Why think that if it is within my power to perform an action, but also within my power to refrain from so doing, then what I do happens just by chance? Maybe I have a good reason for doing what I do on that occasion—then it wouldn’t be just by chance that I do it. Last Sunday you contributed money to your church; no doubt on that occasion it was within your power to refrain from contributing. But it surely wasn’t just by chance that you made that contribution. It isn’t as if you just flipped a coin: “Heads, I’ll contribute; tails, I won’t.” No; you had a good reason for contributing: you want to promote the good things your church does. We Christians think God freely arranged the whole marvelous scheme of Incarnation and Atonement, whereby we sinners can once more be in a proper relationship with God. God did this, and did it freely; it was within his power to refrain from so doing, thus leaving us in our sins. But it surely doesn’t follow that he did it just by chance!

This argument is a complete failure. There is one further kind of argument that Harris presents. He considers cases in which someone performs an act of horrifying evil: he enters a crowded movie theater and begins shooting. We then learn that this person is suffering from an invasive brain tumor or a serious psychological disorder; this makes us disinclined, or anyway less inclined, to hold him responsible for his action. That’s because we think this person was caused to behave in this way by the tumor, and wasn’t really free to act in any other way at the time of that behavior. So we recognize that people are sometimes unfree in their actions. But then, says Harris, can’t we see that the same really goes for any other behavior on the part of that person, or any other person? If the killer’s behavior is determined by previous circumstances and natural laws, isn’t the same thing true of the behavior of any human being in any circumstance? He apparently thinks there is no relevant difference between a case in which a normal person kills someone else just for the thrill of it, and a case in which someone does the same thing, but is suffering from a brain tumor “the size of a golf ball in his medial prefrontal cortex.” As he says, “There is no question that our attribution of agency can be gravely in error. I am arguing that it always is.”

I think it’s worth noting that if we have no free will then we have good reason (?) to doubt the things we believe to be true. After all, if the only reason we believe and act the way we do is because of chemistry, and not agency, then we believe what we do because we have to. This means that Harris is not an atheist because of a careful assessment of the evidence, nor does he believe in biological evolution because it’s true, he had no choice. It also seems he should accept no praise for his professional work or books he’s authored, again, he had no choice but to do the things he’s done. He isn’t intellectual or brilliant, it’s chemistry. If there’s no free will as Harris claims, I have no reason to take anything he writes seriously.

Thanks for nothing Sam.


  1. If Harris could even be bothered to address any of Plantinga’s points he would be rehashing what he has already said on the matter. Even Dr Craig was found to be wanting on the question of free will when he debated Harris. But unfortunately for christians, if it doesn’t match their incessant desire for a cohesive world view based on what they have been taught, then it must be wrong. If Plantinga could argue this without being a christian apologist…..someone somewhere might listen with a bent ear. But can he really develop this premise without bringing the bias of being an apologist much less a christian?

    • Nash

      Are you seriously saying we shouldn’t or can’t even consider Plantinga’s response because he’s a Christian, and thus biased? That’s nonsense. For consistancy’s sake, do you reject atheist arguments against God because of their bias? Or is it different.

  2. Great commentary! I find the whole idea of questioning free-will to be self-defeating, and your final comments illustrate it beautifully!

  3. How strange it is that “men of science and logic” reject out of hand the possibility of a creator.

    Is that really a search for truth?

  4. Harris is an example of imbecility as the product of modern human education. His argument is merely another version of “The devil made me do it.”

    Harris doesn’t even believe what he says. His arguments are still within the framework of free will. How can Harris define “an act of horrifying evil” if there is no free will? Killing cannot be evil if one cannot be free to choose not to kill. His assumption that there are acts that qualify as evil presupposes that there can be something someone does that is wrong. His argument, taken to its logical extreme means there is no justification for laws against murder. There is no justification for laws at all. In fact, there is no such thing as justification.

    Harris also assumes people have a sense of justice. But justice doesn’t exist outside of free will. If Plantinga relays Harris’s argument correctly, Harris argues ” this person is suffering from an invasive brain tumor or a serious psychological disorder; this makes us disinclined, or anyway less inclined, to hold him responsible for his action.” It is justice that makes us “disinclined or less inclined” to hold someone responsible for his actions.

    What Harris did was the reductionist fallacy. He reduced the not having maximal autonomy and having an invasive brain tumor to what they had in common, i.e. they are both disorders, equated them and then drew a conclusion on that equation. His slight of hand would have us believe that not having maximal autonomy is a disorder that is excusable.

