Monday, June 18, 2018

The Self as Illusion

I was listening to an older Sam Harris podcast while cooking this weekend, and he revisited his contention that "the self is an illusion." One of the others on stage pushed back, and Sam countered by stating he had experienced the dissolution of the self. The counter to that was that many people had "experienced god," which I thought was a pretty solid takedown.

But in other contexts, Sam has done what I consider to be a good job of explaining what he means. As I interpret it, there are two parts.

First, there is no free will (which is discussed in his book of the same name). This fact is logically obvious when I think about it - everything is just physical reactions, so where could "free will" actually enter the picture?

Although I understand and accept this fact at a rational level, I haven't fully embraced it. While I think I am relatively Zen about many things in life ("It is what it is"), my default reaction to events is not always, "They could not have done otherwise." For example, I still loathe Paul Ryan. Also, I still wish for vengeance against a certain person who harmed me and my family.

Yes, I know that this is neither rational nor helpful. But I could not feel otherwise!   😉

Following from that is the logical conclusion that there is no thinker of thoughts. Even though we are conscious and self-aware, there is no "self" in control of our mind.

One doesn't have to be a materialist to recognize that this is true. It is possible to observe this fact through meditation. If we can pay close enough attention, we see that thoughts just arise. To slightly modify an exchange between Dan Harris and Sam Harris:

Dan: "But can't I choose to say, 'Now I'm going to think about a Tofurky sandwich'?"

Sam: "Where did 'Tofurky sandwich' come from?"

Dan: "Um, my hunger after two hours talking with you?"

There are obviously some difficult implications that flow from these insights. For example: If we have no free will, how can we change anything about ourselves? But that's like asking how a computer could change, given that it has no free will. Computers just need a new program (or, in a bad case, a virus) to be different. We, too, can also get new programs. We can read new books, listen to thoughtful podcasts, subscribe to a rarely-published but interesting blog. Each of those inputs can change the way our brains function.

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And if we could really, really internalize that everyone around us is just a relatively broken computer, we would have a lot less frustration and upset. We can still want to reduce suffering in the world, but we would reduce our own suffering first. Good luck to each of us!

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