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...
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.
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.
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.
on 3 February 2013
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.
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! ;)
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 nothing...in 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...
`Free Will' is a beautifully written, witty, engaging and wonderfully short book. Unfortunately, philosophically speaking, it is not a very good book. You might ask how a complex topic can be dealt with satisfactorily in 66 pages? The answer is, it can't.
The issue of free will and determinism is a classic philosophical problem, but one which, untypically, has direct implications in terms of our day to day life (particularly in relation to moral responsibility). It is an issue that has also preoccupied psychologists, neuroscientists, physicists lawyers and ethicists - all of whom approach the subject in rather different ways. Harris is neuroscientist but my background is in philosophy (only to degree level and a long time ago) so I defer to Harris' 'friend' Daniel Dennett (a philosopher who I do not always agree with) for his incisive and thorough review that carefully exposes the weaknesses and contradictions in this book. Harris, to his credit, actually features (and replies to) this review on his blog: http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/reflections-on-free-will but he is far from happy with it: 'a strange document--avuncular in places, but more generally sneering. I think it fair to say that one could watch an entire season of Downton Abbey on Ritalin and not detect a finer note of condescension than you manage for twenty pages running' (Harris' reaction to Dennett's review). I won't attempt to repeat the arguments here but they make a great read.
Unlike Harris (but like most philosophers) I'm on the side of the 'compatibilist' - I accept the determinist view that events in the world are chains of cause and effect but that this does not rule out free will. We make decisions every day; I stopped to consider whether that last punctuation should have been a colon, a semi-colon, dash or a comma. Like everybody else, I don't stop and consider after ever word I write but in this case I thought about what 'looked' or 'felt' right, I considered what I remembered of the rules of grammar, I might even have consulted a guide to good grammar. Now I accept that my decision could, in principle, have been predicted on a physical level of cause and effect or simply by someone familiar with how I write, I accept that 'choice' was determined. Nevertheless, on a subjective level I had freedom of choice, I was responsible for my action. Harris would say however much you weigh up the pros and cons there is still something indescribable about which side you come down on and, on examination, the illusion of the illusion of free will breaks down. I disagree - illusory or not, this is what we mean by making decisions, and we do it all the time.
The implications for the existence or non-existence of free will for moral responsibility are complex and messy. To take an example from Harris, we regard a brutal murderer who has a brain tumour as less morally responsible than a brutal murderer who is a psychopath but has a physically sound brain. Or we may not - we draw a line, as we do in so many moral judgements, through grey areas that may never be logically clear, but a logical inconsistency does not mean these judgements are invalid.
To take a less lurid example, imagine your partner has been unfaithful and had a one night stand; `I couldn't help myself' is seldom going to be a satisfactory answer. Or your partner forgets to collect your child from school, `I forgot - circumstances got in the way' needs a lot more explanation. Now we can probably imagine situations where we do accept our partner could not help him or herself (though 'I was drunk and didn't know what I was doing' is probably not going to work), but those stories have to be told and considered. I know nothing about Sam Harris' domestic circumstances but I don't believe if he was in one of these situations either party waving his book around and saying `but we don't really have free will!' is going to help very much. This is how we use the concept of free will, this is the stuff of moral judgements in everyday life, whether or not we believe in a determined universe and irrespective of advancements in neuroscience.
In our day to day interactions with other humans we behave as if they can make free choices and expect them to treat us as if we can make them too - in fact, our lives would not make sense if we acted otherwise. Ultimately those 'free choices' might be illusions, but they are neccessary illusions.
Harris believes he has laid this illusion to rest but it just won't go away - Dennett's review shows that this is a ghost that Harris himself can't give up either. Nevertheless, this book is a easy and stimulating read and short enough to enjoy even if you take issue with it.
(Incidentally, a couple of reviewers have criticised the production quality of this small book; I would disagree - it is rather well produced and the rough edges of the pages are, I believe, entirely intentional [a style more common in the US than the UK] and a nice touch).
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.
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?"