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Free Will

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Belief in free will touches nearly everything that human beings value. It is difficult to think about law, politics, religion, public policy, intimate relationships, morality—as well as feelings of remorse or personal achievement—without first imagining that every person is the true source of his or her thoughts and actions. And yet the facts tell us that free will is an i Belief in free will touches nearly everything that human beings value. It is difficult to think about law, politics, religion, public policy, intimate relationships, morality—as well as feelings of remorse or personal achievement—without first imagining that every person is the true source of his or her thoughts and actions. And yet the facts tell us that free will is an illusion. In this enlightening book, Sam Harris argues that this truth about the human mind does not undermine morality or diminish the importance of social and political freedom, but it can and should change the way we think about some of the most important questions in life.


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Belief in free will touches nearly everything that human beings value. It is difficult to think about law, politics, religion, public policy, intimate relationships, morality—as well as feelings of remorse or personal achievement—without first imagining that every person is the true source of his or her thoughts and actions. And yet the facts tell us that free will is an i Belief in free will touches nearly everything that human beings value. It is difficult to think about law, politics, religion, public policy, intimate relationships, morality—as well as feelings of remorse or personal achievement—without first imagining that every person is the true source of his or her thoughts and actions. And yet the facts tell us that free will is an illusion. In this enlightening book, Sam Harris argues that this truth about the human mind does not undermine morality or diminish the importance of social and political freedom, but it can and should change the way we think about some of the most important questions in life.

30 review for Free Will

  1. 5 out of 5

    Stephanie *Extremely Stable Genius*

    I am an agnostic which means I am firm in my belief that I have no idea what to believe. I don't know what is true and what isn't and no one, no matter how strong your faith, or how strong your lack of faith is.....you don't know either. You don't know what happens to you after you die. You pretty much have to die to find that out. You may really, really, really believe little alien souls are attached to your body and making your life miserable, and that the only way to make it all better is to I am an agnostic which means I am firm in my belief that I have no idea what to believe. I don't know what is true and what isn't and no one, no matter how strong your faith, or how strong your lack of faith is.....you don't know either. You don't know what happens to you after you die. You pretty much have to die to find that out. You may really, really, really believe little alien souls are attached to your body and making your life miserable, and that the only way to make it all better is to blow your life savings in Clearwater Florida trying to rid yourself of these little bastards by way of a weird looking machine. It still doesn't make it true, it's purely your free will to believe it is. Next to art, and generally making things that are pretty and/or interesting, I'm really fascinated with science. Books on the brain are something I generally gravitated towards which is why I picked up Free Will. Sam Harris is obviously a very intelligent man he generally seems to know what he is talking about. But I can't digest what he is dishing out in Free Will. Basically, if I am following what he is saying (and it is possible I'm NOT) human beings have no free will.....excuse me? Apparently there have been studies that prove that when we make the decision to do something our brain does the deciding first before we are even aware of our decision consciously. This is done with some fancy imaging machines that catch a blip of some sort go off before you do what you're going to do. So, of course we don't have free will. I must be missing something. My head hurts. Somehow because we don't know what makes our brain decide something before we become aware of what it is that we are deciding we aren't actually deciding anything at all. Uhhh......ok? To me this strengthens the argument that we are something more than just our brains. Maybe....just maybe, what is making the brain do it's business is the energy (or soul if you like to call it that) that animates these meat suits we walk around in. Or not! I don't know but I believe someday science will figure out what that's all about. Science advances insanely fast. Right now I can probably take over a third world country with my Ipad. I can't even imagine what will be invented or discovered in the near future. So for Sam to jump to this conclusion seems premature. It is more likely we have control over our decisions and that we are responsible for them than not. I believe we have free will to do the right thing despite our circumstances growing up. I have the free will not to like Free Will all that much and you have the free will to disagree with me about that..... Also reviewed on Shelfinflicted

  2. 5 out of 5

    Trevor

    It has been one of those odd times when I seem to be getting tripped over by the same sorts of ideas over and over again. I can't for the life of me tell you why I thought it was a good idea recently to read Freud's Interpretation of Dreams -like the proverbial mountain, it was just there. Then I was tossing up what to read next and there was this other book on the brain called Incognito and that was more or less on similar ground although, obviously quite updated. Both, though, stressed the fac It has been one of those odd times when I seem to be getting tripped over by the same sorts of ideas over and over again. I can't for the life of me tell you why I thought it was a good idea recently to read Freud's Interpretation of Dreams -like the proverbial mountain, it was just there. Then I was tossing up what to read next and there was this other book on the brain called Incognito and that was more or less on similar ground although, obviously quite updated. Both, though, stressed the fact that we are not quite as 'in control' of our selves as we tend to imagine we are. Then a friend of mine yesterday sent me this link to a recent lecture by Sam Harris on this book: http://www.samharris.org/media/the-il... I was about a third of the way through Foucault's The Order of Things and really didn't want to stop reading that for anything else - but this is so short... You can read it in a couple of hours. And what it has to say is so very important. So much of what I have been reading lately confirms the idea that our inevitable feeling that we are free agents responsible for our actions and therefore blameworthy for them too is one of the most remarkable illusions there is to being human. But I think what is most interesting about this is that the part of me that knows this is true, that free will is an illusion, is still not strong enough to overcome my persistent feeling of being both free to choose and the chooser of my actions. I know neither of these are really the case and Harris's wonderful examples make this even more clear - but it is not just that I want to be blamed for my misdeeds, I still want to be praised for my good ones. Neither is appropriate, however - we do not exist, we are not 'individuals' but the results of endless influences on us at various moments and the notion that we persist as self-identical is yet another illusion. People find these conclusions terribly threatening, but really, they don't make a whole lot of difference. We cannot live a life outside the illusion of a self or of a self with free will. But that doesn't make either the self or free will any less illusions. Yet again, this is a book that challenges our justice system - and one of the main events in my life in the last few years was sitting on a jury in a criminal justice case and having all of the stuff I've been reading about the reliability of memory and the problem of responsibility played out before my eyes. Sometimes it can be just as challenging to have your ideas confirmed as it is to have them disproved. It seems incomprehensible to me that we direct the smartest people in our society into the legal and justice system and yet they can sit through court case after court case and not see that the endless contradictions involved in the evidence presented to them makes the whole notion of 'reasonable doubt' a bit of a joke. But a justice system based on moral responsibility due to the free exercise of the will of the accused is simply in complete contradiction to what we know - KNOW - about what happens in our brains when we make decisions. This is not a minor matter - it ought to completely change the way we conduct criminal justice. That it will not says more about the persistence of our prejudices than it does about anything else. I've no idea why the universe has decided I need to pay particularly close attention to these questions at the moment, I've so much else I need to think about - but that just seems to be the way the world is. Read this or watch the video - the video covers all the same ground, you won't miss much in not reading the book. It is, though, time we took the implications of the latest advances in brain science seriously.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Joel

    I like padding my reading challenge with ridiculously short books.

  4. 4 out of 5

    BlackOxford

    Kick ‘Em While They’re Down This is a book of academic philosophy written in popular form. In it Harris is primarily concerned with defending his position about the illusory nature of the idea of Free Will, principally against the philosopher Daniel Dennett. However, there is an important cultural background to this debate which Harris has refrained from alluding to, I suppose in deference to professional discipline. This background is theological and subtly pervades the entire debate. The p Kick ‘Em While They’re Down This is a book of academic philosophy written in popular form. In it Harris is primarily concerned with defending his position about the illusory nature of the idea of Free Will, principally against the philosopher Daniel Dennett. However, there is an important cultural background to this debate which Harris has refrained from alluding to, I suppose in deference to professional discipline. This background is theological and subtly pervades the entire debate. The political import of the debate can’t be appreciated fully without this context. Free Will is a Christian heresy, and yet it is the apparent foundation of all Christian morality. As usual the source of the doctrine of universal human corruption, and therefore the inability to act with true freedom, is St. Paul. For Paul, according to his subsequent interpreters, particularly Augustine, a truly Free Will is only possible through the gift of grace from God. And this gift is dependent upon faith in Jesus Christ. So those who have never heard of Jesus cannot have Free Will; those who have heard of him and do not have faith in him cannot have Free Will; and even those who believe they have faith cannot be certain that it is sufficient to guarantee them the capacity for Free Will. The heresy that claims even the slightest deviation from this doctrine is called Pelagianism. It turns out that advances in neurological and other biological sciences have confirmed at least half of the ancient Christian doctrine of corruption and lack of personal freedom. As human beings, we are subject not just to the desires that Paul (religious violence), Augustine (sex) and so many others (mostly about power in one form or another) have struggled with, but also to the random experiences that provoke equally random thoughts that on occasion lead to behaviours which we ultimately regret. Many of these behaviours will be considered immoral or even criminal for which most people consider sanctions or penalties appropriate, either administered in this world or another. As Harris puts it so succinctly, with only the slightest allusion to theology: “If you don’t know what your soul is going to do next, you are not in control.” So, the deepest part of oneself is at least mysterious if not patently unwieldy - Dr. Freud concurs. But the other part of the Christian proposition, the gift of grace through faith, largely negates the moral impact of the idea of human spiritual corruption. If faith is not offered because of ignorance, the moral fault is God’s not humanity’s. If faith is offered and rejected, the only ‘crime’ is such rejection and not any subsequent unacceptable behaviour. Many Christians hold that the grace of faith is irresistible (and yet freedom-giving!), which implies real freedom not to sin once it is received. The actual behaviour of Christians is such, however, that either the irresistibility of grace is somewhat overstated, or it doesn’t possess the kind of divine transformative punch which is advertised. Accordingly, Free Will presents a sort of cultural crisis among folk who share a Christian legacy. Despite the apparent availability of a get-out-of-jail-free card in not just the absence but also the condemnation of the concept of Free Will in Christian culture, it is maintained as a fundamental principle of ethics, politics, economics, many branches of psychology, and, crucially, the law. Harris’s message consequently is controversial when it should be accepted without much comment: “Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have.” Good traditional Christian doctrine. Yet it is generally rejected by the culture which claims a Christian heritage. There’s a significant ancillary issue in the philosophical debate, therefore. Free Will is one of those contradictions of faith-based religion which most religionists would like to ignore because it means abjuring power over others. It is the signal topic in which faith runs aground as an obvious and public anti-social concept. It’s a ship that just doesn’t float in a sea of people with conflicting interests, aspirations, sometimes malicious intentions, and not infrequent violence. Faith, as a matter of universal human experience, does not mitigate any of these traits. In fact if Free Will existed anywhere, in anyone, by definition it would be exercised only in furtherance of the good and would therefore exempt its possessor from any negative judgement. In other words, those who have it are always innocent; and only the innocent could claim it. That Free Will is some sort of feeling is true. It is our name for something like consciousness is a name for something. Perhaps they are the same thing. But if so we know very little about either phenomenon except that it is expressed as a feeling we think we share with others; but we can’t be entirely sure. It is not solipsistic to suggest that your feeling of Free Will is not anything like mine. Neither one of us has a clear idea what it might be. By suggesting that there was such an entity as the will at all (a politically important Christological topic in theology), Paul and Augustine and the rest planted a concept, like faith and grace, whose main function is to raise doubt and promote guilt about not having them. The idea of freedom persists even if the associated feelings of religious faith and species-guilt have attenuated. What we’re left with is a psychological myth and a forensic category meant to assign Free Will to precisely those who cannot have it, namely those who do supposed evil things, most often the poor, uneducated, abused, genetically deficient human being. Free Will is claimed as the source of their guilt but Christian doctrine says it cannot be. This is hypocrisy of massive proportions. To what end? Functionally it is to exercise power in restricting freedom and to justify doing so. Augustine was right in his condemnation of Pelagius, but for the wrong reasons. The issue is not corruption of something called the human Will; it is, as Harris says, the fabric of our being: “Choices, efforts, intentions, and reasoning influence our behavior—but they are themselves part of a chain of causes that precede conscious awareness and over which we exert no ultimate control.” To claim faith or grace as a sort of short-circuit to this process is what Christians have perennially done with no evidence whatsoever. Whatever is meant, or interpreted, by faith and grace is simply another one of the chain of causes. Harris thinks that Free Will is not a result of conscious awareness but of a lack of it: “Our sense of our own freedom results from our not paying close attention to what it is like to be us.” I agree. It is an illusion that disappears as soon as one tries to attend to it. It has no subjective content as well as no objective existence. In this it is like faith and grace. And like them, Free Will has become a conceptual instrument of repression and justification for the exercise of arbitrary human power. I don’t think the philosophical debate is complete without this element. Postscript: Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim sums up the situation neatly: “I've visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will".

  5. 4 out of 5

    Riku Sayuj

    On Free Will & Crime: How should society react to violent crime? Glancing at the cover might have been more than enough to guess the full contents of this one... Harris is right to an extent, but as many have already done, his argument is too easy to poke holes in. This is primarily because the argument depends on the definition/boundary that he imposes on it. It makes for a good argument in a monologue but will fall apart in a dialogue. This is not to say that there is no merit On Free Will & Crime: How should society react to violent crime? Glancing at the cover might have been more than enough to guess the full contents of this one... Harris is right to an extent, but as many have already done, his argument is too easy to poke holes in. This is primarily because the argument depends on the definition/boundary that he imposes on it. It makes for a good argument in a monologue but will fall apart in a dialogue. This is not to say that there is no merit in what he concludes on the basis of his hypothesis. He uses it to identify the true nature of crime and how society should react to it: If sneezing was a crime and someone violated it, can we become riled enough about it to conduct mass protests? What if all (or most) violent crimes are like that at a fundamental level - involuntary? Can we move our justice system away from a system based on punishment to one based on correction/isolation. Can we start feeling fear and pity to offenders instead of anger and revenge? These threads make the book a must read, especially in the light of the mass hysteria that has gripped Delhi (and the whole nation) in the wake of the poor unnamed girl's unfortunate death. Maybe I will elaborate on my thoughts on this subject at a later date, coward that I am.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Alex J. O'Connor

    This book is succinctly mind-blowing. After finishing reading (actually, listening to) it, I am solidly convinced that the conventional understanding of 'free will' is an illusion My only gripe regards his talk of moral responsibility: Harris raises some interesting questions (how can we hold criminals accountable if they are not in control of their actions?) but falls short of answering them to any satisfaction. I believe that this is due to the fact that such questions are unanswerable, I just This book is succinctly mind-blowing. After finishing reading (actually, listening to) it, I am solidly convinced that the conventional understanding of 'free will' is an illusion My only gripe regards his talk of moral responsibility: Harris raises some interesting questions (how can we hold criminals accountable if they are not in control of their actions?) but falls short of answering them to any satisfaction. I believe that this is due to the fact that such questions are unanswerable, I just wish Harris had either stressed this or given a more convincing response than the typical appeal to pragmatism. I'd recommend this book to anyone willing to have a bit of an existential crisis upon the realisation that they didn't choose to read it. Heck, I didn't even choose to type this short review. And I'm about to not choose to stop.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Jakob J.

    Nietzsche is said to have said that he wished to say more in a couple lines than most philosophers could say in an entire book. The scheme may very well have been met by the great 19th century thinker, as each sentence could be dissected and interpreted in such ways that they beget numerous debates and discussions still. Sam Harris has expressed no such ambition, but if there is a modern philosopher/scientist to whom such a description could be accredited, it would be him (although he may be les Nietzsche is said to have said that he wished to say more in a couple lines than most philosophers could say in an entire book. The scheme may very well have been met by the great 19th century thinker, as each sentence could be dissected and interpreted in such ways that they beget numerous debates and discussions still. Sam Harris has expressed no such ambition, but if there is a modern philosopher/scientist to whom such a description could be accredited, it would be him (although he may be less difficult to take in than Nietzsche). The straightforwardly named Free Will could prove to be one of the more important books (or pamphlets) written in the coming years. The recent onslaught of neuroscience books may seem fashionable; an intellectual fad of sorts (as much could be said for the so-called new/neo-atheist ‘movement’ for which Harris was arguably the progenitor), but the merits and contentions of Dr. Harris cannot be chalked up to barren hype. Within his own lifetime, it is not unreasonable to think we may see a book entitled Why Sam Harris Matters (No, not by me, yet) being published. Perhaps he is destined, er, headed for a Nobel Prize. (Hey, it’s likelier than a Templeton Prize). Controversy: What would the implications be if the scientific consensuses become one of “free will is an illusion”? After all, the notion of free will has long been a definitive characteristic of what it is to be human. Given how many people still reject scientific consensus on matters like evolution, it is safe to assume that such a declaration would not change society at large w/r/t their belief in free will. Some significant portion of the population wouldn’t even find out about the shift, I’d wager. Free Will is largely assumed from the outset. We (or they) initiate conversations on morality with statements like “because we have free will, we…”, and “Free will has allowed for us humans to…”, and my favorite “God gave us free will so that we may choose…” It is used as a tool in a debate about morality, accountability, and responsibility, when it should often be part of the debate itself. Classical moralists (as I refer to them as) seem to think that the aim of those who would argue against the existence of free will is to absolve heinous murderers, rapists and other criminals of any wrong-doing. The problem in this sort of criticism is immediately apparent. Ask anyone (free will advocate or not) if they would feel comfortable with a known serial rapist/murderer/human-organ-collector/explosives-enthusiast/psycopath living across the street from them. The answer would invariably be NO, or perhaps, WHAT THE HELL KIND OF IDIOTIC QUESTION IS THAT? To seriously answer otherwise would itself be indicative of psychopathy. What makes people appeal to such paranoid accusations, as if neuroscience is all a conspiracy to set Charles Manson free? The emotional responses we have to murder are as hard-wired into us as digestion and waste excretion. The desire for vengeance when we feel wronged is entirely natural, but this has no particular bearing on what ‘motivation’ there was on the part of the offender. Free will, in the context of anti-life activities, is an excuse to justify why we want retribution, but to put it as simply (and boldly) as I can, we don’t need an excuse for these desires. Solidarity and empathy account for much in these matters. We empathize with family members of murder victims because we don’t want our loved one taken from us in such a manner. This all seems rather obvious, but people talk about justice as if it depends on punishing people for having the minds they have, which, ultimately, may have been no more capable of choosing to do what they did than we have to sleep when our bodies (or brains) tell us we are tired. We would still have a duty to keep offenders of livelihood and civilization away from functional society. (“If we could incarcerate earthquakes and hurricanes for their crimes…”, we would). Not to dwell too long on the point, but the objections of this sort are purely emotional, and that is justification in-and-of itself for wanting to kill someone for killing someone else. In a roundabout way, it further proves the absence of free will. Do we have control over how we feel about people? Do we really, as religious moralists assume, have the power to forgive? The problem, as Harris points out, is that we have absolutely no say in who we are. We are born with all the proclivities that we will come to live with, whether it be a dormant neurological disorder that will spring up in our thirties, or a predisposition for cancer that develops a tumor in our frontal cortex and could fundamentally ‘change’ who we are. Psychopaths don’t choose to be psychopaths any more than people with down-syndrome choose to have down-syndrome. Questions to Consider: If we had free will, would we ever be able to do what we did, when we could have done something else instead? Did I have a choice to phrase that question differently? If I went back and changed the way I phrased the question, did I have a choice to keep it as it was? Did you have a choice to read it? Once you read it, do you have a choice to forget it? Are you asking yourself if I have a choice to shut the fuck up? Did you have a choice about whether or not you asked yourself that question? A Coming Intellectual Feud? Harris ensues a friendly dissent from philosopher Daniel Dennett and the compatibilists, who “generally claim that a person is free from any outer or inner compulsions that would prevent him from acting on his actual desires and intentions.” Whatever we ‘decide’ to do is determined by something that we could not have ‘decided’ to think, or on past events which are already done and irreversible. To make it clear, we are incapable of doing anything which does not occur to us to do. Harris has received much criticism from Dennett’s students and fans. Hopefully I can look forward to a debate between the two greats. Choosing to Conclude My Thoughts: Where do our ideas come from? When we have good ideas, it cannot be said that we chose to have them. The depressing loathsomeness which shadows a good idea that doesn’t last long enough to make it on the page occurs because that idea had nothing to do with me as a conscious agent determining which thoughts to hang on to and which to dispose of; leaving only the memory that I had a good idea, without allowing me to process again what that idea was. (If this review sucks, the above sentence is my excuse as to the reason). I can’t think of anything else to write about this book at the moment, and can’t wait to post it any longer, “and where is the freedom in that?”

  8. 4 out of 5

    Caroline

    Sam Harris’s book is essay length, and a wonderfully easy read, considering it presents some revolutionary ideas. The overriding one being his questioning of free will. He tells us that various scientific experiments have shown beyond doubt that we reach decisions in our brains unconsciously - before we reach decisions consciously via the sense of “I think” that we know so well. These unconscious decisions are shaped by our genetics, our upbringing, our physiology, our culture, our cu Sam Harris’s book is essay length, and a wonderfully easy read, considering it presents some revolutionary ideas. The overriding one being his questioning of free will. He tells us that various scientific experiments have shown beyond doubt that we reach decisions in our brains unconsciously - before we reach decisions consciously via the sense of “I think” that we know so well. These unconscious decisions are shaped by our genetics, our upbringing, our physiology, our culture, our current situation and so forth, and they well up from the depths of our being, not from the conscious decision-making self that appears to govern the way we negotiate life. When we casually decide to phone someone, the idea just floats into our consciousness from our unconscious. The desire for the call comes seemingly out of a void. That is something that most of us can easily accept. But Harris would argue that so does the idea we want to marry so-and-so, or take that new job. Even when we think we deliberate consciously and robustly about such matters, we are in fact just making stories up about decisions already made unconsciously. So, in Sam Harris’s eyes ‘free will’ is in fact just a quirk of how we experience ourselves. It’s a useful tool in helping us bring everything together, and creating a sense of control, but it isn’t real. It’s just a feeling. I found his arguments remarkably persuasive. Besides his concept of free will being just a sensation, he also speaks very interestingly about criminality, and how we need to rethink our attitudes, and the way we regard and treat criminals in the light of current research. His ideas call for understanding rather than punitive or vengeful responses, even for the most appalling and cruel crimes. That doesn't mean we shouldn't remove some people from society, but he argues that we could be treating people more logically and perhaps more kindly than we do. If there is no free will then none of us can help what we have done up to this point in time. Our influences (genetics/upbringing/current situation etc) have brought us to where we are, for better or worse. This doesn't mean things can't change in the future, but change takes on a different character. Unconscious factors will still decide outcomes. Throughout Harris’s book he mentions Daniel Dennet, a philosopher and cognitive scientist who has argued extensively against his ideas about free will. Dennet’s response to Harris’s book can be found HERE. I found it much more difficult to understand than Harris’s book, and didn’t really come to grips with it at all, but then I do find philosophical arguments very challenging. There is also a lecture HERE by Sam Harris which covers most of the points raised in the book, although for me the book was a much better vehicle for the transmission of his ideas. As for me, I am now feeling my way around as someone who accepts their momentum comes from the unconscious. I’m glad to report that nothing has changed. I’m not lying in front of television all day thinking “what the heck” or “if my unconscious is in charge I might as well let go of the reins.” (Although if I did that it would still be a reflection of ideas from the unconscious....) But at some level I have taken on board this new idea, and I will be interested to see how well it works out for me. Like a new coat, I am still not sure how well it fits. We shall see.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Simeon

    "You are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm." - Sam Harris "It’s true that human persons don’t have contra-causal free will. We are not self-caused little gods. But we are just as real as the genetic and environmental processes which created us and the situations in which we make choices. The deliberative machinery supporting effective action is just as real and causally effective as any other process in nature. So we don’t have to talk as if we are real "You are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm." - Sam Harris "It’s true that human persons don’t have contra-causal free will. We are not self-caused little gods. But we are just as real as the genetic and environmental processes which created us and the situations in which we make choices. The deliberative machinery supporting effective action is just as real and causally effective as any other process in nature. So we don’t have to talk as if we are real agents in order to concoct a motivationally useful illusion of agency, which is what Harris seems to recommend we do near the end of his remarks on free will. Agenthood survives determinism, no problem." - Tom Clark (excerpt) A compatabilistic consciousness is a noumenological limning of the concrete, representing an actualized, emergent self, despite its causal roots. Harris thinks that's only an illusion, nothing more. He cites microorganisms living in the body, which cannot claim itself simultaneously possessed of personhood - a concrete, emergent self - and dependent on an infinitude of forces beyond its control. Of course, the problem with that reasoning is that your consciousness, while dependent for existence on your lower body, does not actually belong to it. In other words, if you lose your arm, you'll still be whole. The same cannot be said of losing your brain. As Dan Dennett points out: A brain transplant wouldn't be a brain transplant at all. It would be a body transplant. It's the only time you actually hope to be the one donating an organ. So, just because you're dependent on bacteria that composes the organic human machine doesn't make that bacteria central to the subsequent emergence of self awareness. Again, Harris doesn't consider consciousness to be separate from clockwork; it is clockwork. On the other hand, Dan Dennett considers consciousness to be a noumenological product: it emerges from clockwork. "Yes, there is a soul. But it's made of lots of tiny robots." - Dennett The concept of emergence is far easier to understand for someone familiar with Quantum Physics and Chaos Theory. Finite starting conditions diverge into infinite complexity. So, we can look at an anthill, and figure out how the universe began. We cannot, however, examine the starting conditions of the universe and extrapolate an anthill. Or, another way: the universe is deterministic backwards, but not forwards. Time is that direction in which entropy increases. It is not a meaningless dimension, but purely phenomenological and relative. Harris' claim that you can do what you want, but you cannot choose what you want is a rephrasing of Schopenhauer's: "Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills." Nothing new. Why Harris felt the need to compose this book when all his practical conclusions (which appear to be the purpose) already exist in political philosophy like Rawlsianism is beyond me.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Kathleen Brugger

    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 amas 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... 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.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Kevin Shepherd

    Whoever said that there are no absolutes in philosophy must have surely had the topic of free will in mind. I've never heard more compelling arguments for such opposing points of view, each with its own existential hyperbole of quintessential conflubbery (yes, I just made up my own word, as a determinist I had no other choice). If you're committed to the mental calisthenics necessary to tackle the tentacled titan that is Free Will, you owe it to yourself to seek out Daniel Dennett's ' Whoever said that there are no absolutes in philosophy must have surely had the topic of free will in mind. I've never heard more compelling arguments for such opposing points of view, each with its own existential hyperbole of quintessential conflubbery (yes, I just made up my own word, as a determinist I had no other choice). If you're committed to the mental calisthenics necessary to tackle the tentacled titan that is Free Will, you owe it to yourself to seek out Daniel Dennett's 'Elbow Room' for further reality altering points of view. Both are well written, though Harris is not as long-winded and Dennett is not as callous and self-absorbed. (wink, wink, nudge, nudge)

  12. 4 out of 5

    Sara Alaee

    This essay is a brief treatise on what author, Sam Harris, calls the “illusion of free will”. In his typical “Harris” fashion, he demonstrates that the popular conception of free will as that which allows us to “do what we want to do without any outer or inner compulsions” is in fact a confusion. We, humans, are no more than the product of our genes and our past life experiences - both of which we can’t exert much influence upon. In a more scientific term, it’s our “neurons” that determine our t This essay is a brief treatise on what author, Sam Harris, calls the “illusion of free will”. In his typical “Harris” fashion, he demonstrates that the popular conception of free will as that which allows us to “do what we want to do without any outer or inner compulsions” is in fact a confusion. We, humans, are no more than the product of our genes and our past life experiences - both of which we can’t exert much influence upon. In a more scientific term, it’s our “neurons” that determine our thoughts and actions before we are even conscious of them. Harris claims that this “truth” does not entail the end of morality. We can still have social and judicial institutions that make valid judgements about people without invoking their wills. “It may be that a sham form of retribution would still be moral”, he says, but “once we recognize that even the most terrifying predators are, in a very real sense, unlucky to be who they are, the logic of hating(as opposed to fearing) them begins to unravel.”

  13. 4 out of 5

    Max

    So, Sam Harris an atheist and a neuroscientist He begins his book by telling a shocking story of how some burglars robbed, child-abused, raped, tortured and set a family's house on fire and killing them apart from the father who survived. He then says that one of them had shown signs of remorse and attempted suicide a couple of times, and the other had repeatedly been raped as a child, and both of these men had been suffering from brain tumors. He concludes that if any one of us So, Sam Harris an atheist and a neuroscientist He begins his book by telling a shocking story of how some burglars robbed, child-abused, raped, tortured and set a family's house on fire and killing them apart from the father who survived. He then says that one of them had shown signs of remorse and attempted suicide a couple of times, and the other had repeatedly been raped as a child, and both of these men had been suffering from brain tumors. He concludes that if any one of us had been in their shoes, traded places, atom for an atom, we would have done the very same thing, since their actions aren't built upon free will but upon their past experiences and certain circumstances which resulted the action. This is his introduction to the reader I guess, assuming that free will is an illusion, and that their is no such thing as an immortal soul. He further explains, I quote: "Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have." In the Unconscious Origins of the Wills he lists some scientific experiments which proves that a person's decision to move or chose or talk is (700) milliseconds before he become aware of it. He then assumes that if there was a "perfect nueroimaging device" as silly as this name he chose, he then says; the device will predicts what actions you will do seconds earlier, what magazines you will read, how many lines, and what words are you going to speak! and since there is no such thing, he comes to a conclusion based on this hypothesis and the basic scientific experiments that there is no such thing as free will. Ta-da! First he explains the inability to control your will by saying this: "You are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm" How can you be the storm (actions) when you are the one causing it? (and yet he says you're not responsible for it). so neither one of these answers solves the dilemma. If I am the storm, I am in control of it, how can past experiences be the cause of my actions and yet I be the storm? and [I] isn't even responsible for it? Making it more confusing, he goes out saying: "You can do what you decide to do- but you cannot decide what you will decide to do" What's funny is that he admits that research has shown a decrease in morality when people know that they don't have free will and their actions are decided based on their past... and then he says that himself is an example for good morals without free will?! I totally agree that background conditions can affect your choice and decisions but its not an ultimate effect for everyone, apart from those who suffer brain tumors, the majority have the responsibility and freedom of will to decide what to do. At some point he admits that strict punishment - rather than mere containment or rehabilitation - is necessary to prevent certain crimes. But he still thinks that murderers aren't aware and responsible for their decisions and that they are blameless.. I think he had fate mixed with free will, since in one of his example he ask himself why did he quit training 20 years ago and then suddenly decided to come back, of course, he explains it as not his will, but on certain conditions like after reading Rory Miller's book Meditations on Violence. He then concludes that if you bought this book after reading this, you had no will over it, even if you bought it and put it on the shelf and not read it, its not your will, and even more if you decided not to buy it after reading this its not your will! .. thinking he's a smart ass by saying this, but proved the opposite actually, since this is called Fate, destiny, predestination or what we call in Islam "Qadar" , it has nothing to do whatsoever with free will. He further demonstrate that laziness is like diligence a neurological condition, that we have no control of it.. Again, an atheist and biologist fails to describe the inner soul and mind of us humans..

  14. 4 out of 5

    Chad Kettner

    The only issue I can see people having would be based on semantics over the term "free will" - but as for the actual arguments, Harris seems to be spot-on. However, I'd love to hear Sam Harris discuss what he thinks would be a better option. As in... how could free will be done better? Would we get to select our brains? Would we get to choose our body? Our gender? And what would make us choose one brain, body, or gender over the other? It seems the decision would still be caused by so The only issue I can see people having would be based on semantics over the term "free will" - but as for the actual arguments, Harris seems to be spot-on. However, I'd love to hear Sam Harris discuss what he thinks would be a better option. As in... how could free will be done better? Would we get to select our brains? Would we get to choose our body? Our gender? And what would make us choose one brain, body, or gender over the other? It seems the decision would still be caused by something beyond our control... so is free will, in the way that Sam Harris defines it, even possible? I don't think it is... but maybe that's his point?

  15. 4 out of 5

    Tudor Vlad

    Free Will is a short but informative book (judging by its length calling it an essay would probably be more accurate) looking to prove that free will is an illusion, and I have to say, it managed to convince me. Despite the daunting subject, Haris' ideas are clear and easy to grasp which is something I really appreciate in non-fiction. So many authors get so tangled in their ideas that they forget that what they're writing isn't meant just for them. It was great, food for thought for a very long Free Will is a short but informative book (judging by its length calling it an essay would probably be more accurate) looking to prove that free will is an illusion, and I have to say, it managed to convince me. Despite the daunting subject, Haris' ideas are clear and easy to grasp which is something I really appreciate in non-fiction. So many authors get so tangled in their ideas that they forget that what they're writing isn't meant just for them. It was great, food for thought for a very long time. I highly recommend it.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Douglas Wilson

    Harris is a smart guy, and an engaging writer. But he is just plain lost. He is not only lost in the sense of not having Jesus, but also lost in the sense that he cannot make his way out of the thicket of his own premises. He simply cannot see how what he is saying applies to what he is saying.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Sally

    Whether there is free will or not is an open question, but this book throws very little light on the subject. Full of assertions and absolutist thinking, it sets up the problem and the definition of terms in such a way that "no free will" is necessarily the conclusion. If free will means that the conscious mind (the everyday ego or the "monkey mind" of the Buddhists) has to have full awareness, control, and origination of all impulses, thoughts, and desires down to their very furthest roots, the Whether there is free will or not is an open question, but this book throws very little light on the subject. Full of assertions and absolutist thinking, it sets up the problem and the definition of terms in such a way that "no free will" is necessarily the conclusion. If free will means that the conscious mind (the everyday ego or the "monkey mind" of the Buddhists) has to have full awareness, control, and origination of all impulses, thoughts, and desires down to their very furthest roots, then of course there is no free will. He says several times in the same sentence that our choices are both "mysterious" and "determined," which is not a happy combination - if they are mysterious, how do you know for sure that they're determined, unless it is an article of faith? To me his argument is like saying that if scientists don't understand why the Big Bang happened and what state it originated from to the farthest regress, it can't possilbly be a valid concept since it doesn't answer every why and what and how down to the most remote root cause the author can imagine. I was surprised to see he was a philosophy major, after reading this book.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Brian Jo

    The author definitely sheds some light on aspects of free will that I never really considered. It is a powerful message that he is trying to convey with the limitations of the length of this book. At times I found myself nodding my head and agreeing with the author, but ultimately, I could not convince myself of his views on free will. His arguments start out very promising, but then falter and lose momentum as he tends to digress with meager examples and statements. I finished the book feeling The author definitely sheds some light on aspects of free will that I never really considered. It is a powerful message that he is trying to convey with the limitations of the length of this book. At times I found myself nodding my head and agreeing with the author, but ultimately, I could not convince myself of his views on free will. His arguments start out very promising, but then falter and lose momentum as he tends to digress with meager examples and statements. I finished the book feeling an emptiness and despair equivalent to that of a cliff-hanger for movies. I would have preferred a more in-depth analysis and perhaps a more organized structure to really bring out his points. Regardless of its flaws, the author still manages to invoke an uncertainty of the freedom that we so boisterously say we have.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Vanessa

      Man can do what he will but he cannot will what he wills. -- Schopenhauer      The theme of the book is disconcerting at best: Dr. Harris if not completely refutes the notion of free will in this little book of his, does certainly raise a serious contradiction to the longtime conviction that we are the authors of our thoughts. In the very first beginning of the book this theme got dramatically and horrifyingly accentuated when the author suggests, if he were to trade places with Komisarijevsky   Man can do what he will but he cannot will what he wills. -- Schopenhauer      The theme of the book is disconcerting at best: Dr. Harris if not completely refutes the notion of free will in this little book of his, does certainly raise a serious contradiction to the longtime conviction that we are the authors of our thoughts. In the very first beginning of the book this theme got dramatically and horrifyingly accentuated when the author suggests, if he were to trade places with Komisarijevsky (one of the notorious murderers in the Cheshire Connecticut home invasion murders), "atom for atom" he would have acted exactly as Komisarijevsky did.      The foundation of refuting the idea that we are in control of our mind is two-folded according to the book. First one is biological: "the brain is a physical system, entirely beholden to the laws of nature -- there is every reason to believe that changes in its functional states and material structure entirely dictate our thoughts and actions"; "we as conscious agents, are only parts of our minds, living at the mercy of other parts". And the second one is that the role of chance plays in our lives: the fact that our thoughts and decisions were largely contributed by the prior experiences and circumstantial contexts, like our births, upbringings, and lucks, all of which we have no control over, can be deduced to a point that we can't control our thoughts and decisions.      Many philosophers and theologians are against the disbelieve in free will. The philosophic argument, like the one from Daniel Dennett, bases on the assertion "we are coterminous with everything that goes insider our bodies" so we are responsible for and have free will over what happen inside our bodies, whether we feel conscious about those happening or not. Dr. Harris rebuts this argument by saying this is a bait and switch of a concert, and further ridicules it by saying "we are made of stardust but we don't feel like stardust."      The theologian argument is more intense than the philosophic one, since one of the elements of Christianity is the notion of sin, which justify the idea of the punishment, another element of Christianity and the legal system. Refuting free will seems to be opening a can of worms: is it refuting free will also refuting the idea of voluntary evildoing? Is a crime only a product of genetic predisposition, chemical function, and childhood upbringing? It is still fair and justice to penalize criminals? Under this notion, not only capital punishment has to be invalid, other less severe punishments also have to be reconsidered. Crime is much more of a political issue than a social and scientific issue: no politician/law makers would gain interest by being seen as soft on crime. Saying there is a prepositional reason for a crime sounds like defending the criminal, which is always a bad strategy for politicians who running for offices. Dr. Harris didn't delve into the political realm of such a problem, instead of defending the criminals, he defends our souls by saying people who trying to understand the scientific and circumstantial factors dictating a criminal would experience the psychological relief from hating, as he does, when he realizes those predators are more unlucky than they are terrifying.      But, there is another woeful question: will denying free will force us all to be fatalistic? Will we completely give up changing our lives? Dr. Harris' answer is a big no. He says losing a belief in free will dose not make him fatalistic, on the contrary, it increases his feelings of freedom. "There is no telling how much I might change in the future. Just as one wouldn't draw a lasting conclusion about oneself on the basis of a brief experience of indigestion, one needn't do so on the basis of how one has thought or behaved for vast stretches of time in the past. A creative change of inputs to the system -- learning news skills, forming new relationships, adopting new habits of attention --may radically transform one's life."      The author is being optimistic throughout the book, but he isn't being definite; he leaves a lot of questions to be answered at the end of the book. When, at the end, such a disturbing question was purposed but without providing a final answer, I feel the same kind of disconcerting when I started to read the book. Yet it is what science is supposed to make us feel: science does not simplify the world to assure people; it complicates the world to challenge people. No matter whether the theme has proven or not, this book has its own value by being thought-provoking and challenging things that we have always believed.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Paul

    I was looking for something to challenge my belief in free will. This book did nothing of the sort and if it had been any longer (it was only about 90 pages) it would have been a waste of time. It is anglo-american school analytic philosophy in all it's reductionist absurdity. The science is tenuous and almost non-existent, resting on the wafer-thin logic that our neurons determine our actions before we're conscious of them so that means our neurons are running the show. (all hail the neurons) W I was looking for something to challenge my belief in free will. This book did nothing of the sort and if it had been any longer (it was only about 90 pages) it would have been a waste of time. It is anglo-american school analytic philosophy in all it's reductionist absurdity. The science is tenuous and almost non-existent, resting on the wafer-thin logic that our neurons determine our actions before we're conscious of them so that means our neurons are running the show. (all hail the neurons) We're just biological meat-machines acting out what has previously been decided by our genetics, parental upbringing, luck and other external factors. Most of his gibbering comes down to "I'm not ABSOLUTELY aware of why I desire - therefore I'm not free"... well here's a question for you; free from WHAT? Whaaaa you thought "freedom" was some concrete thing you could meet down the street? You think freedom is an absolute? Fuck this stupid science chasing it's own tail bull shit. This is the kind of dry, philosophical discussion of free will that seems to not really help us very much on an existential level.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Lena

