The Illusion of Free Will

Friday, March 30, 2012

In his new book Free Will, author Sam Harris says science proves there's no such thing.


Sam Harris

Comments [98]


I have some advice for the woman who wanted to have a more diverse group of friends. I would suggest that she contact an immigration service. They are always in need of volunteers to help get the refuges and immigrants settled in our country. You will meet people from all over the world.

Apr. 11 2012 06:03 PM
Michael McKegney from Brooklyn

Sam Harris's appearance discussing "Free Will" was persuasive - in a VERY NEGATIVE way! Harris persuaded me he is not a serious thinker but a NARROW-MINDED IDEOLOGUE. I will certainly never buy or read any book he writes. He seems to see only two alternatives: either humans are (1) "free" in some ABSOLUTE AND UNLIMITED sense, or (2) freedom is JUST A COMPLETE ILLUSION. What nonsense! Those are NOT the only alternatives. We humans, equipped with our brains (unique among animal brains!) have been learning for centuries how our choices are LIMITED by genetic, biological, family, cultural-historical factors and context. This knowledge just helps us better understand our freedom as it really is. It is a HUGE - and logically/scientifically unwarranted - step to leap to the conclusion that human freedom is just an ILLUSION . . . Mr. Lehrer, I have often heard you praise Beethoven's symphonies. According to Sam Harris, Beethoven just operated LIKE A ROBOT - turning out Symphonies 1 thru 9 in their inevitable/mechanical order - NOTE BY NOTE. What is this but NONSENSE?!

Apr. 03 2012 03:50 PM
Charlotte from Sunset Park

Yes!!! There will be *much* resistance to these facts, but if we survive as globe, I think this will be common knowledge at some point. These ideas have been out there in neuroscience for awhile (about 5-10 years?), but Sam Harris makes it nicely clear. His argument is not hard-core determinism, btw (it's compatiblism), and doesn't exclude randomness. But what's really at stake here is less scientific than ethical, moral, and political (hence the resistance these facts will face). Our responses to true criminals and psychopaths is rightly fearful, of course, and should be to remove them from society, duh, but should *not* be hatred. At least not extended, thorough-going, policy-influencing hatred. Our media, economy, religions, and politics are so wedded to hatred, and this over-developed belief in individual free-will fuels that emotion. Libertarians, most Republicans, a lot of Democrats, reactionaries, God-fearers, haters — this concept truly threatens their identity, and most will not even try to understand why it's true. Most will resist it probably to death, because as a country we are so psychologically dependent upon hate and anger, and must blame and punish people for moral, ethical, and personal reasons. But Copernicus was right. And so was Cassandra.

Mar. 31 2012 12:42 PM
Frank De Canio from Union City, NJ

A great cogent overview by Sam Harris of an age-old problem. Free will, yes and no. We’re freely determined to choose from a host of prior determinants of behavior. The well-to-do residing in an upscale college community might be more inclined (determined) to choose college over hanging out at the local watering hole than someone living in a mining town. Nothing strange about that. This is not to say that there are not a host of other contingencies that might impel the latter to grow into a nuclear physicist and the former to end up impoverished and in rehab, but it lays down parameters for future choices. The opposite of determinism is not free will but random behavior, and even this so-called randomness is informed by prior contingencies. The argument of indeterminacy doesn’t work since it simply seems to undercut predictability rather than the fact that all action and behavior have antecedents. Neither does it mean (as Mr. Harris acknowledges) the end of corrective contingencies. For punishment is just that; a counter-contingency to those that inform our present behavior. The frying pan burning our careless hands is a counter-contingency to contingencies that lead to careless behavior. Nor does it preclude making choices; it just implies that these choices are themselves informed by prior choices and the latter by prior ones, and so on. The delinquent, informed by environmental contingencies, relocates to another town, meets a caring teacher who inspires him to study and go to college. He now has a host of more productive contingencies to “choose” from; one of which he “will” choose, barring other negative contingencies that will inform his behavior. And so it goes. But what about two siblings in the same home; one becomes a criminal and the other a law enforcer? But did they really have the same environment, when (if nothing else) one of the siblings has to deal with another who’s too perfect or skirting with danger that raises a caveat for the other to either be careful or to rebel. And what about a child who’s raised in a frustrating environment, growing up to be a kindly benefactor to the world? He’s like the heavy smoker who doesn’t get lung cancer and lives to be 100 years old. It doesn’t mean smoking doesn’t increase the chances of getting all kind of cancer. It just means we don’t have access to all the contingencies (biological, genetic, sociological, environmental, etc) that inform different results. Remember Feud’s response to a mother who, looking into her infant’s intense eyes told him he’d be either a genius or a criminal. Freud is said to have retorted, “Perhaps, he’ll be neurotic.” We never know. As Dr. Paul Edwards once pointed out in a college class I once took with him; if we had access to all of the contingencies that inform the world and all within it, we could predict the future. Short of that we could shape environments that make for a happier, more productive world.

Mar. 31 2012 11:56 AM
E in Manhattan

I didn't understand the part about where decisions do come from. Was it implied that they come from the soul? or are they determined by another source? Isn't it possible that our knowledge of the workings of the brain is not yet fully understood, and it is perhaps premature to come to absolute conclusions?

Mar. 31 2012 10:59 AM
Edward Helmrich from Larchmont

The last time Sam Harris was on, when his argument got bogged down, he simply became incoherent. This time he expanded his argument to larger questions there was no time to investigate. A good debate strategy.

Mar. 31 2012 06:09 AM
Ed from Larchmont

The idea of radical free will, real free will, has been debated over the millenia. Some of the discussion reminded me of B.F. Skinner.

On the Cross, the good thief said to Jesus 'remember me when you come into your kingdom'. And Jesus responded 'today you will be with Me in paradise'.
The body of the good thief was buried after he died. So how could this be unless there is a soul? And what about the Transfiguration, where Moses and Elijah appeared speaking with Jesus?

We are made in the image of God. Of the many things this means, God is free, and we have free will, among all other creatures.

But even on philosophical grounds the idea that free will is an illusion is a fringe idea.

Mar. 31 2012 06:07 AM
mem from NY

short walk to eugenics,

Mar. 30 2012 08:21 PM

intellectual solipsism 101. mr harris you bore me...

Mar. 30 2012 06:40 PM
Donald J. Sepanek

I agree that "free will" is just as ethereal as "God"

Mar. 30 2012 06:39 PM
John A.

Fascinating to hear the way the wheels in this guy's mental clock spin around. I am somewhat of a slow communicator, or at least Mr. Harris is able to communicate at a rate where things seem to slip by. Maybe that's the problem, as with his trying to link Free Will with Eye-for-an-Eye justice (there is no such link) But thanks to WNYC, I can download this dialog and pick it apart in additional listenings. Thank you for the Horgan question, Brian, and the download.

Mar. 30 2012 05:16 PM
Eugenia Renskoff from Brooklyn, ny

Hi, Even if it is true that free will does exist, and that is why in part something as horrible as the Jews being gassed to death so long ago happened because of free will, if God is all compassion and love and all that, why did He stand by and do nothing? I am not Jewish but have always been moved by the Holocaust. Eugenia Renskoff

Mar. 30 2012 04:07 PM
Mila M

Pseudo-scientist and demagogue! Freedom is NOT a "moral illusion", Sam Harris!

Mar. 30 2012 04:02 PM

@Michael Villacres from Queens

It's only a matter of a half a lap more around "THE GREAT MANDALA" (The Wheel of Life" ( ) before Mr. Harris morphs into one of the most charismatic "spiritual" leaders of our time.
(it will all be consistent with his latent, as yet unrevealed, contingencies.) ;-)

Mar. 30 2012 03:41 PM
Michael Villacres from Queens, NY

Mr. Sam Harris said: "I was made" an unbeliever, "[I] can't change that." But what about Paul the Apostle? In the Bible, he was not only an unbeliever but was persecuting the church as well. Then he became a believer, the missionary for Asia and helped to establish the church.
"Free Will an Illusion?" As Mr. Harris said, you don't pick your brain, "soul, parents", etc; and what about the many people who were born into poverty and or into abusive parents or families and they did not become violent criminals or abusive themselves? This defense has been raised numerous times by murderers, rapists, and other violent criminals. Most of the times the courts and or juries have rejected this "defense" because of those who choose the other path of hard work instead of crime.
Finally, Who pulled your "strings" Mr. Harris, if you have no free will, to write your book?

Mar. 30 2012 02:23 PM

Fashions come and go. Or more precisely, are more or less prominent in our attention. (or the attention resulting from the confluence of the contingencies that have resulted in the identity many observers [also comprised of vast contingencies], including me, call "me".
My first flashback, after hearing this segment announced, was to the work of B.F. Skinner ("Beyond Freedom and Dignity") and his fellow "behaviorists", last seen in the middle of the last century. (I was not so surprised that it did not get mentioned in the segment as much as I was surprised that Skinner is not listed in the index of Harris' book (at least in the Amazon listing)
And reading these messages, I am reminded (but how could my contingencies forget) the vibrant presence of the Buddhist community of that time {h/t to Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki and others} [and a "GOOD, GOOD, Nam Myho Rengay Kyo Morning to you all!"] Respectfully: What is on the menu for next week? phrenology and eugenics? (well i guess those whose contingencies do not provide them with an awareness of the past are fated to "sloppy seconds")
Mr. Harris seems unaware of how much his current thought is similar to the Born Again Christian beliefs that salvation is not the product of intentional, individual prayer and/or works, but of an "AMAZING GRACE" granted by an infinitely loving Creator (i.e., the "karmic" collection of the above mentioned contingencies.)
(I think Jim Morrison was pointing to a similar insight with his advice that, "You cannot petition the Lord with prayer!")
As for how we should treat persons who have the misfortune to be the end result of contingencies that actually lead them to commit violent acts of torture and murder, I would vote for a single, expeditiously fatal gunshot, and that we go on with our lives thereafter.
Peace and Love

Mar. 30 2012 01:41 PM

I had a good laugh when he described the experiment that measured scalp temperature as somehow disproving free will. As with much of science, good observational experiments are wasted and slandered by those seeking fame through poor data interpretation.

As a neuroscientist is he really so shocked to learn that brain activity has to occur before muscles can respond to a decision to move them? And is he equally shocked to learn that brain activity creates measurable changes in physiological state (such as localized temperature changes)? LOL

Mar. 30 2012 01:12 PM
David Luftig from New York City

Philosophy, Vedanta philosophy besides giving directions towards "Enlightenment" would agree that there is no free will as spoken of by Sam Harris and people in general. This "is" because the true nature of the Universe/Creation is one. Most people experience this (this being transcendence) by accident or with the help of a "teacher".
Many of the most important "philosophy" statements in religion say this but it is not understood:
Jesus "I and my father are one", Judiasm the Shema, "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One"
Two or dualism does not exist and is the" illusion".
Where does that leave "me" and getting out of bed or committing a crime. How do "I" live and experience life.
Are there consequences to "my" actions? Yes, until you (one stops with small "o") stop doing and are truly "being".

For the best explanation I've seen is the 120 page preface, (yes preface) to the book "Self Knowledge" by Sri Sankarachaya - the introduction is by Swami Nikhilanda. pub by Ramakrishna Math, India.

my 2 cents - If you are still enough or being present - truly being yourself - in the moment - now - the "one" unfolds blissfully no matter what seems in front of one. The rest of the "time" I have difficulty - to put it mildly - and I seek out help ranging from therapists to "Enlightened" teachers through their writings and lectures.
And practice, practice practice.

"Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened." -- WINSTON CHURCHILL

Mar. 30 2012 12:24 PM
Mike Cole from Upper West Side

Well, this segment of the BL Show has certainly generated a lot of comments (mine included). First I would say, that on the surface, the concept of free will is meaningless in the sense of being testable. Second, I would suggest a more Darwinian model, namely that there are all kinds of behaviors that people can have: altruistic, selfish, kind, compassionate, cruel, etc., in various combinations. Some combinations of these behaviors lead to a better survival probability for a group of people that share a particular combination, other combinations do not. It's not clear to me which combination of behaviors has long term sustainability, though I would like to be around in several thousand years to find out, assuming that there is a stable configuration. As for egregious behavior, I agree with Mr. Harris, you restrain the behavior quickly and with out regard to "motivation" and deal with an individuals long term treatment with an enlightened, i.e. more rational, model of human behavior rather that the vague idea of "free will". I must say that I was pleasantly surprised to hear Mr. Harris's well articulated ideas; I shall have to read his book.

Mar. 30 2012 12:08 PM
BD from Dubai

I agree with the notion that there is no free will, and that what we all experience is the illusion of free will. What, however, does one do with such an awareness? History shows us that there is a general progression of human intellect. My hope and expectation is that human intellect will eventually progress to a point where a real understanding of determinism will occur and that awareness and understanding will lead to some important breakthrough. That, however, is probably a very long way away. In the meantime, the illusion of free well is all we have and it seems we have "no choice" but to work within these parameters. So, for all intent and purposes, free will it is. But someday, I suppose, we will be able to fathom what is beyond the illusion.

Mar. 30 2012 12:02 PM
Landau from Brooklyn

Sam. I came in at the tail end of the Brian Lehrer show to hear that it is conclusively shown that a decision to (for example) turn right has been taken (by a thinking agent) prior to the 'brain' consciously being aware of and taking that action. Question. Presumably it must have been the brain that unconsciously made the initial decision to turn right. (Unless we invoke another intermediary agency that feeds our decision making process) and if it was the brain that made the decision to turn right (albeit without a conscious connection to the mind) what is to say that that unconscious decision has not been formulated, restrained or motivated, in some way, by a free will.

Mar. 30 2012 11:59 AM
altoman from Glen Cove

Mr. Harris has some interesting analyses, but does he really think he was somehow unconsciously committed to arriving in front to WNYC studios, opening the doors and walking in... When we look at what we know about biochemistry, we're just scratching the surface of what there is to understand (if we can). I think it wrong to say, "Here's the progress we've made and now we know the areas we don't know about". I still think we "don't know what we don't know". To keep from making ridiculous mistakes by thinking current established science is the 'end all', keep in mind all the horrendous things that were done to people in the name of science. I think we all can agree; there is much research to be done.

Mar. 30 2012 11:55 AM
Chris from moral newtrality

As a practical matter I don't care if a psychopath is morally blameless for attempts to harm me.
To survive, I must render the psychopath harmless.
Sometimes prison is the most humane way to render the psychopath harmless.
Other defenses are:
Don't make contracts with a psychopath.
Don't date a psychopath.
I don't care when the psychopath consciously knows of her/his decision to hurt.
I don't need to determine how God judges the psychopath.

