Sam Harris Leaves Me Speechless (well not quite…)

Last night I watched a lecture by Sam Harris that seemed unusually eloquent, even for him (though this is likely the result of his at least having read the back cover of Becker’s “Denial of Death”). Nonetheless, it contained the most stunning failure of imagination that I might have ever seen from such a brilliant public intellectual. My mouth literally gaped open before I started laughing heartily for the duration of minute 26-7.

He claims that most people have an intuition that their minds are somehow separate from their bodies and that this “soul” will live on after death, adding that our intuitions are shabby and our introspection comically limited. As proof of this limitation, he tells us that we have more connections in a cubic centimeter of brain tissue than there are stars in our galaxy, but that “our inner experience offers absolutely no clue that this is the case.” Really!?! No clue at all? How about that strange intuition about a miraculous and otherworldly “soul?” Getting warmer? How about all of those strange intuitions about gods, angels, afterlives and being separate from nature in a super-special sense? Ever heard the term “divine spark” before? Those ideas and intuitions don’t count as a “clue” to how unimaginably complex, interesting, and special our brains are? Harris says the brain is far more complex than a galaxy right after lambasting the intuition that there might be something cosmic about mind!

Harris is right that a galaxy pales in comparison to the complexity of a single human brain, but he fails to emphasize the important point that as complex as our galaxy is, it has no thoughts or consciousness to speak of. Accordingly, our intuition that mind is somehow apart from nature or apart from the body is actually a stunningly prescient epiphany about the nature of mind as emergent “software;’ our intuition that angels exist comes from the fact that we are demi-gods ourselves; our intuition that god exists is grounded by our experiencing something like a god in our own minds, let alone the minds of those brighter than us  (or crazier). The entire corpus of sacred literature is one long exaltation of mind or consciousness of some form or other, and yet Sam thinks that introspection doesn’t even give us a clue, that it doesn’t even hint at how mystifying and spectacular the brain really is! He cannot have it both ways and claim that our intuitions are both fantastical and not nearly far-fetched enough. Somehow he can countenance this massive conflict and continue to speak of human minds as “neuronal weather patterns,” as if the complexity of the brain was the complexity of chaos theory, of disorder, instead of order and structure, apparently harmonizing well enough to order ‘chaos theory’ out of actual chaosWe managed to do that with this meat-telescope of ours, so I say that we call it a miracle, so long as we define ‘miracle’ as “something made by God or at least looks like it must have been.”

Instead of correctly explaining that religious intuition & experience were how humans first became aware of awareness, he wants to just tell the second half of the story, where fully-self-conscious priests used religion to squelch the very mental freedoms those before them stumbled upon and embodied. The spectacular irony of the lecture above is that Harris has obviously secured freedom from suffering the limitations he describes in his book “Free Will” with a religious practice founded upon religious intuition, only he fails to interpret this revelation as any proof of freedom or the value of religious thought, yet he goes on trying to free his audience from the “spell of thought” through this very same religious practice! He is a champion for rationality and critical thinking, but yet fails to see these as attainable freedoms so much as the burden of proof and the mere shackles of logical determinism. It seems there are yet more “spells” to be broken.

Harris was planning to speak in the above video about Free Will, but decided to talk about death and the present moment instead. Thinking this a natural addition to his lecture on Free Will, he fails to notice that he entirely demolishes the sophistry he had so cleverly arranged there. I was going to post a long-winded critique of this earlier Free Will lecture, but this recent lecture of his will spare me the hassle. Simply watch the two Sam Harris lectures back-to-back for a thorough self-refutation. However, if you don’t want to do that yourself, you may read on…hopefully my struggle to piece together the fragments of a divided mind will produce some light from the friction.

The essay “Free Will,” along with Harris’ FW lecture, present a unified, if terribly confused, argument. Here is a summary of what I take to be his most important premises:

Basic Premise 1: Authors don’t exist. “For you to author a thought, you would have to think the thought before you think it.” Thoughts unpredictably arise in consciousness, but the conscious ego does not know why the ones that did arise manifested at all.

1A) The ego does not have authority over memory, but memory has authority over the ego.

1B) The past has ultimate power over the future. The future and the past are equally immutable. The past is by very definition unchangeable, but the future happens to be just as set–for it is determined by the past! Harris claims that the brain is “entirely beholden to the laws of Nature,” but what he really means is beholden to the past with a capital ‘P.’ (he then likes to look into the past and ask questions about what was possible, then apply his conclusions to the future as if they were equally applicable)

1C) ‘Consciousness’ means ‘awarenesss.’ ‘Reflective awareness’ could only mean that strange, thought-less absorption in the present that Buddhists describe. “Attention” is what the brain gives “me,” not what my conscious ego has at its disposal or under its command.

