Sam Harris, Free Will & Waking Up - a critique

Against my better judgement considering time constraints, I recently listened to the audiobooks Free Will and Waking Up by Sam Harris, mainly because of all the praise they were getting in certain circles. I wrote the following posts on another forum I've been a member for many years, but without being condescending, I suspect there are more knowledgeable people about this specific subject here on this forum, and hence better able to critique my own critique. I wrote these quickly and on the spur of the moment, so I'm sure there is plenty of potential for errors or misunderstanding on my part, or that I'm missing something I hadn't considered.

Just to clarify though, myself personally, I "believe" neither in the concept of free-will or pre-determinism. I believe the "truth" maybe something far more mysterious and complex than our language allows for with these kind of labels (same applies, imo, to particle/wave, consciousness is spiritual/material, there is life after death or not, psychic powers or not etc etc debates. I suspect the very nature of our dualistic language is preventing us from deeper insights into some of these areas...). Review of Free Will below:

Intriguing, I am quite the opposite. I absorb and digest far more information when I sit down to read a book than I ever have whilst listening to an audiobook. I just tend to drift with audio! I guess we're all different!

And as if to emphasise those differences, here's my reviews of Sam's books Waking up and Free Will, both of which I've heard recently on audiobook.

The Free Will book sounded to my ears like the musings of a high-school kid (I know I personally had pondered over every single argument he makes in this "ground-breaking" book as a child, others mileage may vary). I simply cannot fathom the hype around it. Tired & well-worn-out arguments that add absolutely nothing to the centuries of philosophical debate around the subject. Poor, cliched & outdated philosophy married to dubious scientific claims.

Every single line of reasoning in his arguments can be unraveled to show the complete incoherency of his overall argument.

Philosophically speaking, this is quite easy to do with Sam's specific arguments (cliched arguments such as a neural disorder forcing certain people to do act in certain ways thereby proving lack of "free-will" in all humans is to conflate the specific with the general, a very obvious logical error).

However, I would say the 2 specific areas one needs to understand the profound weakness of Sam's philosophy regarding "free-will" in context of his being a neuro-scientist are the following:

1) The term "free-will" is a concept that relates very exclusively, specifically and uniquely to a "self". The very definition of the word infers subjectivity; "free-will" must belong to a "self". So, for there to be any meaningful scientific discussion or research into the concept of "free-will", we must first define, locate, measure etc the "self".

Science has made absolutely no head-way into that particular area of research, and is just as, if not more so, clueless as it was a hundred years ago regarding the nature of self and consciousness.

And so it follows that any such so-called scientific "research" into free-will in the mean-time is, by definition, a facade, a charade, the building of castles in the clouds. A rudderless concept with no direction. If we don't know who or what this "self" is to whom "free-will" may belong, how can we ever measure it?

If one listens carefully to Sam, one can notice the profound incoherency and confusion in his arguments in this his eagerness to deny "free-will", he doesn't notice what shakey philosophical ground he tramples on. Even he, at times, says "what is the self" to whom free-will belongs, is it the "self" of our waking conscious minds, our "sub-concsious" mind, the millions of individual cells in our bodies etc. Well, YES! What IS the self to which "free-will" belongs? Does Sam actually know? Perhaps he should share, because the rest of the science world hasn't got a clue!!

2) More or less the entire scientific edifice of the idea humans have no free will is the Libet experiments, and subsequent variations thereof (random link googled up):

Libet Experiments

Libet Experiments
Information Philosopher is dedicated to the new Information Philosophy, with explanations for Freedom, Values, and Knowledge.

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I first heard of, and was entirely convinced by, this research decades ago. Even though, even back then, something niggled at me that something about this and similar experiments didn't quite sit right, even though I, like the vast majority of people, just mindlessly nodded along & agreed with the pop- interpretation of this experiment.

But the older I've got, the more I've learned to try and think for myself and not take things at face value. Even just the slightest amount of independent thought applied to the Libet experiments brings up serious issues of interpretation & methodology. Do we really have any grasp of what self is, what "will" is, what "choice" is etc, for us to feel we are accurately measuring them with these experimental devices?

A simple search brings up huge amounts of conflicting scientific interpretations to the one Sam seemingly has unquestioningly accepted, as well as more recent research which suggests the Libet experiments were not actually measuring "free-will" but "readiness potential". It should be obvious such confusion will exist on such a vague and ambiguous subject. People who make absolute claims, like Sam Harris, should always be eyed with suspicion and their claims questioned.

Critique of Libet on Free Will

Critique of Libet on Free Will
The experiments of the physiologist Benjamin Libet are famous for their contribution to the free will/determinism debate to the extent that in popular ima...

