Sam Harris’s Free Will, a review and evaluation

Sam Harris’s book Free Will is short, but very smart, and packs a lot of punch. He argues that the concept of free will, as it is commonly understood, is an unfounded myth. He does not believe, however, that this means we lack any control over our lives at all. Instead, he states that his belief that we lack free will has changed how he lives his life for the better, and believes that it could readily benefit any of us too. I shall explain his argument in some detail before evaluating it.

Harris opens the book with a story of two burglars who committed a shocking, violent crime. He openly agrees with us that their actions were morally abhorrent, but makes the claim that if any of us were them, with their experiences, DNA, neurobiology, and so forth, we would have done exactly the same. We are, he believes, the subjects of our neural and biological, and experiential conditions, not our conscious minds.

His attempt in this book is to break two common assumptions-

  1. That we are free to choose how we behave, and that we would be able to behave differently if we lived our lives a second time
  2. Our conscious minds are the sources of our thoughts and actions

Our conscious awareness is only a small portion of our brain. Further, we only have conscious experience of a small part of what actually happens in our brains. This is an important consideration. We can know we aren’t genuinely the authors of our inclinations, choices, likes, decisions, and so forth, because we aren’t aware of them until they appear in our minds. We have thoughts and likes, but our thoughts think themselves, and we can’t choose what we like, we simply like what we like. We could only have genuine free will if we had complete knowledge of every factor contributing to our likes and thoughts, but that is impossible, especially as those factors would have prior causes, which would result in an infinite regression of prior causes.

He cites a series of experiments conducted by neuroscientists. Under controlled conditions, scientists have been able to predict people’s decisions before they were aware of having made them. Some decisions could actually be predicted 7 – 10 seconds before they were in our conscious awareness. These are simple experiments such as being asked to press a button or move a finger, but the results were indeed conclusive. Stephen Woodford (Rationality Rules) Explains these tests in fascinating detail HERE.

There are three classic views on free will- determinism, libertarianism, and compatibilism. Determinists believe that our decisions are already set in stone by prior factors such as unconscious brain activity or events in the world. Libertarians believe that we have complete free will. We all experience the world as if we have libertarian free will. Compatibilists believe that the first two views can be reconciled. Harris dismisses libertarianism more or less outright, stating that it is a position usually only held by people with religious beliefs, and for theological reasons.

Harris believes that compatibilists ask for an unreasonable amount of free will. Given how much of our mind we can already show as predetermined, the compatibilist position flaunts these findings. Further, to say we are free to choose distinct from a determinist model is fallacious, he says, because we can only choose from the choices which occur to us, and we can’t choose what happens to occur to us. Therefore, we are already limited. Compatibilists have attempted to defend themselves from the claim that our choices are limited to what occurs to us by saying that we are identical to what is in our brains, not what is in our consciousness. Harris, however, says that this defines us far too broadly to be taken seriously, leading all sorts of unnecessary and irrelevant information into our personal biography.

There is a position taken by compatibilists that our free will can be explained by the fact that certain synapses in the brain act randomly, as discovered by Martin Heisenberg. Other people have posited quantum randomness as an explanation for free will. If, however, randomness was an explanation for free will, our decisions would surely seem bizarre to us, and not congruent with our other decisions, or our life as a whole.

We aren’t completely lacking control. Harris is at pains to stress that determinism doesn’t necessarily entail fatalism, that is to say, we do have a level of agency. For one thing, we can shift our attention between the things which are present in our consciousness (desires, likes, thoughts, impulses, feelings, wants, plans, fears, and so forth). When we pay attention to particular phenomena (the contents of our mind), it changes our behaviour, and we act in accordance to our perception of one thing over another.

One other way we have control is by our interpretations. We give our lives meaning by the way we interpret the world. This, Harris says, is the one good thing to come from existentialism (a point on which he and I will have to agree to disagree). We can choose to see something as being good/bad, right/wrong, and so forth. In translating events into values, it is an inadvertent fact of matter that our choices and cognitions become determined and conditioned by these value-judgements. Therefore, we may not have free will to think thoughts or choose our likes, but we can shift our perspectives and interpret events in ways which condition our thoughts and likes. Elsewhere, Harris has said that we do not have free will, but we do have will.

Some people, including Daniel Dennett, have expressed fears that if you tell people they have no free will, they will take it as an excuse to behave less ethically. Studies have even been conducted to corroborate this. In one study, people are given an article to read which claims that free will does not exist, whilst other people are given one which promotes a libertarian view. Those that read the article condemning the view that we have free will were found to be more likely to cheat. He defends his view by explaining how his view has helped him live a more ethical life, not a less ethical one. Beyond this, it is also true that we can’t blame the discovery of scientific facts for our actions.

Towards the end of the book, he discusses the implications these findings have regarding moral responsibility. The belief in free will has given us the concepts of both sin and criminal culpability. If we lack agency to do good or bad, what is the sense of punishing bad actions?

We should look back to the preceding few paragraphs. We can shift our conscious attention inwards. This means that we can focus on one alternative over another, and perceive a situation as good or bad. He says that we are capable or judging whether an action is genuinely good or bad by a person’s ‘conscious intent to harm’. If we have the capacity to see that an action is harmful, but do it anyway, that is when an action should be punished, or behaviour should be corrected, he says.

Harris cites the story of a man in the news who had lived a good life. One day he became very angry and had violent impulses. He goes to the doctor and it is discovered that his impulses were caused by a brain tumour. The brain tumour was removed and he ceased to be a violent, angry person. The difficulty is that when this man had the tumour, his violent impulses were his decision, but they were caused by an agent outside of his control (the tumour). Do we condemn him for his actions during this period? Most of us would say that we should not. Harris says that the more we learn about the way the mind makes decisions, the more we realise that our decisions are out of our control. The important thing, he concludes, is to realise that understanding the real nature of free will allows us to treat people more compassionately, and in a more genuinely informed way.

