Free Will, by Sam Harris: It’s All an Illusion

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.

Free Will, by Sam Harris: It’s All an Illusion

14 thoughts on “Free Will, by Sam Harris: It’s All an Illusion

  1. Sam Harris does feel that free will is mostly an illusion. I believe we can make choices, but seldom freely. In my (free) ebook on comparative mysticism, “the greatest achievement in life,” is a chapter called “Outside the box.” Here are three paragraphs from it:

    What if you had to make all your decisions about living while detained in a jail cell? The cells may be open for brief periods each day, but the prisoners are still surrounded by walls. There are also walls around cells of everyday life. We are restricted by our ability to control our emotions, mind and body. Even with full command of our “self,” we must live within the restraints of Nature and society. Freedom is relative.

    “Free will” is really quite limited, despite belief that we control ourselves and our lives. We think we have endless choices…until we try to make them. Each decision must not only be based on what we “want to do,” but also on our own capabilities and what is expected of us. Nature and society imprison us, whether we like it or not. The key to release is mystical realization. All in One and One in All, the divine unity, opens the gate between a universal consciousness and most people’s constrained awareness.

    Outer walls are the boxes of Nature and of society. Inclement weather, lack of sunlight, gravity, and/or other natural phenomena may restrain our movements. Our own natural aptitudes, practiced talents and learned skills are always lacking in some areas. Human nature is controlled mostly by society. What we believe that other people expect of us greatly influences how we feel, think and act. Considering the reactions of our family, friends, business associates, community, and/or nation determines much of what we do. Those “laws” of Nature and society govern our lives, usually more so than we wish. Mystical awareness can allow us to obey divine law here and now.

    Sam Harris has written positively on mysticism and said “I see nothing irrational about seeking the states of mind that lie at the core of many religions. Compassion, awe, devotion and feelings of oneness are surely among the most valuable experiences a person can have.” Harris’ personal background reflects his own search toward that goal.

  2. Thank you for your comment.

    I don’t want to speak for Sam Harris, but I think you might be mischaracterizing his views. He doesn’t mostly believe free will is an illusion; he asserts that it is nothing but an illusion. I am sure that he’d admit that he could be wrong on this, but he hasn’t seen the evidence.

    Also, you are right that Harris has written positively on mysticism, but only so far as they reflect states of mind that could be beneficial, as your quote shows. I do not think he believes that there is anything mystical, divine, or spiritual going.

    As to the paragraphs from your book, it seems that you are asserting that there is a kind of free will, but only one bound up in the restraints of society and nature. The source of this free will is the mystical oneness of the universe; the realization of this oneness producing free will or some sort of release.

    This all sounds very interesting, but as I am a materialist and atheist I can’t put much stock in it. I do appreciate you sharing your thoughts, however.

    1. Gary, in 1959 I was introduced to mysticism by Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Nobel astrophysicist at the University of Chicago. He was an atheist who once wrote “God is man’s greatest invention.”

      You do not have to be religious or believe in God to be a mystic. In my ebook “divine” is used as a superlative adjective, not a possessive noun. I don’t believe in an anthropomorphic, personal God, but have no objections to those people who do.

      According to NASA astrophysicists: “More is unknown than is known. We know how much dark energy there is because we know how it affects the Universe’s expansion. It turns out that roughly 70% of the Universe is dark energy. Dark matter makes up about 25%. The rest – everything on Earth, everything ever observed with all of our instruments, all normal matter – adds up to less than 5% of the Universe. Extracted from

      Perhaps the millions of people who have “mystical” (I dislike that word) realization are aware of some of that unknown Universe.

  3. I really enjoyed Free Will, but I am really caught up on what definition of ‘free will’ Sam uses that he can claim it as an illusion. (This is particularly difficult for me because I accept that I will never have confirmation of anything, thus EVERYTHING must be treated as an illusion, and so forth…)

    His pragmatic outcome seems clear – that we should therefore focus justice on corrections, not punishment; however, this outcome does not seem tied to his argument. A soul-and-free-will-believing person could still land on the side of corrections, especially in light of the belief that God metes justice. On the other hand, a materialistic nothing-could-have-happened-any-differently could still land on the side of punishment, if the notion of “justice” is framed a benefit offered to the victims/survivors – a claim often given by the families of murder victims in the reason they support the death penalty.

    So although I agree that justice should not be punitive, I struggle to connect that political belief with the metaphysical argument about free will.

    The only really clear point that Sam seems to be arguing is whether or not anything could have happened any differently – and given that we have only one timeline, I’m not sure this is really a pragmatic line of reasoning to pursue. Lets say things COULD have happened differently – so what? They didn’t.

    Other than that point, I am left wondering, again “What is free will.” I find it very useful to take that term, free will, a phrase in our language, and rather than asserting it’s usefulness, ask myself – what IS free will in a real way? To what situations can we appropriately apply the term, and how can we use it without obfuscating our material existence, etc?

    I have a tough time with Sam Harris – I really love his endpoints, and of course I appreciate them being written in such a sophistically convincing way, but I find that when I really dig in it starts to get a bit fluffy, and I’m wondering what others’ take on the subject is.

