Free Will by Sam Harris (2012)

HarrisFreeWillIf I really agreed with Sam Harris that free will is an illusion, I’d give this book five stars. I give it four because even though I don’t agree, it is a well-written and in some respects convincing argument.

I see his point, in a way. What most people regard as free will is very tied up with religious notions of sin and punishment, or perhaps punishment and reward. The reason it’s OK to send some people to heaven and others to hell, the argument goes, is that they freely choose whether to be good or evil. Of course, we know such decisions are not really free in the ordinary sense, in that there are various causes for every thought and action, and many of them are not under our control. But I consider Harris’ arguments to be dangerously close to invalidating our entire system of criminal law and personal responsibility.

In his chapter entitled “moral responsibility,” Harris faces this problem head on. He provides five examples of ways a young woman might be shot and killed, with different evaluations of moral responsibility in each one: sheer accident, responsibility attaching to various primary and secondary causes. Indeed, our laws recognize such things as diminished capacity and self-defense and so forth. But if we make the case that the murderer had a rotten childhood, we do not ordinarily absolve him of blame, unless said childhood liiterally drove him insane.

Still, it is an interesting philosophical exercise to examine just what modern brain science implies about just how free our will can be. You don’t have to be especially knowledgeable in the latest research to be aware of the fact that our thoughts and actions are influenced by a great many things which are not under our own control, and therefore that free will is often an illusion. To argue that it is always an illusion is to be reduced to some paradoxical thinking, such as Harris’ comment that “The truth about us is stranger than many suppose: the illusion of free will is itself an illusion.” That may even be true, but what does it mean?

A book to ponder, by all means.

Statements in this review do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.