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Condoning Criminality: Sam Harris’ Warped Determinism

Are we all but hapless pawns of Fate, or can humans exert some measure of creative control over the course of their lives? Beginning with Laplace, hard determinists have claimed that they can literally explain every event that has ever transpired in the long history of the cosmos–from the formation of galaxies to the itch on my nose–as a predetermined outcome of an unbroken chain of causality. However, Popper (1959) points out that, in explaining everything, unfalsifiable theories succeed in explaining nothing.

Given its unfalsifiability, determinism is not a legitimate scientific perspective. Rather, determinism can be better understood as a dangerous type of superstition. The intrinsic danger in determinism is that it explicitly absolves thinking, acting agents of any responsibility for their actions. For example, Sam Harris (2012) details a series of gruesome crimes–including rape, torture and murder–that a pair of morally-bankrupt burglars, named Stephen Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, inflict on an innocent family. Outraged as any right-minded person might be by Hayes’ and Komisarjevsky’s monstrous crimes, Harris insists that neither man is truly responsible for the atrocities that he has committed:

As sickening as I find their behavior, I have to admit that if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him: There is no extra part of me that could decide to see the world differently or resist the impulse to victimize other people…There is simply no intellectually respectable position from which to deny this (Harris, 2012, p. 4).

While I appreciate the degree to which Harris is willing to stick his neck out to defend his particularly toxic version of hard determinism, I beg to differ. There is no excuse for Hayes’ and Komisarjevsky’s horrendous behavior. As thinking, acting agents, both men are 100% responsible for their crimes, and any theoretical perspective that presumes to offer them clemency is as demented as the vile malefactors that it labors to acquit.

Psychologically screwed up as Hayes and Komisarjevsky may have been, they were both conscious and intentional as they committed their heinous crimes. Hayes and Komisarjevsky could have chosen to engage in non-criminal activities–as do the vast majority of people in their daily affairs–but, instead, they decided to indulge in an atrocious criminal rampage. Ergo, Hayes and Komisarjevsky are responsible for the crimes that they committed, and they deserve to be punished to the full extent of the law. Thinking, acting agents deserve kudos when they accomplish laudable deeds, and they deserve castigation when they elect to perpetrate misdeeds. Not only does this logic ring true with the social reality that we inhabit–imagine a world where we would employ Harris’ warped brand of determinism to grant amnesty to even the most repugnant criminals–but it also requires that we concede that there is some basis in reality for agency.

…it is impossible to ignore the fact that individuals do matter (Gell-Mann, 1994, p. 297).

In his defense of Hayes and Komisarjevsky, Harris commits the rhetorical error of adopting a pompous and prejudiced position (Feynman, 1965, pp. 147-148) by explicitly stating that he denies the validity–or “respectability”–of any views that run contrary to his own. Such bald prejudice is a recipe for perpetuating dogma rather than doing good science. Further, Harris’ defense of Hayes and Komisarjevsky is based upon essentially the same intellectual errors that have confounded the nature vs. nurture debate for the past 100+ years (Dowling, 2011; Kaplan and Rogers, 2003). Harris is a devotee of the “exclusively nature” perspective which asserts that every aspect of the human condition is reducible to its constituent particles, i.e., “…if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him: There is no extra part of me that could decide to see the world differently…” (Harris, 2012, p. 4).

Like all “exclusively nature” determinists, Harris attempts to seal his rhetorical victory by doing nothing more than bad-mouthing the flip side of the debate. In doing so, Harris believes that he has scored a solid victory for everyone else who harbors similar anti-nurture prejudices, but that is a hollow victory indeed.

As more nuanced thinkers have asserted for a long time, the elusive solution to the nature-nurture debate lies somewhere in the middle rather than at the rhetorical extremes. Certainly, on a basic level, humans are ambulatory sacks of DNA. However, humans are also much more than that. To use a computing metaphor, in addition to our hardware (i.e., the physiological structures that DNA constructs), humans are also programmed with software (i.e., knowledge, experience, and other intangible or “soft” phenomenological components that cohere to create unique, sentient identities). Thus, when Harris states that there is nothing more to humans than their atoms, he is flatly wrong.

Sure, the phenomenological stuff that makes us human–ideas, emotions, knowledge, anxieties, dreams, ingenuity, etc.–is largely intangible, and the “soft” experiences that comprise the bulk of our humanity are undeniably connected to our hardware (i.e., without a brain we could neither load nor operate our human software), but it is patently false to suggest that humans are composed of atoms and nothing else. It’s essentially the same as saying that the only important part of a computer is its hardware.

It is pointless to argue whether hardware or software is more important to the operation of a computer. Both are essential. Without one or the other, computers would not function properly. Well, just like computers, humans also need hardware and phenomenological software in order to function properly. However, the difference between humans and computers is that human components–social, psychological, and biological–are billions of times more sophisticated than the inanimate technologies that operate computers. As a result, the human “operational experience” represents an extraordinary transformation, and elevation of otherwise inanimate–or “non-adaptive” (Gell-Mann, 1994, p. 9)–matter: the “emergent complexity” (Ibid.) of human cognition incorporates a marvelous capacity to aspire toward the sublime.

I think, therefore I am…

Paragons deserve to be celebrated, criminals deserve to be punished, and determinists need to get a clue.



Dowling, John E. The Great Brain Debate: Nature or Nurture? Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2011.

Feynman, Richard P. The Character of Physical Law. Cambridge: M.I.T., 1965.

Gell-Mann, Murray. The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex. New York: W.H. Freeman, 1994.

Harris, Sam, 2012. Free Will. New York: Free Press.

