Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Free Will – a book review

with 12 comments

Did I write this review because I wanted to, or is it because my background and circumstances compelled me to?

Some time ago, the answer to this question would have been obvious to me but after reading Free Will by Sam Harris, I’m not so sure.

In brief: the book makes the case that the widely accepted notion of free will is little more than an illusion because our (apparently conscious) decisions originate in causes that lie outside of our conscious control.

Harris begins by noting that the notion of free will is based on the following assumptions:

  1. We could have behaved differently than we actually did in the past.
  2. We are the originators of our present thoughts and actions.

Then, in the space of eighty odd pages (perhaps no more than 15,000 words), he argues that the assumptions are incorrect and looks into some of the implications of his arguments.

The two assumptions are actually interrelated:  if it is indeed true that we are not the originators of our present thoughts and actions then it is unlikely that we could have behaved differently than we did in the past.

A key part of Harris’ argument is the scientifically established fact that we are consciously aware of only a small fraction of the activity that takes place in our brains. This has been demonstrated (conclusively?) by some elegant experiments in neurophysiology.   For example:

  • Activity in the brain’s motor cortex can be detected 300 milliseconds before a person “decides” to move, indicating that the thought about moving arises before the subject is aware of it.
  • Magnetic resonance scanning of certain brain regions can reveal the choice that will be made by a person 7 to 10 seconds before the person consciously makes the decision.

These and other similar experiments pose a direct challenge to the notion of free will: if  my  brain has  already decided on a course before I am aware of it , how can I  claim to be the author of my decisions and, more broadly, my destiny? As Harris puts it:

…I cannot decide what I will think next 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?

The whole notion of free will, he argues, is based on the belief that we control our thoughts and actions.   Harris notes that although we may feel that are in control of the decisions we make, this is but an illusion: we feel that we are free, but this freedom is illusory because our actions are already “decided” before they appear in our consciousness.  To be sure, there are causes underlying our thoughts and actions, but the majority of these lie outside our awareness.

If we accept the above then the role that luck plays in determining our genes, circumstances, environment and attitudes cannot be overstated. Although we may choose to believe that we make our destinies, in reality we don’t.  Some people may invoke demonstrations of willpower – conscious mental effort to do certain things – as proof against Harris’ arguments. However, as Harris notes,

You can change your life and yourself through effort and discipline – but you have whatever capacity for effort and discipline you have in this moment, and not a scintilla more (or less). You are either lucky in this department or you aren’t – and you can’t make your own luck.

Although I may choose to believe that I made the key decisions in my life, a little reflection reveals the tenuous nature of this belief.  Sure,   some decisions I have made resulted in experiences that I would not have had otherwise.   Some of those experiences undoubtedly changed my outlook on life, causing me to do things I would not have done had I not undergone those experiences.  So to that extent, those original choices changed my life.

The question is: could I have decided differently when making those original choices?

Or, considering an even more immediate example:   could I have chosen not to write this review? Or, having written it, could I have chosen not to publish it?

Harris tells us that this question is misguided because you will do what you do. As he states,

…you can do what you decide to do – but you cannot decide what you will decide to do.

We feel that we are free to decide, but the decision we make is the one we make. If we choose to believe that we are free to decide, we are free to do so. However, this is an illusion because our decisions arise from causes that we are unaware of. This is the central point of Harris’ argument.

There are important moral and ethical implications of the loss of free will. For example what happens to the notion of moral responsibility for actions that might harm others? Harris argues that we do not need to invoke the notion of free will in order to see that this is not right – as he tells us, what we condemn in others is the conscious intent to do harm.

Harris is careful to note that his argument against free will does not amount to a laissez-faire approach wherein people are free to do whatever comes to their minds, regardless of consequences for society. As he writes:

….we must encourage people to work to the best of their abilities and discourage free riders wherever we can. And it is wise to hold people responsible for their actions when doing so influences their behavior and brings benefits to society….[however this does not need the] illusion of free will. We need only acknowledge that efforts matter and that people can change. [However] we do not change ourselves precisely – because we have only ourselves with which to do the changing -but we continually influence, and are influenced by, the world around us and the world within us. [italics mine]

Before closing I should mention some shortcomings of the book:

Firstly, Harris does not offer a detailed support for his argument.  Much of what he claims depends on the results of experiments research in neurophysiology that demonstrate the lag between the genesis of a thought in our brains and our conscious awareness of it, yet he describes only a handful experiments detail. That said there are references to many others in the notes.

