Zach's Reviews > Free Will

Free Will by Sam Harris
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Mar 18, 12

Read from March 11 to 13, 2012

I just can't seem to leave this perennially thorny philosophical topic alone, despite it being 1) utterly pedestrian as "deep thinking" goes, and 2) generally depressing in my inevitable conclusion. As Harris outlines early in the book, there are basically three camps on the question: the determinists, who think that our selves are governed by physical law and free will is an illusion; the libertarians, also known as dualists, who believe in a separate, metaphysical self as the pilot of our physical bodies (no one takes them seriously); and the compatibilists, who acknowledge that the determinists are basically right but that there's still room for something resembling free will in this. Harris is a determinist, and asserts that the kind of free will the compatibilists talk about is a total cop-out, and not at all what people mean when they use the term. I tend to agree, but more on that in a moment.

It's interesting to note that as of late 2004, I was firmly in the libertarian camp, apparently based mostly on wishful thinking. I know this because I wrote an editorial to that effect:

If there's no free will, then the accomplishments of my life are meaningless because I can't really claim to be responsible for them in any meaningful way. The same is true of my failures. The same is true of the Nov. 2 election, the war in Iraq, every crime ever committed, every punishment or reward ever given. There can be no blame, no responsibility.

In the end, I believe in free will, and thus the soul, because I want to. I want to believe that the decisions I make are really mine to make. I want to believe that I deserve the things I achieve. I want to believe that my destiny is mine to control. Without the soul in the driver's seat of my physical body and physical mind, I'm forced to come to the opposite conclusion.

Of course, this was before I left behind the last shreds of my deism and really embraced an evidence-based world view in all aspects of my life, not just those where it was comforting or convenient. These days I, like Sam Harris, don't harbor any illusions about a soul or that I'm responsible for my accomplishments in any deep way. Like him, I just try to make the best of it (for semantically reduced values of "try").

In the first third of this short book, I was worried that Harris was just going to rehash old determinist arguments that I was already familiar with, and indeed he does do a lot of this. To his credit, he brings up quite a bit of empirical research that's quite damning to the existence of intentionality and true freedom. For example, various neurological studies all confirm that, by studying brain activity, the decision to take some arbitrary physical action, like pushing a button, can be predicted quite a long time before the test subject is aware of making the decision to do so -- in some cases, this gap is measured in entire seconds. This evidence alone cements the case that, if nothing else, our perception of our decisions lags noticeably behind the decisions themselves. Additionally, various other studies with subconscious priming and more subtle techniques in manipulation show that it's relatively easy to convince a test subject that they freely made a decision that was effectively made for them, either by subconsciously absorbed stimuli or else wholesale by a mechanical process.

Harris spends another quarter of the book discussing what these results ultimately mean (free will is an illusion), and to shooting down compatibilist apologies about them. Compatibilists essentially argue that there's room for free will, even while acknowledging the physical, determinist nature of our brains and bodies, by saying that we are free to act upon our desires. I agree with Harris that this is a pretty weak kind of freedom: we're free to do what we want, but not to choose what we want.

Harris asks us to consider four homicides: one where a four-year old is playing with a gun and it goes off; one where a victim of constant mental and physical abuse shoots someone; one where a sociopath plans and executes a murder; and one where the shooter is later discovered to have a massive brain tumor that has changed his personality. He points out that our legal and common-sense notions of culpability assign full responsibility only to the sociopath; in all the other cases, there are factors that partially or fully exculpate the shooter. The case of the brain tumor is especially interesting -- we have no trouble believing that, because of this growth in his brain, the shooter wasn't really to blame for his actions. Harris basically argues that a person's brain, properly functioning, is no more one's fault or responsibility than the tumor, and that we should recognize this when talking about responsibility and agency.

The latter half of the book is a more satisfying foray into what the absence of free will means for various social institutions. The stakes are very high; we know, for example, that having students read an argument that free will doesn't exist causes them to be more likely to cheat on a subsequent test. Similarly, our criminal justice system is based in no small part on feelings of retribution that utterly fall apart if you consider the author of crimes to be a natural force, like a stampeding horse or a virus. Here Harris retreats to a kind of utilitarianism: we should do what gives the best outcome to society and not worry so much whether people are ultimately responsible for their own actions. While this stance makes perfect sense, I'm left wondering why I should believe it will work any better now than it did when it was attempted in industrial Britain and resulted in poor houses. The liberal in me rejoices at the phrase "harm reduction" even as the realist recoils.

Overall, this is a concise, thought-provoking summary of an important topic. Whether or not you still cling to the idea of free will, it's worth a read.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Nathan (new) - added it

Nathan I haven't read this one, but I'm keen on checking out his approach (more a sociologist, no?). One recommended psychological treatise on the illusion of free will (with some really interesting experiments and historical context around apparent mental causation) is Daniel Wegner's The Illusion of Conscious Will.


Kurt Keefner Actually, there are libertarians who are non-dualists, among which I number myself. The real dualist in this fight is Sam Harris, who splits consciousness off from "unconscious forces" and thinks the latter have to control the former. This is just one of the vestigial religious assumptions of his book. I write about it here: Free Will: A Response to Sam Harris


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