In this fourth part of my commentary on Sam Harris's Waking Up, I will continue with his chapter The Mystery of Consciousness and on into the next chapter The Riddle of the Self. Both these chapters provide the opportunity to bring in Immanuel Kant, the great Enlightenment philosopher. Kant was a deep, thorough and disciplined thinker who thought through the implications of modern philosophical premises to a level that is still often underappreciated. Modern materialists like Harris still haven't come to terms with Kant.
In the latter parts of chapter 2 and into chapter 3 Harris attacks the unity of conscious experience and the subjective experience of an "I" (the latter of which he does think is an illusion, in contrast to consciousness itself). Harris distinguishes between consciousness itself and its contents:
Here is where the distinction between studying consciousness itself and studying its contents becomes paramount. It is easy to see how the contents of consciousness might be understood in neurophysiological terms. Consider, for instance, our experience of seeing an object: Its color, contours, apparent motion, and location in space arise in consciousness as a seamless unity, even though this information is processed by many separate systems in the brain. Thus, when a golfer prepares to hit a shot, he does not first see the ball's roundness, then its whiteness, and only then its position on the tee. Rather, he enjoys a unified perception of the ball. Many neuroscientists believe that this phenomenon of "binding" can be explained by disparate groups of neurons firing in synchrony. Whether or not this theory is true, it is at least intelligible - because synchronous activity seems just the sort of thing that could explain the unity of a percept.
This work suggests, as many other finding in neuroscience do, that the contents of consciousness can often be made sense of in terms of their underlying neurophysiology. However, when we ask why such phenomena should be experienced in the first place, we are returned to the mystery of consciousness in full.
He then goes on to discuss the division of the brain into hemispheres, and circumstances under which the hemispheres appear to have their own individual consciousness:
What is most startling about the split-brain phenomenon is that we have every reason to believe that the isolated right hemisphere is independently conscious... The consciousness of the right hemisphere is especially difficult to deny whenever a subject possesses linguistic ability on both sides of the brain, because in such cases the divided hemispheres often express different intentions. In a famous example, a young patient was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up: His left brain replied, "A draftsman," while his right brain used letter cards to spell out "racing driver." In fact, the divided hemispheres sometimes seem to address each other directly, in the form of verbalized, interhemispheric argument.
What Harris is after is undermining the notion that there is some unified self, soul, or "I" that is behind human nature. Consciousness is real for Harris, but any unified experiencer of consciousness is not.
Much of what makes us human is generally accomplished by the right side of the brain. Consequently, we have every reason to believe that that disconnected right hemisphere is independently conscious and that the divided brain harbors two distinct points of view. This fact poses an insurmountable problem for the motion that each of us has single, indivisible self - much less an immortal soul. The idea of a soul arises from the feeling that our subjectivity has a unity, simplicity, and integrity that must somehow transcend the biochemical wheelworks of the body. But the split-brain phenomenon proves that our subjectivity can quite literally be sliced in two... However, the most important implications are for our view of consciousness: It is divisible - and, therefore, more fundamental than any apparent self.
Harris is anxious to show that science suggests that the self is an illusion because that is the same place he is going with Eastern spirituality. For Harris, science tells us the truth about the objective world, while Eastern meditation can reveal to us the truth about the subjective world - specifically, that the self or "I" is an illusion. Since consciousness is not merely subjective but is itself part of the objective world, consciousness is the meeting place between science and meditation. Like a good medieval theologian, Harris rejects any temptation of a "double truth" about consciousness - the truth discovered by meditation and the truth discovered by science, which might possibly disagree. For Harris they must agree and, he argues, in fact they do.
My goal in this chapter and the next is to convince you that the conventional sense of self is an illusion - and that spirituality largely consists in realizing this, moment to moment.
And the benefits of realizing this, moment to moment, is, according to Harris, peace of mind.
Harris, however, in attempting to hold on to the truths (allegedly) revealed both by modern science and Eastern meditation, is trying to have his cake and eat it too. We can see this by turning to Kant, who saw the problem in his analysis of the thought of David Hume. Hume, like Harris, did not think there was any unified self undergirding our experience, for the simple reason that we do not directly encounter any such self in experience. Such a self would be one and the same through all our experiences, but we have no experience of anything that persists invariably the same, so the self must be merely an illusion.