1D) Humans are not moved or motivated by “reasons,” as these are just post hoc confabulations of fully determined action.

All you need to do is watch Sam’s recent lecture with the above list of premises ready-at-hand to discover a complete self-refutation. The major conflicts with the above premises come from Sam’s new claim that conscious framing can determine the nature of experience and his claim that Mindfullness Meditation is one radical way of doing this, thereby freeing the ego from being beholden to the next chaotic thought that arises.

Harris is a successful author intent on selling controversial books, but apparently he doesn’t notice any problem with his claiming that authors cannot exist according to the laws of physics, for they would have to think their thoughts before they think them. He thinks authoring something requires perfect knowledge beforehand of what is to be thought. If this were the case, no brains anywhere could “think,” for they would have to know what they would think beforehand and could thus never work out new solutions or learn. He is claiming that learning cannot take place, or that if it does, it does so mindlessly (without consciousness). This is the exact reverse of actual fact. Notice that when you try to learn a new skill, it is rather maladaptive to consciously attend to something else!

Authors do not have to “think a thought before they think it,” but they do need to have some vague idea of what thought they are intending to give birth to! In addition, thoughts we have already come across are stored in memory where we can recall them, whole and complete, whenever we want and therefore “think a thought before we think it.” Once a thought enters consciousness, whether it came from the unconscious, another person, a passing billboard, or the machinations of the conscious ego, it is stored in memory already “pre-thought,” so to speak. This is not controversial in the least. Harris’ claim amounts to saying that you cannot really pen an essay in the English language, because you did not invent the English language, or to saying that you can’t really take charge of a given vehicle, because you didn’t build it yourself. Just because our first “thoughts” occur in childhood before a robust conscious ego differentiates itself does not mean that we cannot “take charge” of those thoughts later in life, shape them, or alter their trajectory and system of associations. Doing so is to become the author of your memory: to have authority over memory instead of memory have authority over you. If memory has authority over you, then you are psychotic, and I’m sorry Sam, but there is a difference between psychotics and the rest of us.

We can store memories with a filing schema of our choosing and this changes what is more and less likely to “just pop up” from the unconscious mind. Your choice of what to read, how you read it, etc similarly rewires the switchboard of your recollection in predicable ways. Furthermore, your ego can query memory to pull something up that was never intentionally moved up the priority list or that had never been synthesized before from contents therein. That is, the ego can request a surprise. It can either ask memory to surprise it or to predictably retrieve exactly the thought that is sought, but in either case the ego generally gets what it asked for (barring various psychoses), otherwise activities like writing would be next to impossible. All of the above grounds our sense of authoring our thoughts. Memory is a big lynchpin here, as Sam must play some tricks with it for his position to come off. For instance, at 27 minutes in, he makes a joke that it almost never occurs to him that he has a brain. The audience laughs, but the humor depends on the audience understanding that we don’t have to have a memory in front of our consciousness at all times for it to be accessible at all times. Sam doesn’t actually “forget he has a brain,” he just forgets to recall this fact and bring it into clear consciousness regularly. This amounts to a gaping hole in Harris’ “philosophy,” as he apparently doesn’t know the difference between recollection and recall. Animals have recognition memory, humans have conscious recall in addition, which Sam gives no account of in his attempt to reduce people to animals with no moral responsibility.

The ‘Why’ Game

This game is played by every child at a certain inquisitive age and basically consists of asking “why?” ad infinitum, and in different senses of the word. ‘Why’ can mean “for what reason” and it can mean “how come.” The frustrating part of the game for adults is that it exposes their ignorance as they struggle for the ultimate answer to existence. This should not frustrate them, however, because science can not answer “ultimate” questions either, even in theory! The word ‘ultimately’ means “in the end,” placing our perspective at a point at the end of time looking back upon a past already laid down, with no freedom in sight because there is no future left! Harris prefers this “view from nowhere,” from the edge of the world, because it obscures freedom by eliminating anticipation, imagination and choice, making room only for one long backwards glance into the eternally immutable (P 1B.)

