Sam Harris: The Self is an Illusion


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 Sorrell, 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.

100 comments

  1. I go to the Goodwill for books every Thursday & Friday. I have to get there early in order to beat the book scanner poachers. You know what books I always see there, his books. You know what books the poachers are looking for? Bibles, Paulo Coelho, Max Lucado, Carl Jung and so on. I wonder why people buy Sammy's books but end up donating them to the Goodwill?

  2. You know what Sam Harris is. He's the guy that draws up the plan for the battlefield but never steps onto the battlefield. It's easy to talk. It's also easy to find hid book in great numbers collecting dust at the Goodwill.

  3. Only the soul is real constant ..everything else is just transient..impermanent..always taking birth growing and dying.

  4. Why should we believe what a "non-self" tells us? If the self is an illusion, then we have no agency, and nothing we think or say has any value — including Harris' idiotic assertions.

  5. .. And yet – And yet -…
    We DO have a use for words like 'myself' & 'you' – don't we Sam ?
    Indeed those things are not entities of physics, yet nevertheless, in some sense they exist – don't you think ?
    So – if you have the thought still in the back of your mind "When I say this thing exists I really mean that it's a physical object", then you are led to think ".. so since the self is not an object of physics it doesn't REALLY exist"….
    But then you just brought back the confusion that you (rather well I thought) demolished in the first part of the piece.

    I see that for the purpose of freeing oneself from being enslaved to the ego one might wish to see the universe from the perspective that the existence of the self is not inherent in the universe, I feel it is odd to argue that the self doesn't exist – If the word exist is to mean anything, it must apply to the way things do in practice exist.

    We can of course ask whether things INHERENTLY exist – but that does still leave the question of what is going on when things exist in the sense we ordinarily mean it.
    Thanks for opening this up…

  6. Anyone interested by this might find something more in
    "Moral philosopher Mary Midgley argues that the Self is Not an Illusion"
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m–LB1on6Ho

  7. Try telling that to a single mum – who is addicted to crack cocaine, and has three hungry children. Self is an illusion – suffering is real.

  8. His comrade Richard Dawkins would not agree with him:as we know gene is selfish,but if it has no self how can it be selfish.

  9. Fact is, consciousness is the latest product of biological evolution and anything recent appears to be unreliable and illusionary just because it is new, unique and not well-tested.

  10. The guy is talking about a mind bugling subject here, and…loads of nuts making some silly and totally empty comments below.

  11. It's weird how he starts out by logically acknowledging the subjective experience of consciousness and then he proceeds to talk about "the illusion of self" just out of the blue with no reason or logic

  12. Using scientific jargon to describe the miracle of existence doesnt make it any less a miracle. You can tell me all day about why the sun shines, but at the end of the day, im just glad it does.

  13. The self is NOT an ILLUSION!
    If there is no self, there is no one that can have an illusion, so NO Illusion!
    For an illusion it needs someone who has this Illusion!

  14. Our senses are shaped by our interactions with our surroundings over millions of years. This requires feeling and a sense of agency, what William James calles 'the core self'. I would advise you, Sam, to read James. But this is only the beginning. Higher livel cognition like thinking etc. requires a life: an ability to plan it and talk about it. This is what the self is about. It is not a hole into which "reality" streams.

  15. The fact that your dog looks at you like, what do you want from me, and the fact that you know it is a dog and you are human is proof of self-consciousness. His little lecture is a bunch of nonsense. You think, therefore you are and you are not me, so face it, you are here.

  16. Okay, my experience with both prescribed and proscribed mind altering compounds. I have had the experience of a sense of fragmentation of the the self and my natural thought was that the self is an amalgamation of processes, but then I had to step back and think – somebody, some "me" is having the experience of fragmentation of the self.

  17. Well, I guess that when you are atheist and you cannot afford to speak about soul, hierophany and freedom of choice (outside the pitiful framework of definitions) – then all you can do is say you are limited and a prisoner of your own artificial language because it's system fails you. So at least be more humble and stop defining things as illussions. At least when you are iffy and you need to add "yet" in most of phrases. A bit lame when scientists suggests lables for things they cannot define, no? 🙂

  18. Sam Harris the angry atheist. He is more dogmatic in his thinking than any religious person I know. Always stay clear of the guy who is certain that he is right and always the smartest person in the room. Sam Harris is that arrogant guy.

  19. Poor Sam. He’d make so much more sense if he just took the one first principle that makes sense of all else. He won’t live quite long enough for the old paradigms to die enough where eve he’ll have to admit God.

  20. This is conceptual pablum. Words lacking substantive connection to coherent and internally consistent argument. I guess there is a reason philosophers of mind (not to mention the academic psychologists) virtually never cite Harris when writing about self, will consciousness, etc.

    But he does sell well with the untutored masses. Such is the nature of our nation in the current century.

    If trump does not kill the US, Harris and his ilk will be the slow, barely noticeable, ill-health that eventually kills the host.

  21. The Buddha NEVER did deny the presence of the Aathman, or the "Immortal Self" within us. He just refused to discuss the subject saying that discussing the subject would not help deal with the Dukkha, or misery of our lives. That is all. Sadly, the term "Anatta" (pronounced anaatha) crept in to Buddhism, to make it stand out on contrast to Hinduism which teaches us that we have an immortal soul called the Aathma, usually written as Atman. I hate that spelling, makes it sound like Batman!!! 🙂

  22. Absolutely right about consciousness being subjective. 
    Ego is just a defence against our fears that are triggered in the Amygdala. 
    There is nothing mysterious about anything, it's all logical, even 'extra'-ordinary experiences. Neuroscientists are in an objective/emperical bubble, they don't respect the subjective.

