I nominate Sam Harris for YouTube's prize for "Person with the Best One-Liner Joke except for the fact that he was being serious," for his remark in a 2012 speech: "Tonight, I want to try to convince you that free will is an illusion." [The actual quote used the word "hope" in place of "want to try," but the gist is the same.]Sam Harris made this remark a few minutes into the following YouTube video:
Yes, the irony here is palpable, and I've long been critical of Harris's view of free will as an illusion (see especially my book Being as Communion).
But rather than refute Harris by pointing out why his statement scores high on the irony meter, I thought I'd ask ChatGPT to do it for me. Here was my prompt to ChatGPT4:
Consider the following scenario: A well-known atheist, who has a doctorate in neuroscience, is about to present a lecture to a university audience on the connection between mind and brain, and in particular on the topic of free will. This atheist, whom we'll call Sam, begins his lecture with the following statement: "Tonight, I want to try to convince you that free will is an illusion." Please comment at length on the irony of this statement.Here is ChatGPT4's reply. I present it without commentary, leaving it to my readers to determine its merits:
The statement "Tonight, I want to try to convince you that free will is an illusion" made by Sam, a well-known atheist and neuroscientist, at the start of his lecture on the connection between mind and brain, particularly focusing on free will, is layered with irony in several ways:
In summary, the statement is ironic because it uses the mechanism of free will (persuasion and choice) to argue against the existence of free will. It highlights the complexities and paradoxes inherent in discussions about human consciousness, decision-making, and the nature of belief.
- The Nature of Persuasion and Choice: The irony lies primarily in the act of persuasion itself. Sam's objective is to convince his audience of a particular viewpoint — that free will does not exist. However, the very act of attempting to persuade others suggests that they have the capacity to choose or reject his argument, which inherently implies the existence of free will. If free will were truly an illusion, the concept of changing someone's mind through argument or evidence would be meaningless, as their beliefs and responses would be predetermined.
- The Role of an Educator: As an educator and a figure of authority in neuroscience, Sam's role is to impart knowledge and provoke thought. By encouraging his audience to reflect and possibly reconsider their views, he is engaging their critical thinking and decision-making abilities. This process assumes that the audience has the autonomy to assess and integrate new information, which again presumes the existence of free will.
- The Paradox of Scientific Inquiry: The field of neuroscience often explores the workings of the human brain, including the mechanisms behind decision-making and consciousness. The endeavor to understand these complex processes assumes that there is something to be discovered or understood about how we make choices. If free will were purely an illusion, the entire premise of studying these aspects of the brain might seem futile or paradoxical.
- Atheism and Free Will: Sam's known stance as an atheist adds another layer to the irony. Atheism often involves a conscious rejection of religious or theistic worldviews in favor of rationalism and empiricism. This rejection itself is typically viewed as a choice made freely based on personal judgment and reasoning, further highlighting the paradox in claiming free will to be an illusion.
- The Complexity of Human Consciousness: The topic of free will vs. determinism is deeply intertwined with our understanding of consciousness. Sam's attempt to reduce this complexity to a binary state of illusion or reality oversimplifies a nuanced and still not fully understood aspect of human existence. The irony is also in the simplification of a complex issue in a field (neuroscience) that is known for its depth and complexity.
- Audience's Reception: There is also an irony in how the audience might receive this message. If they are convinced by Sam's argument, it could be seen as a validation of his view. However, if they exercise their judgment and disagree, it could be viewed as an expression of their free will, contradicting his initial assertion.