Book Reviews, Non-fiction

Sam Harris’ Free Will (2012)

Part philosophical treatise, part peer-reviewed literature review, Sam Harris dispels the illusion of free will in a mere 13,000 words. The determinism proposed by the New Atheist movement has been in and out of vogue for centuries, depending, in the moment, on the reigning scientific and philosophical paradigms. Harris’ writing adds to the discussion (and perhaps not-so-gently placing the penultimate nail in the coffin) by citing recent neuroscience research to support his philosophical argument. It turns out our brains are unsurprisingly predictable — our decisions even measurable.

## …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 lead to a greater self-awareness in general — preferably beyond Jared Diamond.

Ben Stiller Sam Harris, along with thinkers like Richard Dawkins and Michael Shermer, is a leader in the New Atheist movement, and frequently hosts debates with spiritual and religious leaders. His facial expression never changes.

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.

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