Sean McDowell reviews Sam Harris’ new book “Free Will”

This is courtesy of Wintery Knight : Jay Watts of LTI tweeted this book review by Sean McDowell.


After rightly emphasizing the importance of the question of free will, Harris concludes, “Free will is an illusion” (p. 5). According to Harris, we are not the conscious source of our actions and we could not have behaved differently in the past than we did. He says, “I, as the conscious witness of my experience, no more initiate events in my prefrontal cortex than I cause my heart to beat” (9). “In physical terms,” says Harris, “we know that every human action can be reduced to a series of impersonal events” (27).

Harris rightly points out that there are three main approaches to the problem of free will and determinism: determinism, libertarianism, and compatibilism. He then says, “Today, the only philosophically respectable way to endorse free will is to be a compatibilist” (16). But if determinism were true, as Harris asserts, why would any position be philosophically unrespectable? After all, people are determined to hold their beliefs—whether compatibilist, libertarian, or determinist—by forces outside of their control. Why would he bother to critique other positions if the people who hold them couldn’t have believed differently? In fact, his critique is just the result of chemicals moving in his brain, so why do they matter? What makes his chemicals more respectable than others?

Later in the book Harris says that giving up free will (and becoming more aware of the background causes of our feelings) allows people to have greater creative control over their lives. “Getting behind our conscious thoughts and feelings,” says Harris, “can allow us to steer a more intelligent course through our lives” (p. 47). Do you see the contradiction? The idea of “steering” a more intelligent course through life, of course, has no meaning in a deterministic world. On Harris’ view we can’t steer anything! The belief that we can steer our lives is an illusion. All of our beliefs and behavior are entirely the result of forces outside our control. In one breath Harris says all our beliefs are determined, but then in another breath he speaks about steering the course of our lives. Which is it?

[…]He says that dispensing with the idea of free will allows us to focus on things that matter most—assessing risk, protecting the innocent, and deterring crime (p. 53). He seems to be implying that we ought to accept his deterministic views for the betterment of mankind. Yet again, if determinism is true then we can’t change any of our beliefs—we can’t freely follow his logic since our beliefs are already set. The very fact that he argues for his position undermines his stated belief in determinism.

Sean McDowell did a debate a while back in which he argued that morality was not rationally grounded on atheism because atheism denies free will, and free will is necessary for making moral choices. And here is the atheist Lawrence Krauss denying that free will exists. It’s very hard to see how there could be any freedom of the will if humans are just matter in motion, which is the view of humans that fits most naturally with atheism.

Another atheist William Provine also says atheists have no free will, no moral accountability and no moral significance:

Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear — and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either.

Like Provine, Krauss also denied that objective morality existed at all in his debate with William Lane Craig. His view is that morality evolves in different times and places arbitrarily, and that whatever evolves in any group is right for them in their time and place. It’s important to understand what the implications of atheism are for things like rationality and morality.

I always thought that the “freethought” name that atheists sometimes apply to themselves was ironic for that reason. Not only are they not free, but they have no non-physical minds to think with, either.


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