Category: Free Will

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    Observations on Sam Harris’s Rejection of Free
    Will: A Vygotskian Approach
    I apologise to readers for taking a long time since my last presentation to post something new. One
    reason is that the topic I chose for this blog has proved extremely difficult as you will no doubt see. It is
    not only complex and difficult to get on top of but of real importance to me. So, I wanted to make my
    own views clear as possible. I hope I have. The topic is about free will and its importance in our everyday
    lives. I have always taken it for granted that we have free will and my view is that it is of immense
    importance to us as individuals and the functioning of society.
    I have not up till now questioned this presumption of mine but did after reading
    neuroscientist Sam Harris’s book ‘Free Will’ 1(cover pictured)i where the entire idea that we
    have free will is debunked by him. I do not hesitate to say that I am quite a fan of Sam
    Harris and have read most of his publications and followed his presentations, blogs, and
    debates on YouTube. He is a clear and interesting writer and is one of the most effective
    debaters around. I am impressed by his ability to make matters clear and agree with all his
    views (until now). However, the stance he takes on free will (that it is an illusion) did, as I
    said, give me pause and caused me to rethink my own views on the subject. This presentation is thus
    really an expression of my own thoughts on the subject after reading Harris and its importance to me.
    Also, I want to present my own views on this issue.
    This presentation is not designed as an academic treatise, and I have tried to avoid technical terms as
    much as possible. What I have sought to do is present Sam’s position as clearly as I can and to refer
    writers who take issue with Harris’s position. This is a long presentation as I will be referring to my
    studies of LS Vygotsky, the Russian philosopher and psychologist who lived at the beginning of the
    twentieth century. I will argue that Vygotsky’s work in developmental psychology (which I will overview)
    provides a means of questioning Sam Harris’s stance on free will. My coverage of Vygotsky is not
    exhaustive, I have just sought to highlight certain aspects of Vygotsky’s position to achieve the goal of
    supporting a notion of free will. For those interested in reading Vygotsky in more detail there are new
    English translations (and recent translations into other Languages) that are quite comprehensive.2
    Sam Harris (pictured) is a neurophysiologist and psychologist. His book ‘Free Will’ has
    resulted in considerable debate in the philosophical and neuro psychological arena. My
    aim here is to reflect upon the implications of Harris’s position as it relates to our
    everyday understanding of the role of choice and decision making. I am no expert on
    the history of this issue in the philosophical literature or in cognitive science. However, I
    am aware now that in philosophy free will has an exceedingly long history and a
    prominent issue of discussion from Aristotle on. I will briefly deal with certain issues in
    the literature to provide readers with an understanding the differences in approach,
    though my goal is not to go into detail in the philosophical literature but to discuss
    implications I consider important.
    Sam Harris is internationally known as an atheist writer, commentator, and debater. He is a member of
    the ‘Four Horsemen Group” (representing the new atheism) the group includes the evolutionary biologist
    and prominent atheist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is an emeritus professor at New College, Oxford and
    was for a time Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Another in the
    group is Dan Dennett an internationally known philosopher and cognitive scientist an expert on Artificial
    Intelligence. Daniel Dennett is Co-Director of the Centre for Cognitive Studies and Professor of Philosophy
    at Tufts University, Massachusetts USA. The fourth member was the Late Chritopher Hitchens. He died in
    2011, he was a British author, journalist, political commentator, and educator. He moved to live in the US
    in the 1980’s where he gained considerable numbers of admirers and developed an international
    reputation as a writer and remarkably effective speaker and debater.
    In the next section I will give a brief account of Harris’s position. I will try and make it as simple as I can
    as I am not writing this for professional philosophers or neuroscientists which I am not qualified to do.
    However, I know where he is coming from, so I can hopefully provide the basics of his position which is
    not that complex. For those readers who seek a more detailed exposition and criticism of Harris’s position
    there are publications on-line.
    1 Harris Sam (2012) Free Will, Free Press; First Edition, ISBN-10781451683400- ISBN-13: 978-1451683400
    The Illusoriness of free will
    This title above reflects Sam Harris’s basic stance on free will. He begins his book on free will
    emphasising that we take for granted in our everyday life that free will is a fact and of significance in
    critical areas of social life. It is important in the administration of the law, in politics, religion, personal
    accomplishment, and we take for granted in these areas that individuals are the authors of their actions
    and function as autonomous individuals. Despite this Harris in book argues that the notion of free will is
    an illusion, we don’t have it.
    To Illustrate his position Harris relates a true event of a horrendous crime committed in 2007, by two
    known criminals, Steven Hayes, and Joshua Komisarjevsky. They invaded the home of Dr. William and
    Jennifer Petit in Cheshire, a quiet town in central Connecticut in the US. Without going into details of the
    crimes, three of the family of four were raped and tortured and finally died in a fire after Hayes and
    Komisarjevsky torched the house. Harris goes on to say that the two individuals after they were
    apprehended shows signs of surprise at their acts.
    One said he did not mean to kill anyone he was just a career criminal. The other was said to have had a
    history of being continually raped as a child, and even attempted suicide. These details, says Harris,
    would not normally excuse their behaviour, they would be held responsible for these atrocious acts
    whatever the remorse they experienced. Harris goes on to argue these men were in fact the victim of
    their circumstances. Thus, he says if he had ‘the same genes and life experience and an identical brain
    (or soul) in an identical state—I would have acted exactly as he did (comment: though if that was the
    case, he would be that person – I don’t really understand the analogy). He adds to this that if these men
    had brain tumours that explained such behaviour, then our moral intuitions may change. But he says.Understanding the neurophysiology of the brain, therefore, would seem to be as exculpatory as
    finding a tumour in it. How can we make sense of our lives, and hold people accountable for their choices, given the
    unconscious origins of our conscious brains?
    There is much to unpack here, and I have problems with that statement. What he is saying, I think, is
    that brain processes produce our conscious behaviour, and it makes no difference whether the brain is
    diseased or injured, the brain activity is identical. Thus, these men (and all of us) were not in control of
    what they did, as this is a result of brain activity over which they were not aware of and had no control
    over that process. Thus, free will is an illusion as free will according to Harris implies.
    1. That we are free to choose our actions and thoughts and we could have chosen a different action
    than the one we made.
    2. We are the sole conscious source (cause) of our own thoughts and actions.
    Harris rejects both these assumptions – we could not have done otherwise, and we are not the free agent
    of our thoughts and actions. Our thoughts and actions are not in control of our conscious minds they arise
    from prior causes such as brain activity and other experiences that effect those processes all of which we
    are unaware.
    It is important to point out here that Harris’s position was significantly influenced by studies of brain
    activity by neuroscientists. Such studies have been conducted over the last few decades. Harris in
    particular mentions experiments conducted in the 1980’s by Benjamin Libert and his associates. Libert’s
    experiments became famous as a scientific indication that the notion of free will was false. This research
    used what is referred to as an EEG (electroencephalogram) to monitor brain activity. The subjects had
    electrodes placed around their scalp that measured neuronal activity in their brain and in that part of the
    brain associated with higher cognition. The participants were asked to perform simple manual asks such
    as pressing a button. The researchers recorded mounting brain activity related to the resultant action as
    much as three hundred milliseconds
    before subjects reported the first awareness of conscious will to
    preform that action. The experiments seemed to show that the brain “registers” the decision to make
    movements before a person consciously decides to move. The experiments are central to Harris as
    evidence for his position on free will.
    There is significant literature on the Libert experiments. However, it is I interesting to note that Libert
    himself later questioned whether his findings did lead to a rejection of free will.
    Harris’s Position in Relation to Compatibilism and Libertarianism
    Harris follows what is referred to in the scientific and philosophical literature as
    determinism. Simply put
    determinism means that all that exists is a universe of material matter. Thus, only matter exists and other
    so called nonmaterial phenomena such as mental states, mind, consciousness (add to this God and
    supernatural events) are the results of material phenomena interacting to cause such phenomena, so
    everything that occurs has a prior physical cause. Determinism is often related to
    Reductionists like determinists claim that all non-material phenomena can be said to be explained by
    material or physical causes (which means reduced to physics). Thus, Sam can say that my thoughts are a
    production of physical brain processes which are their material cause, they do not originate in my mind,
    they seem just to pop up and I have no conscious idea of where they are coming from.
    Harris compares his position to the other two recognized positions. Firstly,
    compatibilists are those who
    argue that Free will is a reality and that it is compatible with determinism. Harris’s friend the philosopher
    Daniel Dennett argues for such a position he sees free will as a reality and this is compatible with
    determinism. I will make certain comments on Dennet’s reaction to Harris’s position later but suffice it to
    say the compatibilism has an exceedingly long history in philosophy and research shows that most
    philosophers are compatibilists.
    The last position on free will is referred to as
    Libertarianism, which claims our choices are free from the
    constraints of natural processes, they argue this is an essential condition for moral responsibility.
    Libertarians consider that determinism and compatibilism cannot support a notion of free will. Libertarians
    do not accept that fee will is caused only by brain activity but by conscious decisions that cannot be
    reduced to simply activities of the brain. Not all, but some libertarians are theologists, as the ability to
    freely choose or reject God is an essential feature of most Christian positions. This is particularly the
    case with evangelical Christians where the ability to choose or reject God (or Christ) is a central feature of
    salvation. So, for libertarians, free will is not caused by prior brain processes – though it can be
    influenced by external factors. However, Harris rejects all libertarians unfairly I think as many do not refer
    to supernatural explanations as he infers.
    However, the libertarian view is seen as difficult to support as it rejects any notion of brain activity as
    having any input into decision making. This forces libertarians to find other ways of explaining the basis
    of conscious activity. However, it is the case that some libertarians have resorted to invoking mystical, or
    even extra nonmaterial factors. They may propose the mind or soul being free of a physical cause and of
    a different substance that is not physical. These substances free our mind from the deterministic forces of
    the natural world. This was the position of the French philosopher Rene Descartes who saw the soul as a
    different substance from the body or physical world. Descartes gave us a form of dualism that has been
    an extraordinarily strong influence on western society since.
    Though dualism and the existence of a nonphysical world has been now rejected by science and
    philosophers, libertarianism has always been a minority position. I mention in passing (as this is also
    mentioned by Harris) that certain libertarians have invoked Quantum Mechanics and what is referred to
    as Quantum indeterminism. Briefly Quantum mechanics proposes an indeterminism at the subatomic and
    atomic level where we see random non determined occurrences. These libertarians propose that these
    random events may change our brain activity and allow freedom from physical causes. I am not qualified
    to go into this in any detail, but I mention it because Harris does, and I agree with his dismissal of it. If
    you wish to follow this up there is the considerable material on the web on libertarianism and free will.
    It is important to note that compatibilists and non-compatibilists all concur that there are some actions
    we perform that are totally caused. So, no position holds that all actions are freely performed, and certain
    of them are caused by physical events whether it be psychological, physical, or biological. Medication,
    psycho active drugs, unaccounted-for physical event may cause us to act in ways that are not a result of
    our choices. For Harris however, all mental processes are caused by processes that we do not have any
    conscious awareness of or where they come from. So, for him there is no free will even if we think that
    decisions, we make are made freely by us consciously.
    In the next section I want to look at two critiques of Harris’s position from legal and religious writers.
    Brief Overview of the Implications of the Harris Position on law and
    Criminality and Religion
    The law and criminal Behaviour
    It is understandable that most philosophers and criminologists see Harris’s view as not just problematic
    but as a threat to human values and our system of justice. For example, the law is based on the notion of
    individual responsibility for one’s actions. Courts decide the seriousness of the crime (and the proper
    punishment – Jail time, fines, even execution). It is assumed that you deliberately chose to commit the
    crime unless circumstances reduce that responsibility.
    The usual task of the defence is to find ways of reducing your conscious criminal intentions. It can be
    argued that your actions were accidental, you were protecting yourself, you were under the influence of
    drugs, certain constraints you cannot control. Harris makes the point that the two murders, were not
    responsible for their horrendous crimes, but their DNA and childhood experience were the determining
    factors. He understands that such individuals are a threat to the social order and the solution is to remove
    them from society so they cannot commit such crimes again .
