Harris (2014). Chapter 2: The Mystery of Consciousness. (Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.)

Harris, S. (2014). Chapter 2: The Mystery of Consciousness. In Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (EPUB). New York: Simon & Schuster.

“As a matter of your _experience_, you are not a body of atoms, molecules, and cells; you are consciousness and its ever-changing contents, passing through various stages of wakefulness and sleep, from cradle to grave.” (¶3)

“Only consciousness can know itself — and directly, through first-person experience. It follows, therefore, that rigorous introspection — ‘spirituality’ in the widest sense of the term — is an indispensable part of understanding the nature of the mind.” (¶27)

“Consider the idea that human beings, alone among Nature’s animals, have been installed with immortal souls. This dogma came under pressure the moment Darwin published _On the Origin of Species_ in 1859, but it is now truly dead.” (¶28)

“Neuroscience has also produced results that are equally hostile to the traditional idea of souls — and, therefore, to any approach to spirituality that presupposes their existence.” (¶29)

“The right and left hemispheres of all vertebrate brains are connected by several nerve tracts called _commissures_, the function of which, we now know, is to pass information back and forth between them.” (¶31)

“… when the forebrain commissures are cut, the hemispheres display an altogether astonishing _functional independence_, including separate memories, learning processes, behavioral intentions, and — it seems all but certain — centers of conscious experience.” (¶34)

“What is most startling about the split-brain phenomenon is that we have every reason to believe that the isolated right hemisphere is independently conscious.” (¶38)

“Much of what makes us human is generally accomplished by the right side of the brain. Consequently, we have every reason to believe that the disconnected right hemisphere is independently conscious and that the divided brain harbors two distinct points of view. This fact poses an insurmountable problem for the notion that each of us has a single, indivisible self — much less an immortal soul. The idea of a soul arises from the feeling that our subjectivity has a unity, simplicity, and integrity that must somehow transcend the biochemical wheelworks of the body. But the split-brain phenomenon proves that our subjectivity can quite literally be sliced in two.” (¶46)

“The most astonishing quality of dreams is surely our _lack_ of astonishment when they arise. The sleeping brain seems to have no expectation of continuity from one moment to the next. … Left to its own devices, consciousness seems happy to just experience one thing after the next.” (¶51)

“There must be a reason why the structural integrity of the corpus callosum creates a functional unity of mind (insofar as it does), and perhaps it is only the division of the corpus callosum that makes for separated regions of consciousness in the human brain. But whatever the final lesson of the split brain is, it thoroughly violates our commonsense intuitions about the nature of our subjectivity.” (¶57)

“As long as we must correlate changes in the brain — or any other physical system — with first-person reports, any physical systems that are functionally mute may nevertheless prove to be conscious, and our attempt to understand the causes of consciousness will fail to take them into account.” (¶58)

“Your conscious memories of practicing a musical instrument, driving a car, or tying your shoelaces are neurologically distinct from your _learning_ how to do these things and from your _knowing_ how to do them now. People with amnesia can even learn new facts and have their ability to recognize names55 and generate concepts56 improve in response to prior exposure, without having any memory of acquiring such knowledge.” (¶64)

“Consciousness is also what gives our lives a moral dimension. Without consciousness, we would have no cause to wonder how we should behave toward other human beings, nor could we care how we were treated in return. Granted, many moral emotions and intuitions operate unconsciously, but it is because they influence the contents of consciousness that they matter to us.” (¶66)

Selected Notes

  • 55. L. R. Squire and R. McKee. 1992. “Influence of Prior Events on Cognitive Judgments in Amnesia.” J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn 18(1).
  • 56. M. M. Keane et al. 1997. “Intact and Impaired Conceptual Memory Processes in Amnesia.” Neuropsychology 11(1).
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