Free will is an illusion.
We're full of wants, desires, thoughts, emotions, and such. But we can't want our wants, desire our desires, think our thoughts, emote our emotions, or freely choose anything.
It's only 66 pages long.
Yet it could have been even shorter, because Harris necessarily repeats his no free will theme in various ways -- getting his point across from different perspectives. I say "necessarily" since the illusion of free will is so strong, most people resist the scientifically defensible conclusion that it doesn't exist.
I'll write more about the book after I finish it. For now, I mostly wanted to talk about the joy of embracing the no free will reality.
Not that I have any choice in feeling that joy. Your results may differ if you read the book. Heck, they almost certainly will. Each of us is different. Yet we all share certain facts, nicely summarized by Harris in the passage below that I liked a lot.
Recently I heard someone talk about Victor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning." Frankl argues that we have the freedom to choose our psychological reactions to situations, even those as extreme as being in a concentration camp.
Not true, says Harris. He writes:
One of the most refreshing ideas to come out of existentialism (perhaps the only one) is that we are free to interpret and reinterpret the meaning of our lives. You can consider your first marriage, which ended in divorce, to be a "failure," or you can view it as a circumstance that caused you to grow in ways that were crucial to your future happiness.
Does this freedom of interpretation require free will? No. It simply suggests that different ways of thinking have different consequences. Some thoughts are depressing and disempowering; others inspire us. We can pursue any line of thought we want -- but our choice is the product of prior events that we did not bring into being.
Take a moment to think about the context in which your next decision will occur: You did not pick your parents or the time and place of your birth. You didn't choose your gender or most of your life experiences. You had no control whatsoever over your genome or the development of your brain.
And now your brain is making choices on the basis of preferences and beliefs that have been hammered into it over a lifetime -- by your genes, by your physical development since the moment you were conceived, and the interactions you have had with other people, events, and ideas.
Where is the freedom in this? Yes, you are free to do what you want even now. But where did your desires come from?
...What I will do next, and why, remains, at bottom, a mystery -- one that is fully determined by the prior state of the universe and the laws of nature (including the contributions of chance). To declare my "freedom" is tantamount to saying, "I don't know why I did it, but it's the sort of thing I tend to do, and I don't mind doing it."
I love the notion -- more, the reality -- that free will is an illusion. It's difficult to explain the dizzying enjoyable feeling I get when I realize there's no exit.
Wherever I turn, whichever way I go, always I'm in a maze of causes and effects not of my own making, because there's no separate "me" apart from those causes and effects. We're all in this maze together; no man or woman stands alone; individual human islands are an impossibility; it's all one big continent of interacting influences, a beautiful natural ecology of determinism.
Here's my favorite Harris passage from the part of his book that I've read so far.
Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have complete control over those factors.
But there is a paradox here that vitiates the very notion of freedom -- for what would influence the influenced? More influences? None of these adventitious mental states are the real you.
You are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm.
Wonderful. Love it! You are the storm. Nothing scary about a hurricane if you are the hurricane. Nothing bothersome about the brain's workings if you are those workings.