You Are Not Responsible for Your Thoughts

You Are Not Responsible for Your Thoughts

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When “The New Atheism” was very popular, Dr. Sam Harris, a neuroscientist, was well noted for some of his valuable contributions to the field of, well, “novel” atheism. Undergirding most of Harris’ philosophy on atheism, I think, is the following quote of his:

“You are no more responsible for the state of your brain in this moment than you are for your height…thoughts simply arise in the mind. But the idea that we as conscious beings are…responsible for the characters of our minds, simply can’t be mapped onto reality.”

—Dr. Sam Harris
Is time like an arrow? Or is it disconnected slices of independent realities that concomitantly exist?

I have commented before that atheists, when being most rational, commit to the belief that there’s no such thing as free will. While Harris is affirming that, what’s most important, I believe, is when he says, “thoughts simply arise in the mind.”

In my view, it seems that Harris is frustrated mostly by time. As a concept, he see thoughts as “simply arising.” There is no continuation of thought; one simply transitions from point A to point B in one’s mind, and there is no accounting for it. 

Now I said that I believe that this frustration comes from what is probably his view of time. There are basically two ways that one can choose to believe that time exists. They are:

  • A-Theory—This is the theory that says that things are really present, past, or future. This is an objective feature of reality, not just an illusion of human consciousness. 


  • B-Theory—B-Theory would be the view that all events in time are equally real and the difference between past, present, and future is just an illusion of human consciousness. 

To believe in time travel, you’d have to believe in B-Theory, because it asserts that “bits” of time are basically like slices of bread. They’re all distinct, but they all exist, so you could go from one slice to the next. A-Theory, on the other hand, would say that “now” is the only real time; you can’t go back in time, because it no longer exists as an objective feature of reality. The future also does not exist “in the universe.”

When Harris mentions thoughts “simply arising,” he doesn’t see any continuum in which a pattern or train of thought might exist, which is a belief typical of those who assert B-Theory. I think that this leads to some absurd results. For example, B-Theory makes people 4-dimensional, with time being one of the dimensions which is a distinct feature. But each “slice” of time is different and unique. 

So what does that mean? It means that “you” are not the same person that existed a second ago; you’re a distinct object from that person, as there’s no continuity of personhood. The “you” right now is a different slice of bread from the loaf. 

The end-point of this is the belief that there is no personal identity over time—and this Harris comments that thoughts simply arise in the mind. They are neither continuable, plannable, and they likewise have no “reason” for existing. They simply arise and vanish, because they exist in a universe in which a tenseless theory of time is true. 

There are a number of issues with that, but I believe that’s enough for now. In the meantime, I have reached out to a research professor who has written on the nature of time to see if I am interpreting this correctly. I will update this post if I receive a reply.

With love, always,

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2 thoughts on “You Are Not Responsible for Your Thoughts

  1. It takes a whole lot of education to become that confused. “The simple things confound the wise,” is demonstrated daily!

  2. Interesting thoughts. I don’t subscribe to freewill for other reasons, but would you consider that because the concept of time has to learned, provide evidence for one side or the other?

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