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Free Will

The concept that is essentially an illusion

By Sam Harris
7-minute read
Audio available
Free Will by Sam Harris

In Free Will, author Sam Harris explains that the concept of “free will” is essentially an illusion. While it might be hard to believe, what we think and what we do lies mostly out of our direct control. This book explains why exactly this is, and what implications it has for society at large.

  • Anyone interested in the latest research about how brains work
  • Anyone curious about the difference between the conscious and unconscious
  • Anyone interested in the connection of science and public policy

American Sam Harris is the cofounder and CEO of Project Reason, a nonprofit organization that works to spread scientific knowledge and secular values in society. A prolific writer and author, he received the 2005 PEN Award for Nonfiction for his work, The End of Faith.

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Free Will

By Sam Harris
  • Read in 7 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 4 key ideas
Free Will by Sam Harris
Synopsis

In Free Will, author Sam Harris explains that the concept of “free will” is essentially an illusion. While it might be hard to believe, what we think and what we do lies mostly out of our direct control. This book explains why exactly this is, and what implications it has for society at large.

Key idea 1 of 4

You can’t actually control what you do or why you do it. The concept of free will is an illusion.

Here’s a scenario: You realize that you’re thirsty, so you decide to grab a glass of lemonade.

Where did this decision come from?

Many people would say you chose to drink a glass of lemonade out of your own free will. Free will happens when you make a decision – that is, make up your own mind – without being forced or coerced.

So if you want lemonade, and no one's threatening to kill you if you don't, you're exercising free will.

But really, you didn’t decide to get that glass of lemonade – at least not consciously. Perhaps you felt thirsty, but that's a biological function that you can’t directly control.

And why lemonade, exactly? And why now?

Such decisions don't originate from our conscious minds. We don't know what we intend to do until we actually do it.

Researcher Benjamin Libet in his experiments found that he could detect activity in parts of peoples' brains that signaled movement before they decided to move. While participants thought they controlled their own movements, their brains had already decided to move their bodies before they were even aware of it.

This means the underlying reasons behind our actions or decisions are hidden from us. The only way we could fully control our decisions would be if we had complete control over all our brain activity.

The feeling that we control our thoughts and behaviors is an illusion. Our thoughts are inspired by deep biological processes that we simply can’t control, like our genetic makeup.

Think of it this way. Do you control the millions of bacteria in your body? Not at all. So why, then, should we think we are responsible for an equally random set of processes that occur in our brains?

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