    (( Just to be clear: in my view, the world, and the people in it, is a system of extremely complex machines that are “merely” emergent phenomena of cellular automata. And yet I still find incredibly valuable places in my thinking for such concepts as Faith and Self, although we do have to distinguish them from their more traditional spiritual origins. For example, Calculus is not based on a perfectly connected line of logical reasoning – there is, in fact, a leap of faith in its most basic foundation. ))

    1. I believe the definition he is using is the traditional one, that is, we are conscious of our choices and absolutely free to make choices, without outside compulsion. Any other definition is sort of moving the goal post. I guess he doesn’t explicitly lay this out in the essay, though he alludes to it. The illusion is that our minds are wired in such a way that it seems we consciously and freely make our choices.

      As for the other great points you bring up, this is just my interpretation of his discussion.

      You are right about a religious person coming to the same conclusion. As for materialism, I think his argument is that once someone accepts that a person could not have acted differently (no free will), our ethical decisions should be weighted differently. So, instead of merely vengeance or punishment, we might try and find ways of correction. He uses the extreme example of someone with a brain tumor. If we know the brain tumor caused a murderer to kill, and we also know that by removing the brain tumor the likelihood of him killing again is the same for the average citizen, would it be ethical to imprison this person or execute them and not give the corrective treatment? This is somewhat extrapolated to all actions. For those who can’t be cured, society still has a right and need to remove those persons who would cause it harm. I guess it is possible for a materialist to say that, “if a person kills and he had no free will, who cares, I still want to give him the chair”, but I think Harris’s argument would be that this is not acting ethically, or that it would be difficult to make an ethical argument for such a punishment. Right now we assume a person freely chose to commit their crimes and thus dole out punishment that we believe befits the crime.

      As far as choosing differently, and I know he hammers away at it, I think this is more of a thought experiment that believers in free will play. If a person could go back, could they have chosen differently? If the answer is yes, then they are held responsible. Harris’s point, and I think you echo it actually, is that a person can’t choose differently, if everything is exactly the same. We can’t know anyways.

      I appreciate your questions about free will and what exactly is it. But I think I align myself with Sam Harris. Free Will is a cultural constructed term and definition (and historically, it meant free to choose). If it doesn’t exist, then it doesn’t. We have to find other ways of describing our motives, actions, and ethical responsibility without redefining a term we hold valuable. So I wouldn’t apply the term to anything.

      My question for you, then, would be, if we do live in a material world, how does free will emerge or how would it exist?

      I see what you mean by the terms faith and self. I have some of the same thoughts about traditions, in general. But again, like free will, these terms, or at least, faith, has a specific feeling and definition. My feeling is that it causes confusion to take a term and use it differently. I am not exactly sure how you are using them, but most people think of religious faith (as opposed to having faith my wife loves me); i don’t know what a materialist definition of faith would be.

      I actually agree with you somewhat about Harris’s writing. He does his best when he is brief.

      Thank you for comment.

      1. as far as the whole point being to simply not use the word – now that is interesting, and makes the whole thing make a lot more sense. perhaps the same thing is going on with faith and self and, notoriously, god.

        for the past phase or two i have consciously been appropriating terms. i’ve even played at appropriating god but the closest i got was ‘dog’

        it seems a pretty big step to entirely give up the word ‘free will’. i’m not opposed to it necessarily, but i definitely need to give it some thought. i suppose i don’t really use it too much, which perhaps belies my belief in its uselessness. i might argue about its legal use and wonder at how Harris would differentiate generally an external “meta” cause (that man manipulated me into this crime) and physical (that man held me at gunpoint and shoved me into comitting this crime) but i don’t care enough about that word.

        now faith, on the other hand – faith is the glue that holds our world together. a leap of faith is what makes a falling body touch the ground; calculus is nowhere without Newton’s 2nd and 3rd lemma’s, and need I even remind – Euclid’s fifth.. i operate regularly on the faith that the faith that other people will stay in their lane, etc etc. i’ve not yet read the end of free will – perhaps SH addresses these articles of faith – but in any case i find the word invaluable, even inevitable. (I also might use it in casual conversation – “I’m taking it on faith that..”)

        i even find faith in the absurd psychologically value. Of course it is terrible when it turns into extremism, but when it turns into an extreme respect for life – there is a sort of beauty. and when a body of cellular automata have faith in the existence of the Whole – well thats a game-changer.

