Harris (2014). Chapter 3: The Riddle of the Self. (Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.)

Harris, S. (2014). Chapter 3: The Riddle of the Self. In Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (EPUB). New York: Simon & Schuster.

“My goal in this chapter and the next is to convince you that the conventional sense of self is an illusion — and that spirituality largely consists in realizing this, moment to moment.” (¶5)

“Most of us feel that our experience of the world refers back to a self — not to our bodies precisely but to a center of consciousness that exists somehow interior to the body, behind the eyes, inside the head. The feeling that we call ‘I’ seems to define our point of view in every moment, and it also provides an anchor for popular beliefs about souls and freedom of will. And yet this feeling, however imperturbable it may appear at present, can be altered, interrupted, or entirely abolished.” (¶8)

“… _psychological_ continuity — the mere maintenance of one’s memories, beliefs, habits, and other mental traits — is an insufficient basis for personal identity.” (¶13)

“One might conclude that personal identity requires _physical_ continuity: I am identical to my brain and body, and if they get destroyed, that’s the end of me. But Parfit shows that physical continuity matters only because it normally supports psychological continuity. Merely hanging on to one’s brain and body cannot be an end in itself.” (¶14)

“… in what way are you subjectively the same as the person who first picked up this book? In the only way you _can_ be: by displaying some degree of psychological continuity with that past self. … There is no stable self that is carried along from one moment to the next.” (¶15)

“Everything that is personal, everything that differentiates my consciousness from that of another human being, relates to the _contents_ of consciousness. Memories, perceptions, attitudes, desires — these are appearances in consciousness.” (¶17)

“Subjectively speaking, the only thing that actually exists is consciousness and its contents. And the only thing relevant to the question of personal identity is psychological continuity from one moment to the next.” (¶21)

[“What Are We Calling ‘I’?” …]

“I can, for instance, reach for my cup of coffee or set it down, seemingly as I please. These are intentional actions, and _I_ perform them. But if I look for what underlies these movements — motor neurons, muscle fibers, neurotransmitters — I can’t feel or see a thing. And _how_ do I initiate this behavior? I haven’t a clue. In what sense, then, do I initiate it?” (¶23)

“… what sort of thing am I that _both_ my outside and my inside are so obscure? And outside and inside of _what_? My _skin_? Am I identical to my skin? If not — and the answer is clearly no — why should the frontier between my outside and my inside be drawn at the skin? If not at the skin, then where does the outside of me stop and the inside of me begin? At my skull? Am I my skull? Am I _inside_ my skull?” (¶24)

“… it is extremely difficult to pinpoint just what it is we take ourselves to be. Many philosophers have noticed this problem, but few in the West have understood that the failure to locate the self can produce more than mere confusion.4 I suspect that this difference between Eastern and Western philosophy has something to do with the influence of Abrahamic religion and its doctrine of the soul. Christianity, in particular, presents impressive obstacles to thinking intelligently about the nature of the human mind, asserting, as it does, the real existence of individual souls” (¶26)

“While you are in many ways physically and psychologically continuous with the person you were at age seven, you are not the same. Your life has surely been punctuated by transitions that significantly changed you: marriage, divorce, college, military service, parenthood, bereavement, serious illness, fame, exposure to other cultures, imprisonment, professional success, loss of a job, religious conversion. Each of us knows what it is like to develop new capacities, understandings, opinions, and tastes over the course of time.” (¶27)

“The self that does not survive scrutiny is the _subject_ of experience in each present moment — the feeling of being a thinker of thoughts _inside_ one’s head, the sense of being an owner or inhabitant of a physical body, which this false self seems to appropriate as a kind of vehicle. Even if you don’t believe such a homunculus exists — perhaps because you believe, on the basis of science, that you are identical to your body and brain rather than a ghostly resident therein — you almost certainly _feel_ like an internal self in almost every waking moment. And yet, however one looks for it, this self is nowhere to be found.” (¶28)

[“Consciousness Without Self” …]

[“Lost In Thought” …]

“Whatever the needs of the moment, I had a choice: I could do what was required calmly, patiently, and attentively, or do it in a state of panic. Every moment of the day — indeed, every moment throughout one’s life — offers an opportunity to be relaxed and responsive or to suffer unnecessarily.” (¶36)

“… the effects of consciously practicing gratitude have been studied: When compared to merely thinking about significant life events, contemplating daily hassles, or comparing oneself favorably to others, thinking about what one is grateful for increases one’s feelings of well-being, motivation, and positive outlook toward the future.5” (¶40)

“Notice that suddenly paying attention to something else — something that no longer supports your current emotion — allows for a new state of mind. Observe how quickly the clouds can part. These are genuine glimpses of freedom.” (¶50)

“… our failure to recognize thoughts _as thoughts_, as appearances in consciousness — is a primary source of human suffering. It also gives rise to the illusion that a separate self is living inside one’s head.” (¶52)

“From the contemplative point of view, being lost in thoughts of any kind, pleasant or unpleasant, is analogous to being asleep and dreaming. It’s a mode of not knowing what is actually happening in the present moment. It is essentially a form of psychosis. … Taking oneself to be the thinker of one’s thoughts — that is, not recognizing the present thought to be a transitory appearance in consciousness — is a delusion that produces nearly every species of human conflict and unhappiness. … if you are thinking without knowing you are thinking, you are confused about who and what you are.” (¶57)