Secondly, those with training in philosophy may find the book superficial as Harris does not discuss of alternate perspectives on free will.  Such a discussion would have provided much needed balance that some critics have taken him to task for (see this analysis  or this review  for example).

Although the book has the shortcomings I’ve noted, I have to say I enjoyed it because it made me think.  More specifically, it made me think about the way I think.  Maybe it will do the same for you, maybe not  – what happens in your case  may depend on thoughts that are beyond your control.

Written by K

October 28, 2012 at 9:45 pm

12 Responses

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  1. Succinctly written! I had a similar experience when I came across the research finding that more than 80% of information creating visual perception of the world comes from within the brain.Its implications veer towards the mystical idea, one which is quite popular in the Indian thought, that the world is an optical illusion. Although the the idea that I have free will evaporates every time when I look at things in hindsight, I have found it difficult to see it clearly through the psychological structures of thought I have unconsciously built. Have you explored the works of Krishnamurti? It might be a good idea to check out his lecture on Free Will, if you are interested!http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wB7uCcDOXXs



    October 29, 2012 at 3:02 pm

    • Hi Venky,

      Thanks for reading and commenting. Harris argues our knowledge of the world is developed through processes that we are largely unaware of. If one accepts this, then it is no longer a surprise that what we take to be our conscious choices are actually outcomes of processes that we have no conscious control over – i.e. that there is no free well. As you allude to, this line of thinking has interesting implications about what we take to be reality.

      BTW, I have dipped into Krishnamurti’s works some years ago and your link to his lecture now motivates me to read more. Thank you!





      October 30, 2012 at 6:59 am

      • What really fascinates me at your blog is that you are willing to push the edges with no bias, when it comes to decision making. Talking about free will in a blog dedicated to decision making! What I have observed over the years through observations and reflections is that those who are extremely adept at decision making operate under the thought framework that free will is an illusion. It might sound contradictory. There is a sense of enlightened abnegation in their decision making which brings a unique quality. Long back, I remember reading one interview of a head honcho of an airlines firm whose name fades my mind. I vividly remember him saying, probably upon deep reflection, that learning to let go has been his powerful insight which guided him often in decision making.



        October 30, 2012 at 3:26 pm

        • Hi Venky,

          Thanks for your comment and kind words.

          Letting go of preconceived notions and old habitsn is indeed important, but can be very hard to do. This is something that Harris alludes to in the book – that we are in a sense prisoners of our mental make up, and that it can be hard to break out of thought patterns we have used over the years. This is something that I have consciously become aware of in my own case…yet, despite knowing it at one level, it is still hard to change. It is all to easy to revert to type, particularly in stressful situations.





          October 31, 2012 at 6:09 am

  2. Kailash
    Should we here recognise a difference between conscious will and unconscious will? If processing and decisions are made in the sub-conscious about which we are oblivious, do they not, nevertheless, remain ‘our’ decisons?

    I argue that we need to accept that free will can be exercised by our sub-conscious; the fact that we are not aware of such decisions does not alter the fact that they were arrived at by us. Acting on these decisons, for adults with self-awareness, must be regarded a conscious endeavour.

    It occurs to me that original gestation of thoughts is something that our conscious mind cannot be expected to handle – hence the existence of the sub-conscious that is capable of this.



    Martin Price

    October 29, 2012 at 4:35 pm

    • Hi Martin,

      Thanks for reading and for making an excellent point, Indeed, as you say, our conscious minds cannot be aware of the (unconscious) origins of our thoughts. Harris’ argument is that since all our decisions have unconscious origins via such thoughts, free will- as it is commonly understood – cannot exist for the following reasons:

      Firstly, actions based on such decisions cannot be free choices because the decision (which has unconscious origins) itself limits all possible actions we may choose to carry out.

      Secondly, as the experiments he describes seem to illustrate, the actions themselves are “known” to our subconscious before we are consciously aware of them.

      If this is so, then to what extent are those decisions and their consequent actions expressions of free will?

      To be honest, I don’t buy the argument in full. Nevertheless, it is interesting, and one that made me “think about how and what I think.” The value of Harris’ argument is not so much about whether it is right or not, but rather that it encourages one to reexamine some of the important decisions and actions one has made…and may be see them in a different light.

      Moreover, when it comes to understanding ourselves and how we relate to the world, there are many different perspectives. For example, see the comment below – I am yet to digest it fully, but there are many interesting points in there that have given me food for thought.





