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Free Will by Sam Harris

Free Will (2012)

by Sam Harris

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Free will and responsibility are not the same thing. Reading this made me think about the epistemology and ontology of "free will", an old myth which humanity is just still not ready to let die. Philosophy and science, as ever, are way ahead of the ubiquitous closed minds of mankind. ( )
  JorgeCarvajal | Feb 13, 2015 |
A great introduction to the topic of free will and determinism. Not for the philosophically advanced but this book does offer some interesting psychological perspectives that are too often overlooked in philosophy. I particularly liked the discussion of the political ramifications of free will and determinism. ( )
  wildeaboutoscar | Sep 20, 2013 |
This little book (small, at 80 pages) is a concise statement of the anti- free will position. It provides a fine introduction for any reader who has not thought about the issues. More experienced readers will find it unsatisfying and superficial, in that it side- steps complexities, and doesn't make much effort to take on counter-arguments. One would not realize from this work that a large literature on the free-will issue exists. As a relative newcomer to the controversies, Harris does little justice the thinking of philosophers and scientists who have wrestled with the issues over the decades and centuries. Nevertheless, Harris' essay is a clever, incisive challenge to common assumptions, one that proponents of free will find hard to refute. This book will expand the perspective of many a reader, and would be a useful addition to a college or high school class, especially if accompanied by works with alternative viewpoints.

My own sympathies lie with the anti- free will position as well; in fact I find myself in overall agreement with the author's perspective. If anything, my mixed reaction reflects disappointment that the strong case made by the author was not stronger. For example, from the empirical side, much more could have been cited in favor of the author's position. Likewise, on the philosophical side, the author text does not deal with complexities at more than a superficial level.

For example: "Either our wills are determined by prior causes, and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them." Such a statement, one that is apparently is to be taken largely on faith, will not go far towards convincing the skeptic that these are the only two options. Consider the linguistic complexities masked in the facile use of words such as "wills," "causes," and "responsibility," words whose meanings and implications surely need to be unpacked and analyzed.

Another quote from later in the book states: "To say that I was responsible for my behavior is simply to say that what I did was sufficiently in keeping with my thoughts, intentions, beliefs, and desires to be considered an extension of them." Very few people would be willing to use the word "responsible" in the new way that Harris proposes. (Does his argument not imply that we should expunge the word from our vocabulary, on the grounds that none of us are "responsible" in the accepted use of that term?) What's more, it's hard to see how the word carries any meaning in Harris' particular usage, because it seems impossible to operationalize in any useful way. How can one determine whether or not a person's actions were "an extension" of their internal mental states, when one has no access to the latter? Likewise, why does the author assume that such mental states (desires and the like) are causes of behavior, instead of what many experts now consider to be mere epiphenomena that do not occupy a link in a causal chain? Further, what about the roles of influences that even the individual is unaware of -- given the existence of unconscious behavior, subconscious motives, and the penchant for self- deception? In other words, does Harris' abstract position allow us to judge to what extent a person is "responsible" (in his sense) for a given action in anything like a real world situation?

"Dispensing with the illusion of free will allows us to focus on the things that matter -- assessing risk, protecting innocent people, deterring crime, etc." Fair enough -- let's change behavior by changing causal influences; and in the context of crime, let's abandon punishment for its own sake in favor of deterrence. But mythological or not, the assumption that the "I" behind my actions "makes choices" is itself a cause, one far more likely to lead to responsible behavior than the counterview that my behavior is controlled by external events. As Harris himself implicitly recognizes, a justly- delivered and appropriate punishment that is based on the assumption that a freely- choosing individual caused their own actions is itself a deterrent, a causal influence on future behavior.

Currently in the news is the trial of an American man who kidnapped and imprisoned women in his home for up to ten years, subjecting them to unimaginable abuse. With tears in his eyes, the perpetrator insists that he is not a monster, but that he's "sick", a victim of impulses out of his control. The internet is to blame, he insists, and his addiction to sex. While undoubtedly ignorant of the philosophical arguments, the perpetrator has been influenced by the Zeitgeist they have created. Thus he seeks to shift the focus from his actions and his victims to the alleged causes of his behavior, a shift intended to allow him to escape consequences of his actions. How would we apply the abstract anti- free will position to a case like this? Perhaps the prosecution and defense should hire competing teams of experts to testify on whether the perpetrator's actions were caused by proximate external influences or by more distant influences that are part of his psychological make-up. In other words, does it ultimately matter one way or another in real- world situations what position we take on the abstract question? Or is the anti- free will position no more than fodder for abstract academic discussions and college classes in philosophy?

