Making Sense of Free Will

Episode 5 of The Essential Sam Harris

Episode Companion

Each episode includes a workbook with illustrations, background information on each guest, references, suggested books and films, and more.

February 14, 2023

In this episode, we examine the timeless question of “free will”: what constitutes it, what is meant by it, what ought to be meant by it, and, of course, whether we have it at all. We start with the neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky who begins to deflate the widely held intuition and assumption of “libertarian free will” by drawing out a mechanistic and determined description of the universe.

We then hear from the philosopher who has long been Sam’s intellectual wrestling opponent on this subject, Daniel Dennett. Dennett and Sam spar about definitional and epistemological frameworks of what Dennett insists is “free will,” and what Sam contends could never be.

The author and physicist Sean Carroll then engages Sam with more attempts to find a philosophically defensible notion of free will by leaning on the unknowable nature of the universe revealed by quantum mechanics. We then listen in on Sam’s engagement with the mathematician and author Judea Pearl who focuses on matters of causation to tease out a freedom of will.

After a historical review of Princess Elizabeth’s famous exchanges with Rene Descartes, we hear from the biologist Jerry Coyne, who firmly agrees with Sam that a deterministic picture of reality leaves absolutely no room for anything like free will.

We then hear from the curiously entertaining mind of comedian and producer Ricky Gervais who was thinking about free will while taking a bath when he decided to phone Sam.

We conclude with Sam’s own response to concerns that an erasure of free will inevitably result in fatalism, loss of meaning, and passive defeat. Sam insists that the loss of free will actually pushes us in the opposite direction where we begin to see hatred and vengeance as incoherent and start to connect with a deeper and truer sense of genuine compassion.


About the Series

Filmmaker Jay Shapiro has produced The Essential Sam Harris, a new series of audio documentaries exploring the major topics that Sam has focused on over the course of his career.

Each episode weaves together original analysis, critical perspective, and novel thought experiments with some of the most compelling exchanges from the Making Sense archive. Whether you are new to a particular topic, or think you have your mind made up about it, we think you’ll find this series fascinating.