New York Times reviews Sam Harris’s “Free Will”

July 14, 2012 • 4:58 am

In Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, author and editor Daniel Menaker evaluates Sam Harris’s new book in a review called, “Have it your way.”  I hoped Menaker would engage Harris’s arguments, for book reviews are boring if they merely regurgitate the book’s contents. And though I agree with Sam’s thesis and think his book excellent, the best book reviews are those that take issue with a book’s contents: in such cases we can often experience and learn from from a real clash of intellects. As a famous scientist once told me, “The only good book review is a bad book review.”

Sadly, most of Menaker’s review simply regurgitates Sam’s ideas. While the review is generally positive, Menaker calls parts of it “prosaic.”  And there is this weird paragraph:

Even though Harris assures us that civilized society can survive and might even improve with the abandonment of the concept of conscious agency, it would ultimately affect everything — all of our doings and sayings and thoughts, especially in ordinary sociomoral circumstances. This slender volume is perhaps less important in itself than in its representation of the arguments for accepting that we are not “the authors of our actions.”

What, exactly, does that last sentence mean?  After all, the purpose of the book is to convince readers that we are not the authors of our actions.  That is the book in itself!  And Menaker’s ending is lame, sounding as if it were phoned in:

Of course, questions persist. What, after the dismantling of free will, is consciousness? Just some kind of afflatus given off by three pounds of wetware? If so — if our conscious lives are nothing but the meniscus covering what our brains and bodies are up to, well then, isn’t that some glorious meniscus? It may not tell us what to do, but it does tell us what what we do means — oh, and what beauty is.

Couldn’t it be that we need the experience of what Wegner and others call “perceived control,” at least as a model of voluntary behavior, to get on with our lives and to have our achievements recognized and to be instructed by our failures? (Doesn’t Harris enjoy his success? I bet he does.) Finally, what happens to traditional qualities of character like courage, villainy, leadership? Poof! However correct Harris’s position may be — and I believe that his basic thesis must indeed be correct — it seems to me a sadder truth than he wants to realize.

Well, Sam’s book is not about consciousness but free will, yet anyone who has read Harris knows his position on that matter. It is that consciousness is indeed “some kind of afflatus given off by three pounds of wetware.” What else could it be unless you’re some kind of dualist?

As for our need for the experience of “perceived control,” well, had Menaker read the literature he purports to know, he would see that this hypothesis—the idea that the notion of personal “agency” is a neurological result of natural selection—is something that has been suggested several times before.  In the end, Menaker assumes the position of many compatibilists: he agrees with Sam that we couldn’t have made different choices in the past, but he just doesn’t like that. 

And of course Harris enjoys his successes and mourns his failures, as all of us do.  What part of determinism says that this isn’t a part our mental armory? Indeed, natural selection will have instilled in our ancestors feelings of gratification when we garner things correlated with reproductive success, including public esteem. Obviously, genes for pleasure and for enjoying success will spread insofar as they are positively associated with reproductive output. After all, that’s what orgasms are for.

h/t: Tom

53 thoughts on “New York Times reviews Sam Harris’s “Free Will”

  1. Menaker assumes the position of many compatibilists: he agrees with Sam that we couldn’t have made different choices in the past, but he just doesn’t like it.

    No one likes it but unlike the reviewer, one must be mature enough to understand it and take it into account.

  2. Compatibilists should look on the bright side. Without Free Will the pernicious dogma of ‘Original Sin’ is meaningless.

  3. Jerry I think you phoned in your review of the review. It’s not that Menaker just doesn’t like the implications of dismantled free will, it’s that he understands that certain values — courage, leadership, etc — are rendered meaningless if the capacity to choose our actions is removed from the equation. Like Harris, perhaps you are not willing (ahem) to admit that he’s probably right.

    1. “… he understands that certain values — courage, leadership, etc — are rendered meaningless if the capacity to choose our actions is removed from the equation.”

      Why? Terms such as “big”, “strong” and “red” are not rendered meaningless by those attributes not being “chosen”, so why would “courage” and “leadership” be?

    2. Obviously you haven’t been reading my stuff on free will over the last year or so. These “virtues” aren’t rendered “meaningless” in the sense that we shouldn’t praise them, for that encourages their adoption by others. They are meaningless in the sense that virtuous people don’t choose to be virtuous. I’ve always said that, it’s manifestly clear, and you have phoned in your comment.

      1. Once everybody is done with the phone, I’d like to get in an order to that Chinese place on the corner. I’m getting the ma pao do fu, and I think I heard somebody say they he wanted mu shu. Anything else?


            1. Acually, a Vietnamese spring roll is a thing of beauty. You’ve got fresh lettuce, bean sprouts, and fresh basil with a bit of barbecued pork or shrimp or the like, all chilled and tighly wrapped in a paper-thin rice noodle, served with a peanut dipping sauce…heavenly!

              Deep-fried egg rolls are nice, too, but lack all the freshness and subtlety and mix of flavors and textures that you get with a spring roll.

              If we’re going for an appetizer that’s in the family of fried noodle-wrapped filling, I’ll go for Sezchuan-style gyoza: a pork-filled dumpling with a thick skin, boiled and then pan-browned and steamed on one side.



              1. You are making me hungry! New place in town has the best Vietnamese style spring rolls I’ve had. See ya later.

          1. At home as a boy we were often served that hideous chicken chow mein stuff that came in the orange labeled cans. You know, a can with the wet stuff on the bottom, and the dry noodles stacked on top in another container? Early 70’s instameal in a can.

            Because of that trauma I have never been able to make myself try real chow mein.

  4. Perhaps because “courage” implies *choosing* not to give in to fear? Certainly people would still behave “courageously” but how could you exhort them to, if it’s not a choice in any possible sense of the word?

    1. I fail to understand why choice requires a ghost in the machine.

      An airliner’s autopilot constantly makes choices, no? Whether to turn left or right, cut back on the throttle or hold it steady? And it doesn’t even perform any self-reflective metacognition.

      So how does it make sense to suggest that, because “free will” is an incoherent, meaningless string of words, a human pilot somehow isn’t making choices when she turns off the autopilot and takes the controls?



    2. Why can’t we exhort people to be courageous if free will is only an illusion? That exhortation will serve as a deterministic antecedent leading, perhaps, to a greater probability that the advisee will act courageously.

    3. Exhortations are real phenomena. They can contribute to influencing behavior in the real world. Why does this make them meaningless in the absence of an illusion of free will?

  5. I’d say “afflatus” means “nonfunctional byproduct,” yes? While Sam Harris does agree that consciousness is produced by the physical brain, I don’t think he has ever said that consciousness is a mere byproduct — that it has no adapative function. Consciousness may have an adaptive function, and so may our sensation of “freely choosing.” As for the adaptive function of consciousness, Richard Dawkins explains in The Selfish Gene that our brains are prediction machines — they create models of the future based on memories of the past. And our memories of the past are constructed models as well (not retrievals of verbatim recordings), as Helen Loftus and others have shown. The brain also creates a model of the “self,” as Antonio Damasio and others have shown — which is adapative because the organism itself must necessarily be a part of any accurate model it makes of the past and of the future as it affects the organism. As for free will, there’s a distinction between the question whether free will exists and whether the “illusion” of free will has an adapative function. As Harvard’s Dan Wegner explains in The Illusion of Conscious Will, free will is a sensation in the brain, like the sensation of familiarity or certainty — it’s an inference the brain makes about causes of events. And it’s a useful inference, in that it’s useful for an organism to discriminate between events proximately caused by itself and events proximately caused by other organisms or by the environment — and it’s also useful for an organism to discriminate between different internal causes of its actions. Some internal causes of an organisms actions are more like a muscle spasm, and others are more like a goal-directed “kick.” the ssenseation of conscious will is a construct, rather than a direct perception of reality — but it may be a useful construct nonetheless. The brain instantiates its constructed model of reality through qualia – sensations. Some of our sensations — such as colors, sounds, and smells — are part of our constructed models models of the external environment, and other of our sensations — such as the sense of familiarity, the sense of certainty, and the sensation of having freely willed an action — are part of our constructed modesl of our internal environment. Thus the conscious experience of free will may be just as adaptive as the conscious experience of colors and sounds — even though free will doesn’t actually exist in our internal environment , any more than “color” or “sound” exists in our external environment.

      1. I’m sorry but they just don’t have that function, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

          1. Jerry is using a wordpress account at, not a self hosted wordpress site.
            The free accounts are severely restricted when it comes to plugins: you can’t just install any plugin you want.

        1. I wasn’t criticizing your site, I was lifting up a plaint to the universe, rooted in chagrin at my own mistakes.

      2. Not sure what part of your post you wanted to edit (except maybe to add some paragraphs) but I enjoyed reading it anyway. Thanks!

