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A Review of "Free Will" by Sam Harris

Last year I took a group of high school students to UC Berkeley to interact with skeptics. After spending an evening with S.A.N.E (Students for a Non-religious Ethos), I found myself in a conversation with an undergraduate student about the existence of free will. She told me that she recently embraced determinism and rejected free will.


In response to my query about why she changed her mind, she appealed to genetics, background forces, and environmental factors. In other words, she believed there is no free will because external forces determine beliefs. What she didn’t realize was that the justification she offered for her belief in determinism undermined her deterministic beliefs. She believed that she had evaluated the evidence and embraced the position—determinism—that is most logical. And yet if determinism were true she would have been incapable of evaluating evidence and freely following the logic because all her choices were already set. Logically speaking, her position was self-refuting. In other words, she sawed off the branch she was sitting on.


Sam Harris makes the exact same mistake in his recent book Free Will (Free Press, 2012). He denies the existence of free will, but like this girl, his arguments undermine this very position. Before offering my critique, let me briefly clarify his views.


After rightly emphasizing the importance of the question of free will, Harris concludes, “Free will is an illusion” (p. 5). According to Harris, we are not the conscious source of our actions and we could not have behaved differently in the past than we did. He says, “I, as the conscious witness of my experience, no more initiate events in my prefrontal cortex than I cause my heart to beat” (9). “In physical terms,” says Harris, “we know that every human action can be reduced to a series of impersonal events” (27).


Harris rightly points out that there are three main approaches to the problem of free will and determinism: determinism, libertarianism, and compatibilism. He then says, “Today, the only philosophically respectable way to endorse free will is to be a compatibilist” (16). But if determinism were true, as Harris asserts, why would any position be philosophically unrespectable? After all, people are determined to hold their beliefs—whether compatibilist, libertarian, or determinist—by forces outside of their control. Why would he bother to critique other positions if the people who hold them couldn’t have believed differently? In fact, his critique is just the result of chemicals moving in his brain, so why do they matter? What makes his chemicals more respectable than others?


Later in the book Harris says that giving up free will (and becoming more aware of the background causes of our feelings) allows people to have greater creative control over their lives. “Getting behind our conscious thoughts and feelings,” says Harris, “can allow us to steer a more intelligent course through our lives” (p. 47). Do you see the contradiction? The idea of “steering” a more intelligent course through life, of course, has no meaning in a deterministic world. On Harris’ view we can’t steer anything! The belief that we can steer our lives is an illusion. All of our beliefs and behavior are entirely the result of forces outside our control. In one breath Harris says all our beliefs are determined, but then in another breath he speaks about steering the course of our lives. Which is it?


Here are some other brief comments in Free Will that puzzle me.


Harris critiques the idea of an immortal soul as one of the cruelest concepts in history (p. 56). Yet if his deterministic views are correct then people who embrace the soul were determined to do so and could not have believed differently. Why bother to critique then? He might as well critique water for boiling at 100˚ C.


He says that dispensing with the idea of free will allows us to focus on things that matter most—assessing risk, protecting the innocent, and deterring crime (p. 53). He seems to be implying that we ought to accept his deterministic views for the betterment of mankind. Yet again, if determinism is true then we can’t change any of our beliefs—we can’t freely follow his logic since our beliefs are already set. The very fact that he argues for his position undermines his stated belief in determinism.


Harris offers a mild critique of conservatives who seem to have no compassion for orphans or those born with clubbed feet (p. 62). But if his deterministic views are correct they couldn’t help it. Conservatives are forced to believe this because of their parents, genes, and environment (as are liberals). Again, why is he bothering to critique them?


There are many more inconsistencies throughout Free Will, but the point should be well stated—Harris argues against free will, yet all of his arguments rest upon the existence of free will.


Harris raises important issues related to the free will debate, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants a naturalistic view of human behavior. But the problem is that he doesn’t take his views far enough. For example, in the conclusion he says, “The illusion of free will is itself an illusion” (p. 64). He’s right. If determinism is true, then the belief in free will is an illusion. But why stop at the belief in free will? It would seem to follow logically that all our beliefs are illusions if determinism is true. In fact, the belief that “the illusion of free will is itself an illusion” is itself an illusion…and so is the rest of the entire book.


Harris is correct. It is pointless to keep fighting, you must be able to see it by now. Truth, freedom, peace, love, are all illusions, a temporary construct of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose!

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Harris offers a mild critique of conservatives who seem to have no compassion for orphans or those born with clubbed feet (p. 62). But if his deterministic views are correct they couldn’t help it. Conservatives are forced to believe this because of their parents, genes, and environment (as are liberals). Again, why is he bothering to critique them?

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Free Will" brings together the essential readings in the debate about free will and determinism." "Written by top scholars in the field, the essays represent some of the clearest and most accessible thinking on this subject. The introduction offers a concise yet thorough mapping of this age-old debate as well as a helpful overview of the selections.

To what extent are we truly free? Are our actions determined? If so, are we morally responsible for our actions? And does such determinism necessarily conflict with free will? This volume covers wide-ranging issues in the debate about free will, including the distinction between freedom of choice and freedom of will, moral responsibility, determinism, and compatibility.

This compact collection of some of the best and most provocative writing on free will is ideal for anyone who wants to explore this complex problem.

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Hey, that quote is from the Matrix Revolution. Mr. Anderson says it to Neo right before Neo says he fights for freedom. I always wondered why Mr. Anderson would fight against Neo by trying to convince him that he ought not fight. Hmmmm.....

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He seems to suggest that our wants (which are caused by a chain of other causes) ultimately determine our choices. For instance, his (seemingly voluntary) lifting of the pink finger in response to determinism could itself be caused by his "reflexive impulse against the repugnant notion that all his actions were outside of his control".

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Sean, you said, "Yet again, if determinism is true then we can’t change any of our beliefs—we can’t freely follow his logic since our beliefs are already set." Why do we need to freely follow his logic before our beliefs can be rational? What if our beliefs are determined by Harris' logic? You say that "The very fact that he argues for his position undermines his stated belief in determinism," but I don't see how. Maybe Harris argues for determinism BECAUSE he's a determinist. He thinks that his arguments will play some part in the causal chain, resulting in other people adopting his belief. And he's determined to make his arguments by his desire to persuade other people. So you could have a deterministic causal chain that goes something like this:

Chemical reactions in Harris' brain cause him to want to persuade other people to adopt determinism.

Harris' desire to persuade other people of determinism causes him to make arguments for determinism.

Harris' arguments for determinism interact with the rest of the world causing some people to adopt determinism and failing to cause others to adopt determinism.

Why is free will necessary? Do you think our beliefs are under the control of the will such that we can simply choose to believe? It seems to me that THAT would undermine our rationality since then there is no necessary connection between reasons and beliefs. Beliefs would arise spontaneously and acausally. It seems to me that the more hand "reasons" play in forming our beliefs, the more rational we are. Since reasons have the MOST hand in forming our beliefs when our beliefs are completely determined by reasons, we are the most rational when our beliefs are determined by reasons, and not when they are chosen for no reason at all.

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Sean McDowell is a teacher, author, speaker, husband and father. He is an avid fan of college basketball, ping-pong, and his favorite superhero is the Amazing Spiderman.