Sam Harris: Consciousness, Free Will, Psychedelics, AI, UFOs, and Meaning | Lex Fridman Podcast #185 | Summary and Q&A

May 20, 2021
Lex Fridman Podcast
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Sam Harris: Consciousness, Free Will, Psychedelics, AI, UFOs, and Meaning | Lex Fridman Podcast #185


Sam Harris discusses the illusion of free will and explores the nature of consciousness and self, challenging the widely held belief in human agency.

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Key Insights

  • šŸ§  Key insight 1: Sam Harris believes that thoughts emerge subjectively from nowhere, and we don't author them. This challenges the idea of free will and suggests that thoughts simply appear in consciousness.
  • ā™‚ļø Key insight 2: Meditation and psychedelics can help individuals explore their consciousness and break through the illusion of self and free will. These experiences can lead to a greater sense of freedom and understanding of one's mind.
  • šŸŒ Key insight 3: While some philosophers argue that consciousness may be fundamental to reality, Harris remains agnostic on the matter. He acknowledges the possibility but believes it is unfalsifiable and introduces complexities into our understanding of the mind.
  • šŸŽ­ Key insight 4: Harris notes that our experience of reality is limited and that our minds may not be capable of fully understanding it. He compares our limited understanding to that of chimpanzees and highlights the vast knowledge gap among individuals specialized in different fields.
  • šŸŒŒ Key insight 5: Harris explores the ethical implications of creating conscious AI. He warns that if consciousness can be replicated in machines, it is essential to consider their ability to suffer and the implications of treating them as conscious beings. āŒ› Key insight 6: Harris argues that the illusion of free will has profound effects on our emotional lives, particularly in relation to hatred. By recognizing the absence of free will, one can develop greater compassion and empathy towards others.
  • šŸ’­ Key insight 7: The nature of consciousness and self is a complex topic. While consciousness cannot be an illusion, the experience of self and free will can be illusory. Harris believes that the feeling of having a self separate from one's consciousness contributes to the illusion of free will.
  • šŸŽÆ Key insight 8: Harris emphasizes that understanding the illusion of self and free will can be liberating for many individuals. It allows for a deeper exploration of consciousness and recognition of the limitations of our human minds in comprehending reality.


the following is a conversation with sam harris one of the most influential and pioneering thinkers of our time he's the host of the making sense podcast and the author of many seminal books on human nature and the human mind including the end of faith the moral landscape lying free will and waking up he also has a meditation app called waking up t... Read More

Questions & Answers

Q: Is consciousness an illusion or does it have a fundamental basis in reality?

Consciousness cannot be an illusion, as it is the very essence of subjective experience. It is the qualitative sense of "something happening" in our minds and cannot be invalidated. However, there are aspects of our consciousness that may be illusory, such as our perception of free will.

Q: What are the potential ethical concerns associated with artificial intelligence and consciousness?

One ethical concern is the possibility of creating conscious AI beings that can suffer. If we create robots or simulations with genuine consciousness, it would be morally wrong to subject them to suffering or to exploit them for entertainment purposes.

Q: Does the illusion of free will and the exploration of consciousness have any practical implications in our daily lives?

Yes, understanding the illusion of free will and the nature of consciousness can have practical implications. It can help us develop empathy and compassion towards others, as we realize that they too are not truly in control of their actions. Additionally, it can change our perspective on ethics and free us from the burden of hatred and unforgiveness.

Q: What is the relationship between the illusion of free will and the sense of self?

The illusion of free will is closely related to the sense of self. Both are aspects of subjective experience that can be challenged and examined through introspection and empirical evidence. By understanding the illusory nature of the self and free will, we can gain a deeper understanding of the human mind and its limitations.

Q: Can psychedelic experiences, such as those induced by DMT, provide insights into the nature of consciousness and free will?

While Sam Harris has not personally taken DMT, he acknowledges that psychedelic experiences can provide unique perspectives on consciousness. However, he emphasizes the need for careful scientific study and considers the possibility that some experiences induced by psychedelics may be hallucinations rather than true insights into the nature of consciousness or free will.

Q: How does the illusion of free will impact our understanding of moral responsibility?

The illusion of free will challenges traditional notions of moral responsibility. If our actions are ultimately determined by factors beyond our control, it raises questions about assigning blame and punishment. However, it also opens the door for a more compassionate and understanding approach to human behavior, recognizing the influence of external factors on our choices.


In this conversation, Sam Harris discusses various topics with Lex Friedman, including where thoughts come from, the nature of consciousness, the experience of taking psychedelics, and the relationship between reality and consciousness. They also touch on the concept of idealism and the limitations of human understanding.

Questions & Answers

Q: Where do thoughts come from?

