Book Review: Free Will by Sam Harris

Free Will by Sam HarrisFree Will
by Sam Harris
Free Press, 2012
96 pages (Kindle Edition)


When atheists like Sam Harris write anything, it is likely to cause a controversy. His cursory handling of the human will in his recent, and aptly-titled book, Free Will, is no less so.

“Free will is an illusion,” writes Harris. “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.”

The debate over free will is as old as philosophy. Sam Harris, as a neuroscientist, is interested in how it is shaped by studies of the brain in decision making.

One fact now seems indisputable: Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next—a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please—your brain has already determined what you will do. You then become conscious of this “decision” and believe that you are in the process of making it.

Whether one has true free will or not is a question that often gets tied up in the notion of who we are and what constitutes a choice. Using tools like an fMRI, studies have demonstrated that decisions are made in the brain before they are apprehended by the consciousness of an individual. Does this mean that a person’s decision is an illusion or does it mean that the decision is something we take part in before we reach consciousness of it?

Harris appears to draw the line at absolute freedom, meaning, apart from having it, there is no free will. He wrestles with the positions of compatibilists like Daniel Dennett who “insist that even if our thoughts and actions are the product of unconscious causes, they are still our thoughts and actions…our unconscious neurophysiology is just as much ‘us’ as our conscious thoughts are.” This freedom, says harris, asserts the creed: “A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings.

But what is the effect of this debate today and its place in the world of neuroscience? Harris begins his book looking at a grisly murder that would likely have most of us asking for the head of the murderer. He asks whether our perceptions or reactions change if we discover that the reason the person was pushed to commit such horrible crimes was due to a brain tumor. Once it was removed, the killer behaved normally. Do we see culpability as less? Does the murderer suddenly become a victim? If so, what does this tell us about how we understand true freedom? Can we give someone a more lenient sentence due to his or her physiology and still assert free will?

Harris’ book is short (96 pages including notes), but it raises interesting questions that still have me thinking. What is most intriguing to me, however, is how this conversation takes shape within the world of neuroscience. In the world of theology, the discussion of free will is a long-standing one. It is a debate I remember from my teen years over the possibility of having free will in a world controlled by God. Does God micromanage his creation? Do human beings beings have free will in a determined world? In those past conversations, many did not see the presence of desires or inclinations, even if they are part of human nature, as negating the responsibility of the person when he or she sins (like murder).

Putting freedom in the category of acting on one’s desires is nothing new in theological discussions. Jonathan Edwards, the 18th-century theologian who wrote a similarly titled book called The Freedom of the Will, argued that freedom is in doing what one most wants to do. I suppose, as a theologian, he would find validation with modern compatibilists engaging the world of neuroscience. However, the question of culpability and intention, as discovered when decisions are examined in an fMRI, may make the theological questions far more complicated than ever. Some might say, impossible.

It is a fascinating thing to see scientists, particularly those like Harris who are atheists, engaging the morality question when it comes to the will. It is like seeing these debates from my childhood revisited, but without God in the center of it. And whether one agrees with Harris or not, studies of the brain done today will never allow this question of free will to go away or get any easier.



  • Garver

    Interesting. I’m still trying to decide if Harris’s book is worth the time for me, given that there are now more philosophical essays on the topic that take stock of the neuroscience, but perhaps with more understanding of the larger tradition within which the “free will” discussion occurs. Nonetheless, a helpful review.

  • Thanks. It is true that in a book this size, it is less of a full discussion. The plus side is also its shortness. If you do read it, let me know. Love to hear what you think.

  • It will be interesting to see how both philosophy and theology handle these discoveries in neuroscience. If you take a step back, this discussion is really about something even more fundamental: what does it mean to be “us”? At what point do unconscious processes leave off and the “me” I experience as making (hopefully) rational decisions and choices begin?

  • Yeah, exactly. The discussion of personal identity is probably the most fascinating one in philosophy for me and there have been discussions recently among philosophers of how philosophy simply can no longer do its job without consideration of what is being discovered in the arena of neuroscience.

    I really don’t know where on the spectrum we can say the person begins in the decision process. This is probably the one discussion that just seems to get more and more complicated. Since no single neuron is a thought, when does the person begin in the nexus of firing neurons?

    I keep finding that so many theologians are either unaware of these discussions, uninterested in them, or just not picking up on the level of difficulty they pose for traditional theology. I think that is why most people expect neuroscience, or other fields, like quantum physics, to run-over theology in their ability to answer the big questions.

    The one thing I don’t think has been as clear until the last few years is just how much philosophy is also going to appear outmoded unless it also takes seriously these discoveries.

  • It will be interesting to see if, as this research becomes more widely known, fundamentalist theologians will try to use the same dodges some of them use for young earth creationism.

    Mark Traphagen
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  • No doubt. Where there is a will, there is a always a way to patch up theology.

  • Garver

    It’s difficult sometimes to find thinkers who are competent in both the science, the findings of which are so important for doing decent philosophy, and the philosophical issues, which are so important for situating the meaning of the scientific discoveries. Philosophy of mind, at least, is one area where that seems to be happening more and more, though without any sort of consensus emerging.

  • You’re probably looking at a very exciting time for philosophy, particularly in terms of the mind, in that a lot of new conversations can be had and older ideas can be re-imagined in light of new information. I’m just wondering how philosophy will look in 20 years. Religious studies has a similar parallel. We want to understand the nature of religion, how it becomes what it is and how to interpret it, and that has included integrating a lot of other fields, but in recent years, it has also included learning more about Cognitive Science of Religion, which now has regular sessions at The AAR. At least things aren’t boring. 

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