    Note: Harriss is dismissing the possibility of re-education of rehabilitation that may enable the offenders
    to return to society as a changed person. While it is true that certain behaviours are difficult if not
    impossible to change such as paedophilia and other sex crimes. I consider that there is evidence to
    indicate change is possible with evidence that rehabilitation can work in the criminal area. However,
    Harris is saying that change is not possible at the individual level as all behaviour is caused by brain
    neural processes which the conscious mind cannot access. He does not seem to allow for causal
    relationship between mental processes and neural brain processes. I will be dealing with this later in the
    Free will has for millennia been an issue to be dealt with by those religions that worship an entity, a deity,
    that stands above all creation. The central feature of any deity is their all-powerful (omnipotent), all-
    knowing (omniscient) nature. The deity worshipped has created all things and has foreknowledge and
    control of that creation. This statement from the Church of England’s Westminster Confession reflects
    that view.God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from
    the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and
    the free and immutable counsel of his own will, to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness,
    and mercy. (chapter 5)
    It is not surprising then that Free will and an all-powerful God are incompatible, and this has been a
    problem for most religions especially the Abrahamic ones – Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Individual
    choice and freedom of choice is central to these religions. In most Christian denominations the ability to
    choose or reject God (or Jesus) is crucial. The most significant action for evangelical Christians and other
    Christian sects is to spread the message of salvation through persuading non-Christians to choose Christ.
    Not to make such a choice when given the message of salvation renders one guilty of deliberately
    rejecting Jesus and thus God, so punishment is extreme for these individuals.
    The claim that free will does not exist is unacceptable as without the ability to choose freely the entire
    notion of salvation collapses. However, the problem of a creator God and free will still has to be resolved
    in an acceptable manner. Christian Theologians and apologists (and Islamic and Jewish scholars) of all
    strips propose ways of making free will be compatible with God’s nature. It is not my intention to go into
    the detail of all these positions as the literature is extensive. However, there are some of quite well-
    known attempted solutions.
    1. God’s Foreknowledge
    A common solution is to indicate that God though all knowing and powerful allowed humans to exercise
    free will. In other words, God chooses to limit his own power and give humans free will. Once again, the
    Westminster Confession.
    Our first parents, being seduced by the subtlety and temptation of Satan, sinned, in eating the forbidden
    fruit. This their sin, God was pleased, according to his wise and holy counsel, to permit, having purposed to
    order it to his own glory.(Chapter 6)
    This is the most common solution to that problem though it does seem problematic. This is the issue of
    God’s foreknowledge. While God may suspend his control and allow free will, his foreknowledge would
    indicate that he knows what will happen, what choices people will make. However, as has been pointed
    out by many ; if God knew people would sin then that sin would have been committed of necessity
    because God knew it would occur. How could there be free will if the choices were of necessity?
    An answer to this was given by Saint Augustine who argued that foreknowledge does not involve
    causality. Thus, he says that God’s foreknowledge of all events does not cause them to happen. Thus, we
    may be able to see what will happen, (like one of those one-sided mirrors for example) but we are not
    responsible for it. Most scholars and apologists are not satisfied with this argument as they say if God
    knows all that will occur then it will occur and there is no freedom in that. Nevertheless, this is a common
    answer to the problem of the incompatibility of an all-powerful creator and the existence of free will.
    Solutions to God’s Foreknowledge
    In this section I will deal briefly with two of traditional approaches that seek to deal with the
    foreknowledge problem. They will be brief as there is considerable literature on these.God is Outside of Time
    Another approach is to emphasise the timelessness of God. This mean that the past, present, and future
    are in a constant presence . For God there is no past nor future God sees it all in one present whole. Thus,
    God is outside of time in a sort of eternal presence. This means you cannot say that God knew your actions
    and determined them before you were born. The principle of foreknowledge is therefore redundant and
    are actions are not determined by the past as for God there is no past. The idea then is that we are not
    determined the past and can exercise our will freely.The Dualist Answer
    Dualism claims that mind and body or psychical and mental phenomena are distinct orders of being.
    Research3 has shown that a majority of people believe in dualism and that they have free will. This is
    referred to as Folk Psychology. A dualist can say therefore that a mind is a different order of being than
    the physical processes of my brain, so my mental states are not determined by any brain function. I am
    free to do as I choose without any determining physical processes. This means that one can hold both
    physical determinism and free will. This is , of course, not acceptable to most modern scholars and
    scientists who refute the existence of non-physical states. As mentioned, science only deals with
    objective physical causation and mental events can be reduced to physical causes.
    It should be mentioned in closing this section on religion that certain theological positions accept the
    notion of God’s omniscience and that he knows who will make choices to follow him and who will not.
    These are minority Christian approaches such as the reformist movement, (inspired by theologians such
    as Saint Augustine, John Calvin, Jonathon Edwards and others) that try to deal with the fact that God’s
    attributes include all knowing and, all powerful, that seem to indicate that there can’t be free will as God
    controls what is to occur. Thus, the notion of predestination says that God choses who will be is (saved)
    and who will not (the reprobate). They still maintain that humans make choices and are responsible for
    them, but they also argue that God knows what will occur but suspends his ability to control their choices.
    In the section to follow I will seek to draw together the information covered above to formulate my own
    position on free will. To do this will require me to speak of my own experience as a university lecturer and
    take an approach based on the work of a not so well-known Russian psychologist/philosophy Lev
    Semovich Vygotsky (Vygotsky is often now spelt Vygotskii, though I will continue to use the traditional
    3 Lim, D., Nichols, R. & Wagoner, (2024) J. Experimental Philosophy of Free Will and the Comprehension of
    Rev.Phil.Psych. (2024).
