Book Review: Free Will Explained (Dan Barker)

Book Review: Free Will Explained (Dan Barker)

Free Will Explained by Dan Barker

Free Will

As I discussed in my last book review on here – Free Will by Sam Harris – (posted yesterday, read back in March), free will, philosophy of the mind, and similar topics are some of my favorites to think about, discuss, debate, and read about in the philosophy milieu.

Dan Barker is a determinist despite his language in the book, he uses the term ‘harmonic free will’ and makes many analogies to music throughout the work. But he comes on the side of Sam Harris and others in that he believes in a deterministic viewpoint of free will.

For those interested in reading more about Free Will, definitely check out my review of Sam Harris’s book, and check out the links at the very end of the article, to some interesting works, as well as YouTube videos. I will also have some reading related links in this article as well. Ones that I think will help readers in general, rather than just about Free Will.

Book Review

Similar to most small philosophy books, this is a quick read. Chapters are two to three pages, with complete page breaks and and empty pages (with re-quotes of his own previous paragraphs on them), chapters have headings and titles and are mostly 3/4th pages.

Aesthetically, the book is really great. The feel of the pages, the overall look and appearance and presentation of the book is top notch, and it look drives buys, and it is definitely in that realm of ‘pop academia’, where, its academic study written to be mainstream and written to be consumed by everyone. Big bold chapter titles, lots of spaces and blank pages, with quotes, and little birds on a telephone wire imagery, so it really has this appeal, and it makes the simple quick read look longer, so it kind of gives that false ‘wow, I’m smart’ feeling to it after you’re done reading it. Its pretty. I like it. But it is what it is, and I’m just pointing that out.

I would recommend reading some other literature on Free Will in advance of this. Not that you have to; but it would help. Primarily as a basis, and a background to this. But also because this does reference quite a few of other works. Mostly Sam Harris’s ‘Free Will’. (Luckily for me I read these in that order.)

The chapters are broken down into small little bites that lead up to bigger fuller thoughts. He gives you a piece of this, a piece of that, and then gives you the whole. He takes a few chapters to build up an idea, presents the full idea to you, and then tells you why this idea matters. The biggest thing is, he comes up with ‘harmonic free will’. Its part of his music analogies.

Harmonic Free Will

His idea of harmonic free will, falls in line with what he calls ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ thinking. He says not everything is compatible on the same line of thinking. That there’s latitude and longitude thoughts. Vertical thoughts and horizontal thoughts. And so this is where he develops ‘harmonic free will’.

His idea of harmonic free will is that he stands by his guns (or attempts to look as if he does) that he’s a determinist. He then builds up the idea that we ‘NEED’ to believe in free will. That we have a ‘societal free will’ and a ‘moral free will’ that we all need to keep in mind. That this is what keeps us moving.

He brings up the case where a small town in 1916 hung an elephant, he discusses his chipmunk friend, and he brings up a few other cases and things of various note to explain this and give it a background. Basically he says while free will might not exist, we have societal free will, and we need to believe in it if we want to keep going as humanity. Otherwise, we are no different than his ‘Little One’ chipmunk friend. That this breakdown of free will is both compatible and incompatible (so he calls it ‘acompatible’ because of the tiered levels of looking at things that he describes).

He kind of has to run in circles to get to this point however. Stating how we have to construct our own societal moral values, and that we only have free will in regards to this societal moral values. That even a person by himself must create his own society onto himself to affect himself to have free will; otherwise he is basically no different than an animal, running on instincts and has no self – autonomy.


This is a bit convoluted, but it gets him to where he wants his point to be. He runs through various analogies to get there. Including Wilson (the volleyball from Castaway) to show how we fabricate our own societies. He discusses the comparisons between societies of people, and animals. But his main thesis of the work is the ‘harmonic free will’, and the ‘acompatibility’ of determinism and free will. Stating that their on two different levels of cross thought, (horizontal thinking vs. vertical thinking) and that doesn’t make one more wrong than the other. Just different. Just at cross points that need to be examined together.

Dan Barker is ordained and a former preacher, and now jazz pianist and writer. He writes as one you might have expected to be a former preacher. He’s not outright hateful of religion and theology – but he certainly paints them in a light here, especially in regards to the free will debate. His prose is nice. Elegant even. He does get a bit convoluted with his analogies. Ultimately this is worth reading. His explanations and thoughts are pretty good, and does add weight and merit to the free will debate. Sadly, his overall argument is a bit lacking, but his writing to get there, while at times convoluted, is interesting. There is a preponderance of analogies, that some might not enjoy. (Especially if one doesn’t get the references.) He also goes on a bit too long about the chipmunks and music too. (Mileage may vary of course on this.)

My GoodReads Rating: ***
Global Average GoodReads Rating: 3.84 (as of 8.27.21)
My LibraryThing Rating: ***.5

Further Reading

These are some links I think will give you some further reading on ‘free will’ and the debate of ‘determinism vs. free will’. I suggest checking them out. I also suggest checking out the generic ‘book’ and ‘reading’ links here as well. Also, make sure to check out the ‘further reading’ section of my ‘Free Will’ by Sam Harris book review.

Reading articles / memory articles:

As always, thank you everyone for reading. Please check out our other works – including book, beer, and hike reviews. As well as brewery reviews, hop growing, home brewing, travelogues, brewery news, and all kinds of nonsense here on The Beer Thrillers blog.


-B. Kline

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