    In this brief book, Sam Harris makes the argument that the sense of free will that many of us inherently feel is an illusion. He explains that science has clearly demonstrated that decisions we think "we" have made were actually measurable in the brain some moments before we were consciously aware of them. He elaborates on our lack of free will by pointing out that we can take no responsibility for the circumstances and genetics that were bestowed upon us at birth, nor do we have total control o In this brief book, Sam Harris makes the argument that the sense of free will that many of us inherently feel is an illusion. He explains that science has clearly demonstrated that decisions we think "we" have made were actually measurable in the brain some moments before we were consciously aware of them. He elaborates on our lack of free will by pointing out that we can take no responsibility for the circumstances and genetics that were bestowed upon us at birth, nor do we have total control over the numerous inputs that we have received since then that have affected who we turned out to be. Harris's point isn't that everything is determined and therefore it doesn't matter what we do. On the contrary, the decision to, say, quit smoking does matter quite a bit. But as anyone who has tried to quit smoking can attest, whether or not one is successful in such an attempt is determined by a lot more than just a simple decision. As Harris eloquently points out, the very origin of the thought, "I should quit smoking," is shrouded in mystery. Once one recognizes that we aren't in control of what thoughts arise in our brains, the whole concept of free will becomes a very shaky one. Harris continues with the assertion that understanding the illusory nature of free will is key in reforming our justice system. That system is currently heavily anchored in the idea that people could have behaved differently than they did. Harris argues that this simply isn't true, and that understanding this is crucial in creating a more effective and compassionate justice system. While some may blanch at the idea that a person who committed horrific crimes could not have acted otherwise, the example he provides of people who have been driven to criminal behavior by brain tumors makes it clear that this is not as black and white of an area as we have long assumed it to be. I heard Harris speak on this topic before I read the book, and I've found its concepts to be, ironically, quite freeing. The idea that one couldn't have acted differently than one did helps generate compassion not only for criminals, but also for the self. At the conclusion of the book, Harris elaborates a bit more about the practical implications of accepting these notions as a part of one's world view. He doesn't go into a lot of detail, though. When one questioner at a talk asked him why he was writing such short books, he replied that he was tired of being misinterpreted by people who only read the first third of his books and assumed they understood his position, so he's opted to keep things short in attempt to get his entire argument across before the reader's attention wanders elsewhere. In this book, he as succeeded in doing just that.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Kat Kennedy

    That was an exceedingly quick book to read...

  23. 4 out of 5

    Alan Johnson

    Although Sam Harris is a neuroscientist rather than a theologian, he prosecutes his case against free will in this book with religious zeal rather than scientific objectivity and rigor. He constantly and repeatedly makes uncorroborated blanket statements that the reader is evidently supposed to take on faith. The book reads like a lawyer's brief—and not a very good one at that (I speak as a retired litigation lawyer)—rather than a dispassionate scientific or philosophical inquiry. Har Although Sam Harris is a neuroscientist rather than a theologian, he prosecutes his case against free will in this book with religious zeal rather than scientific objectivity and rigor. He constantly and repeatedly makes uncorroborated blanket statements that the reader is evidently supposed to take on faith. The book reads like a lawyer's brief—and not a very good one at that (I speak as a retired litigation lawyer)—rather than a dispassionate scientific or philosophical inquiry. Harris, like many other contemporary critics of free will, appears to rest most of his deterministic argument on a famous 1983 experiment by Benjamin Libet, as supplemented by some later experiments. Harris states (8-9): "The physiologist Benjamin Libet famously used EEG to show that activity in the brain’s motor cortex can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move. [Endnote omitted.] Another lab extended this work using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI): Subjects were asked to press one of two buttons while watching a 'clock' composed of a random sequence of letters appearing on a screen. They reported which letter was visible at the moment they decided to press one button or the other. The experimenters found two brain regions that contained information about which button subjects would press a full 7 to 10 seconds before the decision was consciously made. [Endnote omitted.] More recently, direct recordings from the cortex showed that the activity of merely 256 neurons was sufficient to predict with 80 percent accuracy a person’s decision to move 700 milliseconds before he became aware of it. [Endnote omitted.]" Harris acknowledges (93n2), without citing any sources, that "Libet and others have speculated that the concept of free will might yet be saved: Perhaps the conscious mind is free to 'veto,' rather than initiate, complex action. This suggestion has always seemed absurd on its face—for surely the neural events that inhibit a planned action arise unconsciously as well." (Emphasis added.) I submit that the verbalisms "speculated," "always seemed absurd on its face" and "surely" are not scientific or philosophical proofs of anything. Indeed, they are reminiscent of theological arguments for which Harris, in so many contexts here and elsewhere, expresses nothing but disdain. Apart from the foregoing peremptory dismissal, Harris does not discuss the actual arguments that Libet and others have made in favor of free will against scientific determinism. I received Libet's last book, Mind Time: The Temporal Factor in Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), today (April 1, 2018). Chapter 4 is entitled "Intention to Act: Do We Have Free Will?" In this chapter, Libet states that science can neither prove nor disprove either scientific determinism or free will: neither is falsifiable pursuant to Karl Popper's criterion for proper use of the scientific method. For example, Libet observes that the deterministic perspective of Daniel M. Wegner, whom Harris quotes and cites, has "no crucial evidence that proves its validity. No experimental test has even been proposed in which this theory could be falsified. Without any possibility of falsification, one can propose anything without any fear of being contradicted (as Karl Popper explained)." (Libet, 152). Libet also establishes that scientific evidence does not exist to prove that the conscious veto (derided by Harris and others) has a preceding unconscious origin. (Libet, 145-47). Libet also elaborates on the experimental evidence establishing such a veto. I might add that the entire Libet experiment is based on simple events involving the motor system. It is questionable, in my mind, whether such experiments can be extrapolated to more abstract matters such as whether one should undertake an action in the future, for which one has ample time for deliberation. There is much in Libet's Chapter 4 and in his book generally that I cannot set forth in the present review of Harris's book. Moreover, I will be doing extensive and intensive reading of the literature on determinism versus free will during the next several months. I have only begun my investigation. Let me close, however, with Libet's final judgment (156) on this issue: "My conclusion about free will, one genuinely free in the nondetermined sense, is that its existence is at least as good, if not a better, scientific option than is its denial by natural law determinist theory. Given the speculative nature of both determinist and nondeterminist theories, why not adopt the view that we do have free will (until some real contradictory evidence appears, if it ever does)? Such a view would at least allow us to proceed in a way that accepts and accommodates our own deep feeling that we do have free will. We would not need to view ourselves as machines that act in a manner completely controlled by known physical laws." Alan E. Johnson April 1, 2018

