Sam Harris quotes the neuroscience of people like Libet (1999) who have found that our decisions occur subconsciously before we consciously make them.
Generally people – including philosophers and psychologists from Plato to Watson – have thought that our silent self-talk (in fact very quiet self talk, since these days it can be recorded at our vocal cords) is our thought and our will when in fact it is the product of our subconscious thought.
The voices that schizophrenics sometimes hear can likewise be recorded at our vocal cords.
There are various theories as to what our self talk is. Jonathan Haidt (cool psychologists, on youtube) claims that since our self-talk comes after the decision, self-talk is excuse making. Haidt claims that self-talk is like a press secretary. We think to talk and justify our actions.
Higgins (1987) and before him Adam Smith (1770, 1778), the economist, say however that self talk is like a mirror. Even though self-talk comes afterwards, if we keep narrating ourselves then we represent ourselves to ourselves and in doing so motivate ourselves to work harder and be more moral.
Libet also found that while we do not have free will, in the conventional self-talk sense, we have “free won’t” in that when in our self-talk we really can’t justify an action (that we have already decided to do) our inability to justify ourselves sometimes acts as a veto to prevent us from going through with that action.
People (at least Western people) in front of mirrors behave more morally. They are motivated to behave in a good ways, not cheat, volunteer, and be honest about themselves. For example children doing Trick or Treat when told to only take one piece of candy from a bowl often take more than one if no one is looking. But if a mirror is placed behind the bowl, then they see the action that they have already decided to do represented in the mirror, and stop doing it (Beaman, Klentz, Diener, & Svanum, 1979).
Since we generally think our self-talk is our will, and that we are the hero of our self talk, I guess we are kind of back to front time-wise. I wish Pans were still here to explain.
Beaman, A. L., Klentz, B., Diener, E., & Svanum, S. (1979). Self-awareness and transgression in children: Two field studies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37(10), 1835.
Haidt, J. (2001). The emotional dog and its rational tail: a social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychological Review, 108(4), 814.
Haidt, J. (2013). The Rationalist Delusion in Moral Psychology. Youtube video
Higgins, E. T. (1987). Self-Discrepancy: A theory relating self and affect. Psychological Review, 94(3), 319.
Libet, B. (1999). Do We Have Free Will? Journal of Consciousness Studies, 6(8–9), 47–57.
Smith, A. (1778). An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. London: W. Strahan.
Smith, A. (2002). Adam Smith: The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Cambridge University Press. (Original work published 1770)