Free Will by Sam Harris

Free Will

Belief in free will touches nearly everything that human beings value. It is difficult to think about law, politics, religion, public policy, intimate relationships, morality—as well as feelings of remorse or personal achievement—without first imagining that every person is the true source of his or her thoughts and actions. And yet the facts tell us that free will is an i...

Title:Free Will
Author:
Rating:
ISBN:1451683405
Edition Language:English
Format Type:Paperback
Number of Pages:83 pages

Free Will Reviews

  • Joel
    Mar 06, 2012

    I like padding my reading challenge with ridiculously short books.

  • Jacob J.
    Mar 10, 2012

    Nietzsche is said to have said that he wished to say more in a couple lines than most philosophers could say in an entire book. The scheme may very well have been met by the great 19th century thinker, as each sentence could be dissected and interpreted in such ways that they beget numerous debates and discussions still. Sam Harris has expressed no such ambition, but if there is a modern philosopher/scientist to whom such a description could be accredited, it would be him (although he may be les

    Nietzsche is said to have said that he wished to say more in a couple lines than most philosophers could say in an entire book. The scheme may very well have been met by the great 19th century thinker, as each sentence could be dissected and interpreted in such ways that they beget numerous debates and discussions still. Sam Harris has expressed no such ambition, but if there is a modern philosopher/scientist to whom such a description could be accredited, it would be him (although he may be less difficult to take in than Nietzsche). The straightforwardly named

    could prove to be one of the more important books (or pamphlets) written in the coming years. The recent onslaught of neuroscience books may seem fashionable; an intellectual fad of sorts (as much could be said for the so-called new/neo-atheist ‘movement’ for which Harris was arguably the progenitor), but the merits and contentions of Dr. Harris cannot be chalked up to barren hype. Within his own lifetime, it is not unreasonable to think we may see a book entitled

    (No, not by me, yet) being published. Perhaps he is destined, er, headed for a Nobel Prize. (Hey, it’s likelier than a Templeton Prize).

    What would the implications be if the scientific consensuses become one of

    ? After all, the notion of free will has long been a definitive characteristic of what it is to be human. Given how many people still reject scientific consensus on matters like evolution, it is safe to assume that such a declaration would not change society at large w/r/t their belief in free will. Some significant portion of the population wouldn’t even find out about the shift, I’d wager. Free Will is largely assumed from the outset. We (or they) initiate conversations on morality with statements like “because we have free will, we…”, and “Free will has allowed for us humans to…”, and my favorite “God gave us free will so that we may choose…” It is used as a tool in a debate about morality, accountability, and responsibility, when it

    often be part of the debate itself. Classical moralists (as I refer to them as) seem to think that the aim of those who would argue against the existence of free will is to absolve heinous murderers, rapists and other criminals of any wrong-doing. The problem in this sort of criticism is immediately apparent. Ask anyone (free will advocate or not) if they would feel comfortable with a known serial rapist/murderer/human-organ-collector/explosives-enthusiast/psycopath living across the street from them. The answer would invariably be

    , or perhaps,

    To seriously answer otherwise would itself be indicative of psychopathy. What makes people appeal to such paranoid accusations, as if neuroscience is all a conspiracy to set Charles Manson free? The emotional responses we have to murder are as hard-wired into us as digestion and waste excretion. The desire for vengeance when we feel wronged is entirely natural, but this has no particular bearing on what ‘motivation’ there was on the part of the offender. Free will, in the context of anti-life activities, is an excuse to justify why we want retribution, but to put it as simply (and boldly) as I can, we don’t

    an excuse for these desires. Solidarity and empathy account for much in these matters. We empathize with family members of murder victims because we don’t want

    loved one taken from us in such a manner. This all seems rather obvious, but people talk about justice as if it depends on punishing people for having the minds they have, which, ultimately, may have been no more capable of choosing to do what they did than we have to sleep when our bodies (or brains) tell us we are tired. We would still have a duty to keep offenders of livelihood and civilization away from functional society. (

    , we would). Not to dwell too long on the point, but the objections of this sort are

    emotional, and that is justification in-and-of itself for wanting to kill someone for killing someone else. In a roundabout way, it further proves the absence of free will. Do we have control over how we feel about people? Do we

    , as religious moralists assume, have the power to forgive? The problem, as Harris points out, is that we have absolutely no say in who we are. We are born with all the proclivities that we will come to live with, whether it be a dormant neurological disorder that will spring up in our thirties, or a predisposition for cancer that develops a tumor in our frontal cortex and could fundamentally ‘change’ who we are. Psychopaths don’t choose to be psychopaths any more than people with down-syndrome choose to have down-syndrome.

