Sam Harris Speaks About Free Will

Last week, Sam Harris spoke at the Bon Mot book club in Vancouver about Free Will. The speech begins after the 80s porn music:

He also did a Q&A:

As always if there are any interesting moments in the videos, please leave a timestamp and summary in the comments!

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Chicago Atheist

    Hemant, how do you know what 80′s porn music sounds like?

  • Mike D

    I love Sam Harris, but I think Sean Carroll gives a much more practical account of what free will actually is:

  • BJ Murphy

    Great talk, but the clashing of forks to plates was extremely annoying!

  • Tim

    …he doesn’t look old enough, does he?

  • Silo Mowbray

    Held at the Vancouver Club, a very pricey, exclusive venue.

    “Candidates require a proposer, a seconder and three references, all of which are club members in good standing.”

    No prices listed, which means if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.

  • Stacy Turner

     Food pisses me off.

  • WildRumpus67

    That Bon Mot book club has tons of other cool speakers.

    I especially enjoyed Ayaan Hirsi Ali –

    Also, why the hate on the music? It’s like 10 seconds long…

  • WildRumpus67

    So what? Rich people can’t be atheists? Oh right – this the Friendly Atheist where poor feminists are glorified but captains of industry are vilified which has nothing at all to do with atheism…

  • Daniel Schealler

    Sounded more like the background music to a Sonic the Hedgehog level to me.

    Now there’s a connotation I would have liked to avoid.

  • m6wg4bxw

    I’m having some trouble understanding Sam Harris’ position. I expect reading his book will help, but I wanted to ask the readers here.

    Harris uses Charles Whitman as an example, citing his brain tumor as an affliction which, presumably, led to his murderous actions. What isn’t clear is whether Harris thinks Whitman’s actions were determined. He later describes everyone’s brain state as a sort of “tumor.” He also mentions that the response to acts like those of Whitman should be sympathetic, rather than retributive, such that we protect ourselves from the threat, and possibly offer rehabilitation to the offender.

    Were Whitman’s murderous actions determined?

    If so, then the same must be true for the response of anyone reacting to Whitman’s actions. Right?

    If not, then the conscious human brain seems to be a case exempt from the causal chain of events. Why?

    If my questions are to broad or ignorant, please say so. I don’t wish to waste time and space simply because I haven’t yet done my homework.

  • 3lemenope

    A living thing that spends much of its time doing its best impression of a pinball completely at the mercy of physics?

    Seems kinda appropriate, actually.

  • C Peterson

    His position is that our actions are the product of a complex chain of events over which we have no control. The Whitman example merely provides a concrete example of where something obviously physical may have influenced behavior. I don’t know that Harris is going quite so far as to say that any actions are predetermined (in fact, I think he is probably not making this argument), but that the person Whitman became was outside his control. The person any of us become is outside our control- or at least, heavily influenced by factors we have no control over.

    If you take this as true, it is a logical consequence that punitive retribution for criminal acts is probably immoral.

    I don’t think Harris is claiming we don’t have free will as such, merely that the very concept of “free will” is complex and represents different aspects of our selves. The underlying mechanism of our decision making process is, in many respects, outside our conscious control. But that doesn’t imply that our actions are predetermined.

  • TheAntiHarris

    A complex chain of events over which I have no control has led me to post here that Harris finds excuses for Torture, Pre Emptive Nuclear War, Blaming the Jews for whatever bad things have happened to them, the Mecca Option,  and being upset that our government has not got enough wars going against Muslim states.

  • TheAntiHarris

    Ayn Rand was an atheist, and so were Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin.  Of course their actions had nothing to do with atheism.

    Or anything else over which they had any control.

    According to Sam Harris.

  • Daniel Schealler

    What is the conclusion you intend us to draw from this?

    Do you want us to conclude that Harris is wrong about free will because he is also wrong* about these other things?

    Because that’s a fallacy.

    If that’s not what you had in mind, then teach me how to read: How should I have known to interpret your words differently?

    * Conceding this solely for the purpose of argument – I’m not committing to TAH being right or wrong about Harris’ position on those issues right now

  • Daniel Schealler

    Cards on the table: I’m not big into vilifying the rich just because they’re rich. But I’m also not big into glorifying them just because they’re rich either. It depends very much on the person and whether or not they acquire or maintain their wealth by sacrificing ethics in the name of profitability. The possession of wealth is not not of itself sufficient indication to draw a conclusion on this one way or the other, so withholding judgement until further evidence is presented is the best way forward.

