Free will: Sam Harris

If you pay attention to your inner life, you will see that the emergence of choices, efforts, and intentions is a fundamentally mysterious process. Yes, you can decide to go on a diet—and we know a lot about the variables that will enable you to stick to it—but you cannot know why you were finally able to adhere to this discipline when all your previous attempts failed. You might have a story to tell about why things were different this time around, but it would be nothing more than a post hoc description of events that you did not control. Yes, you can do what you want—but you cannot account for the fact that your wants are effective in one case and not in another (and you certainly can’t choose your wants in advance). You wanted to lose weight for years. Then you really wanted to. What’s the difference? Whatever it is, it’s not a difference that you brought into being.
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 other parts. You can do what you decide to do—but you cannot decide what you will decide to do. Of course, you can create a framework in which certain decisions are more likely than others—you can, for instance, purge your house of all sweets, making it very unlikely that you will eat dessert later in the evening—but you cannot know why you were able to submit to such a framework today when you weren’t yesterday.
So it’s not that willpower isn’t important or that it is destined to be undermined by biology. Willpower is itself a biological phenomenon. You can change your life, and yourself, through effort and discipline—but you have whatever capacity for effort and discipline you have in this moment, and not a scintilla more (or less). You are either lucky in this department or you aren’t—and you cannot make your own luck.


7 thoughts on “Free will: Sam Harris

  1. The mind is the trickster, don’t you think? It’s all driven by mind. Otherwise everything moves along in the direction of deep intention, will is biological – this expresses it so well…


      1. It was only after commenting that I checked on Sam Harris and remembered the point of view held there. I’m still not sure I know what it is but your comment on delusions of the mind being ‘the undivided’ on a bad day? 🙂 … no-self taken to the extreme and not allowing anything that could be interpreted by some as the Higher Self. I’m hesitant to say that that’s what the Buddha meant by anatta.


  2. “Later Buddhists”, I think you mean Mahayana, interesting I hadn’t thought of it that way. There was a comment on a post once: Vajrayana Buddhists say that the essence of all phenomena is self-knowing awareness. Sam Harris would reduce that until there’s nothing at all except the underlying undivided…


      1. Thanks for pointing me in this direction. I’ve read other David Loy, essays and parts of The Great Awakening many times. It’s technical yep. Good to have that pdf I’d probably not have placed in my library.


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