Book Review: Free Will


Sam Harris’ Free Will isn’t a conventional philosophy book. Rather, it’s a laconic manifesto full of bold and provocative statements invoking us to free ourselves from the delusion of free will and abolish the whole concept as misleading and unnecessary. The book quickly shatters the naïve layperson’s intuition in the light of scientific advancements, then briefly explains Harris’ dissatisfaction with compatibilism as a half measure, and finally argues that our morality, penal and political systems would only benefit from the dispelling of the illusion which the “free will” is.

Or at least it’s what the book tries to be. For me, however, it turned out to be something different. While my initial craving for deep arguments in favour of a position I disagree with wasn’t satisfied, I got interesting insight from Harris’ attempts at resolving confusion and reinventing existing theories with different aesthetics. Most surprisingly, I got a new perspective on religious tolerance. Predictably, the publication of the book led to a philosophical debate on the matter of free will between Sam Harris and Daniel Dennet which turned out to be larger than the book itself. I’ll touch it a little in this review as well.

Main thesis

Harris begins his book with a description of a terrible crime. He points out how our perception of this crime can be shifted if we are informed of the underlying causes. But, under scrutiny, these causes go beyond the control of any of the perpetrators, leaving no extra place for their personal responsibility. He uses it as a high stakes example to make his point.

Of course, if we learned that both these men had been suffering from brain tumors that explained their violent behavior, our moral intuitions would shift dramatically. But a neurological disorder appears to be just a special case of physical events giving rise to thoughts and actions. Understanding the neurophysiology of the brain, therefore, would seem to be as exculpatory as finding a tumor in it. How can we make sense of our lives, and hold people accountable for their choices, given the unconscious origins of our conscious minds?

And therefore he concludes:

Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have.

Calling Sam Harris a hard determinist seems to be an understatement. Not only does he claim that freedom of will is incompatible with determinism or causality, he claims that it’s an inherently incoherent concept in any reasonable universe.

It is important to recognize that the case I am building against free will does not depend upon philosophical materialism (the assumption that reality is, at bottom, purely physical). There is no question that (most, if not all) mental events are the product of physical events. The brain is a physical system, entirely beholden to the laws of nature—and there is every reason to believe that changes in its functional state and material structure entirely dictate our thoughts and actions. But even if the human mind were made of soul-stuff, nothing about my argument would change. The unconscious operations of a soul would grant you no more freedom than the unconscious physiology of your brain does.

Free will is actually more than an illusion (or less), in that it cannot be made conceptually coherent. Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.

Harris doesn’t let the popular view that free will somehow benefits from randomness or unpredictability slow him down. Later, he mentions the idea of randomly occurring “self-generated” events in the brain as a justification of free will and quickly dispatches it.

If my decision to have a second cup of coffee this morning was due to a random release of neurotransmitters, how could the indeterminacy of the initiating event count as the free exercise of my will? Chance occurrences are by definition ones for which I can claim no responsibility. And if certain of my behaviors are truly the result of chance, they should be surprising even to me. How would neurological ambushes of this kind make me free?

In the limit, Heisenberg’s “self-generated” mental events would preclude the existence of any mind at all.

I think this is a good point, and appreciate that it was mentioned. Too much conventional discourse is focused on arguing whether determinism is compatible with free will, even though indeterminism is much more at odds with it. One may even notice that if the existence of the mind and its decision making properties requires an ordered universe, this is an evidence in favor of compatibilism.

Not Harris, though. While he acknowledge that such qualities as planning for the future, weighting competing desires and conscious awareness are real, and distinguishes voluntary and involuntary decisions, he explicitly states that they have “nothing to do with free will”.

Which is a shame. His original claim seemed so bold and strong. But if someone excludes from a definition everything that exists, while including inner contradictions, it is no wonder that we will find the concept to be not real and incoherent. To a degree it can be justified by the fact that Harris is arguing against a naïve layperson’s intuition about free will. But to a more sophisticated reader it can seem bizzare. As though Sam Harris is annoyed by the concept of the present, for instance.

I cannot decide what I will next think or intend until a thought or intention arises. What will my next mental state be? I do not know—it just happens. Where is the freedom in that?

Dealing with confusion

I’d say that Sam Harris is much less confused about free will than most. Not only is he aware of his own confusion, to a point that he can write a book about it, he makes an actual attempt to resolve it. Harris does try to reduce free will to the feeling that “arises from our moment-to-moment ignorance of the prior causes of our thoughts and actions”. He even grapples with the concept of could-ness:

However, to say that I could have done otherwise is merely to think the thought “I could have done otherwise” after doing whatever I in fact did. This is an empty affirmation.

This is commendable, but not near enough to get an actual insight for a gears-level model of free will. The quotation is not the referent. He doesn’t taboo the word “could”, doesn’t try to figure out the reason for this feeling to exist and what role it plays in our decision making. Excluding decision-making from the concept doesn’t help.

Harris is good at pointing out incoherences in other people’s reasoning, however, as represented in the book, his own position doesn’t seem to be very coherent either. In one place he can claim that such concepts as counterfactuals or responsibility are meaningless, and in the other he uses them himself. When he claimed that “losing a belief in free will has increased his feelings of freedom” - I had serious troubles parsing the statement. May it be him trying to speak to the audience in their own language? But the most obvious incoherence is highlighted when Harris argues against compatibilism only to prove its core points later.

Harris condemns compatibilism as “solving the problem of free will by ignoring it”; changing the definition of free will to one people don’t actually use. He even compares compatibilism to theology.

