Sam Harris and Free Will

A portrait photo of Sam Harris wearing a suit

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 post 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.

42 Comments on “Sam Harris and Free Will

  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

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Dinos,

      Sam Harris cites that very experiment in the book, and it’s among his main arguments that lead him to conclude we don’t have free will.

      Blessings,

      Steven

      Liked by 1 person

      • 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.

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        • 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

          Like

          • 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.

            Liked by 1 person

            • 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

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

              Liked by 1 person

            • 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

              Like

  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

    Liked by 1 person

    • 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

      Like

  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

    Liked by 1 person

    • 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

      Like

  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!

    Liked by 1 person

    • 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 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  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!

    Liked by 1 person

    • 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

      Liked by 1 person

      • 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!

        Liked by 1 person

        • 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

          Liked by 1 person

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