Illusion of free will & music


I’m going to work on the music for a theatre project focussing on the concept of the “illusion of free will”.

Much like discussed here by Sam Harris:

I’m wondering if there are good examples of composers or musicians that also worked with this theme.
John Cage is an obvious example. And so is algorithmic music in a way.

Actually any art about the topic would be interesting for me to see for inspiration.

At the time of posting this i was completely unaware of the political views of Sam Harris. So this resulted in a quite different discussion than i anticipated. I’m glad it opened my views in this resulting discussion.


I spent my whole last semester of graduate school dealing with that subject. I ended up gravitating towards things like automatic drawing and chance-based algorithmic drawings.

Andre Masson’s automatic drawings were fascinating to me. Hans Arp chance paper collages were also fascinating.

I’m not sure to what to say here. It’s been a while since I’ve dusted off my notes, sketches and drawings from that time, though I still credit those months with imbuing my daily design practices with a level of conviction that was previously absent.

My final thesis presentation consisted of 10 or so drawings generated via chance operations which were stopped on their tracks the moment the outlines of a building design strategy came to view (Architecture School).

I’ll just note that that presentation (along with several other preliminary ones) ruffled a lot of feathers in that department. In a Midwest school, where critiques focus far too much on arbitrary value systems and phenomenology, attacking authorship as being thoroughly irrelevant to the discussion threatened a lot of people’s practices. Token “leading” questions such as “Why is this not this way?” were quickly answered with “Is that a process question or an intention question? The intention is irrelevant here. I’m diving into process and effect so here we go…”.

All the while, most of the professors were stewing in the fact that I was standing there telling them that their agency does not interest me and you can see that anger informing their modes of questioning (lots of dead ends), which is nothing short of an assault on the Protestant work ethic of school I attended.

So back on subject: if everything is the post-rationalization of cosmic events (you are made of molecules existing is a deterministic system), a critique that does not set forth a system of values and analyzes their effect on process is simply uninteresting. The effect on “process” being the key part.

I’m not saying that intentions are too opaque to be analyzed, I’m saying that intentions are illusions and therefore you’re only analyzing the post-rationalized perception of a work of art when you dive into that line of criticism. That post-rationalization of a work is no more valuable than the narrative of a work as spoken by a child (and probably less so).

Edits: My grammar is so terrible.


Bit surprised to see someone like Sam Harris pop up on here: he is a virulent Islamophobe, albeit one who coats his views with a thin veneer of liberal respectability. You should find better sources of inspiration.


Yes I would second the shittiness of Harris, but I don’t think taking ideas from him is a moral failing as the tone above kinda implied; inspiration can come from lots of places and most philosophers, to be honest, are white men with some shitty beliefs about things when pressed in the right places.

But I think more pointedly: its important to recognize precisely where something like Harris’s little intervention takes place, and how it appeals to certain presuppositions about subjectivity and science that are far from these unquestioned pillars of philosophical thought about such things. This problem of free will against a causal, scientific universe goes back to Kant, and all the developments of philosophy of mind and the grab bag of psych and social science Harris takes from above still renders the basic Kantian problematic for the most part unchanged (this would require some argument).

Modern thought, especially of this “new atheist” vein, takes for granted that something like “science,” hard science specifically, as a privileged discourse about reality. Now, this is not an unjustified claim, and the capacity of science to talk about the world is immanently proven by the way such activities change our world and reveal certain things that are cool or useful or whatever.

Now, without getting all postmodern about science too quickly (or even just… mentioning its historical contingency, its necessarily political/economic nature) I think its a little more interesting and challenging to just consider the other variable here and show how such questions of free will seem so trippy and viable to ethical (or aesthetic) problematics only because it is even more tacitly presupposing something else: namely the certain idea of a subject or subjectivity. This is why Kant is so important here: not because he asked the question of free will best or whatever, but because he set up this whole way of thinking at all because he first and foremost decided on a concept of subjectivity that was meant to answer to a scientific world he saw threatening to morality or whatever.

But since Kant, philosophy in the west has really not troubled itself with any one thing more than actually questioning the Kantian subject! Talk about Harris’s racism, Kant himself was a Western chauvinist, and we can do nothing better but question why a subject understood as an idealistic subject, as a dynamic but still predetermined relationship to the world, is maybe not the best way to think about our existence these days.

For one thing: is the problem of my free will just the same as that of some feudal serf? What about: is my free will as a white cishet just as much an illusion as a black trans person? Is there just one kind of subject? Harris, I would bet, would say yes to all of these things, because he believes that this problem is more fundamental, more “cosmic,” than such conditions as that. I am not so sure.

But even more interesting: does even the idea of the self-authorship of my actions (this has Kantian roots as well) capture what intuitively feel is the paradigm expression of free will? Are there other ways to understand it? What would I “write” when I author these actions? Are they something like words? Or are they different? This is where, I think, art or music is an interesting point here.