Mar. 30 2012 11:52 AM
GJ from NYC

Why do people think that making arguments that go "but God said that...." will be in any way convincing to most of us? Isn't it obvious we're dealing with issues where that sort of assumption can't be made?

Mar. 30 2012 11:46 AM

if we're all determined[like billiard balls in space] and every self is uniqely that determined self,then short of a pathology[like a organic brain disorder which is the equivelent of a misshapped billiard ball]then having free will or not is irrelevant to ethics. it is a wash. hating someone for their actions or beliefs is no less valid for an equally determined self ,then loving someone is valid by an equally determined self.One determined self having feelings and moral judgements about another determined self having feelings and judgements carries equal weight.As do actions arising from those feelings and judgements.hating someone is as valid as liking to smell flowers.

Mar. 30 2012 11:44 AM
John A.

rh from nyc,
Be offended. For a "Free thought" leader to go against free will is borderline crazy. To me it's just another headache.

Mar. 30 2012 11:44 AM
Amy from Manhattan

Mr. Harris's idea that a soul itself can be evil isn't the way a soul is perceived in Judaism; I'm not sure if it's the same in the other Abrahamic religions, which he referred to. If anything, the kinds of crimes he talked about would come from suppression of the soul, whether by the way the person was treated while growing up or by his/her own actions.

Mar. 30 2012 11:41 AM
Ed from Larchmont

It's interesting, Mr. Harris is asserting that there is no soul, etc., no free will, and then drawing theoretical consequences.

Mar. 30 2012 11:38 AM
Kathryn from Brooklyn

I am very surprised Mr. Harris doesn’t address the concept of karma. From my (Nichiren Shoshu) Buddhist perspective, karma -- the manifestation of the effects of all of your past causes over many lifetimes -- explains your situation in the present, including who your parents are. As for the idea of free will, as Buddhists we consider ourselves responsible for everything that happens to us in this lifetime, and at the same time know we can indeed make the causes necessary for changing our karma and changing our circumstances.

Mar. 30 2012 11:37 AM
Dan from Garrison ny

I question the validity of the conclusion from the clock experiments. A better experiment would be to ask the subject to fool the person viewing the brain waves trying to predict the actions of the subject. For example if I were doing that then I might choose to refrain from lifting my hand when I get the urge to do so. An advanced meditator might be able to fool the tester more often since meditators might be more aware of thoughts closer to the time of arising

Mar. 30 2012 11:37 AM
Susan from Upper West Side

Scientists used to think that mother love was not only unnecessary, but dangerous. Harlow's experiments on his monkeys proved that theory wrong. Mothers, of course, knew it was bunk. Monkeys needed to hold their mothers for 16 hours a day and never bonded with the wire mesh monkey mother with a bottle. (All dads who are told they can bond by bottle feeding should be told this -- they should interact with their babies and hold them). Even though I have a great deal of training in epidemiology, I have do not have the versatility in philosophy to even touch these arguments, but I think Sam Harris is spending too much time at the cellular level. Linus Pauling made the same mistake when he extrapolated from what went on in the cell in regards to vitamin C to his big push for supplementation with megadoses.

Mar. 30 2012 11:37 AM
The Truth from Becky

I am writing this of my own free will.

Mar. 30 2012 11:36 AM
DarkSymbolist from NYC!

Interesting segment. Unfortunately, based on the comments on the board I don't think most people understood his definition of Free Will (i.e. he wasn't saying we can't make choices).

I don't know if I agree with Mr.Harris 100%, I would like to read more about his point of view regarding Free Will, but it was thought provoking.

Mar. 30 2012 11:34 AM
MC Roberts from NYC

I only heard the last few minutes of the show, but the answer to free will, the existence of evil, the occurence of natural disasters can all be answered by Buddhism. Buddhism teaches the entire universe - including our lives - operate on the principle of cause and effect. Our choices (free will) create our effects - and therefore the state of our lives.
The collective causes of humanity also effect the entire world - so even the weather patterns respond to the life condition of humanity.

Mar. 30 2012 11:34 AM
rh from nyc

"Sam Harris is an example of the insipidity of neo-atheism."

As an atheist, I am EXTREMELY offended by that comment. The vast majority of atheists believe in free will because it is the ultimate alternative to all religions. Nothing torques off religious people more than telling them that their god has no role in their life, that they are the only ones who control their behavior. Yes, if a tornado hits, I suppose that proves that my free will didn't work out. But the end-game is not the issue, living day-to-day is.

