A Review of “Free Will” by Sam Harris

Free Will

I recently took my wife to a massage clinic in downtown Denver and, while she was having her every aching muscle soothed and caressed, I sauntered over to the Tattered Cover to see what all the fuss was about.  For years friends have been telling me that it is the most amazing bookstore EVER, and that living in Colorado for 18 years without nary a visit was borderline blasphemous (good thing they haven’t found out I’ve also never been skiing).

The Tattered Cover wasn’t anything special, and if this entry were a review of the establishment I could summarize it in a few more words:  Big enough to compete with Barnes & Noble, pretentious enough to believe it’s a small shop.  But, thankfully, this entry is a review of one of the books I used to pass the time in the ardently smalltown Tattered Cover.

Get Real, Get a Grip, and Stop Making ExcusesI perused through two books of note:  How to Be an Existentialist: or How to Get Real, Get a Grip and Stop Making Excuse and Free Will.  I gravitated toward the book on existentialism (since it held the same assertions and value in moral responsibility as I do) and picked it up at my local library soon after.  Excellent read.

I found the book on free will a bit more disturbing.  Take a gander at one of the opening lines, after which Harris has described a grisly, violent murder of a woman and her two daughters in Connecticut after being robbed, beaten, and raped by two psychopaths whose only desire was to find entertainment that evening:

Upon hearing about crimes of this kind, most of us naturally feel that men like Hayes and Komisarjevsky should be held morally responsible for their actions.  Had we been close to the Petit family, many of us would feel entirely justified in killing these monsters with our own hands.  Do we care that Hayes has since shown signs of remorse and has attempted suicide?  Not really.  What about the fact that Komisarjevsky was repeatedly raped as a child?  According to his journals, for as long as he can remember, he has known that he was “different” from other people, psychologically damaged, and capable of great coldness.  He also claims to have been stunned by his own behavior…he had not consciously intended to kill anyone…As sickening as I find their behavior, I have to admit that if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him…The role of luck, therefore, appears decisive.

You can already begin to see why I was revolted by this book.  To suggest that two murderers/rapists should be exonerated entirely of their own actions is unconscionable.  Why, then, did I choose to continue reading this book?

Truth be told, I didn’t.  I sat it back on the shelf, told a few friends about it later over a beer (in which they, too, were disgusted), and promptly forgot about it.  Later, I was reminded of the book when a coworker tried to explain why he thought free will was an illusion.  I have a strict policy at work — no discussions on politics, religion, or philosophy.  So I didn’t go into it nearly as far as I’d have liked.

But it reminded me of this book, and a little bug was planted in my head.  I continued to wonder what could possibly drive seemingly rational people to think this way.  I had to know, so today I picked it up at the library and read it.  At only 66 pages, it was a quick read.  And for good reason — the book is entirely devoid of substance, conscious thought, or able-minded reasoning.

Sam Harris, who provides absolutely no credentials, begins the book with a barrage of neuroscientific experiments that he believes completely and utterly shatters the concept of free will.  In one experiment, for example, an EEG was used on a subject to show that activity in his brain’s motor cortex could be detected about 300 milliseconds before the subject felt the desire to move.

This, Harris states, is evidence of a collage of influences and unconscious causes that determined the person’s choice.  All the material makeup of his brain and body and the environment he was subjected to as a child forced his conscious mind to make the movement.

What?!

To me, this experiment clearly shows that a host of unconscious routines take place without the subject’s awareness of it.  That’s it.  How the timing of unconscious and conscious thought processes can be used to nullify free will is beyond me.  Am I missing something?

As you’ll find out soon enough, nope.  I’m missing nothing.  By the end of the book, Harris will completely topple the house of cards he has so precariously built.  And the reasonable reader will have a good laugh at this plebeian as he tries to shed himself of the moral responsibility to which all human beings are tethered.

