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 upon 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.