Free Will Summary and Review

by Sam Harris
Has Free Will by Sam Harris been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary. Do you truly control your every action? Is it true that the act of skimming this text is something you decided to do, consciously and out of your own so-called free will? The answer is no. Free will is an illusion, and the following book summaries will explain why. Recent neuroscience research has found that the way we think and the things we do every day don’t actually have much to do with what we call our “free will.” The truth is, we’re not fully in control of our actions, so to better understand why we do the things that we do, it’s best to start by looking at the way our minds work. In this summary of Free Will by Sam Harris, you’ll learn
  • why it’s your brain that’s thirsty, not you;
  • why even the most ruthless murderers don’t consciously choose to kill; and
  • how a scientific fallacy has become the basis for conservative political policy.

Free Will Key Idea #1: You are not actually in control of what you do or why you do it. The concept of free will is an illusion.

Here’s a scenario: You realize that you’re thirsty, so you decide to grab a glass of lemonade. Where did this decision come from? Most people would say that they went and got the lemonade our of their own free will. Free will is only real when it’s you making a decision – that is, making up your own mind – without being forced or coerced. So, if it’s simply that you want lemonade, and no one’s threatening to kill you if you don’t drink a glass of it, you’re exercising your free will. However, really, it wasn’t your decision to get that glass of lemonade — at least not a conscious decision. Yes, you felt thirsty, but as that’s a biological function, it’s not something you can directly control. And why lemonade, exactly? And why now? These types of decisions don’t come from our conscious minds, meaning, we don't know what we intend to do until we actually do it. In his experiments, researcher Benjamin Libet found that he could detect activity in parts of peoples' brains which signaled them to move before they actually made the decision to move. While participants thought they controlled their own movements, their brains had already decided to move their bodies before they were even aware of it. This means that our brains actually hide the real reasons behind our actions, and the only way we would be able to be fully in control of our decisions is if we had complete control of our brain activity. The feeling of control we have over our thoughts and actions is truly an illusion. The thoughts we come up with are actually inspired by deep biological processes that are simply our of our control, like our genetic makeup. Think of it this way: do you control the millions of bacteria in your body? Not at all. So why, then, would it be that we’re responsible for an equally random set of processes happening deep in our brains?

Free Will Key Idea #2: While free will is an illusion, we are able to control our awareness of what we’re thinking and doing.

So, if everything we do in our lives comes from something we can’t control, why aren’t we just couch potatoes stuck doing nothing all the time? Well, we do have awareness, and we can think deliberately. When you realize your back is hurting, you’ll probably move unconsciously in your seat in order to make yourself more comfortable. However, some things can’t be done unconsciously, like planning a trip to the physical therapist. This is a conscious decision you must make yourself. Basically, if we can have the awareness to process something like pain, we can also have the motivation to do something to solve it. However, this motivation isn’t exactly free will. There are still mysteries behind the mechanics of the entire process that includes you realizing you’re in pain, and then making the decision to go to the doctor. You didn't create the pain; you didn't create the idea to seek help. Those thoughts simply appeared in your mind. But we do exercise some sort of control. While our actions are predetermined by biological mechanisms, our choices still matter. It’s impossible to know why you wanted to choose lemonade instead of water, for example, but it still matters that you did. It’s also important to remember that, even if we aren’t creating our choices, what we ultimately end up choosing does have a serious effect on the world. Make sure you don’t start to see everyone who walks by you as nothing but an unconscious collection of atoms. Shattering the illusion of free will shouldn't make you fatalistic! Rather than thinking that everything that happens is out of your control, it’s much better to focus on what is in your control and under your influence. Consider the idea of self-defense classes, for instance. It really wouldn’t make much sense for the teacher of one of these classes to teach the course on the premise that an attacker is simply a victim of his own unconscious mental processes. While this idea might be true, to some extent, the decision we make to defend ourselves is actually the important part of this scenario.

Free Will Key Idea #3: If free will is a myth, it’s necessary to rethink how we treat criminals and conduct social policies.

With the idea of free will debunked, there then stands a series of major implications for society, especially when it comes to dealing with crime and our process for forming public policy. The way we currently understand morality is based on the idea of people being able to make conscious decisions for themselves. If someone is able to judge that an action is the wrong thing to do, and yet, chooses to do it anyway, we would judge their actions as morally wrong. If a psychopath kills someone “for fun,” we think they should be punished. However, as we now know, the psychopath actually has no free will, so shouldn’t we alter our idea of an appropriate punishment? Of course, it’s still logical to incarcerate a person who might be a threat to the safety of other individuals. Yet, it’s immoral to incarcerate someone – even a bloodthirsty criminal – for simply being born unlucky. It’s important to separate criminality from criminals. Imagine if a “normal” person had a brain tumor which changed her behavior, making her more violent and impulsive. Would you hold her responsible for her actions? Criminals aren't much different. A psychopath who kills people for fun and the person with the brain tumor both lack free will. This means that, rather than seeking justice for wrongdoings through punishment and retribution, it might be beneficial to focus on deterrence and rehabilitation. What does the absence of free will mean for politics? This change in how we see people’s actions mostly affects the politicians who refuse to accept that people don’t have conscious control over their own lives. In the United States at least, this mind-set is usually found in people who identify as politically conservative. These politicians believe that people have full control over their actions, which means that they think people can choose the future they want. They don't acknowledge the existence of simple luck that can affect someone’s success. Even those “self-made millionaires” that conservative politicians love to glorify are still born with a unique genetic makeup. They had had a set of particular unique experiences, and perhaps even privileges which helped them to get where they are. This is a series of events that conservatives often refuse to acknowledge. It’s the job of politicians to demand change whenever possible, and yet chart new courses that serve the public when change might not be possible, or when change is ineffective. Crucially, these politicians must understand that every person on earth lacks free will, and therefore, they need to put an effort toward helping society accordingly.

In Review: Free Will Book Summary

The key message in this book: Every thought we have and decision we make is determined by a subconscious mental process that we have no control over. This means simply that the concept of “free will” is simply a myth. While we may feel to be in control, we really aren’t, and because of this, we need to adapt society to allow us to better coexist with each other, and help others in the most effective way possible. Suggested further reading: The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris The Moral Landscape explores new research in neuroscience and philosophy that explains certain phenomena in human morality. In his book, Harris argues that morality is best explored through scientific inquiry, rather than religious dogma and theology.