    Harris’s “brave new world” would most certainly be a hell on earth where there is no justification for punishing killing. I bet most people wouldn’t be able to stomach the consequences of Harris’s philosophy, so they borrow a moral standard from a superior philosophy: Christianity.

  5. R. Nash,

    You have said the most scandalously asinine thing I think I’ve ever heard. You’re rejecting Plantinga’s argument because of perceived bias, but accept Sam Harris’ argument — why? Because you happen to agree with such a tangled web logical incoherencies?

    Some of us actually watched the Harris/Craig debate, so keep that in mind before making sweeping claims. And for anyone interested, Harris was soundly defeated. He is not intellectually equipped to deal with philosophical arguments, and it showed – badly.

    • Poor terrance….No where did I say that I agreed with Harris’ finding regarding free will. So try harder. And why is that? Because where you garner such arrogant and self righteous truth and absolute rightness in the face of the unknown and many times unknowable, I say that many times I am unqualified to answer with absolution. You on the other hand not only think you have all of the answers, you “know” you do. This is the old, faith vs Occam’s razor argument. Your name calling and whining about your perceived failures of understanding atheism much less Harris’ research that can now show an electro-chemical precursor to decision making should never be used to make yourself feel so right. Don’t let the “tangled web” get the best of you though. It’s really not that difficult.
      And yes John I reject weak arguments from atheists quite frequently on a great many subjects.

  6. John,

    And you have to wonder why Harris spends so much time criticizing people for beliefs they, according to him, cannot help but to hold…

    Second, how does Harris reconcile his evolutionary beliefs with the reality that people sometimes do things that are not within their best interest to do?

    Why does the pauper slip her last $5 into the collection dish on Sundays? Why does the civilian dash into a burning building to save a stranger? You might attempt an explanation by likening humans to a primate society, where each looks out for the other. But then you ignore natural selection. It’s not advantageous for the species to have weak elements, like the person who couldn’t manage their own way out of the fire despite not being injured or incapacitated….

    Of course, I might be accused of the is-ought fallacy…But, again, you have to wonder why things are they way they are instead of they way they ought to be if evolution is such a powerful force…

    Atheism boils down to a tangled web of idiocy, logical fallacies, presuppositions, downright asininity, and a plethora of unanswered questions and inconsistencies. I would pay these people like R. Nash no attention. They are clearly functioning several lemons short of a lemonade.

  7. R. Nash,

    Poor Nash, always making contradictory statements…

    You claim not to accept Harris’ “finding regarding free will,” and you give no reasons, but then you denigrate others for doing what you have failed to do…Why is that, R. Nash? Are you just that pathetic? Or, do you just hate Christians that much?

    I think the latter. I think you hate Christians and can’t bear the thought of letting an opportunity to ridicule them go by…

    …I say that many times I am unqualified to answer with absolution.

    I get the feeling you’re unqualified for many things…

    This is the old, faith vs Occam’s razor argument.

    It seems to me that most of the assumptions come from people like Harris…

    Your name calling and whining about your perceived failures of understanding atheism much less Harris’ research that can now show an electro-chemical precursor to decision making should never be used to make yourself feel so right.

    I didn’t call you any names. And I understand atheism very well. And I understand that your characterization of Harris’ research is false. You are overstating its significance.

    Don’t let the “tangled web” get the best of you though. It’s really not that difficult.

    That’s probably why you answered my questions, right? Because it’s so simple…

    Not sure I’ve come across many people who write a full paragraph but have nothing of any meaning to say…

  8. You on the other hand not only think you have all of the answers, you “know” you do.

    I said that? Not sure I did. Besides, what a curious accusation to levy against a Christian…Someone who, by definition, admits to not having all the answers, and frequently corrects science for making a priori assumptions.

  9. I’ve been thinking about this. In Harris’s world, there is no responsibility. But, it’s obvious that there is. Certainly, he knows that there is, even though he’s deduced otherwise.

    Is this his way of crying out for help? Is God the X factor he’s missing? In his godless world, there’s no reason or purpose. Does he prove the theists’ point?

  10. Harris is sinfully ill-equipped to delve into philosophical discussions. He and Richard Dawkins. They try to answer philosophical questions with unverified science, because they are scientists.

  11. But, isn’t he saying that something that exists (responsibility) simply can’t exist in a godless universe?

  12. I find Harris’ philosophy plainly reductionist.

    There is no way to study free will scientifically. Scientific method works on well with deterministic and stochastic phenomenons because they are mensurable, free will isn’t.

    Because it cannot be measured Harris tell us it doesn’t exist, but this is not science. When Harris says that his opinion is scientific, he is making pseudoscience since it is not.

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