Sam Harris Almost Understands The Self

It’s easy to get angry when listening to Sam Harris, a stubborn young philosopher who recently made headlines for joining Bill Maher to condemn the entire religion of Islam on TV (Ben Affleck took the smarter side in this debate). Sam Harris is a pop-culture philosopher with a message of urgent, fervent atheism — though he has so little respect for religion that he doesn’t even prefer to define himself by this negative belief (there is no word, he points out, for people who don’t believe in Greek myths or in astrology, so we shouldn’t need a word for those who don’t believe in Christianity, Islam or Hinduism either).

I find Sam Harris writings and statements about religion dull and unperceptive. Part of the problem is that he’s an overconfident philosopher, heavily armed with a degree in neuroscience from the University of California at Los Angeles. He’s so sure of his atheism (he does not want to call it atheism, but I still may do so) that he fails to realize his rote paragraphs have failed to win us over.

Over and over, he lays out a scientific or semantic principle and concludes that he has proven some point. He believes that abstract concepts can be clearly defined and that arguments can be won by declaring logical truths, which is to say that he lives in a world before Nietzsche, before Wittgenstein, before Derrida. This gives him a confidence in his conclusions that is awkward for a more existential philosopher to behold.

However, Sam Harris should not be written off as a hack. He is an energetic philosopher who has managed to establish himself as a voice for other fervent atheists, many of whom congregate at his admirably useful website Project Reason. He has a long career ahead of him, and he has even shown significant signs of improvement — when he stays off the topic of Islam and away from television talk shows.

It’s in his strident books (and television appearances) about religion that Sam Harris is at his worst. Elsewhere, he can be surprisingly good. He’s most captivating when using his books to explore territory that is new to him. When he steps outside his intellectual comfort zone, uncertainty and curiosity soften Sam Harris’s obnoxious voice, and he becomes at times an original and sensitive thinker.

Harris’s new book is called Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, and Harris means something specific by this. He describes a few situations where he or others have felt a sensation of transcendence of the individual self, a feeling that they define as “spirituality”. Sam Harris explores the idea that this type of “spirituality” may be scientifically significant. The reason we feel this transcendence, Sam Harris suggests, may be that the individual human self is not actually a scientific thing. The transcendence may actually be real.

The idea that religion’s hidden value lies in its emphasis of the scientifically valid phenomenon of the transcendence of the self is the primary message of Waking Up. It’s an exciting idea, good enough to make this an interesting and worthwhile book.

Harris acknowledges his debt for this idea to an older contemporary philosopher, Derek Parfit, who has used various explanations, proofs and illustrations to demonstrate that the individual self is not a continuous thing, though it appears to be. The deconstruction of the sense of the individual self is a topic we have explored often ourselves here on Litkicks, particularly in our critique of the philosophy of selfishness that is popular with followers of Ayn Rand.

The highly limited ethical philosophy of Ayn Rand depends completely on a solid and sturdy definition of the self, and it is by pointing out the weakness of this foundation that he have proven Ayn Rand’s bold ethical philosophy to be unpersuasive. We’ve also gone on to explore other considerations about the fragmentary nature of human identity in blog posts with titles like The Elusive Self, The Collective Self, The Shock of the Self, The Ayn Rand Principle and the Two Senses of Self, and Rebooting the Argument Against Egoism.

The idea that the self is an illusion — that we only think we perceive a single continuous “I” that persists through our lives — provides Sam Harris with a single example of a positive aspect to religion. Unfortunately, Harris finds himself so amazed at his own embrace of this one quasi-religious concept that he then devotes large portions of Waking Up to his usual tired religion-bashing, as if to prove to himself and his readers that he hasn’t changed too much. Waking Up would have been a better book if he’d left these parts out.

There is a larger deficiency in Sam Harris’s model of the self, which is possibly a result of the Derek Parfit idea of the fragmented self being still new to him. While he is able to see that the individual self is a fluid thing, he fails to see the sociological perspective on this, which is that the boundaries of the self does not always have to equate to the boundaries of a single individual human being. The boundaries can sometimes expand to include more than one person at a time.

In everyday life, we often exist within aggregate selves, sharing a community consciousness within working units that seem to operate as group selves, and that even regard themselves in this way. Harris gets far enough to realize that we are not always conscious of ourselves as individuals, but he has not yet made the leap to realize that we are sometimes self-conscious within larger selves which we share with our loved ones and neighbors. This is indeed a fuller understanding of the religious sense of self, and many perplexing facts of our lives and our shared history can be coherently explained once this understanding is gained.

It’s also a more realistic understanding of the way we exist in everyday life. Many parents, for instance, see their children standing next to them when they reflect upon themselves. (We see this in action when a parent includes his or her children in his or her Facebook photo.) A team or business or a government or army also takes on the functional characteristics of a cooperative or corporate self; without doing so, it would barely be able to operate as a unit. These are vital points that Sam Harris and others who contemplate the fragmentary nature of the self may not have considered yet, and might appreciate as significant.

These points are especially valuable when examining conflicts between different ethnic, religious or national groups. These conflicts are the most dramatic (and often most tragic) manifestations of group psychology — and they can never be understood without the use of group psychology. The idea that religion is bad because religion causes war is the most popular dumb idea that results from the failure to understand group psychology.

