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on March 9, 2012
Sam Harris Free Will

Sam Harris is a master of the polemic. He has written very eloquently and convincingly concerning atheism in his books, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. Full disclosure: My wife, Mary C. Taylor, and I are atheists and she has a website and video lectures on atheism, as well as being assistant organizer and lecturer of an atheist Meetup. She has contributed signifantly to this essay. Mr. Harris is an important force for secularism in the United States.
But his latest offering, Free Will, a scant 66 page essay in book format (with some 7 pages of notes,) is lacking in many essential ways, particularly in the matter of evidence for his claims. Harris states there is no free will, that it is an illusion, but offers no proof for his assertion. In fact, on Pages 13, 38, 39, and 40, he states that the sources of our intentions, desires, actions, and wants are unknown, a mystery, inscrutable or obscure. He seems to be asserting that because we do not know the sources for our thoughts and actions, it necessarily follows that we do not have free will. Such a flimsy connection is not proof. He cites some well known experiments, such as the Libet, all of which are inconclusive, and does not provide the reader with strong scientific evidence to back up his assertions.
Mr. Harris critiques compatibilism by too often, for such a short essay, emphasizing the differences between himself and Daniel Dennett, the philosopher who has written Elbow Room and Freedom Evolves. In fact, Dennett makes a very cogent case for the compatibilism and coexistence of determinism and free will in human beings. One of Mr. Harris's breezy dismissals of compatibilism on Page 16 is that the "free will compatibilists defend is not the free will most people feel they have." Such a statement seems to imply that Mr. Harris sets aside the fine and scholarly work of many philosophers such as Dennett, because it does not accord with some popular misconception of free will. Populism would appear to trump scholarship in this book.
On Pages 10 and 24, Harris apparently infers that if we had exceptional machines and brain scanners to monitor our action sequences and choices, we would be astounded to discover that we were not in control of them. However, we do not yet have experiments that might be conclusive. To state that one knows the outcome of future experiments is nonsense. In fact, neuroscience is at the beginning of a long voyage of discovery about the brain, the mind and consciousness.
Another difficulty with "Free Will" is the author's shift to prescription rather than description. Such a segue is yet another example of the philosopher David Hume's famous and much discussed Is/Ought problem concerning Ethics. Harris suddenly advocates what the justice system should do. On Page 54, he writes: "Our system of justice should reflect an understanding that any of us could have been dealt a different hand in life. In fact, it seems immoral not to recognize just how much luck is involved with morality itself." Why should any of us assume, given Mr. Harris's assertion that choices are not in our control, that most citizens will agree about changes to our justice system? Many people, if not in conscious control of their belief and ethical systems, may reach opposite conclusions. Mr. Harris is not the only champion of determinism who seems to dismiss reason as a motivating factor, and then to advocate change based on conscious reasoning.
My opinion, after reading this small book, is that Sam Harris has done very little to advance understanding or forward the argument in the contentious and knotty issue of free will and determinism. With all due respect, I regretfully cannot recommend his Free Will to readers. Daniel Dennett's Elbow Room and Freedom Evolves are excellent starting places for a discussion of the argument. The problem of free will vis-à-vis determinism reaches back to Ancient Greece and Israel, and is not quickly or easily perused. Galen Strawson, Saul Smilansky, Peter Strawson, Manuel Vargas, Robert Kane and Daniel Wegner are excellent sources. Robert Kane has edited the Oxford Handbook of Free Will, with superb essays on both sides of the divide. Professor Shaun Nichols, from the University of Arizona, offers an excellent DVD course from the Teaching Company on Free Will and Determinism that is very balanced, thorough and essential for the appraisal and understanding of the multitudinous opinions and experiments concerning free will and determinism.
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on April 1, 2012
At about 10 minutes after noon yesterday, an ineluctable series of causal events that no doubt began before the dawn of humanity compelled me to sit for an hour in a Barnes and Noble reading this predetermined collection of words from someone whose parents had been programmed to name him Sam Harris. I regret that this is the way I ended up spending an hour, though of course it's useless to regret what one could not help but do, and, moreover, the "I" that I imagine I am is just along for the ride anyway.

Being predetermined, I can't choose to say that one part of this collection of words was more worthwhile than any other (a sentiment with which Harris would agree, though "agreement" itself seems superfluous) but if free will were possible, I would choose footnote 15, on the next to last page of the book, in which biologist Jerry Coyne notes that no possible scientific experiment could test whether any action was free from compulsion by previous events or influences. I believe that to be correct and so believed before the predetermined hour I spent reading Harris's book, which seemed to add nothing to the question but inanity and confusion, both delivered with a rather self-congratulatory air--but then, as Harris pointed out near the end of the book, his choice to type or go drink a beer was all alike, and his book proved it.