Sam Harris exploits the fact that there are no “ultimate” answers quite ruthlessly, yet never mentions that science too cannot answer them. He asks his audience to perform a thought experiment that is rigidly prescribed, he claims that this is the very paradigm case of a free choice, and then he bombards the audience with “why” in every possible sense of that word until they realize they don’t have an “ultimate” answer. He implies that science will someday have that ultimate answer, but in so doing betrays his irrational faith in science and his faith in the ultimate intelligibility of the cosmos. He will ask the audience to do something random, and then ask them “why” (in the sense of a “reason”) they did it. When they can’t answer he claims that this is because they are not free, when, in fact, they cannot answer because the request was for the audience to pick something for no reason! There is a reason in the sense of a “how come,” but the audience can easily answer that one! So he asks still more ‘why’ questions: “why that thought?”, “why did it pop up?”, “why was it influential?”, “why did it pop up then?”, “why not another thought,” etc. He does this until the audience realizes they don’t have an “ultimate” how-come answer. Harris tricks them into assuming that there even is one and then uses its apparent existence to prove that nobody is free, that only that ultimate answer, whatever it is, could be governing anything. What is that something? Harris would like to say “the past,” ala P 1B, but he can’t, for any child can keep asking why, and besides, people ultimately exist over a span of time, meaning that their own beings are causally relevant parts of their own past.

Harris simply refuses to deal with the reality of the future, though it doesn’t exist (yet). He tricks his audience by determining the parameters of the experiment, telling them that there are no parameters (that it is a totally free choice), and then after the fact asking them why they were not free in that experiment (the past) to violate some of these parameters! This cleverly masks the fact that we can violate any of those parameters in the future, we just can’t violate them retrospectively from the present, as the past is immutable. Harris’ thought experiments corral the audience into either asking their memories to retrieve something at random, or something intended, but in either case he will claim that these thoughts just popped up. If it was a request for something random, he will claim that you were not free to choose something intentional, but if he asks for something intentional, he will tell you that you were not free to choose something random. Either way, he is trying to enforce P 1B by subtly inferring that what cannot be changed in the past also could not be changed in the future.

The “Randomly Pick A Random City” Game

This one is really clever. Sam asks the audience to pick a random city. Sam will then tell you that you were not free to choose whatever name popped up, but this was part of the parameters! Sam requested that you give up choice as much as humanly possible and leave things to random or unguided association, only to then accuse you of having no choice! “You no more picked the city you settled on, in subjective terms, than you would have if I picked it for you,” he proclaims. The twisted part is that he is right, but by virtue of the fact that he actually DID pick it for you: he chose a “random” one, and only he knows “why” in the sense of a rationale. The painfully obvious thing that is not being mentioned here is the assumption that the audience had to, by means of physical necessity, play Sam’s game, when in fact they didn’t have to. Because they agreed to go to the lecture, Sam can take advantage of their tacit complicity and willingness to play along, but at best, he proves only that you can hypnotize people, which is true, but it is also true that one can hypnotize himself!

Sam’s choice of a “random city” as a prompt ensures that whatever you answer he can claim that you didn’t author it, because it was random! Then he can ask you to think of a white elephant and he’ll conclude that you didn’t author that thought either, because he could predict beforehand that you would soon picture a white elephant. He can ask us to picture anything we want, and then badger us with the “Why? Game” for an “ultimate answer” of why we picked what we did. Whether predictably random or predictably predictable, Harris will claim that you don’t author your thoughts, but that they just popped up. “What else could they do,” he mockingly asks, “but simply arise,” and “where is the freedom in that?” The answer is simple enough. We are not stuck in either of his little thought experiments, but can run our own in which we have every ability to choose between random, novel thoughts, or predictable, pre-articulated ones, while being fully capable of switching between the two modes as needed, or simply stop querying our memory altogether! We are even capable of entering a different mode, like Mindfulness Meditation, or intense meta-cognition, but my point is simply that these are all freedoms because any of them can be initiated at any time and in any order. Sure, logical thought has its limitations and so does emotion-poetic thought, and so forth, but the ability to utilize all of these limited freedoms as we need to is what grounds our sense of freedom for they each make up for each others’ weaknesses. The ability of Sam’s audience to do any stupid little thought experiment he wants to throw at them, in any order he wants, is proof of a robust adaptability and freedom that Sam tries to sweep under the rug with the authoritarian swagger of a guru. When Harris is giving instructions, he subtly implies that people are incapable of giving themselves the same instructions without him, for if they were, then they could consciously and purposefully alter their state of awareness at any time (which sounds like freedom).

