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Disclamer: I am striving to understand the point of view, not to examine if it is right or wrong (makes sense or not, etc.).


I have listened to two audio excerpts by Sam Harris, discussing his views on the concept of free will. (The audios themselves came from Sam's Waking Up app, though I don't think they differ from the views on the subject he expressed elsewhere.)

The point (as I grasped it): there is no such thing as free will. Everything (our thoughts, intentions, motivations, actions etc.) is caused by the external factors, that are out of our control.

I can grasp the viewpoint (as expressed above) with no problem. Though in the same audio excerpts Harris says:

there is a difference though between voluntary and non-voluntary action

and that voluntary actions can be 'deterred'. He also says that:

our beliefs matter, because there is a difference between knowledge and delusion


I don't see how such claims fit together with the idea of absence of free will. Our beliefs would be defined, based on all prior causes. Our actions would be (pre)determined, as well based on prior causes, and they could not be 'deterred'. All we can do in a framework without free will is observe what is happening. We can't even control our judgements about what we are observing (as judgements themselves are based on prior causes).

I read somewhere that most of Sam Harris's philosophical views are sort of distilled from Buddhism, so maybe something similar is stated there as well.

I would like to understand two things:

  1. What is there left to do for an individual accepting absence of free will (as it seems to me it'll be like watching a movie — you can influence nothing, only observe)?
  2. How do ideas of changing one's beliefs and 'voluntary'/'non-voluntary' actions fit in the picture?
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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Mar 12, 2019 at 8:44
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    You might like to know you're not on your own. I can make no sense of Harris.
    – user20253
    Apr 16, 2020 at 12:12

5 Answers 5

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Listening to audio version of a book by Sam Harris, aptly titled "Free will", somewhat clarified his views on the subject, for me.


Below are answers to my own questions, based on understanding I have gained.

  1. What is there left to do for an individual accepting absence of free will (as it seems to me it'll be like watching a movie — you can influence nothing, only observe)?
    • What helped me grasp this one, was understanding that Harrise's point is that cause of our own actions, intentions, thoughts etc. is out of our control, rather than pre-determined (the objective reality might still be that it is, in fact, pre-determined, but the focus is on the fact that they are out of our control). One might draw analogy with experience of meditation, when things that we do not control (e.g. sounds or thoughts, for that matter), simply arise and go away (we can not know where they come from and were they are passing to); so: yes our thoughts and intentions control our actions, but where the former come from — we can not know. With that said, the question itself is "invalid", if there is no free will — we simply will do what we will and there is no way to "do" something otherwise (this, by the way, includes "(not) accepting absence of free will").

      Finally, here is a quote from the book, somewhat, related to the question:

      This gives rise to questions like “If everything is determined, why should I do anything? Why not just sit back and see what happens?” This is pure confusion. To sit back and see what happens is itself a choice that will produce its own consequences. It is also extremely difficult to do: Just try staying in bed all day waiting for something to happen; you will find yourself assailed by the impulse to get up and do something, which will require increasingly heroic efforts to resist.

  2. How do ideas of changing one's beliefs and 'voluntary'/'non-voluntary' actions fit in the picture?

    • Statement "our beliefs matter" does not mean we can control them. They do matter, as they will directly influence our actions, but we, again, can not control their arising and/or declining.
    • And here is a quote from the book, which answers 'voluntary'/'non-voluntary' actions part:

      There is a distinction between voluntary and involuntary actions, of course, but it does nothing to support the common idea of free will (nor does it depend upon it). A voluntary action is accompanied by the felt intention to carry it out, whereas an involuntary action isn’t.

      So, action being 'voluntary' or 'non-voluntary' just reflects feelings of an individual, who performed the action, towards the action itself (which individual can have, despite absence of free will).

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The psychological difference is really clear.

In the case of an involuntary action, the action comes straight from your unconscious mind to action, bypassing your consciousness.

An example of an extremely involuntary action, would be somebody taps your knee and your leg extends out suddenly.

This is very different from let's say you a driving a car and ponder whether to turn left/right.. pondering.. using your conscious mind.. / your conscious mind being engaged. And let's say you aren't battling extremely coersive unwanted thoughts that are coming from your unconscious telling you to drive off the road into a ditch. So you're pondering options.

