Sam Harris on Free Will

Sam Harris recently released a book on the topic of free will.

I haven’t read the book yet, but watched a presentation he gave of ideas from his book.

Traditionally there are three positions offered. Determinism, which essentially states that we could not have made any alternative choices, as our choices are determined by pre-existing conditions, and that therefore free will is an illusion. The second is compatibilism, which states that free will is compatible with determinism by defining free will not as the freedom to have acted differently, but as being able to act voluntarily. Finally, libertarianism, which claims that we do have free will.

I remember writing an essay at university arguing in favour of libertarianism, and I hauled it out from the moth-eaten piles of paper to reread it again, as I remember being quite proud of it.

Seventeen years later it’s very easy to pick holes in, but essentially I used quantum physics as a basis to argue for free will, much like the video below:

Even at the time I wasn’t satisfied with the argument, as indeterminate quantum events are a far cry from free will, but I saw none of the three positions are coherent, and most of my essay was spent arguing against determinism on the basis of its consequences, and against compatibilism on the basis of its weak definition of free will and arbitrary distinction between causes.

Sam Harris’s video below presents the best summary of the topic I’ve seen so far, essentially arguing against any coherent notion of free will.

I enjoy his video particularly because be undermines the argument I used in my essay against determinism, that of its unacceptable consequences, by making the important distinction between choice and free will, and by highlighting how removing free will from our concept of reality actually increases the love and compassion we show for others.

If we encounter a poisonous scorpion, we don’t assign free will and therefore blame the scorpion for wanting to sting us, but we will also take actions to avoid being stung. By not blaming the scorpion, we are also open to seeing things from the scorpion’s perspective, the basis of compassion.

Similarly, if a human wants to kill us, blame is neither helpful nor rational, and understanding this opens us to understanding, love and compassion. Harris uses the example of realising that a murderer had a brain tumour causing them to act that way. If we understood that, and knew that removing the tumour would take away the impulse to murder, we cannot reasonably blame the person, and our action would shift towards treating them, and we would likely feel compassion for the terrible circumstances of the tumour. Just because we don’t understand the causes of most actions shouldn’t change this understanding.

When asked a question about what sparked his interest in the topic, Harris responds by crediting personal observation, and earlier in the presentation discusses the nature of arising thoughts, and the lack of freedom this entails. Harris is the most interesting of the group of well-known atheists (he dislikes the label), as while some seem closed to any kind of spiritual experience, Harris has studied meditation and seems to have a greater openness and interest in the mysteries beyond our comprehension, all without the need to believe various incoherent explanations in response.

His comment about personal observation and his anecdote about arising thoughts matches what can happen in awareness meditation. At first, we may become aware of our thoughts and the train of thoughts we follow; later we can become aware of our thoughts as they arise, and then slowly get to understand even deeper into this process.

Harris points out that its these thoughts that are often claimed to be the basis of free will, but that a greater look at this process leads us to realise that these thoughts that arise are not free in any real sense.

Watch Harris’s full presentation here: