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The absolute weirdness of a deterministic universe

By Graham Preston - posted Friday, 6 March 2015

Back in 2012 a short book by neuroscientist and philosopher, Sam Harris, was published. The book has a bit of an odd title - "Free Will". Odd, because Harris does not believe that human beings have free will. He is a hard-core determinist.

Sam Harris is often referred to as one of the 'new atheists' and is included along with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, and the late Christopher Hitchkens, as one of 'the four horsemen of the anti-apocalypse'. As well as being the author of a number of other best-selling books, a speaker, and the co-founder of Project Reason, Harris has a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience.

Obviously he is an intelligent man, but then again . . .


Harris leaves the reader in absolutely no doubt that he believes that determinism represents the true state of the universe: " . . . we know that determinism, in every sense relevant to human behaviour, is true" (p. 16), ". . . the future is set – and this includes all our future states of mind and our subsequent behaviour" (p. 29), "You will do whatever it is you do and it is meaningless to assert you could have done otherwise", (p. 43).

Perhaps the most pointed and telling of the many similar assertions in "Free Will" is found on page 37, "You are not in control of your mind . . ."

Wow. Such a claim surely demands a significant pause and a few rereads – "you are not in control of your mind".

And of course Harris is right, if determinism is true. If "unconscious neural events determine our thoughts and actions and are themselves determined by prior causes of which we are subjectively unaware," (p. 16), then we cannot possibly have any control over our minds. "Choices, efforts, intentions, and reasoning influence our behaviour – but they are themselves part of a chain of causes that precede conscious awareness and over which we exert no ultimate control", (p. 29).

But could it possibly be the case, given our actual experience of the world that we live in and indeed, given what Harris himself writes, that he is correct?

Note that he says that "you", i.e. we the readers, "are not in control of your mind". Now it could be that Harris does not include himself amongst those who have no control over their minds - perhaps seeing himself as some sort of superior being from a different dimension - but he doesn't make such a claim and presumably would definitely not see himself in that way. Thus, apparently, he believes that he too has no control over his mind.


Now this is when things get really, really seriously weird.

Here we have an author who has no control over his own mind writing for readers who, equally, have no control over their minds. "The next choice you make will come out of the darkness of prior causes that you, the conscious witness of your experience did not bring into being" (p. 34). Thus, according to Harris, the words of that sentence, along with every other sentence of the book, just loomed unintentionally and unbidden out of "the darkness of prior causes" and made their way, via his fingers onto a keyboard and into the book.

Wow, again. The really curious thing is that, somehow despite there being absolutely no control over the whole process ("seeming acts of volition merely arise spontaneously" p. 6), the letters that happen to be typed seem to form into recognisable words, the words form into syntactically correct sentences, and the entire book forms a comprehensible (albeit bizarre) whole.

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About the Author

Graham Preston is an illustrator and a student of life.

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