I believe that the position in this book is well informed and well argued. I mostly agree with Harris’s position. There are a couple of areas of contention, however.

Firstly, where he asserts that we may not have free will, but we have the capacity to both shift perspective and interpret situations and other things. I would like to know how choosing to shift perspective or interpret a situation isn’t an instance of free will. It may be a highly limited amount of free will, but if there is a choice between two things to which we can grant our attention, we are surely free to choose between those two things.

This leads me on to the second issue I have. What explains our conscious agency to make a choice between one thing over another? This isn’t actually explained in the text, to my recognition. Towards the end of the book, he states that the more we learn about the brain and free will, the more we realise our choices are under our control as much as the tumour case. If our likes aren’t under our control, then why do we have the choice over where we shift our attention? It would make sense to say that our shift in attention would also be determined by our unconscious preferences. If our thoughts and choices are illusory, why aren’t our shifts in interpretation and perspective? I’m not wholly contending that we don’t have control, but I would like clarification as to why they are different.

One more question I wish to raise is regarding the extent that shifting perspective and interpretation can actually be efficacious in eliciting change. Supposing I am free to make these two choices, how much effect do they have on my future thoughts and actions? If I direct my thoughts over a single event and give it a congruent interpretation for a future decision to which I wish to determine my course of action, can I effectively will a situational interpretation to the degree that it would effectively equate a level of will close to free will, if not complete free will? Or will my shift in perspective and interpretation only have a limited influence? A level of clarity on the extent of consciousness being an influence would be useful.

One solution seems to be to accept that being conscious of one thing over another does affect our behaviour, but that we don’t really actively choose to shift conscious awareness. Another solution seems to be found in accepting that we have more will than is claimed in the book. If we can make significant differences through these two faculties, then we can say that we have indeed got sympathy for the compatibilist’s position. However, it would be strange to claim that we have free will over complex things like decision making, but not over something as simple as deciding to raise a hand. Therefore, it seems that there is a grey area between these two types of actions which needs to be reconciled.

These objections aside, I do in fact agree with Sam Harris’s major thesis that free will appears to be non-existent, except for the illusory experienceable element. I also agree with him that having a focused perspective on a phenomenon changes or elicits behaviour. I’m not sure we can assert that we choose to shift our perspective though. I agree with his criticisms of compatibilism too.

Finally I would like to see addressed is whether predicting something like a hand movement in a laboratory is really the same as predicting complex personal and social decisions. Can we extrapolate from one thing to the other? I’m inclined to agree with Harris that we can, but I also feel that the debate is far from being conclusively settled. One reason for this is that he states that we are capable of making interpretations of situations. Value based-interpretations are complex, involving a multiplicity of factors, hard to extricate from other preceding factors. If we can actually make value-based interpretations freely, why can’t we make complex decisions freely? Maybe simple and complex decisions vary in nature, not just complexity as noted earlier.

One interesting review of Harris’s book (found HERE) discusses the fact that we can learn to do tasks unconsciously. When we learn to drive, for example, we start off paying a lot of attention to what we are doing. After some practice, we can drive whilst performing an extra task, driving without thinking about it. Might it be reconciled that simple actions like hand movements are simply so basic that we have got used to performing them without thinking about them, therefore cutting the need for free will over them out of the equation? I’m unsure at present. One reason I’m unsure is that the driving example proves that we CAN develop the capacity to do things unconsciously, not that we DO develop all basic tasks unconsciously. My big difficulty, I’m sure you have seen, is my inability to comfortably reconcile the fact that I feel there is a chance that simple and complex decisions may be different in nature.

I wonder whether Harris will eventually have to drop part of his thesis to accommodate for our control of complex decisions (if we resolve that they are different, or that we do have control of them), or bite the bullet and deny some of the remaining will? Will this even lead back to a more limited form of compatibilism or the harsher position of fatalism? I’m yet to decide, but my sympathies are leaning toward Harris’s current position. It would seem that free will is limited, if at all extant beyond illusion.

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2 thoughts on “Sam Harris’s Free Will, a review and evaluation

  1. Hi, nice summary.

    I find this topic interesting and agree with you that Harris offers an articulate, clear defence here. I wanted to make three comments:

    First, you say that Harris thinks we have a “level of agency” which allows us to “make a choice between one thing over another”. I’m not sure he argues for this. All choices are determined (note: this still doesn’t imply fatalism because fatalism is the belief that an event (effect) will happen and prior choices (causes) cannot change this). See p.34:
    “Human choice, therefore, is as important as fanciers of free will believe. [Because choices are causes which lead to effects] 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.”

    Second, re: Libet’s experiments, I completely agree with you that they are too simplistic. Harris offers no justification for why actions in those highly artificial, contrived situations ought to be generalisable to all human actions. Raymond Tallis also talks about this in his book, Aping Mankind.

    Third (and more broadly), I think Harris (like all determinists) is making a straw man argument. His argument rules out the existence of an acausal, independent entity which is calling the shots, but those of us who don’t believe in souls or Cartesian dualism already knew that.

    We aren’t the authors of our thoughts, actions, habits, etc., because we *are* those things. Harris would reply that our thoughts and actions are determined anyway. However, when thoughts and actions become *reflexively* self-aware, you can no longer dismiss freewill merely by disproving a metaphysically-suspect “author”.

    One could always just cling to reductive materialism to refute freewill (it’s all just electrons and quarks), but there are problems with that too, most significantly, it can’t even begin to explain the one thing we are most certain of; namely, phenomenal experience.

    Liked by 1 person

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