Sam Harris and Free Will

Over the last few years, Sam Harris has received a great deal of recognition among atheists, who see him as an important figure championing science as pitted against religion when it comes to the subject of morality.

I spent many hours watching Harris speaking and debating in various YouTube videos a few years back, and I appreciate that he is a sharp and articulate thinker with some good insights. I do, however, believe that his approach to morality and in particular free will is flawed in a significant way. I have just finished reading Harris’s book entitled Free Will and would like to make a few simple but crucial points in response.

Harris is right to point out that we don’t have free will. Like Harris, I have taken the time to examine this subject in depth, both by reading widely on the subject and by examining my own subjective experience.

Harris points out that our thoughts arise spontaneously and that we have no control over them, which is something I have also noted in my written works (for instance see my 2012 article entitled What is Causing our Thoughts?). As I wrote in that article, we have no idea what we will be thinking in a minute’s time, or an hour’s time – we do not control our thoughts; they arise spontaneously.

Harris, who has studied neuroscience, resolves this problem in a materialistic way. He believes that what comprises a person is merely physical. He states, for example, that if every atom in his body were exchanged with those of someone else, he would become that person.

The flaw in this thinking is that it ignores the spiritual aspect of reality. I believe in a God who animates all activity in existence, and it is God who is causing thoughts to arise in our minds, as well as controlling all our bodily functions, such as our heartbeat, digestion, and circulation.

Rather than being the mere output of an evolutionary process (combined with our life circumstances) as Harris maintains, the truth is that we are puppets in the hands of a living God, and He is directing all the physical and immaterial aspects of our existence. God is alive right now in this single eternal moment, and everything is unfolding by His sovereign will.

My description of God as the ‘cosmic animator’ will only make sense to those who have either deeply examined the nature of thought and consciousness, or those to whom God has spoken or revealed Himself in other ways. There are many solid arguments for the existence of God, as I have expounded in my book The Philosophy of a Mad Man. But knowing God always depends on some kind of revelation.

If we consider the nature of God; and in particular His attribute of omnipresence, it makes sense that He is making thoughts arise in our minds because His being permeates every atom in existence and every cell of our bodies.

There are moral implications to this, which I believe that Harris (if he were to accept my worldview) would acknowledge and understand. He speaks intelligently about the subject of culpability in the criminal justice system, and makes the important point that when we appreciate we don’t have free will we can look with a greater sense of empathy and understanding upon criminal behaviour. I completely agree; but in my view it is God who is in control rather than the blind forces of evolution and circumstance.

I do of course realise that the God I’m depicting is not the God that most Christians, Muslims, or Jews embrace – it is central to these religions that we have free will and are responsible for sin and deserving of judgment. My perspective calls into question our accountability, as it makes God the author of everything that might be described as ‘sin’ or ‘evil’. This can be a hard idea for theists to fathom, and I have discussed it at length in my book Ultimate Truth: God Beyond Religion. I invite all readers with an interest in this subject to read that book, which I sell on a not-for-profit basis.

In the human dimension we experience the illusion of free will, but this is merely a mode of mind under God’s control – in the ultimate dimension of reality, God is responsible for our every thought, word, and deed.

It’s liberating to have discovered that God is in control of everything in existence, both in the microcosm and the macrocosm. God is working out a plan for all our lives with great care and intricacy, and if we are to reexamine the way society deals with moral issues, as Harris argues we should, we need to do so in light of this truth.

39 comments

  1. Hi Steven

    New Scientist published a book recently, How to be Human. The book has two pages on Free Will (pages 46-47). The evidence from an experiment carried out in 1982 was rather interesting. A psychologist, Benjamin Libet, asked volunteers to sit for a while then, of entirely their own volition, move a finger. He discovered a neurological signal that occurred about 550 milliseconds before they moved their finger. Also, it took about 350 milliseconds after the signal before they became aware that they were going to move it! They have concluded that Free Will is an illusion.

    It could be that in their efforts to explain how things happen scientists may provide more and more evidence of God’s existence.