We don't need to go into the details of Hume's thought other than to remark on its resemblance to the position Harris takes. Kant was not particularly concerned about saving the idea of a persistent self, but he was concerned with saving the idea of empirical science, and he saw that the Hume/Harris position threatens the very possibility of science. For science requires scientists, and if there is no persistent self, how can there be a scientist to pursue science? Kant, who respected Hume as the man who "awoke me from my dogmatic slumbers", wondered how he could save science in light of the Humean view of the self and Humean epistemology. Specifically he asked: What are the minimum requirements, rationally speaking, to get science up and running?
Let's consider one of the famous experiments at the origin of modern science: Galileo's investigation of acceleration by rolling balls down ramps. What is necessary for this experiment? Beyond the physical equipment of balls, ramps and timing mechanisms, there is the necessity of a scientist to conduct the experiment. Consider what Galileo must be capable of for the experiment to work.
At time t1 Galileo releases a ball at the top of the ramp. At some later time t2, when the ball reaches the bottom of the ramp, Galileo marks that time and, at a yet later time t3, he calculates the difference between t1 and t2 and deduces from that difference some conclusions about acceleration. What is Galileo doing at time t3?
He is recalling what he did at time t1 (release the ball down the ramp) and considering it in its relationship to what happened at time t2 (when he recalls that the ball reached the bottom of the ramp.) So at time t3 Galileo is experiencing the remembered experiences of t1 and t2 and uniting those memories in his consciousness at time t3. Now, as Clint Eastwood might say, we have to ask ourselves a question: Just what is the object of science? Is the object of science the real balls, ramps and events that happened "out there" at times t1 and t2, i.e. is it about objective reality itself? Or is science only about our experiences of reality and not reality itself? Specifically, are the conclusions that I arrive at during time t3 about something more than merely the memories I have of what happened at times t1 and time t2?
Let me table this question for a moment and consider what Kant showed regardless of how that question is answered. For Galileo's scientific project to work, whether we think science is about reality itself or only about our experience of it (both now and remembered), certain things are necessary. For starters, no conclusions about what was going on at t1 and t2 are possible unless they are united in what might be called "a unified field of rational inquiry." (These are not Kant's terms but my interpretation of what Kant is getting at.) This simply means that t1 and t2 must be viewable from some one rational perspective. If you remember what was going on at t1 but not t2, and I remember what was going on at time t2 but not t1, and we don't talk to each other, the science can't get on. Either I have to remember what was going on at both t1 and t2, or you have to tell me what went on at t1 (assuming I remember t2). Either way, the events at t1 and t2 must appear to some one rational viewpoint for any scientific analysis of them to occur. And this rational viewpoint must be capable of supporting the meaning of the relationship between t1 and t2. It must underwrite the meaning that t2 is "after" t1 and that such a difference is measurable as precisely some number of seconds.
Furthermore, the rational viewpoint must also underwrite the spatial relationships that constitute the substance of the events at t1 and t2. Galileo was standing at the top of the ramp at the start of the experiment, which he experienced as here at that moment and the bottom of the ramp as there. Later, he moved to the bottom of the ramp to catch the ball, which he then experienced as here and the top of the ramp as there. Yet later, when analyzing the experiment, Galileo is able to identify the top of the ramp as the same identical spot in space despite it having been here at one moment and then there at a later moment, and similarly with the bottom of the ramp. Just like the experience of the times t1 and t2, it doesn't really matter if Galileo himself both released the ball and then caught it. Someone else might have released the ball and Galileo caught it, but the science can't happen unless the man who released it tells Galileo exactly where he was when he released it. The point is that the ball's place at the start of the experiment - call it p1 - and its place at the end of the experiment - call it p2 - must be united in some one field of rational inquiry capable of seeing and analyzing the geometrical relationship between the two points. And beyond that, this rational viewpoint must be capable of uniting the geometrical considerations in the relationship between p1 and p2 with the temporal considerations of the relationship between t1 and t2. p1 happened at t1 and p2 happened at t2 and all four of those elements can be united in a single theory of acceleration in a single rational field of inquiry.
