Consciousness Without Self

by Sam Harris

Consciousness-Without-Self-ImageWhat Are We Calling “I”?
One thing each of us knows for certain is that reality vastly exceeds our awareness of it. I am, for instance, sitting at my desk, drinking coffee. Gravity is holding me in place, and the manner in which this is accomplished eludes us to this day. The integrity of my chair is the result of the electrical bonds between atoms—entities I have never seen but which I know must exist, in some sense, with or without my knowledge. The coffee is dissipating heat at a rate that could be calculated with precision, and the second law of thermodynamics decrees that it is, on balance, losing heat every moment rather than gathering it from the cup or the surrounding air. None of this is evident to me from direct experience, however. Forces of digestion and metabolism are at work within me that are utterly beyond my perception or control. Most of my internal organs may as well not exist for all I know of them directly, and yet I can be reasonably certain that I have them, arranged much as any medical textbook would suggest. The taste of the coffee, my satisfaction at its flavor, the feeling of the warm cup in my hand—while these are immediate facts with which I am acquainted, they reach back into a dark wilderness of facts that I will never come to know. I have neurons firing and forming new connections in my brain every instant, and these events determine the character of my experience. But I know nothing directly about the electrochemical activity of my brain—and yet this soggy miracle of computation appears to be working for the moment and generating a vision of a world.

The more I persist in this line of thought, the clearer it becomes that I perceive scarcely a scintilla of all that exists to be known. 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? That is difficult to say. The feeling that I intended to do what I just did seems to be only that: a feeling of some internal signature, perhaps the result of my brain’s having formed a predictive model of its ensuing actions. It may not be best classified as a feeling, but surely it is something. Otherwise, how could I note the difference between voluntary and involuntary behavior? Without this impression of agency, I would feel that my actions were automatic or otherwise beyond my control.

One question immediately presents itself: Where am I that I have such a poor view of things? And 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? Let’s say yes for the moment, because we are quickly running out of places to look for me. Where inside my skull might I be? And if I’m up there in my head, how is the rest of me me (let alone the inside of me)?

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The pronoun “I” is the name that most of us put to the sense that we are the thinkers of our thoughts and the experiencers of our experience. It is the sense that we have of possessing (rather than of merely being) a continuum of experience. We will see, however, that this feeling is not a necessary property of the mind. And the fact that people report losing their sense of self to one or another degree suggests that the experience of being a self can be selectively interfered with.

Obviously, there is something in our experience that we are calling “I,” apart from the sheer fact that we are conscious; otherwise, we would never describe our subjectivity in the way we do, and a person would have no basis for feeling that she had lost her sense of self, whatever the circumstances. Nevertheless, 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. 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 who are subject to the eternal judgment of God.

What does it mean to say that the self cannot be found or that it is illusory? It is not to say that people are illusory. I see no reason to doubt that each of us exists or that the ongoing history of our personhood can be conventionally described as the history of our “selves.” But the self in this more global, biographical sense undergoes sweeping changes over the course of a lifetime. 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. It is convenient to ascribe these changes to the self. That is not the self I am talking about.

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. It cannot be seen amid the particulars of experience, and it cannot be seen when experience itself is viewed as a totality. However, its absence can be found—and when it is, the feeling of being a self disappears.

 Consciousness Without Self
This is an empirical claim: Look closely enough at your own mind in the present moment, and you will discover that the self is an illusion. The problem with a claim of this kind, however, is that one can’t borrow another person’s contemplative tools to test it. To see how the feeling of “I” is a product of thought—indeed, to even appreciate how distracted by thought you tend to be in the first place—you have to build your own contemplative tools.

Unfortunately, this leads many people to dismiss the project out of hand: They look inside, notice nothing of interest, and conclude that introspection is a dead end. But just imagine where astronomy would be if, centuries after Galileo, a person were still obliged to build his own telescope before he could even judge whether astronomy was a legitimate field of inquiry. It wouldn’t make the sky any less worthy of investigation, but astronomy’s development as a science would become immensely more difficult.

A few pharmacological shortcuts exist—and I discuss some of them in a later chapter—but generally speaking, we must build our own telescopes to judge the empirical claims of contemplatives. Judging their metaphysical claims is another matter; many of them can be dismissed as bad science or bad philosophy after merely thinking about them. But to determine whether certain experiences are possible—and if possible, desirable—and to see how these states of mind relate to the conventional sense of self, we have to be able to use our attention in the requisite ways. Primarily, that means learning to recognize thoughts as thoughts—as transient appearances in consciousness—and to no longer be distracted by them, if only for short periods of time. This may sound simple enough, but actually accomplishing it can take a lot of work. Unfortunately, it is not work that the Western intellectual tradition knows much about.

