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Book Review: Free Will by Sam Harris

3. My Verdict on Harris' Free Will

What is my overall impression of Harris' little book? A plus is that it's short and easy to read. Not being a heavy and technical tome makes it accessible to the casually interested and non-philosopher alike. Harris' use of examples and stories, along with its down-to-earth style, makes it eminently readable. With that in mind, don't expect a serious work on the language and metaphysics of 'free will'. In the end, Harris' book is a mishmash of half thought-out arguments laced with a strong dose of rhetorical questions that in large measure are irrelevant to the topic of his book. Harris' polemical flourishes only serve to divert the serious reader's attention from the lack of substance in the argumentation.

The book is replete with muddled thinking, from proposing that our brains do the choosing, not us [p. 11], to thinking that physical causes of our behaviour excludes psychological causes. Other muddles include Harris insisting that thoughts can't cause other thoughts, yet repeatedly asking the reader to imagine a scenario with the expectation that with that thought, the reader will change their view [pp. 12, 22, 25]. Harris also attacks the compatibilists' notion of 'could have', yet employs it in the very next breath in appealing to the freedom each of us has in interpreting our own lives [pp. 32f].

Absurdities sprinkle Harris' text throughout, usually complemented by his trademark bizarre rhetorical questions. I can count here Harris [p. 18] asking strangely: Where is my freedom in my drinking a glass of water when that is what I wanted and I met with no coercion? As with his choice of coffee over tea, his 'brain' made him do it [p. 11].

In his discussion on punishment, Harris [p. 42] posits a possible future scenario in which we have the ability to treat potential criminals chemically before they even commit the crime. He asks bizarrely whether withholding the treatment before or after a person commits the crime is a suitable form of punishment, as if this is an option suggested by any of his interlocutors. This line of reasoning reaches its most absurd level when Harris asks rhetorically whether it's proper to deny surgery to a killer suffering from a brain tumour as a punishment. As if that lands a blow in the debate over free will.

Strangely, in recounting Wegner's version of compatibilism and sounding sympathetic to his case, Harris abruptly dismisses it with the single rhetorical question: 'Would I magically reclaim my freedom if I decided to spite my preference and order wine instead?' [p. 46]. Finally, finding he can't think of anything else to say, Harris ends his book with the rhetorical question: 'And where is the freedom in that?' [p. 50]. As if this is at all relevant to the question of free will.

Along with the many muddles and absurdities is Harris' incessant vacillating from one view to its opposite. Harris flip-flops more that a pair of thongs on a hot summer's day. Does he want to reconcile the absence of free will with our ordinary moral intuitions? He begins his sixth chapter with the intent to preserve our 'most important moral and legal concerns' [p. 27]. But just two pages on, Harris declares that 'you are no more responsible for the next thing you think (and therefore do) than you are for the fact that you were born into this world' [p. 29]. Two chapters later, he's back on task for showing what it means to 'take responsibility' [p. 38].

Harris also flip-flops between telling us that we have no real control over our lives [p. 34] to inspiring us with the news that we have genuine creative control [p. 37]. What about the permissibility of revising the meaning of a popular concept? Early on in his book, he chides the compatibilists for attempting to do that with 'free will' [pp. 18, 21]. But later on, all that language policing is forgotten as he goes about naturalizing the meaning of 'responsibility' [p. 38]. Perhaps his most consequential flip-flops are those in which he regularly switches between his 'helpless puppet' epiphenomenalist view of the mind he needs when he wants to ditch free will and his 'rational agent' identity theory of mind he leans on when trying to preserve moral responsibility.

A reader of Harris' book could be excused for thinking that it was originally written by two different authors, each with their own account of how the mind works and the nature of moral responsibility. A later editor then took the two loose-leaf manuscripts, threw them into the air and then collected the randomly fallen pages from the floor into the sequence we see in the final publication.

I think what more likely happened is this. Harris wrote his text hurriedly, perhaps over a one-week period. If you have published yourself, you will appreciate how writers revise their original manuscripts, noting that some parts are unclear and some parts seem to conflict with the ideas expressed in other parts. This initial self-editing process is important for clarifying the author's thoughts into a lucid and coherent message. I suspect Harris was in a rush to get his book into print and missed this important step in the process.

For the case for determinism, a much better and more thoroughly argued book is Robert Sapolsky's Determined. Whilst Sapolsky commits the same error as Harris in assuming that 'free' in 'free will' means 'undetermined' or 'underdetermined', it is much better researched and referenced. While again giving short shrift to compatibilists, it does deal with some seriousness the quantum, emergentist and chaos theory indeterminists. On Harris' book, I give an extensive analysis of his arguments against free will and for moral responsibility in my Sam Harris, Free Will and Moral Responsibility. I also offer a page-by-page commentary on Harris' book in my Commentary: Free Will by Sam Harris.

Copyright © 2024

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Draft release    Jun 17, 2024
First published Jul 8, 2024

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