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Brain might not stand in the way of free will

Brain might not stand in the way of free will
A classic experiment that suggests the brain is aware of our urge to act spontaneously before we are might have been misinterpreted

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Exposing some holes in Libet’s classic free will study

Exposing some holes in Libet’s classic free will study
Benjamin Libet’s classic 1983 experiment purported to show that preparatory brain activity precedes our conscious decision to move – a controversial finding interpr...

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Do Benjamin Libet's Experiments Show that Free Will Is an Illusion?

Do Benjamin Libet's Experiments Show that Fr...
Evolution News and Views (ENV) provides original reporting and analysis about the debate over intelligent design and evolution.

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The Libet Experiment and its Implications for Conscious Will

The Libet Experiment and its Implications for Conscious ...
Dr Peter Clarke considers whether the experiments of Benjamin Libet call into question the reality of human will. Although quite a technical paper, Dr Cl...

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Critique of Waking Up:

Errr, well, that review was a bit longer than I expected!

To review Waking Up, I found it more interesting than Free Will, though not much more insightful.

Imo Sam has no grasp or understanding of mysticism and the potential experiences and insights that arise from such practices beyond the superficial and basic (yes, I understand he has taken retreats and met with some teachers, doesn't mean a thing though).

I do suspect his opinions may change as he experiences more with his meditation, perhaps. But as it stands, according to my understanding, he really hasn't experienced much at all beyond the superficial mind states that can arise through meditation. He is also overwhelmingly uninformed about several subjects which he dismisses based on his obvious ideological biases and prejudices (he his blinded by these throughout all his work imo).

From kechari mudra, to the purpose and mechanics of "prophecy" to NDEs, his ignorance and lack of insight into these subjects is staggering in context of his dogmatic dismissal and ridicule of such things he hasn't the slightest understanding, experience or significance of. These are subjects way too complex for his simplistic narrative.

In example, he goes on about the likely connection between DMT and NDEs and how scientific experimentation can help prove these things. Well, go on then! This is a guy who is one of the intellectual elite, the intelligentsia and a neuro-scientist to boot...go and do the experiments instead of hypothesising about it! REAL science! I've wanted PRECISELY this kind of research doing for years and years. How hard can it be? Get 20 NDErs, give them some IV DMT. Done!

On the other hand, I had to take the personal risk and commit illegal acts to determine if DMTs are indeed related to NDEs and other natural "Inner journeying".....NO, a DMT trip is NOT like a NDE or natural inner visionary "ascent". That's an experiential report, not ideological hypothesising.

Ironically, in context of Sam's condescending dismissal of khechari mudra (sticking the tongue into your nasal cavity to collect inner "nectar"), DMT probably DOES have a connection to this SPECIFIC experience of khechari mudra.

I've tasted the metallic nectar that drips down the back of the neck. At the time I wrote about the experience on this forum, and how I believed the models of hormones, glands and chemicals may better explain this experience than the models of chakras or kundalini or other metaphysical models etc.

In retro-spect, I believe THAT experience WAS very similar if not identical to what a DMT trip is like (only it lasted a lot longer and felt very clean or pure), and this is further supported by the science we have on endogenous DMT and it's potential location in the brain (I forget the name of the region).

Etc etc. But this kind of information is too complex to fit into a one dimensional ideological narrative.


Thanks for the reviews!

IMO almost nobody should be having the free-will debate because that is too high level given there's no real understanding of causation nor consciousness.


I've been thinking about the problem of free will, and I definitely agree with your position. Do you take the position of Chomsky, that free will will remain a mystery?
I think free will is actually in-line with the way causality works in general, factoring in the relevant mental aspects.


Haha...Comprehend/ have a good idea on how it works, etc.
Sorry wasn't trying to be an ass - what I mean is if people think understanding means express in terms of, say, a computer program or how free will fits into a mechanistic paradigm I would disagree with the very premise. So part of accepting the possibility of free-will is accepting the premises many have about causation are incorrect.

It may be that novelty is a principle of the universe, as physicist Lee Smolin suggests
. Or perhaps various suggestions of top down causation, like that suggested by Peter Tse, gain increased scientific support. Or the free-will inclusive ideas around Information Integration Theory are shown to be correct. Or going a little off the reservation, acceptance of PK might lead to a revival in the acceptance of Aristotilean final causation with respect to the human-person as a unit holding causal power. Or NDEs may come to suggest God is the Prime Mover, and thus grants the freedom of telos to each individual. (Each of these really could be a thread in themselves and this isn't exhaustive, just to give an idea.)

IMO the first thing is to challenge the mechanistic assumptions that currently enchant many in STEM academia, what Kauffman calls the Galilean spell. Essentially my reason for making that particular Resource Thread.
No worries, I figured you were just trying to clarify. I think the issues much more complicated than we can imagine, it's very premature to think we have an understanding of physics let alone free will. It's pretty interesting when you hear people like Sam Harris, among others, saying free will does not exist.