Dear Sam Harris,
I have watched a number of your appearances on YouTube and decided, as a result, to read several of your books. It has been interesting to learn of your professional expertise in neuroscience which seem to have led to some of the positions I have seen you adopt on YouTube.
The book ‘Free Will’ has piqued my interest in your assertion that because the conscious self is only aware, after the fact, of an unconscious decision, that free will necessarily dies.
Of course this is interesting to say the least. As an octogenarian engineer my reaction seems to be a bit different from yours. Faced with this astonishing neuroscience input my reaction is to look for a different model of the self but perhaps yours is to throw out the baby with the bath water.
My conclusion from reading your piece is the realisation that the self does not work on the basis previously thought. You keep zoning in on the proposition that we are simply lucky/unlucky in the playing out of our lives and that’s it.
Me feeling is that your treatment is too one dimensional. While there is a bit of language in the book about memory one could not conclude that elsewhere you have talked at length about values and the importance that must be attached to the way we attach values to event states and propositions in our lives.
I see your treatment of Free Will as one dimensional because you return again and again to the mystery of where a thought came from and that we have no notion or control over it. I suggest that this can actually be explored by examining the plasticity of the brain and seeing it as a feedback reinforcing engine with value judgements applied incrementally as the feedback is applied over time.
Consider what a pilot does when faced with a dangerous and rapidly deteriorating situation. He will react ‘instinctively’ according to the training he has had. He will not necessarily be conscious of these actions until after the smoke has cleared. In this way we see that a close class of behaviour is the result of a training program in which the neural action has been planted by a professional purpose. There has been value judgment at play in this.
I believe all our thoughts/actions can be seen multiple overlays of experience, value judgements and consequent reinforcements/disposals which lead to the ‘mysterious’ thoughts over which you say we have no control. By this model, life consists of a long process of random inputs, considered, modified, adopted and frequently reinforced or discarded by value judgements made time and time again. Considering how complex this process is it is a good job that we are not given to try to review it all on a moment by moment basis because we could not possible do that.
So my position is that we, the conscious self consist of a high speed processor that can render an opinion based on experience and previous value judgments in real time such that we don’t fall off cliffs or murder one another by making mistakes in the heat of the moment.
This is to say that the self does not work according to the popular model of consciousness but by another subtle mechanism which is much more reliable. There is nothing particularly odd about this. It would have to be so. Life is too fast to be lived by consciously reviewing memory in real time and fortunately we find that we possess a fast cacheing processor that can deliver the necessary responses at a suitable speed.
Perhaps the conscious, in the moment, self has, as you suggest, been misidentified as the sole agent of free will. Can it possibly be seen as the observer and interlocutor between moment to moment reality and a much more powerful subconscious engine built from a lifetime of experience and value judgements providing action solutions to the conscious self.
It is the value judgements on experience from which the will emerges. This process is very long winded and why it takes an adult to provide a reliably civilised response to difficult situations.
I am aware that there is work on the topic of first and second phase decision making in which the reptilian brain renders fast judgements for self preservation and that the second phase judgments are more reliable and that we should avoid listening to the reptilian brain for more nuanced matters.
I hope this provides some amusement for you. I would be delighted to learn what a professional thinks of a punt from an old engineer.