Notwithstanding its arguable flaws, Sam Harris' book articulates clear, concise, eloquent, and incisive arguments against a root assumption that nearly all people make about their own behavior and that of others. The book is replete with questions that thoughtful people should think about, and offers answers that challenge assumptions of a pre- scientific age, assumptions inherent in beliefs promoted by the monotheistic religions. Given the merits of this book, the above review may well be unduly hard on a work that surely was not meant to be the final word on the subject. If so, don't blame me; I'm not responsible. My behavior was caused. :-) ( )
3 vote danielx | Aug 3, 2013 |
This is a booklet, not a book. I have been pondering the problem of free will for twenty years, it is a central part of the book I am just about to publish, so I was very interested to see what Mr. Harris had to say. I was extremely disappointed.

I was shocked by the shallowness of his arguments. The scientific evidence he draws on are experiments that I read about 15 years ago; I can’t understand why he doesn’t include the copious evidence against free will that neuroscience has amassed in the last decade. His other arguments seem adolescent or circular. There are no definitions of what “free,” or “free will” mean. He just blithely assumes that the meanings are obvious.

He begins his book with the statement that the cultural clash over the issue of free-will/determinism will be more explosive than that over evolution. But his discussion of the consequences of our culture letting go of the belief in free will is appallingly brief. He addresses the most obvious issue, crime, but that’s about it. Nothing about the more personal issues of shame and pride. Nothing about how this would affect my attitude towards someone who has hurt me, or how it would affect our cultural belief in a meritocracy where people deserve better compensation because of their abilities.

He ends with a flippant “proof” of his lack of free will by saying “I can end this book any time I want, and since I can’t think of anything else to say on the subject and I’m hungry I’m going to stop now.” I could think of a dozen things he hadn’t discussed right off the top of my head!

If you’re interested in free will, don’t read this book. First read Incognito, by David Eagleman, for the latest neuroscience research and what this means about free will. Then read The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, by Alex Rosenberg, for a thoughtful discussion of what no free will means for our society. Then read my new book, We Are ALL Innocent by Reason of Insanity, for insight on what no free will means for the individual, in addition to the culture. You can read my blog posts on free will here: http://www.innocentbyreasonofinsanity.com/blog/category/free-will-2/

I did get one memorable idea from Mr. Harris’ book: “Don’t confuse determinism with fatalism,” but he got that idea from someone else (philosopher Daniel Dennett).

Frankly I can’t understand why this book was published. It is so light on substance it should have been a blog post. The only reason I could come up with was Mr. Harris thinks that free will is going to be a major issue in the near future, and he wanted to position himself as an authority and original source.
( )
  KatieBrugger | Jun 6, 2013 |
Sam Harris's Free Will is the ideal introduction to the subject of free will and determinism. It isn't in any sense a comprehensive study (and has no pretentions of being so), but instead offers a general overview of the subject, presented in a remarkably simple and easy-to-read style. Included is a critique of compatibalism and a brief look at the moral consequences of abandoning the 'free will illusion' with respect to the concept of responsibility, but of special note is Harris's distinction between determinism and fatalism (two concepts all too often conflated by anti-determinists), however for such an important point this is given only a brief mention of one or two sentences. The entire meditation is skillfully condensed into something like 13,000 words – a quite astonishing feat of concision – while somehow avoiding the sin of being in any way simplistic. So, in all, a quite brilliant little book that far surpassed my initial expectations. If you know any adherents of the free will illusion, buy them each a copy of this book – it's short, cheap, undemanding, and might just make the world that little bit more rational.
2 vote benjamin7857 | Jan 24, 2013 |
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In this enlightening book, Sam Harris argues that free will is an illusion but that this truth should not undermine morality or diminish the importance of social and political freedom; indeed, this truth can and should change the way we think about some of the most important questions in life.… (more)

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