The author then spends some time responding to critics of his work, as though this book wasn’t written for any other reason than to continue a debate with some people who have proven him wrong.  Harris makes the argument that within our minds is a complex arrangement of electrical impulses and blood flow, so much so that we are chained to primal impulses.  While there is some truth to this — sometimes we can’t help but think certain thoughts or consider certain courses of action — he fails to distinguish between the inability to prevent the thought of taking action and the actual act of taking action.  Never is this terrible non sequitur explained, probably because it is such a leap of faith that most readers, if aware of it, would dismiss Harris’ argument in its entirety.

Harris uses anecdotal “evidence” to support his ridiculous claims.  In one section, he asks the reader to imagine a different version of themselves, one who has gone “off track” in life and wishes to become successful, lose weight, and finish higher education.  But the reader finds himself stuck six months later, and then decides to truly make a change.  Only then does he succeed in improving his life.  Now Harris asks — what was so different the second time?  Why did the alternate reader become successful on a second attempt? According to Harris, we cannot ever know.

But he’s wrong.  By experiencing failure, the alternate reader has learned how not to fail from the first attempt.  Harris entirely dismisses — or merely misses — the contributions of previous actions.  He would certainly argue that the successful choices were merely influenced by recursive actions of the past, both of the reader and of external actors, and so the reader had no choice but to become successful.

I argue that the reader made a conscious choice in both attempts and would not have succeeded the second time without failing the first.  Harris disregards the human component of learning.

Near the end of the book, Harris includes a section on “moral responsibility”, although it seems unnecessary since he has deprived all inhabitants of Earth the obligation to regard the consequences of his or her own actions.  But this is where he falls apart.  Check out this excerpt:

We need not have any illusions that a causal agent lives within the human mind to recognize that certain people are dangerous.  What we condemn most in another person is the conscious intention to do harm…If, after weeks of deliberation, library research, and debate with your friends, you still decide to kill the king–well, then killing the king reflects the sort of person you really are.

And he’s done.  He just destroyed everything he built by using that one simple word:  “Decide”.  If we’re being strung along by some deterministic puppeteer and have no control over our thoughts or actions as Harris claims, we cannot make ANY decisions.  To say that we still have a moral obligation to behave in a particular way and make reasonable decisions is to accept free will and all the responsibility that comes with it.

When I read the above excerpt I literally snickered in delight.  It’s always amusing to watch a fool’s argument collapse in on itself.  It occurs to me that Harris wants to have a reason to incarcerate the criminals he so fervently defends, so he builds a fantasy bridge to cross the gaps in logic to take him to his ridiculous conclusions.

Sam Harris strangely seems to believe in free will.  However, others who think like him are doomed to live a life full of fear, insecurity, and failure.  In believing they have no choice, they are merely victims of their surroundings everywhere they go.  The sad irony is that by believing there is no free will, these fools give all others around them more freedom to act as they see fit — especially in exploiting them.

Say I approach one of these free will deniers and punch him in the face on a whim.  How could he possibly react?  He cannot blame me for my action because it was influenced and controlled solely by external factors.  If he does becomes angry at my sudden vicious attack, he is being what existentialists would call inauthentic.  He has denied what he himself believes and allowed himself to react angrily to something which cannot be controlled.  It would be as though he became angry at getting assailed with bird droppings as he walks to his hybrid in the parking lot.

Harris makes one final jab in the final chapter at the book, this one leveled at conservatives since they “tend to make a religious fetish of individualism”.  This is the final nail in Harris’ coffin — clearly, he does not understand people enough to know they value what they have worked hard for.

In the end, Harris is encouraging his readers to become victims, slaves to their external circumstances.  For all the talk these types give about “empowerment”, he has published a brash attempt to strip all people of the power over their own lives.

And I can tell you this — I will never succumb to such a victim mentality.  The more victims Sam Harris creates, the more people there are in the world for me to hire and fire when I’m an executive.

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10 thoughts on “A Review of “Free Will” by Sam Harris

  1. You’re absolutely spot on.

    Harris is one of those new(ish) breeds of ‘reality challenger’ who’s often to be found giving (pseudo) intellectually titillating talks at places like TED. It’s basically a form of entertainment disguised as science or philosophy or ethics or whatever – entertainment which is perfectly suited to, what passes for, our educated (or even intellectual) classes.

