Book Review: Free Will (Sam Harris)

Book Review: Free Will (Sam Harris)

Free Will by Sam Harris

Free Will

What is free will? Do you have free will? Do I have free will? Does anyone have free will? I find myself constantly trying to wrap my head around free will, this way and that, attempting to understand it, from this angle or that. From the determinists, that believe that we don’t have free will – the hard line determinists especially in this regard – that everything is cause and effect, and due to some of the various science experiments and studies done over the years that show our brains actually decide an action up towards 7 seconds before we consciously make the decision or know we are making the decision; so from this, they take the stance that everything is out of our hands, that there is no free will, that we make no decisions, and have no choices. That when you decide on ‘strawberry’ ice cream, instead of ‘chocolate’ ice cream, its due to factors outside of our own decision making. Then there are those who believe we do have free will, and that everything is choice, nothing is decision, etc. Or they walk it back a bit, based on various things (ie. brain tumors, or alcohol, or drugs, etc.).

Sam Harris takes the side of determinism, and states that we don’t have free will. Others in various medias and forums and debates, from eminent scholars, to scientists, to politicians, to philosophers, to theologians, have taken both sides as well.


As I’m sure many readers of the blog are well aware of now, philosophy is one of my (few? many?) joys and interests. Especially when it comes to reading. If you’ve checked out our Instagram page I’m sure you’ve seen my beer pics and hiking pics where there is a book in the background, and more likely than not, that’s a philosophy book. I am actually hoping to be launching a Podcast soon, where philosophy and books and literature will be a large staple of it. (As will beer of course, I mean, we are The Beer Thrillers, after all.) But, needless to say, philosophy is a strong / big interest here, as well as fun hobby for me. I enjoy reading, writing, dissecting, and thinking philosophically about many, many, many topics, and interests. (I love the union and crossing of pop culture and philosophy, the Pop Culture Philosophy books are a fun starting point for many people into the realm of philosophy.)

I have previously covered ‘What More Philosophers Think‘ here on the blog, and in due time, there will be plenty more philosophy books covered as well. From all walks of philosophy; as much as I want to say ‘no one school of thought’ will be the heavy favorite…. I would be lying, as I will most likely cover existentialism, philosophy of the mind, and ethics philosophy the most. These are my favorite topics and branches of the philosophy tree, with some of my favorite writers being Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, Baruch Spinoza, Frederich Nietzsche, Peter Singer, and many more. So buckle up, you will be seeing lots of their works covered here on the blog, as well, as hopefully, the podcast once I get that up and running.

Book Review

Free Will by Sam Harris

This is a relatively short treatise on Free Will. It seems to be honest that most free will treatises are just essays and are typically in the short essay form, and this falls in that category. A quick, easy, read (will help pad out your GoodReads 100 Book Challenge), but ultimately will give you lots to chew on and lots of questions, thoughts, and much more to ponder.

GoodReads has it listed as 96 pages, but that’s being a bit generous. My copy (which should be aligned with the one on GoodReads) has the final page as 83 (and this is including the index but not the ‘About the Author’ page). So its certainly a quick read, but there is definitely a fair bit too it. Sam Harris lays out his thoughts and opinions on determinism, how free will is a myth, and his thoughts in general about the subject rather succinctly and clearly and the prose is good and lively. Your mileage on his thoughts may vary, and your opinion of his thoughts and ideas might be different than another person, but his argument is well laid out, and he writes in a clear enough style, staying relatively clear of jargon. This is ‘academia made for laymen’ or as some call it ‘pop philosophy’ or various other terms. It’s an academic and thought out approach, but written for the general public, rather than twelve scholars and academics sitting in big leather chairs high up in some ivory tower probably covered in ivy.

Sam Harris immediately states that free will doesn’t exist, showcases his deterministic viewpoint on the matter, and then proceeds and moves on to why this shouldn’t change anything (or nothing really).

“We do not have the freedom we think we have… Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them. Or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.”

Free Will (Sam Harris)

He makes sure to point out that regardless of our inability to actually have free will, that we are unable to determine our own thoughts, actions, or behaviors, that this does not give us moral latitude, or justification, or even immunity. That justice must still be done to criminals, that if you murder, regardless of your lack of free will, you still deserve to be punished based on the law. This is always an interesting point, and a ‘sticking point’ for many in the deterministic vs. free will debate. Justice, law, and theology – are typically the biggest battle lines in the debate. If you have no free will, how can you be punished? I you have no free will, how can God send you to heaven or hell? Does morality matter if you have no free will? Etc. Sam Harris is an atheist and a strong proponent of it, but he still states that regardless of your lack of free will, you don’t have moral freedom. Your actions still do matter, regardless if its YOU acting it out or if its YOU ACTING IT OUT BECAUSE ‘X’. That justice and morality still need to function, elsewise society would crumble. Now, Harris doesn’t go full doom and gloom and say that much, but thats the slippery slope argument to it all.

“The intention to do one thing and not another does not originate in consciousness. Rather it appears in consciousness. As does any thought or impulse that might impose it.”

Free Will (Sam Harris)

This is the main hard line for most determinists. And it starts from the studies done with the MRIs and fRMIs, etc, that Libet did, that showcases a person’s choice happens up towards 7 seconds before the person is fully aware of their choice. This is an oft cited study and experiment that the determinists love to use when discussing and having the free will debate. And many articles and essays will go back to this time and time again.

If you are into philosophy, if you enjoy Sam Harris’s writing style, approach, or thought, if you are curious or interested in free will and the debates therein, I would highly recommend this. It’ll be a quick read, a day’s worth, depending on your reading speed and how much you set aside to thinking and contemplating everything. Will it solve your own internal debate on the topic? Will it let you decide if you have free will or not? Is this the ultimate explanation and answer to the debate? — Obviously no. And you, and I, and we all know this going in (or should anyway). No book of philosophy will give you every answer, neither will any book of religion, or science, or any book in general. That’s not the goal or point, or absolute value of a book. But will it give you something to think about? Will it give you a new perspective? Or new insight? Or a new way to look at the argument? That it will, and that is what any good philosophy book should do.

Free will is a tricky subject. Its something we all ‘want’ to have, and also ‘don’t want to have’. Because, we all want to think we have free will – when it obviously benefits us. We want the credit for when we are talented and make an artistic masterpiece, we want credit when we do something right; but at the same time, we don’t want credit (ie. blame) for when we come up short; our failings, our imperfections or flaws, our addictions and vices, etc. Then we want determinism, and to wash our hands and clap and say ‘it was those faulty wires up there’.

Science and philosophy (primarily science) is helping us get closer to the target on this debate, and in the years ahead, it will be interesting to see what new headway and roads we make into this topic and discussion. I’m looking forward to it…. if I chose to or not.

My GoodReads Rating: ****
Average Global GoodReads Rating: 3.87 (as of 8.26.21)
My LibraryThing Rating: ****

Some Interesting Articles on Free Will

Below is a list of some interesting articles, essays, websites, and videos about the subject of free will. Including an hour long discussion by Sam Harris himself on the topic.

As always, thank you everyone for reading. Hope you found this informative and are enjoying our new book reviews on the blog. Be sure to check out more of them, as well as our hike reviews, our beer reviews, brewery reviews, travelogues, and much more. And soon – hopefully in the near future – be on the lookout for our podcasts, which will cover a very wide range of topics. (I just have too many hobbies I think!) Including beer, breweries, home brewing, hop growing, books, literature, philosophy, and pop culture.

-B. Kline

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