Free Will by Sam Harris: Book Overview & Key Takeaways

Why does Sam Harris think we should reject the concept of free will? How does he think we operate instead?

In Free Will, Sam Harris defines free will and argues that it’s an illusion. He explains why it matters whether we have free will and outlines the ways in which he thinks we can let go of free will without losing our sense of self.

Continue reading for an overview of this book that might have you rethinking everything.

Overview of Free Will by Sam Harris

Many of the assumptions we make about ourselves and others are based on our belief that we have free will: the power to choose the decisions we make and the actions we take. But, in Free Will, Sam Harris argues that free will is an illusion—one that contradicts what scientists have learned about how our brains work.

Sam Harris is the author of Waking Up (2014) and The Moral Landscape (2010) and has a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience from UCLA. In Free Will (2012), he contends that our decisions and intentions are determined by causes beyond our control, including simple chance, even when we think we choose them freely and deliberately. Drawing on theories about the physical realities of the brain and about our subjective experiences of cognition, decision-making, and consciousness, Harris makes the case that we aren’t really in charge of what’s happening in our heads—but that by accepting that we don’t have free will, we can still make our efforts and decisions meaningful.

What Is Free Will? 

To understand Harris’s argument that free will doesn’t exist, we first have to examine the concept of free will. We’ll explore the ways in which Harris and other thinkers define free will and examine how these ideas differ from our everyday working definition of free will.

What’s the Definition of Free Will?

When Harris argues that we don’t have free will, his argument draws on a very specific definition of free will. Harris characterizes free will as a state in which we’re conscious of, and have control over, the processes that give rise to our thoughts and decisions. He contends that if we don’t have the ability to observe and influence the processes behind our thoughts, then we can’t really have ultimate responsibility over what we think and do.

How Do Other Philosophers Explain Free Will? 

Harris explains that three points of view have emerged from philosophers’ efforts to define free will and determine whether we have it. These schools of thought are called determinism, libertarianism, and compatibilism. Next, we’ll explore each of them and how they answer the question of whether or not we have free will—as well as Harris’s take on each of them.

Determinism: External Factors, Not Free Will, Drive Our Behavior

Determinists believe that we don’t have free will and that our thoughts, desires, intentions, and choices are determined by events outside our control. Harris explains that for determinists, every event in the universe—including each of our thoughts, decisions, and actions—is caused by a long chain of events. We could theoretically trace this chain back to the beginning of our lives (or even back to the beginning of the universe) to find an explanation for any decision we make. Determinists argue that if a decision is caused in this way by events that came before it, then it’s not made freely.

Harris’s take: Harris adopts a determinist point of view. He writes that an array of external factors—events and influences that are outside of our control (like what our parents taught us when we were children) or even outside of our consciousness (like the subtle messages we’ve received from books, TV, and movies)—have conditioned our brains in precisely the right ways for it to make the decisions that we feel we’ve made freely. Because he contends that our thoughts and intentions are fully caused by these past events and by the systematic way that our brains respond to them, through processes that we can’t consciously access, Harris concludes that we don’t have free will.

Libertarianism: External Factors Affect, but Don’t Determine, Our Actions

Libertarians—referring to the philosophical view, not the political philosophy of the same name—believe that events are not predetermined and that we do have free will. Harris explains that libertarians reject the idea of determinism: They don’t believe that all of the events in the universe, including our choices and actions, are caused by past events. Libertarians also don’t believe that our thoughts and decisions are fully explainable in physical terms: by the systematic ways our brains respond to past events and to influences outside of our consciousness and control. Instead, libertarians contend that while these influences affect our thoughts and behavior, we’re ultimately free to make our own decisions.

Harris’s take: As a determinist, Harris agrees with libertarians on incompatibilism: the idea that free will and determinism are inherently contradictory. But he disagrees with them on indeterminism: the idea that not everything is predetermined. Harris also rejects the libertarian idea that human behavior isn’t fully explained by the physical cause and effect that occurs when our brains respond to influences outside of our consciousness or to stimuli outside our bodies. He also objects to the way that some libertarians account for this complexity by arguing that we aren’t just physical entities and may even have something like a mind or a soul in addition to our physical matter. Harris rejects this possibility.

