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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Witty, engaging, wonderfully short but very unsatisfactory
on 3 January 2015
`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).