Subjectively, thoughts appear to come from nowhere. They emerge out of a mysterious place in our minds. When we pay attention to our minds, we realize that we don't know what we will think next. Thoughts seem to have a signature of selfhood associated with them, as we readily identify with them. However, through meditation, we can examine this identification closely and uncover a sense of freedom beyond it.

Q: Is there a deeper understanding of the origin of thoughts?

Objectively, thoughts are believed to be products of neural computation and representation in the brain. Many of our thoughts, if not all, are likely to be rooted in neurophysiological processes. However, the subjective experience of thoughts and their emergence remains a mystery.

Q: Can thoughts be traced back to their root?

It is difficult to trace thoughts back to their root, as they seem to appear out of nowhere. When we recall a memory or imagine something, it suddenly comes into consciousness. This initial moment of thought emergence is not evidence of free will; it simply demonstrates the unpredictability of our thoughts.

Q: Is it possible to go deeper and unravel the nature of thoughts?

While we can gain a clearer understanding of subtle contents in our consciousness through practices like meditation or psychedelic experiences, the idea of going deeper is ultimately undermined. There is no separate entity going deeper into our consciousness; everything exists on the surface. The illusion of depth arises from our identification with certain thoughts and our false sense of self.

Q: What is the nature of consciousness?

Consciousness can be understood as the subjective experience of being aware. It is the qualitative aspect of our mental life, where everything from perception to emotion arises. Consciousness is not limited to humans; other mammals, and potentially even other organisms, may possess consciousness. The origins of consciousness remain uncertain, and various theories, such as panpsychism, try to explain its fundamental nature.

Q: Is consciousness an illusion or a construct?

Consciousness is not an illusion; it is the underlying reality of our experiences. The sensation of being conscious, of having subjective awareness, is undeniable. While our understanding of consciousness and its mechanisms is limited, it is a tangible aspect of our existence.

Q: Can consciousness be considered as the fundamental aspect of reality?

The question of whether consciousness is fundamental to reality or emergent from physical processes remains uncertain. While it's plausible that consciousness is a fundamental principle of matter, other aspects of our cognitive abilities, such as language processing, clearly rely on information processing. It's essential not to conflate the existence of consciousness with the whole spectrum of mental processes we experience.

Q: Is consciousness limited to humans?

The exact extent of consciousness in the animal kingdom is uncertain. If our brains produce consciousness, it becomes challenging to draw a principled line between humans and other animals. Other apes and even mammals likely possess some form of consciousness. The further back we go in the phylogenetic tree, the less clear our intuitions become regarding consciousness.

Q: What happens to consciousness after death?

Consciousness is intertwined with life and ceases to exist when we die. Death raises existential questions because our experience inherently involves consciousness. While some may speculate about the survival of consciousness after death, the evidence points to consciousness being intricately linked to the activity of the brain and ceasing to exist when our brain functions cease.

Q: Can psychedelic experiences offer insight into the nature of consciousness?

Psychedelics, such as DMT or mushrooms, can provide profound experiences that lead to a deeper exploration of consciousness. During these experiences, the mind transcends the limitations imposed by language and concepts. Psychedelics reveal the futility of capturing such experiences in words. They demonstrate that our normal cognitive framework may not fully capture the richness of consciousness.

Q: Is DMT the most intense psychedelic experience?

DMT is often considered one of the most intense psychedelics. It induces a unique experience characterized by encountering entities that seem different from our own minds. People report encounters with what Terence McKenna called "self-transforming machine elves." However, not everyone has the full DMT experience due to the unpleasant nature of smoking it.

Q: Can we create artificial consciousness that is indistinguishable from human consciousness?

It is possible that artificial intelligence could pass the Turing test and appear conscious, even if it's not. However, determining true consciousness in artificial systems is difficult, as we don't fully understand how consciousness emerges from brain activity. The ethical dilemma lies in treating conscious-seeming AI as conscious beings, even if we're unsure about their actual consciousness.


Understanding the origin and nature of consciousness remains a complex and unresolved issue. Consciousness appears to emerge subjectively, but it is rooted in neurophysiological processes in the brain. While some theories propose consciousness as a fundamental aspect of reality, others suggest it may be a construct of the mind. Psychedelic experiences provide a unique glimpse into the depths of consciousness and challenge our understanding of the world. It is essential to acknowledge the limitations of our human cognition and embrace the vastness of reality beyond our comprehension.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • Sam Harris explores the illusion of free will and how it is closely related to the sense of self.

  • He argues that subjectively, thoughts and intentions appear to come from nowhere, and we don't have control over them.

  • Harris questions the nature of consciousness and its fundamental role in human experience, while also discussing the potential ethical implications of artificial intelligence.

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