Compatibilism: External Factors Cause Our Behavior, but So Does Free Will

Compatibilists believe that we have free will and they also believe in determinism. That means they accept free will and determinism as compatible truths (unlike both determinists and libertarians, who believe that these two are incompatible). According to Harris, compatibilists contend that past events determine our decisions and that those decisions are still our own. This means that compatibilists define free will differently than Harris does: as an ability to act in ways that are consistent with your preferences and reasoning, without outside forces stopping you. In other words, compatibilists believe that while your actions are caused by prior events, they’re also free as long as they accord with what you consciously decide and desire.

Harris’s take: Harris rejects the idea that choices can be both caused and free because he says that this point of view can’t be reconciled with what scientists have discovered about the brain. In particular, he writes that compatibilism doesn’t make sense if our thoughts and choices are caused by unconscious processes, which in turn are influenced by myriad external factors. He argues that simply becoming aware of a choice after it’s been determined by the brain, and then acting on it, isn’t the same thing as freely and consciously choosing it.

How Do We Think About Free Will in Our Everyday Lives? 

While it’s useful to understand how philosophers talk about free will, there’s another important explanation of free will that Harris examines (and ultimately rejects): free will as we think of it in our everyday lives. According to Harris, the popular idea of free will is that we’re the true source of what we think and feel. In other words, we make our choices freely, and our thoughts, intentions, and desires originate with us.

This idea enables us to feel agency and responsibility for our behavior. According to Harris, most people are familiar with this idea of free will, and it shapes our sense of self and agency. But Harris points out that this idea of free will is substantially more expansive than the most popular argument in favor of free will among philosophers: the compatibilist idea of free will as the ability to act on the thoughts and intentions that occur to us—after they’re caused by outside events and influences—without anything stopping us. Harris writes that the popular idea of free will falls apart if we accept that our thoughts are shaped by causes we can’t control.

What’s the Case Against Free Will?

Though experts’ different definitions of free will inspire arguments about whether we make our choices freely, Harris takes the determinist position that we can’t, and don’t, have free will. We’ll examine how Harris makes the case that free will is an illusion and how he explains why we believe in it in the first place.

How Can We Tell That Free Will Is an Illusion? 

Harris writes that we believe in free will, not because it makes logical sense, but because it squares with our intuitions and feelings. Like other determinists, he believes that what we feel about our agency misleads us. What we experience when we’re thinking about a decision doesn’t indicate the true causes of our thoughts and actions, according to Harris. You might feel that what you think consciously—for example, the train of thought that seems to lead you to decide to work on a report rather than go to the movies—causes your decision. But Harris contends that the chain of events responsible for that decision is actually a separate set of processes in your brain, and the subjective experience of a free choice is an illusion.

In explaining his position on free will, Harris writes that careful scrutiny of our thoughts and choices reveals two important insights—and both of them expose free will as an illusion. We’ll look at these two insights next.  

All of Our Choices Emerge From “Prior Causes”

The first insight that reveals free will as an illusion, according to Harris, is that our thoughts and intentions emerge from what he calls “prior causes.” This means that, even though you think that you’re in control of your thoughts and actions—and you think that there is a “you” involved in these processes—it’s actually your brain that’s responsible not only for what you do and what you think but also for your subjective sense that “you” are an autonomous self who can think or act independently of what your brain is doing.

Harris writes that the unconscious processes that occur in your brain and determine your thoughts are influenced by things that happened prior to the present moment, outside of your control and consciousness. (For example, when you’re shopping for groceries, you might think that you’re choosing a cereal freely and deliberately. But factors like the ads you’ve seen, the cereals you ate as a child, the taste preferences you inherited from your parents, articles you’ve read about nutrition, the colors of the boxes, and so on direct what your brain is doing as it makes the decision.) Harris contends that a system where your thoughts and actions are determined outside of your consciousness and control is not compatible with free will.

Our Choices Are Determined by the Laws of Nature, Including Chance

A second insight that reveals the illusory nature of free will is the idea that our thoughts and intentions occur as a result of the laws of nature, including chance. Harris explains that the brain is a physical system that is subject to the laws of nature. The brain reacts to physical stimuli and processes—including things that happen by chance within our own bodies, like the random firing of synapses—and then it produces impulses that we interpret as our own desires and decisions. 

