Book review: Free Will by Sam Harris

The late Christopher Hitchens was once asked whether he believed in free will. His reply was classic Hitchens. “Well I have to say yes.”

Sam Harris, a friend of Hitchens, would no doubt have laughed approvingly. Whilst Harris may lack his friend’s witt and encyclodepic knowledge, he does have a focus and a sombriety that does add substance to the argument. His style is simple, engaging and unashamedly popular. What he lacks in detail and supporting argument he makes up with a tight focus on what is relevant to what he is proposing.

Free Will is more a essay than a book. The style is personal. We hear Harris speak to us through the pages. I also sense writing the essay was in itself a personal exercise; a reconfirmation of his own thoughts on the subject.

Are we free to choose? Or is choice an illusion? Harris clearly leans towards the latter. He addresses the arguments for free will, from determinism, libertarianism and compatabilism, and presents a clear picture of their limitations. However it is one thing arguing why a position may not be accurate, and another completely to convincingly state your own position.

Are we free to choose? Or is choice an illusion? Harris clearly leans towards the latter. He addresses the arguments for free will, from determinism, libertarianism and compatabilism, and presents a clear picture of their limitations. However it is one thing arguing why a position may not be accurate, and another completely to convincingly state your own position.

Harris writes of how his understanding of free will has helped him understand his own life and his relationship with others. Countering the often (and to my mind wrong) assumption that without free will we would all be living in nihilism and despair, Harris says by accepting free will as an illusion he has become more understanding and better able to empathise with others. It would indeed be a much better society that choose to incarcerate people not to punish but to protect. A more understanding and less judgemental society would I believe be a more humane society. This surely would be progress.

As a reader howvere I remain unconvinced that free will must be an illusion. I just don’t think Harris does enough to convince me that because our conscious thoughts can be explained by quantum theory we do not have the if not free choice but a flexibility that could be construed as a measure of choice in itself. We may not be able to control our thoughts, but we can condition them

Free Will is a lean, easily readable and thought provoking book. It presents the reader with a good summary of the current debate, and clearly and succinctly argues why we should be wary of taking free will for granted. It focuses on the contradiction between the philosophical and our growing understanding of how the mind works. However if it asks good questions it does not present a satisfactory answer. The book’s strength – it’s simplicity and focus on the conceptual – is also its weakness: it doesn’t really do enough to convince.

One response to Book review: Free Will by Sam Harris

  1. It’s hard to say where Harris is coming from. Here are some of my notes on chapter 4:

    Harris appears to be waffling back and forth in chapter 4, Choices, Efforts, Intentions.

    From the beginning of the chapter he asserts (a) the importance of distinguishing voluntary from involuntary actions, and then (b) erases that distinction by convincing you that you are not really in control of anything, but that it only “feels” or “seems” like you are. Instead he suggests we are pawns being controlled by dark (page 34) and mysterious (page 43) forces.

    On page 32, he speaks of the “apparent reality of choices, freely made” and then suggests that “from a deeper perspective” our “thoughts simply arise unauthored and yet author our actions.”

    Then he comes back offering us free will again in the next sentence, “This is not to say that conscious awareness and deliberative thinking serve no purpose. Indeed, much of our behavior depends on them.”

    And then he takes it away again when he says, “This process of conscious deliberation, while different from unconscious reflex, offers no foundation for freedom of will.” (page 33)

    And then gives it back in the discussion of fatalism when he says, “To sit back and see what happens is itself a choice that will produce its own consequences.” (page 33-34)

    And he claims to be the “primary cause” of writing his own book (page 34), affirming that “Decisions, intentions, efforts, goals, willpower, etc., are causal states of the brain, leading to specific behaviors, and behaviors lead to outcomes in the world.” In other words, we, ourselves really do cause stuff.

    But attempts to take it all back in the next sentence when speaking of you, “But the next 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.”

    It’s enough to make you dizzy — which is probably a nice state to increase suggestibility in the reader.

    Like

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