Review: ‘Free Will’, by Sam Harris

Free WillFree Will by Sam Harris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Following in typical Sam-Harris fashion, ‘Free Will’ is a brilliant, concise treatise on the illusory nature of what he carefully regards as the popular conception of human free will. This is a necessary and meaningful distinction that Harris correctly never tires of making, considering some of the philosophical quagmire on offer if one struggles too long and mightily (and, Harris deftly but humbly shows, needlessly).

One can safely lay down the accolades I have above but also not risk pressing the point to say this long essay (or mini-book? I’ve yet to settle on what exactly to call these non-fiction novellas) is brilliantly concise, which is to say Harris manages a pared-down articulation that includes impressive and pointed arguments against his own position–something he’s never been gun-shy about–and manages to rebut them with what always felt like, at least to this reader, a respectful and appropriate amount of consideration while still avoiding the trappings of quicksand.

Harris is also found to be keeping the emphasis chiefly on what holding his position dictates in a broad, complex, contentious arena of moral, intellectual, and biological quandaries. Harris’ background as a neuroscientist is truly the gem of this essay; his insights specifically about the dual mechanism of the conscious and unconscious mind gave me frequent moments of pause and were occasionally nothing less than staggering. Harris illustrates that scientific proof as well as the evidence available to any honest, introspective person can reveal how beholden we are to our unconscious, which is to say to factors that are of course ‘us’ in any reasonable sense yet remain completely outside of our control. He shows that while we are able to some extent to control the frameworks and factors fed into both sides of our mind, the impact and result of those variables on what bubbles up from our unconscious–resulting in the apparently ‘free’ realm of choices available to us consciously–is, occasionally, frighteningly narrow. How free are we in the most mundane of choices? How free are we in a storm of the most important?

Without ever succumbing to the pitfalls of guru-esque language or a right-back-where-we-started conclusion, Harris explores how limited we really are, particularly in a culture that so values individualism and freedom, and how the constraints that are realized after shrugging off the illusion of true free will can be legitimately liberating.

Philosophers of many stripes will probably be able to satisfy themselves and easy fall-backs in the cradle of determinism, but Harris shows here that missing the broader conception of free will–missing the bigger picture–is an unnecessary and fruitless step in this particular discourse. More compelling (and, I feel, obviously, more legitimate at this stage) are the new questions this grasp of an illusory free will present: what does this conception then mean for an individual’s sense of self, feelings of one’s desires and goals, one’s failures and successes? what does this conception mean for an American culture and justice system with often crudely-guised emphases on retribution rather than rehabilitation and protection of the innocent?

The questions go on, and once again I feel satisfied that Harris has not concluded this bit of discourse with a restful, self-satisfied arrogance or closure–he’s offering more questions than he’s claimed to have answered, and that’s always a good choice.

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