Mar. 30 2012 11:33 AM
Peter Gordon from NYC

Sounds like he's confusing free will/determinism with reductionism. Of course our behaviors and cognitive decisions have their basis in the brain, and so the experiment with the left right choice has nothing to do with free will, it just shows that the brain is involved in this decision. In fact he even said "you brain decides". The question is not whether or not the brain is involved in decisions, but whether those decision are determined through some long chain of developmental history or if at some point the brain can come to non-deterministic decisions.

Mar. 30 2012 11:32 AM
Mike from Manhattan from Inwood

I agree with Mr. Harris about religion, but your brain is not you? Like many journalists, and an unfortunately some neuro-scientists, Harris confuses the self with consciousness. The self is much more than consciousness--the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, and the hormonal systems are all part of the self, as are the reflex systems of the central and peripheral nervous systems. The fact that the person, the brain and other parts of the nervous system answer a question before the consciousness is aware of it, does not mean that the person did not answer the question. And indeterminacy may not affect the classical level world, the probabilistic world view is not determinacy.

Mar. 30 2012 11:31 AM

How do you give this author, Sam Harris, so much on-air time to pronounce on profoundly philosophical/theological topics, "sin," "free-will" without allowing the voice of theologian?
PLEASE, ask Fr. Michael Himes (Boston College) Fr. Jim Martin (NYC) or some other voice to give us a different view.
Thank you.

Mar. 30 2012 11:31 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

It's not incoherent if one reads Genesis closely. God created humans to have Free Will, which is the capability to go against God's desires! When Eve was tempted and talked Adam into eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge between Good and Evil, man then acquires the ability to think and acquire scientific knowledge, but now has to sweat and work hard to acquire things that he could have had for nothing, because now he desires things he didn't know he wanted or needed beforehand. So now comes envy and jealousy and sibling rivalries, as between Cain and Abel.

Mar. 30 2012 11:31 AM
Elle from Brooklyn

A lot of comments here are overly simplistic. "So he's saying no one is responsible for anything." I don't think that is what he is saying at all. He is saying that the way people's brains function are a lot more complex than merely saying "We all have the same choices."

Mar. 30 2012 11:31 AM

Has your guest ever heard of God's grace? He is only fooling himself as all atheists do eg. Christopher Hitchens, Madalyn O'Hare et al.

Mar. 30 2012 11:30 AM
DarkSymbolist from NYC!

"No one talks more about God than the new atheists"

Well of course, cause they are speaking out against antiquated religion. No mystery there.

No one spoke about slavery as much as the abolitionists either. So what?

Mar. 30 2012 11:30 AM
RH from nyc

Free will as an excuse for a pscyhopath taking actions is reductio ad absurdum. There IS a choice, a boy who killed his pregnant stepmother did have a choice, just as his father had a choice in how to act around his son and his stepmother had a choice how to act around her stepson. You pull the trigger or not, that's free will.

Religion would love for us to believe that we don't have free will, that we all are puppets of God (or the gods), and we just execute his plan like robots. I guess that means that it was my destiny to write this comment...

(see the Twilight Zone episode with the quarter on its end regarding choice)

Mar. 30 2012 11:30 AM

What then does the speaker's idea say about justice and order? Can we have this if free will is not possible? How can we do "better" if doing better is not a choice?

Mar. 30 2012 11:29 AM
John M Hamilton from Yonkers

Disagreement on a Matter of Fact about religion. Traditional Christianity teaches that our actions are governed by habit. It also teaches that it is by a grace received through surrender that we make moral choices, also governed by habit, but also a function of grace. Free will figured in the Pelagian controversy that human beings are completely responsible for their actions and consequently for decisions that lead to salvation. Pelagianism was rejected. Humanity is free, but it does not mean that we are unbound by powerful influences in each choice we make. To choose rightly requires surrender which is subtly different to choice.

Mar. 30 2012 11:29 AM
Denise Rue from North Brunswick

Hurray for a move toward science coupled with compassion!

Mar. 30 2012 11:28 AM
Emmanuel from w/c

If you follow the autonomized appearance of the neuro-science of course there is no such thing as free will.. and everything is pre - determined ... that is deadlock of looking autonomized subjects.

according to it, there is no such thing as creativity
there is no difference between being a human and being a dog.

go figure.

Mar. 30 2012 11:28 AM
Dom in NJ from Lost in NJ

My wife teaches children diagnosed with BD. These are pretty tough kids with behavior that would make a saint want to beat the tar out of them. My wife says that these kids have almost no choice in how they behave. You can't make a blind child see with punishment or a deaf child hear. These kids - literally - have no free will. And there are a lot of these BD kids these days so a frank discussion on this subject without name calling makes sense. I say that because in the recent past, one of these BD kids went home and killed his parents so understanding the how and why of how people behave makes sense to me.

Mar. 30 2012 11:28 AM
Ed from Larchmont

The reality of free will and the omnipotence of God is a mystery, how they co-exist. We have free will, but nothing happens without God's explicit or allowed will.

No one talks more about God than the new atheists.