    If we had free will, would we ever be able to do what we did, when we could have done something else instead? Did I have a choice to phrase that question differently? If I went back and changed the way I phrased the question, did I have a choice to keep it as it was? Did you have a choice to read it? Once you read it, do you have a choice to forget it? Are you asking yourself if I have a choice to shut the fuck up? Did you have a choice about whether or not you asked yourself that question?

    Harris ensues a friendly dissent from philosopher Daniel Dennett and the

    , who “generally claim that a person is free from any outer or inner compulsions that would prevent him from acting on his actual desires and intentions.” Whatever we ‘decide’ to do is determined by something that we could not have ‘decided’ to think, or on past events which are already done and irreversible. To make it clear, we are incapable of doing anything which does not occur to us to do. Harris has received much criticism from Dennett’s students and fans. Hopefully I can look forward to a debate between the two greats.

    Where do our ideas come from? When we have good ideas, it cannot be said that we chose to have them. The depressing loathsomeness which shadows a good idea that doesn’t last long enough to make it on the page occurs because that idea had nothing to do with me as a conscious agent determining which thoughts to hang on to and which to dispose of; leaving only the memory that I had a good idea, without allowing me to process again what that idea was. (If this review sucks, the above sentence is my excuse as to the reason).

    I can’t think of anything else to write about this book at the moment, and can’t wait to post it any longer,

    that?”

  • Trevor
    Apr 08, 2012

    It has been one of those odd times when I seem to be getting tripped over by the same sorts of ideas over and over again. I can't for the life of me tell you why I thought it was a good idea recently to read Freud's Interpretation of Dreams -like the proverbial mountain, it was just there. Then I was tossing up what to read next and there was this other book on the brain called Incognito and that was more or less on similar ground although, obviously quite updated. Both, though, stressed the fac

    It has been one of those odd times when I seem to be getting tripped over by the same sorts of ideas over and over again. I can't for the life of me tell you why I thought it was a good idea recently to read Freud's Interpretation of Dreams -like the proverbial mountain, it was just there. Then I was tossing up what to read next and there was this other book on the brain called Incognito and that was more or less on similar ground although, obviously quite updated. Both, though, stressed the fact that we are not quite as 'in control' of our selves as we tend to imagine we are.

    Then a friend of mine yesterday sent me this link to a recent lecture by Sam Harris on this book:

    I was about a third of the way through Foucault's The Order of Things and really didn't want to stop reading that for anything else - but this is so short... You can read it in a couple of hours. And what it has to say is so very important.

    So much of what I have been reading lately confirms the idea that our inevitable feeling that we are free agents responsible for our actions and therefore blameworthy for them too is one of the most remarkable illusions there is to being human. But I think what is most interesting about this is that the part of me that knows this is true, that free will is an illusion, is still not strong enough to overcome my persistent feeling of being both free to choose and the chooser of my actions. I know neither of these are really the case and Harris's wonderful examples make this even more clear - but it is not just that I want to be blamed for my misdeeds, I still want to be praised for my good ones. Neither is appropriate, however - we do not exist, we are not 'individuals' but the results of endless influences on us at various moments and the notion that we persist as self-identical is yet another illusion. People find these conclusions terribly threatening, but really, they don't make a whole lot of difference. We cannot live a life outside the illusion of a self or of a self with free will. But that doesn't make either the self or free will any less illusions.

    Yet again, this is a book that challenges our justice system - and one of the main events in my life in the last few years was sitting on a jury in a criminal justice case and having all of the stuff I've been reading about the reliability of memory and the problem of responsibility played out before my eyes. Sometimes it can be just as challenging to have your ideas confirmed as it is to have them disproved. It seems incomprehensible to me that we direct the smartest people in our society into the legal and justice system and yet they can sit through court case after court case and not see that the endless contradictions involved in the evidence presented to them makes the whole notion of 'reasonable doubt' a bit of a joke. But a justice system based on moral responsibility due to the free exercise of the will of the accused is simply in complete contradiction to what we know - KNOW - about what happens in our brains when we make decisions. This is not a minor matter - it ought to completely change the way we conduct criminal justice.

    That it will not says more about the persistence of our prejudices than it does about anything else.

    I've no idea why the universe has decided I need to pay particularly close attention to these questions at the moment, I've so much else I need to think about - but that just seems to be the way the world is.

    Read this or watch the video - the video covers all the same ground, you won't miss much in not reading the book. It is, though, time we took the implications of the latest advances in brain science seriously.