    Silo may or may not have intended that comment at 10:16 to be a criticism. I’m not familiar with Silo so can’t tell. It isn’t at all obvious from context.

    So perhaps Silo is implying: Those damn fat cats! Grr! *shakes fist*

    Or perhaps Silo is implying: Look how wonderful it is that a prominent atheist speaker has been invited to present at such a prestigious venue!

    Or perhaps Silo intended to imply something else, or even nothing at all.

    It simply isn’t clear from context what Silo is implying.

    So from where did you get ‘rich people can’t be atheists’?

    Rumpus, it feels like you’ve got such a burning need to grind your axe that you’re not even waiting for an actual stone to be presented. You’re just waving the edge up and down in the air. An apt metaphor: Comical, but also the chance that someone might get cut, including yourself.

    So what’s up? Why make with the axe-wavy?

  • Andrew B.

     Sure.  That’s a totally honest and accurate assessment of his views.

  • jose

    This guy is getting kookier by the day.

  • Dan R

    Clicked on that link…yuck. If I had all the money in the world I’d build a castle as far away from these wine-swilling douchenuggets as possible. I applaud them for sequestering themselves out of view of the general public before spending all evening parading around in expensive clothes like a bunch of peacocks and congratulating themselves on being important.

  • Daniel Schealler

    To my reading, Harris goes the following pathway:

    1) Free will is when human consciousness and decision making deviates from in-principle determinism
    2) Human consciousness and decision making cannot do this
    3) Therefore, free will does not exist
    4) Free will not existing has important consequences for how we think about social organization, particularly punishment.

    Sam spends most of his time on free will justifying 2 and exploring 4.

    (C Peterson’s summary is also very accurate in my view)

  • machintelligence

    I am partial to Daniel Dennett’s response to this, where he argues that free will (or something like it) is possible even in a deterministic universe.
    Skip the first four minutes if you don’t want to hear a humorous anecdote. I especially like the Dilbertian reference to people as “moist robots”. It is an hour well spent.

  • Daniel Schealler

    I believe that they prefer to be referred to as wine-quaffing douchenuggets.

    I’m not a rich man (relative to norms in developed nations). But I’m still partial to an occasional good quaff myself, provided the price-tag is under what I can earn in a couple of hours. Although I prefer a reasonably priced tawny port to wine for quaffing purposes.

  • Pseudonym

    To be fair, it’s not his fault. He didn’t freely decide to believe nonsense without evidence.

  • Pseudonym

    I’m not TAH. Having said that, it is a fallacy to assume that just because Sam Harris has a habit of mouthing off half-formed opinions about things he knows nothing about and is consequently wrong a lot of the time, that he must be wrong about this too.

    However, TAH did not say anything of the sort.

    The fact is that this sort of history is a red flag.

    If someone has spouted nonsense about many other topics in the past, anything they say about this topic may not have any useful information in it, and is therefore probably not worth spending time on until someone who does know what they’re talking about has critiqued it.

    This is not a logical inference rule, but it is a fairly reliable rule of thumb for time management.

  • Daniel Schealler


    From what TAH has said, how should I have known to interpret their words in this way?

  • Pseudonym

    It’s called the Principle of Charity, and it’s the first step of critical thinking.

  • Pseudonym

    It’s called the Principle of Charity, and it’s the first step of critical thinking.

  • Gribblethemunchkin

    Looking just at the example of torture, Sam has written in depth about this and from reading his thoughts, I agree with him. It IS moral to torture someone, in certain circumstances. What he is not saying and what you seem to be implying is that he is ok with torture as it generally happens. I’ve not seen an example of Sam defending any actual torture that has occured, only the concept that it can be moral to torture in certain circumstances.
    If you think about this for even a moment or two i am sure you can come up with a hypothetical where torturing someone is the moral choice.
    The ticking time bomb scenario is the obvious but flawed one. A better one is one that Harris has refered to about a baby locked in a car that has been stolen. The car thief was arrested, but despite cast iron evidence against him, refuses to admit his guilt by telling the police where the car is. The baby is locked inside, its a hot day. The baby will die within a matter of hours. The perp will not talk.
    Is it moral for the police to inflict pain on the car thief if doing so will get him to confess the cars location?
    You don’t necessarily have to agree, but Sams position on torture is not simply that of apologist. Its far more complex than simply in favour of or not in favour of.

