- Paperback: 96 pages
- Publisher: Free Press; 1st edition (March 6, 2012)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1451683405
- ISBN-13: 978-1451683400
- Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 0.5 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars See all reviews (645 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #5,543 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Free Will Paperback – March 6, 2012
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"In this elegant and provocative book, Sam Harris demonstrates—with great intellectual ferocity and panache—that free will is an inherently flawed and incoherent concept, even in subjective terms. If he is right, the book will radically change the way we view ourselves as human beings."
—V. S. Ramachandran, Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, UCSD, and author of The Tell-Tale Brain
"Brilliant and witty—and never less than incisive—Free Will shows that Sam Harris can say more in 13,000 words than most people do in 100,000."
"Free will is an illusion so convincing that people simply refuse to believe that we don’t have it. In Free Will, Sam Harris combines neuroscience and psychology to lay this illusion to rest at last. Like all of Harris’s books, this one will not only unsettle you but make you think deeply. Read it: you have no choice."—Jerry A. Coyne, Professor of Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago, and author of Why Evolution Is True
"Many say that believing that there is no free will is impossible—or, if possible, will cause nihilism and despair. In this feisty and personal essay, Harris offers himself as an example of a heart made less self-absorbed, and more morally sensitive and creative, because this particular wicked witch is dead."
—Owen Flanagan, Professor of Philosophy, Duke University, and author of The Really Hard Problem
"If you believe in free will, or know someone who does, here is the perfect antidote. In this smart, engaging, and extremely readable little book, Sam Harris argues that free will doesn’t exist, that we’re better off knowing that it doesn’t exist, and that—once we think about it in the right way—we can appreciate from our own experience that it doesn’t exist. This is a delightful discussion by one of the sharpest scholars around.”
—Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology, Yale University, and author of How Pleasure Works
About the Author
Sam Harris is the author of the bestselling books The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, The Moral Landscape, Free Will, and Lying. The End of Faith won the 2005 PEN Award for Nonfiction. His writing has been published in over fifteen languages. Dr. Harris is cofounder and CEO of Project Reason, a nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society. He received a degree in philosophy from Stanford University and a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA. Please visit his website at SamHarris.org.
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Top customer reviews
The anti-free-will argument is irrefutable is the bad sense: it carries built-in immunity to any evidence that might tend to discredit it.
I wonder if emergence offers some possibility of free will in the traditional sense. Quite different things and conditions can emerge from their components and backgrounds. A barrel made from flat boards can roll. Human consciousness emerges from physical and biological processes, along with chance. Karl Popper’s three worlds come to mind. The first is the world of physical and biological objects and processes: rocks, human and other bodies, earthquakes, and even actual printed copies of books. The second is the world of thoughts and emotions. The third is products of the human mind: music, art, the contents (not physical copies) of books, and scientific and mathematical puzzles and results, including mathematical conjectures not yet either proven or disproven. The three worlds interact. Yet the third world is totally different from the first. It is something emergent.
Even if Harris is totally correct, some consolation remains. My tastes–in food, say–have developed totally from causes and chance; yet they are my tastes, and I feel satisfaction or regret when they are gratified or disappointed. Similarly, my will is mine, regardless of what caused it; and I know that it is mine. Furthermore, it makes sense for people to engage in reading and writing and conversations, knowing and even intending that these may well modify their own and others’ wills. There is no incongruity in Sam Harris’s writing, under causal and stochastic compulsion, that he and the rest of us cannot escape such compulsion.
## ...this feeling of freedom arises from our moment-to-moment ignorance of the prior causes of our thoughts and actions. The phrase "free will" describes what it feels like to identify with certain mental states as they arise in consciousness....But from a deeper perspective...thoughts simply arise unauthored and yet author our actions.
