Monday, 13 August 2012

Book Review: Free Will by Sam Harris (2012)

This short essay written by the philosopher come neuroscientist Sam Harris (best known for his activism in the atheist community) discusses the topic of Free Will. The first thing that should be noted about the book is that the book is particularly brief especially considering the quite hefty RRP of £5.99. 

Sam Harris's basic argument in the book is that science has shown us that every event has a cause. Developments in the field of neuroscience will show us that the same goes for our own actions, every action of a conscious agent will be shown to be entirely caused by neurological going on's of which the agent has no control. Harris rightfully disregards quantum indeterminacy    as being a way to bring Free Will into the picture. For example if there was a 20% possibility of a person entering mental state A and an 80% chance of them entering mental state B due to quantum indeterminacy, it would still not allow for the possibility of free will. As the individual would play no part in determining his actions.  

All this is very well but Harris's argument against the existence of free will depends on accepting the completeness of physics. Harris assumes that physics and the other physical sciences will give us an explanation of all phenomena, both mental and physical. However if this appeal means physics as it currently stands then it is clear that the physical sciences currently fail to explain all phenomena in purely physical terms. If Harris claim is rather that the complete theory of everything will explain everything in physical terms then the claim is rather trivial. Some Philosophers have pointed out that we do not know what the physical sciences may end up appealing to, in order to explain particular phenomena. (See Mellor and Crane - There is no question of Physicalism).  

Harris doesn't attempt to engage with the arguments of libertarians (who believe in the existence of free will). He merely brushes such arguments away saying that no respectable individual or intellectual can hold such views in age where science is prospering as it is now. In fact many philosophers and some respectable neuroscientists hold that free will is a distinct possibility. Harris's rejection of libertarians strikes me as intellectually dishonest. 

Next Harris turns to the arguments of the compatibilists who hold that the notion of free will is compatible with a deterministic universe. While Harris does engage with some the arguments of the compatibilists, his essential argument is that the compatibilists understand what free will means in a way which is radically different to what the man in the street understands by the term. In this regard I feel that Harris is broadly right. However I would still have liked to seen more significance placed on this part of the book. 

Finally, Harris attempts to provide answer to some of the problems we face in accepting a deterministic universe. Here Harris attempts to show that morality is possible even if one accepts that free will is merely an illusion. Harris a consequentialist argues that we could still send people to prison and punish them for crime etc. on the grounds that this could maximize flourishing within a particular society. Harris also argues that accepting free will was an illusion would lead to greater compassion for others as we would understand that people were merely products of nuture and nature. One could see how a more compassionate and understanding society would be beneficial to everyone, however it seems questionable whether this would be what would actually happen. 

Free Will by Sam Harris may be worth a read for those who are interested in the subject matter and can pick up the book relatively cheaply.