Why Harris didn't simply point out what was in footnote 15 at the outset and then leave the publisher to bind 80 blank pages together is mysterious to me until I remembered that he couldn't help himself. In his case, unknown influences had caused him to believe that even in the absence of free will, it is still useful, not only to talk about choice but to argue against fatalism because our choices have outcomes. This is trivially true in his framework of mental events, though what "choice" could signify in such a framework beyond a polite fiction, the vestige of the very illusion Harris thinks he is exploding, is not apparent.

Other causal factors moved Harris to mention existentialism once, in which he found little use but which he was caused to congratulate for its emphasis on taking personal responsibility for creating meaning in one's life. It happens that I am predetermined to imagine that I am preferring existentialist thinking (or mental event processing) in this regard to Harris's own thoughts, which strike me as laughably facile. In my predetermined view, we do well to choose, and seek to live by, values that optimize our potential as humans. Such choices may be as simple as taking up walking for fitness and losing 35 pounds, or they may involve something more, such as learning chess or reading "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." I suppose Harris would not object to this (indeed, it is hard to see how he could "object" to anything at all, though he certainly does so) but would simply argue that one cannot take credit for such choices, however fortunate, or suffer blame for them, even if they are criminal.

One reason that Harris seems to harp on this so much is that he is predetermined to fear that assigning moral "blame" leads to a largely punitive and inhumane society; specifically, he claims to be unable to find anything in a religious framework that enables the observer of a criminal act to reflect that he, too, might be capable of similar behavior. Actually, such a remedy exists and would have been discovered by Harris had he ever been predetermined to read the simple Christian reflection "There but for the grace of God, go I." In any case, Harris may be vindicated (if "vindication" even matters) by reflecting (or being caused to reflect) that even the act of reading this review may cause you either to avoid the book or to spend the same time reading it as I did.
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on April 9, 2012
Not much to say. He's grossly over-simplified a complex issue. He's got his science and his philosophy wrong, and he ignores most of the developments on this topic of the past 20 or so years. Like his previous, "The Moral Landscape" this is pseudo-scientific nonsense. This book will make you dumber for having read it, although you probably won't realize it if you're unfamiliar with contemporary philosophy or various scientific projects on free will.

If you want a well-researched, fair book by scientists on the science of free will, here's a good anthology:

If you want a readable survey of what philosophers actually think about this topic, read "4 Views on Free Will"