    Peace and love to all,

    Dinos

      1. Can you explain how these neurological signals exactly prove no free will? I’m not quite because I would assume that our commands of our bodily movements would stem from neurological direction. I suppose, also, it would be helpful to explain how awareness of the movement is tested and whether a delayed awareness determines that the individual is not actually in control of said action.

        Furthermore, and forgive me if I get this classical argument a bit wrong, is there any explanation on the philosophical argument that that the conclusion against free can only exists with the priori knowledge of free will which predisposes that free will exists.

        Another note, Thomas Aquinas makes the argument that consequences for any action would be illogical if free does not exist, unless of course one argues that society’s response is a predetermined one, but should society forego consequences for actions, especially any non-violent ones, if science does in fact determine there is no free will.

        1. Hi Philip!

          You made three main points, so I’ll briefly respond to each one.

          Can you explain how these neurological signals exactly prove no free will?

          I think what the experiments do is simply push the causal chain one step back, but we still need an explanation for what is causing the activity in the brain. For Harris this is the forces of evolution and circumstance, for me it’s our omnipresent God who animates all things, including our thought processes.

          Furthermore, and forgive me if I get this classical argument a bit wrong, is there any explanation on the philosophical argument that that the conclusion against free can only exists with the priori knowledge of free will which predisposes that free will exists.

          I don’t accept the argument, because I believe God is in control, and God has complete freedom. So there is free will, but it’s God’s freedom and not ours. As creatures under God’s sovereign control, we are not free in relation to God’s will.

          …should society forego consequences for actions, especially any non-violent ones, if science does in fact determine there is no free will.

          I would encourage you to read what Harris has to say on the subject, because he has thought a lot about the consequences for society if there is no free will. I have also thought a lot about this, and discuss the problem in detail in my book Ultimate Truth.

          Peace and blessings,

          Steven

          1. So, God uses his free will on us to cause us to disobey his commands, and then punishes us for his causing us to disobey? There seems to be something unjust about that.

            1. Hi DogTags,

              I understand your point, and I agree that there are certain aspects of the Christian worldview that don’t make a lot of sense if God is indeed sovereign. Nevertheless, I believe He is.

              Best wishes,

              Steven

            2. It seems like your concept of God’s sovereignty swallows up the whole need for grace and a substitutionary sacrifice, and makes love impossible.

            3. Hi again DogTags,

              As I said, if God is truly sovereign (i.e. omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent) then this creates problems for the Christian worldview, which you rightly point out. Nevertheless, I believe that God does possess those attributes, which is why I struggle to accept certain Christian doctrines.

              I don’t think God’s sovereignty makes love impossible, but you may have a different definition of love to me. I believe love is a part of the divine nature.

              Best wishes,

              Steven

  2. Hi and blessings to you and have a good Christmas.

    I know some people have difficulty as you state with Good and evil, or light and dark. Both of these are stated in The Holy Bible. The NIV Bible states I the Lord God create light and dark, where as The King James Holy Bible states I the Lord God create good and evil.

    I used to state that darkness is just the absence of light and evil the absence of good. Now though as we have advanced in physics and our understanding, we have discovered the forces of dark energy and dark matter. In a similar manner I am coming to believe in evil as a real force which we both have to be on guard against or even fight the good fight.

    I am looking forward to this coming year as being the best for a few years. Harry, one of my two teenage sons died last year and though he is fine in Heaven, we have missed him here on this fallen earth.

    Have a wonderful ad blessed year Steven. From your brother in Christ. Peter G Kimble

    1. Hi Peter!

      Always a joy to hear from you. So sorry you suffered the loss of your son. I pray that he is at peace and that you have a wonderful 2018. Thank you for your kind wishes!

      Peace and blessings,

      Steven

  3. Hi Steven

    Thank you for your reply.

    It’s odd that an experiment conducted 35 years ago wasn’t repeated by Sam Harris, or if it has, the repeat experiment does not appear to have been publicised?

