Have you ever wondered why you did something? I’m not talking about some momentous, life-altering decision, but such ordinary matters as what led you to purchase this newspaper or go to the Web site and click on this article. Do you prefer vanilla or chocolate, wine or beer, “Mad Men” or “Breaking Bad”? And, again, why?
We assume that many, if not all, of our decisions come from within. We eat a banana because we want a banana; we think about getting a tattoo but remember we don’t like needles. We think that the things we do or don’t do, like or don’t like, believe or don’t believe — basically, the things that make us who we are — stem from decisions we have made.
In a fascinating new book, the well-known secular philosopher Sam Harris makes the case for accepting that these impulses, desires and decisions aren’t original, independent choices. Rather, you aren’t in control of your mind because you “are only part of your mind.” You are aware of your conscious mind, and all of the thoughts and urges therein, but you have no idea where these feelings and yens come from. If you have a sudden urge to go for a walk, where did that come from? You don’t know, but if you opt to take the walk, are you really acting freely?
Harris explores the notion that free will is an illusion in this nimble book (which, at 83 pages, can be read in one sitting or a couple of Metro rides), amiably and conversationally jumping from point to point. The book’s length is one of its charms: He never belabors any one topic or idea, sticking around exactly as long as he needs to in order to lay out his argument (and tackle the rebuttals that it will inevitably provoke) and not a page longer.
The most interesting part of “Free Will” isn’t its thesis. Rather, it’s what the author says it means: that trying to become aware of where our feelings and thoughts originate will “allow for greater creative control over one’s life.” Recognizing the things that we can and cannot control can give someone a sense of freedom from worry and fear. As Harris says, even if each of us is a “biomechanical puppet” fashioned by elements and factors over which we have no control, realizing this lets us “grab hold of one of [our] strings.”