  23. I agree with all of the content but not the conclusion. For me the brain IS the self. The brain is the 'I' that remains constant, it is the (very personal) lens through which we see the world.

    An analogy: thoughts are like brushstrokes on a canvas. The painting is the self, not the painter. The painter is the illusion.

    Am I missing something?

  24. Why do i feel like this is just philosophical insight by people who are fixated by the brain's ability to dissociate from their thoughts and into the present, and vica verca because of their meditation practice and extensive drug history? The experience of being human is incomprehensible. I feel like Sam and others who make this claim never had a life threatening experience in their lives where they need to push themselves through adversity because the human spirit comes out during that time. It's not a tangible thing, it's a construct, but it's a part of the human experience that pops up from time to time that helps steer the ship. There is a degree of free will to people's lives based on that. I think we are in auto-pilot mode 95% of the time for reasons Sam stated because of the brain's processing, but the construct of the self that has connected the dots of our life experiences does pop in to make the big picture choices. Meditation now helps tame the unruly sides of the self and helps you dissociate from it entirely, but that doesn't make the subjective 'best' parts of the self meaningless which are consequences of calling it an illusion and striving to transcend it entirely for a perma-flow state (which is a dopey claim by a psychedelic drug enthusiast who now wants to naturally be high all the time). The overall message here is a black-and-white half-baked theory stolen from Buddhism and is potentially dangerous for vulnerable minds who are watching this type of content.

  25. LATINOS FOR TRUMP 2020!!!!

    vamos a hacer la ola roja estilo latino. Ustedes racistas comunistas de izquierda no nos van a decir por quien votar con su propaganda. Ustedes piensan que todos somos inmigrantes ilegales y que ustedes son dueños de nuestros votos.

  26. Sam Harris discovers a reductio ad absurdum against naturalism and he responds by biting the bullet! If naturalism is true, then we don't exist. But naturalism really is true, I'm sure of it. Therefore, we don't exist! Now that's a remarkable and unwavering commitment to dogmatic belief! Good on you, Sam. Er, I mean, nobody.

  27. But the experiential side is neuron-based. The "first-person" is a large group of neural networks. At base, we are material but also emergent from material. As a boat is emergent from its material components. They are arranged in a way that a boat emerges.

  28. If you're an atheist you pretty much will believe this. If you're a theist you can't or even if you think there's some kind of purpose behind you or if you're special you can't believe this either.

  29. Maybe Mr.Harris is just an illusion. But I'm not, and certainly not my neighbor Mr.Viks. He's always asking for erbs from my kitchen.

  30. I remember being pathologically being damaged by ocd once, now with cognitive therapy I reliaze what a shit show I once was

  31. Charvaka (Sanskrit: चार्वाक; IAST: Cārvāka), also known as Lokāyata, is an ancient school of Indian materialism.[1] Charvaka holds direct perception, empiricism, and conditional inference as proper sources of knowledge, embraces philosophical skepticism and rejects ritualism, and supernaturalism.

  32. Are your thoughts knowers of themselves?Are your feelings knowers of themselves?Are your emotions knowers of themselves? Answer: No, Why? answer: because knowing what is yours is something that a self knows, a sense of possession transcends thoughts, feelings and emotions therefore your ego or self is something different from these things that ride along the stream of consciousness.

  33. Its a matter of instrumentation and there will be a point where the smartest people on earth can no longer comprehend A.I and that stage of cognitive exhaustion will be very revealing even without merging with the A.I itself.

  34. I think that religion is the opposite of self transcendence. In a way it's a vehicle for the conservation of the self. Religion proposes where the "I" goes after the body dies.
    There is of course no "I" or self without the body.

  35. Why on planet earth is this illusion teaching people about illusion? How does this illusion know that it is illusory? So an illusion can identify itself? Illusbribabbakikishahaeeee…phew!

  36. This is classic Buddhism, complete hatred of the human race. The guy in the link refutes Sam Harris and his darwinist buddhism.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CzItUbF2m9s&list=LLzmTDm2vr0112QDpkzGwWtQ&index=16&t=116s

  37. 3:00 – 3:40 ish: He speaks as if from Olympus, like he was a god, himself. Harris can make such a claim, but that is all it is…a claim. @ 5:00 Jesus was NOT a "contemplative." He is shown praying in public way more than in private, because He came to save the lost rather than to contemplate-His-navel. Here's a list of His praying, with chapter/verse noted:

    jesusalive-dot-cc-forwardslash-ques204-dot-htm

  38. I understand why people think this "there is no self" thing sounds ridiculous, it sounded very illogical to me in the beginning, but after listening to this idea more it started to make sense to me. Actualized.org(a YouTube channel, not a website) made a great video about free will, Leo talked about the "there is no self" idea after talking about whether we really control our thoughts.

  39. Sam is wrong – I followed him for over a decade (teens-20s). His arguments are LOGICAL. What he hasn’t understood is that the true nature of existence is NON MATERIALISTIC

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