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Free Will [Paperback]

Sam Harris
3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)
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Book Description

26 April 2012
The physiologist Benjamin Libet famously demonstrated that activity in the brain's motor regions can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move. Another lab recently used fMRI data to show that some "conscious" decisions can be predicted up to 10 seconds before they enter awareness (long before the preparatory motor activity detected by Libet). Clearly, findings of this kind are difficult to reconcile with the sense that one is the conscious source of one's actions. The question of free will is no mere curio of philosophy seminars. A belief in free will underwrites both the religious notion of "sin" and our enduring commitment to retributive justice. The Supreme Court has called free will a "universal and persistent" foundation for our system of law. Any scientific developments that threatened our notion of free will would seem to put the ethics of punishing people for their bad behaviour in question.In Free Will Harris debates these ideas and asks whether or not, given what brain science is telling us, we actually have free will?

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Free Will + The Moral Landscape + Lying
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Product details

  • Paperback: 96 pages
  • Publisher: The Free Press (26 April 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1451683405
  • ISBN-13: 978-1451683400
  • Product Dimensions: 19.8 x 14 x 1.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 12,390 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


"If you believe in free will, or know someone who does, here is the perfect antidote. In this smart, engaging, and extremely readable little book, Sam Harris argues that free will doesn't exist, that we're better off knowing that it doesn't exist, and that--once we think about it in the right way--we can appreciate from our own experience that it doesn't exist. This is a delightful discussion by one of the sharpest scholars around." --Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology, Yale University, and author of "How Pleasure Works"

About the Author

Sam Harris's diversified career has run the gamut from multi-million-selling singer and songwriter to Tony-nominated actor to writer, director, and producer.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars What no neuroscience? 3 Feb 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This provides a good readable account of why experiments conducted by Benjamin Libet during the second half of the last century and subsequent studies inspired by his work have led many philosophers and scientists to feel that the existence of freewill is discredited.

So far, so good, but what is disappointing for a book published in 2012 is the lack of discussion of relevant research in neuroscience and also psychology over the last 20 years. The most important aspect of this is modern knowledge of the brain's reward circuit and its relationship to behaviour. The reward circuit and particularly the orbitofrontal and anterior cingulate brain regions evaluate the reward value of sensory signals, and project to the ventral striatum region. Here they are merged with projections from the dorsolateral prefrontal, which is associated with the planning/executive functions of the brain. All this processing lies upstream of the motor cortex, in which Libet's readiness potentials were detected, and would seemingly need to be at least discussed in anything bearing on the brain's decision-making processes.

Further to this, modern psychological studies may also need to be brought into the picture. Thus the perception of exercising will power has been shown to involve consumption of energy, which evolution would only be likely to select for if it were adaptive. Further studies show that subjects perform better in tests or academic undertakings if they think their conscious efforts can make a difference. Again it is surprising that such findings are not at any rate brought into the story, in relation to a book that is outspokenly confident in its conclusions.
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33 of 36 people found the following review helpful
Philosophers debating free will have long understood that the term can be used in many ways, most of which are incoherent. Thus, advocates of "libertarian free will" (founded on the belief that free will requires indeterminism) have had to face the objection that indeterminate events in the brain would be expected to produce randomness, not freedom. And advocates of "compatibilist free will" (founded on the belief that some kinds of free will are compatible with determinism) have had to face other problems, including the one that many people find compatibilism intuitively implausible. Despite these difficulties, most leading philosophers (with a few important exceptions such as Galen Strawson, Derk Pereboom and Ted Honderich), have come to the conclusion that, if used cautiously, the term "free will" can be applied to human beings in a coherent, meaningful and true manner. One of the hard-won achievements of this 200 year old debate has been to separate out conceptions of free will that have a good chance of being coherent and even true, from those that are incoherent or probably untrue. It has been clear to all for many years that unsophisticated conceptions of free will are unlikely to stand up to philosophical analysis.

This 66 page text makes little attempt to contribute to the modern debate, but rather takes the easy option of attacking "the popular conception of free will" which, according to Harris "seems to rest on two assumptions: (1) that each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past, and (2) that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present".
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27 of 30 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting essay 29 Jun 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book is in fact an essay (few pages large fonte size), which seems to have been written to cash in on a currently fashionable (probably true) idea that free will doesn't exist.

I bought this book because I was very impressed by the section about Free Will in Harris's The Moral Landscape and I wan't to know more.

Unfortunately the exposition here is very similar to Landscape. If I'm not mistaken, some of the most interesting parts of the text are lifted straight from Landscape.

That doesn't make this essay by any means bad. No, it's fascinating but it should be mentioned that the author is repackaging material from a previous book - something like releasing a single from an LP.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant premise 24 April 2013
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This is essentially a very clever man making an almost watertight argument for something which we all know cannot be true. In short, it's a work of genius, and people should be made to read it in school. Especially in religious schools! ;)
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Too concise 10 July 2012
By Petri
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I'm a fan of Sam Harris' earlier books and extremely interested in the notion of free will but this book was a disappointment. You just can't get deep enough into the subject in just 66 pages. Some of the cases he presented were difficult to understand because they were presented without much other information than what can fit in a sentence. I like concise writing but this book lacks necessary information. Harris should have developed his thesis further. Unfortunately I feel I didn't learn anything new about the concept of free will.
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25 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Free will or bust 10 Mar 2012
By Hande Z
Sam Harris, philosopher and neuroscientist, writes this treatise on Free Will from an incompatibilist view point. Most theologians and many philosophers today take the compatibilist approach, which is the view that determinism (we have no control over causal events) is compatible with the idea of free will. Harris makes out a forceful argument that this is not so. He believes that free will is an illusion. Citing the fact that "No human being is responsible for his genes or his upbringing, yet we have every reason to believe that these factors determine his character" to illustrate his point that we mistake conscious deliberations for free will. He asks, for example, if his decision to have a second cup of coffee was due to a random release of neurotransmitters, how could the indeterminacy of the initiating event count as an exercise of free will? If he drank a glass of water because he was thirsty, even though he was free to choose orange juice, it could hardly be an exercise of free will if the thought of an orange juice never crossed his mind. He goes further and suggests that even if we were to believe in a "soul" that dwells within us, we cannot be exercising free will - "if we have no idea what [our] soul is going to do next, [we] are not in control." Harris does not believe that determinism necessarily leads to fatalism and he explains so in pages 33-35. He also believes that belief in determinism "need not damage our system of criminal justice." (see pages 56-60). He concludes his book thus: "Now I feel that it is time for me to leave. I'm hungry, yes, but it also seems that I've made my point. In fact, I can't think of anything else to say on the subject. And where is the freedom in that?"
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars Just terrible. If you place any weight on logic and ...
Just terrible. If you place any weight on logic and consistency in argument then you won't find much to enjoy here.
Published 9 days ago by Orlando
2.0 out of 5 stars Hmmmm....
He lays out his argument pretty well, but this is more of a pamphlet than a book, It also starts by assuming there is no such thing as a sole - I would have expected more of a... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Musical_Joe
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent
Really makes you think, short and to the point. Easy to read and you don't have to be a philosophy graduate to understand it. Highly recommended.
Published 3 months ago by P Hutchinson
5.0 out of 5 stars another great work from a beautiful mind
Compelling logic, precision of thought combined with humour and an intrinsically engaging subject make this book a great read. Highly recommended
Published 3 months ago by Painspotter1
4.0 out of 5 stars Short but sweet
As an outsider dabbling into psychology, this book is an easy read. It raises very interesting questions about how much control we actually have over ones life. Highly recommend!
Published 3 months ago by Scott
4.0 out of 5 stars Short, Sweet and to the Point
I read this book immediately after the Moral Landscape. Whilst I did notice a few analogies had been copied and pasted straight from The Moral Landscape into Free Will, I do think... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Amazon Customer
2.0 out of 5 stars Not great
No depth, didn't seem to cover my interest in the subject at all. It is a thin book and a large subject... Read more
Published 4 months ago by Michael L
3.0 out of 5 stars True but superficial.
"Free Will" is in part a long version of the simple dichotomy I realised myself as an undergraduate, that events are either deterministic or random, that there is no third way, and... Read more
Published 5 months ago by W. Buchanan
1.0 out of 5 stars Bad production quality
Very hard to turn pages. Uneven cut edges as if teared. Looks like they skipped the trimming stage. There must be zero quality control where this was printed.
Published 5 months ago by subscription20
5.0 out of 5 stars A great Read
Very interesting book which bring up some very good points on the unconscious thought processes. I've read it couple of times and my only negative point is I wish it was longer,... Read more
Published 5 months ago by Adam Cowming
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