Free Will? Book Summary: Free Will by Sam Harris

By James Razko

Most would consider free will to be a defining quality of humanness. Sam Harris, in his book Free Will, claims that this defining quality is an illusion, and I think I agree.

Book Summary:

Free Will, Sam Harris

Sam states that

free will seems to rest on two assumptions: (1) that each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past, and (2) that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present.

These two assumptions form the foundation of our morality. With it, We judge ourselves and others, believing we could have chosen right over wrong. Interestingly, we reserve this judgment for human beings; Most would not blame a dog for eating a gallon of ice cream, ripping our couch to pieces, or even biting someone. We may not like what animals do, but we don’t blame them, they are who they are, as the Nike slogan iterates, they “Just Do It.”

Besides defining how we look at others, the belief in free will shapes our perception of self. We believe in no small degree that our life is what we make it. Thinking we could have chosen another life often produces a great deal of suffering and pain. If free will is an illusion, all this suffering and judgment is unwarranted.

Groundbreaking science and philosophers like Sam Harris are unraveling our dearly held belief of free will. Sam points out that there have been several studies indicating that free will is an illusion. He writes,

The physiologist Benjamin Libet famously used EEG to show that activity in the brain’s motor cortex can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move.2 Another lab extended this work using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI): Subjects were asked to press one of two buttons while watching a “clock” composed of a random sequence of letters appearing on a screen. They reported which letter was visible at the moment they decided to press one button or the other. The experimenters found two brain regions that contained information about which button subjects would press a full 7 to 10 seconds before the decision was consciously made.3 More recently, direct recordings from the cortex showed that the activity of merely 256 neurons was sufficient to predict with 80 percent accuracy a person’s decision to move 700 milliseconds before he became aware of it.

These studies are breathtaking and deliver great blows to the ego. As Sam puts it,

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.

If the science does not convince you, the author asks you to,

Take a moment to think about the context in which your next decision will occur: You did not pick your parents or the time and place of your birth. You didn’t choose your gender or most of your life experiences. You had no control whatsoever over your genome or the development of your brain. And now your brain is making choices on the basis of preferences and beliefs that have been hammered into it over a lifetime—by your genes, your physical development since the moment you were conceived, and the interactions you have had with other people, events, and ideas. Where is the freedom in this? Yes, you are free to do what you want even now. But where did your desires come from?

And then,

Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have complete control over those factors. But there is a paradox here that vitiates the very notion of freedom—for what would influence the influences? More influences? None of these adventitious mental states are the real you. You are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm.

If you are ready and (your subconscious is) willing, Harris’s book Free Will can be a great source of consciousness-raising and can reshape the lens in which you look at others and yourself. It’s a brief and indispensable read.

Compliment this Book Summary of Free Will with: Thinking About Thinking Rationally- How to Stop Irrational Thought Patterns