About the book

A BELIEF IN FREE WILL touches nearly everything that human beings value. It is difficult to think about law, politics, religion, public policy, intimate relationships, morality—as well as feelings of remorse or personal achievement—without first imagining that every person is the true source of his or her thoughts and actions. And yet the facts tell us that free will is an illusion. In this enlightening book, Sam Harris argues that this truth about the human mind does not undermine morality or diminish the importance of social and political freedom, but it can and should change the way we think about some of the most important questions in life. Goodreads

Year published: 2012

Buy book: Amazon


Quotes from the book


Free will (Sam Harris)

Free will is an illusion

  • Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control.
  • We do not have the freedom we think we have.
  • Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.
  • Our sense of our own freedom results from our not paying close attention to what it is like to be us. The moment we pay attention, it is possible to see that free will is nowhere to be found.

We are slaves to our conditioning and unconscious mental patterns

  • If we are a slave to our conditioning, we cannot be free.
  • You are not in control of your mind—because you, as a conscious agent, are only part of your mind, living at the mercy of other parts.

We do not even control our thoughts

  • A moment or two of serious self-scrutiny, and you might observe that you no more decide the next thought you think than the next thought I write.
  • Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control.
  • Unconscious neural events determine our thoughts and actions—and are themselves determined by prior causes of which we are subjectively unaware.
  • Thoughts simply arise unauthored and yet author our actions.
  • You are no more responsible for the next thing you think (and therefore do) than you are for the fact that you were born into this world.

Our choices are limited by our awareness

  • Your choices are really very limited. They are limited by your level of awareness. If you can change your level of awareness radically, then you can change your destiny. Frederick Lenz

Our choices emerge from unconscious causes…

  • Could I have “changed my mind” and switched to tea before the coffee drinker in me could get his bearings? Yes, but this impulse would also have been the product of unconscious causes.
  • The choice was made for me by events in my brain that I, as the conscious witness of my thoughts and actions, could not inspect or influence.
  • We make choices and decisions before we are consciously aware of it.
  • The intention to do one thing and not another does not originate in consciousness—rather, it appears in consciousness, as does any thought or impulse that might oppose it.
  • Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next—a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please—your brain has already determined what you will do. You then become conscious of this “decision” and believe that you are in the process of making it.
  • I, as the conscious witness of my experience, no more initiate events in my prefrontal cortex than I cause my heart to beat. There will always be some delay between the first neurophysiological events that kindle my next conscious thought and the thought itself. And even if there weren’t—even if all mental states were truly coincident with their underlying brain states—I cannot decide what I will next think or intend until a thought or intention arises. What will my next mental state be? I do not know—it just happens. Where is the freedom in that?
  • But the next choice you make will come out of the darkness of prior causes that you, the conscious witness of your experience, did not bring into being.
  • A person’s “choices” merely appear in his mind as though sprung from the void.
  • Choices, efforts, intentions, and reasoning influence our behavior—but they are themselves part of a chain of causes that precede conscious awareness and over which we exert no ultimate control.  
  • The actual explanation for my behavior is hidden from me. And it is perfectly obvious that I, as the conscious witness of my experience, am not the deep cause of it.

…as experiments have shown

  • The physiologist Benjamin Libet famously used EEG to show that activity in the brain’s motor cortex can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move.
  • Subjects were asked to press one of two buttons while watching a “clock” composed of a random sequence of letters appearing on a screen. They reported which letter was visible at the moment they decided to press one button or the other. The experimenters found two brain regions that contained information about which button subjects would press a full 7 to 10 seconds before the decision was consciously made. More recently, direct recordings from the cortex showed that the activity of merely 256 neurons was sufficient to predict with 80 percent accuracy a person’s decision to move 700 milliseconds before he became aware of it.
  • If you don’t know what your soul is going to do next, you are not in control.
  • Unconscious neural events determine our thoughts and actions—and are themselves determined by prior causes of which we are subjectively unaware.

It is conceivable that scientists will be able to know what you chose before you do

  • Imagine a perfect neuroimaging device that would allow us to detect and interpret the subtlest changes in brain function. You might spend an hour thinking and acting freely in the lab, only to discover that the scientists scanning your brain had been able to produce a complete record of what you would think and do some moments in advance of each event. For instance, exactly 10 minutes and 10 seconds into the experiment, you decided to pick up a magazine from a nearby table and begin reading, but the scanner log shows this mental state arising at 10 minutes and 6 seconds—and the experimenters even knew which magazine you would choose. You read for a while and then got bored and stopped; the experimenters knew you would stop a second before you did and could tell which sentence would be the last you read.
  • The experimenters knew what you would think and do just before you did.
  • You would, of course, continue to feel free in every present moment, but the fact that someone else could report what you were about to think and do would expose this feeling for what it is: an illusion.