Finally, for a decisive criticism of the kinds of studies that Harris thinks proves there is no free will, read Alfred Mele's "Effective Intentions"
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on March 11, 2012
I'm a Sam Harris fan - loved "The End of Faith". But this essay is so trite and silly to warrant relatively little critique (it doesn't rise to a bar to warrant more). The premise is obvious and pointless, the writing repetitive (it's a basic point - not deep or hard to grok - and he makes it over and over and over) and even at that the premise is unsupported by either evidence or logic in his presentation. At the end of the day this essay is pure garbage in that he twists the concept of free will by locking on to an uncontroversial semantics angle. So, yeah, if you want to define free will as requiring that the laws of physics don't apply and that we mustn't be impacted by our previous experiences, then, sure, we don't have free will. But who defines free will that way? Just as no one would say you don't have free will because you can't breathe under water if that's what you want to do, no one begins with Harris' premise. Wish I hadn't wasted money on this tedious, pointless essay.
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on August 5, 2012
Free will is a problematic concept -- difficult to spell out, and in conflict with our assumption of causation of everything in the world. Causation itself is not well defined either, but we at least have a better understanding of the term. I have always been interested in how to reconcile Free Will with the physical world, and I was excited that a clear thinking modern philosopher had something new to dsay on the subject. But Sam Harris, in Free Will, has produced an extremely disappointing piece of sophomoric reasoning.
His thesis, summarized, is that:
* human action can be either caused or random, and neither allows for free will
* therefore our perception of our free will is delusional
* supporting evidence for this is that neuroscientists see evidence of our actions seconds before we decide we will act
* therefore we reach decisions independently of our "will".
Every bit of this argument is problematic, and a thinker of Harris's depth should have punctured it, not EXPOUNDED it.
Taking his points from the top, the first bullet of his thesis is a false dichotomy. That he repeats this fallacy over a dozen times in this short work just lead me to shake my head over his blindness. Human THINKING is geared toward categorizing things as either deterministic or random, but our predilection for these two categories does not make them exclusive options for the world. In actuality, macro level objects are rarely modelable as deterministic - influence applied over a background randomness is how almost everything we deal with behaves. And subatomic particles likewise break this paradigm, behaving like a probability distribution within a waveform. While neither of these models are really any more compatible with free will than the two of his false dichotomy, their obvious refutation of his fallacy indicate that self reflection did not trouble Harris's mind in the contemplation of his own reasoning here.
For the second bullet, our perception of our own free will has developed over an extended evolutionary process, and the default position of evolutionary reasoning is that evolutionarily refined beliefs and behaviors provide real benefits. FALSE perceptions of the world very very rarely provide benefits, and supporting such a claim requires strong and convincing evidence for how false beliefs in this case would of necessity be evolutionarily beneficial. He provides no such argument beyond his false dichotomy. Basically, we have a conflict between two mental frameworks that humans have evolved - our tendency to assign everything to the caused/random pidgeonholes, vs. the belief in free will. While it is possible that BOTH are delusions, we know that caused/random pidgeonholes are NOT reflected in the real world, so if one must reject just one, then one should reject the refuted false dichotomy, and declare the belief in such pidgeonholes to be the delusion. This makes Harris deluded, not those whose beliefs he seeks to challenge.
For the third point, yes, Harris cites valid test data which demonstrates it takes seconds to organize our nervous system to perform actions. But Harris makes a major error in the next step of his reasoning. He assumes consciousness and the mind is unitary, and that evidence we prepared for one action means that we were not simultaneously preparing for multiple actions we did NOT take. That he asserts this, while also citing the researchers and mind theorists who have refuted his assumption, is bizarre. He repeatedly quotes Daniel Dennett, and even cites personal conversations with Dennett, yet Dennett's Multiple Drafts model fully explains how one could make conscious decisions between options seconds after the brain started organizing around several of them. He also cites Libet's work, and Libet conducted tests showing that people prepared mentally for an action they then chose NOT to execute! That Harris could be unaware that multiple mind thinkers have refuted the unity of consciousness, Libet's work, or the central feature of Dennett's thinking is almost inconceivable, for a major philosopher writing on the mind.
The fourth point of his thesis, that we decided beforehand, and in fact everything is decided beforehand, he repeats dozens of times in the work. If one assumes determinism, as he does, then free will is impossible. Asserting a conclusion that is embedded in one's starting assumptions is classic circular reasoning. To repeat this fallacy dozens of times in one short work is a travesty.
So, four points, two of which are fallacies, one of which neglects evolutionary principles, and the third of which neglects the last half century of mind research. This short work was worse than disappointing.
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on January 6, 2016
I thought this would change my mind on free will, or add a perspective to it. The author does not make a compelling argument. Considering the length of this book(too small) I felt he has taken this topic too superficially and seems to make a distinction between our brain's neural state and who we are. Simply, dont think he has achieved in proving "there is no freewill".
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on January 26, 2014
Sam Harris is a good writer and I enjoy reading his books. Free Will entertained me and stirred my thoughts.
The essence of Sam's book is that there is no free will and what we do originates from our subconscious brain.
First, in making a logic argument, one must be very careful defining terms. What exactly is free will? I didn't get a clear understanding. Here is a proposal: free will is the ability to make a conscious choice.
His starting point for disproving free will was a study (reference 2) using 5 subjects who underwent EEG monitoring and motor function testing. The results suggested subconscious cerebral activity occurred prior to motor cortex activity and action. The time was measured by the subjects undergoing the test. So they had to perform the test and perform timing. To me, this seemed rather complex, likely to be erroneous, of insufficient power (too few subjects), and only related to motor function. So, out of curiosity, I looked at some other material on the same subject.
My presumption concerning timing bias seem to be confirmed by other scientists. Danquah AN, Farrell MJ, O'Boyle DJ. Biases in the subjective timing of perceptual events: Libet et al. (1983) revisited. David M. Eagleman, DM, Tse, PU, et. al. Time and the Brain: How Subjective Time Relates to Neural Time. The Journal of Neuroscience, 9 November 2005, 25(45): 10369-10371; doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3487-05.2005.
His initial example of two killers, seemingly acting on impulse, I'd say equal an appeal to emotion. The debate over free will obviously impacts criminal intent and culpability. But let us look at the issue uncharged with a different example. I'm about to graduate college and want to go on for a Ph.D. This involves planning, money, time, focus and work. Choosing that path, sticking to it, seems like a clear conscious cognitive choice. We can accept there are differences in intelligence, athletic ability, and other characteristics. Sam's villains planned evil in advance. They had no qualms about violating social norms and the law.
If it is not clear, I believe there is free will. Allow me the same latitude to just plant some seeds for thought because this is a review and not a book. More modern research, testing subjects by allowing two different choices, demonstrates that there is an area of the brain associated with free will. Goldberg I, Ullman S, Malach R. Neuronal correlates of "free will" are associated with regional specialization in the human intrinsic/default network. Conscious Cogn. 2008 Sep;17(3):587-601. Epub 2007 Dec 21.
Indeed, the journal regularly publishes articles concerning the neurophysiologic basis and evidence for these important matters.
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on March 18, 2014
I was impressed with some youtube videos of Sam Harris and then saw a few positive things about this book. Big mistake. I objected to several statements within the first few paragraphs! He makes grossly over-simplified rationalizations as a premise and then continues on as if there could be no possible discussions about his rash and wholly incomplete logical deduction.