A curious fact, however, is that in this experiment the audience actually can accurately predict the outcome. They know “what” (random city), and “when” (randomly–“whenever you feel like it”), but don’t seem to know the “why.” The “why” that his audience knows is something like “because you asked me jerk! only you know the real why!” Or, they know something like this: “I like Harris and I like lectures, so I came here and committed to listening and following the lecture and that is ‘why’ I picked a city and a random one, as requested.” Harris asks the audience why they picked the exact city they did and counts on them not being quick-witted enough to give the above solid answers. He wants them to squirm around in his riddle and then conclude that they must always be stuck in such a puzzle unwittingly. Truly unconscionable. But crucially, he doesn’t believe that the second kind of “why” question is valid in the first place, for people are not influenced by “reasons” (P 1D). And this is his “reason,” his “rationale,” for posing just this game: to ask for a kind of answer that only he possesses, but that he is not willing to admit as causally relevant and that he can demonstrate as such by withholding this rationale and playing the “Why Game” until his audience is intimidated by their lack of any “ultimate answers.” Harris never has to give us any of these answers; just convince us that they exist!

Sam’s audience has to exercise certain mental abilities to run his thought experiments that Sam will then claim are impossible, as supposedly proven by that very thought experiment! Sam’s request to “pick a random city” presumes that they can at that very moment alter everything in consciousness to follow Sam’s lead, whatever they had just been thinking about. But then Sam concludes that the ego has no power to lead, alter, or frame experience, abilities that his very experiments rely upon in the moment.

Sam tells the audience that they didn’t really choose the city that they “chose,” but that it just popped up in consciousness, chosen by their unconscious, which is precisely what he told them to freely and immediately do. The ego was fully able to request a random city from the unconscious, and see that request well met, despite whatever either of them may have been thinking about before Sam’s instructions. This fact destroys Premise 1, for everyone in that audience knew that whatever arose would be a city that was purposefully and consciously random, which is as specific a prediction as you could possibly make given the request for a random answer. That is, they all perfectly predicted the thought that arose, for otherwise they wouldn’t have been following Sam’s instructions. Sam then asks questions like “could you think of a city that did not occur to you” and other such rhetorical traps. Here, he takes something from the past, which we all know we can’t change, and implies that the same thing holds for the future (see P 1B). This is why he retreats from making any hard claims, like “you can’t ever think of a city that does not occur to you,” for then we could easily prove him wrong by turning to our neighbor and getting him to say the most obscure city he has ever visited, enabling us then to be thinking of a city that did not occur to us. If Sam claimed that “you couldn’t possibly think of a city that doesn’t exist,” we could just make up a name, like ShadySophistberg. His traps might only be true of the past, but the future is fundamentally different: the past already is, where the one defining feature of the future is that it isn’t (yet). Furthermore, he forces his audience to confabulate by asking them why they chose the city they did–a question they might not have entertained at all for the simple fact that there is no “reason,” they were just unthinkingly reacting to his lecture and any “reason” thereby must reside only in Sam’s head! He gets them to start confabulating, accuses them of confabulating, and then claims that this is all they ever could do or ever will do (P 1D).

Contrary to all of Sam’s premises, your conscious ego does have the power to initiate chains of thought, to request the recall of memories, and to do all manner of things that make Sam’s thought experiments possible. Sam tells us that “a moment or two of serious self-scrutiny, and you might observe that you no more decide the next thought you think than the next thought I write.” But how could we affect this moment or two of serious self-scrutiny when we cannot predict our next thoughts at all or alter the trajectory of our current thoughts? The ego is just along for the ride, a passive observer of thought, so how would it somehow bring to consciousness “serious” thoughts, or “self-scrutinizing” thoughts? Given that thoughts just pop up, how could we possibly be assured that we are indeed scrutinizing or being serious? The answer is that when Harris asks his audience to seriously self-scrutinize, or to be really, super aware, he means, “be super aware of nothing in particular, of whatever happens to be there or pop up.” That is, he is telling you precisely not to be self-conscious, in the sense of reflective awareness, but instead, to essentially do Mindfullness Meditation (MM). However, the very fact that we can do such meditations proves that the ego has power enough to alter thought. This can be seen in the very instructions, which involve letting thoughts pass on, instead of indulging them; pulling back so that the whole stream of thoughts is framed as a single constellation, instead of the ego being immersed in the frame with the initial thought. Who or what could be acting out these instructions or shifting perspective if not the conscious ego?

