Sam Harris is a neuroscientist and prominent “new atheist,” who along with others like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens helped put criticism of religion at the forefront of public debate in recent years. In two previous books, “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation,” Harris argued that theistic religion has no place in a world of science. In his latest book, “Waking Up,” his thought takes a new direction. While still rejecting theism, Harris nonetheless makes a case for the value of “spirituality,” which he bases on his experiences in meditation. I interviewed him recently about the book and some of the arguments he makes in it.
Gary Gutting: A common basis for atheism is naturalism — the view that only science can give a reliable account of what’s in the world. But in “Waking Up” you say that consciousness resists scientific description, which seems to imply that it’s a reality beyond the grasp of science. Have you moved away from an atheistic view?
Sam Harris: I don’t actually argue that consciousness is “a reality” beyond the grasp of science. I just think that it is conceptually irreducible — that is, I don’t think we can fully understand it in terms of unconscious information processing. Consciousness is “subjective”— not in the pejorative sense of being unscientific, biased or merely personal, but in the sense that it is intrinsically first-person, experiential and qualitative.
The only thing in this universe that suggests the reality of consciousness is consciousness itself. Many philosophers have made this argument in one way or another — Thomas Nagel, John Searle, David Chalmers. And while I don’t agree with everything they say about consciousness, I agree with them on this point.
The primary approach to understanding consciousness in neuroscience entails correlating changes in its contents with changes in the brain. But no matter how reliable these correlations become, they won’t allow us to drop the first-person side of the equation. The experiential character of consciousness is part of the very reality we are studying. Consequently, I think science needs to be extended to include a disciplined approach to introspection.
G.G.: But science aims at objective truth, which has to be verifiable: open to confirmation by other people. In what sense do you think first-person descriptions of subjective experience can be scientific?
S.H.: In a very strong sense. The only difference between claims about first-person experience and claims about the physical world is that the latter are easier for others to verify. That is an important distinction in practical terms — it’s easier to study rocks than to study moods — but it isn’t a difference that marks a boundary between science and non-science. Nothing, in principle, prevents a solitary genius on a desert island from doing groundbreaking science. Confirmation by others is not what puts the “truth” in a truth claim. And nothing prevents us from making objective claims about subjective experience.
Are you thinking about Margaret Thatcher right now? Well, now you are. Were you thinking about her exactly six minutes ago? Probably not. There are answers to questions of this kind, whether or not anyone is in a position to verify them.
And certain truths about the nature of our minds are well worth knowing. For instance, the anger you felt yesterday, or a year ago, isn’t here anymore, and if it arises in the next moment, based on your thinking about the past, it will quickly pass away when you are no longer thinking about it. This is a profoundly important truth about the mind — and it can be absolutely liberating to understand it deeply. If you do understand it deeply — that is, if you are able to pay clear attention to the arising and passing away of anger, rather than merely think about why you have every right to be angry — it becomes impossible to stay angry for more than a few moments at a time. Again, this is an objective claim about the character of subjective experience. And I invite our readers to test it in the laboratory of their own minds.
G. G.: Of course, we all have some access to what other people are thinking or feeling. But that access is through probable inference and so lacks the special authority of first-person descriptions. Suppose I told you that in fact I didn’t think of Margaret Thatcher when I read your comment, because I misread your text as referring to Becky Thatcher in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”? If that’s true, I have evidence for it that you can’t have. There are some features of consciousness that we will agree on. But when our first-person accounts differ, then there’s no way to resolve the disagreement by looking at one another’s evidence. That’s very different from the way things are in science.
S.H.: This difference doesn’t run very deep. People can be mistaken about the world and about the experiences of others — and they can even be mistaken about the character of their own experience. But these forms of confusion aren’t fundamentally different. Whatever we study, we are obliged to take subjective reports seriously, all the while knowing that they are sometimes false or incomplete.
For instance, consider an emotion like fear. We now have many physiological markers for fear that we consider quite reliable, from increased activity in the amygdala and spikes in blood cortisol to peripheral physiological changes like sweating palms. However, just imagine what would happen if people started showing up in the lab complaining of feeling intense fear without showing any of these signs — and they claimed to feel suddenly quite calm when their amygdalae lit up on fMRI, their cortisol spiked, and their skin conductance increased. We would no longer consider these objective measures of fear to be valid. So everything still depends on people telling us how they feel and our (usually) believing them.
However, it is true that people can be very poor judges of their inner experience. That is why I think disciplined training in a technique like “mindfulness,” apart from its personal benefits, can be scientifically important.
G.G.: You deny the existence of the self, understood as “an inner subject thinking our thoughts and experiencing our experiences.” You say, further, that the experience of meditation (as practiced, for example, in Buddhism) shows that there is no self. But you also admit that we all “feel like an internal self at almost every waking moment.” Why should a relatively rare — and deliberately cultivated — experience of no-self trump this almost constant feeling of a self?
S.H.: Because what does not survive scrutiny cannot be real. Perhaps you can see the same effect in this perceptual illusion:
It certainly looks like there is a white square in the center of this figure, but when we study the image, it becomes clear that there are only four partial circles. The square has been imposed by our visual system, whose edge detectors have been fooled. Can we know that the black shapes are more real than the white one? Yes, because the square doesn’t survive our efforts to locate it — its edges literally disappear. A little investigation and we see that its form has been merely implied.
What could we say to a skeptic who insisted that the white square is just as real as the three-quarter circles and that its disappearance is nothing more than, as you say, “a relatively rare — and deliberately cultivated — experience”? All we could do is urge him to look more closely.
The same is true about the conventional sense of self — the feeling of being a subject inside your head, a locus of consciousness behind your eyes, a thinker in addition to the flow of thoughts. This form of subjectivity does not survive scrutiny. If you really look for what you are calling “I,” this feeling will disappear. In fact, it is easier to experience consciousness without the feeling of self than it is to banish the white square in the above image.
G.G.: But it seems to depend on who’s looking. Buddhist schools of philosophy say there is no self, and Buddhist meditators claim that their experiences confirm this. But Hindu schools of philosophy say there is a self, a subject of experience, disagreeing only about its exact nature; and Hindu meditators claim that their experiences confirm this. Why prefer the Buddhist experiences to the Hindu experiences? Similarly, in Western philosophy we have the phenomenological method, an elaborate technique for rigorously describing consciousness. Some phenomenologists find a self and others don’t. With so much disagreement, it’s hard to see how your claim that there’s really no self can be scientifically established.
S.H.: Well, I would challenge your interpretation of the Indian literature. The difference between the claims of Hindu yogis and those of Buddhist meditators largely boil down to differences in terminology. Buddhists tend to emphasize what the mind isn’t — using words like selfless, unborn, unconditioned, empty, and so forth. Hindus tend to describe the experience of self-transcendence in positive terms — using terms such as bliss, wisdom, being, and even “capital-S” Self. However, in a tradition like Advaita Vedanta, they are definitely talking about cutting through the illusion of the self.
The basic claim, common to both traditions, is that we spend our lives lost in thought. 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.
G.G.: Suppose we agree that “spiritual experiences” can yield truths about reality and specifically accept the truth of Buddhist experiences of no-self. Many Christians claim to have direct experiences of the presence of God — not visions or apparitions but a strong sense of contact with a good and powerful being. Why accept the Buddhist experiences and reject the Christian experiences?
S.H.: There is a big difference between making claims about the mind and making claims about the cosmos. Every religion (including Buddhism) uses first-person experience to do both of these things, but the latter pretensions to knowledge are almost always unwarranted. There is nothing that you can experience in the darkness of your closed eyes that will help you understand the Big Bang or the connection between consciousness and the physical world. Look within, and you will find no evidence that you even have a brain, much less gain any insight into how it works.
However, one can discover specific truths about the nature of consciousness through a practice like meditation. Religious people are always entitled to claim that certain experiences are possible — feelings of bliss or selfless love, for instance. But Christians, Hindus and atheists have experienced the same states of consciousness. So what do these experiences prove? They certainly don’t support claims about the unique divinity of Christ or about the existence of the monkey god Hanuman. Nor do they demonstrate the divine origin of certain books. These reports only suggest that certain rare and wonderful experiences are possible. But this is all we need to take “spirituality” (the unavoidable term for this project of self-transcendence) seriously. To understand what is actually going on — in the mind and in the world — we need to talk about these experiences in the context of science.
G.G.: I’m not talking about highly specific experiences of Christ or of a monkey god. I mean simply a sense of a good and powerful spiritual reality—no more, no less. Why accept Buddhist experiences but not experiences like that?
S.H.: I wouldn’t place the boundary between religious traditions quite where you do — because Buddhists also make claims about invisible entities, spiritual energies, other planes of existence and so forth. However, claims of this kind are generally suspect because they are based on experiences that are open to rival interpretations. We know, for instance, that people can be led to feel an unseen presence simply by having specific regions of their brains stimulated in the lab. And those who suffer from epilepsy, especially in the temporal lobe, have all kinds of visionary experiences.
Again, the crucial distinction is between making claims about reality at large or about possible states of consciousness. The former is the province of religious belief and science (though science has standards of intellectual honesty, logical coherence and empirical rigor that constrain it, while religion has almost none). In “Waking Up,” I argue that spirituality need not rest on any faith-based assumptions about what exists outside of our own experience. And it arises from the same spirit of honest inquiry that motivates science itself.
Consciousness exists (whatever its relationship to the physical world happens to be), and it is the experiential basis of both the examined and the unexamined life. If you turn consciousness upon itself in this moment, you will discover that your mind tends to wander into thought. If you look closely at thoughts themselves, you will notice that they continually arise and pass away. If you look for the thinker of these thoughts, you will not find one. And the sense that you have — “What the hell is Harris talking about? I’m the thinker!”— is just another thought, arising in consciousness.
If you repeatedly turn consciousness upon itself in this way, you will discover that the feeling of being a self disappears. There is nothing Buddhist about such inquiry, and nothing need be believed on insufficient evidence to pursue it. One need only accept the following premise: If you want to know what your mind is really like, it makes sense to pay close attention to it.
Gary Gutting is a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, and an editor of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. He is the author of, most recently, “Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy since 1960,” and is a regular contributor to The Stone.