    My Approach to the Problem of Free WillIntroductory Comments
    I am commencing this section with reflections on my experience as a university teacher. I believe that the
    process of teaching at any level from primary to senior students, though especially at levels of higher
    education, requires an understanding of free will. I always regarded the educational process as not just a
    process of acquiring knowledge (and skills) but one of utilising that knowledge and skills to see things
    differently and thus amend one’s understanding of oneself, to challenge our preconceived ideas . My view
    is that the acquisition of new knowledge and skills should lead to personal change as it provides a new
    understanding of ourselves the world around us. These changes to ourselves do not just come upon us
    unexpectedly as it were, we make them, we change ourselves, we can change ourselves by an act of will.
    I do not believe that we need to be just the outcome of the circumstances in which we were born. It is
    true we cannot control where we were born, the culture the religion we grew up in, but that need not be
    fully determinative of who we are. My point is that we have the ability, the freedom to choose to become
    the person we want to be.
    I need to add at this point that the changes to us involves understanding oneself. We are born with skills
    and abilities that need to be enhanced or recognised. One may have a gift for music, art, literature,
    mathematics, and other gifts such as athletic abilities and many other abilities we inherit. Most of these
    attributes are abilities we want to enhance though we also must deal with certain negative issues of birth
    we can’t change. These include various disabilities that are genetically inherited or problems in utero, and
    they impact on one’s entire life. This involves a recognition of aspects of ourselves we really cannot
    change by an act of will. However, we can nevertheless, as many individuals with disability do, develop
    our own identity irrespective of any physical or mental disabilities.
    There are other aspects of ourselves we can’t change. For example, most members of the LBTQI
    community consider they were born that way. Unfortunately, in the past such orientations had to be
    hidden as they were unacceptable. While there remains discrimination, we have come some way in
    accepting such differences. Thus, in seeking to change and take control of oneself requires us to look at
    those aspects of ourselves that we cannot change. Though we can by an act of will enhance , accept, and
    control these hard-wired inheritances.
    I am aware that a determinist answer to my thoughts above may be that the changes I make to myself
    are already determined. I have difficulty accepting this as I will argue that changing oneself is a learned
    ability and that change is a process not something that just happens to you. This is the view of Dan
    Dennett and the basis of his critique of Harris.
    Dennett’s Critique of Harris
    Denett comments on this statement of Harris’Where is the freedom in being perfectly satisfied with your thoughts, intentions, and subsequent actions when they
    are the product of prior events that you had absolutely no hand in creating?
    Dennett’s answerNot only has he not shown that you had absolutely no hand in creating those prior events, but it is false, as just
    noted. Once you stop thinking of free will as a magical metaphysical endowment and start thinking of it as an
    explicable achievement that individual human beings normally accomplish (very much aided by the societies in which
    they live), much as they learn to speak and read and write, this rhetorical question falls flat. Infants do not have free
    will; normal adults do. Yes, those of us who have free will are lucky to have free will (we are
    lucky to be human beings, we are lucky to be alive), but our free will is not just a given; it is something we are
    obliged to protect and nurture, with help from our families and friends and the societies in which we live. 4
    Dennet position expressed above is one I endorse; that free will is an achievement to be accomplished
    by human beings. We are not born with it we acquire it. Dennett and other scholars do not really indicate
    how the acquisition of free will is accomplished and do not indicate the nature of the process from child
    to adult? This is the task I have set for the next section. I will argue that we can acquire an
    understanding of the process of developing our freedom by reference to certain developmental
    psychology positions. I choose in the section to follow to present Lev Vygotsky’s developmental approach
    as a means of understanding how freedom evolves. I will also briefly relate the position on cognitive
    4 Reflections on Sam Harris’ “Free Will” p.223
    Vol. 8 n. 3, pp. 214-230
    development by reference to one of the most prominent developmental psychologists of the twentieth
    century, Jean Piaget. I think it is important for an understanding of developmental processes to highlight
    some significant differences between in these two scholars.
    Developmental Psychology as a Means of Understanding the Achievement of
    Independent Thinking that Enables Free Will
    Developmental psychology has a long history in psychology. It was known as genetic psychology (from
    the term ontogenesis meaning the process of the development of the individual) and recently referred to
    as Life Span Developmental Psychology. Initially, developmental psychology focused on the development
    of cognitive and physical acquisition from infants to adults, so the focus was on child development, and it
    was important in educational practice. Life span developmental psychology focuses on the whole of life
    and the changes that occur both cognitively and physically over the whole of life.5 What we can say
    about developmental psychology in general is that it seeks to understand how humans develop the
    cognitive and physical skills through an interaction between biology and culture – abilities that enable
    humans to participate in social life. In this section I will focus on those studies that look at how a human
    infant develops cognitive and physical skills that enable social participation. I will not cover the later
    developments in these abilities, that is the object of life span developmental psychology.
    Piaget and Vygotsky are major figures in the history of developmental psychology. Both were born in1896
    Vygotsky unfortunately died suddenly of tuberculosis at early age of thirty-eight. Piaget lived to 84 years.
    Both knew and respected each of the others work despite significant differences. My goal here is to focus
    on Vygotsky whose work I have studied. Readers may question why I am mentioning Piaget. I consider it
    is important as I mentioned above, to provide an overview of Piaget’s position as his developmental
    approach has dominated educational theory and child development in the late twentieth century. Also, he
    did have an influence on Vygotsky’s work and there are some similarities. There is hardly any higher
    degree thesis in education and educational psychology that does not refer to Piaget’s work.
    Jean Piaget
    Jean William Fritz Piaget 1896-1980 6
    In this section I will not be relating Piaget’s theory in detail my object is to compare certain aspects of it
    with Vygotsky’s approach. There was a mutual interchange between Piaget and Vygotsky, they both were
    familiar with each other’s work so an understanding of Piaget’s position will assist in understanding
    Vygotsky’s approach.
    Piaget was interested in how infants with certain hard wired primitive cognitive and physical capacities
    form the basis of adaptation to the external environment. Piaget, through quite detailed empirical
    observations of children’s behaviour over four decades from infancy to adulthood, proposed that children
    journey through four stages of developmental change. These were referred to as, the sensorimotor,
    preoperational, concrete operations, and formal operations. In this progress all children’s cognitive
    abilities change qualitatively irrespective of the cultural and physical environment they were born into.