  6. Nothing permits post hoc descriptions of human behavior — despite the behavior being generated unconsciously by uncontrollable variables. Descriptions merely allow for external priming that may increase or decrease the likelihood of the behavior recurring.

    1. Nothing *prohibits* post hoc descriptions. Sorry, I haven’t had my tea yet and experienced my first synapse collapse of the morning (not of my own free will, of course).

  7. “After all, the purpose of the book is to convince readers that we are not the authors of our actions. That is the book in itself!”

    I’d say rather that the purpose of the book is to get people to see 1) that they aren’t uncaused causers (causa sui), 2) that, whatever consciousness might be, there’s no immaterial conscious controller in charge of action, and 3) that these truths (which likely contradict what many believe, since most folks are supernaturalist dualists) have progressive, humanistic implications for our attitudes and social policies. Sam’s book is important because it shows the practical and ethical significance of a science-based, naturalized view of ourselves.

    However, he contradicts himself on human agency and authorship. He says at several points that we are biochemical puppets of circumstances not of our own choosing. But he also says, correctly, that our choices make a difference:

    “And the fact that our choices depend on prior causes does not mean they don’t matter. If I had not decided to write this book, it wouldn’t have written itself. My choice to write it was unquestionably the primary cause of its coming into being. Decisions, intentions, efforts, goals, willpower, etc., are causal states of the brain, leading to specific behaviors, and behaviors lead to outcomes in the world. Human choice, therefore, is as important as fanciers of free will believe.” (34, print edition)

    So, if we identify ourselves not just with our conscious selves, but also with our brains and bodies, as good naturalist physicalists should (since there is no immaterial conscious controller) then of course we *are* authors of action, just as important to the causal story behind choices as all the factors that created us,

    Earlier in the book Sam quotes me on this point:

    “The deliberative machinery supporting effective action is just as real and causally effective as any other process in nature. So we don’t have to talk *as if* we are real agents in order to concoct a motivationally useful *illusion* of agency.” (22)

    He then calls this a bait and switch, since people “feel identical to a certain channel of information in their conscious minds,” and “to say that you are responsible for everything that goes on inside your skin because it’s all “you” is to make a claim that bears absolutely no relationship to the feelings of agency and responsibility that have made the idea of free will an enduring problem for philosophy.”

    But of course his whole point is that these feelings and the worldview they are based on are *mistaken*, which means that identifying ourselves with the brain and body, and claiming that sort of ownership of our choices, isn’t a bait and switch at all. It’s simply to replace the dualistic intuition of being an uncaused immaterial conscious controller with the true view of ourselves, which is what he does in the first passage I quoted above.

    Whether or not we want to say the naturalist view of ourselves gives us free will (I don’t since the contra-causal connotations of “free will” are so widespread), that view preserves agency and authorship of action. We are *not* puppets, even though Harris at times says as much, and even though the cover of his book unfortunately conveys that impression. The acceptance of naturalism depends on avoiding this mistake.

    1. Puppets require a puppeteer, an external intentional agent that controls their actions. We are clearly not puppets in that sense.

      Indeed, if dualistic free will were true, then we would be puppets.

  8. Right Tom! On page 47 of Free Will, Harris points out an important “paradox” about our nature. “It is one thing to bicker with your wife because you are in a bad mood; it is another to realize that your mood and behavior have been caused by low blood sugar. This understanding reveals you to be a biochemical puppet, of course, but it ALSO allows you to grab hold of one of your strings: A bite of food may be all that your personality requires.”
    I would say that would be Dennett’s “only freedom worth wanting.”

  9. “What’s not to like about determinism”?

    I would say, everything. “Seeing how we are caused gives us the tools for better self control”. If we’re lucky. Those little self control cues need to first arise or appear for different behavior to occur. What happens when they don’t? I think Harris is right to say that we are ultimately NOT free.

    1. If we were contra-causally free, we’d have no reason to choose one way or another since the chooser wouldn’t be at the influence of anything, including its own character and desires. So this sort of freedom isn’t worth wanting, see “The flaw of fatalism” at

      But once you understand and accept determinism (lucky you!) then all the leverage allowed by reliable cause and effect relations is at your disposal. The more people know about determinism, the more power and real freedom they will have: power to the people! See psychologist John Bargh on this at

  10. “the purpose of the book is to convince readers that we are not the authors of our actions”

    Well, it seems that according to the dictates of evolutionary theory, he would say that wouldn’t he?

