The bottom line: A provocative book that grows the intellectual imagination while also dismissing reason to reach desired conclusions.
In my view, this is an extremely rare and unique book because it manages to do two contradictory things quite well.
On the one hand, Free Will brilliantly engages all of your mental faculties in order to illuminate and alternative perception that will most certainly persuade you to view the world, people, society and ethics differently. On the other hand, the author’s same sharp intelligence often abandons reason and takes a leap of faith into the realm assumption to draw some troublesome and destructive conclusions.
The main argument of the book is that free will is an illusion. This assertion is based on scientific evidence that reveals physical, biological activity in our brain which precedes conscious thought and behavior. Resultantly, while we may “feel” as if we are making a choice, this choice is the result of background phenomena that we are neither aware of nor over which we exert any control. Essentially then, we are passive, biochemical drones that succumb to the whims of neurons firing in our brains. Positively, this does persuade us to embrace science in how we think, for example, about social Darwinism and how justice is employed.
A paramount question then becomes where these unconscious background phenomena come from (and how they develop and why they develop), and this is where Harris jumps from what is known and can be readily tested into speculation: that is, because these background phenomena are “perfectly mysterious” and difficult to map to reality, then we should just stick with what we can presently quantify and disregard what informs what we are largely ignorant about.
I found this approach puzzling from an author with such a high intellectual standard. Mystery should not persuade conjecture but should compel us to keep on investigating and searching for clarity. Is that not the rational thing to do?
Of course, investing in the illusion of free will is a gamble that carries with it stakes that are very, very high.
So in a negative sense, one of the ultimate conclusions of Free Will is subjective morality where responsibility is contingent upon the biochemical makeup of the mind, and moral institutions fade because people aren’t actively choosing to do something “right” or “wrong.”
And while I wholeheartedly agree with Harris that illusionary free will does not force us to abandon our treasured social and political freedoms, I also have to admit—based on the logic the book presents—that our sense of freedom and morality are meaningless side effects of the felt illusion of neurotransmitters hopping within our skulls.
Ultimately, I think this book is a worthwhile read. Of course, many will disagree (or simply just feel uncomfortable) will many of the conclusions, but some of the truths clearly and succinctly described by Harris are worth contemplation. Although this book is short (the main text is less than 70 pages), the writing style is very dense so this is by no means a quick read. If for nothing else, Free Will provides much fuel for smart debate and the development of mature ideas.