Book Review: Free Will by Sam Harris

1. What Is Harris' Book About?

Citation Information

Allan, Leslie 2024. Book Review: Free Will by Sam Harris, URL = <>.

Publication Information

Harris, Sam, Free Will, New York, NY: Free Press, 2012, pp. 75, (Kindle Edition).

Wooden puppet on strings

Sam Harris first published his little book in 2012, with some heavy hitters writing glowing testimonials in the inside cover (such as Oliver Sachs and Paul Bloom). His book has been well-received by non-philosophers who found his style of argument entertaining and convincing. Many people I have spoken with since its publication have been quite impressed.

I picked up the Kindle version of Harris' book. The benefits over the hardcopy version are substantial. I can take it with me anywhere on any of my portable devices, along with the rest of my Kindle library. I can also take notes as I'm reading, edit them and use them to write this review. Another big advantage over print is that I can search on any word or phrase throughout the whole text. (All page references below are to the Kindle edition.)

What I like about Harris' book is that it is written in clear language and in a conversational style. He uses a lot of examples to illustrate the point he is making. I also like that it is only 75 pages in length. Actually, once you deduct the ancillary text (front material, notes, bio), the text is only 49 pages in length; easy enough to knock off in one day. It's just a tad longer than a long essay. Its brevity is its strength, but also its weakness. Harris doesn't really develop his views on free will and moral responsibility into a coherent and comprehensive picture. An allied failing is that he doesn't make the space to treat his opponents' (indeterminists and compatibilists) arguments in any depth. Much of Harris' arguments are rhetorical in nature, with little understanding of his interlocutors' views.

What is Harris' book about? In the first chapter, The Unconscious Origins of the Will, Harris draws on his own introspection and the famous Libet experiments to show how we are not the conscious authors of our actions that we think we are. Our brains have already decided for us what we will do before we do it.

It's in the next chapter, Changing the Subject, that Harris defends his view against the compatibilists who say that human beings exercising free will and the theory of determinism can both be true without any contradiction. Harris argues that the compatibilists are describing a kind of free will that is irrelevant to the way most people use the term.

In the next very short chapter, Cause and Effect, Harris responds to those indeterminists who rely on possible quantum indeterminacy to underwrite free will. Even if our choices were indeterminate, Harris emphasizes, this fact makes free will and responsibility for our actions unexplainable.

It's in his fourth chapter, Choices, Efforts, Intentions, that Harris makes a radical U-turn in the direction of his argument. In this chapter, he seeks to resurrect the common-sense notions that our choices matter and that we bear moral and legal responsibility for our actions.

The next chapter is again very short. In Might the Truth Be Bad for Us?, Harris concedes that for some people, accepting determinism leads to bad consequences. Nonetheless, for Harris, accepting this truth has made him a better person and has given him more control over his own life.

The chapter on Moral Responsibility is where Harris puts most of his work in resurrecting our common-sense notions of right and wrong and moral responsibility. By working through five cases of unintentional and intentional killing, Harris tries to show how three factors—intention to do harm, character and risk to society—mediate how morally responsible we think a person is.

In the chapter on Politics, Harris returns to the notion of the '"self made" man', showing it to be a fiction. We still need to hold people to account, though, according to Harris, even if they can neither choose their genes nor their circumstances.

Harris wraps up his case in his Conclusion, reinforcing one last time with the use of an experiment on himself how we are completely unaware of the cause of our ideas. For Harris, this shows free will to be a nonsensical concept.

Copyright © 2024

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