Meditation Games

According to Harris’ FW book and lecture, it should be impossible to meditate. Therein he claims that we can’t predict our next thought; that our conscious ego is just helplessly “buffeted by thought ceaselessly,” with no recourse to change “the” mind. If this were true, it would be impossible to follow any of the instructions that Harris gives his audience in either lecture! But this is where the similarities between the two lectures end. In his FW lecture, Harris asks his audience to humor him in a guided meditation aimed to demonstrate their own lack of freedom and how they are eternally beholden to the next thought. In the second lecture, he leads a guided meditation aimed at showing how they can obtain liberation from this very same chaotic thought, suffering, and mental slavery. How ironic that he uses a religious practice to liberate the minds of an audience of modern atheists in a lecture about the folly of religion and the absence of freedom in human minds! But I digress.

If you listen carefully to either lecture, the language he uses in his instructions is replete with terms of freedom and requests for people to literally change their mind, yet, all the while he claims that the mind is beholden to the brain, which is entirely beholden to the laws of nature; the brain can change the mind, but the mind cannot change the brain (P 1C). How are we to possibly follow his instructions then? When he asks me to “pay attention to my experience,” or “look closely at my thoughts,” or “be aware of that constellation of feelings,” he is addressing my conscious ego, as if it had the power to change the frame, move attention around, or stop identifying with a particular stream of thought in favor of another one. He knows that for his audience to participate it must be conscious and listening to every word of his, so he knows he is speaking to the ego with such commands, yet everywhere he denies that the conscious ego has any power whatsoever to alter the trajectory of thought. Thus, introducing MM of any sort whatsoever cripples his arguments against Free Will. If Sam were right, what sense could we make of the instruction to “pay attention to my experience.” Who or what is paying what to whom or what? The very sentence implies that the ego has a currency called “attention” that it can pay to all sorts of things, not just the two channels of its inner & outer experience.  Premise 1C holds that  “attention” is what the brain gives “me,” yet he here uses a phrase that implies that one could use that currency to change experience. We need phrases like this because it is a fact that awareness is different than reflective awareness (self-consciousness), a distinction Harris never mentions in his attempt to make the mind beholden to experience+brain.


At 38 minutes into the new lecture, Harris has the audience perform yet another experiment predicated on a conscious ability to project anything he may suggest at any time. This time, we are asked to”visualize a diamond between my two hands…just project it there.” Even if your powers of visualization are poor, Harris claims, “something changes, when I ask you to do this,” adding after a brief pause, “change it to a tomato.” I’ll ignore the fact that he is appealing to our powers of visualization and focus on the fact that he is right: we can actually visualize, albeit with less-than hallucinatory clarity, whatever he may suggest or whatever we may want to see as a percept. All of this undermines every premise of his argument against freedom, however. If thoughts really had us, instead of our authoring many of them, then it would be impossible to do this sort of projection on que, or “at will.” Here is my knockdown argument against P1: If I cannot predict my next thought, how come I can predict with 100% accuracy when projected diamonds or tomatoes are likely to pop up? Because it is my ego that demands this projection! The ego has amazing powers to frame and work on experience, powers that Harris fully endorses in the new lecture: “the frame we put around the present is important and largely determines our experience of it.” The way we think about an experience can so dramatically alter experience as to change pain to pleasure, such as in the case of enjoying “the burn” at the gym. Somehow Harris doesn’t notice his FW premises dropping out of the air like flies (especially P 1D).

Regarding the experience of pain while working out, Harris explains that this pain is not very bothersome because of its positive framing, but that if we suddenly thought the pain was caused by a disease it would seem excruciating, adding that we often think about training our bodies, but “we give very little thought to training attention itself.” Well, Sam, perhaps you haven’t given it much thought because your theory of mind denies that attention itself could be trained or that you had a currency called attention that you have the freedom to spend! After all, who exactly will train my attention? Will my unconscious mind train itself? Do I just have to wait until the idea “must-train-awareness-itself” pops into awareness? Harris does not answer, but he is willing to commit to the position that our greatest lever for controlling suffering as well as nagging, chaotic thoughts, is just this sort of training, which he claims can “break the spell of thought.” I wonder, who exactly is under this “spell,” who exactly “breaks it,” and who exactly enjoys the clear outlook afterwards? It is the ego of course! He admits as much at the end of the lecture when he says you can “just drop your stress and the automaticity of thinking for a moment,” that through MM “consciousness is equanimous even in the presence of that kind of emotional pain,” adding that “it does erode the pain.” The word ‘equanimous’ means “of an even temper” or a “composed state of mind” that is not easily dragged into depression or elation. Here, Harris admits that the conscious ego can be unmoved by something as immediate and determined as pain and has the power to shape or balance one’s temperament. He claims that it is difficult and takes commitment to break the spell of “merely brooding and thinking.” I guess he just answered that question he keeps asking about “what else could thoughts do but just pop into view,” although I have no idea what he means by “commitment,” as who knows what their mind will intend next, right (P1)? Nearly all of his language involves terms of freedom that make no sense in his declared worldview.