Mar. 30 2012 11:28 AM
Meglena from Manhattan

If we don't have "free will" how does one decide to put in efforts, go through therapy or training, impose self-discipline to get better and change the "unlucky" genealogical mental make up?

Mar. 30 2012 11:28 AM
Kristal from New York, NY

As a research psychologist, neuro studies provide merely a snapshot of the interaction of brain and environment. Neuro studies are not the end all, be all. Highlighting these studies is not a useful argument to shut down the entire notion of free will but rather a way to illustrate how complicated our decision-making processes are (our past experiences, our implicit drives, our meta-cognitive processes all impact our conscious processes). This is too broad an interpretation that is being driven by the speaker's ideological principles.

Mar. 30 2012 11:28 AM
J from Annandale NJ

The main problem with this guy's argument -- even if he IS correct -- is that it absolves everyone of responsibility. That's public enemy # 1 in my book. The curse of our culture is that no one is taking responsibility for their actions. Hence Wall Street's collapse. Hence war in Iraq & Afgahanistan. Hence the poor being crushed by their overlords... etc. This guy is lame.

Mar. 30 2012 11:28 AM
Amy from Manhattan

What does Mr. Harris think about 12-step-type groups, which aim to change people's behavior by saying that in the moment when a member is tempted to drink/take a drug/etc., s/he has the choice whether to do it or refrain? I think I don't understand his definition of free will if this isn't an example of it.

Mar. 30 2012 11:27 AM
Chris Garvey from pair of dox

Of course you have free will. You have no choice.

Mar. 30 2012 11:26 AM
Elle from Brooklyn

A fascinating discussion of an ancient question.

Mar. 30 2012 11:26 AM
Ed from Larchmont

Oops, a psychopath isn't morally responsible, so he isn't punished.

You do have free will and are choosing.

Mar. 30 2012 11:26 AM
John A.

OK, so how would the Criminal Justice system shift to follow Mr. Harris' views, if it itself claims to use free will to judge acts now?

Mar. 30 2012 11:25 AM
Sophie from Poughkeepsie, NY

The study of the brain is still considered a new area of study. So his while assertions are interesting i'm sure we'll discover in 5, 10 , 15 years from now that he was wrong.

I'm always skeptical when someone sounds too sure.

Mar. 30 2012 11:25 AM
PL Hayes from Aberystwyth

Did someone mention “quantum”?


Mar. 30 2012 11:25 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

What Sam Harris is arguing is that "free will" is not a supernatural, God-given gift along with the Soul, but that there are mysterious, not well understood scientific reasons why we seem to be able to exercise what we call "Free Will." But "bad people" like Hitler, Stalin or Saddam have had some bad wiring going on there that we don't quite understand yet. Just more attempt to kill off God once and for all.

Mar. 30 2012 11:25 AM
Julian from Manhattan

This seems very strange. How are you different from YOUR brain? The initiation of motor actions or thoughts MUST precede the action or thought - how else could it be?

Mar. 30 2012 11:24 AM
John from Ridgefield Park

Semantics. I need to understand terms before I make a judgement. BUT - 1. What is his definition of "free will". 2. In terms of the flow of the brain, is there not feedback - where the subconscious may push the conscious, but where the cumulative choices you make become part of the subconscious?

Mar. 30 2012 11:24 AM
Ed from Larchmont

Good argument, but perhaps the decision is made in the soul, and it's reflected in the brain and in the conscious mind. This is all a unity acting together. We don't understand enough to draw a conclusion.

Mar. 30 2012 11:23 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

Ed, I'm not sure Marx would totally agree with that put your point is taken.

Mar. 30 2012 11:23 AM

This sounds a lot like the behaviorists who dismissed the idea that animals could potentially be thinking, conscious beings, perceiving them instead as automatons simply responding to stimuli - until cognitive ethologists came along and challenged those dogmatic presumptions.

Mar. 30 2012 11:22 AM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn


I think the consensus here is that Mr. Harris' rhetoric is a load of fetid dingo's kidneys. Is there a way we can vote him off...?

Mar. 30 2012 11:22 AM
Elaine Schenk from Queens, NY

I guess if we have no free will, then presumably Mr. Harris was constrained to write his book being unable to do otherwise, and society is also constrained to incarcerate people who have committed crimes without being responsible for them.

Mar. 30 2012 11:22 AM

Neuroscientists don't need to "believe" that quantum mechanics doesn't play a role in their science --- they could rely on the proofs from decoherence theory to know that theirs is a classical science, not a quantum one.

That said, your description of the quantum world was poor. Things aren't random, they are probabilistic (stochastic doesn't mean random). And so even if the world were fully stochastic, we could still describe human behavior statistically.

Mar. 30 2012 11:20 AM
Bernard from Bronx

How is Sadam Hussein the epitome of evil? OK, so he made decisions that ended in death and destruction, but how is that different from the other leaders in the past or even currently whose decisions ended up causing even more death and destruction that Sadam ever did? Just asking?