  • Paquita Maria Sanchez
    Apr 08, 2012

    Fuck.

    I am a stubborn girl, and there are some things I cling to like rope-ladders keeping me from falling into Freddy Krueger's soul swamp, such as possessing some degree of control over my own fate and figuring myself out in a manageable way, but this...this has challenged my perceptions of everything I am, believe, and compulsively stand by in a way which I have not been crossed in I don't even know how long. I don't bend easily, but Harris's argument is a water and light-tight kick in the dic

    Fuck.

    I am a stubborn girl, and there are some things I cling to like rope-ladders keeping me from falling into Freddy Krueger's soul swamp, such as possessing some degree of control over my own fate and figuring myself out in a manageable way, but this...this has challenged my perceptions of everything I am, believe, and compulsively stand by in a way which I have not been crossed in I don't even know how long. I don't bend easily, but Harris's argument is a water and light-tight kick in the dick. I will write a better review one day, maybe. I'd like to definitively state that I will thoroughly dissect this Destined For Intro To Philosophy Books Forever And Ever text, but I suppose I have no choice in whether I do or not, so we'll just have to see. Jesus.

    I am writing this sentence, but I had already written it in my brain before I thought about it. And this sentence. And this. Fuck.

  • Riku Sayuj
    Aug 16, 2012

    Glancing at the cover might have been more than enough to guess the full contents of this one...

    Harris is right to an extent, but as many have already done, his argument is too easy to poke holes in. This is primarily because the argument depends on the definition/boundary that he imposes on it. It makes for a good argument in a monologue but will fall apart in a dialogue.

    This is not to say that there is no merit in what he con

    Glancing at the cover might have been more than enough to guess the full contents of this one...

    Harris is right to an extent, but as many have already done, his argument is too easy to poke holes in. This is primarily because the argument depends on the definition/boundary that he imposes on it. It makes for a good argument in a monologue but will fall apart in a dialogue.

    This is not to say that there is no merit in what he concludes on the basis of his hypothesis. He uses it to identify the true nature of crime and how society should react to it:

    If sneezing was a crime and someone violated it, can we become riled enough about it to conduct mass protests? What if all (or most) violent crimes are like that at a fundamental level - involuntary? Can we move our justice system away from a system based on punishment to one based on correction/isolation. Can we start feeling fear and pity to offenders instead of anger and revenge? These threads make the book a must read, especially in the light of the mass hysteria that has gripped Delhi (and the whole nation) in the wake of the poor unnamed girl's unfortunate death. Maybe I will elaborate on my thoughts on this subject at a later date, coward that I am.

  • Stephanie
    Nov 16, 2012

    I am an agnostic which means I am firm in my belief that I have no idea what to believe. I don't know what is true and what isn't and no one, no matter how strong your faith, or how strong your lack of faith is.....you don't know either. You don't know what happens to you after you die. You pretty much have to die to find that out. You may really, really, really believe little alien souls are attached to your body and making your life miserable, and that the only way to make it all better is to

    I am an agnostic which means I am firm in my belief that I have no idea what to believe. I don't know what is true and what isn't and no one, no matter how strong your faith, or how strong your lack of faith is.....you don't know either. You don't know what happens to you after you die. You pretty much have to die to find that out. You may really, really, really believe little alien souls are attached to your body and making your life miserable, and that the only way to make it all better is to blow your life savings in Clearwater Florida trying to rid yourself of these little bastards by way of a weird looking machine. It still doesn't make it true, it's purely your free will to believe it is.

    Next to art, and generally making things that are pretty and/or interesting, I'm really fascinated with science. Books on the brain are something I generally gravitated towards which is why I picked up Free Will.

    Sam Harris is obviously a very intelligent man he generally seems to know what he is talking about. But I can't digest what he is dishing out in Free Will. Basically, if I am following what he is saying (and it is possible I'm NOT) human beings have no free will.....excuse me?

    Apparently there have been studies that prove that when we make the decision to do something our brain does the deciding first before we are even aware of our decision consciously. This is done with some fancy imaging machines that catch a blip of some sort go off before you do what you're going to do. So, of course we don't have free will.

    I must be missing something.

    My head hurts.

    Somehow because we don't know what makes our brain decide something before we become aware of what it is that we are deciding we aren't actually deciding anything at all. Uhhh......ok? To me this strengthens the argument that we are something more than just our brains. Maybe....just maybe, what is making the brain do it's business is the energy (or soul if you like to call it that) that animates these meat suits we walk around in. Or not! I don't know but I believe someday science will figure out what that's all about. Science advances insanely fast. Right now I can probably take over a third world country with my Ipad. I can't even imagine what will be invented or discovered in the near future. So for Sam to jump to this conclusion seems premature.