The resurgence of the idea that free will is an illusory construct of human nature has, I think, an inevitably positive effect. The largest (and perhaps quixotic) hurdle is obviously shedding religion; beyond that difficult goal, a greater (and public) understanding of the brain will go beyond coffee table discussion. As we inch towards the origins of psychopathology, of crime, of hate -- of inequality, bigotry, pedophilia, obsessive individualism, etc. -- it should benefit how social organizations and the people within them interact with others (particularly the disadvantaged where social justice concerns are greatest). Simply understanding the origin of our own momentary frustration as a chemical impulse brought on by, e.g., hunger, could potentially ameliorate how our grumpiness is enforced on our environment, and leng to a greater self-awareness in general -- preferably beyond Jared Diamond.
No one would deny that people are shaped in parts by their genes and their upbringing, both of which conflict with the notion of free will by definition. How do we then deny those as a reality (particularly in our justice system which explicitly denies determinism) simply because the feeling of free will and choice are so tantamount within our cultures?
## What does it mean to say that rapists and murderers commit their crimes of their own free will? If this statement means anything, it must be that they could have behaved differently -- not on the basis of random influences over which they have no control, but because they, as conscious agents, were free to think and act in other ways. To say that they were free not to rape and murder is to say that they could have resisted the impulse to do so (or could have avoided feeling such an impulse altogether) -- with the universe, including their brains, in precisely the same state it was in at the moment they committed their crimes. Assuming that violent criminals have such freedom, we reflexively blame them for their actions. But without it, the place for our blame suddenly vanishes, and even the most terrifying sociopaths begin to seem like victims themselves. The moment we catch sight of the stream of causes that precede their conscious decisions, reaching back into childhood and beyond, their culpability begins to disappear.
In recent decades, we've already come to understand how brain tumors or lesions impacting the orbitofrontal cortex can lead to extreme changes in the personalities of those affected (e.g., Burns & Swerdlow 2003, detailing a subject who was then suffering from pedophilia in response to a brain tumor -- both the tumor and loss of inhibition later resurfaced), an obvious contradiction to the notion of free will (as is any mental disorder: Alzheimer's, dementia, schizophrenia, even depression). This makes it a bit hard to gauge good and evil when folks are nothing more than 'neuronal weather patterns.' (N.B. His argument does not deny the purpose of the justice system or punishment, just opens the doors towards understanding and away from retribution.)
Harris punctuates his neuroscience statements with journal references and personal correspondences, which provide a good background for readers seeking more information via services like Google Scholar. See Libet (1985) for early research showing we infer rather than perceive the moments we act, or Fried et al. (2011) and Haynes (2011) for more recent experiences predicting the volition of subjects. See also Thagard and Arbie (2008) on how working memory -- the associationg between touch and sight -- creates consciousness. Or see Vohs and Schooler (2008) and Baumeister et al. (2009) for potential positive social benefits of believing in free will. Outside of Sam's sources, Baumeister and Monroe (2014) offers a more recent literature review on free will research.
## Decisions, intentions, efforts, goals, willpower, etc., are causal states of the brain, leading to specific behaviors, and the behaviors lead to outcomes in the world. Human choice, therefore, is as important as fanciers of free will believe. But the next choice you make will come out of the darkness of prior causes that you, the conscious witness of your experience, did not bring into being.
Free Will is dense despite its length; complex despite the clarity of the writing. Sam Harris wrote his treatise targeting some nebulous group between layreaders and professionals, which makes for difficult reading at times. (And thank goodness for that -- we have enough science writers cherrypicking headline-grabbing research for publishers. We need more writers like Harris or Sapolsky, who can convey complex topics like this without limiting it to Gladwellian armchair psychology and pseudoscientific bar-room factoids.) Given the complexity of the subject, it's a volume I plan on revisiting frequently. And I'll need to, because I'm not Sam Harris.
## Einstein, on free will (1932 -- the height of environmental determinism!): I cannot understand what people mean when they talk about the freedom of the human will. I have a feeling, for instance, that I will something or other, but what relation this has with freedom I cannot understand at all. I feel that I will to light my pipe and I do it; but how can I connect this up with the idea of freedom? What is behind the act of willing to light the pipe? Another act of willing? Schopenhauer once said: Man can do what he will but he cannot will what he wills.