Mar. 30 2012 11:20 AM
emmanuel from w/c

"The greatest act of free will is assuming what is necessary anyways" - Nietzsche

Mar. 30 2012 11:19 AM
Pauline Park from Queens

Sam Harris is an example of the insipidity of neo-atheism. If there's absolutely no free will, then there's actually no point in discussing or debating theism vs. atheism, because we don't have the free will to choose to espouse one or the other. Harris sets up a binary opposition between free will & determinism that is a false dichotomy. Absolute voluntarism & absolute determinism fail to pass even the most superficial scrutiny. Clearly, as human beings, we have a degree of free will, but it is bounded & delimited by many factors, including such structural factors as race, ethnicity, class, (dis)ability, gender (identity), sexual orientation, etc. Harris says, "All the efforts we make to change the world still matter." Really? If we have no free will, then any form of activism or advocacy becomes pointless because we don't have the free will to engage in such activities.

Mar. 30 2012 11:18 AM
Ed from Larchmont

The materialist view of the universe implies no free will, of course. Indeterminism isn't free will.

Mar. 30 2012 11:18 AM
Fred L from Brooklyn

This concept seems to be begging the question. If there is no free will, then our belief in free will is dictated by whatever is causing the lack of free will. The only reason to believe this is if you want to. Moreover, it seems, intuitively, to fly in the face of real people who live and act in ways that contradict the circumstance from which they come.

Mar. 30 2012 11:17 AM
Chris Taylor from NJ

Sam Harris is articulating a position that the Nazi's would have agreed with 100%. The ultimate conclusion of this line of thinking is that eugenics is the way to solve our problems. Very sad.

Mar. 30 2012 11:16 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

So, we should have intervened early in the lives of Stalin, Hitler, Saddam, Tojo, Mussolini, etc. We should not hate them but pity them for being so unlucky as not to have gotten perfect brains like that of Sam Harris :)

Mar. 30 2012 11:16 AM
DarkSymbolist from NYC!

Define "Free Will" as Sam harris is defining it please

Mar. 30 2012 11:16 AM

Sheldon from Brooklyn - "Is he going to deconstruct the brain and the decisions it makes to a bunch of electrical pulses or something?"


Mar. 30 2012 11:15 AM
John A.

"Another point of possible confusion."
Massive LOL

Mar. 30 2012 11:15 AM
Jerry from nyc

it's a buddhist concept that we are merely observers of happenings

Mar. 30 2012 11:15 AM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

I think I read Mr. Harris' earlier book. An eye-opener, but maybe G-d wanted him to make us think.

In any event, we all think we have free will, and yes, I can choose whether or not to smoke or which brand of mayonnaise to buy, but it can ultimately be argued that we were destined to smoke or not, or buy one brand over another. This is another of those chicken/egg controversies; however, I've solved the original chicken/egg. This is just one of those questions that will never be answered. How about checking with Oedipus...

Mar. 30 2012 11:14 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

We, as humans, have the ability to reason, more so than other animals. Is this guy advocating nihilism?

Mar. 30 2012 11:14 AM
GJ from NYC

He is saying something I have thought my whole life. If society understood this, the world would be a much better place.

Mar. 30 2012 11:14 AM
Edward from NJ

Presumably, he wants people to change their behavior based on his research. Isn't such a change an exercise of free will?

Mar. 30 2012 11:14 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

Cain had the Free Will to murder Abel. He was not naturally his brother's keeper.

Mar. 30 2012 11:10 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

Is he going to deconstruct the brain and the decisions it makes to a bunch of electrical pulses or something?

Mar. 30 2012 11:08 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

Free will is what God gave Adam, and is the freedom to disobey God. Sam Harris is a perfect example of having Free Will. He has the free will to go against God, just as Adam and Eve did, and they suffered the consequences. If you exercise your Free Will to break the law, you take a chance of having to face the consequences making wrong decisions.

Mar. 30 2012 11:05 AM
Edward from Washington Heights AKA pretentious Hudson Heights

I rely on my "Magic 8 Ball" for my decisions.

Mar. 30 2012 10:58 AM
Peter from Manhattan

Arthur Schopenhauer's "On the Freedom of the Will" is required reading in this context. He argues quite convincingly that the very notion of free will (as most people would interpret it) is absurd on its face. In a nutshell, we can do what we want, but we can't want what we want.

Mar. 30 2012 10:55 AM
Hugh Sansom

The obvious question: Is anybody listening to WNYC this morning or anywhere going to alter his or her behavior because Sam Harris has deigned to come down from Mount Olympus to tell us poor, benighted, delusional believers in free will?

If not, then how is Harris's argument any more than hand-waving and pseudo-intellectual masturbation?

Mar. 30 2012 10:46 AM
Hugh Sansom

I urge Brian Lehrer and WNYC to get somebody on like Philip Kitcher, professor of philosophy at Columbia and very very knowledge on the sciences, or population biologist Richard Lewontin of Harvard. Richard Boyd at Cornell is also a phenomenal philosopher of science. Any of them or a dozen others could speak to the grossly biased reductionism of pseudo-intellectuals like Sam Harris.

