5

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fajfkO_X0l0

In this short "big think" video clip on consciousness and the idea of a self, Sam Harris spends the first few minutes saying stuff like

We can't reduce the experiential side to talk about information processing and neurotransmitters and states of our brain. (S1)

and

People like Francis Crick said famously that you are nothing but a pack of neurons, and that misses the fact that half of the reality we are talking about is the qualitative experiential side. [...] When you are trying to study human consciousness, for instance by looking at states of the brain, all you can do is correlate experiental changes with changes in brain state, but no matter how tight these correlations become, that never gives you license to throw out the first-person experiential side. (S2)

But, bizarrely, 3.5 minutes into the video, he does a complete u-turn and now starts saying that the idea of the self is a complete illusion. He goes on to say several things that completely contradict the first part of the video.

For example, at one point he says that

We know that everything you experience - your conscious emotions and thoughts and moods, the impules that initiate behavior - all of these things are delivered by a myriad of different processes in the brain.

But if this is known to be true, then his second statement (S2) is false. If all of it is delivered by processes, then by measuring these processes, one can obtain a perfectly predictive model and therefore Francis Crick's statement that all we are is a pack of neurons is seemingly correct, and the "tight correlations" that Sam Harris miscredits in (S2) are in fact exact causations! Therefore, we can throw away the first-person experiential side, because it is, according to Harris himself, completely explained by processes in the brain.

He then goes on and talks about self-transcendence, the idea that you can "lose" the center of self, break past the illusion, and actually become identical to the experiences that you have. This is also in contradiction to his earlier statement, in particular S1, where he states we can't reduce the experiential side to the physical bodily processes. But that is exactly what self-transcendence claims to do, and Sam Harris supports the existence of self-transcendence. But then we can reduce the idea of a self to the physical process of bodily experience.

So why does he keep contradicting himself? Why is this man arguing against himself?

  • You should probably ask him these questions.I suggest to rephrase and ask if there is some logical explanation behind, or maybe he doesn't contradict, but complements himself...? – lukuss Apr 13 '18 at 11:47
  • I think his video was hurt by a pretty poor choice of analogy. Roughly I'd summarise his stance as "consciousness is mediated purely through physical process, but it seems like we might need to be dualist to explain why we aren't zombies". – Veedrac Apr 13 '18 at 11:54
  • Because he's an inconsistent, silly person who's bad at philosophy – Not_Here Apr 13 '18 at 13:55
  • he's commenting on somethings which he doesn't know how to explain. in Eastern philosophy 'thinking' or the 'mind' or what most people think of as 'consciousness' are are part of the physical world. But there is something which 'perceives' through what we call consciousness. The 'perceiver' is universal to us all. It is the underlying 'Reality' to existence. – Swami Vishwananda Apr 14 '18 at 4:55
  • I agree with Not_Here. Check out this talk on morality, which Harris turns into a racist rant against Muslims. -- ted.com/talks/sam_harris_science_can_show_what_s_right/up-next – David Blomstrom Apr 15 '18 at 8:04
4

I'm not exactly fond of Harris but what he says here isn't necessarily completely contradictory. Instead I believe he just speaks very unclear. (This doesn't mean that he might not contradict something he says elsewhere etc.)

I believe we can interpret him to take a metaphysical stance similar to that of Kim. Up until the hard problem of consciousness he thinks of anything mental as completely supervenient on something physical.

We can't reduce the experiential side to talk about information processing and neurotransmitters and states of our brain. (S1)

What he brings up is that the results of experiments could be completely different, so we need confirmation from subjective viewpoints. This just seems to be a methodological issue. But before that he said that he agrees with f.e. Chalmers on the subjective - but just on this one point. So it seems as though he also thinks there's a "hard problem" but doesn't want to take any stance on top of that.

If all of it is delivered by processes, then by measuring these processes, one can obtain a perfectly predictive model and therefore Francis Crick's statement that all we are is a pack of neurons is seemingly correct, and the "tight correlations" that Sam Harris miscredits in (S2) are in fact exact causations! Therefore, we can throw away the first-person experiential side, because it is, according to Harris himself, completely explained by processes in the brain.

