Do we really have free will or is it just an illusion? It’s a question that has been argued about for centuries in one form or another. I have debated the question myself many times, often from both sides of the issue. What is meant when someone says they have free will? What does it mean for someone to say they don’t? Can we possibly be talking about the same thing? In the latest installment by Sam Harris one side of the question is eloquently hashed out. I have never accused Harris of being a man of few words. His book The Moral Landscape could have been considerably shorter, for example. He hits the sweet spot in his new book, Free Will, however. It is as concise as anyone could want but it does the job it sets out to do, nothing more.
In my opinion most of the debate concerning the question of free will stems from how a person defines it. That is why there can be a good case made on either side. One thing that Harris makes abundantly clear is that in order to maintain the existence of this freedom of will in the face of modern scientific understanding it is necessary to part ways with our traditional understanding of the concept. Harris would probably argue, as would I, that to honestly hold on to such a notion today would require you to stretch the definition so far from its intended meaning as to make it worthless.
It makes no difference if you are strictly a materialist or believe in the concept of an immaterial soul. Our modern understanding of the human mind, of consciousness and volition, demands that we take a new look at our most sacred concepts. Whether secular or religious, free will is likely to be an idea you hold in sacred esteem. Our very notions of personal responsibility, of reward and punishment, of justice itself, are firmly rooted in this singular assumption, that at some level every one of us is consciously in control of our actions, that the decisions we make are of our own doing and even if influenced by external forces we have the power to override those forces. I must admit to you that I am enamored with the idea myself, regardless of its mythical character.
The obvious reaction to this news might be to think that concepts like justice and personal responsibility will simply fade away. A defeatist and fatalistic philosophy must surely emerge from this knowledge. Like Harris, I disagree. I have felt this way for years. I let go of this notion of free will in much the same way I let go of my faith, slowly and painfully but I am better for it. It has changed me in ways that might seem counterintuitive but that is a story for another time. If this is a subject that you’re not accustomed to thinking about then you should pick up a copy of this book. It might make you angry. It might shake your worldview. It might even keep you up at night but it will definitely make you think. You can get it right now for only $3.99 on Kindle.
If the subject isn’t new to you then don’t expect anything Harris presents to come as a surprise. This isn’t a thorough examination, merely an introduction. For those who want more rigorous treatments of free will and its problems I reccommend Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain and The Myth of Free Will.