What Is It Like to Be Sam Harris?

It's difficult to assert, as Harris does, that if people just think about it enough, they will come to understand that their most basic sense of consciousness is not really there. The advantage of such an approach is that it conveniently elides the conclusions that many would be drawn to make.
10/02/2014 04:47 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

I find neuroscientist Sam Harris to be considerably more interesting than most of his fellow "new atheist" thinkers, and, despite my fundamental disagreement with him on many matters of critical importance, I often find myself interested in his approach to various topics and periodically in agreement with what he has to say. Recently, Harris, who has lectured extensively on the topic of consciousness, has been studying and practicing Eastern meditation, for the purpose, he says, of revealing that the "self" does not really exist.

Why is Dr. Harris doing this? Because he is a materialist who believes that physical reality is the only reality, and the problem of consciousness has long been an irritating thorn in side of the materialist worldview. He wants to explain how it could be that we all have a sense of unique selfhood -- a tall order considering that it has been widely recognized that no one has any idea how a material entity could be consciously aware of itself. This oddity is openly acknowledged by most of the great thinkers on the topic. For instance, it's been described by philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers as the "hard problem." He wrote:

It is undeniable that some organisms are subjects of experience. But the question of how it is that these systems are subjects of experience is perplexing. Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.

This problem has also been explored in New York University philosopher Thomas Nagel's paper "What is it like to be a bat?," which is intended as a refutation of reductionism, the idea that a complex system is simply a sum of its parts. Reductionism would argue that all mental processes could be fully described if all the physical processes in the brain could be described. The "hard problem," then, is that there is no reason to expect that the bat should have an experience of "batness," yet it would seem obvious that it does. If the brain (ours or that of any animal) is only a machine, an arrangement of physical components that obeys the laws of physics like a computer or a calculator, all that it should be doing is executing its program. (How the program came to be in the first place is another matter.) The calculator presumably has no experience of calculatorness, so why should we be any different? Yet clearly we are; hence the "hard problem."

Dr. Harris has a solution in mind: our consciousness. Our awareness and experience of our "selves" is simply an illusion. As he recently said in a New York Times interview:

[T]he feeling of being a subject inside your head, a locus of consciousness behind your eyes, a thinker in addition to the flow of thoughts [is not real]. This form of subjectivity does not survive scrutiny. If you really look for what you are calling "I," this feeling will disappear.

He illustrates this concept with a picture:

2014-10-02-stoneopticalillusionblog480.png

His thinking is that just as there really is no square here but only the illusion of one, so is the feeling of one's "self" equally illusory. I'm not sure that there is any great correlation between an optical illusion (which has no awareness of itself and hence no experience to negate) and the universal awareness of self that we all have and which he struggles to explain away. Furthermore, I'm not at all uncomfortable with counter-claiming that the square does indeed exist but simply exists in a different way than the three-quarter black circles do. Jews would claim that the soul (or any spiritual entity) cannot be measured but only implied from what can be measured, and this idea applies to the square.

Harris claims that the goal of the mystics is to remove from our consciousness the "I," which, according to Harris, is the fiction that blocks us from perceiving the true reality: that there is no true "I." This would appear to align nicely with Buddhism, and it's conceivable that part of what attracts him to this sort of exploration is the fact that Buddism has no God concept.

Some questions regarding this whole approach:

  1. Who or what is doing the realizing when it's realized that there is no "I"? The illusion?

  • If there's no "I," how is this realization remembered, since memory would presumably be a function of the "I"?
  • What is the overall goal of this exploration? What do "I" hope to gain in discovering that I don't really exist?
  • How do we know that it's not the disappearance of the sense of an "I" that is actually illusory?
  • The whole enterprise of attempting to come to such a paradoxical and non-intuitive realization that there is no "I" and no true self would appear to be wholly subjective and lacking the standards of scientific rigor that the "new atheists" generally claim to embrace. How would we hope to test this idea? Commenting on this problem, Harris acknowledges, "Whatever we study, we are obliged to take subjective reports seriously, all the while knowing that they are sometimes false or incomplete."

    Perhaps what Professor Harris and the Eastern mystics mean is something akin to what Judaism teaches: that the destruction of the ego (a warped perception of the self) will free our minds (or souls) to be able to perceive the "universal mind" or "infinite consciousness" that we call God. It's difficult to assert, as Harris does, that if people just think about it enough, they will come to understand that their most basic sense of consciousness is not really there. The advantage of such an approach is that it conveniently elides the conclusions that many would be drawn to make: that our pervasive and universal sense of self is quite real, and that given that there is no explicable physical basis for it, there must be a metaphysical one.