Sam Harris on Free Will: Is Free Will an Illusion?


A couple years ago I read Sam Harris’ book on free will. Basically he thinks free will is an illusion. I agree with him, that what we actually have is luck.

But I have serious reservations about this idea. While I truly wish individuals were the authors of their own thoughts and therefore responsible for their actions, I don’t see that as true. Our brains are like computers constantly being programmed by external forces. Nobody chose to be born, much less into the specific family and environment that they exist within. Still, personal responsibility is what our entire system of justice is based upon – this seems to be the foundational principle of all human interaction and civilization itself.

So this does seem like a potentially dangerous idea however true it may be. When we stop thinking of ourselves as autonomous decision makers I’m afraid it opens the door to the destructive forces of nihilism. Doesn’t this justify every wrong action we’ve ever taken? How do we blame murderers for their crimes when structural violence and a chain of events starting at the dawn of time were actually the culprits?

On the other hand, maybe this philosophy can be channeled into positive changes. If we can see ourselves as a single organism evolving simultaneously I think we could have a much safer, healthier, harmonious world, even approaching utopia.

While Sam Harris has said himself he “has to be reminded he thinks this way.” It’s a really psychedelic thought in my view. Harris has said he’s done LSD and MDMA. I’ve done psilocybin a few times and during the peak I felt a strong sense of empathy for myself and others, and of being “one with the universe.” I really think this feeling, however dangerous it could be if interpreted selfishly, has enormous potential to change the world for the better.


You’re the same dude who cited Freud and a terribly researched article for a thread that posited that bisexuality was innate.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice? Nah.


If free will is an illusion there’s absolutely no point to having this conversation.

On the other hand, if it’s not then QED, we know the answer so there’s no point having this conversation. Which is why free will is the assumption everyone goes with - because being contrarian means there’s no point to being contrarian so why are you even bothering?

It’s extremely safe to ignore anyone who disputes free will because, if they happen to be right, it’s not like you had the free will to choose to ignore them anyway. The conversation doesn’t go anywhere.


“Free” will does not exist, given pre-existing conditions and external influence. This much is true.

Pre-existing conditions and external influence do not dismiss the responsibility of responding in a logically/morally correct way to the situations we are presented with. To think otherwise would be relativistic, and relativism is, in itself, a logical fallacy.

The idea of nihilism is avoided entirely by the fact that “logic” exists.


So generally speaking I’m a compatibilist about free will. In this context that means that I don’t think we have to give up the concept of free will if we accept that everything acts in a mechanical way like everything being part of a big machine (I don’t want to say deterministic because that implies it could all be calculated in advance, which isn’t clear when you get into the realms of physics which are probabilistic)

The rough argument goes something like this:

  • free will is a human-invented concept which basically describes someone being free to determine how they act.
  • we can imagine scenarios that are the opposite of that, such as if my body and mouth was performing actions and speech against what I wanted and out of my control.
  • but we never really specified what the positive version looks like: what ‘free’ and what the process of ‘determining’ has to look like in this context.
  • And there’s an argument that it doesn’t matter. If it seems to us like what we describe as free will, and behaves like free will in all ways relevant to humans then it isn’t really of any importance what’s going on under the hood, and to bring the mechanics of what’s happening into it really has nothing to do with the reason that we as humans created a concept of free will and how we actually use it in language.

That last point there bears some relation to the idea that I’ve talked about in some other threads that meaning comes from use. You can’t define free will out of existence, while it can still be used in meaningful ways.

I have free will if it appears to me, as closely as I can inspect, that I am able to act according to my desires, even if when you dig into the mechanics of that on some deep low level it’s all equations. Because how else can we meaningfully talk about/understand free will?


I think it’s really interesting how much potential for good this idea has, but also how the mainstream media would probably have a lot of reasons to censor this topic. American individualism is directly threatened by the idea that everything is luck. Can you imagine a billionaire who didn’t want to take credit for his fortune? Well, maybe Bill Gates but he also used LSD. :yum:


yeah but if they don’t have free will then they didn’t choose to censor this topic the universe deterministically whatever whatever
no I didn’t watch the video


It’s precisely this sort of thing why I think that trying to argue that free will is illusory leads us down this sort of linguistic/argumentative cul-de-sac where it’s hard to progress.

Free will exists simply by virtue that it is necessary context for how we understand and contextualise human action.

To use another example, there’s very compelling argument that there’s nothing real about the present moment in time. There’s nothing physical that makes NOW any different from five minutes ago or five minutes later, and if that’s true then the passage of time itself could be described in some sense as illusory. But that doesn’t REALLY mean that ‘now’ doesn’t exist. We all know what ‘now’ is like and can talk about it, it doesn’t matter that under the hood the idea ‘nowness’ might be sorta freaky-weird and not make too much sense.

Now exists in a human context. Free will exists in a human context.


this kinda argument reminds me of general nihilist arguments of like “we’re all gonna die some day, life is pointless, etc.”

like, yeah, it may be TECHNICALLY true. if all of existence is massive amounts of molecules interacting with massive amounts of other molecules at dizzying speeds all over the universe, then theoretically you could find a way to map out the interactions of all molecules across the universe and predict how every single interaction in human history will go down - every single step everyone will take down to the fibre of carpet, every single word that someone will stutter on, that kind of thing.

in that sense, sure, we have no free will; everything is technically predetermined, except at a magnitude of complexity we have absolutely no ability to comprehend. and as with nihilism, this naturally leads a lot of people down a rabbit hole of “life has no meaning so why care about anything”.

but the fact is, our lives go on regardless of their lack of meaning. people still feel emotion; people still feel pain. many people go about their lives unaware of this theoretical meaninglessness. still others don’t care. still others, despite their awareness of these concepts, have difficulty imbuing their lives with meaninglessness, forced to suffer from damnable significance.

i’d argue that it’s our responsibility - our meaning, if you will - to imbue things with the meaning that does not inherently exist within them, if for no reason other than that people will inevitably exist for whom meaning exists regardless of theory. a homeless person’s cold and hunger do not go away if you lecture them about the inherent meaninglessness of existence, and to do so is callous and condescending.

meanwhile, a lot of people also use nihilism as a way to be happier, too. people use it to let go of concerns and burdens and grudges that keep them up at night. its similar to how cynicism can lead someone to be condescending and arrogant and above-it-all, but can also lead them to be rational and critical of existing structures for the good of benefiting and informing others.

existential predetermination is like any tool: its value comes about from how you use it.


Thanks to the Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principal we do in fact have free will.