New York Times Review of Sam Harris’ Free Will

The July 15 New York Times Book Review ran a review of Sam Harris’ Free Will. Reviewer David Menaker spends most of the review summarizing and quoting Harris’ book and then at the end, after many paragraphs of neutrality, tells us what he thinks.

What Menaker thinks is that Harris is probably correct. He thinks that’s sad, because determinism will no doubt damage virtues like courage and leadership. He opines that we may need the illusion of control in order to get on with our lives.

This is a common package, which we might dub the Humanistic Fatalism. It consists first of all in letting the latest scientific obsession roll over one, because after all science knows best (as it did about the cause of ulcers, right?). Next the victim sees all the negative consequences of the scientific belief. Later still, it is concluded that we have to pretend we have free will (or aren’t beasts, etc.). Lastly, depression, a longing for lost confidence.

There is something disturbing about resignation in the face of claims that are little better than sheer nihilism. It’s as if the so-called leaders of our culture had simply lost their nerve – or indeed their minds. Another chapter in the Decline of the West.

Fortunately, we do not have to let science (or more exactly, science-influenced philosophy) roll over us. There are champions of free will out there, for example Raymond Tallis, who says that man is more than an animal and we are more than our brains. (And he is an atheist, as am I.)

On a smaller scale I would add myself to the list of free will’s defenders. I wrote a response to Sam Harris in which I addressed his philosophical, neurological and introspective arguments against free will. I charge Harris with unwitting dualism – not of mind and body, but of conscious and unconscious processes. I discuss the category of action in which free will most resides and which Harris utterly neglects: actions involving deliberation. And I conclude with a sketch of what free will is actually like.

I don’t claim to have proven that free will exists – that cannot be done any more than you can prove that you are conscious. But I do point out where it operates. Right now it operates in you, as you focus on my remarks and choose to follow them.

I don’t get into this in the essay, but I am increasingly disturbed by Harris’ worldview. He wants everything to be safe and blame-free. He wants brain-scanners to tell us what would make us happy. If there is to be a Brave New World, he will have been one of its Founding Fathers.