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VINE VOICEon 10 August 2013
The point is : we do not have Free Will - it is an illusion.
This is an excellent treatise on the subject which avoids long-windedness and anal gazing. All of the logic outlined here I had already figured out for myself by the time I was 18, in 1966, and about which I have bored the behinds off many people, then and since, without convincing anyone, as far as I know. All of them should read this book and then look on me with vastly increased respect !
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 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).
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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 9 December 2015
Poorly argued.
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on 5 April 2014
"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 that our sense of free will dissolves under consideration of these two alternatives. For a choice to be rational it must be determined by prior factors that we did not control, and if it is not determined by these, a choice is random and neither then can we claim to be its author. Harris goes into more detail explaining this thesis, but if you reject it at the start, I'm not sure his prose is eloquent enough to persuade many by its end.

There is some brief discussion of neuroscience, such as experiments demonstrating the delay between detectable neurological changes and consciously reported experience, but these could have been discussed at greater length I think. Having recently read D. B. Hart's "The Experience of God", I don't find Harris's explanation of these phenomena is as compelling as I'd like it to be. Our advances in neuroscience make all the difference between arguing about these issues with Harris or with Spinoza, and Harris could have extended the neuroscientific background to his arguments, to better effect than further poetic philosophising, rhetorical questions and introspection.

All this said, if you already agree or are convinced by his arguments, Harris does offer some insightful applications to ethics and politics of this way of thinking. Far from decrying the inevitable train wreck or lottery winnings of our partially-scripted, partially-random lives, Harris highlights the greater compassion that must follow from this understanding, and gives some poignant examples of how our criminal justice system needs to take a more pragmatic view of why people make certain moral decisions, and how we can be influenced to make the "right" ones.

While in no way a rigorous treatise on the subject, "Free Will" does round up some useful ideas that may direct you forwards positively and thoughtfully.
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on 2 October 2016
I don't want to write this, but I must....

Harris manages to eloquently and forcefully summarize much of the philosophical literature regarding the debate around free will. He covers key arguments relating to whether the state of the universe is determined or not and atop that whether free will is compatible with either scenario. With verve and potency he outlines a strong argument as to why a deeper understanding of our lack of free will leaves us with no choice but to grapple with new questions of how to understand morality and how punish and reward.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 10 March 2012
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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on 9 December 2014
I originally bought this book to help me for my essay in Philosophy (uni work, yay). Even though it doesn't really touch on Libet and his experiments on free will, its still a helpful book as it explains the concept and limitations really in a manner which is easy to understand.
This is probably one of the most helpful books that i've read while studying at university, by that I mean one of the best books to help me understand a topic.
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on 31 May 2014
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.
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on 25 August 2015
Clearly and articulately dispels the illusion of free will, and envisions a fairer society where our treatment of other human beings might be based on pragmatic decision making, rather than bogus moral judgements. If people can one day come to a consensus on these issues, and our understanding of human behaviour, the world might just become a happier and more peaceful place.
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