    To give an example of Piaget’s position I will refer to his first and second stages of development. The
    sensorimotor stage is a stage where initially the child has no language and their actions and thought are
    based on basic sensory experience only – seeing , feeling, thought is not abstract as language acquisition
    is required for that. Sometimes it was referred to as egotistic or sometimes autistic thought, the use of
    the term autistic was not that of the recent modern use of the term autism but to the fact that the child
    5 see
    Paul B. Baltes, Hayne W. Reese, John R. Nesseiroade (1988) Introduction to Research Methods LIFE SPAN
    DEVELOPMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 365 Broadway
    Hillsdale, New Jersey 0764 file:///C:/Users/rrot2129/Downloads/71.pdf
    6 I am very fond of this photo of Piaget; he was a man of many skills and interests and perhaps the first
    scholar who saw a child’s intellectual life as unique. He was a happy man as this photo shows.
    was acting instinctively and not yet socially. In proposing this mode of activity, Piaget was influenced by
    Sigmund Freud’s idea of the unconscious ‘Id” drives that followed what was referred to as the pleasure
    principle – seeking pleasurable experiences and avoiding painful ones. Piaget following Freud saw
    development or socialisation as a process of adapting the pleasure principle to external reality (called the
    Reality Principle). The idea that humans and all animals were driven by pleasure pain goes back to
    antiquity to the Greek philosophers. For Piaget development in children requires an adaptation to reality
    and some deferment of pleasure as necessary for survival. Adaptation for Piaget involved two processes
    of adaptation to the physical and psychological environment. These he named the processes of
    Assimilation and Accommodation. Assimilation is where elements of the environment are integrated into
    the organism’s preexisting organizational mental structures (in young children it is the sensorimotor
    stage). Accommodation is the process whereby the child’s existing schemes are modified in response to
    the environment. Through these two processes the child through its own actions moves from one stage
    to another.
    To briefly illustrate development in the sensorimotor stage which extends from to about 2 years old
    Piaget proposed that at this stage infants and young children lack what is referred to as object
    permanence. Object permanence means that we can recognise that objects in our environment exist
    whether we see or experience them through the senses or not. An infant cannot do this and if they
    cannot see objects through the senses then they do not exist. Later at the age of about 18 months
    infants exhibit what Piaget called deferred Imitation the ability to bring into their thinking a model of
    an object they experienced in the past. They begin to understand that that objects remain permanent
    whether even when they cannot be empirically experienced ( i.e. by sight, touch smell, hearing).
    The second stage of cognitive development in Piaget’s theory is the preoperational stage it begins around
    2 years and progresses through to about 7 years of age. Children begin to use words as symbols to
    understand the external physical world. Children can also draw images though they cannot think
    conceptually. Also, at this stage children do not have the ability to distinguish between living and non-
    living phenomena. This is a form of Animism where everything in their world is alive. Another important
    aspect of the second stage is the Egocentrism of the child. This is form of what we refer to in
    philosophy as solipsism meaning I only exist. At this stage, a child cannot distinguish between the view
    of themselves and others. They do not perceive that other individuals see the world with a distinct
    perspective different to theirs.
    In the latter two stages children begin to think conceptually. Without going into the detail here, the final
    cognitive stage among children is the formal operational stage. Piaget proposed that when children reach
    about 11 or 12 years of age their ability to think and use abstract reason develop significantly.
    It is obvious that Piaget’s idea of qualitative development change in stages should be incredibly
    significant for teaching and learning in educational practice. It offers teachers some concrete structures
    about a child’s level of ability and capacity to change. Teachers must be aware of what stage a child is at
    before introducing new or advanced information as added information will not be integrated by the child
    unless their cognitive and physical abilities have matured enough.
    While Piaget’s work has had an immense influence on educational practice recent research has shown
    that infants at birth have capacities that are innate or are acquired earlier than suggested in Piaget’s
    work. Also, Piaget’s work focused on individual accomplishments and did not consider in any detail the
    interaction between culture and physical development.
    Readers may ask at this point what these ideas have to do with free will. To answer this my goal is to
    argue the point that free will is not a given in humans but an accomplishment or a skill. I consider that
    developmental theory may provide a way of understanding how this might be achieved. Also,
    developmental theory might show how human mental processes are impacted by cultural and social
    integration. I have included Piaget as he is the best-known developmental psychologist and has had more
    impact on areas of education than any other scholar. Piaget’s work is also relevant to understanding
    Vygotsky’s which I regard as a basis for a critique of Harris and biological determinism.
    I aim to show in the following section how Vygotsky’s proposals on development in children challenge
    some of the assumptions underlying Piaget’s (and Freud) positions and in fact show how cultural factors
    impact on biological or mental processes. As mentioned, Sam Harris’s determinist position does not allow
    for this two-way interaction. Harris does not refer at all to how an individual’s cognitive and cultural
    development can lead to an ability to make choices characteristic of free will.
    L S Vygotsky 1896-1934
    Lev Simkhovich Vygotsky Rare photo Vygotsky teaching
    Vygotsky with his wife Rosa Noevna Smekova
    And two Daughters Gita Vygodskaya and Asha Vygodskaya
    Gita Vygodskaya in her eighty’s, psychologist and
    organiser and publisher of her father’s manuscripts
    BiographyVygotsky was born on November 5, 1896, in the town of Orsha in the Russian Empire (now Belarus) Vygotsky was
    raised in the city of Gomel,[] where he was homeschooled until 1911 and then obtained a formal degree with
    distinction in a private Jewish gymnasium, which allowed him entrance to a university. In 1913, Vygotsky was
    admitted to the Moscow University by mere ballot through a “Jewish Lottery”: at the time a three percent Jewish
    student quota was administered for entry in Moscow and Saint Petersburg universities. He had an interest in the
    humanities and social sciences, but at the insistence of his parents he applied to the medical school at Moscow
    University. During the first semester of study, he transferred to the law school. In parallel, he attended lectures at
    Shanyavsky Moscow City People’s University. Vygotsky’s early interests were in the arts and, primarily, in the topics
    of the history of the Jewish people, the tradition, culture and Jewish identity.
