Book Review: FREE WILL

Free Will by Sam Harris, Free Press, 2012, pp: 83, ISBN 978-1-4516-8340-0

free will book cover sam harris

I always wondered at the American marketing wizardry of bite-size chocolates and peanut butter cups that lure the consumers. If a book on a highly intriguing, tantalizing and no less controversial a subject like Free Will is presented in bite-size, even a die-hard Advaitin can hardly hold his temptation to take a bite! And I did.

Perhaps one should call it a long essay discussed under eight or so subheadings rather than a book. You hardly open the cover and right away, the text begins with “The question of free will touches nearly everything we care about” — no Intros, no Forewords, no time wasted. And then as suddenly, the author explodes the myth of ‘our viewing one another as autonomous persons, capable of free choice.’ He writes:

“If the scientific community were to declare free will an illusion, it would precipitate a culture war far more belligerent than one that has been waged on the subject of evolution. Without free will, sinners and criminals would be nothing more than poorly calibrated clock-work……  And those of us who work hard and follow the rules would not “deserve” our success in any deep sense. It is not an accident that most people find these conclusions abhorrent. The stakes are high.”

The stakes may be high; but Advaitins will surely cheer the author, Sam Harris, a Ph. D. in Neuroscience on those scientific declarations.

As Advaitin you agree there is no free will.  But, hold on. The screen shot shifts to a most brutal, gruesome, ghastly rape and triple murder of a mother and her two young daughters by two heinous criminals who had first beaten and injured seriously the father who was a respected doctor. Will you let go the criminals because they had no free will to resist what they were compelled to do by their impulsive thoughts? Mind you, this is not fiction. It did actually take place five years ago in a quiet town in Connecticut, USA.

But then again, suppose there was a tumor in their brain that drove them to commit such extremely violent felony losing all discretion. Poor devils, suppose they behaved the way they did because they were incapable of controling themselves due to neurophysiological reasons. Now will you soften your outrage and hatred for them? How should retribution be governed?

Sam says that “The popular conception of free will seems to rest on two assumptions: (1) that each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past, and (2) that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present.” But both the presumptions are blatantly wrong.

Take for example, as simple an issue as having a morning cuppa of the heavenly fluid. Should it be coffee or tea? Is the decision in your hands?  Are you free to decide? Are you really deciding?  Your brain begins its own ratcheting action of decision-making sometimes 7-10 seconds ahead of your own conscious decision on what you would have liked to drink. It looks that a mere 256 neurons (out of 85 billion or so) in your brain were all that are involved in this (never mind your huge hulk!) because they know 700 milliseconds before you are aware of what your decision is going to be – coffee or tea. As Sam puts it, “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 oppose it.” So very Advaitic an expression — thoughts appear in consciousness!

The author continues: “I, as the conscious witness of my experience, no more initiate events in my prefrontal cortex than I cause my heart to beat….  I cannot decide what I will next think or intend until a thought or intention arises.  What will my next mental state be? I do not know – it just happens. Where is the freedom in that?”

He does not mince words in his answer to the above rhetorical question. He writes: “We do not know what we intend to do until the intention itself arises. To understand this is to realize that we are not the authors of our thoughts and actions in the way people generally suppose.”

And by p: 14, he declares: “You are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm.” (Italics by the author himself!).

Is that not what Advaita has been telling us for millenia?

Sam then dispenses away the arguments of determinists and libertarians. He devotes more pages in demolishing the compatibilist view. He is dismissive about compatibilism saying: “A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings.

Daniel Dennett, a well-known Neurophilosopher, who holds a compatibilist view says that “our unconscious neurophysiology is just as much ‘us’ as our conscious thoughts are.” But, points out Sam, it is trading the psychological fact (the subjective experience of being a conscious agent) for a conceptual understanding of ourselves as persons. This is tantamount to saying that ‘we are coterminous with everything that goes on inside our bodies, whether we are conscious of it or not.’ But then, we know we are star dust; do we feel like star dust? Does star dust dictate our moral conduct? There are so many bacteria (about 10 times the number of your own cells  – see “Who is the Jiva – The Jivi-s in us) in your body. Are you responsible for their (mis)behavior? We hardly know what all goes on inside us. How can we take all that to define who I am?

Sam does not think that disciplining people with criminal offences will be jettisoned if we say good bye to free will. He says, “When we consider human behavior, the difference between premeditated, voluntary action and mere accident seems immensely consequential. This distinction can be preserved while banishing the idea of free will once and for all.”

