In recent weeks, Israeli bombs have rained down on Gaza, and images of the resulting death and destruction have inflamed world opinion. Never mind that the government in Gaza is run by Hamas, an avowedly genocidal organization that uses its own civilians as human shields. Nor does it matter that some of this carnage seems to have been caused by Hamas’s own rockets gone astray. To bear witness to the suffering of the Palestinian people is all: the sight of a lifeless girl pulled from the rubble, her inconsolable parents, the spokesman for UNRWA breaking down in sobs during an interview—every image presents its own moral imperative and settles the case. Israel stands convicted of evil.
I can now say, at the advanced age of 47, that I no longer take my health for granted. In truth, I’ve always been a bit of a hypochondriac—but, as any hypochondriac aware of the relevant science can tell you, I am perfectly justified in this. If I wash my hands more often than your uncle with obsessive-compulsive disorder does, it’s because hand washing really is the best way to avoid most forms of contagious illness.
Until recently, my physical complaints were always minor and self-limiting, and were invariably treated as such by doctors. When I was in my twenties and thirties, having escaped childhood cancers and other serious strains of bad luck, every doctor knew that whatever seemed to be wrong with me would probably sort itself out. After I turned forty, however, I began to notice a change in attitude: Doctors suddenly took my aches and pains quite seriously. Many seemed frankly open to the possibility that I could die at any moment. Cancer, heart disease, Parkinson’s—these and other delights were now on the menu. The body is like a clock—and it is a perverse one. It is by growing less and less reliable that it signals the passage of time. What time is it now? It’s time to worry about your prostate, you poor son of a bitch…
I am often asked what will replace organized religion. The answer, I believe, is nothing and everything. Nothing need replace its ludicrous and divisive doctrines—such as the idea that Jesus will return to earth and hurl unbelievers into a lake of fire, or that death in defense of Islam is the highest good. These are terrifying and debasing fictions. But what about love, compassion, moral goodness, and self-transcendence? Many people still imagine that religion is the true repository of these virtues. To change this, we must begin to think about the full range of human experience in a way that is as free of dogma, cultural prejudice, and wishful thinking as the best science already is. That is the subject of my next book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.
I’d like to thank you for taking the time to review Free Will at such length. Publicly engaging me on this topic is certainly preferable to grumbling in private. Your writing is admirably clear, as always, which worries me in this case, because we appear to disagree about a great many things, including the very nature of our disagreement.
I want to begin by reminding our readers—and myself—that exchanges like this aren’t necessarily pointless. Perhaps you need no encouragement on that front, but I’m afraid I do. In recent years, I have spent so much time debating scientists, philosophers, and other scholars that I’ve begun to doubt whether any smart person retains the ability to change his mind. This is one of the great scandals of intellectual life: The virtues of rational discourse are everywhere espoused, and yet witnessing someone relinquish a cherished opinion in real time is about as common as seeing a supernova explode overhead. The perpetual stalemate one encounters in public debates is annoying because it is so clearly the product of motivated reasoning, self-deception, and other failures of rationality—and yet we’ve grown to expect it on every topic, no matter how intelligent and well-intentioned the participants. I hope you and I don’t give our readers further cause for cynicism on this front.
Unfortunately, your review of my book doesn’t offer many reasons for optimism. It is a strange document—avuncular in places, but more generally sneering. I think it fair to say that one could watch an entire season of Downton Abbey on Ritalin and not detect a finer note of condescension than you manage for twenty pages running.
Daniel Dennett and I agree about many things, but we do not agree about free will. Dan has been threatening to set me straight on this topic for several years now, and I have always encouraged him to do so, preferably in public and in writing. He has finally produced a review of my book Free Will that is nearly as long as the book itself. I am grateful to Dan for taking the time to engage me this fully, and I will respond in the coming weeks.—SH
Daniel C. Dennett is the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. He is the author of Breaking the Spell, Freedom Evolves, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Consciousness Explained, and many other books. He has received two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Science. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1987. His latest book, written with Linda LaScola, Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind.
This essay was first published at Naturalism.org and has been crossposted here with permission.
Many readers continue to express confusion—even outrage and anguish—over my position on free will. Some are convinced that my view is self-contradictory. Others are persuaded of its truth but find the truth upsetting. They say that if cutting through the illusion of free will undermines hatred, it must undermine love as well. They worry about a world in which we view ourselves and other people as robots. I have heard from readers struggling with clinical depression who find that reading my book Free Will, or my blog articles on the topic, has only added to their troubles. Perhaps there is more to say…
I will take your questions from 6-7pm (Eastern), Monday 4/29. Please use the Twitter hashtag #AskSamAnything to participate.
Possible topics include: the mind/brain, science v. religion, free will, moral truth, meditation, terrorism, consciousness, gurus and cults, publishing, lying, etc.
Note: If you are following the conversation live, you will need to keep refreshing your browser to watch it develop.
Supporting the Blog and Podcast
SamHarris.org is supported by the generosity of its readers and listeners. If you find my essays, interviews, or podcasts useful, please consider becoming a sponsor of the website. —SH
You can also become a member by supporting one-time in any amount.
Get Sam's Newsletter
Joining our email list is the best way to hear about Sam's upcoming books, articles, podcasts, and public talks.