Sam Harris: The Self is an Illusion

 

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one of the problems we have in
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discussing consciousness scientifically
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is that consciousness is irreducibly
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subjective this is a point that many
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philosophers have made Thomas Nagel John
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Searle David Chalmers and I’ve well I
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don’t agree with everything they’ve said
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about consciousness I agree with them on
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this point that consciousness is what
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it’s like to be you if there’s if
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there’s an experiential internal
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qualitative dimension to any physical
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system then that is consciousness and we
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can’t reduce the experiential side to
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talk of information processing and
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neurotransmitters and and states of the
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brain in our case because and then
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people want to do this someone like
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Francis Crick said famously you’re
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nothing but a pack of neurons and that
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that misses the fact that that half of
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the reality we are talking about is the
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qualitative experience side so when
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you’re trying to study human
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consciousness for instance by looking at
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states of the brain all you can do is
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correlate experiential changes with
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changes in brain States but no matter
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how tight these correlations become that
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never gives you license to throw out the
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first-person experiential side that be
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analogous to saying that if you just
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flipped a coin long enough you would
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realize it had only one side and now
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it’s true you can be committed to
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talking about just one side you can say
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that that heads being up it’s just the
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case of tails being down but that
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doesn’t actually reduce one side of
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reality to the other and to get to give
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you a more precise example we have very
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strong third-person quote objective
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measures of things like anxiety and fear
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at this moment you bring someone to the
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lab they say they’re feeling fear you
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can scan their brains with fMRI and see
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that their amygdala response is
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heightened you can you can measure the
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sweat on their palms and see that see
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that there’s a increased galvanic skin
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response you can you can check their
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blood cortisol and see that it’s spiking
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so these these now are considered
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objective third-person measures of fear
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but if half the people came into the lab
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tomorrow and said they were feeling fear
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and showed none of these signs and they
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said they were completely calm when
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their cortisol spiked and when there
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their palm started to sweat these
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objective measures would no longer be
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reliable measures of fear so it so the
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cash value of a change in physiology is
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still a change in the first person
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conscious side of things and we’re we’re
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inevitably going to rely on people’s
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subjective reports to to understand
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whether our correlations are accurate so
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the hope that we are going to talk about
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consciousness shorn of any kind of
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qualitative internal experiential
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language I think is a false one so we
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have to understand both sides of it’s
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subjective classically subjective and
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objective I’m not arguing that
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consciousness is a reality beyond
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science or beyond the brain or that it’s
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it floats free of the brain of death I’m
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not I’m not making any spooky claims
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about its its metaphysics what I am
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saying however is that the self is an
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illusion the sense of being an ego and I
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think er of thoughts in addition to the
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thoughts a an experience or in addition
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to the experience that the sense that we
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all have of riding around inside our
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heads as a kind of a passenger in the
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vehicle of the body that’s that’s where
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most people start when they when they
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think about any of these questions most
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people don’t feel identical to their
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bodies they feel like they have bodies
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they feel like they’re inside the body
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and most people feel like they’re inside
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their heads
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now that sense of being a subject a
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locus of consciousness inside the head
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is an illusion that it makes no narrow
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anatomical sense there’s no place in the
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brain for your ego to be hiding we know
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that that everything you experience your
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your conscious emotions and thoughts and
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and moods and the the impulses that
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initiate behavior all of these things
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are delivered by by myriad different
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processes in the brain that are spread
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out over the whole of the brain that
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they can be independently erupted
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there’s the we have a changing system we
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are a process and there’s not one
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unitary self that’s carried through from
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one moment to the next
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unchanging and yet we feel that we have
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this this self that’s just the center of
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experience now it’s possible I claim and
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people have claimed for thousands of
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years to lose this feel
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to actually have the center drop out of
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experience so that you just rather than
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feeling like you are on this side of
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things looking in your as though you’re
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almost looking over your own shoulder
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how appropriating experience in each
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moment you can just be identical to this
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sphere of experience that that is all of
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the color and life and feeling and
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energy of consciousness but there’s no
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sense of center there so so this is
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classically described as self
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transcendence or ego transcendence in in
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spiritual mystical new-age religious
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literature it is in large measure the
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baby in the bathwater that religious
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people are afraid to throw out it’s it’s
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if you want to take seriously the
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project of being like Jesus or Buddha or
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some whatever your favorite
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contemplative is self transcendence
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really is at the core of the
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phenomenology that is described there
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and what I’m saying is that we that it’s
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it’s a real experience it’s clearly an
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experience that people can have and
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while it tells you nothing about the
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cosmos
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it tells you nothing about what happened
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before the Big Bang it tells you nothing
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about the divine origin of certain books
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it doesn’t make religious dogmas any
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more plausible it does tell you
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something about the nature of human
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consciousness it tells you something
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about it tells something about the
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possibilities of experience but then
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again any experience does you know you
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can you can just people have
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extraordinary experiences and the
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problem with religion is that they
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extrapolate people extrapolate from
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those experiences and make grandiose
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claims about the nature of the universe
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but these experiences do entitle you to
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talk about the the the nature of human
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consciousness and it just so happens
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that this experience of self
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transcendence does link up with what we
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know about the mind through neuroscience
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to form an action plaza between science
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and and classic mysticism classic
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spirituality because if you lose your
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sense of a unitary self if you lose your
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sense that there’s a permanent
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unchanging Center to consciousness your
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experience of the world actually becomes
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more faithful to the facts it’s it’s not
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a distortion
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of the way we think things are at the
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level of the brain is actually it brings
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your experience into closer register
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with how we think things are
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