  24. 4 out of 5

    Joseph

    I suppose I ought to begin with the disclaimer that I happen to believe in something like free will (though I won't articulate its complexities here), and this book is an argument against it. Having made that disclaimer, let me say that I am reviewing this book as a scientist and a philosopher, not so much as a religious person. Unfortunately, what this book needs is more time than I'll give it here, but let me summarize the biggest frustrations I had with it. As a scientist: Sam Harr I suppose I ought to begin with the disclaimer that I happen to believe in something like free will (though I won't articulate its complexities here), and this book is an argument against it. Having made that disclaimer, let me say that I am reviewing this book as a scientist and a philosopher, not so much as a religious person. Unfortunately, what this book needs is more time than I'll give it here, but let me summarize the biggest frustrations I had with it. As a scientist: Sam Harris is very sloppy with his science in this book, citing scientific research that is certainly relevant, but that no scientist worth his or her salt would claim settles the question of free will. He fails here to stick to basic philosophy of science: all scientific studies are interpreted; all results are probabilistic; and all fMRI research is extremely reductionistic. The current research that he cites just cannot do what he wants them to do. I am not saying that his conclusions are wrong; I am saying that his conclusions are stretched farther than the data allow him to go. This is the same kind of fast-and-loose journalism that does little to advance the cause of science and does more to sell books to people already prone to believe Sam Harris. As a philosopher: this book was an even bigger disappointment for several reasons. My top reason is the fact that his philosophy was even sloppier than his science. His notion of 'free will' - which he never actually defined!! - was a straw man that my 9-year-old could have knocked down. The only people who believe in the free will that Sam Harris critiques here are little children who are constantly crying 'no fair!' and deluded adults (admittedly, many of these are the ultra-conservatives that Harris seems to despise). There is no one that I can think of (and I realize that's not saying much) that would ever argue for his notion of free will. So, his book feels kind of pointless in that respect. (To be fair, he does at one point try to address compatibilism, but he doesn't even define it very well; If one can't make sense of it by reading his book, which is meant to be a critique of it, then it's more of a straw man and less of an argument.) My second reason is the utter lack of any reference Sam Harris makes of the many philosophers who have addressed 'free will' (thank you, Michelle, for pointing this out). Actually, he does cite one or two - from this past decade. But history has a whole host of philosophers who argue for some sort of free will (albeit, few argued for the sort Harris is opposed to, but that seems to me to be Harris' problem), including many from the 20th century. His avoidance of any serious free will philosophers strikes me as at best a cop out, at worst bad scholarship. I'm voting for 'at worst'. What Sam Harris ought to own up to is that any argument for or against free will must start and end in philosophy. There can be no empirical evidence for it, nor can there ever be conclusive empirical evidence against (as long as he agrees to the same philosophy of science most scientists adhere to today. Indeed, he seems familiar with it, but likes to play fast and loose here, too: throughout the book, Harris consistently refers to the 'mystery' of where our behaviors come from, acknowledging to some extent the limits of science; then he turns right around and says he's certain it has nothing to do with choice). If you believe in some sort of free will or agency, this book is not worth reading. It will not challenge you; only irritate you. If you do not believe in free will, then you might enjoy this book - but your enjoyment will be like the empty caloric content of the Twinkie: all filling with no substance. And if you're on the fence about it, find something more sophisticated to read; fortunately, Harris makes that easy for you.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Orlanda Machado

    Original Blog Review: https://myescapebookscoffeetea.wordpr... Bookstagram: http://instagram.com/booksofsalem Buy this book on The Book Depository: https://www.bookdepository.com/Free-W... First of all, this book is seriously small, so don’t expect a George Martin type of book lenght out of it (eh, kidding, just wanted to joke around a lil)… now for real, this book has 65 pages, I thought it had 86 cause that’s what they are selling this book for, BUT it is only 65 pages, if I’m mad at it ? nohttp://instagram.com/booksofsalemBuyhttps://myescapebookscoffeetea.wordpr... Original Blog Review: https://myescapebookscoffeetea.wordpr... Bookstagram: http://instagram.com/booksofsalem Buy this book on The Book Depository: https://www.bookdepository.com/Free-W... First of all, this book is seriously small, so don’t expect a George Martin type of book lenght out of it (eh, kidding, just wanted to joke around a lil)… now for real, this book has 65 pages, I thought it had 86 cause that’s what they are selling this book for, BUT it is only 65 pages, if I’m mad at it ? no I’m not… Sam Harris is an author that I wanted to read a book of for ages now, I read “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins and I started reading by the same author “Science in the Soul” and in both of the books the author talks about Sam Harris and his work, not just that ! While I was searching for more books like Richard’s ones I found a ton of books written by Sam Harris and I thought”why not ?” so I ordered “Free Will” cause I really wanted to give it a try. “Free Will” is literally about free will… look it is not just a title ok ? the author wrote the whole book about free will and what people think free will is. The author talks about the fact of us thinking that we are free, that we make our own decisions, that we decide wether we should drink coffee or tea when we wake up every morning, he talks about us thinking that that’s our decision, drinking coffee or tea while it’s really just not ! He talks about the way our brain functions, he talks about people who murder people and are not necessarily doing that because they are free to do it… look this book is so good I don’t think I can explain to you what this is about, because it is only about free will, but while reading it it is just so much more than that ! This is a seriously well written book and I am now a fan of Sam Harris ! He’s type of writing is really similar to Richard Dawkins type of writing but lighter if you know what I mean… you can easily read this book in the minimum time possible because it is easy to read, it is sooooo interesting and so “fast paced” if that’s possible in a nonfiction book… look just go and read it cause I can’t explain it better than Sam Harris really. I recommend this book to everyone, even if nonfiction is not your cup of tea ? even if you think you’ll not like this book ? just read it really, it has literally 65 pages, it is only 65 pages long, why not ? give it a shot and I’m sure you’ll not regret it ! Besides guys, it’s not expensive at all, and if you think it is ? It is actually totally worth the money, every penny !

  26. 4 out of 5

    Anushree

    #BookThoughts Free Will by Sam Harris - 5/5 Is there anything as 'conscious' thoughts? What is the contribution of 'luck' in our lives? Is 'impulse' possible? Or do we act exactly as we intend to with a certain miliseconds of gap between the time to form an intention and to execute it? Sam Harris explores the idea of 'Free Will' in this essay of his with lucid examples and logical arguments. He also quotes scientific experiments and counter-arguments and tries to #BookThoughts Free Will by Sam Harris - 5/5 Is there anything as 'conscious' thoughts? What is the contribution of 'luck' in our lives? Is 'impulse' possible? Or do we act exactly as we intend to with a certain miliseconds of gap between the time to form an intention and to execute it? Sam Harris explores the idea of 'Free Will' in this essay of his with lucid examples and logical arguments. He also quotes scientific experiments and counter-arguments and tries to make the readers understand his point through those. The implications of the study of 'free will' are far and wide - in understanding human behavior, politics, criminal justice and social and moral ambiguities. The state of total consciousness is an illusion, and hence 'free will' is also a deluded idea. Why do we do certain things that we do? If we keep asking the 'why' deeper, we know there is a reason for everything. Many times one isn't just consciously aware of it. So how does one determine the consequences of actions? Rejection of 'free will' may seem like a nihilist approach, but a rigorous study of it might open a plethora of explanations and sciences with regards to various human behavioral patterns. Regarded as one of the 'new atheists' along with Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett, Harris is in favor of discarding the word 'atheist' completely, his argument being, one doesn't need a word for rejection of faith or religion. Although I had been thinking about this for quite a while, I found this articulate approach to the topic quite a fresh and adventurous perspective. If you have read any books on free will, would love to have recommendations. Some quotes by Harris - "Even if you believe that every human being harbors an immortal soul, the problem of responsibility remains: I cannot take credit for the fact that I do not have the soul of a psychopath." "How can we make sense of our lives, and hold people accountable for their choices, given the unconscious origins of our conscious minds?" "Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have." "Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have complete control over those factors. But there is a paradox here that vitiates the very notion of freedom—for what would influence the influences? More influences? None of these adventitious mental states are the real you. You are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm."

  27. 4 out of 5

    JK

    How many times can you say the same thing? How many times can you say the same thing? How many times can you say the same thing? How many times can you say the same thing? How many times can you say the same thing? How many times can you say the same thing? Random firing of synapses in my brain led me to write that question so many times. And that's this book in a nutshell. I give it two stars because I agree with Harris' stance on free will to a degree. I feel like there How many times can you say the same thing? How many times can you say the same thing? How many times can you say the same thing? How many times can you say the same thing? How many times can you say the same thing? How many times can you say the same thing? Random firing of synapses in my brain led me to write that question so many times. And that's this book in a nutshell. I give it two stars because I agree with Harris' stance on free will to a degree. I feel like there was nothing of real value in this book. There are no compelling arguments of Harris' stance nor are there any rebutles of opposing arguments. Harris gives his argument as to why there is no such thing as free will and repeats it ad nauseum. He doesn't agree with an opposing view, so what's his argument against it? That he believes something else. That's it. I'm not sure why he felt the need to have chapter either. Each new category is the same thing again and again. The first paragraph manages to give you a glimpse of how the notion of no free will affects various aspects of our lives but then devolves into the same rant again. We've no control over our brains, there's no free will! Blah de fucking blah.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Tulpesh Patel