Not quite. There are two ideas against this coming from what he said before that.
Idea 1: if certain mental states can be physically realized in multiple ways then we have methodological issues which hinder reduction. This would be Harris thinking that we need subjective reports for confirmation.
Idea 2: if we can't explain how we get from something physical to phenomenal mental qualities then we can't quite reduce everything. This corresponds to Harris agreeing with f.e. Chalmers.

The babble about the self being an illusion would then be the idea that except for the hard problem of consciousness everything mental supervenes on physical processes. This in turn would mean that we're not in control of our actions, hence "the self" - as us being in control of ourselves and all our mental processes being uniform - is an illusion. Harris uses the term without explanation, so this is just a charitable guess. Note that this gets close to the issue of free will and just jumps to conclusions. F.e. why does Harris think that "self transcendence" is the best course of action to deal with this? He doesn't explain. Jumping conclusions isn't being contradictory though.

So in short we can charitably interpret this so there are no contradictions. But we could fault him for being unclear, acting like his position has no alternatives, or other things.

3

Sam Harris is being completely consistent here. You are running together two separate claims:

Claim 1: Consciousness cannot be reduced to physical brain-states/processes because we have to take into account the phenomenal, qualitative, experiential side.

Claim 2: There is a self.

These two claims are logically independent of one another. That is, prima facie, one can completely coherently deny one and affirm the other, affirm both, or deny both. To my understanding, in what you label (S1) and (S2), Harris endorses Claim 1. In the later part of the video that you identify, he switches topics and denies Claim 2. Harris says that the self is an illusion, but notice that he is thinking of the self in phenomenal terms; to say there is no self is to say that there is no "substance" that acts as the "locus" of conscious experience; that all conscious experiences are bundled together without the "glue" of a central self. But notice that does not deny conscious experience -- it affirms it! Moreover, one could be a strict physicalist, arguing that all conscious experience can be reduced out of the theory in favor of physical primitives. Yet, such a theorist could still hold that there is a self!

Sartre is a good example, say, of someone who is absolutely not a physicalist about consciousness and yet argues that there is no Ego, no self, underlying and gluing together all of one's experiences.

In short: In your assessment of Harris' argument, you seem to identify consciousness with the self. But these are two separate things. One's view on the status of physicalism about consciousness and one's view on the ontological status of the self are two completely different matters.

-1

Harris is contradicting himself. That is perhaps because he is an admirer of Buddhism and while Buddhism, in some sense, allows materialism to hold within its philosophy, the spiritual aspect of it often leads to contradictions like Harris espouses.

He wants to hold to materialism and non-religious, non-theistic spirituality and does not know how to do it.

-1

Harris is not contradicting himself, exactly, but I don't think he has a proper grasp on the issue quite yet. He's still working his way through it, torturously...

The issue he's working through is the relationship between the subjectivity and the objectivity. On one hand, he acknowledges that we all have subjective experience (thoughts, feelings, perceptions, sensations, etc) that do not neatly reduce things we can objectively measure (neurons, electrical potentials, neurotransmitters, etc). He doesn't deny that the perception is (somehow) rooted in electrochemical processes; he is merely noting that we can look at pet scans (or whatever) all day long and still not objectively 'see' the inner dialog we all subjectively experience. Sit and do something as deceptively simple as mentally debate whether we want tuna salad or a burger for lunch; our brains are doing something holistic and incredibly complex.

The mere fact that we are subjectively aware is inaccessible to reductionistic science (at least for the time being). We don't have anything like a coherent theory for why that might be, even though we all live steeped within subjectivity every moment of every day.

He goes on to talk about how this subjective awareness is the core of all religious teachings, which is true, even though what he presents is a kind of mash of buddhist philosophy. Like most of the New Atheists he has a knee-jerk antipathy to organized Abrahamic religion and the concept of an eternal soul, so he finds himself trying to rationalize subjective experience in terms of anatta (no-self) — a concept he's still grappling with — so it all comes out a bit confused. But such is life...

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