    Generations of government (Prussian style) schooling have created a society virtually incapable of critical thinking, or being imaginative or handling concepts that aren’t already neatly defined and pre packaged for them.

    Like many people he achieves his ‘out of the box’ thinking by stuffing concepts and data into an even smaller box than they were already in and then pointing at it with an air of authority and smugness.

    Sorry, I just had to get that off my chest LOL 😉

    • No worries at all! Your evaluation of Harris is interesting and if his behavior matches his prose, I don’t doubt you at all. His tone was that of a man constantly looking down his nose at his readers in an attempt to connect with other pseudo-intellectuals. It was infuriating.

      And you’re absolutely right about the lack of critical thinking in our schools. Government-run schools are just teaching kids how to BELIEVE they’re critical thinkers without actually doing any thinking. It’s simultaneously fascinating and sad.

  2. Amazing that people like this actually get picked up by publishers. Some publisher/editor read this manuscript and said, hey, yeah, this is worth throwing a few million dollars at!

  3. One more thing… You know what, I’ve heard of this guy before — he’s the guy that wrote “Letter to a Christian Nation”, which I read a while back… I seriously can’t remember if I liked it or not, but I’m sure it spoke to me because of my beliefs (or lack of them).

    I suppose once you’ve written ONE thing that’s good, you’ve got your foot in the door with the publisher, and then you can write all the crap you want. Maybe I’m just getting a biased review and I should read it myself to be sure, but Free Will sounds like absolute crap.

    • You’re right — he included a list of his other works and “Letter to a Christian Nation” is in there. Normally the title would draw me in and I’d consider reading it — but this man’s arrogance and pseudo-intellectualism is too big a turnoff.

      Heh heh… gotta say, I always appreciate your blunt, straight-to-the-point comments, Randy. Ambiguity is not something I can tolerate for long, so your comments are always refreshing.

      • Thanks. Though the same bluntness has been getting me in trouble as of late and alienating others. So it’s a two-edge swo–well, it’s a two-blunt-sided mace, I guess…

  4. What if he hadn’t included decide? simple said you still kill the king? Now for that I turn to Freud. That was defiantly a slip I believe that deep down he believes in at least some free will. It can’t be otherwise. His subconsciousness definitely placed the word in there. So either 1 of 2 things must be true. 1 he really believes in some form of free will or 2 he is an idiot. I guess that it could be both 1 and 2. Still if this guy can get published so can you.

    • I thought the same thing, Adam. Is the word “decide” really the smoking gun against his argument? I think it’s more than just that. The fact that he builds a case against free will throughout the entire book and concludes with a presumption of moral responsibility is entirely inconsistent.

      Strangely enough, his argument would have been more cohesive and probably stronger if he had concluded by saying we have no moral responsibility, that people cannot be blamed for their violent acts or their charitable acts.

      However, he applies double standards and selective standards everywhere. The wealthy are “lucky” and had no control over their success, but murderers and rapists had complete control over their actions and thus must be punished.

      The man simply wants free will to not exist so he has something to blame when he makes a mistake, but he wants to be able to punish the evildoers of the world. Irritating.

      Thanks for reading, by the way. I thought you’d get a kick outta this one.

  5. I suspect that the developing understanding of human brain functions will be problematical as it proceeds, affecting religion and politics particularly. This post seems to me, like pushing a button to light a firecracker that turns out to be connected to high explosive. For now, all we perceive is the firecracker… or to put it another way, those brain explorers will be found to all bear the name: Pandora… (And it seems likely to hit in the already troubled waters of economic turmoil).

    The author reviewed seems to have selected long standing assumptions for replacement by his own assumptions about where things are going, i.e. he is writing science fiction. Maybe he’ll run for office, selling sci fi seems a qualification these days… or maybe his ideas will become the new paradigm, damfino. Though I trust not.

    Thoughtful, timely post!

    • Thanks! Despite my conclusion of the material, I did enjoy reading it. I can appreciate the need to have one’s thoughts challenged frequently.

      Based on today’s voting populace, I would not doubt for an instant that he could make public office and continue his fantasy ramblings for the commonfolk to gobble up.

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