Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Sam Harris writes about free will. Oh goody.

Note: This is not a review of Sam Harris's newest book, Free Will, which I haven't yet read. It is, rather, an account of why I dread having to read it.

After completing his PhD in neuroscience, Sam Harris--a former undergraduate philosophy major and my least favorite new atheist--has, it seems, chosen to continue his career as an unusually prolific and influential undergraduate philosopher.

I say "continue" because his first major book, The End of Faith (and its follow up "Letter to a Christian Nation"), tackled a core topic in the philosophy of religion--"What is faith, and is it a virtue?"--and his second major book, The Moral Landscape, tackled a core topic in moral philosophy: "Is there an objective standard for morality, and if so what is it?" Now, in his newest book, Harris turns to the perennial philosophical question of whether human beings possess free will.

This is a question I struggle with. I struggle with understanding the concept of free will (What do we mean by "free will," and under what conditions could we be said to have it?) and with the range of formidable arguments for divergent positions on the issue. When I read new theoretic accounts/defenses of free will (such as Stewart Goetz's admirable effort in Freedom, Teleology, and Evil), I do so as something of a hopeful skeptic. I'm looking for an understanding of freedom according to which it can be shown to operate as a coherent third alternative to (a) being determined to act by prior causes or by the weight of reasons for action, and (b) acting simply at random or arbitrarily. But I have not yet found such an account (my reasons for remaining unconvinced by Goetz appear in my Religious Studies review of his book). At the same time, I live my life as a practical believer in the reality of such a third alternative, because I don't know how to make sense of my experience as an agent--especially as a moral agent--in other terms.

In short, this topic interests me both as a human being and as a philosopher. So what can we expect from Harris's new book?

In his previous books, Harris demonstrated great eloquence and even greater confidence in the correctness of his own views, while largely failing to do what philosophers are trained to do in graduate school--namely (a) display an understanding and appreciation of the relevant philosophical literature and (b) carefully develop one's position in conversation with the best arguments one has found for opposing views. In short, they were books on philosophical topics written by someone with only an undergraduate philosophy degree...and they read like books on philosophical topics written by someone with only an undergraduate philosophy degree (albeit someone with a sharp intellect and talent as a writer).

Now it's clear from recent comments that not every reader of this blog will regard Harris's propensity to ignore what professional philosophers have had to say on these topics (especially those with opposing views) as a vice. But since I do, my expectations of this new book aren't all that high.

I don't expect Harris to lay out the range of possible nuanced views on free will clearly and completely and then locate his own position within this range. I don't expect him to faithfully engage with the best arguments for views different from his own, comparing the relative strengths of the arguments for these alternatives. I don't expect him to have gone through the literature to determine whether the arguments he develops have already been made, nor whether they have already been criticized...and if so to engage with those criticisms. I don't expect him to anticipate objections to his arguments that haven't yet been made by others, to develop those challenges as powerfully as he can and then respond to them.

I do expect him to display supreme confidence, despite his failure to do any of these things, that his own position is correct.

In other words, I expect the book to be very annoying.

Nevertheless I'll likely read it for the following reasons: First, I hope that his writing abilities will enable him to present his newly acquired knowledge of neuroscience in a manner conducive to deepening my understanding of this topic. Second, I expect that he will present an energetic argument from these neuroscientific starting points, one that might possibly introduce something new to the traditional philosophical arguments against free will. Third, the book is short, and so the investment of time isn't great. Fourth, it's likely to be far more widely read--and hence far more likely to shape popular thinking about this philosophical topic, including the thinking of my students--than will any of the articles and books on free will written by professional philosophers.

And in the end, I'll need to grudgingly thank Harris for precisely this reason: He'll succeed in generating wider interest in and dialogue about an important philosophical topic in a way that others, with less popular appeal, simply can't hope to do. He will have used his formidable platform to spark deeper philosophical reflection about free will than might otherwise occur. Maybe he'll motivate some readers to dig deeper into the topic, to explore what others have to say.

But that doesn't mean I look forward to reading it.

