It has been a while since a book annoyed me so much! And yet I could not find a flaw in Harris’ argument. There is nothing more irritating than knowing you disagree with someone’s claim, but not being able to fight their arguments. I still have the niggling feeling there is a fundamental flaw somewhere in Harris’ fundamental assumptions, but cannot pinpoint it. What got me so emotional? Harris in his essay argues that there is no free will. And argues it well.
I got this book from my friend. During the pandemic, both of us eventually got bored of endlessly watching Netflix and started venturing into other areas. For me initially, it was the theatre, then knitting and crocheting, and then audiobooks. She took another path and went with podcasts and reading a lot more than she did before. One of the podcasts she recommended to me was Lex Fridman podcast, and it is amazing, a joy to listen to and also challenging your mind.
One of the episodes that I still have to listen to is with Sam Harris, and that’s how my friend acquired the book. She then pushed it on me, and here we are. The book is 60 pages long, I should read it in one sitting and yet it took me a week. And it is not because it is badly written.
I think it was my brain defending itself from an assault on what I, and many people, perceive as one of the fundamental human capabilities – free will. Harris does it with great simplicity and clarity, which makes his deductions even harder to rebuff, so my brain decided a retreat was in order and I had to force myself to finish this book.
The base assumption is you cannot have free will if you do not have full control over your choices. So far so good, only this is exactly where all of my convictions of having free will fall to pieces. Because Harris takes this argument to its logical conclusion: if free will means you can do what you want then how do you control what you want, the thoughts arise from unconscious processes in our brain that we have absolutely no control over. Hence no control = no free will. The argument is really that simple. He elaborates it with many examples and dives into neuroscience as well as sociology and morality. But this is the core of it: free will is an illusion.
One day during my lunch walk I was thinking about the book, back then only half-read. And I started debating with myself that if free will is only an illusion maybe we created it for a reason, maybe it helps our brains cope, where they otherwise could not process the complexity. Lo and behold! Five pages later Harris writes exactly that.
He also drives an excellent point about how the justice system is now often based on retribution, because if we uphold free will the perpetrators bear personal moral responsibility for their crimes. But how does that change when they have for example a brain tumor? Do we then think they deserve retribution or treatment? Hence if we abandon the illusion of free will aren’t we all equivalent with the brain-tumor-criminal? We are all products of our circumstances, all of them starting with molecular, through genetic to cultural.
We often say ‘I would decide differently in that situation’, but here again Harris asks, would you, really? If you were in the same situation formed by the same circumstances as the person you are criticizing you are effectively them, and there is no way for them to make a different decision than the one they did.
I am still so uncomfortable about what this book is about. Still thinking and processing and looking for this fundamental flaw. I think I’ll also listen to the podcast episode. It irritates me and fascinates me in equal measure.
With all that the book is not pessimistic, as in we-have-no-free-will-now-go-lie-in-a-ditch-and-do-nothing style. Harris shows how accepting that he has no free will has empowered him in many ways. Short as this book is, it is a lot of food for thought.
How do you entertain yourself during the pandemic, once you get to the end of Netflix?