Sam Harris’s Vanishing Self

Sep 9, 2014

By Gary Gutting

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.

38 comments on “Sam Harris’s Vanishing Self

  • @OP 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.

    This seems doubtful to me. No amount of introspection is going to reveal the workings of our own subconscious minds to ourselves. The human brain cannot do extensive personal self analysis or self diagnosis.

    Neuroscience needs to find ways to map and track brain functions and biochemistry for study by objective outside observers.



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  • I’m sure Sam has answered the inevitable objections that he is trying to revive the stale
    “mind-body problem” or the metaphysical dualism implied by “objective and subjective [experience].”
    (I regret that I have not read the book.)

    The late Richard Rorty arguing for a holistic view of “reality” where analytic categories serve an invaluable communication function yet project a pragmatically false basis for “understanding” how we navigate our environment, came up with one of the best aphorisms for understanding the unintelligible dichotomy of mind-body dualism: “The mind is the brain under a different description.”

    The unique evolution of homo sapiens which enlarged the brain to the point where we acquired the use of language, also imbued us with many grammatical and semantic constructions which rooted delusions about “essence” in our psyche. The intractable delusion derived from language fabricated the “self, self-consciousness, and “I.” These concepts, like all concepts are linguistic constructs which have no “essential” existence independent of contingent attempts to describe objects or narrate events in relation to an organism’s situated perspective. Therefore when we say, “I felt pain when you put out that cigarette on my hand,” we are verbalizing through barks and noises the linguistic concepts that changes in our physiological sense organs have caused a neurological state which justifies our way of talking about those changes. We are deluded to think that a free-floating self actually feels the pain and observes it from some point of view separate from the organism.

    If you doubt this, consider the virtually identical act of putting out a cigarette on a cat’s paw. The cat will feel virtually the same physiological and neurological changes, but she will not entertain the concept of “I feel.” The “consciousness of pain” will have the “same subjective quality of “conscious experience” for the animal as it does for us but confined to a holistic organic process devoid of an observer who can describe the ‘experience” in language, an act which implies or infers exclusively for us the delusional existence of a “self.”

    Another way of getting at the fallacy of consciousness as described by our essentialist and metaphysical ways of talking about it, might consider the example of persons who suffer short-term memory loss. The presumed essential integrity and epistemological grounding in a human mind of consciousness evaporates in the brain/mind of a person so afflicted. Sam Harris can visit a person with short-term memory loss in a hospital or nursing home and explain with great conviction the existential conscious reality of his subjective meditations in clear simple language. As soon as he leaves the room, that person so afflicted will not be conscious of his existence, not because of defects in her “mind” but because of brain damage. When Sam Harris and the rest of us part this veil of tears into the Big Sleep, it will not be because of the annihilation of our minds but rather the annihilation of our brains.



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  • The intractable delusion derived from language fabricated the “self, self-consciousness, and “I.” These concepts, like all concepts are linguistic constructs which have no “essential” existence independent of contingent attempts to describe objects or narrate events in relation to an organism’s situated perspective

    I agree and well said btw. However, note that just saying they have no essential existence doesn’t necessarily imply that they are completely meaningless. I mean they may be pretty much irrelevant once we have a truly viable science of psychology. It’s a question that I honestly am not sure where the answer lies myself right now. And that is the main problem I have with what Harris seems to be saying (I just downloaded a sample of his book). In the things I’ve read of his before I think he makes very unfounded assumptions about what a theory of self and intentions has to be and as a result of these unjustified assumptions he thinks any theory of intentions is meaningless.

    For example, in his book on free will he says several times that unless we have complete access and control of ALL our desires and intentions than to talk about intentions at all is a delusion. I think that is a completely unfounded assumption. You can still have intentions play a causal role in a theory of psychology and acknowledge that the intentions have all sorts of hidden influences that aren’t completely intelligible to the individual in question. If you read some of the evo-psych books or books like Trivers The Folly of Fools that is a major theme that of course we don’t have total understanding or control of all our desires but that doesn’t necessarily imply that all talk about our desires and intentions is meaningless.



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  • If you doubt this, consider the virtually identical act of putting out a cigarette on a cat’s paw. The cat will feel virtually the same physiological and neurological changes, but she will not entertain the concept of “I feel.” The “consciousness of pain” will have the “same subjective quality of “conscious experience” for the animal as it does for us but confined to a holistic organic process devoid of an observer who can describe the ‘experience” in language, an act which implies or infers exclusively for us the delusional existence of a “self.”