Sheesh! But the way, I am not religious at all. I love studying evolution, the big bang theory, quantum physics and the like. I think Sam Harris' arguments with religious types are a waste of time, but found them interesting. Unfortunately, I didn't find any such intelligence in this book.
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on June 4, 2015
I have enjoyed some of the author's other works, so I decided to read this book. But, in this case I thought the author didn't define his terms, that his arguments were weak or irrelevant, and that contrary points were not adequately treated. After not having done a great job making his point, to me it felt that the author ranted a lot. At one point, he indirectly implies you are a lair if you don't agree with his position.

The author makes claims like this, "Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that would determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have complete control over those factors." The author makes this assertion, but does not back it up at all. It left me wondering what he means when he says "free will", but it seems like something other than the ability to choose between different possible courses of action.

For example, paraphrasing one of the arguments: "if you were completely another person (atom for atom) and in that their exact situation, then you'd make the decision they did. Thus, you don't have control over actions, and no free will." The argument means nothing, since the premise is unachievable. The argument assumes that the universe is completely deterministic when that's really an open question. And, of course, if you were completely the other person, perhaps you would make the same choice, but Sam does not really show you couldn't have made a different choice, or even that the original person could not have a made a different one.

In general, I also thought that the author too lightly treated the compatibilist view. The author says it's a "bait and switch" and asserts the position is like "saying we are made of stardust". He doesn't remotely come close to living the compatibilist view due consideration. He seems to believe for some reason that only the conscious part of the brain is involved in free will, almost as if you could tear it out from the rest of the brain and have the same results. He does not fully consider the effects of the conscious part of the brain have on the rest of the brain.

Another small quote, "Clearly, we can respond intelligently to the threat posed dangerous people without lying to ourselves about the ultimate origins of human behavior." I don't necessarily disagree with the statement, but in the context where given it seems to come with the implication that if you don't agree with the author's position about free will, you must be some kind of liar.

So, while the book is sensationalistic, it isn't well presented or well argued. You can freely choose to give it a miss, or choose not too!
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on February 24, 2014
I decided to read "Free Will" because I had just finished listening to a course on CD on Free Will and Determinism. I had finished learning about many aspects of the issue and reading this book seemed like a good way to go afterwards.
Unfortunately, the book was a big disappointment. After listening for hours about the various schools of thought and historical thinking about free will and determinism , I was floored by the flippant attitude and sloppy arguments in Harris's book. I was stunned that he has the arrogance to write a few arguments and declare that the case for hard determinism is closed when the professor of the course I listened to reminded me that the issue of free will and determinism is far from settled. Harris seems like a hard determinist fanatic really no different from the religious fanatics he has criticized.
I find it strange that Harris's essential argument is that humans are portrayed as just the servants of thoughts which he curiously states are the product of "the cosmos". The "cosmos"? It is odd for a materialist to use such a metaphysical leaning term. He dispatches compatibilism by calling it "theology" and yet doesn't elaborate. Calling a whole school of thinking on this subject :"theology", says it all for Harris even though such a definition is fatuous. It is not only that the arguments are flippant but they abruptly end usually with a trite statement. Vast complicated concepts are summed up with his decisions about drinking a glass of water or a beer. After he tells you that he drank a glass of water, he tells you there was no freedom there at all and the chapter ends and obviously his point is beyond dispute. He dispatches "The Lazy Argument" against determinism with a snide comment about the impossibility of staying in bed even for a day.
Funny but not a slam dunk against the argument like he implies. He ends his book in a manner which is childish and insulting by declaring he was just going to let determinism run wild. He writes about a rabbit and an elephant. This passes for an intelligent argument about determinism with such a silly ending to a supposedly serious book.
I feel that if this book had been a dissertation in a philosophy class, it would have received a failing grade. Instead Mr Harris makes a lot of money with it,(yes he got mine), because of his accomplishments with his earlier books. It does not help the cause of free thought and critical thinking to write sloppy and poorly written books. It is insulting to those who do serious philosophy. How is Mr Harris any better than obnoxious bible thumpers shoving their religion down our throats while he shoves his determinism down just as hard with arguments which are just as fatuous as any screaming evangelist?
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