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A Review of "Free Will"

Sam Taylor

Posted on November 4, 2020 21:15

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In a time where questions of morality, justice, and individual freedom increasingly pervade daily-discourse, the importance of a rational conception of free will has only grown. Unfortunately, books like Sam Harris's "Free Will" stand in the way of these rational conceptions (at least in my opinion).

Published in 2012, Sam Harris's reputable Free Will has garnered many appraisals, and significant criticism. While some hail Harris's work as having "la[id] the illusion [of free will] to rest at last," others find that "[i]t often mischaracterizes free will and fails to provide any convincing arguments against its reality." 

Free Will is a pamphlet-like book which argues that humans don't possess free will: that our actions are the product of neurobiological phenomena outside our control, that our behavior is wholly determined by factors external to us. 

In defense of his thesis, Harris provides a concise, superficially-convincing argument against agency. He claims that neuroscience has indisputably disproved free will, citing studies which suggest that our actions can be predicted (via brain-scans) prior to our conscious decisions. Harris also presents an intuitive argument against agency: in his view, if someone chose to drink a glass of water, and someone else were put in their precise circumstances (same genetics, upbringing, personality, and motives — including thirst), the latter would inevitably drink the glass of water too. From this observation, Harris concludes that free will, the ability to choose one of several things, is impossible⁠ — that our actions are entirely determined by our attributes and environment. 

But I see glaring problems with both aspects of Harris's argument. 

For one thing, the neuroscientific evidence against free will is very disputable. The studies Harris references rely on subjective reports from experimental subjects: in order to discover when someone consciously makes a decision, and thus whether their neurons determine their actions prior to said decision, you need to ask them when they consciously decided ⁠— a question which relies on people's dubious, subjective conceptions of what it looks like to decide. Moreover, the studies only 'measure' free will in impulsive motor decisions (e.g. whether or not to flex one's wrist), as opposed to complex considerations. 

Harris's intuitive argument against free will is similarly limited. With respect to decisions like drinking a glass of water, it's certainly hard to imagine that another course of action could have been pursued. But consider the painful, torn decision of a recovering alcoholic to drink water instead of liquor — suddenly, it becomes far less clear that someone in the same situation, having the same attributes, couldn't have done differently. With respect to any torn decision, where the incentives for competing options are similarly powerful, Harris's claims lose their indisputability. 

Now why have I, in 2020, decided to review of an oft-reviewed book from 2012? Quite simply, it's because of the importance I place on the philosophy of free will. As Harris himself states: "[t]he question of free will touches nearly everything we care about." If agency is a demonstrable falsity, the moral foundations of our society will be affected, either revoked⁠ or heavily qualified — and in a time where questions of morality, justice, and individual freedom increasingly pervade daily-discourse, the importance of a rational conception of free will has only grown.

Sam Taylor

Posted on November 4, 2020 21:15

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Source: The Guardian

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