    I found this YouTube video of Libet’s experiment useful:

    Every blessing to you,

    Dinos

    1. Hi Dinos,

      Actually Harris mentions several other similar experiments that have been conducted more recently and the results published in medical journals.

      Thanks for sharing the video link, I’m tied up right now but will watch it a bit later!

      Steven

  4. I loved reading Harris’ perspectives; like you, I believe there is God choreographing the play of our lives. As Jung described with synchronicity, to me, there are no coincidences in life. I also believe there are no mistakes. I like to think of God as more or less a GPS that will reroute me along the correct destination. If I’m off my route, thoughts, mistakes, etc run rampant. It’s much quieter when I seem to be in the flow – in the Taoist sense, or acting with spontaneity and childlike wonder and innocence in the Christian sense. Marvelous read – looking forward to reading more!

    1. Hi there!

      I even believe that when we feel we are going ‘off route’ (as you put it), God is still in control. So it’s never really possible to deviate from God’s will for our lives.

      Thank you so much for following and commenting, great to virtually meet you!

      Steven 🙂

  5. Really fascinating piece Steven. I also quite like Sam Harris in many ways, perhaps except his intensely anti-religion positions. You’ve offered a very interesting perspective on free will, which I believe I’ll have to explore deeper myself.

    Have a peaceful and blessed Christmas!

    1. Hi David!

      Many thanks for reading and commenting – good to hear from you. I hope things are well with you and your partner. Yes, Sam Harris makes some interesting and thought-provoking arguments!

      Merry Christmas to you too – I don’t know whether you’ll post again before Christmas, but if you do, I’m sure I’ll enjoy reading your thoughts 🙂

      Peace and blessings,

      Steven

      1. Terribly sorry for the late reply Steven, I’ve been in Australia for the last few weeks and virtually switched myself off from blogging. Since then though, I’ve read a fascinating book on the Brain by David Eagleman, I think you’d be interested. I thinking of writing a post, but incorporating my spiritual views into some of the insights the author gives.

        Hope you had a great Christmas and New Years!

        1. Oh wow, I hope you had an amazing time in Australia 🙂

          The book you mentioned sounds really interesting. I’ll look forward to the prospect of you writing a post about it.

          I had a lovely peaceful Christmas and New Years thank you, and I hope you did too 🙂

          God bless, and great to have you back!

          Steven

  6. One question I enjoy posing to Christians is: Why didn’t Jesus cure amputees? As the supposed son of the deity who created everything in just 7 days, how come he couldn’t restore so much as a fingertip? Everything else he is supposed to have done can be theoretically explained by hearsay and exaggeration. But if the man had gone around restoring limbs it would have been incontrovertible and such a rumour could not have got started if it wasn’t true. It’s absence from the gospels is telling.

    1. Hi there! Is it Mark? Thanks for stopping by 🙂

      I certainly believe Jesus could perform miracles of the type you mentioned, and perhaps did. John 21:25 reads,

      Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.

      If you don’t believe Jesus can turn water into wine, heal a paralytic, or open the eyes of the blind, something tells me you wouldn’t believe an account of Him restoring a limb or a fingertip either.

      I agree with your point – if God can create a universe, then He can certainly restore a limb, if He so wills. But God doesn’t operate with the sole purpose of convincing atheists He exists. Instead He is working out a plan for the universe, and the faith of Christians is a part of that plan.

      Best wishes,

      Steven

    2. OwnShadow:

      Three ways of responding to this question.
      1. He does by working to construct a reality in which amputees are restored to wholeness. It’s just not evident in the course of a single lifetime.
      2. He does by conserving our free will, which is the capacity to recognize that amputations are sorrowful, and so motivating people of good will to create conditions that mitigate against their occurrence, or when that is impossible to create prosthetics that restore functioning.
      3. He could, except that if he did it would be to empower those that bring suffering upon others to create those experiences again and again for their victims. The only way out of this is occupancy of (1) above by the compassionate and creative spirits identified through (2).

      1. You missed out the fourth way of responding which is simply to acknowledge the obvious: that he did not have the power to cure amputees. Do you really think he never came across any? What excuse did he give? Do you think any of them would have been impressed with your three responses? I find that hard to believe. But thank you for your detailed and patient reply.

        1. I hear your pain, but it’s actually even worse than that. Jesus never claimed the power to heal anybody. What he said was “Your faith has healed you.” The power to heal rests with the Most High.

          This is fictional, but illustrative: In The Red Robe, the centurion encounters a paralytic woman who encountered Jesus but was not healed. When asked whether she was not disturbed that she hadn’t been healed, she said that she realized that it was a more powerful statement of faith to love God even though she was still paralyzed. Her desire was to guide others to faith, and to remain paralyzed was a powerful proof of faith.

          To have faith is to believe in God’s promises, and the promises in Revelation are that in the age to come every tear will be wiped away. Their will be no more death and no more sickness. I know that future is hard to see, especially when the material circumstances of our life are frustrating and painful, but that is the hope that my heart holds for all of my brothers and sisters that are oppressed by the effects of sin.

          1. “Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does. But if I do it, even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.”

            1. This is an abstract statement, and such statements must always be treated cautiously. Jesus also told the Apostles that they would do “things even greater than these,” which would make them greater than God?!?!?!?

              “I do what my father does” does not mean necessarily “I CAN do everything that my Father does.”

              I stand by the specific statements made by Jesus w.r.t. healing. One way of reconciling all is that the Father empowers people to heal themselves. Which is indeed the nature of love.

            2. If you find me slippery here, I’ll explain myself: Jesus did not write a Gospel, for one reason – his people parsed every word of the Law and forgot how to love. Love is not concerned with what is true, for what is true is often stale, ugly and broken. Love is concerned with what is possible.

              Among the miracles, we might reference the catching of the fishes, casting out of demons, walking on water, calming the sea, feeding of multitudes. These were all things that were impossible, objectively speaking. They were things that reality collaborated in to honor the love that flowed from him.

              Jesus did not take ownership of healings, and so might not have considered them to be among the “miracles.”

              The apostles also worked miracles, and so Jesus might not have meant “my miracles,” but “our miracles.” The authorities of the day would have argued that these were the work of demons – only those that performed them would have understood the grace and beauty of the experience, and so recognized the relationship they shared with the Most High.

            3. The quote from Jesus makes it abundantly clear he was referring to his own miracles. I used it because your claim the miracles weren’t supposed to be signs of his divinity is so obviously untrue. In another context you may even have alluded to them as ‘proof’ of such. Are you sure I couldn’t find an example if I bothered to look? The Bible does not discuss the issue of ‘taking ownership’. That is a modern term. Jesus is supposed to have ‘performed’ miracles, however you want to put it. No Jesus, no miracles, as it were. And trying to differentiate miracles from healing is another fudge. Believers do not distinguish between the two. Anything ‘impossible’ is a miracle. My original point has not been addressed. There were many faith healers around at the same time performing the same kinds of feats. But they couldn’t cure amputees. Or heal the blind who had no eyes. The reason they didn’t do this is because they couldn’t. Jesus appears to fit very neatly into this category.

            4. I have agreed with you on your original point, citing Jesus’s own statements. As for the rest: be at peace! It is because of such disputation that Jesus did not write a Gospel.

  7. Steven – did Adam and Eve choose to eat of the tree of knowledge? If the didn’t have free will, the parable doesn’t make sense.

    1. Hi Aaron!

      Many thanks for your comment. There is a lot about the Christian worldview that doesn’t make sense if God is in control of everything that happens, as I believe He is. Ideas like the fall, divine judgment, and sin. So I agree with you.

      Best wishes,

      Steven

  8. Hi, guys, Steven,

    First of all and if possible, try to overlook the faults in my English of a non-native user.

