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Free Will
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on March 6, 2012
If you possess even a passing interest in free will, I highly recommend this book. Using up-to-date neuroscientific evidence and convincing logic, Sam Harris expertly demonstrates that free will does not exist, at least not as it is traditionally conceived. All the ideas and arguments used in this book are presented in an exceptionally clear manner. Although the topic of free will has been discussed for millenia, this book still comes out feeling fresh.

As an aside, I appreciated how Dr. Harris presents views which oppose his own (e.g., that of Dan Dennett) in a fair way. I also appreciate the humor in this book (especially towards the end) - I laughed out loud on more than one occasion. This book was a blast to read.

In sum, this really is a fantastic book, and I recommended it to anyone with even a passing interest in free will. If you currently accept free will as a reality, you must read this book! If you already view free will as largely illusory, you should still read this book; wither way, I guarantee you will learn information that you consider valuable.

As one reviewer of this book says, Free Will by Sam Harris says in 13000 words what many books fail to do in 100000. Read this book - you won't regret it.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
You can sum up Harris' argument about free will quite succinctly: you are free to choose what you want, but you are not free to want what you want. In this essay (it's not really a book with just over 60 pages of actual text) Harris outlines the idea that free will is an illusion. Our actions have causes that are fixed by our past histories. In other words, if you went back in time and duplicated your life to the last second, you'd be reading this sentence thinking the exact same thing you are now thinking. You did not have any "choice" in deciding to read that sentence, your life history and the causal events behind that history lead up to you reading that sentence. This of course, has profound implications for many aspects of human behavior, particularly morality.

I am on the fence with Harris, as I sometimes think I'm a compatibilist (a term I didn't know until I read this book). Essentially, that means yes, our choices are caused by a particular past meeting a particular present, but if an individual makes that choice on their own, free from unavoidable external pressures, than that individual is "free" with regards to their larger environment. However, I could never avoid the nagging thought that this is just a shell game, and Harris calls it out as such (and calls out Daniel Dennett for his belief in it). I still think it's a valuable short-hand for psychologists and behaviorists to use, but ultimately, I am persuaded that Harris is right. Because the causal events around us lock us in to our behavior just as surely as gravity locks the Earth around the sun.

If one believes in the uncertainty of quantum mechanics, then free will is still an illusion as random chance replaces causality. If one believes in a soul, then one is still stuck with the fact that we act before we know what we are consciously doing, and that we are unaware and/or not in control of much of our behavior (e.g., cravings). With regards to morality, Harris focuses on risk and prevention, noting that retribution is rather pointless under a deterministic scheme, although behavioral modification is not (behavior can be caused, punishment can cause changes). He also briefly points out how conservative viewpoints seem to be more deeply founded on the idea of free will, ignoring the crucial role that luck often plays in determining one's life, state of mind, and actions.

Overall then, this is a very short, but powerful book. I would criticize it for perhaps not having enough examples, but then it wouldn't be the short punch Harris wanted it to be. It could also use more discussion of the neurological evidence regarding consciousness, as that is still a relatively new area of scientific inquiry and things could change. That said, with the current knowledge we possess, Harris makes a strong argument that the idea that we have free will is simply an illusion. Far from condemning us to a meaningless life, Harris points out that this could ultimately lead us to more fruitful, positive, and compassionate lives. If nothing else, that makes this a short argument worth reading.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on April 19, 2012
Up to this point of our civilization, we had realized that we cannot be proud of our race, ethnicity, family, etc. Now, thanks to the efforts of people like Sam, we get to know that we cannot even be proud of possessing a certain type of personality or ideas. Of course we always have few options (not necessarily desired by us) to choose in any circumstance, based on our state of mind (still not totally developed and caused by us). However, the only thing we can promote is to help people become physically and mentally healthier, and fill up their minds with more humanistic memes. And on the book's conclusion about the absurdity of the hatred against the victimizing victims: Nothing can be more liberating and humanizing than that for the future of our humanity!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on March 23, 2012
*I did not find anything to dispute in what Sam writes.
*A very good primer on the nonexistence of "free will", + consequences...
*Very short, but still a bit repetitive: the main point is rephrased here and there, again and again!
*The style is OK, but could have been better. More examples and metaphors could have been used.
*The notes at the end mostly explain interesting but complex neuroscience experiments. Nice.
*Definitely worth the money.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on August 16, 2012
I was hoping to read a compelling argument supported by facts that would sway the doubtful and reaffirm the converted. Unfortunately I have to insert a "but" in my next line. But what I read seemed more like a transcript of a conversation at a local Starbucks than a carefully crafted book that you'd find folks reading at their local Starbucks. In a court of law I'd have to find free will not guilty of fraud based on a lack of evidence presented by the prosecution, led by Mr. Harris, even though I would quietly agree with his position based on arguments put forth by others. A light breezy read, I'd recommend this for leisurely beach reading while sipping on a few pina coladas. No heavy thought processing required.
Joe White
[...]
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on March 9, 2012
Just bought and read Sam Harris' new book, 'Free Will'. It uses neuroscience and physics to explain why the concept of free will does not exist. My conclusion is the same: there is no such thing as free will; what you think is a conscious decision is really the result of underlying biology and physics at work. Rather than being saddened by this information, keep it in mind for future endeavors.
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on January 25, 2013
The reason I bought this book was that I was discussing the same idea with my friends for some time and found it difficult to convey my understanding to others (that is, to justify my idea). I was actually excited when I saw this book. But when I read it I was underwhelmed. Sam Harris started with a promising idea, but somehow was unable to provide enough evidence to back it up.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on April 24, 2012
The precept of the book is that there is in reality no Free Will: That we are all molded by our genetic material and experiences, and as such, are not really responsible for our actions.

Though I agree with the concept that our individual history affects or outlooks and actions; I adamantly disagree with the premise of the book, which is the abject lack of free will. Individual history should be viewed as a modifying consideration, when judging someone's actions; but leaping from this position to an abject lack of free will I believe is fundamentally flawed. Should this belief system gain traction, and I hope it doesn't, it would fundamentally undermine our entire legal system, which is based on personal accountability.
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on July 21, 2015
Thought provoking essay on why we have the illusion of free will. Our brains process thought and action milliseconds before we have the conscious thought. So in essence everything is already determined by our brain using our genetic makeup, past experiences etc. Fascinating
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Sam Harris IS a tremendous thinker.
I am in no position to criticize but only offer a seemingly missing diagnostic throughout the book.... The laws of EMERGENCE.
There is a point where the pixels become pictures; atoms become molecules; molecules become cells; cells become organs; bla bla bla, you know where I am going with this.
Of course when identity is reduced to neural activities all appears fuzzy... After all reality makes NO sense at the atomic level.
The issue with human thinking and consciousness is that they are uni/directional, in a multidirectional world.
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