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Free Will

Free Will

4.0 40
by Sam Harris

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A 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


A 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 illusion.

In this enlightening book, Sam Harris argues that this truth about the human mind does not undermine morality or diminish the importance of social and political freedom, but it can and should change the way we think about some of the most important questions in life.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"In this elegant and provocative book, Sam Harris demonstrates—with great intellectual ferocity and panache—that free will is an inherently flawed and incoherent concept, even in subjective terms. If he is right, the book will radically change the way we view ourselves as human beings."
—V. S. Ramachandran, Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, UCSD, and author of The Tell-Tale Brain

"Brilliant and witty—and never less than incisive—Free Will shows that Sam Harris can say more in 13,000 words than most people do in 100,000."
—Oliver Sacks

"Free will is an illusion so convincing that people simply refuse to believe that we don’t have it. In Free Will, Sam Harris combines neuroscience and psychology to lay this illusion to rest at last. Like all of Harris’s books, this one will not only unsettle you but make you think deeply. Read it: you have no choice."—Jerry A. Coyne, Professor of Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago, and author of Why Evolution Is True

"Many say that believing that there is no free will is impossible—or, if possible, will cause nihilism and despair. In this feisty and personal essay, Harris offers himself as an example of a heart made less self-absorbed, and more morally sensitive and creative, because this particular wicked witch is dead."
—Owen Flanagan, Professor of Philosophy, Duke University, and author of The Really Hard Problem

"If you believe in free will, or know someone who does, here is the perfect antidote. In this smart, engaging, and extremely readable little book, Sam Harris argues that free will doesn’t exist, that we’re better off knowing that it doesn’t exist, and that—once we think about it in the right way—we can appreciate from our own experience that it doesn’t exist. This is a delightful discussion by one of the sharpest scholars around.”
—Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology, Yale University, and author of How Pleasure Works

Kirkus Reviews
In a brilliant and concise book, the co-founder of Project Reason argues that free will is an illusion. Harris (The Moral Landscape, 2010, etc.) contends that while most of us feel like we have free will, everything that we seem to choose to do is the result of a chain of causes over which we have no ultimate control--synapses, neural chemistry and genetic predispositions, as well as past events and our environment. Harris, who has a background in neuroscience, relies on that discipline and personal introspection. The neuroscience is impressive. In lab experiments in which subjects were asked to make decisions as regions of their brains were monitored, scientists could see that a decision had been made 7 to 10 seconds before the subject was consciously aware of it. The introspection argument is equally powerful, and Harris points out that much of our life is based on luck and that any of us could have been dealt a very different hand. He argues that accepting that free will is an illusion will help us to create a more ethical society. Currently, our justice system presumes free will, punishing under the assumption that given the same circumstances, an individual could have chosen differently. Exceptions are made for insanity, brain tumors, etc., all of which presume that the individual's free will has been compromised. However, if we assume that free will is illusory--i.e., that criminals are acting outside of their own volition--the question becomes how to deal with offenders and how to protect society. Harris also asks what this conception means for an individual's sense of self. Short enough to be read in a single sitting and provocative enough to arouse outrage and rebuttals.
The Washington Post
…fascinating…Harris explores the notion that free will is an illusion in this nimble book…amiably and conversationally jumping from point to point. The book's length is one of its charms: He never belabors any one topic or idea, sticking around exactly as long as he needs to in order to lay out his argument (and tackle the rebuttals that it will inevitably provoke) and not a page longer.
—Mark Berman
The New York Times Book Review
…if you want to acquaint yourself with the chapbook basics of this essential argument, Free Will is a good, cogent and readable…um, choice.
—Daniel Menaker

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Read an Excerpt

Free Will


The question of free will touches nearly everything we care about. Morality, law, politics, religion, public policy, intimate relationships, feelings of guilt and personal accomplishment—most of what is distinctly human about our lives seems to depend upon our viewing one another as autonomous persons, capable of free choice. If the scientific community were to declare free will an illusion, it would precipitate a culture war far more belligerent than the one that has been waged on the subject of evolution. Without free will, sinners and criminals would be nothing more than poorly calibrated clockwork, and any conception of justice that emphasized punishing them (rather than deterring, rehabilitating, or merely containing them) would appear utterly incongruous. And those of us who work hard and follow the rules would not “deserve” our success in any deep sense. It is not an accident that most people find these conclusions abhorrent. The stakes are high.

In the early morning of July 23, 2007, Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, two career criminals, arrived at the home of Dr. William and Jennifer Petit in Cheshire, a quiet town in central Connecticut. They found Dr. Petit asleep on a sofa in the sunroom. According to his taped confession, Komisarjevsky stood over the sleeping man for some minutes, hesitating, before striking him in the head with a baseball bat. He claimed that his victim’s screams then triggered something within him, and he bludgeoned Petit with all his strength until he fell silent.