The End Of Hatred

According to Harris, the two paths that end hatred are 1) to reject Free Will and any form of blame, and 2) to practice MM or otherwise “train attention itself” so as to “break the spell of thought.” By some miracle, he sees no contradiction between these two paths. If you put the two lectures together it is like Harris says the following: “We don’t have free will because we are all under the spell of thought, so we shouldn’t hate anyone any more than we would hate a scared dog that bites us, but we can become even more hate-free by breaking the spell of thought ourselves!” This raises a couple immediate questions: 1) are people responsible for breaking the spell of thought?, and 2) does breaking the spell of thought amount to having Free Will? After all, even if you had tremendously bad moral luck and had abusive parents that you hate, you apparently have the ability to transcend that hate, which makes you less likely to project that hate on others and potentially harm them. So in most cases I answer “yes” to Q1, which obviously leads to the same answer for Q2.

As a brief digression I just want to point out how pathetically naive it is to believe that such things could solve hatred. First of all, I hate inanimate objects all the time though I don’t think any of them have even the agency of a rabid dog. Secondly, we can still hate someone that we don’t blame for being how they are. And lastly, as long as we love, we will hate, for they define each other. Anger at those we don’t care about is contempt, not hatred. Sure, becoming “non-attached” to everything is a good road to the end of hatred, as you wouldn’t care enough about anything or anyone to invest in hating them, thereby paving the road to an end to love as well (I mean love in the active, verbal sense).


According to Harris evil doesn’t exist. Nobody thoughtfully and intentionally does something wicked: the past did it. He claims that “responsibility vanishes” in the face of “the stream of past causes,” apparently blatantly unaware that people persist in time (for some time) and that this means that they exist in their own past! Therefore, if the past and all of its causal forces “did it,” then I, being one of those forces in the past, am also implicated. I might even go out on a limb here and say that the person that existed in the past is the most relevant causal force to investigate! The reason that I wrote a post titled “I’m Gonna Kick Sam Harris’ Ass” was to demonstrate deliberate evil: it was my best attempt to show someone feeding off of their emotions, getting hotheaded, and planning to do evil in the future, but also totally aware of what he was doing. We are not responsible for having feelings of vengeance when betrayed, or anything, but we are responsible for how we frame those feelings and act on them, something that animals are incapable of doing.

Animal Choice

The most serious attack ever mounted on Compatibalism is that it cannot meaningfully differentiate animal choice from human choice or justify why the latter implies moral responsibility. What I find interesting here is that neither can Sam! He wants us to look at a psychopath like a scared tiger, as if they were all just born that way, when in fact they are usually “made” by a sick socialization process in addition to this genetic predisposition. In fact, Sam’s theory of mind is just the old animal model of Descartes applied to humans, with the addendum that humans are somehow aware of their determined animal selves, while this awareness changes nothing vis a vis control. He sums this up by saying that Compatibalism is just liking the desires you are stuck with. I guess dudes like Newton who were celibate were just stuck not liking the desires they were stuck with. But wait a minute, his celibacy proves that he can act on his second-order desires instead of his basic animal ones! How can a human choose to be celibate while no animal can intend as much? It seems like those second-order preferences can completely override the most potent psychological determinism in existence: the sexual impulse.


Sam’s P 1B is a very confused view of the future. Sam claims that “all we have ever had is the NOW,” showing just how deeply he confuses human with animal experience. Humans were once very much stuck in the NOW of immediate experience in the same way animals are, but modern humans can imagine (right now) a future that doesn’t exist (yet). That is, “the NOW” for humans can include magical communications from a future that has not yet taken place; they can tap into a causality that is different at least in direction than the one “pushing” from the past. The tricky part is that animals can appear to do this when a recollection is triggered in their nervous systems, so that if they see something that even vaguely resembles a predator they will run, as if they had foreseen their being run down, caught, and eaten in a little mental movie. Of course, they see no such future, but react instinctively. Humans react instinctively too when they recollect, but they can also intentionally recall things and imagine things (or even indulge and toy with that instinctual recollection that pops up unbidden)! Harris is again (ala P 1B) trying to interpret the future like the past by suggesting that consciousness is not really even in the “NOW,” but that it is a representation of what was just a fraction of a second ago “the NOW.” This makes consciousness look more beholden to the past for some reason, though he does assure us that “there really is a way of living in the NOW,” by which he means MM.

