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Book reviews: 'Free Will,' 'Religion for Atheists'

The necessity of self-improvement and social betterment is thoughtfully explored in Sam Harris' and Alain de Botton's books.

April 08, 2012|By Richard Rayner, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Harris extends his argument into a polemic about the moral underpinnings of the justice system. If free will is an illusion, then punishing people for their actions (rather than restraining them for the protection of others) makes no sense unless we confess that we are catering to the irrational, and very human, desire for vengeance. "Once we recognize that even the most terrifying predators are, in a very real sense, unlucky to be who they are, the logic of hating (as opposed to fearing) them begins to unravel. Once again, even if you believe that every human being harbors an immortal soul, the picture does not change. Anyone born with the soul of a psychopath has been profoundly unlucky," Harris writes.

The debate about free will is another arena where reason does start to shade into theology and it is tempting to think of Harris' determinedly deterministic position as simply the flip side of Dr. Johnson saying to Boswell: "Sir, we know our will is free, and there's an end on it." Our daily experience tries to tell us that our wills are free, even as Harris closely and cogently argues that this feeling is delusional.

Harris reckons we cannot control the deep causes of our desires and intentions. De Botton says religion, whether you believe in one or not, reaches for the most profound human instincts. Cupitt has written, "Life is God," a statement with which De Botton might agree. Cupitt has also said, "The package deal of life cannot be renegotiated," a view that might strike a chord with Sam Harris. When De Botton talks about "the ebbing of religion," I wonder where he's coming from. North London and Oxbridge, I guess. And when Harris notes, in italics: "The illusion of free will is itself an illusion," I'm thinking, what? But here are two writers, both self-avowedly secular, addressing the need for individual growth and social betterment, and doing so with compelling argument and style.

A last word from De Botton, whose book, incidentally, is beautifully and wittily illustrated: "Religions are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone." We can all go along with that.

Rayner is the author, most recently, of "A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming of Age."

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