Puppets and Their Beloved Strings

Sam Harris quickly cast the gauntlet for a new expression of atheism in the wake of the 9-11 terrorist attacks. His first book, “The End of Faith,” is an open letter, a short one at that, citing religious belief as the motivation for much, if not all, evil in the world.

Though more serious works have followed, Harris’ first book was not much more than a paperback rant. He set his sights higher with “The Moral Landscape,” which is predominantly a philosophical work punctuated with scientific references. Though the subtitle claims “How Science Can Determine Human Values,” the reader might separate the science from the philosophical assumptions and question how much support is left for the author’s thesis. But who can blame the guy for trying to tackle one of the largest difficulties that plagues a reductionist worldview.

Although a noble effort, it doesn’t seem that Harris has solved the riddle offered by David Hume that we cannot derive a moral “ought” from a scientific “is.” This always makes me think of Oxford University prof John Lennox’s apt illustration that science can tell me if I put strychnine in my grandmother’s tea it will poison her (the scientific is), but science cannot tell me why I shouldn’t do it (the moral ought).

If we were to concede for a moment that Harris is right and science really can determine our values, we should go all the way and accept the conclusion of his most recent book that claims free will is an illusion. This book is less of an attack on religion, and more of an honest look at the implications of Harris’ view of the world.

In this short essay, Harris argues on scientific grounds, at least in the introductory pages, that actions are caused by our brain and that we cannot control our brain. He seems to build his entire case on the fact that physiologists can show activity in the brain’s motor cortex milliseconds before the corresponding action. The more informed reader might take issue with the assumed correlation between the former brain activity and the latter action (Post hoc ergo propter hoc). Though Harris’ friend and fellow atheist Daniel Dennet disagrees with the significance of this connection, Harris believes he has discovered scientific evidence for kicking free will to the curb. Of course, if he is right, he couldn’t help but write the book. And I couldn’t help but write this blog post. And you couldn’t help but read it. And . . . okay. I’ll stop.

To be precise, Harris says that the belief that we could have behaved differently in the past and the belief that we control our thoughts and actions in the present are both false (page 6). Sam doesn’t shy away from the implications of this, though many other atheist philosophers have reached this same conclusion apart from a scientific foundation.

Harris opens the book with details from the gruesome event from 2007 when two robbers broke into a home, beat the father with a baseball bat until he was unconscious, emptied his bank account, raped and strangled his wife, abused his children and then set the beds to which they were tied on fire. Could these men have done anything other than what they did? Harris says no. In fact, he says if he had their brain, their DNA, their past experiences, he would have behaved exactly as they did.

When I have more time I’d like to interact with Sam Harris’ argument more in-depth, but for the time being here are a few quotes that I think summarize his central claim:

Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. (page 5)

My mental life is given to me by the cosmos. (page 19)

And there is no way I can influence my desires – for what tools of influence would I use? (page 20)

A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings. (page 20)

If determinism is true, the future is set – and this includes all of our future states of mind and our subsequent behavior. (pages 29-30)

The phrase “free will” describes what if feels like to identify with certain mental states as they arise in our consciousness . . . But from a deeper perspective (speaking both objectively and subjectively), thoughts simply arise unauthored and yet author our actions. (page 32)

You are not in control of your mind – because you, as a conscious agent, are only part of your mind, living at the mercy of your other parts. (page 38)

You will do whatever it is you do, and it is meaningless to assert that you could have done otherwise. (page 44)

… all rapists are, at bottom, unlucky – being themselves victims of prior causes that they did not create. (page 46)

In fact, it seems immoral not to recognize just how much luck is involved in morality itself. (page 54)

The urge for retribution depends upon our not seeing the underlying causes of human behavior. (page 55)

To anyone wanting more context for the quotes I would simply encourage you to buy the book. I don’t believe the lack of context substantively changes the meaning of what I’ve shared above, but I’d encourage you to read the book and decide for yourself. I actually think this is the most daring of all of Harris’ books to date. I think it is the logical conclusion of his ultimate beliefs that seem to be unavoidable. I applaud him for bravely stepping into the world to which his worldview has led him.

The real question is whether or not Harris’ world is the real world?

I don’t believe it is. I believe the gospel provides an objective basis for human flourishing that doesn’t reduce humanity to determined actions caused by a mind that is given to us “by the cosmos.” If we are created in the image of God and have a soul, then we are able to, as an act of the will, make meaningful decisions. Of course, if we are created in the image of God then the most important decision we will ever make is how we respond to our Creator.

Harris concludes his brief book with a word of appreciation for his wife. Harris writes, “I would like to thank my wife and editor, Annaka Harris, for her contributions to Free Will. As is always the case, her insights and recommendations greatly improved the book. I don’t know how she manages to raise our daughter, work on her own projects, and still have time to edit my books – but she does. I am extremely lucky and grateful to have her in my corner.”

I really like when an author dotes on his/her spouse. It’s touching. But if I take Harris’ worldview to its logical conclusion, as he has done, then I can no longer be moved. According to Harris, we have no control over our past or present actions. Thus, his wife couldn’t have done anything different than what she did. Even as she raises their daughter and edits Sam’s books, she really doesn’t have a choice. Her free will is only an illusion.

So, Sam is right in saying he is lucky, but what does he mean by saying he is grateful?


Sam Harris, 2012. Free Will. New York, NY: Free Press.