BOOK REVIEW: Free Will by Sam Harris

Free WillFree Will by Sam Harris

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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I had high hopes for Sam Harris’s book Free Will, but they didn’t pan out. It’s a very short book (less than 100 pages) on the subject of free will–or the lack thereof. While I’m normally a huge fan of brevity and conciseness, Harris could have put some more pages to good use. My two principal complaints regard the lack of information: a. substantiating the notion that free will is always and everywhere an illusion as Harris asserts; b. suggesting what logic is at the root of decision if our conscious thoughts are irrelevant. (If they were random synaptic firings our behavior wouldn’t be nearly so consistent. Self-preservation of genes? The hand of god? You won’t know from this book.)

Harris might claim that that’s not the purpose of this book, that one should familiarize oneself with the vast literature on the topic before getting to this book. In that case, my complaints remain two-fold. First, he shouldn’t take on such a bold and presumptuous title as Free Will (no subtitle) if he’s not going to educate us from the ground up on the titular topic. Second, if the reader has done all the scholarly reading on the subject, why should we care about Harris’s opinions?

I will say that if you liked Matrix Revolutions, the third Matrix movie, you will love this book. SPOILER: In that movie, we find out that Neo is the central element of an elaborate plan to fool people into thinking they have some control over their own lives. In Harris’s book, Neo is replaced by the conscious mind.

There’s a scientific literature supporting the notion that free will is an illusion–though Harris only touches on it. This conclusion has been reached by observing that subconscious parts of the brain involved with decision-making light up well in advance of the conscious parts of the brain. [On a note unrelated to the book: we also know that individuals with damage to the emotional centers in the brain become unable to make decisions because all options hold the same weight.] The most illuminating example offered is an experiment in which participants were asked to press a button to select a letter or number of their choosing from among a string of changing letters / numbers. Some subjects felt the scientists had mastered precognition (a class III impossibility according to physicists–i.e. impossible according to the laws of physics as we know them.) What was really happening was an exploitation of the lag between when the individual’s subconscious decided and when their consciousness became aware of their decision.

Harris briefly mentions a couple of these neuroscience experiments, but then expects that the reader will treat the free will illusion as law. That is, we are to accept that always and everywhere people’s subconscious minds decide some measure before their conscious minds. Maybe there has been a broad enough scientific investigation of the topic to safely conclude that free will is always and everywhere an illusion–but Harris does make this point.

Harris tells us about couple of studies in which, a.) there’s no cost differential between the different options; (i.e. is it possible that the mind treats decisions about picking a spouse or a house differently than picking a letter or number for which there is no objectively better or worse option?) b.) those studied are a random sample of individuals who have no particular expertise with their minds—probably mostly college undergrads. (If I drew a random sample of people and asked each to lift 300 lbs over his or her head. If no one could do it, would I be safe in concluding that lifting 300 lbs was something forever beyond the capacity of every member of the human race? In other words, what if exercising conscious control over decision-making requires training and expertise with the mind.)

There are a couple of red-flags for me about Harris’s approach to the subject. First, Harris scoffs at the suggestion that it might be that the conscious can overrule the subconscious, and seems to deem this as unworthy of study because it would just be the subconscious making a second decision instead of the conscious truly vetoing. Anytime a scholar is dismissive of another scholar’s attempts to further probe into a question signals that a pet theory has become a sacred cow.

Second, Harris suggests that anyone who truly studied his own mind in action couldn’t help but realize the fallacy of free will. People who can’t imagine that others see the world differently than them are also a point of concern when it comes to getting sound information. Could it possibly surprise Mr. Harris to learn that there are people who’ve spent far more time alone with their minds than he, who’ve concluded quite the opposite?

Alright, I may have overstated Harris’s position when I suggested the conscious mind is relegated to a Matrix Revolutions-style (and Rube Goldberg-esque) machine for tricking us into thinking we have choice and control over the direction of our lives. I suspect Harris would agree that evolution doesn’t over-engineer, and a conscious mind that is just part of a trick would be the vastest act of over-engineering in the history of the universe. (Unless the universe is a hologram, as some physicists are now suggesting–presumably based on the notion that their math works out in 2-D.)

I just don’t have a good idea of what purpose Harris thinks the conscious mind serves. His central point seems to be that we still need to keep putting rapists and murders in jail so they can be kept off the streets. We just shouldn’t bear any ill-will toward them because they had no control over their decisions. However, if we set a tone with our conscious thought stream, then whether the individual’s decision to act was conscious or not they would have culpability by virtue of stage-setting. If we don’t have any control over our conscious thought stream then there would be no benefit to courses of study that help one improve one’s state of mind, but there’s also a scientific literature showing that people who begin meditative practices, yoga, and the like do see tangible positive changes. (Not to mention that Harris should give all the money back for the books he has sold about meditation, i.e. Waking Up.) If we have conscious control of our thought stream, but that thought stream is irrelevant, then we should be walking around in a constantly perplexed state.

To add to the confusion, Harris uses the term “choices” to refer to his “decisions,” but according to his paper he doesn’t make any choices. He—like all of us—are slaves to some unknown–or at least unexplained–process. Black boxes aren’t persuasive.

I can’t say I’d recommend this book, unless you’ve read extensively on the topic and are rounding out your reading experience. This book isn’t the ideal starting point for engaging this subject—as it seems when you are reading the blurb–because you’re as likely to come away more confused than when you began reading.

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