Rod Hilton's Reviews > Free Will

Free Will by Sam Harris
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Mar 29, 2012

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bookshelves: philosophy

Sam Harris has been doing a thing lately where, rather than publishing a full-length book, he publishes long essays as eBooks. It's kind of weird, and ultimately the main problem of Free Will.

Free Will is a big topic. It's one of the most hotly discussed aspects of philosophy, and the fundamental foundation for our justice system. Free Will is a big deal. So if you think that 80 pages might not be enough to cover such a huge topic, I'd have to say you're dead on.

Harris makes a strong argument that Free Will, even that proposed by Compatibilism, is illusory. I think this argument is actually pretty convincing, as a Compatibilist myself, I found myself questioning a number of my beliefs. I like when books make me do this, so I really enjoyed this bit. Sam's argument is pure determinism, which is something of a rarity, particularly as well-argued as it is in Free Will.

I temporarily suspended my belief in Compatibilist Free Will for the purpose of reading the book, and I was flooded with a number of questions. What impact does this have on our legal system and our sense of personal accountability? The implications of no free will are enormous, and I expected to see Sam provide some great insight into these sorts of questions. But instead, the book ended.

Just when things are starting to get interesting, there's a 2-page section (I can't call it a chapter) on the legal implications of determinism, and then a conclusion. The conclusion, hilariously, ends with Sam arguing that, since his actions are determined by factors out of his control, he may as well write the final few paragraphs as a stream of consciousness, which includes ruminations on the fact that he wants to stop writing because he's hungry. Quite appropriate because, as a book, it feels like something the author stopped writing to go make a sandwich, then never came back to and finished.

Free Will is too fascinating a topic, with too huge of set of implications, to be dismantled in a mere 80 pages without further discussion. Free Will is an enjoyable book/essay/glorified blog post, but it doesn't do it's subject matter justice.

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message 1: by Jason (new)

Jason Gordon Ted Honderich has a book on Determinism and Responsibility that might be worth looking at called Punishment: The Supposed Justifications Revisited. I have the original edition of Punishment and in it he argues that all forms of Punishment are not justifiable and poses a theory of punishment based on the Principle of Humanity. Punishment is rationally justifiable if it takes forward the humanization of our societies from that basis he concludes that most punishments are in fact wrong.

My own view on free will and determinism is a bit complex. For me this question is a biological mystery -- it likely escapes the scope of our cognition, much like how mathematical mazes escape the cognition of rats. The only thing that bears on this issue is our personal experience and personal experience leans toward the direction of free will itself.

I have nothing to say to Pure Determinists -- their arguments are like that of trivialists (people who say everything is true) or sceptics -- any objection to their arguments just beg the question and so their positions carry the illusion of being well argued when in fact they are not . . .

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