Ryan Manns's Reviews > Free Will

Free Will by Sam Harris
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Mar 29, 2012

it was ok
bookshelves: science
Read from March 25 to 29, 2012

I really was hoping to give this book a 4 or 5 when I started reading it because I feel like Sam Harris is a brilliant scientist, and maybe he is right on this subject. I can definitely see how from an atheistic world view free will could be nothing more than an illusion. I just don't think he made a strong enough argument for it in only 66 pages. I think he did show that free will is limited and is in some cases an illusion, for example he is right to assert that we can't control what thoughts will pop into our head and thus have no free will to think whatever we want to think but I don't think that dispels the notion of human beings having free will over how they will respond and act to those thoughts. I'll try and share some more of my thoughts on the weekend because there is so much I could say on his book. I did think it was intellectually stimulating though so I'm glad I read it, just wish I could of bought his argument more.
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03/25/2012 page 25
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Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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Chad Kettner The question, then, is what contributes towards our decisions regarding how we respond and act to those thoughts?

It seems to me that our biology + experiences shape our decision-making process... and we have no 'free will' over either. So even though we are 'free' to make whatever decision we desire, we essentially aren't free in choosing the only factors which contribute towards us desiring what we desire.

(I still need to read the book)


Ryan Manns Yeah it's interesting, Harris (as you say) says our biology and experiences are ultimately all that we have in our decision making process. But I think there is something that gives us "free will" over what we ultimately decide to do in different situations. Perhaps that is reason, or some set of universal morals that seem ingrained in each human being regardless of culture or up-bringing. Is that just part of our biology? Perhaps, but why do all our biologies (assuming a clean bill of health and no serious mental defects) seem to have these two abilities. As I said in my review I do think our free will is limited as in we can't chose what thoughts pop into our head and we can't chose all the factors that guide us in making decisions, but I don't think that means we have absolutely no free will.

It's a very thought provoking book I think if I had agreed with him I would have easily given it 4 stars.


Chad Kettner But even if there is some 'reason' or 'universal morals' ingrained into each human... how exactly would that lead to free will? We still don't 'choose' to have them, right?


Ryan Manns Right which is why our "free will" is limited but you as a being are still able to choose how to respond to the "non-free" variables.

Perhaps we should call it "limited will" as opposed to "free will" but I don't think we should call it "you-have-no-control will."


Chad Kettner Well you do have control - complete control - over what you want to do. You just don't have control over what causes you to make these decisions.


Ryan Manns Mind blown.


Ryan Manns I've been thinking about this and want to clarify a few points or expand on what I was saying earlier. This isn’t meant as a response back to Chad Kettner but just for me to write about some personal reflections on the topic of Free Will.

To say we have no control over our biology and experiences is, as far as I can tell, not completely true. It is true that in many cases things happen to us that are beyond our control and they determine that we will respond but "we" still choose how to respond. Harris argues that our brain’s neurons fire and that determines how we respond to variables beyond our control. While that is true “we” are still the one’s responding even if part of that decision is in our subconscious minds, our biology and brain are making decisions that become manifested in our actions. Am I separate from my brain and my biology? What does it mean to say my brain and biology decided for “me” does that mean “I” did not decide? Certainly my brain and biology were shaped partially by things beyond my control but am I now not free to choose how I will respond to the uncontrollable? Am I now determined to respond in only one way, and even if that is the case does that mean I had no “free will” in that matter?

Now back to my other point, that we do have some control over our biology and experiences. When you do an action, especially for the first time, you build pathways in your brain that tell you things like: you like the experience, or you hate it, etc. The more you do these actions the stronger the pathways get, that’s why addictions are so hard to break. Say you decide for the very first time you will go snowboarding. You love the experience and you get good at it. You have influenced your experiences and your biology. Initially it was your choice. Now just because experience tells you that you love it does not mean you will go every time you have the chance. Some days you will stay home and do nothing for absolutely no reason at all. Harris states that some people are more predisposed to certain actions. Yet, these people do not always do these actions. Sometimes they go deliberately against their biology and experiences, they are making a choice. A quick example could be someone who is addicted to cocaine. His experiences tell him he loves it, he’s addicted to biologically, yet he still may decide he wants to seek help despite his experiences and biology. Maybe he has never had any bad experiences because of the cocaine he just one day decides some how that he’s done with it. So I guess what I’m saying is that I’m not entirely convinced we should say our experiences and biology are completely separate from who we are or what makes us a “we” in the first place.

My friend said “Well you do have control - complete control - over what you want to do. You just don't have control over what causes you to make these decisions.” But it seems to me you do have some control over what is causing you to make the decisions as you can shape some of your own biology and experiences. If you didn’t have control then everyone would be giving in to their genetic predispositions, desires, previous good experiences, and never trying to change. Just some random thoughts I’ve had while on a study break.


Chad Kettner You can shape some of your own biology and experiences - but it is your biology + experiences that causes you to want to re-shape it...

... I agree with everything you said - and I think Harris would as well. I just think I would still classify it as not having free-will, since every ounce of our 'control' is made from a brain that we do not control.

The only area where I would like some clarification from Sam Harris on would be: what is the better option? As in... how could free will be done better? Would we get to decide 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...


Ryan Manns Good point man


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