Sam Harris: The Self is an Illusion

Sam Harris describes the properties of consciousness and how mindfulness practices of all stripes can be used to transcend one’s ego. Harris is the author of Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (


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Transcript: What one of the problems we have in discussing consciousness scientifically is that consciousness is irreducibly subjective. This is a point that many philosophers have made – Thomas Nagel, John Sorrell, David Chalmers. While I don’t agree with everything they’ve said about consciousness I agree with them on this point that consciousness is what it’s like to be you. If there’s an experiential internal qualitative dimension to any physical system then that is consciousness. And we can’t reduce the experiential side to talk of information processing and neurotransmitters and states of the brain in our case because – and people want to do this. Someone like Francis Crick said famously you’re nothing but a pack of neurons. And that misses the fact that half of the reality we’re talking about is the qualitative experiential side. So when you’re trying to study human consciousness, for instance, by looking at states of the brain, all you can do is correlate experiential changes with changes in brain states. But no matter how tight these correlations become that never gives you license to throw out the first person experiential side. That would be analogous to saying that if you just flipped a coin long enough you would realize it had only one side. And now it’s true you can be committed to talking about just one side. You can say that heads being up is just a case of tails being down. But that doesn’t actually reduce one side of reality to the other.

And to give you a more precise example, we have very strong third person “objective measures” of things like anxiety and fear at this moment. You bring someone into the lab, they say they’re feeling fear. You can scan their brains with fMRI and see that their amygdala response is heightened. You can measure the sweat on their palms and see that there’s an increased galvanic skin response. You can check their blood cortisol and see that its spiking. So these now are considered objective third person measures of fear. But if half the people came into the lab tomorrow and said they were feeling fear and showed none of these signs and they said they were completely calm when their cortisol spiked and when their palms started to sweat, these objective measures would no longer be reliable measures of fear. So the cash value of a change in physiology is still a change in the first person conscious side of things. And we’re inevitably going to rely on people’s subjective reports to understand whether our correlations are accurate. So the hope that we are going to talk about consciousness shorn of any kind of qualitative internal experiential language, I think, is a false one. So we have to understand both sides of it subjective – classically subjective and objective.

I’m not arguing that consciousness is a reality beyond science or beyond the brain or that it floats free of the brain at death. I’m not making any spooky claims about its metaphysics. What I am saying, however, is that the self is an illusion. The sense of being an ego, an I, a thinker of thoughts in addition to the thoughts. An experiencer in addition to the experience. The sense that we all have of riding around inside our heads as a kind of a passenger in the vehicle of the body. That’s where most people start when they think about any of these questions. Most people don’t feel identical to their bodies. They feel like they have bodies. They feel like they’re inside the body. And most people feel like they’re inside their heads. Now that sense of being a subject, a locus of consciousness inside the head is an illusion. It makes no neuro-anatomical sense. There’s no place in the brain for your ego to be hiding. We know that everything you experience – your conscious emotions and thoughts and moods and the impulses that initiate behavior – all of these things are delivered by a myriad of different processes in the brain that are spread out over the whole of the brain. They can be independently erupted. We have a changing system. We are a process and there’s not one unitary self that’s carried through from one moment to the next unchanging. [TRANSCRIPT TRUNCATED]

Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton


28 thoughts on “Sam Harris: The Self is an Illusion

  1. You are not your ego. Your ego is your self-image created by the identity of your thoughts from your mind. You are not your thoughts in your head nor your mind. You are the observer of your mind (Ask: what is it that can listen to the thoughts in my head? It is Your real Self/Spirit, complete self-awareness). Your mind is like another tool/sense similar to your hearing, touch, smell etc.

    Essentially Sam Harris is talking about the present moment. when you Self-transcend and lose your sense of "I"/Ego (very easy to do with high amounts of LSD and mushrooms, because you experience ego death), you are ONE with the present moment, you are connected and you are experiencing the full blown experience of life in the present and all its beauty.

    If we lived in a world that could get to that state, and our minds thoughts stemmed from the fountainhead of emotions of that state, through the thoughts from that state which leads to action in the physical world, we will create utopia. Meditation is apparently the natural way but it is very easy to experience from high amounts of LSD + Mushrooms when you feel at 'One' with the present moment, since we, like everything else on this universe, are just atoms and molecules at a microscopic level.

  2. What is an Illusion ?

    The problem with such arguments like : "Consciousness is an illusion" or "Self is an illusion" is that there are not proper definitions for any of the things like "Consciousness" or "illusion".

    For example you can't use the definition of "illusion" in neuroscience , why ?

    Well because neuroscience is an objective form of research ! But Self is about subjectivity , Science still hasn't found any proper link between Objective phenomenons and Subjective experiences .

    What is pain ? well yes i know there is a part in brain responsible for creating pain and … but it doesn't explain the subjective experience itself.

    Do you get it ? No , well lets put it in another way , consider the zombie argument.

    Imagine someone that looks and behaves exactly like you and he will have a life exactly like you , from an objective point of view , he IS you , even biologically he is exactly like you , there is absolutely no objective difference between you two.

    BUT he doesn't understand what he is doing , he is like a robot and he just does everything because he has been programmed to do so ! he will act like having pain BUT he is not actually experiencing it.
    So what does it mean ? well it means that questions of "Consciousness" and "Self" are still philosophical questions .

    Science hasn't advanced enough for such questions and if we call them "Illusion" !!! it's just erasing the problem , not solving it ,
    I'm saying this as An Applied Mathematician , i'v worked with many researchers in different fields , from Biology to Physics and if you ask many of them about such questions , most of them will say "I don't know" and they all would agree that we need a paradigm shift for such questions .

    We have been bound to Logic for so long while Guys like Kurt Godel have proved that even Logic itself is Limitless , maybe in the future evolution helps us to find other forms of understanding but until then we have to stick to what we know and can understand in a Logical System with proper definitions.

  3. what creatures could dislike sam harris? 8 hundred or so ben affleck fans probably disliked because "god" told them so. Well hopefully our remaining apes disguised as humans will evolve or update they're operating system eventually and get cured from this mental deficiency

  4. He is trying to study consciousness, subjectivity , experiental reality with science and intellect. The problem with that is science functions upon intellect and the job of intellect is to dissect things and split them but through intellect you can never know the thing as a whole you can only know in parts. An example of this would be if I was to give a scientist a frog to study he would dissect it and cut it open and know everything about it from it's DNA to biological functions, mechanisms to it's chemistry and it's physicality but in the process the frog would be horribly killed and the scientist could never really know the frog as a whole. Similarly when science is trying to study consciousness it's doing so in a terrible way of looking at it in bits and pieces. Consciousness is whole. When you see things with your eyes according to science you see light reflecting into your retina and then inverted going to your brain being processed and analyzed but do you really see inverted images or photons going into your eyes or in your experience do you feel photos going into your eyes getting inverted then processed and then being put together? No you see things as a whole because you are conscious. Right now you can feel, hear, smell, see and touch things at the same time but according to science these are very complex sensory organs working together individually in different parts of the brain but in your perception or experience or consciousness you don't see, smell, touch, and sense things individually but as a whole. If I was to give you a puppy you wouldn't see him, hear him, touch him, smell him and sense him one by one but you would do all those things at once and in your experience it's done as a whole. Using intellect to study something that functions as a whole is the same as using a knife to stich things. You will only end up with more and more parts but never know the whole. It's like trying to count to infinite one by one. You can never count to infinite it's theoretical it continues forever as far as you're concerned.

  5. 6:52 I agree that there is no locus of consciousness inside the head or brain. however i believe there is a locus of consciousness within the mind, whatever construct it truly has.

  6. This is a good video. However and as a general rule, many people, in fact the majority of people fanatically "believe in objectivity" as much and as radically as people "believe in religion".

    For example in Islam, many foolish people reduce the rights of women. Yet in America, this "women's rights" thus is so 'objectively' believed that the incident of rape is one of they highest in the world.

    You see how both extremes think they are correct? One thru religion in the east, and the other thru so 'women's rights' in the west.

  7. this is confusing…so like i m trying to figure out what hes saying …however i see a subjective experience especially thouse that are artists: poets,painters,novelists, composers etc…to even expres the subjective..i think there is a subjective self, and a consiouss self. if he s saying there isn t, i m not sure, i disagree, and then as consioussness or like the soul, i think there is a soul.

  8. Harris is a dangerous obscurantist. It is the subjective Self one must explore and embrace if one is to get at any sort of objective truth. This movement away from the Self is thoroughly post-modern and leads the way to a nihilistic homogeneity of thought that can have disastrous social consequences.

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