An example of some Habits e.g. negative addictive habits, can be like that. Like a circuit in their brain gets triggered by some trigger.. and the action happens, whether you want to or not. You intend not to do the action, but you can't stop yourself. Like a person smoking cigarettes when they are trying to quit.. It's not as involuntary as the knee jerk, but it's far from a very voluntary action

Stress for example could cause more things to become involuntary. A lessening of self control.

On some level, all our thoughts are outside of our control. They come from our unconscious. The voice inside your head comes from your unconscious.

But there is a neurological and psychological difference between voluntary and involuntary actions. Particularly if comparing a completely involuntary action like the knee jerk.

Addiction examples that are not quite as involuntary could complicate things.

So just compare completely involuntary like the knee jerk, with actions you choose after freely and calmly pondering them.

That's the difference!

Don't take the terms voluntary action, and involuntary action, too literally.

Similarly the word control, or self control.

I wish Sam Harris discussed it more because telling people they don't have free will without telling them about their abilities of self control and voluntary actions..

He is so eloquent but maybe he doesn't discuss it much but he does believe in it. https://samharris.org/free-will-and-free-will/ "We can acknowledge the difference between voluntary and involuntary action"

Or as Dan Dennett writes https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/228272025.pdf "Harris is a compatibilist about moral responsibility and the importance of the distinction between voluntary and involuntary actions"

(note, I don't know that sam is a compatibilist on moral responsibility.. or accepts moral responsibility.. and I don't know the ins and outs of when the term compatibilist applies.. but.. the point is, Sam does believe in the concept of voluntary and involuntary actions.. even though all is determined).

And compatibilists too believe in determinism..

The debate among determinists is over whether we define free will as magic. One could also look and say well do we define consciousness as magic.. Do we define "you" as magic..

Sam basically defines "free will" as magic.. But doesn't define consciousness as magic.

If we look at a definition of free will that doesn't involve magic / unscientific mumbo jumbo, then humans have free will.

If most people thought of consciousness as "the soul", then Sam might say oh most people think that, so then he'd argue that we don't have consciousness and it's an illusion. Though since Sam takes a non magical definition of consciousness he says it's a reality. And indeed it is a thing.. consciousness is a useful word.

Free will can be a useful word for a real thing but if one wants to do as Sam does and say that free will = magic.. the idea of our thoughts not being caused by our unconscious but having no cause or being their own cause. And the idea of a "you" like a soul, a ghost in the machine independent of the body independent of the brain.. That's why he says the self doesn't exist. He defines "self" as that kind of magic. He's being confusing really 'cos his audience don't think in terms of magic but he's talking to them like they do and he's not defining his terms clearly enough for people to know straight away what he's talking about.

We are fortunate that he accepts the definition of consciousness as not magical, so he uses it and writes very eloquently of thoughts arising into consciousness.

We are unfortunate that he doesn't write much about involuntary vs voluntary actions and how those work.. but he does accept them. If he were to take a non magical definition of free will aka "compatibilist free will" then we'd benefit from his beautiful eloquent descriptions of free will , sadly he chose not to! And he chose to not write much about the degree of freedom we do and don't have.

Sam does underestimate people to an extent for example he says that people have a false idea that they "could have done otherwise". But he's taking a magical view of "could have done otherwise". That if you "wind back the tape" by which he means if you go back in time, or have atom for atom everything the same.. Brain in exactly the same state. Then you couldn't have done otherwise. But people don't mean that when he claims they think they "could have done otherwise". Intelligent people mean.. If some thought had occurred to them that would not have been strange for it to have occurred. So if their brain had been marginally different e.g. on a different day. In a different moment. Or somebody very similar to them, with their ability their intelligence their kind of way of thinking, might have reasonably done something else. Like a clone of me that has lived an almost identical life, might have done something else in a particular moment. e.g. I could(reasonably) have had a different thing for breakfast today. Not to say that if all the atoms were arranged the same way in my brain that morning and in the surroundings.. then I would or might have done otherwise!

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Voluntary vs Involuntary

If you accept Harris's view on free will then it clearly seems that all actions an actor can take are in some sense involuntary, because they were brought about by physical processes that the actor did not have control over. There is however a difference psychologically for the actor. For example, take the following two scenarios:

1) Person A is driving a car, obeying all driving laws, and a cat runs into the road. A, being an extreme cat enthusiast swerves, narrowly missing the cat.

2) Person B is driving a car and sees a cat in the road up ahead, being a staunch dog-lover and cat-hater, B swerves the car and intentionally kills the cat.

