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Objectivism in the June 2013 Reason Papers: part 6 of 6

The sixth and final Objectivist item in the June 2013 issue of RP is a longish review essay by Eyal Mozes of Sam Harris’s shortish book, Free Will.

Harris is one of the most aggressive of the ‘new atheists’, and a proponent of a quasi-eliminativist form of physicalism about consciousness. He has a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience from Stanford and has wide-ranging interests in philosophy; he’s also the author of several books, and is the founder and CEO of Project Reason. A passage from Free Will indicates its thesis: “Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have” (p. 5)FreeWillCoverSmall

Mozes is as aggressive an atheist as Harris, but no less aggressive in defending a conception of consciousness that allows for libertarian freedom. He has an undergraduate degree in mathematics from Tel Aviv University (Israel), and a Ph.D. from Stanford in computer science, where he did graduate-level work in philosophy with Fred Dretske, among others. He did five years of graduate-level work after that in biology, biochemistry, and bioinformatics at Columbia, and now works in bioinformatics at the National Center for Biotechnology Information at the National Institutes for Health. He’s written before on the free will issue, having published a trenchant critique of Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves, as well as an online essay on the free will issue itself. Those who have read or interacted with him know that he takes no prisoners in philosophical arguments.

Like all of Harris’s books, Free Will comes to the shelves with some loud endorsements by some big names. The following, by Paul Bloom of the Psychology Department at Yale, is typical:

If you believe in free will, or know someone who does, here is the perfect antidote. In this smart, engaging, and extremely readable little book, Sam Harris argues that free will doesn’t exist, that we’re better off knowing that it doesn’t exist, and that—once we think about it in the right way—we can appreciate from our own experience that it doesn’t exist. This is a delightful discussion by one of the sharpest scholars around.

Unfortunately for Bloom and for Harris, there isn’t a single argument in Harris’s book to justify this piece of rhetorical triumphalism, and I think Mozes’s review helps explain why. I myself would have taken a slightly different approach to Harris’s argument than Mozes does—Harris’s arguments strike me as worse than Mozes makes them out to be—but suffice it to say that I don’t think Bloom’s rhetoric (or Harris’s book) survives Mozes’s critique. We’ll be inviting Harris to respond once the review has been published.



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