Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Clockwork Oranges

This is a review I posted on Amazon that I am also posting here regarding "Free Will" by Sam Harris.

I came into the book thinking I'd be further convinced that free will is an illusion but, after reading it, I'm more skeptical than I was before. Well, I learned a word for what I am -- compatibilist.

To me, the more lucid and resonating arguments from the book came from Daniel Dennett and others Harris quotes in opposition to his thesis that we're puppets on unseen strings. I agree that consciousness is not ultimately in charge, but my CEO brain still retains the power to "deliberate and choose and act," as I am doing with this review, or when I choose to say something sarcastic or not (and have done both), or whether to take advantage of the broken candy machine or not (and have done both). True, I don't inspire the urge to be sarcastic or steal a Snickers, but I have the ultimate say in whether I do it or not.

Or is Harris really saying men who cheat have no say in the matter? He never brings up this scenario, but I guess if he feels murderers can't help themselves, neither can adulterers. I disagree. Men may be, for biological reasons, more prone to cheat, but that does not mean those who cheat do so unavoidably.

Harris focuses somewhat on the extreme choice of murder, and seems to want to equate murderers with tumors in their brains to murderers who have unlucky genes, bad parents, and an unlucky environment. Well, we can see and remove the tumor in the former (though I still don't know what an apt form of justice would be to such a person), but what do we do to the person who kills for the fun of it? Could such a person be reformed? Could they develop enough willpower not to yield to the urge to kill? Isn't that a kind of free will, then?

If there's no free will, how does anyone ever effectively diet? How does Alcoholics Anonymous work? How can one have the atoms to abuse alcohol and then never touch it again? The conscious self never makes a decision in any of this?

Harris is right when he says we cannot go back in time to see how someone might have reacted differently, but we also can't see the situations where a store wasn't robbed, when a family wasn't murdered, when a home invader decided not to drop the bat on the patriarch's head. What in those situations? Is not beating someone with a bat still evidence of no free will? The genes just didn't have it in them at that time?

Or maybe Harris and I agree more than I think, and we're just defining free will differently, because he does says that choices matter.

And as a final criticism, the book did feel breezy, heavy on rhetoric, light on evidence and real world application. Harris brings up a couple of real world scenarios, but doesn't really develop or probe them in meaningful ways. The awful scenario he opens the book with never gets brought up again, for example. We're left to think Harris thinks what was done to that family was essentially unavoidable. The book feels like Harris spent a couple of weekends writing it.

A book that treads some of the same ground, but with more efficacy, depth, rigor, and power to persuade, is Incognito. I'd recommend that book over this one.