• 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

    Skeptic | Blogger | Activist | Journalist
    • im-skeptical

      The brain gives a creature the ability to function autonomously in the world. Part of that is the ability to take self-corrective measures when necessary. Most of us adjust our behavior in response to signs that we are heading off-course. If we hold others responsible for their actions, it typically causes them to adjust their own behavior. The hard determinist notion that people are just billiard balls at the mercy of external forces is ridiculous, and completely ignores the reality of complex behavior.

    • Otto T. Goat

      I would want to kill the bear.

    • Good thoughts but I’d suggest a little different mechanism that may seem like “anger” but really is playing to the psychologies of others (just as you might send a child to their room).

      Real anger is less justified if one could not do otherwise, but a guise of anger, ridicule, or an unwillingness to interact with problematic people in a society that is interconnected could be a causal benefit. It, however, depends on the psychology of the person, and that is what we need to get better at recognizing. We also need to recognize that a guise of anger shouldn’t be real anger, and place ourselves in their shoes. AT best anger should turn to frustration over the causal variables, and we should look to make causal adjustments.


    • Eric

      The feelings of anger and hate, and the holding of those emotions in one’s heart can be damaging.

      But the appearance of anger can communicate information in a much more immediate and compelling way than mere words can. And that communication can be useful even when dealing with bears.


    • J. A. Kraulis

      I like most of Harris’s arguments, and I often find them very clear-headed and efficiently articulated. But I found his brief book on free will to contain numerous questionable assumptions as well as failures in logic. (Long discussion.) And this example is a very poor basis for making any point at all regarding free will. It seems to have as a premise the idea that animals are incapable of making decisions whereas plenty of observations of animal behaviour demonstrates otherwise. But that is the least of it. The reason we don’t hate the bear is that we could appreciate that the reason for the bear’s charge was probably the result of a misunderstanding, perhaps it was a sow with cubs nearby which it felt were threatened. We also rightfully regard animals as creatures which merit our protection, much like we regard children. Meanwhile, if it later turned out that the man with the knife was in a rage because his daughter had just been raped and he mistakenly took you to be the culprit and he later apologized and expressed remorse, of course your feelings towards him would be entirely different. It has everything to do with the intentions of the assailant. And also with the ability of the assailant to form those intentions, so that if we are kicked painfully by a four-year-old child we are apt to be more forgiving than we would be of an adult who merely insults us, and similarly we are less outraged by an attack from an animal vs a human. Even if there is no free will, this does not mean that we we are not capable of forming intentions! I just don’t see what point Harris thinks he is making with this example.