Harris’s Free Will

This is a review of reviews of Sam Harris’s Free Will. I haven’t read the actual book. (One of Harris’s supporters says that I have no choice but to read the book: but I am not so sure.) 

New Scientist

The New Scientist has a review which says:

“We either live in a deterministic universe where the future is set, or an indeterminate one where thoughts and actions happen at random. Neither is compatible with free will.”

But why are these the only options? Harris is quoted as saying:

“You can do what you decide to do, but you cannot decide what you will decide to do.”

But what, then, is the point? 


This is a sympathetic review. He quotes:

“Why didn’t I decide to drink a glass of juice (rather than water). The thought never occurred to me. Am I free to do that which does not occur to me to do? Of course not. And there is no way I can influence my desires–for what tools of influence would I use? Other desires? To say that I would have done otherwise had I wanted to is simply to say that I would have been in a different universe had I lived in a different universe.”

I would call such acts ‘habitual’ and often executed ‘on autopilot’, like much of driving. But does all of driving involve such ‘decisions’? Does all of life?

The next quote is:

“What I will do next, and why, remains, at bottom, a mystery–one that is fully determined by the prior state of the universe and the laws of nature (including the contributions of chance).”

This is certainly a wide-spread belief, but not one that I feel free to accept at face-value. Why? Is there any possibility of any kind of proof of this belief, or anything like it, or even a faintly convincing argument? It is stated that the actions of a person are determined by their atoms (presumable as configured into molecules etc.). But is this really true? 

Sam Harris

In his blog, Harris focusses on the ‘moral’ implications of free-will and the need for an ‘illusion of free-will’. But if we rely on a false belief, aren’t we motivated to be cynical about ‘scientific reason’? Or at least, Harris’s version of it? But do not the language and methods of science and Harris assume what Harris asserts, and thus aren’t science and Harris unable to prove their own assumptions?

See Also

An article on critical phenomena argues that they cannot be understood from a classical ‘scientific’ viewpoint, thus undermining Harris’ assertions, especially those quoted by the friendly atheist. Briefly, we are not just a mechanical assemblage of atoms.


Harris’s views seem reasonable for the type of ‘decisions’ that fill Harris’s ‘life’, and it does seem to be the case that the physical world leaves little space for free will. But there may be a critical difference between ‘little’ and ‘none’, a possibility that Harris appears preprogrammed not to address. But are the relatively automatable kinds of decisions that Harris considers all there is to his life? Is his life really like a computer simulation of life?


Geopolicratus suggests that populations with an agricultural heritage are more institutionalised than those with a nomad heritage. If so, then those with an agricultural heritage might well be more disposed to believe things that suggest that there is no free will, since the two kinds of lives call for quite different kinds of decision making. Plato’s Republic, anyone? 

Dave Marsay


About Dave Marsay
Mathematician with an interest in 'good' reasoning.

7 Responses to Harris’s Free Will

  1. geopolicraticus says:

    Dear Mr. Marsay,

    Thanks for citing my recent post. I didn’t know that Harris had written a book on free will until I read this post of yours. I wouldn’t harbor very high hopes for it. Contemporary atheism engages in self-sabotage by refusing to inform itself on the history of philosophy and therefore conducting its debates mostly in ignorance of what has been said — sort of like neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists discussing the mind but refusing to take into account any but computability or modularity theories. The result is an impoverished discourse.

    The quote you cite above — “You can do what you decide to do, but you cannot decide what you will decide to do.” — echoes the position of Spinoza:

    “…a stone, while continuing in motion, should be capable of thinking and knowing, that it is endeavouring, as far as it can, to continue to move. Such a stone, being conscious merely of its own endeavour and not at all indifferent, would believe itself to be completely free, and would think that it continued in motion solely because of its own wish. This is that human freedom, which all boast that they possess, and which consists solely in the fact, that men are conscious of their own desire, but are ignorant of the causes whereby that desire has been determined.” (Spinoza, letter 62)

    Perhaps Harris cites Spinoza in this connection. It would be interesting to see if he does. Schopenhauer also expressed similar views. Here is a famous quote from Einstein citing Schopenhauer:

    “I do not believe in freedom of will. Schopenhauer’s words, ‘Man can indeed do what he wants, but he cannot want what he wants,’ accompany me in all life situations and console me in my dealings with people, even those that are really painful to me. This recognition of the unfreedom of the will protects me from taking myself and my fellow men too seriously as acting and judging individuals and losing good humour.”

    This quote attributed to Schopenhauer by Einstein is so close to the Harris quote you give it would be unlikely the that the resemblance is merely a matter of chance. I searched the text of Harris’ book just now and I see that he does indeed cite Einstein but there is no mention of Spinoza.

    Best wishes,


    • Dave Marsay says:


      I suspect that the book is propaganda, and as you say, not new. My concern with works like this is that they misrepresent science and are not adequately critiqued by a science magazine.