If free will is an illusion, this statement functions like “god is dead.” Because it is at once a claim and a rally. But i’d like my art not to rally for things (unless they are politically productive). I’d rather ask my art what kind of subjects are possible. What choices are already made for me? How am I groping or not? What am I to even be a creature to be tripped out by the loss of something I called free will? Art allows us to think about those things from a point of view that is not political-juridical, the domain that gets Harris so wet we can see throughout that video with his fuckin nasal smirk.


I’ve no idea if this is a moral failing, or a case of not knowing about his wider writing, and I don’t think it matters: I just think it’s important that when people with deeply regressive and harmful views are cited in spaces like this, that context is made clear. I’d have said the same thing to someone taking artistic inspiration from Richard Dawkins, Steve Bannon or Anders Breivik, all of whom have broadly similar views to Harris on the nature of Islam.

I personally find philosophical questions about free will a bit reductive and navel-gazey I’m afraid, so I’ve nothing to contribute there, but I think it’s impossible to engage in this discussion without considering the wider political views of the people involved, whether that’s Harris, Kant or whoever else.

If anything, it’s even more pressing here: Harris and others like him consistently try to position their work as intellectually distinct from more emotive forms of race-baiting. I think anyone opposed to racism or nationalism has a duty to avoid engaging with these people’s work on the sanitised terms they’re proposing, and instead properly reflect its underlying ideology, which is much closer to that of your typical street fascist than Harris and others are prepared to admit.


Oh i didn’t know anything about Sam Harris except this video and some others.
I liked the video very much because the subject of the illusion of free will is explained very clearly without to much distraction and side themes.

I’m from the Netherlands and so not always aware of the bigger picture in American and English culture and politics.

There are ofcourse much more sources of inspiration. Some go more in the Buddhist/Nonduality direction some more in the scientific.

If you have any you particularly like please let me know.

Maybe i should replace the original video? in the first post. I certainly don’t want to offend anyone and my political views sure don’t align with what you present as Harris’s views


Thanks this is an interesting question indeed.


I don’t think removing the video is necessary, and you don’t need to apologise. I certainly don’t think that anyone who finds Harris’s philosophical views interesting automatically agrees with all his other arguments.

But I do think it’s important for people who might come across him via this thread to be aware of his wider views, and for any discussion of his work to include that context.


I hear you, but sometimes it’s important to take that ‘icky’ (aporetic) feeling and trace it back to a realization that these are indeed bad questions. They aren’t just unresolvable; they also miss the underlying phenomenon. This disconnect with the phenomenon, I think gives rise to the “navel-gazing” feeling. Rather than give up we need to dig a bit further as to the origin of this disconnect.

The response thus goes beyond simply asking different questions. It involves questioning also the entire framework in which these questions are asked – in other words, questioning in the manner of what @beepboop addresses.

Sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to avoid creating it, and to pose another problem that is more faithful to the phenomenon. These would seem to be tasks for philosophy, no? Of course this questioning can and does happen in art, religion, and so on… philosophy shouldn’t be considered the only approach. But it can help, if only to clean up its own mess…

However, to even consider how deeply imbricated our own thought is with Kantian subjectivity (or with the whole history of such things going back to Platonism), consider, for instance, how difficult it is to speak of these matters without terms like “perspective” or “worldview”. The point is we are all Sam Harrises until we learn to think and speak otherwise. In other words, isn’t a core aspect of the problem that the world shows up as picture? That the world shows up as something we represent to ourselves? Do we never think to question that perhaps we are not the subjectum; that is, the foundation for all that is? And the extent to which we posit ourselves as the foundation and grant ourselves absolute freedom in this sense is perhaps the origin of these bad questions (i.e. free will vs. determinism; whether our “representations” reflect “reality” etc.) – questions which lead absolutely nowhere unless they lead us into questioning also this self-positing and this freedom?

Indeed, unless we recover a sense of embeddedness – that we are in the world and the world is in us – and that we relate most meanigfully in ways that have nothing to do with representation, but are always generative of meaning (as discourse/conversation; not as reductive representation) – we will never hope to go beyond navel gazing nor be able to absolve ourselves entirely from Sam Harris’s worldview. However, the solution will not be a merely different form of gazing. It certainly won’t be another “worldview”, but a challenge to the very idea of “worldview”.


No, and thanks for posting it!

However if something Sam Harris says resonates with some of us, and we find basis for agreement – then we do need to probe further as to connections with some of his more obviously problematic ideas, because we at some level are also connected to these ideas. Our own complicity is not something to run from or deny, but an opportunity for change. Part of this change is holding everything open – Harris, each other, ourselves to criticism. Painful as this criticism may be – it is the only way to real change.

