Jacob J.'s Reviews > Free Will

Free Will by Sam   Harris
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Mar 10, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: 2012, philosophy, science, pub-2010s, non-fiction, own

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?”


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Reading Progress

March 10, 2012 – Started Reading
March 10, 2012 – Shelved
March 11, 2012 – Shelved as: 2012
March 11, 2012 – Shelved as: philosophy
March 11, 2012 – Shelved as: science
March 11, 2012 – Finished Reading
March 29, 2015 – Shelved as: pub-2010s
November 20, 2017 – Shelved as: non-fiction
December 2, 2017 – Shelved as: own

Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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Tyson Marshall I want to read this. If you end up reviewing it, I'll be interested in your thoughts on it.


Jacob J. I appreciate your interest, Tyson. The book was unsettling, but magnificent. A review will be forthcoming.


Jacob J. Proustitute wrote: "I have this here. With all of the rave reviews of this, and your very considerable remarks above, I may have to read this very soon."

I suggest you do. I am a Harris fanboy, and I hope I am not overstating things, but this, I do believe, is the new scientific frontier.

Thanks for reading.


message 4: by JK (new) - rated it 2 stars

JK Oh, that's a nice introduction this book has.

I'm inclined to believe that free will doesn't exist in just one form, I think there are levels to it. It should be interesting to read Harris' take on this.


Kurt Keefner Hi Jacob, Harris made a lot of mistakes in his book. You might be interested in this: Free Will: A Response to Sam Harris


Jacob J. Kurt wrote: "Hi Jacob, Harris made a lot of mistakes in his book. You might be interested in this: Free Will: A Response to Sam Harris"

You gave no indication that you actually read my review or that you wish to engage in a discussion about it. I don't care for mere plugs on a thread for which discussion is the purpose.


Kurt Keefner Jacob, I apologize. I did read your review, but I was in a hurry. I was interested in your reference to Nietzsche, who, as you know, didn't believe in free will either. The problem with Nietzsche and Harris, is that if you jettison free will, you effectively jettison reason too. If reason doesn't come out of consciousness, it isn't reason. All you're left with is those things that come "out of the darkness," as Harris would say.

The epistemological problem with all this is that if our impulses come out of the darkness, then so do our beliefs. Why should anyone take determinism seriously under those conditions? On the other hand, the version of free will I believe in says that your reason is your free will.

You are concerned about ideas that get away from you. I find that ideas, while not determined by experience and character, are glimpsed because of the things, and that, as such, they usually have a way of popping up again later.


Jeremy Milligan Reason coming out of consciousness doesn't preclude consciousness being determinable, therefore reason can just as well be determinable. And consciousness, impulse, and beliefs can just as well be rooted "out of the darkness", and nothing in your argument proves otherwise.


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