Book Review: “Free Will” by Sam Harris
“Today . . . we know that determinism, in every sense relevant to human behavior, is true” (p. 16).
Certainly no one is elated by the prospect of their autonomy being reduced to the status of a puppeteer’s marionette. Nonetheless, Harris maintains a belief in determinism and proposes that we should too. Towards this agenda, the reader is led from studies in cognitive science to philosophical refection, explication and, ultimately, to his all-is-not-lost conclusion. Free Will in this regard is an exemplar of succinct argumentation. To a greater extent than not, Harris’s concision preserves clear thinking; however, his discussion of compatibilism is borderline disingenuous. Moreover, Free Will exhibits a striking inconsistency in this regard that failed to be addressed by the author.
As a first exposure to the writings of Sam Harris, I found Free Will impressive. Harris managed to negotiate that difficult-to-determine fine line between informality and depth. Ninety-six pages doesn’t leave much room for the discussion of a topic that has filled tomes; nevertheless, the book delivers page after page of scientific data, thoughtful explanations, and helpful analogies.
On the one hand, Sam Harris works wonders presenting determinism as a belief required of honest thinkers. On the other hand, Harris’s treatment of compatibilism is lacking at best, outright disingenuous at worse. He refers to compatibilists as those who redefine free will in order to preserve it in the face of evidence. This is intellectually dishonest. Free will, as a concept, has no agreed upon definition; in fact, establishing an appropriate definition is part of the ongoing debate!
Moreover, Harris’s understanding of compatibilism appears convoluted. Because moral responsibility is contingent upon an agent’s free will, compatibilists are more accurately characterized as attempting to save moral responsibility from determinism. To clarify, the compatibility portion of compatibilism is between determinism and moral responsibility. Hence, Free Will becomes incongruous at the point where Harris affirms determinism, denies compatibilism, and subsequently concludes: “To say that I was responsible for my behavior is simply to say that what I did was sufficiently in keeping with my thoughts, intentions, beliefs, and desires to be considered an extension of them” (p. 49). This is just compatibilism! In order to endorse the idea that free will is a belligerent—albeit pervasive—illusion and, yet, continue to affirm moral responsibility in spite of it, smacks of inconsistency.
Sam Harris has provided us with a wonderful, well elucidated primer on an otherwise complicated subject. Although the consistency of his ideas are either incongruent or in need of greater clarification, this should not detract a would-be reader from his ably prosed account of free will and determinism. Indeed, Free Will deserves our attention.
[Thanks to Cody Rudisill for this. As an addendum, my book on free will is available by clicking on the image below – JP]