For example, if you’re walking in the park and feel hungry, you might make what feels like a conscious choice to buy an ice cream cone. But, Harris would argue this is just the result of physical processes: Your brain determines that you feel hungry, interprets sensory information like the sight of the ice cream truck, accesses memories, releases chemicals in response to the anticipation of eating an ice cream cone, and weighs factors like your budget and diet.

Why Do We Believe in Free Will?

If free will is an illusion, as Harris contends, then why are we so convinced that it’s real? According to Harris, we believe in the illusion of free will because we’ve accepted two myths about our thinking and decision-making processes. Next, we’ll examine each of these ideas and why we believe them, even if they’re wrong. 

Myth 1: We Could Have Chosen to Behave Differently in the Past

First, Harris writes that we think we have free will because we look at a choice we made in the past and think we could have made a different decision in the same situation. This feels like proof of free will, but Harris argues that it’s illusory proof. 

Harris argues that, given that our thoughts and actions are determined by prior causes, there’s no conceivable way that we could have chosen to behave differently in a given situation. If we were to replay the situation over and over again, and the circumstances stay consistent and the external factors influencing us stay the same, then our decision will always be the same.

Myth 2: We Consciously Drive Our Thoughts and Actions in the Present

Second, Harris writes that we justify our belief in free will by believing that our thoughts and actions originate with us. He explains that we can disprove the idea that we’re the source of our thoughts by noticing that we have no control over the thoughts we think. To do this, Harris recommends observing how your thoughts and intentions arise: You’ll notice that you don’t decide what thoughts to think, just as you don’t decide what you prefer when choosing between vanilla and chocolate. Harris writes that our thoughts and preferences don’t originate with our conscious selves but instead just occur to our conscious selves. You can do what you want to do—but you can’t decide what you want.

Harris writes that another way to disprove the idea that we drive our own thoughts and actions is to look at empirical evidence. He explains that researchers have demonstrated that the brain processes information and makes choices before we’re aware of the decision—even though we feel like we’re consciously making the decision. For example, in laboratory experiments, researchers have detected brain activity that shows we intend to move 300 milliseconds before we have the thought that we intend to move. Similarly, neuroimaging techniques can be used to predict which button a research participant will choose to press as many as seven to 10 seconds before the person has consciously decided which button to press.

Why Does It Matter Whether Free Will Is an Illusion?

Many questions about free will sound abstract until we start to think about their real-life implications. Harris argues that we’re better off knowing we don’t have free will than wrongly assuming we do. We’ll explore the practical benefits of accepting that free will is an illusion, examining Harris’s arguments that knowing we lack free will can help us treat ourselves and others more compassionately and ethically.

It Can Make Us Humbler and More Compassionate With Ourselves

The first benefit of recognizing free will as an illusion is that we gain a new freedom: freedom from a misplaced sense of credit or blame for our actions, according to Harris. He contends that, once we know that external factors shape what we do, then we’ll feel more humble about our accomplishments and more compassionate about our failures. He also thinks that we’d benefit from realizing that much of our character comes down to luck: Different circumstances would have made us into a different sort of person.

Harris contends that, even without free will, our efforts still matter. He differentiates between determinism, or the idea that our thoughts and actions have a cause, and fatalism—the idea that whatever will happen will happen, whether we take action or just watch things play out. Harris writes that sitting back and doing nothing isn’t the answer: He says that even though our decisions are caused, these decisions still matter, as does the effort we put into engaging in conscious thought and deliberation. This is because even though free will is an illusion, our choices and efforts still determine what kind of people we are and what kind of lives we live.

It Can Help Us Treat Other People More Ethically

A second benefit of accepting the illusory nature of free will is that we can change how we see other people’s moral choices. Harris argues that, because prior causes—including those that happen by chance—influence each person’s choices, moral character, and ability to comply with moral norms, we can’t give them full credit or blame for what they do. He believes that we can treat others more ethically by realizing that people aren’t fully responsible for the crimes they commit. For example, he thinks it comes down to bad luck for someone to be a psychopath and argues that we should develop ways to rehabilitate, not blame, such people.

