Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Review: Free Will

Free Will
From Free Will, by Sam Harris:
Open quote 

One fact now seems indisputable: Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next -- a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please -- your brain has already determined what you will do. You then become conscious of this 'decision' and believe that you are in the process of making it."

After the jump, my review.

Grade: C-

In this short book, Sam Harris explores the notion of free will. He doesn't bring much new thinking to the topic, but does a service in touching on the controversial topic at all. As he says, "If the scientific community were to declare free will an illusion, it would precipitate a culture war far more belligerent than the one that has been waged on the subject of evolution."

Harris' argument is a combination of logic and empiricism. Logically, Harris asks the reasonable question: from where and what would free will arise? Empirically, Harris reviews the growing scientific understanding of the brain that leaves less and less room for free will to operate. Perhaps most convincing are studies that show brain activity an instant before subjects are aware of making a conscious decision. Scientists can predict which choice an experimental subject is in the process of "freely" making before the subject himself knows. Harris' interpretation: rather than us freely willing something, our brains unconsciously initiate an action, eventually making us conscious of the action, thus creating an illusion of free will.

Harris writes clearly, objectively, straightforwardly. I give it a so-so grade not because he fails in any of those writing goals, but because I hoped for new ideas on the subject. Harris' short book lays out an argument that the vast majority of scientists will have no problem with ("How else could it be?") and the vast majority of non-scientists will dismiss as ridiculous ("No free will? Absurd.") In other words, Harris does nothing to change anyone's mind.


"How can we be 'free' as conscious agents if everything that we consciously intend is caused by events in our brain that we do not intend and of which we are entirely unaware? We can’t."

"If my decision to have a second cup of coffee this morning was due to a random release of neurotransmitters, how could the indeterminacy of the initiating event count as the free exercise of my will?"

"'If everything is determined, why should I do anything? Why not just sit back and see what happens?' This is pure confusion. To sit back and see what happens is itself a choice that will produce its own consequences."

"Speaking from personal experience, I think that losing the sense of free will has only improved my ethics -- by increasing my feelings of compassion and forgiveness, and diminishing my sense of entitlement to the fruits of my own good luck."

"Thoughts and intentions simply arise in the mind. What else could they do? The truth about us is stranger than many suppose: The illusion of free will is itself an illusion."<

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