I must admit to not being very familiar with Sam Harris’ work: to me he’s been primarily a member of the Four Horsemen of New Atheism: Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and that other one… However in the video here he expresses a couple of interesting views, one about the irreducible subjectivity of consciousness, the other about the illusory nature of the self. His most recent book – first chapter here – apparently seeks to reinterpret spirituality for atheists; he seems basically to be a rationalist Buddhist (there is of course no contradiction involved in becoming a Buddhist while remaining an atheist).
It’s a slight surprise to find an atheist champion who does not want to do away with subjectivity. Harris accepts that there is an interior subjective experience which cannot simply be reduced to its objective, material correlates: he likens the two aspects to two faces of a coin. If you like, you can restrict yourself to talking about one face of the coin, but you can’t go on to say that the other doesn’t really exist, or that features of the heads side are really just features of the tails side seen from another angle. So far as it goes, this is all very sensible, and I think the majority of people would go along with it quite a way. What’s a little odd is that Harris seems content to rest there: it’s just a feature of the world that it has these two aspects, end of story. Most of us still want some explanation; if not a reduction then at least some metaphysics which allows us to go on calling ourselves monists in a respectable manner.
Harris’ second point is also one that many others would agree with, but not me. The self, he says, is an illusion: there is no consistent core which amounts to a self. In these arguments I feel the sceptics are often guilty of knocking down straw men: they set up a ridiculous version of the self and demolish that without considering more reasonable ideas. So, they deny that that there is any specific part of the brain that can be identified with the self, they deny the existence of a Cartesian Theatre, or they deny any unchanging core. But whoever said the self had to be unchanging or simple?
Actually, we can give a pretty good account of the self without ever going beyond common sense. Human beings are animals, which means I’m a big live lump of meat which has a recognisable identity at the simple physical and biological level: to deny that takes a more radical kind of metaphysical scepticism than most would be willing to go in for. The behaviour of that ape-like lump of meat is also governed by a reasonably consistent set of memories and beliefs. That’s all we need for a self, no mystery here, folks, move along please.
Now of course my memories and my beliefs change, as does the size and shape of the beast they inhabit. At 56 I’m not the same as I was at 6. But so what? Rivers, as Heraclitus reminds us, never contain exactly the same water at two different moments: they rise and fall, they meander and change course. We don’t have big difficulties over believing in rivers, though, or even in the Nile or the Amazon in particular. There may be doubts about what to treat as the true origin of the Nile, but people don’t go round saying it’s an illusion (unless they’ve gone in for some of that more radical metaphysics). On this, I think Dennett’s conception of the self as a centre of narrative gravity is closer to the truth than most, though he has, unfairly, I think, been criticised for equivocating over its reality.
Frequently what people really want to deny is not the self so much as the soul. Often they also want to deny that there is a special inward dimension: but as we’ve seen, Harris affirms that. He seems instead almost to be denying the qualic sense of self I suggested a while back. Curiously, he thinks that we can in fact, overcome the illusion of selfhood: in certain exalted states he thinks we can transcend ourselves and see the world as it really is.
This is strange, because you would expect the illusion of self to stem from something fundamental about conscious experience (some terrible bottleneck, some inherent limitation), not from small, adjustable details of chemistry. Can selfhood really be a mental disease caused by an ayahuasca deficiency? Harris asserts that in these exalted states we’re seeing the world as it truly is, but wouldn’t that be the best state for us to stay in? You’d think we would have evolved that way if seeing reality just needed some small tweaks to the brain.
It does look to me as if Harris’ thinking has been conditioned a little too much by Buddhism. He speaks with great respect of the rational basis of Buddhism, pointing out that it requires you to believe its tenets merely because they can be shown to be true, whereas Christianity seems to require as an arbitrarily specified condition of salvation your belief in things that are acknowledged to be incredible. I have a lot of sympathy for that point of view; but the snag is that if you rely on reasoning your reasoning has to be watertight: and, at the risk of giving offence, Buddhism’s isn’t.
Buddhism tells us that the world is in constant change; that change inevitably involves pain, and that to avoid the pain we should avoid the world. As it happens, it adds, the mutable world and the selves we think inhabit it are mere illusions, so if we can dispel those illusions we’re good.
But that’s a bit of a one-sided outlook, surely? Change can also involve pleasure, and in most of our lives there’s probably a neutral to positive balance; so surely it makes more sense to engage and try to improve that balance than opt out? Moreover, should we seek to avoid pain? Perhaps we ought to endure it, or even seek it out? Of course, people do avoid pain, but why should we give priority to the human aversion to pain and ignore the equally strong human aversion to non-existence? And what does it mean to call the whole world an illusion: isn’t an illusion precisely something that isn’t really part of the world? Everything we see is smoke and mirrors, very well, but aren’t smoke and mirrors (and indeed, tears, as Virgil reminds us) things?
A sceptical friend once suggested to me that all the major religions were made up by frustrated old men, often monks: the one thing they all agree on is that being a contemplative like them is just so much more worthwhile than you’d think at first sight, and that the cheerful ordinary life they missed out on is really completely worthless if not sinful. That’s not altogether accurate – Taoism, for example, praises ordinary life (albeit with a bit of a smirk on its lips); but it does seem to me that Buddhism is keener to be done with the world than reason alone can justify.
It must be said that Harris’ point of view is refreshingly sophisticated and nuanced in comparison to the Dawkinsian weltanschauung; he seems to have the rare but valuable ability to apply his critical faculties to his own beliefs as well as other people’s. I really should read some of his books.