Compatibilists have produced a vast literature in an effort to finesse this problem. More than in any other area of academic philosophy, the result resembles theology. (I suspect this is not an accident. The effort has been primarily one of not allowing the laws of nature to strip us of a cherished illusion.)

I think it tells us something important about Harris’ reasons for embracing his views. He treats the concept of free will similarly to the concept of God. For him both are confusing, naive intuitions which do not correspond to reality and lead people astray. And if the correct answer to question of theology is to say that God doesn’t exist, whole idea doesn’t actually make any sense, and that we shall all be better without it, grounding our morality and sense of meaning in the real world instead of imaginary entities – why wouldn’t the same be true for the question of free will? Isn’t Sam Harris just applying consistent strategy to deal with apparently mysterious phenomena?

Except, when he is not. As Daniel Dennet mentions in his own review to the book, that’s not the course of action Harris takes regarding the concept of mind. He corrects the naïve definition rather than abolishing it. And it’s not what we do in general. An even better example from the same review is sunsets. Now, when we know that geocentrism is wrong and the sun doesn’t actually rise and set, we haven’t got rid of the concept calling it illusion, we’ve changed the definition.

Is it possible to develop a simple consistent policy on what to do when we find out that a definition doesn’t actually make any sense in the light of new evidence? I’m not sure. My intuition is against attempts to reframe “God” as a sense of meaning, compassion and oneness but completely supports the compatibilist definition of free will. Is it the fact that I perceive the concept of God to be too contaminated, unlike the concept of free will? But other people’s intuitions can differ which doesn’t necessery make them wrong. If anything, this becomes not a question of fact but of a category border.

And this is a good cause for tolerance. For the last couple of years I had problems talking to religious people. I’ve noticed that I approached them with a smug feeling of superiority, despite my best efforts to be charitable. “Pretend all you want, but you actually know that you are completely right and they are completely wrong”—some voice deep inside me was saying. Trying to persuade myself that it’s noble and good to be tolerant, even towards silly ideas, was fruitless. But framing this as a question of a category border really helped to be genuinely curious. My opponents may be wrong about some things, but understanding their worldview and their way to define categories can give valuabale insights about things that I may have been missing. The fact that I got this insight due to Sam Harrris’ book is both ironic and very appropriate.

Moral and political implications

I’ve always had an intuition that hard determinist views are usually a result of painful disenchantment with metaphysical libertarianism. Finding out that their naive intuition of free will is incoherent and/​or doesn’t correspond to reality, people swing in the opposite direction, claiming that no free will is possible. However, I get a different feeling from Sam Harris. He seems to be entirely satisfied with the absence of free will, and he spends the last part of the book proclaiming how great it is.

My hopes, fears, and neuroses seem less personal and indelible. There is no telling how much I might change in the future. Just as one wouldn’t draw a lasting conclusion about oneself on the basis of a brief experience of indigestion, one needn’t do so on the basis of how one has thought or behaved for vast stretches of time in the past. A creative change of inputs to the system—learning new skills, forming new relationships, adopting new habits of attention—may radically transform one’s life.

Harris is optimistic that abolishing the concept of free will and therefore metaphysical responsibility and religious sin is going to dramatically improve the criminal justice system, moving its focus from retribution to correction. He is talking from consequentialist position here and I share his moral intuition about the utility of such change. His chapter on political implications mentions that without the illusion of free will, it would be much more obvious how much luck is responsible for personal success and how absurd the conservative “fetish of individualism” is. Such changes would indeed be beneficial, but I’m not sure that abolishing the concept would do the trick. And actually, neither is Harris, at least not completely:

It must be admitted, however, that the issue of retribution is a tricky one. In a fascinating article in The New Yorker, Jared Diamond writes of the high price we sometimes pay when our desire for vengeance goes unfulfilled.

We are deeply disposed to perceive people as the authors of their actions, to hold them responsible for the wrongs they do us, and to feel that these transgressions must be punished. Often, the only punishment that seems appropriate is for the perpetrator of a crime to suffer or forfeit his life. It remains to be seen how a scientifically informed system of justice might steward these impulses.

I think we can apply the theological metaphor here once again. While for some people their religious beliefs are indeed the reason for their behaviour, for others it’s just a rationalization for their other less socially acceptable impulses. The whole religious memeplex is built existing human intuitions in the first place. And people do not necessery act on their beliefs. That’s why raising the sanity waterline is much more important than attacking the religion directly. And that’s why it’s a bit naive to expect dramatic changes in the penal system due to some philosophical argument, even if, as Harris mentions, U.S. Supreme Court has indeed called free will a “universal and persistent” foundation for the system of law.


In the end, I was surprised how compatibalist the book turned out to be. Despite all the apparent critique of compatibalism, Harris makes mostly the same points and sometimes even uses the same language. Dennet calls him a compatibalist in everything except by name and I tend to agree. Their argument is a textbook example of disputing definitions, as they seem to agree on every objective matter. If we define C-freedom as agency and choice-making ability of the mind, which depends on the causal history, and L-freedom as transcending the laws of causality by being the ultimate source of one’s actions, both Harris and Dennet agree that humans have C- but not L-freedom, and that it doesn’t lead to fatalism.

In a sense Sam Harris has reinvented compatibilism. He comes to the same conclusions but is rallying under the flag of “Free Will Doesn’t Exist”. And while this approach seems unnecessary to me, I suppose it’s a valid one. I’d say in this case Harris is free to define his terms the way he wants.

Or rather… not free—if that’s what he prefers.