    In January 1924, Vygotsky took part in the Second All-Russian Psychoneurological Congress in Petrograd (soon
    thereafter renamed Leningrad). After the Congress, Vygotsky met with Alexander Luria and with his help received an
    invitation to become a research fellow at the Psychological Institute in Moscow which was under the direction of
    Konstantin Kornilov. Vygotsky moved to Moscow with his new wife, Roza Smekhova, whom he would have two
    children with. He began his career at the Psychological Institute as a “staff scientist, second class”. He also became a
    secondary teacher, covering a period marked by his interest in the processes of learning and the role of language in
    Vygotsky’s developmental approach differed significantly to that of Piaget (and Freud) through the three
    of them accepted an understanding of human cognitive and physical achievements could only be gained
    by an analysis of the process of their development. Piaget and Freud analysed this process of
    development from the perspective of the individual and their adjustment to, adaptation of their external
    environment. They look at the way innate biological processes transform themselves because of
    interaction with the external environment. As we shall see Vygotsky emphasised the role of social
    interactions as a transformative process. For Vygotsky social interactive processes were central in
    cognitive and physical development.
    Vygotsky’s work was not only focused on child development but of the acquisition by individuals of what
    he referred to as, “The Higher Mental Processes” These were associated with the emergence of a sense
    of self, the creative ability that humans exhibit in art, architecture, science, mathematics and thinking
    itself. He said that such abilities came from the emergence of deliberative and autonomous action, which
    I understand as related to free will the ability be creative. He recognised the problem of explaining how
    such higher mental processes could emerge from simple basic natural processes.
    For Vygotsky explaining this process involved interaction between the social and the natural dimensions.
    For Vygotsky this interaction was a problem for the psychology of his time. The psychology of the time
    followed two distinct and irreconcilable lines, both unsatisfactory for Vygotsky. One branch;
    Psychoanalysis, Gestalt , Phenomenology, emphasising mental functions without reference to the physical
    and the other, Behaviouralism, Reflexology, Experimental psychology all emphasising physical processes
    with little attention to mental and social processes even to deliberately ignore such phenomenon as the
    Vygotsky sought to overcome this dualism in psychology (which I argue still exists) not by reference to
    Marx or Lenin both of whose work he knew intimately, he turned to the Dutch Philosopher Benedict De
    Spinoza whose monistic naturalism and critique of dualist approaches (such as that of Descartes)
    suggested some ideas towards a solution this problem. As an epigraph to his book “The Psychology of
    Art,” Vygotsky refers to Spinoza’s’ reply to the objection that the study of body and nature alone will not
    reveal the creative powers of the human being.“No one has hitherto laid down the limits to the powers of the body…but it will be argued, it is impossible solely from
    the laws nature considered as extended substance, we should be able to deduce the causes of buildings, pictures and
    things of that kind which are produced only by human art; nor would the human body, unless it were determined and
    lead by the mind, be capable of building a single temple. (Spinoza replies), ‘However I have just pointed out that the
    objects cannot fix the limits of the bodies power or say what can be concluded from a consideration of its sole
    nature’. ” 8
    Spinoza’s writing is very dense and difficult, but the point here is (I think) we are not fully aware of the
    limits of nature of the human brain and its capacity to produce such creative mental abilities that he
    referred to as the higher mental processes. It would seem to me that Spinoza and Vygotsky are
    prefiguring recent studies on brain plasticity where studies show the interaction of the natural brain
    processes and social experience can lead to changes in the functioning of the brain and consciousness.
    This is a contemporary line of study itself that I think will prove fruitful in understanding the interrelation
    of brain function and socially based culture. In Vygotsky there is some suggestion of brain plasticity in
    that he follows Spinoza in suggesting that we do not know the limits of the capacity of the brain to
    change its structure. In the following I will discuss Vygotsky’s notion of development of physical and
    mental abilities. Readers may see in this account how there is in Vygotsky certain hints of brain plasticity.
    Vygotsky’s Developmental Approach
    Vygotsky, as did Piaget, considered that the basic method for studying the emergence of cognitive and
    physical abilities was to study it in the process of change from more simple forms to the complex
    behaviour of socialised human beings. One of Vygotsky’s best known and one of his most important
    works for understanding human development and the unique aspects of human behaviour (basically what
    he referred to as the ‘Higher Mental Processes) was entitled in English, ‘ Thought and Language’)9. It was
    7 Spinoza Benedict De, Ethics Part 111, Postulate 2, Scholon
    from Jonathon Bennett (1984) A Study of Spinoza’s Ethics, Cambridge Press
    9 A number of linguists consider Thought and Language would be more accurately translated into English as
    ‘Thinking and Speaking’.
    first published in Russian by Vygotsky in 1934 as a unified work on the development of consciousness10.
    In 1962 it was published in English, though that version was seriously flawed as it was heavily abridged
    by editors and translators and excluded certain discussions not considered relevant to the main theme. In
    a time of the Cold War many of these omissions were seen as having communist or Marxist sources so
    they were excluded. Thus the 1962 version was thus greatly limited. More comprehensive translations
    into English have however been made in the late 1980’s . In 1987 Many of Vygotsky’s works were
    published in “The Collected Works of L S Vygotsky’, It appeared in two volumes, Thinking and Speech in
    Vol. 1:11
    Vygotsky’s approach focused on two features of human achievement, the use of speech (Language) to
    communicate (Speech is a crucial aspect of human society) and the capacity to think conceptually. He
    argued that these comprise a revolutionary capacity to make meaning to create new ways of life by new
    ways of thinking. These capacities are not derived by any biologically inherited structures, or instincts.
