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3.9 out of 5 stars
Free Will
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
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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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
`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).
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41 of 45 people found the following review helpful
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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30 of 34 people found the following review helpful
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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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
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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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
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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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
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.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
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 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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