Consciousness Is Memory

Harris claims that all we have is the present, but is careful to clarify that in physics there is no “present’ or absolute simultaneity. However, he then goes too far by explaining that neither is there a true “present” in consciousness, for everything is buffered in memory and is merely represented as having taken place at the same time. He concludes that consciousness is always then a memory, except during meditation. The logic is simple: it takes different amounts of time for the various sensory channels to get to the neo-cortex and therefore what we see with our open eyes is not “the present.” However, if we realize this, or happen to be taken over by a rogue wave of MM, we will not be looking exactly “out there” at our visual experience, but instead will be sinking back and viewing our visual experience as one whole percept. When we do this, perception is simultaneous with our consciousness of it, for the percept has already been “buffered in memory” and does not need to be fed through our sensory organs, up through our limbic system, and arrive in the neo-cortext: it is already there! What of other mental perceptions that are “already up there”? What other ways do we have of really living in the NOW other than MM? This is an extremely subtle point, but an important one, for it undermines Harris’ claims in the FW lecture that “we are utterly unaware of the neurophysiological events that produce [] changes.” The fact is that we are intimately aware of the neurophysiological events of our perception, only we are aware of them “from the inside,” and thus rarely think of this visual gestalt neurophysiologically. That is, when you look at a photo of ten people but don’t recognize yourself amongst the people, you still see “you” in the photograph, but not “as you.”

What Harris is claiming, in essence, is that if you are looking at the back of what you later find out to be a painting, you were not looking at a painting before this discovery! We are very aware of many of the changes in our brain that affect our actions, we just experience the “back side of the canvas,” most of the time, which appears as desires, intuitions, gustatory sensations, day dreams, etc, instead of as wiring diagrams, math, and cell biology, though both sides are true of the same material real-estate! Harris is claiming that our unconscious is entirely unconscious, as if it was discovered by mathematicians or something. True, most of the unconscious is largely inaccessible at any given time, but not at all times, as if by some genetic law! Otherwise, an Augustine, Schopenhauer, or Freud could not have been.

Pulling “A Harris”

The unconscious is like the subatomic world in that we contaminate it with the observer effect when we try to view it. Just as we can know either the position or the velocity of an electron at any time, but not both, so we can know that we desire something or why we desire it at any time, but usually not both. Many of Sam’s thought experiments rely on this bottleneck, but are pretty obvious mixtures of sophistry and badgering. Let me “pull a Harris” regarding electrons:

You just measured the position of that electron, right? Good. Now, could you have measured its velocity? No! Aha! Therefore you cannot measure the velocity of electrons in the future! Could you have measured the suns mass just then? No! How limited your instruments are!

Obviously, we can measure the velocity of electrons. So too can we discover that we desire something, why we desire it, and what desires oppose this one and why, etc: we just can’t discover them all at the same time. However, one interesting thing that we can do at the same time is be fully conscious of awareness (be it outward perception or inward introspection/feeling). As Schopenhauer pointed out, this is the only case known in the universe of the phenomenon and the thing-in-itself being apprehended at the same time, when we are usually, like the quantum physicist, stuck knowing one or the other piece of information at any time. When Sam claims that “What I will do next, and why, remains, at bottom, a mystery,” he is just pulling a Harris, for he can answer one of those questions at a time, he just cannot collapse the investigation into five seconds of inquiry! It takes a lifetime to know yourself as fully as possible.

Harris exploits the above bottleneck by alternatively posing forms of the “why” question, the “what” question, or the “when” question, as it suits him. In Benjamin Libet’s experiments both the subject and the researcher are fully aware of “what” will happen (feel an impulse to move, for instance), just not “when” or exactly “why.” But this is determined by the instructions, which tell you to just feel some random impulse randomly; that is, for no reason and at no specified time. Harris then comes in and inform us that we couldn’t predict “why” or “when” the impulse would pop up (duh!) and therefore we have no Free Will. This is just pure manipulation. Similar experiments required the subject to move either their left or right hand randomly and at a random time. The subject knows a little less precisely “what” he will do (move his left or right hand), but everyone is assured perfectly that he will not start singing Italian Opera! My knockdown argument here is simple: how? How does the subject know he will not start singing Italian Opera, begin doing back-flips, start picking random cities, or start doing MM? He knows this because he can predict his own thoughts with stunning accuracy. He certainly knows, for instance, that one of his hands will move in the near future. How is this possible if we are just “hostage to the contents of the next thought”?