  11. Our beef with Sam, and we quizzed him on this in person — he had no response includes:
    – We accept no free will
    – Then any
    conscious” or verbal-social bit-chat, including religious terrorism stuff, is meaningless
    – Also the idea of education and increasing awareness is meaningless.

    Sam says: “Words matter.” brain research says they don’t. All free thinkers and skeptics face this dilemma.

    1. “Sam says: “Words matter.” brain research says they don’t.”

      If you have time could you please expand on that? Or maybe offer a link to something that does?

      I am skeptical about the claim that words do not matter.

  12. So instead of being a strong independent psychological self, I am instead nothing more than “a locus of motive and rationality.” Or a puppet trying to reach back and goose one of it’s strings.

    I’m not saying I don’t buy into this model of ourselves, I just think it sucks.

    “We have no choice but to act.”

    1. Larry, in what ways do find that it sucks?

      I would argue the opposite – that current society is generally opposed to a determinist model, with some terrible policy implications. For starters, our criminal justice system is highly retributionist, terrorizing hundreds of thousands (with not only moral but practical implications – the almost complete lack of rehabilitative thinking). Understanding people as fully-caused would promote not only compassion, but an embrace of the science behind rehabilitation measures.

      Income inequality is another. Too many currently feel that people are responsible, original causes of their successes or failures, leading to an acceptance of dire poverty and decadent wealth. Accepting determinism means acknowledging that biological and social privilege, combined with extant social structures are the original causes. This makes a moral case against inequality, as opposed to the notion of free will that apologizes for it.

      At the very least, the notion of contra-causal free will overstates the case for reward and punishment. For while determinists much acknowledge the positive import of behavioral triggers like deterrence and success, they are in the end not only limited in their ability to drive behavior – only one factor among many others – but to the extent that they contribute to inequality, are immoral.

      Finally, in terms of personal interactions and conscious development of self, determinism provides an enormous amount of grace and forgiveness. The more we are able to see one another as caused, the more we are able to accept each other as we are, not who we pretend to be, over-imagining agency where it does not exist. Often, the mere remembering of determinism is enough to occasion a soothing sigh and reminder to be compassionate and empathetic.

      1. Thank you for stating the grace-and-forgiveness aspect of the “fully-caused” position so eloquently. I’ve found that the sighs you mention are far less corrosive than vitriol. And far more likely to lead to some kind of positive result.

  13. I do worry a little about the scientific consequences of calling choice an “illusion” or announcing that we don’t really make choices “in any meaningful sense.”

    To be consistent, here are some concepts that should be just as “illusory” as “choice,” or “not real in any meaningful sense,” and for the same reason (i.e. they depend on more than one possible future in some sense):

    “ad hoc Solution”
    “Similar Event”


    I’d like to see how one might formulate “natural selection” if the first five of those concepts are just illusions or not real or meaningful.

  14. I admit I have skipped over many of Jerry’s free will posts (and will probably not read Sam Harris’ book), but have often felt that the argument against compatibilism (as exemplified by Dennett, for example) is the wrong one to be having. Not that I find ‘free will’ to be a useful term in any technical sense, but nor do I find its denial to be a useful strategy.

    There are more direct and easier ways to argue against mind-body dualism, and more positive and interesting things to say about how consciousness relates to unconscious neural processes and behaviour. So I hope you don’t mind if I sit this one out*

    *not that I expect to be missed, but couldn’t resist the line. Haven’t listened to the whole album since 1975…

  15. I’m starting to think some people literally cannot understand what is being said about free will by Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne and such. How can someone with a genuine grasp on the thesis in “Free Will” come away with such an awkward review?


    “Finally, what happens to traditional qualities of character like courage, villainy, leadership? Poof!”

    What? How could you possibly miss the implications of the book this profoundly? Courage, villainy, leadership still exist. Abolishing free will in no way abolishes these qualities or any other qualities of human will in general, it just abolishes the incoherent conception of “freedom” commonly attached to it. That is the entire point of the book.

    “However correct Harris’s position may be — and I believe that his basic thesis must indeed be correct — it seems to me a sadder truth than he wants to realize.”

    How? How on Earth is his position a truth “sadder than he wants to realize”? There are literally no forlorn implications to abandoning the “freedom” of will (aka contra-causal free will or anything resembling it) unless you believed all along that you had magic powers that could bend itself reality to your whims, in which case why wouldn’t you have done so already?

    If you live in a universe without free will, you still live in a universe exactly as we already subjectively perceive it, the only difference is we’re disillusioned of false conceptions of the constraints and causes of human behavior. How is that so hard to grasp?

    1. *the only difference is–> by accepting free will is an illusion, we’re disillusioned of false conceptions of the constraints and causes of human behavior.

    2. Not hard to grasp at all–never said it was.
      As Harris says about a violent criminal, without the concept of free will–the mind’s agency independent of physical causes over which the mind has no control–the criminal is just “unlucky” to be who he is. Is that it? Well, I think it is–I agree with Harris. But the implication of his (and my more amateur) position is that the criminal could not have done otherwise than he did. Thus, the valorous could not not be valorous, the cheater had to cheat, the good writer, musician, artist are ultimately not the authors of their own skills. This truth, if it is a truth, as–again–I think it must be–goes against an age-old common concept of evil and virtue. That may not seem like a loss to you, but it does–and has for many years now–to me.

      1. I’m not sure what being self-created in some contra-causal sense would add to my virtue (wisdom, honesty, kindness, beauty, etc.). I would perhaps be given, or claim, more *credit* for being virtuous were I the ultimate author of myself, but why would I want credit except to set myself above others, which is not virtuous. We will continue to admire, praise and emulate the virtuous even when we realize they couldn’t have done otherwise, because we value what they do and are.

        Likewise we will continue to condemn evil-doing, but as Harris points out we can’t any longer demonize evil-doers as radically self-created, another common and counter-productive error. Indeed, we might want to rethink the very concept of evil since it’s widely tied to the idea of ultimate self-creation.

        All told I don’t see any loss here, rather a stripped down human ego taking its proper place in nature, virtues and (unfortunately) faults intact.

        1. Agree with everything you’ve just said except for the no-loss conclusion. Just not sure that what most people commonly think of as courage or cowardice or restraint or recklessness survives this stripping-down. (Though, etymologically, “recklessness” does strongly connote lack of thought, heedlessness.)
          Thank you for the careful reading of the review and your–well, thoughtful response.

          1. The contra-causal, ego-laden component óf what people think of as courage or cowardice won’t survive, but courage and cowardice will since those are characteristics of individuals, even if individuals owe everything they are to circumstances ultimately not of their own choosing.

            Thanks for ýour generally positive review. Even if Harris didn’t get everthing exactly right (who does?) it’s great that a naturalized view of ourselves is gaining attention.

  16. Scientists have shown that decisions are deterministic processes unfolding over time in the brain? Well that changes everything.

    Wait, no, it just establishes premises already presupposed by compatibilism. Not so much ‘scientists and philosophers talking past one another,’ as scientists being completely philosophically illiterate.

    I mean, let’s look at what’s gone down here. These scientists are (apparently unwittingly) engaged in a conceptual bait-and-switch. They are, in effect, identifying the brain processes behind ‘reportability’, or the subjective sensation of willing (in some loose sense), and pointing out that these processes are preceded by other processes elsewhere in the brain. They then, with a triumphant flourish, declare free will to be illusory. But why would we expect a decision to be reportable before it was in fact made? The switcheroo is that they equivocate brain-processes-behind-reportability with the actual person. They’re reducing the person to a non-distributed, discrete entity, located somewhere in a small subsection of brain activity, which isn’t ‘engaged’ until after the ‘real’ decision has been made.

    It’s sheer Cartesian nonsense to try and reduce the person to a homunculus hiding in one part of the brain, yet this is exactly what the scientists do when they equivocate a decision becoming reportable with a person making a decision.

    Those preceding processes, which happen before what is purported to be my involvement? Those are part of me too. What’s the real illusion? That decisions spring fully-formed from the void, with no causal history, precisely when the Cartesian demon reports them. And nobody in the free will literature would countenance such absurdity.

  17. After all this time, I have to say that, naturally, I take issue with your review of my review. For one thing, it is desperately inaccurate in saying that I’m a compatabilist. I am not one of those things that I may not even be able to spell. I DO NOT BELIEVE IN ANY KIND OF FREE WILL as he term is commonly or even uncommonly understood. And I say that IN THE REVIEW. I say that Harris is right. How much clearer could I be? But, then, I realize, as you must–given your position on the issue of Free Will–that you had no choice, as the word is generally understood, about writing what you wrote, I had no choice about writing the review I wrote, and I have no choice about writing this umbrageous note at this point. My brain (not my mind, the steam from the brain’s kettle) made me do it.

Leave a Reply