Is there something as a free will? Can we be held responsible for what we do? Sam Harris believes this is not the case. We are determined. The future is set. You read this not because of a mysterious free will to do so, but because of previous causes that determined you to read this.
I’m not going to criticize Harris’s viewpoint of determinism here. I might do that in a critical discussion post, but I do want to give some explanation on his viewpoint. There are three main movement when it comes to free will. There are the libertarians (which is something different from the political group), who believe we are not determined in any way. Everything we do or say is because of our own free will. Then there are the determinists, who believe that everything is set, and that free will is just an illusion. Finally, there are the compatibilists, who believe that we are in fact determined but that doesn’t mean we don’t have free will.
First Harris asks where our ‘will’ comes from. We are only conscious of a small portion of what happens in our life. We are not aware of most things that happens in our body or brain. Where do intentions come from? In objective terms, the answer would be our neurons in our brain. But in subjective terms, it is hard to answer that question. Why do I suddenly get the desire to begin a blog and write about philosophical topics? I like philosophy and I might want to do it as a job, but where does that desire come from? For every action there is a cause and that cause could have only produced that result. The intention to do something does not spring from your consciousness, it just appears to your consciousness.
Because we are determined we cannot take any moral responsibility. We are not responsible for the things we do because we cannot help doing the things we do or want the things we do. This doesn’t mean we can’t lock criminals up anymore; it is just that they were unlucky in the set of genes they were given. This goes the other way around as well. Why is that person so successful? He was just lucky.
Obviously, there are many moral implications with this idea, but Harris doesn’t think we need to throw away our moral values anymore. He still believes people can change. He points out that determinism isn’t the same as fatalism (where one accepts his ‘fate’ and just ‘goes with the flow’). When we look at what makes us dislike a person or think they are evil is when the deliberated on doing something evil and then doing it. It is easier to forgive someone who accidentally killed someone, than it is to forgive someone who killed someone after planning the murder in every gruesome detail for months. You are determined but you can still make choices. The fact that choices depend on predated causes doesn’t mean that your choices aren’t meaningful. You can still choose to be a better person and act upon it. You can do what you choose to do, but you cannot choose what you choose to do.
The book itself is very short. It is just an introduction into deterministic thought, but it is very thought provoking. Harris writes clearly, well-structured and transparent. For anyone who wants a concise point of view from a determinist, then pick up this book. The number of pages are small but the questions it’ll bring about are many.