He points out that one cannot and should not confuse determinism with fatalism. Such a confusion is the mother of the questions like “If everything is determined, why should I do anything? Why not just sit back and see what happens?”  Sitting back taking no action, simply doing nothing is something you just can’t do. Remember the Gita sloka – you are helplessly compelled for action. ‘But the next choice you make will come out of the darkness of prior causes that you, the conscious witness of your experience, did not bring into being.’

While discussing the role of free will in ‘Choices, Efforts and Intentions’, what he writes is a quotable quote: “You can do what you decide to do – but you cannot decide what you will decide to do” (p: 38). This is similar to what Schopenhauer said: Man can do what he will but he cannot will what he wills. Einstein totally agrees with this.  The fact that we do not have any free will to choose is made further clear when he expresses at p: 41:  “You did not pick your parents or the time and place of your birth. You didn’t choose your gender or most of your life experiences. You had no control whatsoever over your genome or the development of your brain. And your brain is making choices on the basis of preferences and beliefs hammered into it over a lifetime…  Where is the freedom in this?” He concludes, “You will do whatever it is you do, and it is meaningless to assert that you could have done otherwise.”

Does losing a sense of free will destroy ethical behavior?  The author’s arguments are a bit inadequate on this subject, though the final conclusion he arrives at looks to be reasonable. A clear Advaitic understanding of Oneness of all can help here. When everything is one, when there is no ‘other’ in the Non-dualist worldview, who will harm whom? Where is the other to be harmed?

Sam then takes up five hypothetical cases where the killing of a young woman is involved in each to demonstrate the weakness in our concepts of retributive justice. Though the victim dies in each case, the degree of our moral outrage varies. He asks, “How can we make sense of these gradations of moral responsibility when brains and their background influences are in every case the cause of a woman’s death?”  What moral high ground can we assume in dispensing justice based on the assumption of free will?

As the essay comes to an end, we can notice the absence of clarity in using the words like consciousness and mind and awareness. In Advatic terminology, the substratum Consciousness (= Awareness) with capitalized ‘C’ stands for the Universal un-dimensional quality of ‘knowing’ and consciousness or mind are terms we use with reference to a separate individual being. All arisings – thoughts, sensations and perceptions – appear in Consciousness. Consciousness is One in all beings though the minds may be different. Secondly, mind, as normally and mistakenly considered is not a container of thoughts. It is the ensemble of thoughts. There is no mind other than the thought that occurs. As Advaita tells us, free will lasts as long as the illusory existence of a separate individual (possessing an isolated delimited consciousness) lasts. The moment the illusory nature of the individual is realized, the illusory nature of free will also becomes clear. Perhaps it would help if Dr. Sam Harris can take a look at the ancient teachings of Advaita in teasing out many of the things he considers to be mysterious.

An 8 pages long notes and references follow the essay in support of his arguments.

We have no hesitancy in wholeheartedly agreeing with Oliver Sacks whose blurb about the book says:  “Brilliant and witty – and never less than incisive – Free Will shows that Sam Harris can say more in 13,000 words than most people do in 100,000.”

4 thoughts on “Book Review: FREE WILL

  1. Pingback: Book Review: FREE WILL | Advaita Vision | Neuro Physiology Blog

  2. Great review, Ramesam (book sounds good, too)! I wondered, though, if it had been written before the findings that claimed to discredit Benjamin Libet’s classic experiments on free will. I then tried to find the reference to these new experiments (I thought the link had been posted to Advaitin group) but failed. Do you know what I am referring to and have the relevant dates?

    • Thanks, Dennis, for the kind comment. Yes, Sam Harris is an interesting author.
      Regarding the reference you are asking:
      I think I know what you are referring to.
      It is a paper by A. Schurger and others published in Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences of the USA in August, 2012.
      You can read a less technical summary of it under the title, “New brain research refutes results of earlier studies that cast doubts on free will,” at:
      http://medicalxpress.com/news/2012-08-brain-refutes-results-earlier-free.html

      But all Neuroscientists (e.g Anil Seth of Sussex Univ, UK) did not agree with the interpretation of Schurger. They say Schurger’s work only explains the mechanistic part of the generation of the ‘readiness potential’ but does not reinstate the existence of free will. It is usually the philosophers who are uncomfortable with the Neuroscientific findings.

      Sam Harris book is released perhaps in early 2012.

      I may also say here that the Templeton Foundation has initiated a
      $ 4.4 million worth Program to research into Free will just about a year ago.

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