    Nor are they be seen as imposed by some external cause on the individual organism, they are acquired
    through a process of internalisation of social skills. For Vygotsky individuals were able to become, through
    their internalisation of social activity, self-determining entities. I view Vygotsky’s notion of ‘self-mastery’
    as a capacity of humans to be creative, to choose one’s destiny by an act of (free) will. This view radically
    distinguishes Vygotsky from the biological determinists such as Sam Harris all of whom reject the notion
    that humans can choose their destiny instead, he argues it is caused by biological brain process, the
    source of which the individual has no knowledge. As Harris says, ‘…we are a puppet (The puppet image is
    the cover of his Book) [who] is free as long as he loves his strings”, meaning (I think) we can feel free
    only if we are happy with the thoughts that control us .
    Vygotsky, like Piaget, describes the process through which a child develops their mental (cognitive) and
    physical skills that enable adaptation to the world around them. The world includes the physical external
    world and the social world. Both see adaptation to these worlds as a staged process where elementary
    mental functions (of the child) are transformed by interaction with the physical and cognitive realities. As
    we have seen Piaget’s approach focuses mainly on a child’s individual physical and cognitive adaptation
    (by the processes of assimilation and accommodation) to the world around them. This adaptation process
    brings changes to the child’s way of relating to the world. So, the child is active in their own
    developmental change.
    Vygotsky like Piaget is known as a developmental constructivist where children are active in changing
    themselves. However, Vygotsky differs significantly to Piaget in how the child progresses to more complex
    levels of interaction with the internalisation of speech that serves as a tool that changes the nature of
    consciousness. Vygotsky argues that children are born with a pre intellectual capacity to communicate
    with others such as the adults that surround them. Such communicative action comprises actions such
    verbal babbling, smiling and crying. These are initial means of communication with adults. This differs
    from Piaget who sees instinctual actions, such as pleasure over reality as having to be overcome or
    controlled, there is little reference in Piaget’s work to any notion of inbuilt abilities to communicate.
    Vygotsky’s principles of development are presented in his major work ‘Thinking and Speech” to which I
    will now turn.
    Vygotsky’s Approach to Child Development
    Vygotsky does not look at development as a process of becoming socialised from a pre-social early
    period, as do both Piaget and Freud. He argues that young infants even from birth are social beings and
    have innate capacities for communication. Even as infants their behaviour is communicative. The verbal
    babbling of a baby and young infant of which most of us are familiar is not a senseless verbalisation that
    simply accompanies what the baby or child is doing, as Freud and Piaget maintain. For Vygotsky it is in
    fact a means ((a tool) for directing and accompanying their behaviour, as we will see below, a tool
    directing their activity.
    Thiis leads me to make the general point that Vygotsky proposes that development from infancy to the
    complex behaviour and thinking of adults is a study of the development of mental processes. For
    Vygotsky mature human consciousness refers to the sophisticated mental processes that engender the
    achievements of civilisation. Such achievement is not just a biological given but evolves because of its
    socialisation which for Vygotsky argues is through language acquisition. Mature human consciousness is a
    10 It was in fact a collection of quite separate essays one of them (included in L&T as chapter 4) was in fact
    written in1929. It was however Vygotsky himself who brought all these separate essays together as a unified
    Reiber R W and Carton A S (Eds.) (1987), The Collected Works of L S Vygotsky, Plenum Press NY.
    unique phenomenon12 as it based on the internalisation of language which is a purely social phenomenon
    that brings about a physical change in the functioning of biological systems. It could be argued from this,
    the mind (consciousness) of human beings is an interrelation between the biological and the social.
    Vygotsky did not elaborate his theory of how changes in the use of the psychological tool, or speech (that
    engenders new mental abilities) brings about changes in physical activity. However, he did indicate that
    the physical and culture have evolved in an interrelated process.The growth of the normal child into civilization usually involves a fusion with the processes of organic maturation.
    Both planes of development—the natural and the cultural—coincide and mingle with one another. The two lines of
    change interpenetrate one an- other and essentially form a single line of sociobiological formation of the child’s
    personality. (Vygotsky, 1960, p. 47
    Vygotsky’s position is that human activities such as thinking do not originate in the brain as biological
    determinists maintain but is a function of the interrelation between the social (language) and the
    biological substrate. Thinking is not just a biological action in the brain that appears in consciousness
    spontaneously, but also a social acquisition without which human thinking is not possible. In the following
    section I want to , briefly, indicate the process by which a child moves through a series of stages which
    enable the capacity to think conceptually and how language itself serves as a tool for that process.
    The process of development of a child’s abilities passes through periods of qualitative change. These
    critical periods can be stressful, but they are the result of the maturing of the physical abilities being
    impacted by changes in the child’s social environment. When a child, starts school, for example, they
    encounter new forms of social relations, new individuals in their lives and new expectations. Interaction
    with peers and adult teachers makes new demands on the child’s behaviour and thinking. Vygotsky saw
    these changes as new ways of experiencing the world requiring more elaborate physical and mental
    Theis initial stage is referred to as an egocentric period. The child can communicate with others with
    words (speech), though these not the complex communication skills of adult conceptual thought but are
    effective forms of communication between children. Adult teachers are aware of this and adjust their
    speech to communicate with the children they teach.
    At the early stages of development, a child learns to solve problems that confront them with the
    assistance of others, mainly more mature individuals. Vygotsky referred to this process of acquiring new
    skills as occurring within a relationship with other more competent individuals as, ‘The Zone of Proximal
    Development’ or the ‘ZPD’. The ZPD has now become a well-known educational practice. In this
    relationship the child has not fully acquired a certain skill so the adult in the situation (the ZPD)
    supplements the child’s actions to enable them to complete the action in question. In time the child
    becomes able to complete the action without that assistance, the skill becomes internalised as an
    individual competency. The notion of learning in the ZPG in quite common in early social life. Mothers and
    significant others in the child’s early life will interpret what a child is seeking to achieve and provide them
    with assistance to enable them to complete that action. The child will eventually be able to complete that
    action without assistance from the competent others; in others words they have internalised that action
    that becomes a personal competency.
    What is occurring in these transformations of mental (and physical) processes is that the child begins to
    use the speech (Vygotsky refers to it also a ‘the sign’) as an aid. Vygotsky argues that the sign or speech
    serves as a tool for the transformation of mental functioning. The tool analogy was borrowed by Vygotsky
    from Marx’s notion of the material tool in production. According to Marx the tool is an instrument that
    mediates the production process by enabling natural resources to be transformed into human artifacts.