It’s often said you can’t separate the artist from the art, or the thinker from the thought. All very true! And yet this statement is most often used as a way of separating oneself from both artist and art when one perfunctorily rejects both. It’s that second separation which is always forgotten and which becomes even more problematic. One creates sanitized spaces or walled gardens in which one can live without being questioned. The point where we avoid “problematic” material as a way to avoid responsibility, or to let our own guard down regarding ourselves, or to in any way place ourselves beyond question is the point at which we become most responsible. Fascism, in other words, thrives anyway in these spaces and gardens. The point at which we think “it can’t happen here” is precisely the point where it does happen.


I mean, unless the majority of people on this forum have built themselves a lucrative right-wing media career based on obsessively demonising Muslims then no, we’re not all Sam Harrises.

It’s not that I find these types of conversations “icky”, it’s that I find the self-referential, inward-looking nature of philosophical discourse an inadequate tool to deal with the practical and immediate problems of the world: the old issue of angels dancing on a pinhead, essentially. I don’t see the need to interrogate the nature of being in order to recognise that Harris is a wrong’un; if anything, I think the way in which the far right has been indulged as an intellectual curio has played a substantial part in its recent successes.

Still, you guys do you: my interest extended solely to pointing out Harris’ noxious views, what you do with that information is your call.


Think about where Harris’s particular way of demonizing Muslims comes from and how it fits so neatly into the way he and Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and Steven Pinker think. Which is not to say all of them think that way about Islam, but there are affinities that need to be brought out into the open and if “interrogating the nature of being” is what it takes, that’s what it takes.

It does not preclude more temporary solutions. Still, we should consider that to “seem” to solve a problem only to have it come up again in another way, and then another way, and then so on is not actually solving the problem, but shifting the responsibility for the problem onto someone else. Like separating one’s trash or driving a fuel-efficient car, or knowing the name of the free-range chicken specifically harvested for one’s dining pleasure, it may make one feel good – or feel that one is no longer “the problem” – but it does basically nothing in the long run towards anything resembling real change. It may solve a problem locally but without deeper investigation, one ends up kicking the ball down the road. And we are in crisis so we also need to do some of that.

But Harris’s Islamophobia is not really a bug; it’s a feature; it arises in the fundamental way that he thinks about religion and science in general. So if one is to advocate scientism, one might as well do so through a figure like Harris as it makes the problems all the more clear. Harris’s Islamophobia is also a way of preventing consideration of real upheavals in the Islamic world caused by neoliberal globalization and the technological understanding of being (in fundamental ways, rooted in scientism), something non-Islamophobe liberals generally also ignore. This is a geopolitical situation that we for the most part live in and continue to benefit from, so we are not exactly innocent here. And so yes, at some level we are all Sam Harrises – myself included – and the proof is in the way we use language.

The point is that we do not have to remain Sam Harrises, there is another way (which involves probably something much more like art than philosophy), but it’s not simply changing out a set of surface beliefs.


It’s funny… I’m the son of a Muslim and a Catholic and I take more offense to Sam Harris’ narratives about identity politics, narratives that always fail by normalizing whiteness into a baseline identity and ascribing primacy and exceptionality to that whiteness, than I do to his content-unaware narratives about Islam.

I’m a pretty rabid atheist, but I find him to be extremely dishonest when it comes to his political stances (and his insistence that he is not aligned with the traditional American political spectrum). It’s hard to get past that. It makes me suspicious that his atheism is just cover for post-rationalized hatred, which would just be sad.


Well this is a good discussion in that I didn’t realize yet how political the question about free will is.
And how diverse the conclusions you draw from it can lead to so radically different views.

I recently saw a lecture from Bruno Latour on his new book “Down to Earth” (or Where to land)!

He presents a view in where all different political views are related to a reaction to climate change.
For me it was quite revealing to be able to see a radically different political landscape that is already actually really happening right now. It made me question my own views. I’m not so sure anymore of where i stand. Which i think/hope is a good thing.

This really resonates with me. Do you find a way to do this in music? Where to start?


An artist that immediately comes to mind is Stelarc. But only in so far that free will and bodily agency and autonomy are related (he’s not addressing Free-will as a subject per say). Stelarc…diffuses his own agency on his body by inviting others, and other processes, to control it or have access to it. So he’ll do things like allow his body to be controlled by various people, or have his arm controlled by his stomache…etc. (haha funny use of “etc” here, as if other examples are easily imaginable!)

You can skip around this video but I’ve queued it up to the place where he says “The more and more performances I do the less I think I have a mind of my own, nor any mind at all in the traditional metaphysical sense.”