Now, both acted the way they did because it was exactly the only way they could act. So are they equally good, equally blame or praise worthy? I would argue yes, we should not judge one more harshly than the other because neither chose the person who they are, it was given to them by the circumstances of the universe. However, I would also argue that B should still be punished because B's action shows us that is in some sense they are the type of person who hits cats when they have the opportunity. While them being this type of person is not their fault it can inform what their future behavior might be like (it at least tells us they are more likely to act this way in the future than A). So perhaps we as a society might judge that B should not be allowed to drive a car so as to prevent further cat catastrophes, but also not morally blame B for acting the way they did.

What is there left for an individual accepting the absence of free will

Cal tech physicist Sean Carrol writes about how, while he from a physics point of view believes that free will does not exist, he thinks that it is a more useful to talk about the world as if it does exist. This can be likened to classical mechanics being a useful way of talking about how a ball will fly through the air, even though using principles general relativity or quantum mechanics is in some sense true-er.

So perhaps in day to day life, unless you are a judge deciding the punitive and moral fate of a cat-killer, it is better to abstract away the lack of free will for a happier existence.

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    "we should not judge one more harshly than the other because neither chose the person who they are," In what way would it be meaningful to use the word "should" in this context, especially since this framework will indicate that those who judge do so as a result of physical processes, not as the result of free will. Jul 18, 2019 at 18:40
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    @Don Branson it means that people who will make decisions taking into account the fact that person B acted without free will will make a more informed decision. Yet, you are right to point that our language is riddled with "free will friendly" formulations and idioms. Another exemple of how every day language is charged is the theory of evolution: almost anybody could accept the sentence "crabs have a carapace to protect them", although it makes no sense. From a strict evolutionary viewpoint, one should say "crabs have a carapace which happen to protect them", quite an unnatural mouthful.
    – armand
    Jul 19, 2019 at 1:49
  • @DonBranson I use should in the sense that a world where we act in the way outlined above is, to me, preferable to a world in which we do not. I do not think we can enact that change, due to our lack of free will, but we can still prefer a moral world rather than an immoral one. For example, if you live in another country besides the US you have pretty much no way of deciding who is elected to be president of the united states (or at least assume that for argument's sake) but, despite this lack of control, you might still prefer one candidate over another.
    – Zane Koch
    Jul 19, 2019 at 15:54
  • @ZaneKoch Hmm. There's a contradiction with your post. The word "should" is an indicator, but not the core issue, though armand seems focused on that. Your comment continues in this contradictory vein when it calls for the existence of morality in the absence of free will. Chemical reactions and physical interaction are completely amoral. Jul 19, 2019 at 16:19
  • I doubt you would dispute that these chemical and physical interaction create consciousness in many groups of particles -- humans included. Consciousness then precipitates various states of being (suffering, happiness). As a being that experiences these states I can clearly identify those that I prefer. The fact that I do not control the creation of these states or preferences does not make them any less real. From these preferences of conscious beings I think a system of morality can be constructed, but I do not claim to know how to take into account everythings' preferences to do so.
    – Zane Koch
    Jul 19, 2019 at 17:30
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Suppose I place a mind-control hat on you and move you around with a remote control like a puppet. You are desperately trying to resist these actions but are physically unable. That would clearly be an example of non-voluntary action.

But why should my mind-control hat be considered different than any other external forces that drive your actions, such as prior experiences and the beliefs they imposed on you? That distinction only makes any sense if we maintain a concept of will.

Distinguishing between will and free-will seems a little dicey to me, personally, and starts to sound like a word game.

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  1. You cannot accept the absence of free will. You need free will to accept or reject anything.

  2. The distinction between voluntary and involuntary actions is clear. Voluntary actions are caused by the decision to act. Involuntary actions are caused by a prior physical event. Spinal reflexes are typical examples of involuntary actions.

I define free will as the ability to perform voluntary actions, to decide what one does. Sam Harris apparently has a different definition. It makes no sense talking about the ability to do otherwise, as there is no otherwise, we can only do one-wise, there is no next time or any tape to rewind.

Sam Harris claims that we don't have free will, but admits that we can do voluntary actions. It seems like his definition for free will is something like the ability to choose our preferences or purposes for our actions. That kind of definition would render free will magical or downright illogical.

We have preferences and reasons for our actions and we do not choose them. We can only choose our actions to serve our own purposes and satisfy our own preferences.

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