Sam Harris || Free Will (Part 2)

March 4, 2021

Today it’s great to have Sam Harris on the podcast. Sam is the author of five New York Timesbest sellers, including The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, The Moral Landscape, Free Will, Lying, and Waking Up. The End of Faith won the 2005 PEN Award for Nonfiction. His writing and public lectures cover a wide range of topics—neuroscience, moral philosophy,religion, meditation practice, human violence, rationality—but generally focus on how a growing understanding of ourselves and the world is changing our sense of how we should live. He also hosts the Making Sense Podcast, which was selected by Apple as one of the “iTunes Best” and has won a Webby Award for best podcast in the Science & Education category.


[0:17] Sam and Scott discuss materialism and consciousness
[2:59] Sam makes his case for determinism
[11:08] Sam and Scott discuss “the self” and free will
[24:50] Sam’s take on why determinism eases human suffering
[29:23] Sam’s thoughts on the “responsibility paradox”
[36:30] The link between the responsibility paradox, cancel culture, and politics
[43:57] Sam’s thoughts on pride
[48:17] Sam’s reflections on love, hate, and Trump
[1:08:00] Sam’s defense of objective morality
[1:15:51] Why we ‘should’ prevent suffering and promote collective well-being
[1:30:23] What if reincarnation was real?
[1:33:37] Would it be good to change someone’s intuition of right and wrong?
[1:39:40] How emotions and values are linked
[1:45:09] Why we need to scale values
[1:48:12] Sam’s issue with the is-ought problem
[1:56:49] Why Sam maintains that free will and determinism are incompatible
[2:02:45] Why the self is an illusion
[2:08:53] Sam’s exploration of mystery

6 Responses to “Sam Harris || Free Will (Part 2)”

  1. You seem to talk past each other:
    Sam, it appears, argues 100% root cause. In that, he is [in my opinion] correct – from his point of view.
    Scott appears to argue from the point of view of present conditions. Root causes are a given, he now is a cumulative self. And, as that self, using his will as it has presently developed ‘he’ freely decides his actions [those that are not unconsciously automatic]. In that, he also is correct [IMO].
    However, I would add, that free decisions of any import require the self-awareness that comes from habitual introspection. Many people are not self-aware enough to be truly consciously self-directed [IMO]. They appear to ‘run on automatic’, directed by all the inherited and experiential memes embedded within their psyche. IMO, if there is indeed free will, it is a learned skill enabled by self-knowledge. And the self-knowledge, as applied at any particular instance, is ‘controlled’ by the internal question, “what would the person I assume myself to be do now?”. The self-image needs to be maintained.
    So, [IMO] we are neither totally free willed nor are we constrained to live without free will. It depends on when we define the self, and if the self is a self-aware self. Even so, the discussion continues. 🙂 pip

  2. Erin says:

    In the example of spilling water given at 26:00, Sam said it was freeing to know that he couldn’t have done otherwise. What if it wasn’t the first time he had done it, and he could have put the glass somewhere safer, but insisted to someone that he didn’t need to? Would he not feel embarrassed not to have listened then? Would the person who tried to advise him be right to feel indignant and angry that he didn’t listen? This is exactly what happens in the school setting, where teachers lecture their students about their “good and bad choices”. They are held accountable for their “bad” choices and rewarded for their “good” ones. How do we conceptualize the training of children in the context of free will?

  3. Shawn O'Brien says:

    Interesting discussion in which Scott is not hesitant to respectfully challenge Sam Harris. I lean towards Scott’s intuitions about free will. As a school psychologist, it would be pointless for me to intervene in any way with a child if there’s no such thing as free will. I don’t fully understand Harris’ argument that people can learn, grow, and direct their own change, but that is not an expression of free will. I agree with Mr. Piper above that self-reflection (meta-cognition) increases free will, and I’ve also observed that some people are seemingly constrained in this ability by their inborn genetics/temperament. Meta-cognition can be taught to those who fail to employ it, but there are limits on how much it can be increased, just as with IQ. So I think some people possess more free will than others, and we “should” help people to maximize their free will. If I combine 2 of Sam’s arguments (a non-relativistic basis of morality is avoiding extreme suffering for the group; it is moral to kill somebody like Hitler to prevent such suffering), I get the following argument: Humans on earth as a group are creating climate change that will ultimately kill most or all living things on the planet if there is not drastic change soon, which seems improbable. If we value all of life, including non-human, even if for no reason other than the ability to evolve into higher-level creatures, then it would be moral for a highly advanced civilization from another planet who understands what’s happening here to kill all humans. Interesting…

  4. Erin says:

    While I can agree that there are many implicit unconscious processes at work in our thinking, emotions and behaviours (e.g. those arising from the amygdala in response to threat), I’m not sure how Sam accounts for the “slow thinking” process involving the prefrontal cortex that is implicated in our conscious decisions and behaviors, such as insight, learning from mistakes, making judgements, planning, etc. He claims that conscious behaviours arise from thoughts that emanate inscrutably, but isn’t the common understanding of free will the ability to direct our behaviors in certain ways (whether or not they align with our conscious or automatic unconscious beliefs, and whether or not we play a part in those thoughts arising)?

  5. Barry Milliken says:

    Free Will, like Logic, is Axiomatic.
    All propositions presuppose that both Free Will and Logic apply. Otherwise, the proposer can only say he has been forced by determinism to believe in his proposition. If Sam has no free will, all of what he says has been predetermined since the big bang: it is just incoherent noise. Yet he implicitly “argues” and tries to “convince” us by what he couches as his deeply self reflective “choice” to not believe in free will. Thus his position is a fundamental self contradiction.

    The actual mechanism of free will may not he understood. Neither do we know exactly how life first emerged. Because we don’t understand the “mechanism” of something doesn’t mean that it therefore must be “spooky” or mystical. We just don’t fully understand it yet. But logic “forces” us to admit that life, consciousness and free will exist.

    If life did not exist, it also would be “thought” to be theoretically impossible in the face of deterministic entropy. (Except that there would be no “consciousness” being to “think”.)

Join the Discussion