Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A Critical Reflection on 'Free Will' by Sam Harris

We like to encourage people to think, consider, and reflect...because many of us like to do those things, and think they have greatly improved our life. That's pretty much why we'll be posting essays for the rest of the semester from the following give you something to think about.

So, this class we're taking (that meets for two hours every Wednesday night) is all about the concepts of reality, truth and knowledge. It's basically a class on thinking about thinking (reflective thinking), and thinking about feelings of knowing and where they come from (so far), it's sort of a humanities-meets-philosophy course where a group of young adults (and this aged visage) sit around at tables arranged in a circle and discuss concepts from selected texts (currently the class is waist-deep into 'On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not' by Robert A. Burton. Burton on Being Certain) mediated by an ex-scientist, an oddball throwback freethinker from the Vietnam-era that fits every part of that description. Sometimes the discussion is focused, and then sometimes it spirals near the edge of a topical abyss. That's what the mediator is for, because 16-18 people sitting around having a discussion, feeding off of each others comments, thoughts and ideas, and interjecting their own...that's a cart that can lose its wheels fast.

Anyway, Free Will by Sam Harris is short, like 66 pages or so, and therefore only warranted one critical reflection paper (the book by Burton will result in 4 reflection papers of varying lengths).
This is that reflection paper.
(For whatever it's worth we got a "+" which is the highest mark in the professors "+, +✓,✓,-✓"..."grading" scheme)

A Critical Reflection on Free Will by Sam Harris
Initially the premise set forth by Free Will by Sam Harris struck me as a dangerous idea. To completely deny free will, as he seems to be doing, appears to be a denial of personal responsibility and creates a situation where people become a victim of themselves and their unconscious. Certainly at the base of free will there is no way to act completely unconstrained, without repercussions, and there are certainly factors in life that can restrict desires and ability – mental, physical, and economic considerations. However, day-to-day actions being dictated by the unconscious is a little extreme; for example, deciding to eat at one fast food restaurant over another, or not at all, is completely controllable, and to over-analyze where the motive came from to make the decision to eat or not seems more based in a biological motivation to eat, and the way one acts upon it is free will. 
Free will, in my opinion, is the conscious decisions made based on prior information, actions, events, drives, and outcomes, not controlled by some mysterious unconscious drive, rather logical motives. For example, people repeat actions, good or bad, depending on their desires at those given moments. It’s not difficult to understand where the desires come from, they are basic animal drives– the need for food, water, shelter, reproduction, and basic human drives – a desire for happiness, to be loved, accepted, and/or impress people. People act on these desires on an unconscious level, but they are not completely unconscious of them, the drives are not part of fate, the drives are biological. The decisions and actions based on the basic drives are free will. Even cases where brain chemicals influence action, people can still choose to make a decision based on social norms. They may not choose how they think or feel, but they can choose how they act upon those feelings. 
It doesn’t matter, however, where the desires or the drives come from. Once a person realizes where these drives come from, and owns them, they can change the way they react because of them; or, as Harris says “allow for greater creative control over one’s life” (47). Sloughing off the idea of “free will” prevents taking personal responsibility, and if you let your unconscious control you, you become the unconscious. If anything understanding there is not complete free will, but moderate free will, allows one to explore root causes and understand that “different ways of thinking have different consequences” (40). Just as our organs operate unconsciously, we can still control them, for instance, controlling heartbeat with breathing exercises or brain chemicals with medications. 
For a move towards a more complete free will it takes inner-reflection and personal strength to consciously consider what is dictating and motivating substantial actions. To deny free will almost entirely, not just moderate levels of free will, means becoming a victim of the unconscious, nothing but a pawn mindlessly obeying biological drives. Denying the existence of free will is a choice granted by the existence of free will, and it just doesn’t seem like an ideal that supports much in the way of personal responsibility.

Harris, Sam. Free Will. New York: Free Press. 2012. Print.


  1. "and to over-analyze where the motive came from to the make the decision to "

    I think there's an extra word there. ;-)

    Okay, I've been editing my own stuff all day and couldn't resist. Wait, that's surrendering to base instinct.

    I like your thoughts on this. They made sense. Also, the book looks like an interesting read.

  2. Thank you! We always welcome some editing. Most of the time we're writing this shit when we're listening to a TV, with cat distractions (they incessantly meow like little bitches when they can sense we're writing, they always have), and exhausted brains.

    The books was interesting, at first it really pissed us off...and then we came to terms with the content (it's HIS opinion, not OURS). Fuck people who are going to deny free will, we'd rather try to have a bit of personal responsibility.