Think of an animal.
Why did you think of that animal and not another? And exactly when did you actually make the decision to go with that animal? You didn’t cycle through all the animals you know and make a conscious choice, it just ‘popped into your head’. That little introspective thought experiment forms part of the basis of Sam Harris’
At a just 80 pages long, Free Will is a quick, readable and thought-provoking attempt at getting to the root of a problem that has puzzled man for as long as we’ve had the capacity for self-reflection, but if I’m being completely honest, it occasionally reads like little more than an extended and slightly glorified blog post. Harris’ thesis, which I personally agree with, is this: we are no more than the product of the luck that gave us our genes at birth and our subsequent life experiences, the former we have absolutely no control over and the latter, less than we like to think. As we do not and cannot really know why we have the thoughts we have or make the decisions that we do, free will does not exist. After this, however, the book doesn’t really go anywhere, save to repeat that same idea in slightly different contexts.
Harris’ reductionist, hard determinism has massive implications for the way we see ourselves and the way we treat and understand others. Are we no more than pool balls clattering about the universal pool table of life, set in motion by a big bang 3.8 billion years ago? Well, yes, but determinism does not imply fatalism- Our decisions, choices and actions still matter, because they have a direct impact on the world. Even sitting back and doing nothing is an action with consequences itself. It is not that thoughts, and actions that stem from them, don’t matter, it is that “the next choice you make will come out of the darkness of prior causes, that you the conscious witness of your experience, did not bring into being.”
As with Letters to a Christian Nation, Harris begins with an emotive story, only this time the monster is not a hypothetical bomber on a bus, but a true account of a brutal assault of a man and the murder of his wife and two young girls in Connecticut five years ago. Writing about the ideas in Free Will in the Guardian just last week, Rosalind English wrote this article, which summarises the book better than I could and focuses on the impact of Harris’ form of hard determinism on the judicial system and the way we perceive and treat criminals and ‘immoral’ behaviour. (Although I take real issue with the subheading of this article 'monsters are born, not made', which ignores the crucial role of environmental influences, leaving me with the impression that Harris' ideas have been misunderstood.) A retributive penal system makes no sense if criminals are the products of bad luck and bad genes, which, Harris argues, is the logical extension of our reluctance to mete out retributive justice to someone who committed a criminal act because of a tumour in the wrong part of the brain, or a child whose mind is not yet fully developed. I really recommended reading the comments underneath the post.
Harris builds on the scientific model of moral behaviour he set out in The Moral Landscape, but Free Will is little more than Schopenhauer’s “man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills”, sprinkled with a little brain imaging. The five pages of notes, which contain a little more exposition of the neuroscience and references behind his steadfast belief in the powers of neuroimaging, made for a more an interesting read than the repetitive main text, and made me wish that Harris had used these to flesh out his ideas more. That said, it is written with bold clarity and, whilst it may not lead to all the answers, as Harris seems to think, there is no doubt that the future of neuroscience will have a lot to say about what it is to be human.