    I don’t think you can rationally make such a strong statement about what a cat or dog feels. I mean you may be correct, it may be that any concept of “I” makes no sense even for animals that like us have nervous systems and social relations, I just think it’s unscientific to claim you can know the answer one way or another given how immature our scientific understanding of psychology is at this point.



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  • Red Dog, thank you for your kind and thoughtful words. With respect to your take on Sam’s picture you have a point. As a Sam Harris fan, I briefly noted his pleasant and engaging countenance before moving to the text.
    Now that you mention it, there is something of a “mug shot” quality to the overly-symmetrical front-on profile of the face. Newspapers (and other media) have helped condition us to anticipate creepiness by selecting photos with similar composition for “suspects” at large or in custody who have done nasty things to people.

    Intense penetrating eye-contact, though ambiguous, may also unnerve our primate [animal] nature by conveying a sense of threat.



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  • Am I missing something, or is this really a one-question interview?
    I haven’t read the book yet, so in reference to 1., it might be nice to have a bit better idea of what the book is about.



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  • Self analysis and self diagnosis are two entirely separate things. Introspection is by definition ‘self analysis‘. Analysis is not necessarily trying to find out what the problem is, ie, dissection, inquiry, investigation, reasoning, scrutiny, of one’s self and/or problems. Whereas ‘self diagnosis‘ is trying to find out what the problem is.

    “Neuroscience needs to find ways to map and track brain functions and biochemistry for study by objective outside observers”. Except for the ‘outside observers’ part this is exactly what neuroscience does. How would neuroscientists do this? Since they are the experts. It would require other experts in the field to do the ‘observing‘. Thus science has the peer review process.



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  • Julie Sep 10, 2014 at 2:54 pm

    Self analysis and self diagnosis are two entirely separate things. Introspection is by definition ‘self analysis‘.

    This is confusing the analysis of ideas, with the analysis of the working of the brain, which is what I was referring to.

    Analysis is not necessarily trying to find out what the problem is, ie, dissection, inquiry, investigation, reasoning, scrutiny, of one’s self and/or problems. Whereas ‘self diagnosis‘ is trying to find out what the problem is.

    Neither can be done in respect of one’s own subconscious.

    “Neuroscience needs to find ways to map and track brain functions and biochemistry for study by objective outside observers”.

    Except for the ‘outside observers’ part this is exactly what neuroscience does. How would neuroscientists do this?

    Neuroscience For Kids – http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/synapse.html

    The neuroscientists are the “outside observers” watching and monitoring the patient or subject.
    Patients cannot monitor their own brain functions using introspection! – Here is an example:-

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/04/130416180022.htm
    Scientists have determined the precise anatomical coordinates of a brain “hot spot,” measuring only about one-fifth of an inch across, that is preferentially activated when people view the ordinary numerals we learn early on in elementary school, like “6” or “38.”

    Since they are the experts. It would require other experts in the field to do the ‘observing‘. Thus science has the peer review process.

    The peer-review process is about reviewing published papers, and independently re-running experiments , not actively participating in the initial investigations monitoring brain functions, brain circuitry or biochemistry.



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  • I read as much of the book as I could get in a free Kindle sample this morning. Here is my summary of what I read: Harris talks about spirituality and makes the point (which I agree with) that there are valid definitions of the word that don’t require religion and that a rational person could find useful, essentially as a way to be happier. His definition of spirituality is realizing that the self is an illusion so that all the desires we associate with every day life are also an illusion and that we can be happier once we realize this and abandon the illusion.

    Here is my reaction: First he hasn’t convinced me that the self is an illusion from the standpoint of the science of psychology. I think it’s possible that such a science can be meaningful and not require such a concept. However, I also think it’s presumptuous to assume the opposite, that the concept of self identity is simply incoherent and can’t be a part of any science of psychology.

    I think it’s completely an open question at this point, we don’t have anything nearly mature enough to count as a science of human psychology to answer either way. But my intuition is different than Harris’s. My intuition is that psychology will find the concept of self identity useful. I view it as analogous to vision, which we understand much better than we understand general cognition at this point. It’s possible you could have a coherent theory of vision without concepts such as lines, edges, circles, squares, faces, etc. Just because those things are prevalent in the way we conceptualize vision doesn’t mean that their have to be equivalent constructs in a theory of vision. But as it turns out such concepts are extremely useful, e.g. we know that the human vision systems has well defined sub-systems for doing things like recognizing edges and faces.

    My intuition is that the same thing will happen once we have a coherent theory of cognition. We will certainly come to redefine whatever the self is in a way that will probably seem unintuitive or even heretical to many people. And just as we come to understand optical illusions and ways that our perception of vision doesn’t really correspond exactly to reality we will come to realize that many common sense notions of the self really make no sense. But I think it’s quite possible that we will still have some valid psychological constructs and definitions for what a self is and how it fits into a larger model of intentions and emotions.

    That’s my first reaction, I don’t think he offers convincing evidence that there is no self and if that’s not true it kind of undercuts his main idea, of course there is probably more further in the book but I’m pretty sure I know what he is going to say, it will be similar to his arguments against free will.



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  • I think it’s possible to evaluate what Harris is saying independent of whether he is right about the self. It could for example turn out that the most rational way to be happy is for people to downplay their concept of self even if such a concept makes sense from the standpoint of science.

    But I’m not convinced of that either. This is my personal perspective on happiness but that also doesn’t correspond with Harris’s view. I do think there is something more to life than just pleasure and comfort. But for me it definitely is intertwined with the self and I’m glad it is. For me what that something more is are things such as loving someone else and being willing to compromise your own happiness a bit for their sake. Or spending your time doing something that isn’t directly benefiting you, for example volunteering time to political activism on climate change. Also, another thing that I consider part of a “spiritual” life in the good sense is to always try to improve yourself, to keep on learning new things both for work and for yourself. All those things seem to me to be very self oriented, although I guess some of them would also be thought of as altruistic but I think they are the kind of altruism that from one view benefits the person being altruistic as well.



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  • Completely agree with this, Red.

    My own thinking runs along the lines that conscious experience is that selection of all experience that the self (that disparate collection of inferrential and heuristic processes that embody innate and acquired values) deems of most POTENTIAL salience at the time. (Most prove not to be salient and when lost from short term memory are lost forever.) The self is that which selects as potentialy salient and therefore defines the particular qualities of our conscious experience.

    (I have earlier proposed that the self could also be [or a part could be] the self model we use when modelling the future. We model others in comparatively simple ways with attributes that best predict how they may respond to novelty. This must be simple so as to work quickly in social situations. We must also have a simple self model with the latest known key attributes so we can simulate ourselves quickly and predict outcomes involving ourselves and others. The simplicity needed is mitigated by keeping the model as up to date as possible. How do I feel now? Hungry, tired, brave, good? Much experience of self as a current existing thing, I propose is due the fanatical maintenance of our self models. How now? And now?)

    You recall that other Buddhist, Sue Blackmore, proposed the self an illusion and worthy of active dismissal, also. Her case was similarly quite without reasonable evidence. The singular quality of the self is the illusory thing I contend not its possibly functional parts. This is no more remarkable than the singular experience of pink integrating two cone types or the singular appearance of a ball constructed of those various attributes (edges and he like). (Vision is indeed a powerful way of appreciating the ever accumulating stack of inferences made to get to that simple executive summary we need to make choices in short enough measure.)



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  • Sam Harris delivers a sermon on meditation in prose that will knock your socks off. He comes across like all brilliant rhetoricians in command of a conviction so provocative as to reveal a universal metaphysical truth, indispensable to the human condition; indispensable to human welfare.

    Nonetheless, intractable problems emerge:

    The first experience that Harris describes is triggered by ingesting the drug ecstasy. How is the reader to distinguish between testimony that the experience “REALLY” entailed “BOUNDLESS LOVE” from the interaction of the drug with the brain which produced sensations that seemed a good fit for the description Sam later chose.

    Clearly, practices for meditation derived notably from a considerable knowledge of Buddhism, Hinduism, mysticism literature, and a variety of practitioners whom Harris has met and studied under, is “HIS” hobby. Though nominally popular, only a tiny percent of the world’s people are proactively interested and involved in the activity. How do we commend the particular benefits Harris proclaims to the majority who are simply not interested?

    Harris implies that their is a strong connection between “right” meditation and altruism. Though people who happen to practice the discipline may already embrace ethical systems favoring altruism separate from the practice, there seems to be no necessary connection between the two. A mafioso into yoga and zen may have no qualms about having his enemy dismembered with a chain saw.

    Finally for those of us committed to a naturalist view of the universe, is there a credible alternative description to the “spiritual” and “transcendent” power of meditation to transform consciousness? Unfortunately, with some disclaimers, Harris tends to cleave too closely to traditional tropes which celebrates mystical experience. Reading between the lines, I speculate that Harris is speaking to those of us blessed with education and adequate resources and free from averse stimuli like hunger, physical pain, extreme temperatures and the like to find a pleasant, comfortable, solitary place away from noise and human contact where we can engage in something like a neurological workout. In my view the workout seeks “peace of mind” without distractions by trying to reduce linguistic awareness, our persistent habit to “think”in descriptive or narrative language. By shutting out more or less of the voices in the street and in our own minds, we may find some rare moments of soothing rest and renewal during the few decades that remain to us before we slip into eternal oblivion. Sam Harris, here, here.



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  • I’m not good with faces. I don’t “read” some aspects of them quite as readily as others. But I do notice the geometry and things like symmetry.

    Sam’s is a handsome face, but that of a character actor only, one able to be cast as duplicitous. His eye level (pupil to pupil) is rotated clockwise by 3 or or so degrees. His ear level, lobe to lobe is rotated also but only by a degree or so. Mouth rotation is not so readable in a single shot and is allowed a lot of license. (Ellen Barkin, who has a very notable clockwise rotation is mostly taken as having a wry smile.)

    Incidentally the two mirror faces (left mirrored and right mirrored) have interestingly different qualities. The left side mirrored would have a more distant quality, the right an engaging intensity (if my calculations are correct). Both would be judged more handsome again.

    A lead actor with level eyes is George Clooney.

    We make ludicrous judgement calls all the time over these things. I propose in unequal societies they are more acted upon, assymmetries being better predictors of “ill favour”.

    I played grotesques on the stage mostly…



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  • I speculate that Harris is speaking to those of us blessed with education and adequate resources and free from averse stimuli like hunger, physical pain, extreme temperatures

    That occurred to me as well although I’m quite a bit more critical of Harris than you are. The fact that the majority of the world is NOT in that situation, that for most people they are way too busy worrying about healthcare or a job or a place to live, etc. For those people the “need” to slow down and smell the roses is hardly the major impediment to happiness. The fact that Harris can so easily just ignore the vast majority of the world’s population I think is a true indicator of how vacuous his world view really is. It’s a philosophy for privileged yuppies.



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  • If we are unconscious do “we” exist. Isn’t our consciousness who we are, trapped in a physical body because it is required to be conscious? Why this black and white thinking that there is either a body or a mind instead of a body and mind? Black and white thinking is not logical to me. Like saying you are with us or against us. Bill



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  • I think that is the kind of analysis that is so typical of lots of academic American philosophy and is pretty much pointless. What you are doing is finding various contradictions in the way we use terms like “self” or “conscious” in every day English.

    I’ll make an analogy. If someone were to say to you “Trivers is clearly wrong in his analysis of reciprocal altruism because altruism means doing something nice, not doing something because you think you will be rewarded eventually” I assume you would like me say that was a ridiculous argument. We would say “look Trivers is a biologist for a biologist altruism means you sacrifice your reproductive success for the sake of another organism’s reproductive success. That’s just the definition period” And then you can go on to have interesting discussions. But if you want to quibble about what altruism “really means” then you are back in the domain of doing (bad) philosophy, the kind that goes around in circles because natural languages are imprecise.

    The difference is that we have a good understanding of what altruism means for a biologist. When it comes to things like consciousness or self we aren’t even at the point where Trivers was decades ago when he did his great work. We don’t yet even have good operational definitions for self that most scientists would agree on, let alone mature theories of what role (if any) self plays in cognition and intentions. So we can if we let ourselves be led astray waste a lot of time on arguments about whether “we” still exist, bodies, etc.



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  • 22
    aquilacane says:

    Having done my share of acid and shrooms I am a little disappointed to read some of the language in this article. The mind processes everything. All experience happens there. When you alter the input or the mechanism you alter the output; there is no spiritual, you are just changing the program.

    I never had a bad trip because I never had any preconceptions of a world that is anything other than exactly what you see. The wall is not breathing, the paint is not dripping off, my face is not infra-red. People would always over analyse their experience; looking for reasons for everything. It’s all just chemistry. Enjoy the view, that’s all you have.

    I sense an “is this all there is” crisis going on.



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  • aquilacane Sep 11, 2014 at 11:24 pm

    Having done my share of acid and shrooms I am a little disappointed to read some of the language in this article. The mind processes everything. All experience happens there. When you alter the input or the mechanism you alter the output; there is no spiritual, you are just changing the program.
    . . . . . . People would always over analyse their experience; looking for reasons for everything. It’s all just chemistry. Enjoy the view, that’s all you have.

    As I linked earlier:- It’s known chemistry when different chemicals in the drugs, replace the regular ones on the neuro-receptors.

    http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/synapse.html

    The dualists are like Techno-duffers looking for a “spiritual Atari computer” inside a Windows PC, when they are playing old games on an emulator programme!



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  • The singular quality of the self is the illusory thing I contend not its possibly functional parts.

    Yes, that’s what I think as well. I just finished Dennet’s book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and he touches on this a bit, he looks at various people who are what he calls “hyper reductionists” who want to as he put it in one section “throw the baby out with the bath water”. Skinner was the classic example. Skinner wanted to (very rightly) ban the kind of introspective theories about things like emotions and ideas that were clearly not testable and hence not scientific but he went too far and I think Harris does the same thing.

    This is just speculation but my guess is that part of what a scientific view of self will be is similar to the inference engine in an expert system. That’s the kind of technology which would be one of the best ways right now to pass a Turing Test… indeed early versions like the AI pseudo-therapist DID more or less pass a Turing test, students took what the inventors meant as a joke to be serious and started actually telling their problems to it. Dennet relates an amusing story about how when he had a version of the program running on his home computer a friend insisted that what was really going on was that the computer was connected to a human via a phone line(!) Which is really kind of interesting if you know the technology, it was a very simplistic pattern matching and heuristic program.

    Sorry, I rambled, what the inference engine does is it is the coordinator and ultimate decision maker, It decides what rules to fire next, how many times a rule can be triggered, when to ask the user for help, whether to chain backward or forward, etc. We have to have something like that in a human model of cognition, actually that is something I would like to ask Harris my guess is he is such a connectionist he might deny that, but anyway I think there probably will be something analogous in human cognition and I think there is even a brain center identified that does things like general coordination and planning.

    Another candidate for the self of course is “mind reading”. Not ESP but generating hypotheses like “I think most people are getting bored by my long winded comment” to do that I have to imagine what other people are thinking. We know that humans do that and there is also evidence that other primates do as well, it seems to have obvious survival benefits (e.g., will Nim attack me if I try to copulate with one of his mates?) It seems likely that such a mechanism would also be turned inwards and could be the beginning of our common sense notion of “self”.



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  • So when you are unconscious you still believe you exist? In what form, a memory? I have been in surgery and unconscious and even was clinically dead, but I didn’t exist as to who I think I am that experiences things, even though my physical body did every time. This was not an argument but my opinion. And black and white thinking is still not logical. Do you think you exist without a body? How is this opinion valueless? If we don’t exist when unconscious, it shows we don’t have a soul separate from the body. I think the science of neurology can show this is true. Either give evidence for your opinion or I still think I am correct. If we don’t experience anything we are either dead or unconscious, and if we are unconscious and actually die physically, I have never heard of anyone coming back to tell the story.



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  • That is pretty much the comment I was going to make. Almost word for word. I look forward to reading the book if for no other reason than to see how, and to what extent, Harris addresses this issue.



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  • So when you are unconscious you still believe you exist?

    It depends what you mean by “self”. This is again an example of how trying to have theoretical discussions about every day usage of English will be pointless if you don’t define your terms. You seem to think it’s some seriously perplexing problem whether or not the self exists when one is unconscious, where as to me it’s extremely uninteresting and easily resolved by just being a big rigorous and defining your terms. If by self you mean your real time experience of being conscious then by definition being unconscious means the self is gone.

    But if by “self” you mean the personal identity associated with an individual human brain then of course that persists after being unconscious. Now, what specifically that personal identity entails and how to define it scientifically is I agree a totally open question. I have ideas about where the ultimate answer will end up that I’ve mentioned in other comments here.

    In what form, a memory?

    Again this is speculation since we have no agreed on theory of cognition. But yes absolutely. Consider the inference engine of an expert system. It has continuity over time because it can look in it’s database and take advantage of information it’s added in the past. If there is such a thing as self it does the same thing.

    And black and white thinking is still not logical.

    I don’t know what you mean there. What is an example of “black and white thinking” and how is it illogical?

    Do you think you exist without a body?

    No. Because your mind is a function of your brain just as you can’t process vision without eyes.

    How is this opinion valueless? If we don’t exist when unconscious, it shows we don’t have a soul separate from the body.

    I don’t believe in the soul but I also don’t believe in the kind of argument you seem to be indulging in “if X is true then Y is true and we don’t want to believe Y so X must be false” That is the opposite of science, it’s what the PC police did to legitimate scientists like E. O. Wilson when they said “sociobiology implies racism (or sexism or whatever) so therefor it must be false” They were totally wrong IMO sociobiology in fact supports a lot of feminist and non-racist ideas but either way it’s irrelevant. You don’t judge ideas by what things they may or may not support, they need to stand on their merits and let the chips fall.

    I think the science of neurology can show this is true. Either give evidence for your opinion or I still think I am correct. If we don’t experience anything we are either dead or unconscious, and if we are unconscious and actually die physically, I have never heard of anyone coming back to tell the story.

    If you are just arguing that the soul doesn’t exist you are preaching to the choir, yes of course I agree.



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  • has anyone here read Mary Midgley? She’s a British philosopher who has some kind of beef with the New Atheism, but says interesting things about the self.

    there have been a couple of books from serious thinkers, such as Thomas Nagel in his Mind and Cosmos, and also Jerry Fodor’s What Darwin got wrong. Has anyone read those books, and if so, what do they think of them?



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  • I haven’t read the Fodor book. I read his book The Language of Thought a very long time ago and at the time I found it interesting but everything I’ve heard of him since puts him IMO in the camp of people who do philosophy that is mostly irrelevant.

    Dennett replies to some of Fodor’s arguments in his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. It’s a little unfair to judge someone only by a critique without reading what they actually said but in Fodor’s case I think Dennett did a pretty good job of taking him apart and my reaction to reading it was the same as when I read people deconstruct Stephen J. Gould, enough of the original came through and seemed so clearly wrong it didn’t seem worth going back to the original.

    This is from the Publisher’s Weekly summary of Fodor’s anti-Darwin book on Amazon: “Overall, the scientific evidence and philosophical analyses the authors proffer are murky and underwhelming. Worse, their highly technical treatment renders their argument virtually incomprehensible to lay readers. ”

    From what I know this reminds me very much of the kind of (IMO pointless) philosophy that people like John Searle were doing to show that “AI is impossible” in the 70’s or that people like Hillary Putnam used against the modern linguistic work done by followers of Chomsky. In both cases you get arguments based solely on deductive reasoning with no appeal to evidence at all. It’s all arguments like “well an adaptation means X” and “natural selection means Y” and then let’s show some subtle inconsistency in how the terms X and Y are used in language. Chomsky writes about these people in general, I don’t remember where the quote is but he says something like “philosophers love to pick apart and show why some aspect of science has paradoxes due to language use and most scientists just say “that’s interesting” and go right on ahead doing actual science.”

    The AI researchers doing what Searle said was impossible just kept right on doing their stuff and no one cares what Searle said anymore because results from AI (e.g. computers that can play chess at the grand master level, something Searle used to say was impossible) have shown him to be wrong. My guess is the Fodor book is in the same camp. They aren’t offering any true alternative model to Darwin nor are they actually critiquing anything from an empirical standpoint or even making any critiques that have testable hypotheses at all. Just analyzing the words people use in writing about Darwin and perhaps finding that some of the language is contradictory although more likely not really even understanding the actual technical definition of the terms and more criticizing the fact that the terminology isn’t completely consistent with our every day usage of terms like “adaptation”, i.e., totally irrelevant.



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  • I read through part of the Fodor anti-Darwin article and then I got to the Stephen J. Gould spandrel crap and realized I’ve heard it all before. Dennett does a very nice job of demolishing the spandrel BS, he quotes some actual art historians and shows that Gould doesn’t even really understand spandrels in the first place.



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  • I think we are both on the same page. “No. Because your mind is a function of your brain just as you can’t process vision without eyes.” This is what I’m getting at. A Black-and-White Fallacy is: Overlooks both gradations and additional alternatives between extreme positions.

    Example: All Politicians are either highly efficient or completely inept.” And the one I already gave: “you’re either against us or for us.” And: “You have a soul (or or conscious mind) separate from the body, or you have a soul (or conscious mind) and body, or you have a body and no souls (or conscious mind).

    I don’t include an unconscious mind in this because it just confuses the issue—we have a body and soul (or conscious mind). I think the idea of a soul is a religious concept to support the idea that we are alive after death. Does anyone think that after one of their pets dies it still exists? Why this idea that only humans pass and animals die?

    The self in my opinion requires both a body and conscious experience to be alive, and therefore the conscious self is an illusion. This is just my opinion, but I think the question can be or has been answered if the terms are agreed upon. Words are just abstract shapes or sounds that only have the meaning we give them, which complicates any quest for the truth. Good response from you, and thanks for no irrational name calling!



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  • Again, spot on, Red. Scientists in hard science get concerned if the mathematical or logical model doesn’t work. The words help create that feeling of understanding a subject (often all thats available to the less scientific) whilst the logic of the model and its maths demonstrate actual mastery of it. If the numbers don’t work you can go and look at the semantics, the description of the metrics, say, and find where finesse needs to be added.

    Words and their meanings in science might sometimes need to be contingently backward compliant. They drag behind new thinking. They will always be better related to last years hypothesis, else.

    It strikes me that the increasing stability of professional scientific vocabulary might be an excellent marker for “getting close”.

    (Just seen your response on the “self” earlier. Let me flag that this evening I’ll write further. You’ll probably never find it or know of it otherwise.)



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  • This is why scientist usually use mathematical language, it is mostly free of ambiguities. The definition of words have more than one definition, and this is a problem in both logic and philosophy, and I might add neurological opinions. It is really hard to know what facts are and opinion in finding the truth to the matter at hand because of this.



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  • Dennett’s DDI was a very important book for me, lodged closely behind to The Selfish Gene (and books by Richards Gregory and Feynman). I also read large parts of it again during the Sue Blackmore thread.

    I contacted Dennett at Tufts in 2004 mostly prompted by my support for his appearance in Miller’s A Rough History of Disbelief but cheekily urging a little more firmness in some area or other. In the few exchanges, and prompted by DDI, I expounded my theories on the necessary use of compact models for our theories of others minds based on the requirments of speedy simulation. The same would necessarily apply to ourselves to have all the elements needed for a prediction. Further, that simple models would need to be up to the minute to recoupe any efficacy and that our endless how do you dos are genuine and our curiously obsessive introspection are about model and self model maintenance. I still further proposed that this obsessive introspection for self model maintenance (Am I fit? Have I courage?) may be unique in its brief, continual looping of inward surveillance of life or death salience and thus may be even part of that special quality of conscious experience…the “hard problem” quality.

    He was kind enough to suggest the idea had merit and he thought a rapid looping introspection probably captured something akin to the truth of the matter.

    He may, though, just have needed a little relief from a pest. And he is a wonderfully polite sort of chap.



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  • This is a little off topic but I’ve talked several times about Mirror Neurons on threads relevant to Harris and it relates to general questions of if the “self” can have a connectionist explanation. I found an excellent paper that supports my hunch that mirror neurons are just speculation with little or no strong evidence: Eight Problems for the Mirror Neuron Theory of Action Understanding in Monkeys and Humans This paper was the starting point for the recent book by the same author: The Myth of Mirror Neurons.



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  • Skinner was the classic example. Skinner wanted to (very rightly) ban
    the kind of introspective theories about things like emotions and
    ideas that were clearly not testable and hence not scientific but he
    went too far and I think Harris does the same thing.

    I think you might be confusing Skinner with Watson here. John Watson was the methodological behaviorist, which means that he was part of the movement which suggested that inner states were not testable or scientific (with the technology and methodology of his day).

    Skinner was a radical behaviorist, which was the movement that argued you can’t have a science of psychology without studying the mind. Skinner laid down the framework for how and why it is possible to study inner states scientifically. That’s why his behaviorism was termed “radical”, as he brought the mind back into psychology.

    This is why most of Skinner’s books are filled with chapters upon chapters dedicated to how to scientifically study thoughts, emotions, feelings, etc, and it’s not really possible to read any of his work and come away with the impression that he wants to ignore the mental world.



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