Book Review: Free Will by Sam Harris
Well known atheist and New York Times bestselling author Sam Harris has authored a new book entitled Free Will that is dedicated to the proposition that free will is an illusion. The rationale is clear and compelling. It is a short monograph; the main content is about 70 pages followed by a section of references and endnotes.
Do we live in a deterministic universe? Is each future state of the universe determined absolutely by a prior state? Or is the opposite true? Can a certain state of the universe come into existence without absolute dependence on the constitution of a prior state? The key word is "absolute." If, for example, in any new state of the universe, a random element is introduced, then that state is not absolutely dependent on the prior state. This view of the universe is labeled as indeterminism.
The problem with the standard notion of free will is that it appears to be incompatible with either form of universe. Mr. Harris lays out the reasons for this very clearly. This understanding of free will is labeled as incompatibilism.
But, what exactly is the 'standard notion' of free will? As Mr. Harris points out, the definition can vary and change over time from person to person.
Harris quotes Einstein:
Honestly, I cannot understand what people mean when they talk about the freedom of the human will. I have a feeling, for instance, that I will something or other; but what realtionship this has to freedom I cannot understand at all. I feel that I will to light my pipe and I do; but how can I connect this up with the idea of freedom? What is behind the act of willing to light the pipe? Another act of willing?Einstein is not compelled to light the pipe. If he were a robot, the lighting of the pipe would be part of the behavior 'detemined' by his programmer. So, when Einstein lights his pipe, who, or what, is doing the "determining?"
NYU Professor of Philosophy Ned Block points out how in the face of incompatibility he decided to adopt a more restricted notion of free will. This position is labeled as compatiblism.
Tufts University Professor of Philosophy Daniel Dennett further refines a compatibilist view. We act because of reasons and further we share our reasons with one another. The concept of 'responsibility' is introduced as wearing its definition on its sleeve. We can be responsible to one another because we are capable of responding to one another.
University of Reading Professor of Philosophy Galen Strawson’s argument against free will is based on a definition of free will as the individuals being solely, ultimately, and singularly responsible for his decisions. Mr. Harris maintains similar positions throughout his book.
Must the notion of free will be glued to the notion of responsibility? Some theists propose that the answer is yes, implying that one is responsible to God, however this is a non-sequiter. Free will can be a bona-fide subject of discussion in both created and non-created universes. The concept of free will, in and of itself, cannot be associated with a concept of responsibility, until one first defines the concept of free will and then answers the question: "To whom, if anyone, is one responsible?" Free will can exist without regard to the asking or the answering of that question.
All choices are constrained by the physical laws of the universe. For example, if one is starving and finds two bushes of berries, one red and the other blue, he must make a decision as to which one of them, if any, is safe to eat. He must eat, and his choices are restricted, but he is free to make a choice. This is absolute freedom in every sense of the word. He is not compelled by prior circumstances to choose red over blue or vice versa. He can flip a coin, or perhaps he can feed some of the berries to animals to observe their effect.
The ‘free’ in free will refers not to the quantity or quality of choices. It refers to the individual’s capacities to make a choice and to carry it out. If, in the example above, only red berries were found, the choice remained to eat no berries at all and to press on instead for more reliable food. Yes, death is the risk, but death is the risk of life itself.
Definition of Free WillFree will is the collection of the following four capacities of a thinking agent:
- The capacity to observe the present: Options exist out of which one or more can be chosen.
- The capacity to observe the past: To use ones memory in the evaluation of the current options.
- The capacity to conceive of the future: To predict the probable net effect on future states of the different choices that might be made.
- The capacity to carry out a selected choice.
The autonomous thinkers of free will, be they atheist or be they theist, can reason together to create the rationale and the enactment that will ensure freedom of thought for all newborn children so that they can cause to exist a selected future state of world peace and the realization of an effort to spread the human population across the universe. We are physical law of the universe, created or evolved, we can move the ancient mountains, in faith or in resolve.