        ~ side note ~
        “if we do live in a material world, how does free will emerge or how would it exist?”

        refer to definition: we are conscious of our choices and absolutely free to make choices, without outside compulsion.

        all of my actions come from internal compulsion. though i do not exist of my own free will or exist as such of my own free will, everything i do in the context of a single day is without outside compulsion. in the context of the universe, everything i do is part of an atemporal web of causality (and probably other things i can’t comprehend)

        in the context – although i don’t use the word much, language is more than conversation. it shapes the way i think, and if i don’t use the term ‘free will’ to differentiate between what i generally do and what political slaves do – i’d just end up using another term that would occupy the same place in the lexicon.

        i guess i could be forcing a linguistic differentiation between me and my soul-believing brethren but… i’m not sure i like the sound of that

  4. I am writing a book on this very topic (been doing so for years) and agree wholeheartedly with Harris’s view on it. Sam has taken a more scientific approach which is great (and he even addresses “spiritual” notions to a degree). My book details out the incompatibility of free will with both a deterministic and indeterministic universe. I delve more into how people incorrectly use Quantum Mechanics, specific time theories, bad semantics, a conflation of acausal events with probabilism, incorrect assumption that cause can lead to multiple possible effects, etc…to contrive their notion of free will. I also delve deep into the free will psychology people hold, why the belief in free will is not benign but rather harmful, and so on.

    ‘Trick Slattery

    1. Trick,

      Could you please elaborate on your take of Sam’s view?

      One piece you mentioned that I hear a lot seems very connected – the idea that a single cause could lead to multiple possible effects. The It-Could-Have-Happened-Differently stance. I don’t regret high school, because I know that if I could go back and do it again, I’d do the same thing because I’d be the same person again, etc.

      So again while I agree with Sam’s take on the matter – there’s only one possible outcome to any scenario, and thus the world we experience is-what-it-is-what-it-is-etc – I struggle to grasp the pragmatic outcome of such a belief. Its of course hard for me to imagine believing any differently, because I’ve for so long just accepted that things are pretty much as they seem. (Neither “grand plan” nor quantum fluctutations determine history.

      Nonetheless, I still think back to high school and ask myself what I COULD have done differently, in case I’m faced with similar situations again, etc. I find self reflection and even a bit of tortuous regret on occasion useful and helpful in becoming the better person I will be in the future. Which is probably exactly what I’d say if I believe in free will.

      So… what’s the difference between a belief in free will and a belief in causal necessity? (Besides their apparent-but-not-actual seeming-alignment with interpretations of the justice system)

      1. Hi Jonas,

        Sam’s view is that free will (or the free will definition of importance and what most people “feel” they have) is not only scientifically devoid, but conceptually incoherent. This is the view I absolutely agree with.

        Causality is incompatible with being able to have, of your own accord, done otherwise (free will), because cause (A) cannot both be the cause for its effect (B) and at the same time NOT the cause for (B) (ie. the cause for C over B instead). To think that a cause can have multiple possible effects is to be self-contradictory. Acausal events (indeterminism) would need to happen for multiple possibilities to exist, which are not only incompatible with free will, but – if they have anything to do with thought- would be a detriment to it.

        “So again while I agree with Sam’s take on the matter – there’s only one possible outcome to any scenario, and thus the world we experience is-what-it-is-what-it-is-etc – I struggle to grasp the pragmatic outcome of such a belief.”

        I don’t necessarily hold the belief that there is only one possible outcome to any scenario. If the universe is deterministic this is the case, but it is not the case for an indeterministic universe. Both, however, are incompatible with free will, and this is pragmatically important.

        The idea of free will is tied to our ability to blame others. It also gives people the reason to hate others (ie. they could have and should have done, act, or believe otherwise than they do). It also allows people to think they are more deserving than others, creating egocentric thinking (ie. X worked for his/her over inflated position or status, therefore they deserve it over another who deserves there lower quality of life). The belief in free will creates a huge imbalance in the world and is tied into everything from a persons philosophical ideas, beliefs, ethics, economic position, psychology, and so on.

        It is not only the criminal system that needs to change, but the mindset of people that needs to. Understanding the lack of free will is a base level understanding to a whole lot of what people think or do.

        Hope this helps.


    2. I find it rather annoying that people misuse quantum mechanics for their pet beliefs. What the Bleep do We know is an egregious examples. I can’t quite remember, but I think Harris briefly mentions this, saying that even if quantum indeterminacy played a role in our thought processes, it still wouldn’t be free will.

  5. @trick –

    while the idea of free will is related to our ability to blame others, it is not tied of necessity.

    as far as its being conceptually coherent.. it finds to me a great deal of use in judicio/political discussions in the context of – was that person forced, unpleasantly enough whether or not you use free will, I hope that even Sam would agree on one piece – it is fair and good that we do not punish those with extremely low intelligence or extreme mental “illness”. that softness is tied to a belief in those persons ability to “make decisions.” which in the current system is tied to “free will”

    part of my stance i think is tied to the amount of work and paradigm shifting that need to come about to get rid of that word. long before we ever do, the world will have changed for the better – even as people lose religion, they maintain a belief in the soul. i honestly think a lot of the things we don’t like about the religious right are fading generationally.

    sam alludes to his experience with the east, which guides the path of least resistance. as much as we can make verbally logical arguments against free will for our own personal growth, it all comes across as so proselytizing that i’m getting the impression he’s trying to change the world.

    and if you ask the world as a whole to explore Wei Wu Wei, and then gently consider whether or not to give up the term free will or simply be very careful about when and how to use the term – what would The World say?

    1. also see above comment to gary – we’d really just replace the word with something else for the myriad useful uses it has. so why not just stop using it in the bad way, and keep using it in the good?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s