Sam Harris almost understands something great when he declares that consciousness is fragmentary and that the self is an illusion. He would be closer to grasping the real ethical and existential crisis of human life if he declared that consciousness is fragmentary and that the self is elusive.

8 Responses

  1. Perhaps the problem with idea
    Perhaps the problem with idea of self is that it is constantly changing so as not to be static. But most things do and are seen as being real. “France” is certainly a concept that all understand to be real though massive changes have happened within France since the term came into play. Yes our concept of self is dependent on other larger concepts of self from our own. Say the family certainly exists which brings certain things to our concept of our own self along with the concepts of the workplace and our fitting into its concept of self, never mind the concepts of country religion and so so many others. The concept is not an illusion because I do exist at the moment as does my concept of family and so many other concepts. Religion causes war? no more than it cause very positive behavior say Mother Teresa and numerous others doing positive things in the name of religion. Individuals in the name of religion according to them, say numerous Popes who lead Crusades or pushed the Inquisition are no more valid as examples of all religious behavior than Mother Teresa was.

  2. In that discussion Harris and
    In that discussion Harris and Maher were absolutely correct. Kristof knows, yet can’t agree fully (Kristof’s descent in to mediocrity since given the columnist position has been a sad thing to see), Affleck is clueless. Affleck cries racism off the bat. In my mind, he’s the racist.

    But to me, Maher and Harris being right is like the old saw about the blind squirrel finding an acorn every once in a while, or a stopped clock being correct twice a day.

    I agree with your comments about Harris when you say you “find Sam Harris writings and statements about religion dull and unperceptive”.

    I see Maher and Harris as Peter Pan boys, never having grown up. A lot of the New Atheists fall in that category. I know them well, I was one at one time.

    Harris’s trivial career as a writer/philosopher doesn’t bother me, but what does is his crypto-fascism.

    That is scary and he and those likeminded have already been successful in decreasing basic freedoms of normal regular people just trying to live their lives.

    He comes from a wealthy family, and is 1 percent all the way – known nothing different his whole life. Like all fascists I think he truly believes he knows best and is being magnanimous and beneficent in decreeing what is allowed and what is not.

  3. Of course he doesn’t want to
    Of course he doesn’t want to be known as an “atheist,” because fervent atheism is essentially a religion of its own.

    And how in the hell have “those likeminded” (as Harris) “decreased basic freedoms of normal regular people just trying to live their lives,” TKG? Wtf do you mean by that?

  4. I think maybe TKG means that
    I think maybe TKG means that people have to be careful where they carry their Bibles nowadays, and whether or not it’s okay to have a picture of Jesus on a t-shirt at school on some public function. Right, TKG?

  5. Okay, maybe I’m ignorant on
    Okay, maybe I’m ignorant on this issue. Maybe there is a sort of fascist Atheist Cabal in America actively imposing a zero-tolerance program of Bible possession, and castigation of anyone caught wearing a Jesus T-shirt (ironic, since I never thought Jesus had much to do with religion in the first place). If all of this is going on “in my own backyard” and I’m not aware of it, then I need to be brought up to speed.

  6. Hi Billmm
    Hi Bill. No, that’s not what I mean.

    So hi mnaz, as well.

    I am talking about No Burn days. These are days when it is decreed by the government that no one can have a fire in their fireplace.

    So on a Thanksgiving, or Christmas, it is illegal for family and relatives together to sit and relax by a fire in their family room.

    The method of enforcement is for neighbors to inform the authorities on their neighbors.

    It is a weird feeling to have a fire on Christmas day or evening and have to worry that there will be a knock at your door.

    I read Levi’s Phil Weekend every time and always look up the subject and read about and read some of the person he writes about. He’d done Sam Harris before and that time and how he was one of the people involved in establishing this.

  7. Oh. Okay. I never would
    Oh. Okay. I never would have guessed (at least without background info) that objections to Harris in a thread about atheism would be based on “No Burn Days.”

    Okay TKG, something else I meant to bring up– your statement that Harris and Maher were “absolutely correct” (to condemn the entire religion of Islam on TV).


  8. This is astoundingly insightful.

    I’m an atheist, but have always been curious about the Buddhist mindset, and even more so recently after finding Harris and his takes on meditation.

    This text helps me understand, for example, how the Buddhist concept of anatta – non-self, which is what Harris is trying to prove – can have such different meanings depending on perspective.

    You can look at anatta as “there is no self, nowhere”, which can veer close to nihilism and seem worringly like depersonalization; indeed, there is the concept of “meditation sickness” among meditators.

    On the other hand, it can refer to the fact that our individual self is not the final level of “self-ness” and the benefits of recognizing the concept of aggregate self. You can zoom out possibly indefinitely, until all of humanity (or even life) is one big aggregate self – or you can zoom in, and Buddhist concepts of the individual self being fragmentary suddenly don’t immediately imply complete inexistence of self anymore.

    I’m not studied enough in philosophy to know the terms, but isn’t the self a concept, anyways? To what extent is it useful to separate it from concepts like consciousness or awareness?

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!