Review: ‘Free Will’ by Sam Harris

By Lee Christie

Sam Harris is perhaps best known for his books ‘The End of Faith’ and ‘Letter to a Christian Nation’. These earned his reputation as one of the four horsemen of new atheism alongside Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens. Harris has never been one to shy away from stating views which even many of his fans and peers find perplexing, from promoting transcendental meditation, to defending torture.

I recall reading about Sam Harris’ controversial view that free will is an illusion will when I read three blog posts he wrote in quick succession in mid-2011. The posts were in-part adapted from his book ‘The Moral Landscape’, with the follow-ups responding to the criticism received. Returning to re-read these I have been unable to find them except by use of the Internet Archive (WayBack Machine) [1] [2] [3] as they seem to have been deleted. I found this unusual until I realised that much of the content of these three posts has been reused in his new book.

Counting myself as somewhat of a materialist, I found Sam Harris’ view easy to swallow. Surprisingly however, he goes a step further in asserting that even without the presumption of philosophical materialism, and even with the addition of an immortal soul, his argument against free will still stands. He goes on to devote much of the book to the interesting implications for our morality, and criminal justice system.

In the book, Harris accuses compatiblists (such as fellow horseman Daniel Dennett) of dealing with the issue of free will by simply changing the subject. At this point I found it difficult to see exactly where the two differ in anything of importance, though Harris elaborates on his differences with Dennett in a recent blog post.

Those who are already familiar with Harris’ writings on the subject may be disappointed at the shortness of the book, and the amount of reused material. Some old points, though, appear to have been revised and expanded to address all relevant criticisms, and the book gives more structure than his various blog posts and other writings. Readers looking for a broad view of the subject with a plurality of viewpoints may do better to look elsewhere, but the book is a fascinating read for those curious about Sam Harris’ case against free will.

‘Free Will’ by Sam Harris is a short, 96-page book, set to hit UK shelves on 26th April with a RRP of £6.99.

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