6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on June 18, 2014
I am curious about free will arguments because of what they inevitably suggest concerning our scientific preconceptions. Sam Harris is a determinist, pure and simple. The problem is that we have no proof that human behavior is fully determined by the causal laws modeled in modern physical science. I cannot imagine why Harris assumes a determinist model of human behavior. He simply assumes it.
I will believe in determinism when someone develops a model that accurately predicts human behavior from a set of physiological parameters. Clearly no one has done that yet.
Harris argues that if you reject determinism, you must accept either quantum mechanical indeterminism or a mysterious non-physical source of human agency. Quantum indeterminacy of course does not imply free will---it just implies quantum superposition or irreducible stochasticity. But we cannot rule out a mysterious source of human agency intimately tied to consciousness. Whether this is "physical" or not we cannot say. It could be an emergent physical property of complex neural systems.
Harris thinks that if it is mysterious, we cannot believe in it. Well, there are lots of mysteries of life that we can believe in. Consciousness is one. Try to fit that into some traditional physical, chemical, or biological model. It is simply, at this point in time, mysterious. It clear has evolved, because many species appear to exhibit it as much as humans.
Harris makes a big deal of the fact that our unconscious determines an action before we are conscious of it. I do not doubt this, but so what? No one believes all our actions are free will. Far from it. But if I take a baseball bat, break into a house, and beat a sleeping resident to death, please do not tell me the act was completed before my conscious mind had any knowledge of it. Some, but not all, actions may exhibit free will.
Harris also makes a big deal of the fact that we did not choose our genes or our environment, and if we lead a moral life, we are just lucky to be so constituted. I this this is a perfectly valid argument. I feel lucky that I am not a psychopath, a drug addict, or a lazy slacker.
Case in point: Last May I went on a diet and started a daily exercise regime. I lost fifty pounds and improved by aerobic capacity and musculature a good deal. When I went back to the doctor, she said "I am proud of you." I replied that there is nothing to be proud of. I don't know why I did it, or why I had not done it earlier. I don't know why others in my position did not do it. I just did it, and I was lucky. But it is plausible to think that I did it of my own free will, meaning that I was not compelled to do it and I could have done otherwise, as far as I can surmise. I could have done otherwise because I have done otherwise in the past, and others like me have done otherwise.
I must say that I find determinism a flimsy basis for any philosophical argument because there is no basis in scientific theories for determinism. We just don't know enough about the laws of the Universe to say with any authority what conditions human behavior.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on October 28, 2012
On the back cover of this book Oliver Sacks praises Harris's pithiness saying "Free Will shows that Sam Harris can say more in 13,000 words than most people do in 100,000." I can do even better than Harris. I can say in 50 words what it took him 13,000 to say. Here goes: In the late 1990s the band Semisonic enjoyed 15 minutes of fame with their song Closing Time. The best line in that song is 'every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end.' Replace the word 'beginning' with 'cause' and 'end' with 'effect' and you have Harris's entire book.
The simple idea that cause and effect extend in an unbroken line back before any of us were born strikes Harris as self-evident and he is mildly contemptuous of anyone who doesn't accept this premise without qualification. In one section of his book he briefly addresses some of the arguments put forward in defense of free will. His treatment of quantum theory - by far the best of these arguments - is deeply unsatisfying. All Harris says is that the handful of philosophers who have not come around to determinism have pinned their hopes for free will on their wishy-washy understanding of quantum theory. Harris acknowledges that there is an element of randomness to quantum processes and that this randomness does undermine "billiard-ball determinism," however, he insists that it is a mistake to think that this somehow rescues free will. He maintains that individuals have no input into the outcome of quantum randomness therefore it's foolish to equate quantum indeterminacy with free will. And that's all he says.