In much the same way that Harris contends our choices still matter even though we can’t choose our choices, he argues that there are practical benefits to holding people responsible for their behavior even if they aren’t responsible in an absolute way. Our current criminal justice system assumes that we’re responsible for our actions and that criminals choose freely to break laws. So when we drop the idea of free will and realize that anyone committing a crime hasn’t caused their intentions or their actions, then we also have to change our idea of justice. Harris outlines three focuses that he thinks our criminal justice system should adopt to give fair treatment to people who commit crimes. We’ll look at these focuses next.

Focus 1: Assess Their Degree of Guilt

The first thing we should focus on when someone commits a crime, Harris argues, is assessing their degree of guilt. He contends that we can judge someone’s blameworthiness by whether they made a conscious, voluntary decision to harm someone else. This is useful not because they are responsible for that decision in any absolute way, but because a voluntary decision reflects the beliefs, prejudices, and desires characteristic of the kind of person they really are. So we could consider someone who’s clearly made a deliberate decision to harm someone else as more guilty than someone whose intention or moral competence is less clear.

Focus 2: Acknowledge the Role of Luck

The second focus that Harris suggests for situations where someone has committed a crime is the idea that luck plays a significant role in our ability to behave morally. He writes that our genes, our upbringing, our environment, and the ideas that occur to us all determine our character. Chance plays a role in all of these influences. Harris advocates for creating a criminal justice system that acknowledges the role of luck in determining our moral character—and understands criminals as victims of their own biology and environment—so that we can become more compassionate in our treatment of people who break laws.

Focus 3: Determine How Much of a Risk They Pose to Others

A third and final focus for society’s treatment of people who commit a crime should be to determine how much of a risk they pose to others. Harris contends that our criminal justice system is driven by our desire for retribution—a drive that makes no sense if we don’t believe in free will. He writes that when choosing how to punish people, we should focus on the risks they pose to others. By curtailing our desire to punish people for the sake of punishment, we could place a stronger emphasis on the social usefulness of the punishment. We might continue to incarcerate people, but only if incarceration will prevent them from harming other people, help rehabilitate them after a crime, or meaningfully deter them from committing more crimes in the future.

How Can We Maintain a Sense of Self Without Free Will?

Even though Harris argues that we don’t have free will, he doesn’t believe that accepting free will as an illusion—which requires a major shift in perspective for many of us—has to undermine everything we believe about ourselves and others. We’ll explore three ways Harris says we can maintain a strong sense of self and agency even in the absence of free will.

Recognize That You Can Still Think Deliberately

First, Harris recommends recognizing the crucial role that deliberate thought plays in your life. He explains that while it’s true that you don’t cause your thoughts or choices, it’s also true that you have to think and deliberate to make certain kinds of decisions or plans. (Some choices, like picking a bagel or oatmeal for breakfast, can happen almost automatically. But that’s not true for complex decisions like choosing which neighborhood to live in.) Harris writes that you can choose to think deliberately or to focus your attention on a specific question or decision. Even if you don’t have ultimate control over the thoughts that you think, he recommends recognizing that you still do need to think and deliberate.

Become More Aware of the Causes of Your Feelings and Actions

Second, Harris recommends gaining more control over your life by tuning in—and responding—to the external influences that affect how you feel and act. He explains that while it’s impossible to recognize all of these outside factors, you can identify and respond to some of them. For example, you might notice that you find it difficult to focus when you work from home and attribute your lack of productivity to a shortfall of skill or motivation. But if you take a closer look and realize that your desk is cluttered, the room is poorly lit, and the sound of construction next door is distracting, then you can take steps to change your environment. Those changes can improve your concentration and therefore your behavior.

Realize That Your Choices Still Matter

Third, Harris advises acknowledging that, even if you don’t make your choices freely, those choices are still important. Even though each decision you make is determined by outside causes and events, your choices still matter. He explains that we still have control over doing what we decide to do (even though we aren’t in control of the decision we made in the first place). In other words, once you’ve made a decision based on your intentions, you’re in control of acting according to that decision. For example, if you’ve decided to eat a healthy dinner, you can control your actions by selecting and consuming nutritious food.

Free Will by Sam Harris: Book Overview & Key Takeaways

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.