One small part of The Moral Landscape (about 10 pages) consists of a discussion of free will, which is, according to Sam Harris, an illusion. A problem that he faces immediately is how to define this thing that he considers illusory. Unfortunately, even if the folk Out There think that they have free will - which I suppose most of them do - it may turn out that their concept of free will is actually rather inchoate or confused or even incoherent. When the concept is pressed hard, it may be very difficult to explain in a way that makes sense. Even if the concept can be made coherent, it may be at the price of being remote from what the folk originally had in mind.
Still, the folk may believe various specific things that fall within the ballpark of the free will debate and which are actually coherent and true. It may be worthwhile disentangling what they actually do believe - along with how much of it makes sense, and how much of that is actually likely to be true. Oh, and what the implications of that really are.
When you go around claiming, as Harris does, that free will is an illusion, you are going to upset a lot of people, but you may be able to forestall at least some of the upset if you define just what you have in mind by "free will". You probably won't forestall all the upset, or even most of it, because many people seem to be attached emotionally to the idea of having free will, so you run the risk of being misinterpreted and/or misrepresented however careful you are. That's a problem that Harris faces, and I don't want to add to it. Let's see if we can work out what he's getting at.
Harris does not deny that we make choices or decisions, such as his decision to write The Moral Landscape. Nor does he deny that these have consequences; thus, his decision to write the book was "the primary cause of its coming into being." Decisions, choices, intentions, and so on, produce behaviours, and these lead to outcomes, some of them of great importance.
Elsewhere in his discussion of free will, he seems to assume that we have an ability to engage in consciousness deliberation, even though he doesn't think all our decisions are like this, and that it is particularly apppropriate to hold people accountable for decisions that they have acted upon after conscious deliberation.
Harris does not deny the reality of moral responsibility. He says, and I agree: "It seems to me that we need not have any illusions about a causal agent living within the human mind to condemn such a mind as unethical, negligent, or even evil, and therefore liable to occasion further harm." Nor does he deny the importance of social and political freedom - apparently, though he doesn't spell it out, because he thinks it important that we be able to make decisions that are reflective of much about ourselves (our own values, etc.) rather than being the products of coercion and made despite of much about ourselves.
There's much in the above that I'm sympathetic to, but it does raise the question of what Harris is actually denying or calling an illusion. He thinks that there can be circumstances where we deliberate and make conscious choices, that these are important and consequential, that it is at least sometimes appropriate to hold people accountable for their actions (and especially for those that followed conscious deliberation), and that it is both possible and important to have a degree of social and political freedom. I'm tempted to ask: "What more could you want?" As Daniel Dennett might say, what else in this ballpark is worth having?
A clue as to what Harris is getting at may come from his denial that there is "a causal agent living within the human mind", as opposed to different human minds being good, evil, and so on. Harris also refers to "the idea of an immortal soul that stands independent of all material influences, ranging from genes to economic systems." Later, he writes, "... it seems quite clear that a retributive impulse, based upon the idea that each person is the free author of his thoughts and actions, rests on a cognitive and emotional illusion - and perpetuates a moral one."
So I'm getting the impression here that the idea of free will that Harris attributes to the folk is that there is a causal agent that somehow lives within the human mind and is the "real person" in some sense, somehow transcending the individual's brain processes, etc., and that this real person is somehow the author of its own thoughts and actions all the way down - deeper than any material phenomena such as genetic potential, uterine environment, socialisation, and whatever deterministic and indeterministic events happen within the brain. Unfortunately, Harris never offers a definition of "free will", although the meaning of the expression is not at all obvious, at least to me, so I'm trying to glean from clues here and there what it is he thinks the folk think.
I'll say this, though: if Harris' idea of free will is something like what I've patched together above, then I agree with him that we don't possess free will (as defined). Whether free will (as defined) is an illusion, however, will depend on whether we actually do seem to possess it. Harris thinks that even the illusion of having free will is an illusion, and he may be correct about this. The idea is that when we don't attend very carefully to our own experience, we seem to possess free will as he describes it; however, so he suggests, even this "seeming" is an illusion, because it fades when we attend carefully and simply observe thoughts and intentions arising the mind.
Maybe so, but there's still this niggling issue as to whether the folk really do, in the first place, believe that we possess free will in the sense described. From where I sit, it seems like a bizarre thing to believe.
But perhaps some do believe it, especially if they've been taught that free will takes such a form. Speaking for myself, I find it very confusing working out just what the popular, pre-theoretical understanding of free will really amounts to beyond a readiness to use the words "free will" in certain contexts. Judging from my experience and from teaching philosophy to bright young students, I think our pre-theoretical idea of free will is something inchoate and possibly incoherent. But it's worth trying to get a handle on what important capacities we might actually have that are related to the pre-theoretical notion of free will. And I think it's clear enough (and Harris doesn't deny this) that we do have some such capacities.
But anyway, some people possibly do have the belief - backed up by an illusory sense of their own experience - that they possess something like free will as Harris portrays it. I agree that those people, at least, are labouring under an illusion. To that extent, I'm with Harris. Whether it's most perspicuous to convey this by saying that free will is an illusion may be doubtful, but Harris is correct, I believe, to deny the existence of free will in this sense.