If I had this book a year ago I might have deferred to Harris's authority. But I have read a lot about quantum mechanics since then, and can say that Harris's treatment of quantum mechanics is totally lame. Just about every book on quantum theory includes Niels Bohr's quote that "Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it." Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness by Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner is no exception. But it is better than any other book I have read at explaining what about quantum theory prompted Bohr to make this statement. The authors show how at the quantum level "reality" is literally unfathomable (or at least has defied all attempts to fathom it). And since everything is ultimately composed of quantum objects this has profound implications for humanity. They go on to show how the act of observation appears to influence reality at the quantum level, but exactly how or why this is the case is anyone's guess. To their minds (and a lot of other distinguished scientists like John von Neumann and Eugene Wigner) it's difficult to escape the conclusion that consciousness is somehow linked to the material world through quantum mechanics. My theory is that the moment the wave function collapses is the moment the temporal meets the eternal. Admittedly this is not a slam dunk for free will but determinists like Harris cannot simply ignore this argument any more than they can dismiss people who believe in free will as tender-hearted simpletons.
While I did not appreciate Harris's mildly condescending tone or his shoddy treatment of quantum theory I did appreciate the format of this book and the clarity of Harris's thought. He only needed 66 pages to state his case. I think a lot of authors who feel obligated to write 250 page books would be more effective if they distilled their ideas into a third of that length.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on April 18, 2012
Philosophers debating free will have long understood that the term can be used in many ways, most of which are incoherent. Thus, advocates of "libertarian free will" (founded on the belief that free will requires indeterminism) have had to face the objection that indeterminate events in the brain would be expected to produce randomness, not freedom. And advocates of "compatibilist free will" (founded on the belief that some kinds of free will are compatible with determinism) have had to face other problems, including the one that many people find compatibilism intuitively implausible. Despite these difficulties, most leading philosophers (with a few important exceptions such as Galen Strawson, Derk Pereboom and Ted Honderich), have come to the conclusion that, if used cautiously, the term "free will" can be applied to human beings in a coherent, meaningful and true manner. One of the hard-won achievements of this 200 year old debate has been to separate out conceptions of free will that have a good chance of being coherent and even true, from those that are incoherent or probably untrue. It has been clear to all for many years that unsophisticated conceptions of free will are unlikely to stand up to philosophical analysis.
This 66 page text makes little attempt to contribute to the modern debate, but rather takes the easy option of attacking "the popular conception of free will" which, according to Harris "seems to rest on two assumptions: (1) that each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past, and (2) that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present". Of course, this popular conception gets a thrashing, because assumption (1) is ambiguous and assumption (2) is simplistic.
Whether this conception is really popular is debatable. There has been research on what ordinary people believe about free will, and popular beliefs actually seem to be rather varied [...], but let us suppose that at least some people have a conception of free will resembling the one Harris attacks. For such people, the book may be useful. It is certainly much easier to read than the works of serious philosophers.
Harris has not refuted free will, but has mounted a ferocious attack on one rather naïve version of it. He doesn't seriously grapple with modern scholarship. Admittedly, he does briefly discuss two short texts from compatibilist philosophers Tom Clark and Eddy Nahmias. He merely dismisses libertarianism as not being "respectable" (page 16). He wins a cheap victory. Why should anybody be surprised if an unsophisticated "popular" view of free will can be knocked down?
If this easy-to-read 66 page tract stimulates people into reading more serious works on free will, this will be of value (they might start with Robert Kane, Daniel Dennett and Alfred Mele). If it lulls people into thinking that the problem is solved and free will does not exist, it may be a victory for obscurantism.
27 of 36 people found the following review helpful
on March 6, 2012
In his new essay, neuroscientist Sam Harris has declared free will to be illusory. He bases this monumental conclusion on the undeniable fact that in laboratory experiments neural activity occurs in human subjects' brains prior to conscious decisions. He just fails to consider the ambiguous implications of these experiments.
He says: "You might spend an hour thinking and acting freely in the lab, only to discover that the scientists scanning your brain have been able to produce a complete record of what you would think and do some moments in advance of each event."
Thus encapsulated is the book's argument--as well as the fallacy of that argument. Yes, neural activity takes place prior to decision-making, but to state that what a subject might be thinking is in any way available to someone privy to EEG or fMRI findings is just absurd. Excitation of neurons is not the same thing as a thought--and neither is transparent from the readout of medical instruments. Unfortunately, such overstatement as this occurs throughout the essay.