“The eighth-century Buddhist adept Vimalamitra described three stages of mastery in meditation and how thinking appears in each. The first is like meeting a person you already know; you simply recognize each thought as it arises in consciousness, without confusion. The second is like a snake tied in a knot; each thought, whatever its content, simply unravels on its own. In the third, thoughts become like thieves entering an empty house; even the possibility of being distracted has disappeared.7” (¶59)

“… one can discover that the sense of self — the sense that there is a thinker behind one’s thoughts, an experiencer amid the flow of experience — is an illusion. The feeling that we call ‘I’ is itself the product of thought. Having an _ego_ is what it feels like to be thinking without knowing that you are thinking.” (¶60)

“It is the identification with these thoughts — that is, the failure to recognize them as they spontaneously appear in consciousness — that produces the feeling of ‘I.’ One must be able to pay attention closely enough to glimpse what consciousness is like _between_ thoughts — that is, prior to the arising of the next one. _Consciousness does not feel like a self_.” (¶62)

“What you are calling ‘I’ is itself a feeling that arises among the contents of consciousness. Consciousness is prior to it, a mere witness of it, and, therefore, free of it in principle.” (¶65)

[“The Challenge Of Studying The Self” …]

“… ‘out-of-body experience’ (OBE) … During an OBE, the subject feels that she has physically left her body — and this often includes a sense that she can see her own body in full, as though from a point outside her head. A brain area called the _temporal-parietal junction_ — a region known to be involved in sensory integration and body representation — seems to be responsible for this effect.” (¶69)

“It has long been known that vision trumps _proprioception_ (the awareness of the position of one’s body) when it comes to locating parts of one’s body in space” (¶75)

[“Self-Recognition” …]

[“Theory of Mind” [TOM] …]

“We recognize that other people are (or can be) _aware of us_. Explaining the burglar’s behavior requires a higher level of cognition than is necessary to merely grasp that one is in the presence of a sentient _other_. And the feeling that another person can see or hear me is quite distinct from my having any understanding of his beliefs or desires.” (¶84)

“… we are thrust out of the safety and seclusion of pure subjectivity by the knowledge that we have become objects in the world for others.” (¶85)

“The neurologist V. S. Ramachandran seems to have been thinking along these lines when he wrote, ‘It may not be coincidental that [you] use phrases like ‘self conscious’ when you really mean that you are conscious of others being conscious of you.’19” (¶86)

“The experience of sitting in a darkened theater and seeing people interact with one another on the screen is a social encounter of sorts — but it is one in which we, as participants, have been perfectly effaced. This very likely explains why most of us find movies and television so compelling. The moment we turn our eyes to the screen, we are in a social situation that our hominid genes could not have foreseen: We can view the actions of others, along with the minutiae of their facial expressions — even to the point of making eye contact with them — without the slightest risk of being observed ourselves. Movies and television magically transform the primordial context of face-to-face encounters, in which human beings have always been subjected to harrowing social lessons, allowing us, for the first time, to devote ourselves wholly to the act of observing other people. This is voyeurism of a transcendental kind. Whatever else might be said about the experience of watching a film, it fully dissociates fundamental TOM from standard TOM, for there is no doubt that we attribute mental states to the actors on the screen. … it is difficult to find a situation in which we feel _less_ self-conscious than when sitting in a darkened theater watching a film, and yet, we are contemplating the beliefs, intentions, and desires of other people the entire time.” (¶87)

“Some people believe that mirror neurons are also central to our ability to empathize with others and may even account for the emergence of gestural communication and spoken language. What we do know is that certain neurons increase their firing rate when we perform object-oriented actions with our hands (grasping, manipulating) and communicative or ingestive actions with our mouths. These neurons also fire, albeit less rapidly, whenever we witness the same actions performed by other people.” (¶88)

“Some scientists believe that mirror neurons provide a physiological basis for the development of imitation and social bonding early in life” (¶89)

[“Penetrating The Illusion” …]

“As a matter of neurology, the sense of having a persistent and unified self must be an illusion, because it is built upon processes that, by their very nature as processes, are transitory and multifarious. There is no region of the brain that can be the seat of a soul. Everything that makes us human — our emotional lives, capacity for language, the impulses that give rise to complex behavior, and our ability to restrain other impulses that we consider uncivilized — is spread across the entirety of the cortex and many subcortical brain regions as well. The whole brain is involved in making us what we are.” (¶94)

“The sense that we are unified subjects is a fiction, produced by a multitude of separate processes and structures of which we are not aware and over which we exert no conscious control.” (¶95)

“Whatever causes the brain to produce the false notion that there is a thinker living somewhere inside the head, it makes sense that it could stop doing this. And once it does, our inner lives become more faithful to the facts.” (¶96)

Selected Notes

  • 3. D. Parfit. 1984. Reasons and Persons. Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 279–80.
  • 4. … D. Hume. Treatise of Human Nature, Book 1, Section 6.
  • 5. R. A. Emmons and M. E. McCullough. 2003. “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84 (2): 377–89.
  • 7. Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. 2004. Rainbow Painting. Hong Kong: Rangjung Yeshe Publications, p. 53.
  • 19. Ramachandran, “The Neurology of Self-Awareness.”
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