Priming experiments are also referred to, whereby subjects are cued just before an unimportant and meaningless decision, and then asked why they made the decision that they did. These experiments prove that people can be unaware of priming influences regarding unimportant and meaningless decisions that they weren’t thinking much about anyway. Crucially, these people didn’t volunteer an answer–they had to be prompted! That is, the experimenter suggests to them that they should have an explanation, and so the person confabulates one on the spot, when in fact their implicit self-explanation before being accosted by snoopy scientists may have been perfectly adequate. More importantly, however, is that Sam asks not “were they aware of the true reasons for their actions,” but instead, he asks “did they know they were primed.” Someone could have a fantastic understanding of why they made a choice, but simply miss that little nudge from the priming, and Sam will just write off his explanation as total rationalization, as if the person’s explanation was as absurd and ungrounded as the answer “fried food monsters pluck grass diamonds.”

Mental Onesness

Sam assumes that just as the brain is one organ (ignoring actually the most important and prominent anatomical feature of the brain, btw), so too is the mind “one.” This allows him to claim that the brain causes the mind and suggest that part of the mind cannot rebel or govern anything. But then how is mindfulness meditation possible if the mind is “one” like this? How is mental dialogue possible? He mentions discursive thought and the fact that there is always a voice in our heads saying something or other, but his analysis ends there. He simply has us picture a meandering stream of thoughts and images, without drawing your attention to the fact that you can change anything you see! In his latest lecture, he demonstrates this perceptual malleability with his “picture a diamond…now a tomato!” bit. But what this means is that the voice in our head can be altered by the conscious ego. We call this internal dialogue versus Sam’s meandering monologue. If part of my brain (the ego) can chat with another part (let’s say the limbic system), instead of simply receive or interpret the signal of the latter, as Sam implies with his term “witness,” then the possibility  of internal conflict, cooperation, etc is opened up and freedom becomes easier to spot. One must first shed the assumption that one is “one,” however.


Harri’s understanding of the history of ideas is tragically shallow. Speaking of religions at the end of his recent lecture, he says that “they are just a carnival of errors.” This introduces circus imagery, associations of frivolity and Dionysian frenzy, as well as pits religion against common sense, as a carnival is a celebration that marks an overturning of daily life. He fails to mention two crucial points though: 1) so too is science a “carnival of errors,” a point usually termed the Pessimistic Meta-Induction, and 2) most of our ideas, scientific or otherwise, began as religions intuitions, meaning that the latter are something much more than just “errors.” The idea of the “soul,” for instance, is far more scientifically accurate a description of the brain than either a weather system or a computer would be.

Sam’s whole paradigm is predicated on a future neuroscience being powerful enough to read your thoughts, but this has proven so difficult not because of the chaos involved, but because of the immense order! I don’t mean order in the sense that the brain follows the laws of physics and thus is constrained by their order. I mean that there is genetically programmed order, on top of cultural order, on top of the order imposed by parental units, etc. Brain’s are not hard to understand because of the complexity of their disorderedness, but their gatheredness. Furthermore, brains can understand, brains can anticipate, and brains are biologically motivated to thwart your attempts to pigeon-hole them or tell them what they will inevitably do. Clouds and galaxies do not respond adaptively to verbal threats to their autonomy! If Harris ever sees his vision for neuroscience to its completion, then human beings will be able to read their own thoughts with perfect accuracy, to know “why” they did things (though not “ultimately”), and therefore have far more freedom, perhaps even radical Free Will! But Harris is not impressed by the brain’s ability to build a science capable of this, too obsessed is he with showing how this future science proves our present enslavement. Hilariously, this “author’s” central premise is that we can’t predict our own thoughts and thus can’t be authors with Free Will, while his proof comes from his faith that these same non-authors will very soon build a Free Will app for your iPad.

This entry was posted in Consciousness, Free Will and Responsibility, Human Movitation, Morality & Ethics, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Sam Harris Leaves Me Speechless (well not quite…)

  1. Pingback: “Less Wrong” Than You Might Think Pt 3 | Think On These Things

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