The late Stephen Jay Gould or Thomas Kuhn or Richard Rorty would have been terrific on nonsense like Harris's.

Mar. 30 2012 10:43 AM
inwoodita from nyc

If I thought free will was an illusion, I'd be just as mentally a mess as my mother. As it is, I heard myself thinking one day and realized I was being, not just becoming, my mother, and it dawned on me that I was not obliged to go down the path of insanity that she had. People were telling me left and right that I needed to go on antidepressants and see a shrink. I decided all I needed to do was change my life, and started by getting rid of all these so-called friends. I made new friends eventually. I changed my job from modelling to software testing, after going back to college and taking structural linguistics and reeducating myself with set theory and canonic logic. Then I changed my way of emotional thinking, through some very strict exercises that weaned me off my debilitatingly obsessive thinking, and rejected all the negative messages my mother had installed in my brain all my life, like some kind of Utilities Folder in my "hard drive," if you will. Well, it wasn't easy, but I did it. I am not a depressive paranoid person as I was in my 20's, just like my mother. I am happy. Every time I run into one of my old "friends" I can feel them trying to suck me back into that old me, because that's all they understand. I stopped talking to my mother when I realized she was the worst culprit in that respect. I have never been happier in my life, or more productive, or more healthy both physically and mentally. You call that not having free will?

Mar. 30 2012 10:26 AM
John A.

To be able to say I act completely due to external circumstances is a path to ultimate irresponsibility.

Mar. 30 2012 10:12 AM
Frank De Canio from Union City, NJ

Free will is a function of prior contingencies. I am free to "choose" what the predominant tenor of contingencies will choose for me. The addict who is wary of punishment on the one hand and has positive contingencies that reinforce productive behavior will be informed by the latter, as will the child raised in a broken home act according to his determinants - unless of course there are other, counter-contingencies of behavior present. The idea that a burglar is a Beethoven who "chooses" to rob, or a Beethoven is a burglar who "chooses" to write a ninth symphony would be ludicrous. All behavior is determined by biological, social and environmental determinants. Even "random" behavior - the closest approximation of undetermined behavior (a rock going downhill) is determined by geographical contingencies.

Mar. 30 2012 09:59 AM
Ed from Larchmont

When a person is declared a saint in the Catholic Church his or her body is dug up and reburied in a church or monastery. In 50 or so cases, the body - after many years in the earth - has been found to be incorrupt (for example St. Bernadette Soubiroux in Nevers, France). In many cases their body is placed in a glass case and is on display. How does the scientist Sam Harris explain this?

Mar. 30 2012 08:10 AM
Jessie Henshaw from way uptown

The illusion of "free will" is in the usual misinterpretation of what natural phenomenon is being referred to. Everyone is certainly free to originate their own thinking, and that's a natural creative process. It's not "beyond natural process", but involves making an independent choice to explore one's own local environment and discover new ways to think about it.

What makes it "free" is that engaging with one's environment is not determined by outside forces. That's what science still looks for to answer all scientific questions. As science slowly begins to realize that self-organizing processes are also pervasive in nature, and essential to the normal events all around us, the mistaken idea that nothing but deterministic processes exist will melt away.

Free thinking basically rests on whether a person takes initiative to explore their world, or chooses not to. That's a free motivational choice, to engage of not to engage, i.e. "free will" to take part in your world.

Mar. 30 2012 07:32 AM
Annata from 10009

I came to the same realization in the past few years that we don't have free will. As a buddhist, I see us as nature (and nature as us). During the winter I would often marvel at the sight of the stark, leaveless tree branches. I'd wonder how does a tree limb "choose" its next direction? Of course, a tree branch could go many directions - left, right, up, down, it could split, etc - so it seems that indeed, there is a choice to be made. However, we don't consider the direction the tree 'chooses' to be a decision that was freely made by the tree.... Instead we say the choice was determined or caused by internal and external conditions, as opposed to free will... Why would we think our choices are determined any differently?

Mar. 30 2012 07:31 AM
Ed from Larchmont

"Finally, until Funkenstein's 'Theology and the Scientific Imagination from the Middle Ages to the Seventeeth Century' (1986), no one would have suspected any connection between late medieval metaphysics and contemporary neo-Darwinian atheism."

Gregory, Brad "The Unintended Reformation", Harvard, 2012.

Mar. 30 2012 06:04 AM
Ed from Larchmont

Sam Harris is an embarrassment. He is simply promoting the philosophy of materialism, which current philosophy is moving away from. His books are adolescent mudslinging that shows impressive lack of knowledge. Trash.

Science, as everyone knows, can't say anything about free will since free will is a property of the soul, a spiritual material, and science studies only physical matter.

Unless 'spiritual' sounds too unreal, note that God is a Spirit.

Mar. 30 2012 06:01 AM

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