A couple months ago, I read Free by Alfred Mele, who examined the
philosophical "free will" controversy. Professor Mele was on the pro-free
will side. At the time, I resolved to read someone on the anti-free will
side, and here he is: Sam Harris, a relatively famous
It's a short book, with the main text coming in at 66 pages.
Acknowledgments, notes, and the index add a couple dozen more.
(Still, it's an actual book, and counts toward my yearly
total.) I took my time going through it. I wanted to give it a fair
But I was not won over.
Part of the problem was Harris's somewhat surprising sloppiness
in language, right from the start. The book opens with a description
of a 2007 horrific rape-murder in Cheshire, Connecticut committed
by Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky. Harris
then considers a thought experiment:
As sickening as I find their behavior, I have to admit that if
I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would
Wait a minute. That's not right.
What Harris is describing is a entire body swap (the only thing
"atom for atom" can possibly mean), kind
of a combination of a Star Trek-style transporter with a time machine.
But if all the Harris-atoms are magically transported to 2007
Connecticut (while, say, the Komisarjevsky-atoms are transported
elsewhere), the result is (simply) Sam Harris. He's incorrect to assert
that "I would be him".
So Harris means something other than what he says here. He is not
actually proposing an "atom for atom" swap. Instead he's imagining a
If I had truly been in Komisarjevsky's shoes on July 23, 2007—that is,
if I had his genes and life experience and an identical brain (or soul)
in an identical state—I would have acted exactly as he did.
From this we can deduce that, far from an "atom for atom" swap, Harris
is imagining that nearly nothing is traded. The
Komisarjevsky body and brain (with its memories) remains in 2007
So it's not a Star Trek transporter at all.
It's not even like the "Turnabout Intruder" episode of Star Trek
where Kirk's personality was switched with that of the
Janice Lester; in that case, Kirk's memories went into Lester's body
and vice-versa. (Also: not like either version of Freaky Friday.)
So what does Harris imagine is being traded with Komisarjevsky in
his thought experiment?
When Harris uses the personal pronoun "I" above, he is referring
to "the conscious witness of my thoughts and actions" (page 7).
This is the "I" he imagines
is transplanted into the (otherwise intact) murderer's
And Harris's position is that this "I" is extremely powerless. It can't
stop the 2007 horrors. It's like a toy boat, helplessly tossed
on the vast ocean of thoughts, memories, desires, physiology
that make up the remainder of our physical bodies, which generate
actions that we only imagine are under our conscious control.
Harris relies heavily on the famous experiments of
Libet, which (he claims) support his assertions that
"unconscious causes" in the brain are the true initiator of our volitional
acts. Libert's EEG measurements showed telltale neurophysiological
activity significantly before his subjects perceived corresponding
conscious thoughts. (Interestingly enough, Libet himself
was on the pro-free
will side, and thought his experiments tended to confirm free
Harris sets a high bar for "free will" (page 13):
Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need
to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions,
and you would need to have complete control over those factors.
Or… not. Isn't Harris making a too-convenient assertion here? Can't free
will involve being aware of some (if not all)
of the factors that determine
my thoughts and actions? Can't free will mean
I have incomplete control
of some of those factors? This seems to me to be a pretty accurate
description of reality, but as near as I can tell, Harris would
prefer to refute his absolutist strawman.
A late chapter has gratuitous slams of conservatives. You see,
they "often make a religious fetish of individualism".
Which Sam is happy to excoriate them for, except the entire rest of
the book is an argument that they have no free-will control over
There's more, of course, but this has already gone on too long.