Surely Harris misspoke in the quotation here. But the overreaching it suggests is part and parcel of his approach. He is convinced, based on scant evidence, that prior events in the brain make our decisions for us. We may believe we decide but absolutely we don't. Indeed, the pioneering research of the late neurophysiologist Benjamin Libet and neuroscientist John-Dylan Haynes is provocative but it does not definitively obliterate free will.
Philosopher Eddy Nahmias , writing in the Opinionator blog of The New York Times, has a more thoughtful and scientifically respectable approach to the research on free will. He says, "(T)he existing evidence does not support the conclusion that free will is an illusion. First of all, it does not show that a decision has been made before people are aware of having made it. It simply finds discernible patterns of neural activity that precede decisions. If we assume that conscious decisions have neural correlates, then we should expect to find early signs of those correlates `ramping up' to the moment of consciousness. It would be miraculous if the brain did nothing at all until the moment people became aware of a decision...."
Harris, though, in his over-eager way, wants certainty NOW. He's categorical: Our choices appear in our minds as though "sprung from the void," he states. Although neuroscience is in its infancy, he speaks as if this is the last word on the subject. Yet at this early stage we don't even know what consciousness is. And while the neural correlates are necessary, no one has yet proven that they are sufficient to cause conscious states. Someone with faith in another system might argue that we participate in consciousness rather than generating it on the spot. It is still the wild West out there in realm of neuroscience.
Here's where Harris gets a gold star, however. He doesn't dodge the implications of his position. And this means that if people, even criminals, aren't ultimately responsible for what they do, our justice systems must take this into consideration. Not that dangerous people should be allowed to remain in society, but we should do all we can to rehabilitate them. Furthermore, we should eliminate all vestiges of vengeance from punishment meted out. Now that is taking a significant stand.
Where Harris gets a failing grade is in philosophy. Yes, he considers determinism, libertarianism, and compatabilism. That's not the point. He neglects to acknowledge that at present we have extremely limited data and extremely limited knowledge about what actually constitutes consciousness. Neuroscience is still in the cradle. It's way too soon to assume an end point has been reached and the ancient problem of free will resolved.
Science is not static. Does Harris really believe that his position will hold steady after more and more competing labs have reported in? Does he really believe that further research will not subsume the research he is citing? Of course, no one knows what the future will bring. But if the history of science is any model, we are in the beginning stages of an ongoing dialectic.
13 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on April 1, 2012
This book is exciting as a cogent and forceful explanation for a popular readership of something specialists have known for a long time: that our common notions of free will seem indefensible from a scientific and logical standpoint, and don't even hold up well to introspection.
Unfortunately, readers who are even moderately skeptical upon hearing that a view of free will they have shared for a lifetime with everyone they know might be completely wrong might want to be apprised of their options, and here Harris disappoints. Harris' argument is hardly new, and philosophers counter it with theories of free will that conserve many of our intuitions. Harris gives this effort--known as compatibilism-- short shrift, so neophytes will leave Harris' book unaware that there are intellectually credible alternatives to Harris' radical break with free will. I find Harris' move here unfair, in the manner of mortgage brokers who sell products their customers probably wouldn't buy if they understood them better.
Worse, Harris does an inadequate job of addressing problems in his own theory. He happily admits that we would have to toss out our notion of moral responsibility when we discard free will, but doesn't reckon with anything close to the full consequences of this. For example, why should we keep such human emotions as resentment or gratitude? We don't resent dogs or infants when they transgress upon us. If another human pushes me on the subway, I resent him; if I find he was pushed into me, I do not. The difference can only be that I believe the man who pushed me on purpose-- unlike the dog, the infant, or the man who was pushed--had some free will in the matter. Should we discard resentment, as well as gratitude, as primitive emotions best left behind now that we know the truth? This is just one of many matters he doesn't bother to address, and I can't help thinking that if he did, his conclusions would not be so pat.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on March 8, 2012
Schopenhauer said (in English translation, of course): You can do what you will, but you can't will what you will. This sentiment is paraphrased several times in Harris' little essay. A far better argument was offered by Dean Woolridge (without benefit of PET scans) in "Mechanical Man," 1969! I am disappointed. Harris is right, but this book lacks his customary intellectual vigor.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Free Will provides an enticing introduction to the topic of free will. Sam Harris briefly covers what neuroscience currently understands about how we make choices - an understanding which remains far from sufficiently comprehensive. He then critiques how philosophers deal with this evidence in order to present Harris' own arguments for how we should handle our newfound, though still developing, understanding. Harris also laudably introduces us to arguments contra his own, and as always those presentations are fair to their advocates along with also providing a great set of footnotes for further research. Free Will makes for a fine extra-curricular first reading assignment for a college course on the topic.