      October 30, 2012 at 8:15 am

  3. Hi Kailash
    thanks for your nicely written summary and discussion. Yet, I have to express that Harris’ book is utter nonsense, throughout all its pages. Harris exercises in polemics, nothing more.
    So, what is wrong about his arguments? Actually, his way of arguing is carved out so clearly that we may take it as a prototype for an abundant abuse of language… as Ludwig Wittgenstein would have called it. Indeed, Harris falls far back into some stage of philosophy between the 15th and 19th century.

    The deeper issue buried by Harris’ polemics is of course how we can relate to the world. Well, this now is already a (very) difficult statement, for it is not clear what “world” could mean, “we” or “relate”, in a way that would not relate to language. Anyway, let us shift this back for a moment, then it is clear that we indeed have something like a mind which can NOT be reduced to a body. And this mind is hosted by a body, even more than that, the “two” parts are inextricably intertwined. Yet, there aren’t any two such things. The category of body and mind, used in this way, and in the way Harris does, are already idealistic contractions. We can NOT separate the two.

    Harris frequently says that the sources of our intentions, desires, actions, and wants are unknown. He calls it a mystery, labels them inscrutable or obscure. The question is what could follow from that. Actually, nothing, and so surely not anything about the question of free will. Why? Because the implied question is nonsense, free of any sense. It is nonsense to ask for an origin or a source of mental qualities, for that would imply that the mental qualities could be reduced to a material, identifiable entity. And this is utter nonsense. Harris throws a lot of polemics in order to hide his ultra-materialist world view.

    Wittgenstein again and again emphasized a central issue with respect to the role the mental and the role of language (culture), and philosophers like Hilary Putnam, and even Kripke (partially) or Quine completely agree with him (Dennett never understood that issue, however). Meaning is not a mental entity. Yes we have a body, and this body with the brain ab initio allows us to learn a language. And the older we grow the more language and culture will transcend the body. It is a categorical misunderstanding to relate the question of free will to the question of its scientific=materialist source. The free will is not in the matter, it is in language.

    It is language that Harris crucades against when he says that “you cannot decide what you will decide to do.” In one of the most famous passages of philosophy, on par with Platon or Aristotle, Wittgenstein called this the paradoxon of rule following. (§201 in his “Philosophical Investigations”). Harris obviously thinks being smart to touch the issue of infinite regress. But the story does not end here, it starts here. All the more, Harris here commits a typical mistake of materialist attitude. He implies that the decision about a future decision could somehow be on the same logical level as a decision about say going to the left or the right side. Of course, it’s simply a mistake in thought to think so. However, if these two kinds of decisions are not on the same logical level, then there is no problem to decide about the actions that organize my decisions. In management such anticipatory thinking is quite abundant.

    Another telltale issue is the infamous mental state. You cite a passage of Harris’, and I would like to re-cite it:
    “I cannot decide what I will think next 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?”

    To think that we have states in our mind is a petitio principii. In order to have states you need to have identifiability, say like in a computer program. Yet, the mind’s work, based on the brain’s work is precisely to generate the capability for identifying something. What does the mind need to do that? The answer is Language. And language is anchored in the culture, not in the brain.

    Unfortunately, you too made a similar mistake in your concluding sentences. Thought can’t be controlled, because if you would start to control it you immediately would stop thinking. All the meaning and all the ability for it would instantaneously disappear. It is a 17th..19th century myth to believe that we could direct our thoughts. There is simply no such separation between the “I” and the “Thought”.

    Things are of course a bit too complicated as to cover all its aspects here. Just a last argument about Harris’ “just happens” argument. Yes, we have to accept that we can’t give a reason for everything. Freedom however is not showing up in the actuality, it is only reasonable to think about freedom with regard to conditionability. We humans are able to design the conditions for the possible. Hence we are free. Harris (and all materialists) always neglect the conditional part, because those conditions are transcendental to any subsequent actualization or “choice”.

    This transcendentality shows up even in tiniest and most atomic comparison (as a logical operation). I called it the “miracle of comparison” in my analysis. (http://theputnamprogram.wordpress.com/2011/11/11/the-miracle-of-comparing/). Even in the tiniest small comparison freedom shows up, whether we as a person compare, or whether a neuron compares. In some way it is just the other way round: Not the body or the matter do reduce or limit freedom, it is culture that we urgently need to confine the Tsunami of freedom built into matter.

    Wittgenstein invented another important concept: the language game: So instead wildly trumping around like Harris, we have to ask: What kind of language game is it if we say: that was my choice. Obviously we never reduce the choice the material differential of having gone left or right. We always refer to the conditions that we have implemented before, the life we have lived before. The course of this life, however, is by no means something that “just happened”. So we discover another ingredient of freedom: consistency (in its full double sense), story-telling, continuity, persistence, endurance.