    Thus, Vygotsky refers to speech or the sign as enabling the transformation of a child’s mental functioning,
    it is referred to as internalisation. Speech reflects the culture in which the child is immersed and enables
    the child to communicate with others. This is a transformative action as at first the child communicates
    socially with others and then that becomes internalised as a new formation in the child’s mental processes
    (their mind). In this Vygotsky has iireversed a trend in western society which traditionally regards
    individual development preceding social interaction. For Vygotsky socialisation by means of speaking
    (using language) precedes and results in individual mental change. The internalisation of social speech
    becomes Vygotsky says, ‘inner speech’. I consider this notion of inner speech an alternative to Harris’s
    view that ideas just pop up into consciousness without us having any idea where they originate.
    There are some current debates about the uniqueness of human consciousness in that some scholars of animal
    behaviour argue that related species (such as chimpanzees and bonobos) have quite sophisticated forms of
    consciousness and communication. It is however not established that their vocalisations comprise a language.
    It has been pointed out by certain Vygotsky scholars that mental functioning extends beyond the
    individual and individual mind and is also a social phenomenon where even individual thought depends on
    the internalisation of social speech as inner speech. As Vygotsky says the mind is a sociobiological
    formation. I would submit that this differs substantially from the stance of biological determinists such as
    Sam Harris. Biological determinists distinguish between brain processes and mental processes. They
    argue that thinking originates as a process of brain functioning and only later appears in consciousness.
    The process of how thinking processes are acquired through enculturation is virtually ignored. I think
    from Vygotsky it can be argued that thinking is only possible through the acquisition of language which is
    a social phenomenon. However, this is not to say that brain processing is not involved, it is that which
    enables language to be internalised. Harris and biological determinists do not even mention the impact of
    language on thinking, but ideas seem to just pop up from unconscious brain processes.Decisions, intentions, efforts, goals, will- power, etc., are causal states of the brain, leading to specific behaviours,
    and behaviours lead to outcomes in the WORLD. Human choice, therefore, is as important as fanciers of free will
    believe. But the next choice you make will come out of the darkness of prior causes that you, the conscious witness
    of your experience, did not bring into being.
    AndChoices, efforts, intentions, and reasoning influence our behaviour, but they are themselves part of a chain of causes
    that precede conscious awareness and over which we exert no ultimate control. My choices matter and there are
    paths toward making wiser ones, but I cannot choose what I choose. And if it ever appears that I do for instance,
    after going back and forth between two options—I do not choose to choose what I choose. There is a regress here
    that always ends in darkness. I must take a first step, or a last one, for reasons that are bound to remain
    The position Harris takes here contradicts the Vygotskian perspective I have sought to express. To say
    that thinking, decisions, goals are simply caused only by brain states ignores completely the role of
    language in thinking as I have sought to show above. I consider that Vygotsky’s notion of inner speech
    may serve as an alternative to this idea of Harris’s that ideas, reasoning, intentions simply originate from
    brain processes that just pop up into conscious without us have any idea of where they came from.
    Inner speech
    Inner speech is Vygotsky’s term for the internalisation of social speech, it becomes changed in this
    process as an individual’s private thought and thinking. For Vygotsky, thinking is spoken language
    internalised into the structure of the individual’s consciousness. My interpretation of what Vygotsky means
    by the process of internalisation of speech is that it is that it transforms wired in mental processes we
    may have in common with other primates to a qualitatively different level. It becomes internal thought
    which itself is qualitatively different to social speech from which it derives and becomes the individual’s
    private mode of thinking. Inner speech has a different structure to social speech. Innate and natural
    forms of behaviour are reconstructed and integrated with conceptual thinking that enables generalisation,
    abstraction, logical memory, attention and memory. Thus, adult thought and consciousness are not
    distinct from the activity of the brain as determinists argue, brain processes and consciousness are an
    integrated single entity. Vygotsky also speaks of how creativity emerges from this integrated system and
    refers to the impact of emotions though I will not discuss this further it complex and needs to be the
    subject of another paper.
    I have sought to show by referring to the process of the development is that brain process and
    consciousness or mental processes are not to be seen dualistically (as brain processes and consciousness,
    seen as two different entities) as determinist claim. They are integrated into a single system, a social
    biological system. This level of the higher mental processes allows for thinking conceptually , to plan
    what we will do, to be creative , fantasise and image entities that cannot be observed. Our ideas, our
    13 Harris Sam op.cit. p41
    14 Ibid. p39
    thoughts, our future plans, do not simply pop up out of the blue (from the brain) but are an act of
    thinking which is not an unconscious brain activity alone. These free actions we can are not of a
    supernatural or religious nature they are gained from a developmental process of integration of natural
    biological processes with the internalisation of social structures.
    The notion that ideas just appear in consciousness are linguistic phenomena. Conceptual language has a
    function of abstraction and generalisation, and concepts or words can have multiple meanings. I mention
    in passing the role of metaphor in language. I have not dealt with this above in any detail as the study of
    metaphor use in language it a large topic and would require another presentation. But metaphor is
    important in language in general and is used frequently in everyday language to convey meaning.
    Basically, metaphor brings two unrelated phenomena to together and they can render an abstract idea
    clearer by relating it with concrete experiences. I must mention here what Donald Trump aimed to
    achieve as President – his answer, ‘to drain the swamp’. It was quite clear to everyone what he meant
    but is also conveyed multiple meanings. People use metaphors to reason about certain difficult abstract
    issues. Iin short, my point here is that metaphor can bring to consciousness ideas not thought of before
    the ideas they bring may appear (to use another metaphor) to come out of the blue. This may be some
    answer to Harris’s assertion that ideas come into consciousness, and we have no idea of their origins.
    Their origins, I suggest, are metaphorical not unconscious brain processes.
    i Harris Sam (2012) Free Will, Free Press; First Edition, ISBN-10781451683400- ISBN-13: 978-1451683400

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