However Mr. Harris' argument on how we should define free will given competing definitions is not convincing. Like Samuel Vicchrilli in his review of this same book, I found the compatibilist hypothesis more compelling, largely due to Harris' impressive footnoting and linking to competing source docs. I'm unimpressed with Mr. Harris' argument partly due to the lack of content to help this reader get my arms around a topic beyond my own intuitions, in spite of:
1) my not having any problem abandoning long-held conclusions when superior explanatory models are presented, and
2) Harris perfectly describing why most people initially reject the idea we have no free will - where that hesitance includes myself.
For neophytes like me on this topic, I'm glad I purchased this book. In fact I plan to re-read it given its brevity and my increasing interest in the topic, which was enhanced by reading Free Will. For those who criticize Mr. Harris lack of effort on this topic given the brevity of the book, I think they've got a point if they spent $10 on the paperback; however I'm happy with the value I received paying $3.99 for the Kindle for iPhone version.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on October 18, 2015
He can't resolve the nihilistic holes he digs for himself in the end (though he does explain some fantastic holes in free will in a very contemporary portrait). His "solution" to nihilism (or all that results from concluding you do not have "free will"), is unsatisfying and contradictory to his own conclusions. Romantic. Like all others before him who come to such analytic conclusions about how benign their existence is, but then feel obliged to explain how important it is to continue (because, well - the fallacy is obvious.. THEY are talking about it - and making money off of it, and they're perceived as rich, successful, etc.... so.. enter an apologist argument for believing in determinism.)
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on May 22, 2012
To "out" my bias: I am a strong opponent of the idea of free will. Sam Harris' book reads like the sort of meditation on free will one might offer at a happy hour on a college campus: Engaging, thoughtful, not particularly earth-shattering. If you're well-read on the topic and looking for something to push your thinking further, this is probably not the source. If you're looking for a casual (but intelligent) rendezvous with a skeptic, this would be a good place to go. Certainly a good read for newcomers to the topic -- as an educator, I'm thinking about introducing it as a text in my freshman year seminar.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on February 9, 2013
Harris starts out with some enthusiasm and rigorous scientific presentations for his case. The first chapter ("The Unconscious Origins of the Will") is the most convincing. The second and third chapters ("Changing the Subject" and "Cause and Effect") are generalizations about the first. But from there Harris gets much more pedestrian in his explanations and examples. By the time he gets to the last two chapters ("Politics" and "Conclusion") there are obvious questions raised by what has now become more doxastics than rigorous scientific inquiry. For example, this topic of free will needs a more disciplined and vigorous vocabulary suitable to the project--which becomes less scientific and more philosophical as the book progresses. Perhaps more explanation of, say, the internal instigation of external influences (to suggest a more vigorous vocabulary). This very thought is integral to his discussion of justice regarding persons as free agents ("Politics"). If his hypothesis is correct that free will is an illusion and behavior is determined by a collection of internal (genes, synaptic activity) and external (laws of Physics, habitat, upbringing) phenomena, then a system of justice that both punishes and rewards human behavior would seem even more important to our condition, i.e., lacking free will. Justice would be part of the external, behavioral world that would profoundly influence the internal instigation of external influence, and hence determinism. This would seem a critical and central part of the book's thesis, but Harris seemed to lose interest and ignored any such thoughts. Rent this one from a library. There are better sources in his footnotes than the book itself.