    After all, I seriously would like to recommend to read the philosophical investigations instead of such neophyte mess as that uttered by Harris, which is nothing else than an offense to thought itself. (sorry for the overly long comment, but the issue is not only important, it is also worthwhile to fight for it :))



    October 30, 2012 at 7:00 am

    • Hi monnoo,

      Thank you for reading and for your very thought provoking comment. My apologies for the delay in responding.

      Despite having a background in science, in recent years I find myself more in sympathy with a social constructionist worldview. For me, the main value of Harris’ book lies in the fact that it got me (and many others who I know) thinking about the way we think, even if only in an unsophisticated way. It isn’t so much about whether Harris is right or wrong, as it is about thinking through some of these mind-spinning ideas for oneself. In my opinion, the great appeal of such questions is that one can discuss them from many different points of view (religious, moral, philosophical, scientific etc,.) and the arguments change depending on the frame chosen. For me the fun lies in the debate rather than any search for the truth…because whether there is an objective truth is itself a debatable issue. This is particularly so for matters such as free will.

      This brings me to your comment. I think you have made an excellent point about the centrality of language to our thought. I have to admit that I have not done any in-depth reading in this area. However, the little that I have read leads me to a similar, but not quite the same conclusion. The difference I think is that I see language as a means to formulate thoughts for the purpose of communicating them rather than to actually “think” them. Sure, the way we use language influences our actions, particularly in the context of settings such as organisations – and I have written about this in some of my earlier posts on Lakoff’s work on metaphors and simple theories relating to meaning and interpretation of business communications. I also find the notion of Linguistic relativity very intriguing and I think it offers a nice lens through which one can study management thought/practice in different cultures (although I’m sure somebody somewhere must already have done this). The effect of language on group behaviour and actions is therefore undeniable – for me at any rate, as I see this everyday in my workplace – but I’m not so sure about its centrality to thought itself. But then, I’m not a trained philosopher so my thoughts on these matters are undoubtedly naive.

      This is not to say that Harris is right. For one, as you imply, the notion of a mental state is an abstraction arising from a tradition in which Harris is trained – namely neuroscience. Mental states don’t really exist, they are a construct of neuroscience and are at best a crude approximation of what’s actually happening (much like Newton’s idealisation of a frictionless pulley, except we know pulleys actually do exist in the real world, albeit with friction!). In fact, it is because reality is so complex that we construct models based on idealisations such as mental states. They give us a tenuous handle on what we term as reality. Unfortunately, though, people also tend to fall in love with their models and mistake them for the truth. Most scientists (including neuroscientists!) are guilty of this.

      In the end, human curiosity being what it is, people will continue to ponder over questions such as free will and attempt to understand them within the frameworks of their preferred paradigm. The question of which paradigm is objectively right may never be resolved because its resolution is essentially a social matter, not a scientific or philosophical one.

      Sorry, I’ve rambled on a bit…but I hope it makes some sense. Thanks again for the detailed and thoughtful comment, and for the references – I really must dig into these when I get a chance.

      I look forward to our continuing dialogue.





      November 4, 2012 at 7:45 pm

  4. Hi Kailash, I have this book on my wish list for quite some time now. Sam Harris is one of my favorite speakers and writers and I find his rational way of looking at the world fascinating and intriguing.


    Shim Marom

    October 30, 2012 at 8:30 am

    • Hi Shim,

      Thanks for your comment. I’d be very interested to know what you think of the book.





      October 30, 2012 at 8:18 pm

  5. By virtue of his position, Harris’s book was an inevitable by product of the chemical history of his brain and is so reducable to material causes. And, reaching back to ‘Darwin’s dilemma’ why would anyone place any store in the results of random mutations of a simian brain?



    October 30, 2012 at 9:23 am

    • David,

      🙂 ..Indeed – very well said. Reducing thoughts (and a book!) to the the chemical history of a brain is precisely what a scientific line of thinking (such as Harris’) would aim to do. Whether that amounts to “knowledge” , however, is another matter altogether (Moreover, one can debate what it means to “know” something). Despite that, I like to think that different perspectives, even if contradictory, are good because they enrich one’s knowledge of the topic in question. What use is this? I honestly don’t know. And it perplexes me (as I think it does you) that simian brains would waste time pondering philosophical issues such as these. I doubt there is any real value in it other than the fact that thinking about and debating such issues is fun. And perhaps that is reason enough.





      October 30, 2012 at 10:08 pm

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