And while he says that one relevant line there in that video, here’s a video that’s probably overall more informative: It’s called “Stelarc - Art, Design, Future of Humanity”

But there’s so much about him out there–anywhere is a good place to start (or perhaps you know about him already, in which case, all the better : ).


I’m not familiar with Sam Harris and nowhere near as familiar or as articulate about Kantian philosophy as others here, but have found myself really getting a lot out of grappling with Brian Massumi’s writing (esp Semblance and Event), and subsequently the work of Alfred North-Whitehead, most recently in “Without Criteria” by Steven Shaviro which is essentially a commentary on Whitehead, with particular reference to Kant and aesthetics.

All of which is just background to what I find appealing about Whitehead: his challenge to subjectivity as a position while simultaneously challenging the frequently reductive views of scientism.

By radically rethinking consciousness and free will, Whitehead removes these qualities from being the exclusive privilege of human beings or even what are generally considered to be living beings. Rather every particle, every occasion (in simple terms, every moment in time) makes its own “choice” about what to “include” from its “surrounding particles / preceding moments” into itself, in order to seek its own “satisfaction” or perhaps its own fullest “expression”. In turn this choice is “selected” (or not) by each subsequent moment.

To summarise Whitehead in one paragraph is a foolish enterprise, and I’m nowhere near qualified to even attempt it, except to say that these are the ideas that I’ve “selected” so far to incorporate into “myself”, with the recognition that these are not choices “I” am making as some kind of independent subjective agent as much as I am participating in a “process of being” that includes a degree of participation from everything, including the neurochemistry in my brain, the particles that make up the ink on the pages of the books on Whitehead I’ve been reading and the chair I’m sitting on as I think about this and write.

I haven’t yet listened to the whole of Sam Harris’ presentation above, but I did a quick scan through to get the line of argument and from what I’ve heard, I can see some overlaps between what he is presenting and what Whitehead is suggesting. The difference I see is that Whitehead does not seek to erase agency as such - rather he seeks to recognise agency at all levels, and he leaves room for a reality “beyond” the measurable objectivity of science - in the sense that there is always the possibility of being able to observe and understand “more” than what we currently can. This perhaps leaves Whitehead more room for diversity than what Harris seems to have from people’s comment above but others with a better handle on philosophy may be able to correct me.

In any case, in terms of how these ideas have impacted my approach to art making, I find myself more relaxed about communicating an intention, and more interested in raising a question or perhaps more accurately, simply participating in “the moment” / sharing an experience of whatever overflow of affect is present in the confluence of intersecting trajectories of being in that place at that time.

Even as I write this, I see how it echoes what @catenary was saying about process being more interesting than intention. All the while, I’m entirely comfortable with having a sense of intention and happy to “use it” - I’m just not too worried about whether that intention is recognised.



this story reminded me of my own “interior architecture” degree (=highly theoretical spatial design, far more art than architecture) being cut short

basically, they’d asked us to design an airport using a photocopied drawing of some mechanical cylindrical object as a basis.

(for the previous assignment in the same class, we’d started with a drawing of a duck and were asked to manipulate the drawing with a photocopier, e.g. leave the lid open and move the paper around as the scanner passed over the drawing), and using the zoom feature repeatedly until the thing just resembled a mass of blurred lines and blown out dust particle artefacts. then we were to lay that under our tracing paper and discover a building from it)

anyway i was not very good at drawing and the school was very much into overloading everyone with work, so i’d been working on this project late nights. i’d made an airport where the planes land on the roof of the cylinder and everyone who boards the plane has these little cylindrical elevators, one per seat, that whisk you up straight into your seat on the plane. i thought it was rad. i’d done a bunch of rendererings of how i thought the lighting design should work in and around the elevators. the whole thing was about the elevators. tonnes of work, kinda weird and out there but that was the energy the class appeared to be feeding me and none of the tutors steered me off this, so yeah.

then on the day of the crit, the head of the school was there (dunno if they invited him or if he just showed up) we were critiqued in groups of four. in my group, after presentation he gave a couple of minutes critique about the two projects before me, pointed at mine and said “this project is flippant and i’m not going to waste my time critiquing it” and then moved on.

as you can imagine, i was livid.

i quit the course the following term.

anyway i’m not sure if his is relevant, just wanted to share.


I’m not familiar with Whitehead (thanks for the recommendation!) But we’ve been exploring the concepts of hylozoicism and vita ignotum in context of the LCRP compilations.

Concepts like these really help me navigate questions of the nature of consciousness and free will, which in turn I find can be very helpful for me as I work to create music.


Specific angle of automatic and non-consious acts were basis of art movements like dadaism and surrealism.
Haven’t heard of Harris before but this lecture sure is interesting, thanks.


If you replace “white men” with “just humans,” I think this quote would be less troublesome. Every person I’ve ever met, regardless of race or gender, has an inconsistency somewhere. It’s totally natural.