The two then bound Petit’s hands and feet and went upstairs to search the rest of the house. They discovered Jennifer Petit and her daughters—Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11—still asleep. They woke all three and immediately tied them to their beds.

At 7:00 a.m., Hayes went to a gas station and bought four gallons of gasoline. At 9:30, he drove Jennifer Petit to her bank to withdraw $15,000 in cash. The conversation between Jennifer and the bank teller suggests that she was unaware of her husband’s injuries and believed that her captors would release her family unharmed.

While Hayes and the girls’ mother were away, Komisarjevsky amused himself by taking naked photos of Michaela with his cell phone and masturbating on her. When Hayes returned with Jennifer, the two men divided up the money and briefly considered what they should do. They decided that Hayes should take Jennifer into the living room and rape her—which he did. He then strangled her, to the apparent surprise of his partner.

At this point, the two men noticed that William Petit had slipped his bonds and escaped. They began to panic. They quickly doused the house with gasoline and set it on fire. When asked by the police why he hadn’t untied the two girls from their beds before lighting the blaze, Komisarjevsky said, “It just didn’t cross my mind.” The girls died of smoke inhalation. William Petit was the only survivor of the attack.

Upon hearing about crimes of this kind, most of us naturally feel that men like Hayes and Komisarjevsky should be held morally responsible for their actions. Had we been close to the Petit family, many of us would feel entirely justified in killing these monsters with our own hands. Do we care that Hayes has since shown signs of remorse and has attempted suicide? Not really. What about the fact that Komisarjevsky was repeatedly raped as a child? According to his journals, for as long as he can remember, he has known that he was “different” from other people, psychologically damaged, and capable of great coldness. He also claims to have been stunned by his own behavior in the Petit home: He was a career burglar, not a murderer, and he had not consciously intended to kill anyone. Such details might begin to give us pause.

As we will see, whether criminals like Hayes and Komisarjevsky can be trusted to honestly report their feelings and intentions is not the point: Whatever their conscious motives, these men cannot know why they are as they are. Nor can we account for why we are not like them. As sickening as I find their behavior, I have to admit that if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him: There is no extra part of me that could decide to see the world differently or to resist the impulse to victimize other people. Even if you believe that every human being harbors an immortal soul, the problem of responsibility remains: I cannot take credit for the fact that I do not have the soul of a psychopath. If I had truly been in Komisarjevsky’s shoes on July 23, 2007—that is, if I had his genes and life experience and an identical brain (or soul) in an identical state—I would have acted exactly as he did. There is simply no intellectually respectable position from which to deny this. The role of luck, therefore, appears decisive.

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?

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.

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. If a man’s choice to shoot the president is determined by a certain pattern of neural activity, which is in turn the product of prior causes—perhaps an unfortunate coincidence of bad genes, an unhappy childhood, lost sleep, and cosmic-ray bombardment—what can it possibly mean to say that his will is “free”? No one has ever described a way in which mental and physical processes could arise that would attest to the existence of such freedom. Most illusions are made of sterner stuff than this.

The popular conception of free will seems to rest on two assumptions: (1) that each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past, and (2) that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present. As we are about to see, however, both of these assumptions are false.

But the deeper truth is that free will doesn’t even correspond to any subjective fact about us—and introspection soon proves as hostile to the idea as the laws of physics are. Seeming acts of volition merely arise spontaneously (whether caused, uncaused, or probabilistically inclined, it makes no difference) and cannot be traced to a point of origin in our conscious minds. A moment or two of serious self-scrutiny, and you might observe that you no more decide the next thought you think than the next thought I write.

Meet the Author

Sam Harris is the author of the bestselling books The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, The Moral Landscape, Free Will, and Lying. The End of Faith won the 2005 PEN Award for Nonfiction. His writing has been published in over fifteen languages. Dr. Harris is cofounder and CEO of Project Reason, a nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society. He received a degree in philosophy from Stanford University and a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA. Please visit his website at SamHarris.org.

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Free Will 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 40 reviews.
Stuff_and_Nonsense More than 1 year ago
A wonderful book that advances the counter-intuitive idea that free will is an illusion. This book will garner some negative opinions because it contradicts humanity's common sense view that each person is a completely free agent. And nowhere on Earth is this view held more sacred than in the United States with its history of rugged individualism and personal responsibility. This makes Sam Harris' *Free Will* all the more important. At less than 100 pages it seems a bit silly to refer to *Free Will* as an enormously important read, but it wouldn't be silly in the slightest to say so. *Free Will* explains why we think we have free will and why that conception of our agency is wrong. I can think of nothing more central to the way we live our lives than this mistaken belief. Fortunately, changing our understanding of free will wouldn't change the way we live our lives except in important subtle ways, and Harris explains this in his book as well. I would also recommended reading Malcolm Gladwell's *Outliers*, which brings Harris' argument to life with deftly told stories that amuse as much as they inform.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Definitely worth reading and understanding, this short book must be seriously considered in the arguments for and against free will. The book's main failure is that it assumes cause-and-effect exists, despite Hume's devastating critique of determinism--a fact philosopher Harris must be aware of, but nonetheless ignores.
PaulBadger More than 1 year ago
The idea that free will is an illusion we tell ourselves needs to be understood, and Dr. Harris illustrates it nicely. Do take the time to read this quick and interesting book.
pccoder More than 1 year ago
I love Sam Harris. He pulls no punches when it comes to how he feels. In this book however; he falls short of convincing me that I have no free will. His arguments are sound; although perhaps I am simply too bull headed to accept that I do not make choices of my own. You'd really need to read the book to understand why he insists free will is an illusion; and I truly can see his point. But, the bottom line is that it's simply his opinion and doesn't really have any substantial facts to back up his thesis.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Harris says more in 40 pages than most can hope to accomplish in 200. Like it or not Harris presents a strong agument that is difficult to answer sufficiently. At the very minimum, agree with the conclusion or not (and most that don't will do so based on an emotional response rather than from a valid counter argument), this is food for thought that needs to be digested prior to having any discussion on free will, and at 40 pages there is no excuse to ignore it.
JohnGrove More than 1 year ago
Excellent short examination of the topic of free will and how it is an illusion. If this is true as Harris argues then this will certainly give new meaning to what it means to be born lucky. Not only that but it gives an interesting perspective of those who commit hideous crimes which boils down to not hating them, but certainly prosecuting and incarcerating them since they should be removed from hurting anybody else. I suppose viewed in this light can probably bring quicker healing to those victimized families knowing that those who have hurt us or our families really had no free will on their own but we just born unlucky. The whole philosophy Sam is advocating can be boiled down to "You can do what you will, but you can't will what you want". He also provides a rebuttal toward compatibilists like Daniel Dennett. Makes you look at things differently and gives you a new appreciation to life.
GFio More than 1 year ago
Regardless of your religious beliefs, this is a very good read. He challenges popular beliefs, and really makes you think of how to defend your own beliefs. It is definitely worth the read if you would like to challenge yourself! Harris is a well educated neuroscientist. As a student pursuing neuroscience, I found this book to be delightful.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
No nonsense presentation of the issue with review of current opinions and relevant research.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
We have moved to "Harpela" res one.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
BRIEFING: <br> Welcome to post-apocalyptic New York City. Just ten monthes after the world went all to he<_>ll, a distress signal came through radios throughout the states. Survivors flocked to NYC to help, but only one survivor was still alive, and barely. His name was Jordan, and he is well prepared to survive. You decide to stay with him. He explains that just a year earlier, the world had gone insane. The dead rose from the graves, massive earthquakes and deadly storms rocked the world governments turned on their people, and once-admirable civilizations were left to rot. Not too long ago, Jordan had gotten into a fight with an old friend of his, who left the group and was living in seclusion somewhere in the city. Now that you know what your choices are, you have a decision to make. Do you stay with Jordan, find his old ally and partner up with him, or take your chance as a loner in the city? <br> <br> MAP: <br> Res 1: You are here <br> Res 2: Jordan's base <br> Res 3: post-apocalyptic NYC <br> Res 4: Rebels' camp <br> Res 5: Bios <br> <br> RULES: <br> R1: No godmodding, no powers, no unfair abilities <br> R2: No attention-whoring <br> R3: Respect authority <br> R4: Be helpful. No work, no food <br> R5: Don't spy on the other camp <br> R6: Don't fight with allies <br> R7: Don't start something you can't finish <br> R8: Be at least semi-active <br> R9: Announce who you're allied to and stick with them
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PatrickKanouse More than 1 year ago
Sam Harris is nothing if not interesting. He is someone whose ideas I can disagree with substantially, but I still hunt out his thoughts, I still read his writings. Free Will is a brief book about a complex subject. The thesis it seeks to prove is that free will is an illusion. The book is short and clearly written, so I do not want to get into a lot of detail here. Suffice it to say, Harris claims that we cannot know why we choose to watch something, why you are reading this now, etc. That if we took the time to really reflect on our experience, our thoughts, we would not be able to answer the question: Why am I reading this blog right now? At least not without a constructed narrative in hindsight. All our decisions, all our choices, all the reasons we choose why we choose something remain impenetrable to a final answer. Genetics. The fortune or misfortune of where, how, and to whom I was born. And so on. How is one free to choose if we cannot know why we choose and why there is good scientific evidence to indicate that our choices are acted upon prior to our knowledge of that choice. I'm not sure I buy Harris's argument, but I have not yet formulated a potential reason why. Regardless, it is worth reading.
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