A Critical Reflection on Free Will by Sam Harris

A Critical Reflection on Free Will by Sam Harris

Initially the premise set forth by Free Will by Sam Harris struck me as a dangerous idea. To completely deny free will, as he seems to be doing, appears to be a denial of personal responsibility and creates a situation where people become a victim of themselves and their unconscious. Certainly at the base of free will there is no way to act completely unconstrained, without repercussions, and there are certainly factors in life that can restrict desires and ability – mental, physical, and economic considerations. However, day-to-day actions being dictated by the unconscious is a little extreme; for example, deciding to eat at one fast food restaurant over another, or not at all, is completely controllable, and to over-analyze where the motive came from to make the decision to eat or not seems more based in a biological motivation to eat, and the way one acts upon it is free will.

Free will, in my opinion, is the conscious decisions made based on prior information, actions, events, drives, and outcomes, not controlled by some mysterious unconscious drive, rather logical motives. For example, people repeat actions, good or bad, depending on their desires at those given moments. It’s not difficult to understand where the desires come from, they are basic animal drives– the need for food, water, shelter, reproduction, and basic human drives – a desire for happiness, to be loved, accepted, and/or impress people. People act on these desires on an unconscious level, but they are not completely unconscious of them, the drives are not part of fate, the drives are biological. The decisions and actions based on the basic drives are free will. Even cases where brain chemicals influence action, people can still choose to make a decision based on social norms. They may not choose how they think or feel, but they can choose how they act upon those feelings.

It doesn’t matter, however, where the desires or the drives come from. Once a person realizes where these drives come from, and owns them, they can change the way they react because of them; or, as Harris says “allow for greater creative control over one’s life” (47). Sloughing off the idea of “free will” prevents taking personal responsibility, and if you let your unconscious control you, you become the unconscious. If anything understanding there is not complete free will, but moderate free will, allows one to explore root causes and understand that “different ways of thinking have different consequences” (40). Just as our organs operate unconsciously, we can still control them, for instance, controlling heartbeat with breathing exercises or brain chemicals with medications.

For a move towards a more complete free will it takes inner-reflection and personal strength to consciously consider what is dictating and motivating substantial actions. To deny free will almost entirely, not just moderate levels of free will, means becoming a victim of the unconscious, nothing but a pawn mindlessly obeying biological drives. Denying the existence of free will is a choice granted by the existence of free will, and it just doesn’t seem like an ideal that supports much in the way of personal responsibility.


Harris, Sam. Free Will. New York: Free Press. 2012. Print.