    It is more likely we have control over our decisions and that we are responsible for them than not. I believe we have free will to do the right thing despite our circumstances growing up.

    I have the free will not to like Free Will all that much and you have the free will to disagree with me about that.....

    Also reviewed on

  • Ahmad  Ebaid
    Jul 25, 2014
  • Amir
    Jan 09, 2017

    اراده آزاد؟؟؟

    "داشتن اراده آزاد توهمی بیش نیست. اراده و افکار ما، ساخته و پرداخته خود ما (ضمیر آگاه) ما نیستند. افکار و امیال همگی سر منشائی در گذشته و سوابق ما دارند که در آن ها دخل و تصرفی نداریم و از آن ها بی خبریم. "

    به طور کلی محتویات کتاب با خوانده های قبلیم در خصوص عصب شناسی و مغز سازگار هستند. اشکال کتاب این بود که گزاره و استدلالش که در ادامه خواهم گفت زیادی در سطح کتاب تکرار شده و در یک پاراگراف جای می گیره.

    استدلال کتاب (که البته جامعه علمی عصب شناسان بر روش اجماع دارن و به اثبات

    اراده آزاد؟؟؟

    "داشتن اراده آزاد توهمی بیش نیست. اراده و افکار ما، ساخته و پرداخته خود ما (ضمیر آگاه) ما نیستند. افکار و امیال همگی سر منشائی در گذشته و سوابق ما دارند که در آن ها دخل و تصرفی نداریم و از آن ها بی خبریم. "

    به طور کلی محتویات کتاب با خوانده های قبلیم در خصوص عصب شناسی و مغز سازگار هستند. اشکال کتاب این بود که گزاره و استدلالش که در ادامه خواهم گفت زیادی در سطح کتاب تکرار شده و در یک پاراگراف جای می گیره.

    استدلال کتاب (که البته جامعه علمی عصب شناسان بر روش اجماع دارن و به اثبات رسیده) این هست که هر فکری که به ذهن ما می رسه قبل از اینکه نسبت بهش آگاهی پیدا کنیم، در ضمیر نا خود آگاه ما ساخته و پرداخته شده.

    مثلا من هر روز صبح یا چایی می نوشم، یا قهوه و یا هردو. امروز فقط چای نوشیدم. چرا قهوه را انتخاب نکردم؟ نمی دانم. این تصمیم توسط ناخودآگاه من گرفته شد. آیا می توانستم نظرم را عوض کنم و جای آن قهوه بنوشم؟ بله، اما این فکر هم اگر به ذهن من می رسید، در واقع ساخته و پرداخته شده توسط ناخودآگاه من بوده.

    گواه این فرآیند فکری دستگاه اف ام آر آی هست که می تونه در هر زمان نشون بده کدام قسمت مغز در حال فعالیت هست. یکی از کشف های بزرگی که توسط این دستگاه انجام شده بررسی افکار هست. دستگاه نشون می ده قبل از اینکه یک فکر به ضمیر خودآگاه ما برسه، حدود 700 میلی ثانیه قبل توسط ضمیر نا خودآگاه به وجود اومده.

    مثال جالبی که در یکی از کتاب های عصب شناسی خوندم این بود که می گفت اینکه فکر کنیم ما به وجود آورنده افکارمان هستیم مانند این هست که تیترهای یک روزنامه رو مطالعه کنیم و بپنداریم که باعث و بانی اتفاقاتی که اون تیتر رو رقم زدن ما هستیم.

    به طول خلاصه، امیال و افکار در ذهن ما ساخته نمی شوند، بلکه پدیدار می شوند.

    The physiologist Benjamin Libet famously used EEG to show that activity in the

    brain’s motor cortex can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that

    he has decided to move.

    Another lab extended this work using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI): Subjects were asked to press one of two buttons while watching a “clock” composed of a random sequence of letters appearing on a screen. They reported which letter was visible at the moment they decided to press one button or the other. The experimenters found two brain regions that contained information about which button subjects would press a full 7 to 10 seconds before the decision was consciously made. More recently, direct recordings from the cortex showed that the activity of merely 256 neurons was sufficient to predict with 80 percent accuracy a person’s decision to move 700 milliseconds before he became aware of it. These findings are difficult to reconcile with the sense that we are the conscious authors of our actions. One fact now seems indisputable:

    You can do what you decide to do—but you cannot decide what you will decide to do.

    به کسانی که به این مبحث علاقه دارند قویا کتاب زیر رو توصیه می کنم:


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