    Think of an animal. Why did you think of that animal and not another? And exactly when did you actually make the decision to go with that animal? You didn’t cycle through all the animals you know and make a conscious choice, it just ‘popped into your head’. That little introspective thought experiment forms part of the basis of Sam Harris’ Free Will, which argues not just that that free will is an illusion, but that as thoughts and intentions simply ‘arise’ in the mind, “the illusion of free wil Think of an animal. Why did you think of that animal and not another? And exactly when did you actually make the decision to go with that animal? You didn’t cycle through all the animals you know and make a conscious choice, it just ‘popped into your head’. That little introspective thought experiment forms part of the basis of Sam Harris’ Free Will, which argues not just that that free will is an illusion, but that as thoughts and intentions simply ‘arise’ in the mind, “the illusion of free will is itself an illusion”. At a just 80 pages long, Free Will is a quick, readable and thought-provoking attempt at getting to the root of a problem that has puzzled man for as long as we’ve had the capacity for self-reflection, but if I’m being completely honest, it occasionally reads like little more than an extended and slightly glorified blog post. Harris’ thesis, which I personally agree with, is this: we are no more than the product of the luck that gave us our genes at birth and our subsequent life experiences, the former we have absolutely no control over and the latter, less than we like to think. As we do not and cannot really know why we have the thoughts we have or make the decisions that we do, free will does not exist. After this, however, the book doesn’t really go anywhere, save to repeat that same idea in slightly different contexts. Harris’ reductionist, hard determinism has massive implications for the way we see ourselves and the way we treat and understand others. Are we no more than pool balls clattering about the universal pool table of life, set in motion by a big bang 3.8 billion years ago? Well, yes, but determinism does not imply fatalism- Our decisions, choices and actions still matter, because they have a direct impact on the world. Even sitting back and doing nothing is an action with consequences itself. It is not that thoughts, and actions that stem from them, don’t matter, it is that “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.” As with Letters to a Christian Nation, Harris begins with an emotive story, only this time the monster is not a hypothetical bomber on a bus, but a true account of a brutal assault of a man and the murder of his wife and two young girls in Connecticut five years ago. Writing about the ideas in Free Will in the Guardian just last week, Rosalind English wrote this article, which summarises the book better than I could and focuses on the impact of Harris’ form of hard determinism on the judicial system and the way we perceive and treat criminals and ‘immoral’ behaviour. (Although I take real issue with the subheading of this article 'monsters are born, not made', which ignores the crucial role of environmental influences, leaving me with the impression that Harris' ideas have been misunderstood.) A retributive penal system makes no sense if criminals are the products of bad luck and bad genes, which, Harris argues, is the logical extension of our reluctance to mete out retributive justice to someone who committed a criminal act because of a tumour in the wrong part of the brain, or a child whose mind is not yet fully developed. I really recommended reading the comments underneath the post. Harris builds on the scientific model of moral behaviour he set out in The Moral Landscape, but Free Will is little more than Schopenhauer’s “man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills”, sprinkled with a little brain imaging. The five pages of notes, which contain a little more exposition of the neuroscience and references behind his steadfast belief in the powers of neuroimaging, made for a more an interesting read than the repetitive main text, and made me wish that Harris had used these to flesh out his ideas more. That said, it is written with bold clarity and, whilst it may not lead to all the answers, as Harris seems to think, there is no doubt that the future of neuroscience will have a lot to say about what it is to be human.

  29. 5 out of 5

    George

    In order to demonstrate that free will is an illusion, Sam Harris uses various arguments, some of which had already been published before in his previous book "The Moral Landscape." Some of his arguments seem to me fairly compelling, while others seem so obscure that they could as well be used to demonstrate that free will exists. For example, he says that the fact that we are able to adhere to a diet at some point in our lives but not always shows that "you cannot account for the fact that your In order to demonstrate that free will is an illusion, Sam Harris uses various arguments, some of which had already been published before in his previous book "The Moral Landscape." Some of his arguments seem to me fairly compelling, while others seem so obscure that they could as well be used to demonstrate that free will exists. For example, he says that the fact that we are able to adhere to a diet at some point in our lives but not always shows that "you cannot account for the fact that your wants are effective in one case and not in another" i.e. you don’t have such freedom as you thought (page 37). However, we might as well ask, if we don’t have free will, how can we explain the very same fact that we are able to adhere to a diet when we have decided that it’s the best choice? Another argument he employs is the fact that activity in the brain associated with a thought can be detected even seconds before we are conscious of it. Although I find this truly amazing, I still don’t see how it would be incompatible with free will; it might be that we’re just slower than we thought. Also, on page 34 he makes the point that human choice is important and that his choice to write the book "was unquestionably the primary cause of its coming into being." However, aren’t free will and free choice the same thing? If free choice is an illusion, how can it possibly be the primary cause of anything? And what’s the meaning of having any choice at all if it isn’t free? In my view his most compelling argument against the existence of free will is the argument of determinism, i.e. the fact that "unconscious neural events determine our thoughts and actions – and are themselves determined by prior causes of which we are subjectively unaware" (page 16). However, I wonder if determinism would still hold true if we introduce non-linear effects that typically arise in complex systems. This is not discussed in the book. According to Complexity Science, when a system reaches a certain level of complexity new patterns emerge that bear no similarity to the original structure. Could the brain not be such a complex system that gives rise to higher order patterns with a life of their own and which in their turn would feed back into the lower-level functioning of the brain? It is true that emerging patterns can be simulated in a digital computer and are therefore repeatable and predictable. However, could the same be said about analog computers where random fluctuations could have a significant impact in higher order patterns? Perhaps the brain could be seen as such an analog computer in which free will emerges as the result of the competition among different patterns. We could regard these different patterns as being able to form alliances and build strategies to strengthen themselves and overcome their opponents, just as people do. Again, it is also true that if the random effects that might affect the patterns are external to the patterns themselves then this would be another case of determinism. However, what would happen if those high order patterns could in their turn create similar "random" fluctuations, generating and endless feedback loop in the process? Would this not mean that, even though the system works in perfect accordance to the laws of Physics, its functioning as a whole has distanced itself so much from its individual components that we might say that it has acquired a life of its own and is able to decide what to do next? We might then assess the degree of freedom of a complex system based on how independently it is from its individual parts. Seen in this way, the free will problem is not a question of whether it exists or not but how much free will is contained in a particular system.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Chris

    This essay is an effective exposition about free will and a fairly convincing demonstration that it doesn't exist—although I really would like a similar high-quality view from the other side to put Harris's perspective in balance. In any case, if there's really no free will I'm not exactly sure how society would or should change as a result. Personally, I'm perfectly happy to live within an illusion of free will and will continue going on acting as I always have. The whole discussion This essay is an effective exposition about free will and a fairly convincing demonstration that it doesn't exist—although I really would like a similar high-quality view from the other side to put Harris's perspective in balance. In any case, if there's really no free will I'm not exactly sure how society would or should change as a result. Personally, I'm perfectly happy to live within an illusion of free will and will continue going on acting as I always have. The whole discussion is academic, if effect, although there is some political relevance as shown here, with the best extended quotes from the book: "Few concepts have offered greater scope for human cruelty then the idea of an immortal soul that stands independent of all material influences, ranging from genes to economic systems. Within a religious framework, a believe in free will supports the notion of sin—which seems to justify not only harsh punishment in this life but eternal punishment in the next." "For better or worse, dispelling the illusion of free will has political implications—because liberals and conservatives are not equally in thrall to it. Liberals tend to understand that a person can be lucky or unlucky in all matters relevant to his success. Conservatives, however, often make a religious fetish of individualism—many seem to have absolutely no awareness of how fortunate one must be to succeed at anything in life, no matter how hard one works. One must be lucky to be able to work. One must be lucky to be intelligent, physically healthy, and not bankrupted in middle age by the illness of a spouse. Consider the biography of any "self-made" man, and you will find that his success was entirely dependent on background conditions that he did not make and of which he was merely the beneficiary. There is not a person on earth who chose his genome, or the country of this birth, or the political and economic conditions that prevailed at moments crucial to his progress. And yet, living in America, one gets the distinct sense that if certain conservatives were asked why they weren't born with club feet or orphaned before the age of five, they would not hesitate to take credit for these accomplishments."

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