Kaplan, Gisela T., and Lesley J. Rogers. Gene Worship: Moving beyond the Nature/nurture Debate over Genes, Brain, and Gender. New York: Other, 2003.

McGettigan, Timothy, Evolution at the Speed of Thought: A New Chapter in the History of Evolution. Los Angeles, CA.: WheelMan Press, 2013.

Popper, Karl. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. New York: Basic Books, 1959.


About Timothy McGettigan


  1. “both men are 100% responsible for their crimes”. Surely this veers on the opposite side of the determinism argument: that of pure voluntarism. Though you rightly make the point that “more nuanced thinkers have asserted for a long time, the elusive solution to the nature-nurture debate lies somewhere in the middle rather than at the rhetorical extremes” the same error is committed here with regard to the agency determinism debate. I believe taking either extreme is a dangerous position. The likely reality is that the unconscious has played a part and that social conditions are partially responsible. Don’t get me wrong; I sympathise with the victims and recognise that Hayes and Komisarjevsky also share responsibility – and should be punished to the full extent of the law but to claim that anyone is wholly responsible for their actions is sociologically disingenuous.

  2. From my reading of Free Will (Harris, 2012), I have to say that I failed to see the “exclusively nature” perspective?

    The main argument made by Harris is clearly both nature and nurture. “Komisarjevsky was repeatedly raped as a child” (p. 3). Clearly this is nurture.

    If I was to somehow take baby Timothy McGettigan and give him the life of Komisarjevsky, how would he have turned out? Chances are that he would be different as nature matters too. But chances are also good however that he would be messed up to some degree similar to Komisarjevsky. Timothy McGettigan may have been a criminal.

    The flip side is what if we took baby Komisarjevsky and gave him the life of Timothy McGettigan. Would he have become a criminal no matter what? My bet is no.

    Yes, both nature and nurture matter, and yes, criminals should be locked up. But as Harris argues, luck plays more of a role than you think. Timothy McGettigan could have been in a similar scenario Komisarjevsky found himself in.

    Where is the free will? I think Harris answers nicely “Thoughts and intentions simply arise in the mind. What else could they do? The truth about us is stranger than many suppose: The illusion of free will is itself an illusion.” (p. 64)

    • “As sickening as I find their behavior, I have to admit that if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him: There is no extra part of me that could decide to see the world differently or resist the impulse to victimize other people… There is simply no intellectually respectable position from which to deny this” (Harris, 2012, p. 4).

      Need I say more?

  3. “The men and women on death row have some combination of bad genes, bad parents, bad environments, and bad ideas (and the innocent, of course, have supremely bad luck). Which of these quantities, exactly, were they responsible for? No human being is responsible for his genes OR HIS UPBRINGING [emphasis added], yet we have every reason to believe that these factors determine his character. Our system of justice should reflect an understanding that any of us could have been dealt a very different hand in life. In fact, it seems immoral not to recognize just how much luck is involved in morality itself.” (Harris, 2012, p. 54).

    If anything, this article has “warped” the point Sam Harris makes. Even in an indeterminate world, there can be no free will. Quantum physics allowing some randomness in your brain is just determinism with a flip of a coin. There is no “creative control”.

    I understand it sounds depressing at first. But Harris (2012) goes on to say “…it is wise to hold people responsible for their actions when doing so influences their behavior and brings benefit to society. But this does not mean that we must be taken in by the illusion of free will. We need only acknowledge that efforts matter and that people can change. We do not change ourselves, precisely— because we have only ourselves with which to do the changing—but we continually influence, and are influenced by, the world around us and the world within us.” (p. 62).

    Of course we still need punishment and to lock up bad people. Sam Harris does not deny this and therefore he is not “Condoning Criminality”. The take away message we gain from the understanding that free will is an illusion is the importance of good parenting, social support, rehabilitation and social systems. What may turn a criminal’s life around is the positive support of others. And a better understanding promotes the importance of preventing negative influences. We will never see past the illusion, but understanding it can go far in improving the world we live in.

    • Your comments are self-contradictory:

      “Even in an indeterminate world, there can be no free will…There is no “creative control”.”


      “What may turn a criminal’s life around is the positive support of others.”

      If “positive support” can modify criminal behavior, then Sam Harris is dead wrong.

      Thanks for confirming my argument.

  4. Thank you for your comments Tim and Emmet. I typically enjoy Timothy McGettigan’s articles but this one is off. I do not have the scholarly vocabulary you possess but I do know the outcome of poverty, single parenting, an ignorant society and social norms to partner them. That said, thinking is a left brain function while thier behavior stems from emotions rooted in experiences. I know of young men and women who could easily shift in the wrong direction because of environment.

    The conclusion, “I think, therefore I am…” does not apply here.

  5. I too agree that the argument is that nature and nurture play a part. From my education, nature is the foundation, but nurture can make subtle changes to the foundation, changing the behavior at the margins. This may lead a person who is born in poverty to become “successful” or a well-off person to, due to counter-productive behavior, lose everything, falling into poverty and despair.

    Furthermore, based on my own research, I believe that another aspect of criminal punishment, which is utterly fallacious and redundant, is the idea that punishing criminals significantly deters crime.
    If we really want to solve the problem of “crime,” which we have been attempting to do since our earliest communities, we must construct the proper social environment that promotes healthy humans.

    If we agree with the idea that negative environments can produce negative experiences, thus producing negative behaviors, then we should do all we can to address the problem at the root cause: the negative environment. In part, we are responsible for these heinous acts because of our negligence to address the root cause.

    Our goal should be to ensure the highest level of mental and physical health for humans that we can technically sustain; this would be a more efficacious plan for deterring crime than our current one.

    Check out Jacque Fresco and Peter Joseph

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