      Agnosticism seems intellectually respectable, whereas atheism seems a dogma, one that I find hard to distinguish from religions. The UK Church of England, I think, has it that you cannot prove that God exists, belief – in the sense of an unjustified conviction – is necessary. This religion seems less dogmatic than atheism.

      If, as atheists claim, science is necessarily atheistic, then science is just another dogma, and cannot be trusted. I think there is (sadly) some truth in this: much science practice has become corrupted. But the response should be to disinfect it, not abandon it. Indeed, I would say the core of science is anti-dogma: to root out dogma wherever it is and to at least hold it to account. The bits of your work that I can relate to seem to support this view.



      • geopolicraticus says:

        Dear Dave,

        I have no problem with atheism as a philosophical doctrine. My own position is essentially atheistic. what I do have a problem with is the way in which atheism is presently being defended by its own best-known advocates. Atheism only seems dogmatic because its defenders are dogmatic. And I understand this, as we atheists have been on the receiving end of a lot of dogmatism for a long time. It is not the idea that is dogmatic, however, but its manner of defense that is dogmatic. One finds a precisely parallel situation on the theistic side, which has its dogmatic defenders and those with whom one can reason.

        Science is and has been many things, and will continue to be many things. For the devout, science is an exercise in piety; for the atheistic, science is an exercise in epistemic rigor. Some science is quite rigidly dogmatic, and some so flexible that it approaches meaninglessness.

        As I see it, the philosopher’s task is essentially the Platonic tradition to follow the argument where it leads. This, at least, is that I attempt to do, however imperfectly.

        Best wishes,


      • Dave Marsay says:

        Dear Nick,

        Maybe the ‘essence’ of atheism is that a belief in god is not entirely justified, but my remarks were prompted by the New Scientist special issue, which conflates atheism and agnosticism and gives some fundamentalist atheists space for some very imperfect psuedo-scientific arguments.

        I have quite general problems about beliefs and -isms more broadly. I might say that I think that the UK electoral system is broadly honest, but I would not say that I believed it unless I thought I had some reasonable evidence. To me beliefs are things to be looked for and inspected, and they don’t generally survive.

        I have a further problem with atheism in that it seeks to deny all conceivable gods, not just one particular god. You may be an exception, but it seems to me that in denying god many atheists have in mind a very narrow conception of god. This reminds me of those who claim that mathematics is inappropriate to certain problems when they only have a narrow conception of mathematics. There may be some truth in what they say, but it shouldn’t be taken too literally (as I tend to).

        My own view (tending to a belief) is that, for example, Western languages are too limited to be able to express some Eastern social constructs, and hence that there are some ‘holistic’ phenomena (whatever that means) that cannot be studied by our science. I have no idea how to draw a line between such things and possible gods, and am not particularly motivated to try. More importantly, I think we do need to recognize the limitations of rigourous enquiry. If you do have a proof that no gods exist then I’m afraid I’ll just look for another example.

        I would place you (like me) as somewhere on the atheistic spectrum, but not too extreme. That’s okay;-)

        Best Wishes,


  2. Blue Aurora says:

    Feeling a tad philosophical, aren’t you, Dr. Marsay?

    Sorry to go off-topic, but have you heard of the bloggers Unlearning Economics and Lord Keynes? They are two Post-Keynesian bloggers from the Anglosphere (to be precise, the former is a Briton, the latter an Australian) that you might enjoy.



    BTW, Lord Keynes recently made a post containing links to other economics blogs, like David Glasner’s “Uneasy Money”, Scott Sumner’s “The Money Illusion”, and Daniel Kuehn’s “Facts and Other Stubborn Things”.


    I hope you enjoy reading these blogs!

    • Dave Marsay says:

      Arguments that leave no room for free will tend to leave no room for mathematicians, innovation or an appreciation of risk, all of which are of real importance – unless we really are automata.

      I have just spent some time browsing around your links, thanks. To me the most important thing is Keynes’ approach to analysis, uncertainty, ‘risk’, which seems vital to many areas of life that we currently seem to be making a mess of. What Keynes would advise now would, I think, depend on the facts, including a view of the bond markets.

      My own view is that the UK’s decisions – possibly including next week’s – are probably reasonable seen as short-run decisions. Technically, I think they have had, and still have, some wiggle-room to influence the situation (including market perceptions) over the long-term, which they might have used to reduce unemployment and help out the high street. But have they had the political wiggle-room? Or the insight to manage a sophisticated strategy? At the least, I think that overseeing the economy is not just an economic problem.


  3. Blue Aurora says:

    I agree that overseeing the economy isn’t just an economic problem – it can very easily spill-over politically and socially. Will you visit and comment on Lord Keynes’s blog and Unlearningecon’s blog in the future? I picked them out because I thought that they would be more suited to your UK milieau (sp?). 😛

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