If anyone has actually read the book already and can disavow me of my grim expectations, I might treat the forthcoming task of reading the book as less onerous--and so might procrastinate less about it. But I'm not put at ease by the recent Scientific American blog review by John Horgan, "Will this Post Make Same Harris Change His Mind About Free Will?" (a blog review which, by the way, makes at least one crucial philosophical mistake that I may address in my next post).


  1. Ha ha! I appreciate your honesty in laying out what you are bringing to the table when reading Harris' book!

    I find a deterministic point of view to be compelling, and even aesthetically pleasing, as it broadens the sense of self and connection to all things. Plus most of the problems I used to have with determinism were because of the idea that there is an external me being controlled by certain elements, when in actuality what I am IS those certain elements.

    In short, I see determinism as connection, which I think is inspiring.

    I look forward to reading your review!

  2. LongTimeReaderOfTPTLBApril 24, 2012 at 2:38 PM

    I have read Free Will by Sam Harris… and it is likely that you will be annoyed for most of the reasons you give above. But maybe there is a context I can help provide that can attenuate your annoyance. First and foremost is to understand where Harris is coming from in publishing this short, 96 page book. As an author yourself, I think you will find much with which you can relate in Harris’ blog post The Future of the Book, where he highlights the challenges faced by modern writers and public intellectuals in transmitting their ideas and receiving compensating for their work.

    Seeing some of the reasoning behind Harris’ decision to publish a short ebook, you might find a context that is forgiving of leaving out the literature review. In fact, as I casually read Free Will in the course of two evenings, I read it with a feeling of mentally stimulating entertainment rather than of philosophical rigor.

    The short ebook did not leave me with a broad understanding of the philosophical work on free will, but it did leave me in meditation on the recognition that my next thought arises in a manner that I cannot trace to a point originating solely in my conscious mind. Harris illustrated another matter I previously had difficulties seeing. That is the way Dennett is, as Harris puts it, “changing the subject” in his discussion on free will. I quite enjoyed Freedom Evolves from Dennett (and still do). In just a few paragraphs Harris brought my attention from Dennett’s focus on organisms or intentional systems, back to my own subjective experience of consciousness. (as an aside, I look forward to the forthcoming correspondence between Harris and Dennett). Free Will had me recasting old thoughts in a new light at several points throughout the book. Not necessarily from a bottom up rigorous philosophical build, but from a place of curiosity, a reinvigorating desire to visit some ideas I have once considered.

    I think the hopes you put forth at the end of this blog post are met roundly by Harris in Free Will. True to his style, he tells a clear story that is well informed by the advances in neuroscience that will inevitably influence the future of free will philosophy. In keeping it short, he was able to reach this lay-person and rekindle a desire for, as Christopher Hitches put it, those conversations that it seemed a sin to break off: the ones that made the sacrifice of the following day a trivial one.

    Further resources on Sam Harris and free will:

    - Morality Without “Free Will”
    - Free Will (And Why You Still Don't Have It)
    - You Do Not Choose What You Choose
    - Free Will and “Free Will” - How my view differs from Daniel Dennett's
    - The Illusion of Free Will: Lecture at Caltech

  3. Eric,

    I'm curious if you follow Massimo Pigliucci over at the Rationally Speaking blog. He's a philosopher of science that has been highly critical of Harris and Dawkins.


    Also, what are you doing on Fridays around 11:00 a.m.? I come through Stillwater once a week. If you ever want a lunch with a truck driver, I'm buying. I promise to try to be interesting.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. SecularDad,

    I'm teaching at that time through the May intercession, but if you're still passing through at that time in June, I would probably be available for lunch.

  6. Long Time Reader,

    I recovered your spam-filtered comment, and I'm glad I did--because it actually makes the prospect of reading Harris's new book seem a bit less odious. Thanks.

  7. In defense of undergraduate philosophy majors (I was one!), I have to say that even at that level one is still expected to anticipate objections to one's position and be in serious dialogue with them. Harris's failure to do this is one of the reasons why I never got past the first few chapters of his first book, and have no intention of reading any of his others. The granting of his degree was not, in my opinion, the Stanford philosophy department's finest hour... I often find myself wondering how he even managed to pass Philosophy 101, considering his inability to construct a coherent argument in a philosophically defensible fashion...

  8. Allow me to offer my own brief solution to the problems of free will.