    I’ll get straight into the points puzzling me in this debate. I can’t help but being suspicious of some experiments made by the so-called ‘standard’ science, not to mention the conclusions derived from them. I don’t see the need for recurring to such extreme means of trying to disprove a concept that was simply flawed by millennia of misuse, the case of ‘free will’. I also doubt the efficacy of recurring to the idea of God for the same task

    As I see it, free will is a misconstrued notion, resulting from our ignorance concerning the outcome of some actions we’ve chosen to produce, and also concerning the evidence that the act of choosing is unavoidably bound to the need of producing something good (or the best possible outcome), as stated in the Aristotelian concept of ‘final cause’. The impression that almost always we contemplate a multitude of options for actions whose results would be indistinguishable from one another, beyond being the source of the idea of freedom of choice itself, seems have been the easiest way for us to question determinism, being unable of living well without it, as we are – because at least and somehow the outcomes we produce from the acts we choose are indeed tied to those acts, despite the impression that any of those acts, namely, the ones not chosen, would have produced an identical or still a similar result. Finally, freedom can’t be a ‘a priori’ condition, I mean, one we come to life endowed with, but a ‘a posteriori’ notion, provided we successfully pick the right action for obtaining the good we aimed at.The idea of freedom makes sense only as a kind of conquered objective, never as a divine gift.

    As for the role of God in a scenario like this, I believe that His believers wouldn’t find it difficult to identify His indifference towards our heads clashing with life’s walls, as well as His direct responsibility over having given us such unstoppable resolve like the one of obtaining the good out of an environment that’s almost often unfavorable, and perhaps just for his private amusement. Who’d be undoubtedly capable of knowing what goes in God’s thoughts?

    1. Hi there walreis,

      Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts in relation to free will. Unfortunately I had trouble understanding much of your post because, as you kindly pointed out, English isn’t your first language and so there were quite a lot of errors. I’m sorry! Perhaps other readers were able to understand better than me?

      In any case, may you be blessed, and thanks again for engaging 😊

  9. Steven:
    Harris’ thought experiment goes much further than to argue against free will – it argues against any will at all.
    In the context of its origination, the right analogy for exercise of free will is that of the vassal submitting to the command of a noble. For self-preservation, the vassal may comply, but he is free in his inner thoughts to reject the validity of the command, and to seek circumstances in which he will no longer be subject to such violations.
    In the larger sense, the love tendered from the Most High sustains our determination to resist sin in all its forms. Even if we are too weak to repel sin, the impulse toward grace is preserved, and we can work both internally and externally to relieve our subjugation.
    That sustaining grace is transmitted through spiritual channels, so I agree with your observation that a rejection of spirituality is crippling in all moral arguments. Atheists argue against spiritual experience with the hypothesis that the brain is a signal processing device of unbounded complexity. They aren’t too troubled by the details, and so are vulnerable to this argument: what if the brain is merely an interface to the soul? Damage to the brain will limit functioning because access to data processing in the soul is reduced.
    The lack of imagination shown in these arguments is depressing, for they indicate that people are not really open to ideas. They construct straw men that lead to a desired conclusion. To respond effectively to such arguments, you have to step back and look at their unarticulated axioms. I have found that, when so confronted, it becomes a popularity contest: “All those scientists/mystics can’t be wrong.” You’d think that more people would be driven to the conclusion – as have you – that both are half-right.
    Brian

  10. You say rightly, “knowing God always depends on some kind of revelation.” Jesus called Peter blessed due to the fact that flesh and blood had not revealed to him the identity of Jesus, but rather that it had come from the Father. Good writing. And thanks for stopping by my blog. Blessings to you in 2018.

  11. Your post caused a question to come into my mind. I’m not going to claim it came from God. The question is why did Jesus peach us to pray that God’s will be done on earth if that is all that is done?

    1. Hi there, Walt!

      There are various aspects of the Christian worldview that don’t make sense if God is in control of everything that happens. If you have a genuine desire to understand my position on this I suggest reading my essay ‘An Almighty Predicament’ which is available as a PDF download here.

      Thanks and best wishes,

      Steven

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