Where our intentions come from is a mystery

  • A voluntary action is accompanied by the felt intention to carry it out, whereas an involuntary action isn’t. Needless to say, this difference is reflected at the level of the brain. And what a person consciously intends to do says a lot about him. It makes sense to treat a man who enjoys murdering children differently from one who accidentally hit and killed a child with his car—because the conscious intentions of the former give us a lot of information about how he is likely to behave in the future. But where intentions themselves come from, and what determines their character in every instance, remains perfectly mysterious in subjective terms.
  • How can you explain your ability to respond to it? If you pay attention to your inner life, you will see that the emergence of choices, efforts, and intentions is a fundamentally mysterious process.
  • What I will do next, and why, remains, at bottom, a mystery—one that is fully determined by the prior state of the universe and the laws of nature (including the contributions of chance).

Where is the freedom when we do not choose our thoughts, desires or intentions?

  • Where is the freedom in being perfectly satisfied with your thoughts, intentions, and subsequent actions when they are the product of prior events that you had absolutely no hand in creating?
  • Where is the freedom when one of these opposing desires inexplicably triumphs over its rival?
  • And I cannot determine my wants, or decide which will be effective, in advance. My mental life is simply given to me by the cosmos.
  • People have many competing desires—and some desires appear pathological (that is, undesirable) even to those in their grip.
  • There is no way I can influence my desires—for what tools of influence would I use? Other desires? To say that I would have done otherwise had I wanted to is simply to say that I would have lived in a different universe had I been in a different universe.
  • How can we be “free” as conscious agents if everything that we consciously intend is caused by events in our brain that we do not intend and of which we are entirely unaware? We can’t.
  • I cannot choose what I choose. And if it ever appears that I do—for instance, after going back and forth between two options—I do not choose to choose what I choose.
  • Why did I order beer instead of wine? Because I prefer beer. Why do I prefer it? I don’t know.

We are also puppets of our background circumstances

  • Take a moment to think about the context in which your next decision will occur: You did not pick your parents or the time and place of your birth. You didn’t choose your gender or most of your life experiences. You had no control whatsoever over your genome or the development of your brain. And now your brain is making choices on the basis of preferences and beliefs that have been hammered into it over a lifetime—by your genes, your physical development since the moment you were conceived, and the interactions you have had with other people, events, and ideas. Where is the freedom in this? Yes, you are free to do what you want even now. But where did your desires come from?
  • All human behavior, is determined by a prior state of the universe.

Could we really do otherwise than what we do?

  • To say that I could have done otherwise is merely to think the thought “I could have done otherwise” after doing whatever I in fact did.
  • You will do whatever it is you do, and it is meaningless to assert that you could have done otherwise.

Letting go of the illusion of free will can have positive effects

  • Speaking from personal experience, I think that losing the sense of free will has only improved my ethics—by increasing my feelings of compassion and forgiveness, and diminishing my sense of entitlement to the fruits of my own good luck.
  • Losing a belief in free will has not made me fatalistic—in fact, it has increased my feelings of freedom. My hopes, fears, and neuroses seem less personal and indelible.
  • Getting behind our conscious thoughts and feelings can allow us to steer a more intelligent course through our lives (while knowing, of course, that we are ultimately being steered).

We become less judgemental

  • We can take no credit for what happens.
  • How much credit does a person deserve for not being lazy? None at all. Laziness, like diligence, is a neurological condition.

We would change the way we think about justice

  • Our system of justice should reflect an understanding that any of us could have been dealt a very different hand in life. In fact, it seems immoral not to recognize just how much luck is involved in morality itself.

We would incarcerate dangerous people to protect society, not to punish

  • Even the most terrifying predators are, in a very real sense, unlucky to be who they are.
  • Certain criminals must be incarcerated to prevent them from harming other people. The moral justification for this is entirely straightforward: Everyone else will be better off this way. Dispensing with the illusion of free will allows us to focus on the things that matter—assessing risk, protecting innocent people, deterring crime, etc.
  • Whether it is useful to emphasize the punishment of certain criminals—rather than their containment or rehabilitation—is a question for social and psychological science. But it seems clear that a desire for retribution, arising from the idea that each person is the free author of his thoughts and actions, rests on a cognitive and emotional illusion—and perpetuates a moral one.

More thoughts

  • There are more bacteria in your body than there are human cells. In fact, 90 percent of the cells in your body are microbes like E. coli (and 99 percent of the functional genes in your body belong to them).  Many of these organisms perform necessary functions—they are “you” in some wider sense. Do you feel identical to them? If they misbehave, are you morally responsible?