  • Daniel Schealler



    Pardon the tu quoque: If the Principle of Charity is enough to earn me a slap on the wrist – what then of TAH’s analysis of Harris’ positions?

    Has TAH been more charitable then myself, or less?

  • jose

    We know how well that worked for the US government. I mean we don’t even have to ponder whether it’s moral, because that would imply it’s effective. But it isn’t.

    His utilitarian idea that the criminal’s pain is compensated by what we win (baby saved in his example or thousands of people saved from a second terrorist attack in the government’s example) simply doesn’t work in the real world. If you’re result-oriented and care about reality, rather than just enjoying hypotheticals over a couple of drinks, then you’re against torture, regardless of your moral ideas.

    But then Harris has defended other stuff that doesn’t work in the past such as racial profiling, so this isn’t surprising. He should worry about what works first and then fantasize about whether it’s moral.

  • Patterrssonn

    “What he is not saying and what you seem to be implying is that he is ok with torture as it generally happens.”

    If this is the case is he able to come up with any examples of actual cases where torture has been moral? Apart, that is, from the incredibly weak and problematic case of the Australian police officers who decided to use torture instead of basic police work.

    Because if he can’t, saying that torture is moral in certain ‘exceptional’ yet hypothetical cases, like the ‘ticking time bomb’, is completely reprehensible. The use of torture is an instrument of terror, of way of brutalizing and oppressing a population, or an individual. Making a hypothetical case for torture is no different to making a hypothetical case for fascism or slavery.

    You might come up with a fantasy case in which torture is moral but all you’re doing is making it easier for those who resort to brutality to justify their actions.

  • Baal

     I heard he made a deal with Satan to look youthful until his passing.

  • Silo Mowbray

    As Daniel Schealler below has pointed out, I did in fact NOT state that “Rich people can’t be atheists.” Nor did I imply it. Nor did I INTEND to imply it. Your knee just jerked.

  • Robby Bensinger

     Patterrssonn, Pseudonym, TheAntiHarris: You’re confusing policy advocacy with ethical theorizing. Peter Singer would gladly concede that torture can be justified in special circumstances too. Yet Singer and Harris agree that a blanket prohibition on torture is useful in ordinary circumstances. The Principle of Charity is only useful if you apply it to both sides equally. See Dawkins’ very important and reasonable point:

  • Patterrssonn

    For one thing Dawkins is just plain wrong, Harris did advocate racial profiling at airports. It wasn’t a “thought experiment” He actually called for the profiling of people who appear to be muslim, whatever that would be.

    “Peter Singer would gladly concede that torture can be justified in special circumstances too.”
    Does he? Or is this another “thought experiment.”

    Just doing a bit of research I came across this, in reference to Al Qaeda operative Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

    ” If there is even one chance in a million that he will tell us something
    under torture that will lead to the further dismantling of Al Qaeda, it
    seems that we should use every means at our disposal to get him

    This is not a thought experiment. Harris is actually advocating the torture of Al Qaeda suspects as a tool of war. Something that the US government was and practicing at the time, and likely still is.

    So thanks Robby for posting, I’d previously had the image of Harris as a bit of a ranty islamophobe and didn’t understand why he attracted so much vitriol, but now I see that he truly is a reprehensible scumbag.

  • Pseudonym

    I wouldn’t call TAH’s comment an “analysis”. I thought it read more like a mini-rant.

  • Daniel Schealler

    I was trying to be charitable.

  • Robby Bensinger

    I’m not defending Harris’ views, but I’m advocating doing the research needed to refute them adequately (if they be false), and not just quote-mining.

    Regarding torture, Harris has said that he thinks it is justifiable in some special circumstances for individuals to break international prohibitions against the act, but those prohibitions should be left in place. “It seems probable, however, that any legal use of torture would have unacceptable consequences.”

    And when Harris endorses ‘profiling,’ all he’s arguing is that we should not treat 90-year-old women as being flight risks equivalent to every other random human being. Remember, Harris includes *himself* in the class of people he thinks should be profiled as plausible hijackers.