Sam Harris is Wrong On Free Will

by | Aug 22, 2012

Harris' erroneous assertions are easy to refute.

You probably thought that the answer is: “you.” But neuroscientist Sam Harris argues (or rather, asserts) in his new book, Free Will, that your genes and your environment are responsible for your behavior: you have no choice. Harris claims that free will is an illusion, and therefore no-one can be held accountable for his behavior; we merely act the way our genes and environment dictate. Therefore, we cannot assign blame or praise to anyone. Criminals are victims of their circumstances; Olympic athletes and successful entrepreneurs excel solely because of their genes and upbringing.

The thought of shedding personal responsibility might be comforting so some; however, we should care about Harris’ claim and understand that it is wrong. Why? For two reasons: because 1) we need to choose and pursue values in order to survive and flourish (as opposed to acting on the basis of random urges we feel in any given circumstance, such as defrauding the bank in order to finance our business or hiring a hit man to eliminate our competitor), and because 2) we don’t know automatically what values are required for a happy life and how to achieve them. Harris would have us believe that some of us are destined to achieve values and others are not. Ending up with a life of crime, with an Olympic medal, or with a successful business are all beyond our control, claims Harris.

Harris’ erroneous assertions are easy to refute. All one has to do is simply to introspect in order to observe free will in action. The fundamental choice we all make in any given waking moment is to focus our mind, or not. You have to choose to focus to read this blog, or let your mind wander, or quit reading. Your genes do not pre-determine that choice for you nor does your upbringing.

All our subsequent choices depend on the fundamental choice to focus your mind, to “turn the switch,” or not. Only if you choose to focus can you achieve your values in the long term. By choosing to focus you can learn, acquire a skill, develop a business plan, persuade investors to invest in your company and customers to buy its products and services. The consequence is a thriving business and achievement of other rational values. The alternative is to choose not to focus on facts at hand but to evade what’s around you: new technologies being invented, insufficient cash flow of your business, competitors taking your market share, and customers taking their business elsewhere. (This is assuming that you chose to focus earlier in order to build a business in the first place). If you choose not to focus, you will live in a mental fog and take random actions, as the mood or some inexplicable urge strikes you. The consequence is a loss of your business and all other values.

The point is: the choice to focus is not an illusion. It is yours to make—and you are responsible for that choice and for the rest of your behavior.

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Jaana Woiceshyn teaches business ethics and competitive strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada. How to Be Profitable and Moral” is her first solo-authored book. Visit her website at profitableandmoral.com.

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