It has been awhile since I have read a book by Sam Harris and it is good to see he still delivers the same force of argument and brevity in his new book, Free Will. Brevity is the appropriate word as this is more of a long essay than a book, easily read in an afternoon in your favorite comfy chair. It is worth the read, because if you still retain the illusion of free will, this might help you shed the last vestiges of that belief and illuminate why you won’t start raping and pillaging once you accept that fact.
Harris relies on two main thrusts for his argument: neuroscience and a bit of personal introspection. The neuroscience is pretty definitive: scientist know when we make a decision before we are conscious of that decision:
They reported which letter was visible at the moment they decided to press one button or the other. The experimenters found two brain regions that contained information about which button subjects would press a full 7 to 10 seconds before the decision was consciously made.
The introspection argument is just as powerful once you sit down and really think about it and Harris even ends the essay with an experiment of sorts. Why don’t you give it try: think of a city in America. Which did you choose? Why did you choose it? It probably just bubbled up once I said American city, and though you may have after the fact explanations (like, I lived there, I like it, my favorite sports team is there), as Harris points out, you have no real solid reason why that city popped into consciousness as opposed to any other. Where is the freedom?
Harris also makes the case, though less convincingly, that this also applies if you believe you have a soul: if you have a murderous soul, where is the freedom not to commit murder?
Harris also argues forcefully that accepting that free will is an illusion will help us to make a more ethical justice system and that even in the absence of free will, society still has a right and need to mitigate its dangerous elements. Once we understand the real reasons people commit crimes we can either get them the help they need, or, if rehabilitation is impossible, keep them permanently off the streets.
I think this is important, and while Harris doesn’t believe things are going to change anytime soon, it is a conversation and debate we need to have. At the moment our justice system presumes free will, and punishes under the assumption that given the same circumstances an individual could of chosen differently. Harris shows how this is false. However, we do make exceptions: insanity, abusive childhood, brain tumors, etc. All these presume that the individual’s free will has been compromised and, thus, is not responsible for their actions. The problem is that these exceptions seem to be growing and complicate and compromise our justice system. We’re left trying to figure who should be held responsible and who shouldn’t be, and where this gray area lies. However, a system in which we presume that the individual acted how they were going to act given their history, genetic makeup, and neural chemistry, we can ask meaningful questions: can the behavior be changed? Is rehabilitation possible? Or is this individual doomed to kill and kill again? It would also call for a more humane prison system, one based on compassion and rehabilitation, instead of retribution. Harris points out that much of our life is based on luck, who we are is based on factors out of our control, and that, “Our system of justice should reflect an understanding that any of us could have been dealt a very different hand in life.”
Free Will is a good read and hopefully stirs debate outside of college courses and dorm rooms. Harris believes that if large numbers stopped believing in free will it might precipitate a culture war larger than all others. He may be right, but it is debate whose time may have come.