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3.9 out of 5 stars87
3.9 out of 5 stars
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on 18 January 2014
This is a short book in which Harris pretty convincingly argues the case against the idea that we can do other than we do and also briefly considers the motivational, moral and political implications of accepting such a view.

Central to Harris's argument is his view that not only is free will incompatible with objective descriptions of behaviour but also with our subjective experience: thus "the illusion of free will is in itself an illusion". In our subjective experience thoughts arise and take hold (or not) in ways that are subjectively if not theoretically mysterious (i.e. theoretically they arise from our brain states that are in themselves formed of chains of biologically coded influence). He writes vividly of his own 'choices' to show the determinism that is apparent if one carefully reflects on ordinary experience; "the 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". He acknowledges, however, that our efforts matter and that we can alter the framework of our influences to make certain kinds of 'choices' more likely. He rejects that this entails free will but insofar as it acknowledges that we are causally relevant agents in the direction of our lives it seems to me that he comes close.

If you find this review a bit heavy going, that is because I have needed to be succinct - the book itself is a much easier read. I recommend this book strongly to anyone who wants an accessible chew on the gristle of this fundamental and intriguing problem. Of course, whether or not you choose to follow this up is all a matter of determinism...
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on 31 December 2014
I've read all six of Sam Harris's books in the last few months, and picking a favourite would be like asking a mother to pick her favourite child, but if I had to rank them from "best" to just "excellent", Free Will would come near the top.

Drawing on his expertise as both a neuroscientist and an experienced meditator, Harris explores the age-old philosophical question, "do we have free will? Are we truly the conscious authors of our actions, or are we just fixed-track automatons living under the delusion that we have control?" The question itself is nothing new, and numerous answers have been offered over the years, ranging ranging from the interesting and insightful to the confusing, meaningless, and masturbatory. Can Harris bring anything new to the table? To me: yes.

Granted, I have no formal training in philosophy and am not familiar with the huge body of work that already exists on this subject, but Free Will isn't intended to be an all-encompassing philosophical treatise to be kept on dusty university library shelves and only ever pondered by PhDs. It's a succinct and incisive opinion piece that's open to all comers, and I found Harris's arguments to be eye-opening and authoritative - delivered with his trademark ability to steamroll any intellectual opponent in his path.

Without meaning to spoil the ending, Harris's own answer to the question "do we have free will?" is a resounding "no". His arguments have been formulated in both the philosophy department and the research lab - and I found them convincing from all angles. We don't choose our thoughts - our thoughts simple arise in the brain uninvited, and anyone who's ever tried just 5 minutes of meditation can tell you first-hand how difficult it is to get even a hint of control over the contents of our own heads. Recent advances in brain imaging have also shown that we're able to predict with high accuracy the decisions a person is going to make *long before the person in question feels like they've actually made the decision.* If other people can predict our actions before we even know them ourselves, what space does this leave for free will as the genesis of those actions? I'm not sure there's any, and reading this book has made me acutely aware of just how little of the behaviour I consider to be "me" is the result of conscious choice - if that choice could ever be said to be "conscious" at all.

My main criticism of this book is that it's very short - more of a pamphlet than a book - but at £2.99 for the Kindle version, it's not a major complaint. Also, if you've read "Waking Up" by the same author, there's a fair amount of overlap between the two books (including a few passages that seem be copied and pasted directly from one book to the other), so you may get the occasional sense of deja vu as you read Free Will, but its "exclusive" sections are more than enough to justify the low cost and the short amount of time it will take you to read it.

Read this book. It's not like you have a choice.
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on 5 October 2012
At the risk of sounding arrogant, let me start by saying I am an amateur reader of philosophy at best. I have read and studied it for years...but only as a hobby. My opinion counts for fact, I'm surprised you're still reading this.

Now my apology is out of the way, let me give you some condescending instructions:
1) If you are new to existentialism, nihilism, humanism, etc. do not read this yet. Buy it. Decorate your bookshelf with it. Use it as a coaster. Swat a fly with it. But don't read it...YET! The book is short. Very short. But it is profound, advanced stuff, and trust me when I say you have to be ready for it! We grow up in a society that encourages freedom of independent thought, freewill, responsibility for our actions...this book brings this crashing down. Philosophy is a process. It takes time to read, longer to understand, and even longer to truly accept. There is no time limit for how long it takes to "get it"...take as long as you need...but it does require a lot of brain power, and don't move on to the next big idea until you have the foundations set and solid. This is the next big step...

