Is Sam Harris Right to Say Free Will is an “Illusion”?

Man is born free, and everywhere he is in shackles. ~ Rousseau

Can we decide who are parents are? No. Can we decide what we look like when we are born? No. Can we decide which country we are born into? No. Can we even decide what personality traits we inherit upon birth? No. It seems, then, that a large part of our existence is already predetermined. If this is the case, how much free will do we have, if any at all?

Sam Harris, American author and Neuroscientist plans to release his new book Free Will in May – indicating the topic is still as pertinent as ever, and remains a issue of profound ambiguity. In the book Harris argues free will is an “illusion” and we have known this for about a “century” (1).

Harris’ conclusion is hubristic – particularly because our knowledge of the brain is limited, so limited, in fact, that Neuroscientist Lawrence Parsons of the University of Sheffield believes we are 300-500 years away from understanding the brain and all its complexities. Furthermore, our understanding of what human consciousness is the subject of conjecture and speculation. Philosopher Colin McGinn believes “the more we know of the brain, the less it looks like a device for creating consciousness: it’s just a big collection of biological cells and a blur of electrical activity – all machine and no ghost” (2).

So here we are: we have limited knowledge of the brain and we don’t have a clue what consciousness is, yet we want to say that free will is, factually speaking, an “illusion”? Now, while it is possible that free will is an illusion and all our actions are predetermined by prior causes of which we have no control over, we need to be careful of labeling something as “fact”.

Timothy Winter, intellectual and academic, believes that while free will is “highly circumscribed”, we have “limited free will”

The mention of the body/soul dichotomy may seem fictitious to some – but only to the narrow minded. Once again we need to be careful: to concretely say we do not have a soul is a theoretical fallacy; ‘we have no proof for the soul’, is more sensible. Science, however, will never be able to penetrate the world of the unseen or the world of metaphysics, simply because it is not interested in it. For those that rely purely on scientific observation, it is only the physical, tangible world that can empirically experienced, therefore, if anything else exists, it is out of science’s domain and has no relevance to us.

The existence of the soul should therefore remain open. If the soul does exist, however, we can posit that free will exists, too. Why, you may ask? If one believes the soul and the brain interact to form intentions – and that intentionality derives from the soul – our brain is therefore at the behest of our soul. Without the soul, the brain – it could be argued – cannot function properly.

Scientists have been studying intentionality rigorously for the past ten years, but there is still no definitive answer in relation to how intentionality is formed. Clearly, when analyzing the brain, consciousness and intentionality, there seems to be a missing component. Science has shown us that decisions can be predicted between 300 milliseconds – 10 seconds before we are even aware of them. But if the origin of our actions come from the soul, this would go some way to explaining this phenomenon.

However, because the soul and the brain must interact for free will to exist – when we suffer from mental illness, or when we take drugs which alter our biological chemistry – the link between the material and the immaterial becomes severed, and the brain then begins to function by itself. This is why in most religions, the mentally unwell or those who are not consciously aware of what they are doing are excused of Divine accountability, as so long as they are in that state.

If we don’t have any free will – as Harris suggests, or we have limited free will, as Timothy Winters suggests – can we enhance the amount of free will we possess, or even, seemingly paradoxically, “activate” our free will?

Winter says: “At the moment we authentically rise above our genetic programming and education and take a moral decision, we are stepping outside of the mechanics of the universe. We don’t create our own actions, there is only one Creator, but in an instantaneous, miraculous fraction of a second, we can acquire actions and this is of the mystery of the Ruh [soul].”

If we are slaves to our previous experiences, education and genetic programming, we cannot step outside “the mechanics of the universe” but if we transcend everything apart from what we know to be innately good or bad [something we all have within us], we then make a moral choice for ourselves, and activate our free will.

If we do, therefore, have free will, it can be enhanced through the pursuit of transcending our ego, our doubts, fears and inhibitions, and, in turn, by activating a component within our consciousness that allows us to tap into that which is innate within us. That which is innate with in us – it could be argued – is the soul, the component in us that acquires actions from the Creator. Therefore there is not just a body/soul dichotomy at work – there is a trilateral harmony between: the Creator, the acquirer of actions (the soul) and the disposer of these actions (the brain).

McGinn says we have more ignorance than knowledge; so the worst thing we can do is coalesce our ignorance with arrogance. Let’s leave the options open and not be one-dimensional creatures. The truth is there to be discerned but we must first accept that there is more than one way of arriving at it.

“Those who play chess are constrained by the predetermined limits decreed by the game’s inventor. And, although the player of chess is in complete subordination to the originator’s decreed limitations, the player’s own merit and effort or neglect and lassitude will determine whether he wins or loses the game of chess..ponder this well, for chess is an edifying metaphor and a sagely invention. (3)”

1) The free will delusion, page 46 New Statesman, 19 December 2011

2) All machine and no ghost? page 43, New Statesman 20 February 2012



Add yours →

  1. I really like reading a post that can make people think.
    Also, many thanks for permitting me to comment!

  2. are you free to do that, which is does not occur you to do ?

    do you get to choose the random range of thoughts that pop up in your head ?

  3. Free will is constrained by thousands of years of conditioning, this conditioning being passed between human beings as a sort of virus known as “reality”.
    Everything we do is born of the reality and expressed within it, judged by it.
    The “reality” is not the creation of the pure essence of love one understands when one gazes into the eyes of a newborn child.
    As we grow, so “reality” mutates us.
    But what if we ask the question why?
    What if we ask if the “reality” was deliberately shaped to distance human beings from the pure essence of love?
    And then what if we ask how we can reshape reality to better reflect the true essence of humanity?
    Just a thought.

    • ‘Reality’ is subjective in the sense that many people think they know what it is and we all have different perspectives on life, but it is objective, in my opinion, because there is only one Reality: the Divine Reality.

  4. Great blog!

    I wholeheartedly agree about the limitations of science in its attempts to explain EVERYTHING.

    I think it is worth pointing out that, in the modern world’s attempts to understand the nature of consciousness as well as other subjects that modern science is not qualified to explore, the current scientific/materialistic/secularistic conclusions made by its adherents are all based on certain assumptions of the nature of reality. The dualism (advocated by Decartes, considered to be the father of modern philosophy) inherent in this world view reduces the nature of the world (and therefore all that can be known) to that which can be perceived, and the observer as being a purely rational being whilst denying any other faculties within him/her as a means to derive the thuth of things. This excessive reductionism is one of the pillars of the modernism and its understanding of the world.

    The arrogance and foolishness of the priests of scientism is accentuated by the fact that they are unaware of these suffocating assumptions and yet they trample into almost every sphere of knowledge and claim to be victors and champions of truth, belittling anyone who adheres to a religion.

    It is the inner teachings of religion that should be consulted as the authority in understanding matters pertaining to the soul, consciousness, free will etc. Regarding the subject of free will, I think an interesting philosophy within the Islamic tradition is worth highlighting.

    As an interpretation of the meaning of the famous Hadith by the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) regarding the ‘greater jihad’ being jihad of the soul, his cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib (RA) described the soul as being like a spiritual battleground. At one end are the forces of Al-Rahman (All Merciful) and this is led by the intellect (NOT defined as reason alone) and at the other end are the forces of Al Hawa (caprice, whims) led by the forces of Al Shaytan (the devil). The Nafs (man’s spiritual state) is in the middle, and is in constant tension between these two poles. Whosoever wins the Nafs over has won the battle.

    This understanding may shed some light on the subject of free will, based on my limited knowledge. Of course much more can be said about this.

    Wallahu A’lam (And God knows best)

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