Friday, May 11, 2012

Free Will by Sam Harris

I have admired the work of Sam Harris since his first book, The End of Faith, and his second, Letter to a Christian Nation. His last, The Moral Landscape, was a bit more difficult, but all three books shared one thing in common: they were all extremely thought-provoking. Free Will is no exception.

This slim volume examines the decisions we make and asks the question, “Are we really free to choose?" His conclusion is no.

I admit, I was more skeptical on this subject than any other he has addressed. However, after reading this book twice, I have come to the conclusion he is at least onto something. My full acceptance will require a complete overhaul of how and what and why I feel the way I do about decisions I routinely make. Thought-provoking indeed!

I have underlined many, many passages, but one that particularly sticks out is this: “One of the most refreshing ideas to come out of existentialism (perhaps the only one() is that we are free to interpret and reinterpret the meaning of our lives. You can consider your first marriage, which ended in divorce, to be a ‘failure,’ or you can view it as a circumstance that caused you to grow in ways that were crucial to your future happiness. Does this freedom of interpretation require free will? No. It simply suggests that different ways of thinking have different consequences. Some thoughts are depressing and disempowering; others inspire us. We can pursue any line of thought we want – but our choice is the product of prior events that we did not bring into being” (40).

Harris is careful to assert that the illusion of free will does not remove any responsibility for our actions. Rather the circumstances that led to a decision – whether they are internal, external, biological, or chemical – play a crucial role in determining the paths we choose.

When discussing “Moral Responsibility,” Harris writes, “Judgments of responsibility depend upon the overall complexion of one’s mind, not on the metaphysics of mental cause and effect” (49). He then describes five scenarios, all of which end with the same result. He peals apart the circumstances of each and ascribes explanations for the course of action chosen. All are not the result of free will, and this demonstrates his thesis, because we judge each of these five actions after considering surrounding circumstances.

He also spends some time describing the physiology of the brain and its role in the decision making process. It might require a second – or even a third reading – but the effort is more than worthwhile. Harris blogs at 5 stars

--Chiron, 5/11/12

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