Sam Harris: The Self is an Illusion

Neuroscientist, Philosopher, and Author
Sam Harris describes the properties of consciousness and how mindfulness practices of all stripes can be used to transcend one's ego.
  • Transcript


Sam Harris: What one of the problems we have in discussing consciousness scientifically is that consciousness is irreducibly subjective. This is a point that many philosophers have made – Thomas Nagel, John Searle, David Chalmers. While I don’t agree with everything they’ve said about consciousness I agree with them on this point that consciousness is what it’s like to be you. If there’s an experiential internal qualitative dimension to any physical system then that is consciousness. And we can’t reduce the experiential side to talk of information processing and neurotransmitters and states of the brain in our case because – and people want to do this. Someone like Francis Crick said famously you’re nothing but a pack of neurons. And that misses the fact that half of the reality we’re talking about is the qualitative experiential side. So when you’re trying to study human consciousness, for instance, by looking at states of the brain, all you can do is correlate experiential changes with changes in brain states. But no matter how tight these correlations become that never gives you license to throw out the first person experiential side. That would be analogous to saying that if you just flipped a coin long enough you would realize it had only one side. And now it’s true you can be committed to talking about just one side. You can say that heads being up is just a case of tails being down. But that doesn’t actually reduce one side of reality to the other.

And to give you a more precise example, we have very strong third person “objective measures” of things like anxiety and fear at this moment. You bring someone into the lab, they say they’re feeling fear. You can scan their brains with FMRI and see that their amygdala response is heightened. You can measure the sweat on their palms and see that there’s an increased galvanic skin response. You can check their blood cortisol and see that its spiking. So these now are considered objective third person measures of fear. But if half the people came into the lab tomorrow and said they were feeling fear and showed none of these signs and they said they were completely calm when their cortisol spiked and when their palms started to sweat, these objective measures would no longer be reliable measures of fear. So the cash value of a change in physiology is still a change in the first person conscious side of things. And we’re inevitably going to rely on people’s subjective reports to understand whether our correlations are accurate. So the hope that we are going to talk about consciousness shorn of any kind of qualitative internal experiential language, I think, is a false one. So we have to understand both sides of it subjective – classically subjective and objective.

I’m not arguing that consciousness is a reality beyond science or beyond the brain or that it floats free of the brain at death. I’m not making any spooky claims about its metaphysics. What I am saying, however, is that the self is an illusion. The sense of being an ego, an I, a thinker of thoughts in addition to the thoughts. An experiencer in addition to the experience. The sense that we all have of riding around inside our heads as a kind of a passenger in the vehicle of the body. That’s where most people start when they think about any of these questions. Most people don’t feel identical to their bodies. They feel like they have bodies. They feel like they’re inside the body. And most people feel like they’re inside their heads. Now that sense of being a subject, a locus of consciousness inside the head is an illusion. It makes no neuro-anatomical sense. There’s no place in the brain for your ego to be hiding. We know that everything you experience – your conscious emotions and thoughts and moods and the impulses that initiate behavior – all of these things are delivered by a myriad of different processes in the brain that are spread out over the whole of the brain. They can be independently erupted. We have a changing system. We are a process and there’s not one unitary self that’s carried through from one moment to the next unchanging.

And yet we feel that we have this self that’s just this center of experience. Now it’s possible I claim and people have claimed for thousands of years to lose this feeling, to actually have the center drop out of the experience so that you just rather than feeling like you’re on this side of things looking in as though you’re almost looking over your own shoulder appropriating experience in each moment, you can just be identical to this sphere of experience that is all of the color and light and feeling and energy of consciousness. But there’s no sense of center there. So this is classically described as self- transcendence or ego transcendence in spiritual, mystical, new age religious literature. It is in large measure the baby in the bathwater that religious people are afraid to throw out. It’s – if you want to take seriously the project of being like Jesus or Buddha or some, you know, whatever your favorite contemplative is, self-transcendence really is at the core of the phenomenology that is described there. And what I’m saying is that it’s a real experience.

It’s clearly an experience that people can have. And while it tells you nothing about the cosmos, it tells you nothing about what happened before the Big Bang. It tells you nothing about the divine origin of certain books. It doesn’t make religious dogmas any more plausible. It does tell you something about the nature of human consciousness. It tells you something about the possibilities of experience but then again any experience does. You can – there’s just – people have extraordinary experiences. And the problem with religion is that they extrapolate – people extrapolate from those experiences and make grandiose claims about the nature of the universe. But these experiences do entitle you to talk about the nature of human consciousness and it just so happens that this experience of self-transcendence does link up with what we know about the mind through neuroscience to form a plausible connection between science and classic mysticism, classic spirituality. Because if you lose your sense of a unitary self – if you lose your sense that there’s a permanent unchanging center to consciousness, your experience of the world actually becomes more faithful to the facts. It’s not a distortion of the way we think things are at the level of the brain. It’s actually – it brings your experience into closer register with how we think things are.

Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton