Annaka Harris: Conscious – Making Sense with Sam Harris

Check out the Making Sense Episode Page & Show Notes

Key Takeaways

  • The hard problem of consciousness:
    • Why is it that a configuration of non-conscious material gets configured in such a way that the matter itself entails an experience of being that matter?
  • To gauge consciousness, ask:
    • “Is there something that it’s like to be X right now? Is X having an experience?”
  • It’s not conclusive that consciousness actually serves a purpose
  • Panpsychism is the idea that consciousness is a fundamental feature of ALL matter 
    • As an example – there’s some level of experience/there is something that it is like to be a thermostat (no matter how minimal and completely unlike a human’s idea of consciousness)
  • The ideas of free will and the self are both illusions
  • We should be teaching children at a much earlier age how to self-regulate emotions by becoming aware of them


Annaka’s New Book – Conscious

  • The original title of the book was “Lights On”
  • Why write it?
    • Annaka wanted to work through her own ideas about consciousness and how the human brain works
  • It’s all about the science and philosophy of consciousness, focusing on why consciousness is so deeply mysterious
  • The book also touches on the idea of breaking through false intuitions
    • “We often reach deeper truths… more fundamental truths… a better picture of the reality around us, when we can break through intuitions that are giving us false information about the world”

The Hard Problem of Consciousness

  • Why is it that a configuration of non-conscious material/particles gets configured in such a way that the matter itself entails an experience of being that matter?

Let’s Define Consciousness

  • The original definition originates from Thomas Nagel’s essay – What Is It Like to Be a Bat?
    • So consciousness = If it is like something to be X
  • Another way to look at it – distinguishing between collections of matter that you think are having an experience vs. those that aren’t
  • So to gauge consciousness, ask: “Is there something that it’s like to be X right now? Is X having an experience?”

Two Fundamental Consciousness Questions

  • The most primary intuitions we have about consciousness rely around these two questions:
    • Is there any behavior we can witness on the outside of a system that can tell us conclusively that consciousness is present in that system?
      • For ex. – witnessing a crying girl (your looking for behavioral evidence that the person is consciousness)
    • Is consciousness doing anything? Is it serving a function?
      • Our reflexive answer (our intuition) is yes 
        • For ex. – Consciousness drives your decisions/plans (like the plan and behavior involved in writing a book)
      • BUT here’s something interesting – anything you can point to in the process of writing a book (for example), no how deliberate it seems, is preceded by events in the brain of which you’re not conscious
      • The counter argument:
        • The idea that consciousness isn’t doing anything is problematic from an evolutionary point of view – Why would it have evolved? Surely it must be doing something?
          • BUT – not everything that’s emerged has an evolutionary rationale, there are things that have “come along for free that aren’t really selected for”
        • You could easily imagine a computer/camera/AI doing all the visual processing we as humans are doing without having the associated experience (like the experience of seeing the color blue)
          • “I think it’s easy for us to imagine AI doing a lot of the things we are capable of without consciousness” – like writing a book


  • Here’s a thought…
    • Is it possible that consciousness is a fundamental feature of ALL matter and it’s there in some form or another? (this idea is known as panpsychism)
      • Don’t confuse consciousness with complex thought
        • Consciousness just = an experience
      • This would explain the idea that consciousness didn’t evolve, but is in fact a feature of most matter, intrinsically
      • For more on panpsychism – Check out the article: Panpsychism is crazy, but it’s also most probably true
  • The levels of panpsychism:
    • The level of information processing 
      • Like a thermostat (which just processes information) being conscious
    • Consciousness as a fundamental feature of matter itself, whether it’s processing information or not
      • Expanded: there’s some level of experience, no matter how minimal and completely unlike a human
        • Humans probably wouldn’t even be able to imagine this level of consciousness in it’s most minimal form

Free Will and the Self

  • Sam identities free will and the self as two sides of the same coin – they’re both an illusion
  • The illusion of free will:
    • Annaka likes to think of a quote from Galen Strawson“What you do follows from what you are”
      • “That is basically why free will is an illusion in a nutshell”
      • Everything you think, feel, and experience is at some level a product of your brain processing
        • If you really pay attention, you’ll come to see you aren’t in control of any of the above – you aren’t choosing the next thing you notice/the next thought you have etc. (it all emerges, and you’re just the witness)
    • To further illustrate the point, in these Podcast Notes Sam said:
      • “Everyone is an open system. No one authored or created themselves. No one can directly regulate the effect of every influence that they had or didn’t have. You are the totality of what brought you here. The universe just pushed you to this point in time, and the only thing you have is your brain and its states, and that is based on your genes and the totality of environmental influences you as a system have had working on you up until this moment.”
        • In a way we’re like robots – “You’re a robot that is continuously open to influence”
  • On the self:
    • Most people think of the “self” as the entity that has free will
      • The sense of self is identical with the sense that you’re the author of your own thoughts and actions

But the Illusion of Free Will is Useful

  • Especially in the context of regret
    • Having regret results from a sense that you are in control of your actions and can in turn take responsibility for them
    • If you truly internalized that free will is an illusion, regret wouldn’t originate

Meditation for Kids

  • Annaka designed a meditation course for kids on Sam’s Waking Up meditation app
    • She frequently teaches kids as young as kindergartners how to meditate (and has even taught preschoolers)
  • Both Sam and Annaka recognize it’s extremely beneficial for young kids to begin to recognize what emotions they’re going through
    • “Their minds are actually in a better state to learn to meditate than adults are, almost across the board”
  • What age dos Annaka think kids should start to learn to meditate?
    • Around 9 or 10 
  • We should be teaching children at a much earlier age how to self-regulate emotions by becoming aware of them

Additional Notes

  • Sam and Annaka’s first date was filled with conversation about consciousness and free will
  • “The most painful regrets are the things you’ll never have a second chance at”
  • “Being sorry is related to compassion, regret is related to self-hatred”
Making Sense with Sam Harris : , , ,
Notes By MMiller

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