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. So we need not await any data from the lab to say that the self cannot be what it seems.

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. What is more, many of these processes can be independently disturbed, producing deficits that would seem impossible if they were not so easily verified. Some people, for instance, are able to see perfectly but are unable to detect motion. Others are able to see objects and their motion but are unable to locate them in space. How the mind depends upon the brain, and the manner in which its powers can be disrupted, defies common sense. Here, as elsewhere in science, how things seem is often a poor guide to how they are.

The claim that we can experience consciousness without a conventional sense of self—that there is no rider on the horse—seems to be on firm ground neurologically. 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.

How can we know that the conventional sense of self is an illusion? When we look closely, it vanishes. This is compelling in the same way that the disappearance of any illusion is: You thought something was there, but upon closer inspection, you see that it isn’t. What doesn’t survive scrutiny cannot be real.

The classic example from the Indian tradition is of a coiled rope mistaken for a snake: Imagine that you spot a snake in the corner of a room and feel an immediate cascade of fear. But then you notice that it isn’t moving. You look more closely and see that it doesn’t appear to have a head—and suddenly you spot coiled strands of fiber that you mistook for a pattern of scales. You move closer and can see that it is a rope. A skeptic might ask, “How do you know that the rope is real and the snake an illusion?” This question may seem reasonable, but only to a person who hasn’t had this experience of looking closely at the snake only to have it disappear. Given that the snake always collapses into being a rope, and not the other way around, there is simply no empirical basis upon which to form such a doubt.


Perhaps you can see the same effect in the above illusion. It certainly looks like there is a white square in the center of the figure, but when we study the image, it becomes clear that there are only four partial circles. The square has been imposed by our visual system, whose edge detectors have been fooled. Can we know that the black shapes are more real than the white square? Yes, because the square doesn’t survive our efforts to locate it—its edges literally disappear. A little investigation and we see that its form has been merely implied. In fact, it is possible to look closely enough at the figure to banish the illusion altogether. But what could we say to a skeptic who insisted that the white square is just as real as the three-quarter circles? All we could do is urge him to look more closely. This is not a matter of debating third-person facts; it is a matter of looking more closely at experience itself.

The Paradox of Acceptance
It would seem that very few good things in life come from our accepting the present moment as it is. To become educated, we must be motivated to learn. To master a sport requires that we continually improve our performance and overcome our resistance to physical exertion. To be a better spouse or parent, we often must make a deliberate effort to change ourselves. Merely accepting that we are lazy, distracted, petty, easily provoked to anger, and inclined to waste our time in ways that we will later regret is not a path to happiness.

And yet it is true that meditation requires total acceptance of what is given in the present moment. If you are injured and in pain, the path to mental peace can be traversed in a single step: Simply accept the pain as it arises, while doing whatever you need to do to help your body heal. If you are anxious before giving a speech, become willing to feel the anxiety fully, so that it becomes a meaningless pattern of energy in your mind and body. Embracing the contents of consciousness in any moment is a very powerful way of training yourself to respond differently to adversity. However, it is important to distinguish between accepting unpleasant sensations and emotions as a strategy—while covertly hoping that they will go away—and truly accepting them as transitory appearances in consciousness. Only the latter gesture opens the door to wisdom and lasting change. The paradox is that we can become wiser and more compassionate and live more fulfilling lives by refusing to be who we have tended to be in the past. But we must also relax, accepting things as they are in the present, as we strive to change ourselves.


Sam Harris (Photo)Sam Harris’ writings and public lectures cover a wide range of topics—neuroscience, moral philosophy, religion, spirituality, violence, human reasoning—but generally focus on how a growing understanding of ourselves and the world is changing our sense of how we should live.

Harris’s work has been published in more than 20 languages and has been discussed in The New York Times, Time, Scientific American, Nature, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, and many other journals. He has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Economist, The Times (London), The Boston Globe, The Atlantic, The Annals of Neurology, and elsewhere.

Harris received a degree in philosophy from Stanford University and a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA.

From Waking Up: A Guide To Spirituality Without Religion, by Sam Harris. Copyright © 2014 by Sam Harris. Published by Simon & Schuster, New York, NY.