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Sam Harris on why consciousness does not feel like a self

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Further to: A Princeton prof attempts to explain consciousness. Hush, we may be hearing answers now,

Sam Harris, whom we last wrote about here, where he complained about being defamed, gave an interview with philosopher Gary Gutting at the New York Times on “Sam Harris’s Vanishing Self.”

Well, that should take care of the defamation problem.

How can a vanishing self complain of defamation?

Okay, here is what Harris told Gutting:

The feeling that we call “I”— the sense of being a subject inside the body — is what it feels like to be thinking without knowing that you are thinking. The moment that you truly break the spell of thought, you can notice what consciousness is like between thoughts — that is, prior to the arising of the next one. And consciousness does not feel like a self. It does not feel like “I.” In fact, the feeling of being a self is just another appearance in consciousness (how else could you feel it?).

There are glimmers of this insight in the Western philosophical tradition, as you point out. But the West has never had a truly rigorous approach to introspection. The only analog to a Tibetan or Indian yogi sitting for years in a cave contemplating the nature of consciousness has been a Christian monastic exerting a similar effort praying to Jesus. There is a wide literature on Christian mysticism, of course. But it is irretrievably dualistic and faith-based. Along with Jews and Muslims, Christians are committed to the belief that the self (soul) really exists as a separate entity and that the path forward is to worship a really existing God. Granted, Buddhism and Hinduism have very crowded pantheons, and a fair number of spooky and unsupportable doctrines, but the core insight into the illusoriness of the self can be found there in a way that it can’t in the Abrahamic tradition. And cutting through this illusion does not require faith in anything. More.

Many people would be surprised to learn that consciousness does not feel like a self.

If only that were true. If only one could wish one’s toothache to belong to some utter non-self vanishing into a mist somewhere. Now, that’d be the day.

To make some sense of any of this, see: Would we give up naturalism to solve the hard problem of consciousness?

See also: The Science Fictions series at your fingertips (the human mind)

Anyway, hey, thanks for responding to our survey, Sam. We were trying to do a survey of non-selves, but ran into problems (our instructors were real mad at us) until we encountered you and your crowd.

Re consciousness, we’re still trying to figure out how one can cast doubt on the existence of a fishing hook because the hook catches fish but never another hook. Never mind, we would also like to know how people can use terms like I, you, we, they, when they actually are not selves. Hey, we’ll probably get kicked out of school before we turn in our group term paper, so not to worry about getting back to us soon.

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6 Replies to “Sam Harris on why consciousness does not feel like a self

  1. 1
    Mapou says:

    We live in a crazy upside down world. How do people like Harris become professors?


    Re consciousness, we’re still trying to figure out how one can cast doubt on the existence of a fishing hook because the hook catches fish but never another hook.

    This is a beautiful metaphor. It takes two complementary opposites to have consciousness: a knower and a known. The knower is the hook and the known is the fish. Yin and Yang. If you understand one, you automatically understand the other.

  2. 2
    News says:

    But, mapou at 1, two hooks understand each other as different selves – rivals (if they understood anything at all)

  3. 3
    bornagain77 says:

    Ross Douthat’s article is ringing truer all the time,,,

    The Confidence of Jerry Coyne – January 6, 2014
    Excerpt: But then halfway through this peroration, we have as an aside the confession that yes, okay, it’s quite possible given materialist premises that “our sense of self is a neuronal illusion.” At which point the entire edifice suddenly looks terribly wobbly — because who, exactly, is doing all of this forging and shaping and purpose-creating if Jerry Coyne, as I understand him (and I assume he understands himself) quite possibly does not actually exist at all? The theme of his argument is the crucial importance of human agency under eliminative materialism, but if under materialist premises the actual agent is quite possibly a fiction, then who exactly is this I who “reads” and “learns” and “teaches,” and why in the universe’s name should my illusory self believe Coyne’s bold proclamation that his illusory self’s purposes are somehow “real” and worthy of devotion and pursuit? (Let alone that they’re morally significant: But more on that below.) Prometheus cannot be at once unbound and unreal; the human will cannot be simultaneously triumphant and imaginary.

    Also of interest is this interesting piece I read today:

    A Professor’s Journey out of Nihilism: Why I am not an Atheist – University of Wyoming – J. Budziszewski –
    Excerpt page12: “There were two great holes in the argument about the irrelevance of God. The first is that in order to attack free will, I supposed that I understood cause and effect; I supposed causation to be less mysterious than volition.
    If anything, it is the other way around. I can perceive a logical connection between premises and valid conclusions. I can perceive at least a rational connection between my willing to do something and my doing it. But between the apple and the earth, I can perceive no connection at all. Why does the apple fall? We don’t know. “But there is gravity,” you say. No, “gravity” is merely the name of the phenomenon, not its explanation. “But there are laws of gravity,” you say. No, the “laws” are not its explanation either; they are merely a more precise description of the thing to be explained, which remains as mysterious as before. For just this reason, philosophers of science are shy of the term “laws”; they prefer “lawlike regularities.” To call the equations of gravity “laws” and speak of the apple as “obeying” them is to speak as though, like the traffic laws, the “laws” of gravity are addressed to rational agents capable of conforming their wills to the command. This is cheating, because it makes mechanical causality (the more opaque of the two phenomena) seem like volition (the less). In my own way of thinking the cheating was even graver, because I attacked the less opaque in the name of the more.
    The other hole in my reasoning was cruder. If my imprisonment in a blind causality made my reasoning so unreliable that I couldn’t trust my beliefs, then by the same token I shouldn’t have trusted my beliefs about imprisonment in a blind causality. But in that case I had no business denying free will in the first place.”

    I strongly suggest reading the entire article. In it he relates how denying God leads to a cascading series of lies that become more and more preposterous as one goes along his route to Nihilism.

    supplemental quotes:

    The Heretic – Who is Thomas Nagel and why are so many of his fellow academics condemning him? – March 25, 2013
    Excerpt: Nobody thinks his daughter is just molecules in motion and nothing but; nobody thinks the Holocaust was evil, but only in a relative, provisional sense. A materialist who lived his life according to his professed convictions—understanding himself to have no moral agency at all, seeing his friends and enemies and family as genetically determined robots—wouldn’t just be a materialist: He’d be a psychopath.

    Sam Harris’s Free Will: The Medial Pre-Frontal Cortex Did It – Martin Cothran – November 9, 2012
    Excerpt: There is something ironic about the position of thinkers like Harris on issues like this: they claim that their position is the result of the irresistible necessity of logic (in fact, they pride themselves on their logic). Their belief is the consequent, in a ground/consequent relation between their evidence and their conclusion. But their very stated position is that any mental state — including their position on this issue — is the effect of a physical, not logical cause.
    By their own logic, it isn’t logic that demands their assent to the claim that free will is an illusion, but the prior chemical state of their brains. The only condition under which we could possibly find their argument convincing is if they are not true. The claim that free will is an illusion requires the possibility that minds have the freedom to assent to a logical argument, a freedom denied by the claim itself. It is an assent that must, in order to remain logical and not physiological, presume a perspective outside the physical order.

    Do the New Atheists Own the Market on Reason? – On the terms of the New Atheists, the very concept of rationality becomes nonsensical – By R. Scott Smith, May 03, 2012
    Excerpt: If atheistic evolution by NS were true, we’d be in a beginningless series of interpretations, without any knowledge. Yet, we do know many things. So, naturalism & atheistic evolution by NS are false — non-physical essences exist. But, what’s their best explanation? Being non-physical, it can’t be evolution by NS. Plus, we use our experiences, form concepts and beliefs, and even modify or reject them. Yet, if we’re just physical beings, how could we interact with and use these non-physical things? Perhaps we have non-physical souls too. In all, it seems likely the best explanation for these non-physical things is that there exists a Creator after all.;max=1

    Why No One (Can) Believe Atheism/Naturalism to be True (Plantinga) – video
    Excerpt: “Since we are creatures of natural selection, we cannot totally trust our senses. Evolution only passes on traits that help a species survive, and not concerned with preserving traits that tell a species what is actually true about life.”
    Richard Dawkins – quoted from “The God Delusion”

    Epistemology – Why Should The Human Mind Even Be Able To Comprehend Reality? – Stephen Meyer – video – (Notes in description)

    Of related interest,,,

    A Short History Of Quantum Mechanics and Consciousness

    Verse and Music

    Psalm 139
    7Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
    8If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
    9If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
    10even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.
    11If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
    and the light become night around me,”
    12even the darkness will not be dark to you;
    the night will shine like the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.
    13For you created my inmost being;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
    14I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well.
    15My frame was not hidden from you
    when I was made in the secret place,
    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
    16Your eyes saw my unformed body;
    all the days ordained for me were written in your book
    before one of them came to be.
    17How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
    18Were I to count them,
    they would outnumber the grains of sand—
    when I awake, I am still with you.

    Evanescence – My Heart Is Broken

  4. 4
    jstanley01 says:

    You just hate him because he’s beautiful.

  5. 5
    News says:

    jstanley01 at 4: Beautiful? Not compared to the crate of rescue kitties dropped off at News@UncommonDescent a while back.

  6. 6

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