2) For the rest of you...Harris needs no introduction to seasoned readers of our contemporary philosophers. Indirectly mentored by the modern greats (Dennet, Dawkins, Hitchens, etc.) he is one of philosophy and atheism's leading champions.
This book argues that determinism is. Note this is not the same as predeterminism. There is no plan mapped out somewhere for the decisions we will make, or the events that will follow.
But, our decisions are a product of our thoughts. Our thoughts are a product of the chemicals in our brain. We have no control over the release of these chemicals.
Our chosen environment is a product of our upbringing. Our upbringing was chosen for us by our parents. Their decisions are not their own either.
It is very difficult to argue against the points Sam makes in this book. It's short, because it's such a fundamentally basic argument. However, the implications are staggering! Note, they are not terrifying. Just as nihilism leads to existentialism, our lack of freewill is only a scary thought as we cling to the belief that it is something we need. Once you understand it is something we don't have...indeed, something we have never had...the world starts to make much more sense.

Why not 5 stars?
The writing isn't particularly polished. Whilst the book is short, it could have been even shorter. Sam Harris drags it out just to give it the semblance of being a book, although it probably should have just been a short essay. Worth the money though - the idea is incredible. Whilst not original, Sam's position in the public eye has helped bring the philosophy to a wider audience.
Also, I am not convinced by Sam's moral argument. As well as reading the book, I have also heard him argue the philosophy at debates and he tries to argue that, even though we don't have freewill, we should be held morally accountable. He explains why he thinks this, but, whilst I would ideally love to believe this and am still trying to comprehend his argument, at present I see it as being an idealistic want and just don't quite buy it.

Maybe I'm just not quite ready to...
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on 2 June 2012
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". Of course, this popular conception gets a thrashing, because assumption (1) is ambiguous and assumption (2) is simplistic (interpreted to mean that we choose what to think before we think it).

Whether this conception is really popular is debatable. There has been research on what ordinary people believe about free will, and popular beliefs actually seem to be rather varied, but let us suppose that at least some people have a conception of free will resembling the one Harris attacks. For such people, the book may be useful. It is certainly much easier to read than the works of professional philosophers.

Harris has not refuted free will, but has mounted a ferocious attack on one rather naïve version of it. He doesn't seriously grapple with modern scholarship. Admittedly, he does briefly discuss two short texts from compatibilist philosophers Tom Clark and Eddy Nahmias. He merely dismisses libertarianism in a single sentence as not being "respectable" (page 16). He wins a cheap victory. Why should anybody be surprised if an unsophisticated "popular" view of free will can be knocked down?

If this easy-to-read 66 page tract stimulates people into reading more serious works on free will, this will be of value (they might start with Bob Doyle's comprehensive but readable book Free Will: The Scandal in Philosophy, 2011). If it lulls people into thinking that the problem is solved and free will does not exist, it may be a victory for obscurantism.
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on 29 June 2012
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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on 20 February 2015
Sam Harris takes on one of the biggest questions about what we think defines humanity. Free Will.

Surely that's a given, if we don't have free will, then what can we be, Without Free Will, then we are simply robots?

As always, Sam Harris doesn't disappoint, he will answer this question in the most informative and truthful way that he can discover, no matter what the outcome !

As the brilliant scientist Richard Feynman once said ""Nature is there, and she's gonna come out the way she is"

Free Will as it seems, is an illusion (which is not really that surprising if you consider the whole nature/nurture process), but to be absolutely critical of Sam's interpretation, he does not go far enough.

Sam still eludes to the perception that although free will is eradicated, somehow, what we actually do in real life, is still important in an individual sense ?

i.e. - this post would not have happened if I didn't actually write it, and post it !

Is that not the point ? This isn't written and posted due to "Free Will", but simply a pre-conceived response, which was actually determined before I was born.

So that's determinism then ?

As a post script, I have to yet again thank Sam Harris for producing the most thought compelling books. posts, webcasts et al .

What a pleasure it is to read everything he produces (whether I completely agree or not, but 99% do agree)

We don't have enough critical thinkers at the moment, or they simply just don't get the "airplay".

If you haven't read this book, then please do, and take your time to understand the concepts, as they may be disturbing to what you accept as your own self. It may frighten you, and it may astound you, but whichever way, it will enlighten you !
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on 8 November 2012
The beauty of many short books like this is that they get to the point without any long winded philosophical waffle.
I really enjoyed this book because it points directly to show you and see for yourself that thoughts and choices are autamatic , or in other words a reflex action with no such thing as a me , dictating.
This also demolishes the long assumed belief in a god that gave man the power of free will. A good round of ammunition for when the Jehovas whitnesses come knocking at the door.
I have given the book 5 stars for this reason alone.
, The pages are a bit unusual and feel hand made at the edges when you turn them though, but this should not be a reason not to buy this book.
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on 14 December 2013
I can't really comment on the contents of the book since I have not
read it yet and others have already left reviews containing information
views and analysis.

What has left me disappointed is the actual production quality of this book.

I have the same issue as Dan Cunningham and Phizzymizzy in that all
the edges of each page look like they have been torn out of a book
and each page is a slighty different size with a very rough edge.

I'd be interested to know if any other people have a copy of this book
that fits this description since it seems odd that this would have been
a deliberate choice and by design.
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on 10 July 2012
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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on 24 April 2013
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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