We might see the problem Hume would have here. If I am nothing more than merely the passing parade of experience from moment to moment, then there is nothing to unite that experience in a single rational field of experience to make science possible. That passing parade must somehow be integrated across time and space, and integrated in a way that makes it mathematically tractable, for science to happen.
Now I have been careful not to identify the "rational field of experience" that makes science possible with the "soul", the "self", or the "I" or - and this is what materialists miss - the "brain". I haven't done that because Kant didn't do it. Kant restricted himself to elaborating the purely rational requirements for the possibility of science and he found no warrant in that purely rational consideration to go beyond the "formal" requirement of an integrated field of rational experience to an identification of what, in reality, the substance of that field actually is. He can, strictly speaking, only say that such a field of integrated experience, whatever it's ultimate nature might be, is necessary for science.
It is at this point that we return to the question I tabled earlier: What is the object of science? Is it the balls and ramps themselves that are "out there" in objective reality? Or is it merely our experience of those things with all the qualifications alluded to above? Kant refused to go beyond what he could justify with strict rational necessity, and he held that science is about our experience of reality but not reality itself, which is the basis of his famous distinction between the noumenal (how things truly are in themselves) and the phenomenal (how they appear to us).
But suppose we want to go beyond Kant and hold that science is about reality itself and not merely reality as it appears to us as conditioned by our cognitive apparatus? This is only possible if the rational field of inquiry required by science supports such a move. Galileo's cognitive apparatus must have enough integrity so that at time t3, when he remembers what happened with respect to the ball and ramp at times t1 and t2, he can have the rationally justifiable confidence that his memories reflect reality itself at those times and places. Furthermore, he must have the rationally justifiable confidence that his analysis of the relationship between times t1 and t2, and places p1 and p2, reflect reality as well.
On what basis can Galileo justify such confidence? It is hard to see how such justification could be arrived at in terms of the Hume or Harris views of the self or mind (which, of course, is why Kant never went there). Since we are talking about the rational justification of science itself, we can't call on scientific conclusions to do the work without begging the question. The only other available basis of justification is pre-scientific common sense. By "pre-scientific" I don't mean temporally prior, i.e. what was thought to be common sense prior to the rise of modern science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I mean logically or "existentially" prior. The scientist takes for granted that his telescope is in reality what it appears to him in his sight and touch; that it behaves more or less the same as long as its nature isn't changed; and that the things he views through his telescope will not change their behavior without some cause. And, of course, he will assume that his spatial and temporal intuitions (here and there, before and after) reflect reality itself and not merely a reading into reality of the conditions of his own cognition.
But the intuition of an enduring self is just as much a pre-scientific common sense intuition as are our intuitions about space and time. We might, indeed, say that the intuition of self is even more fundamental that the intuitions of time and space since it is only in reference to a self that time and space have meaning (space - here and there - has meaning only in reference to a self which is here and something else is there and time only has meaning in reference to a self to which before and after appear.) So if we are going to take our common sense intuitions about space and time, and what appears in space and time, as reflective of reality - and this seems the only way to underwrite a science that is about reality itself rather than merely the human perception of reality - then we must accept our common sense intuition about an enduring self to be reflective of reality as well.
All this is to the point that when Harris wishes to invoke neuroscience or brain science in general to undermine the notion of an enduring self or "I", and in particular our common sense notion of an enduring self, he has sawed off the limb on which sit the brain sciences themselves sit. Brain science can get going only if there are brain scientists who, like Galileo, can be rationally confident that their scientific intuitions about the "brain" actually reflect reality itself rather than merely their experience of reality conditioned by their cognitive apparatus. And, again, such confidence cannot be a product of brain science itself without begging the question.
Typically, thinkers like Harris fail to see this problem. They think they can blithely invoke science to undermine common sense, including common sense notions of the self, without effecting the rational foundations of science, as though scientists do not share the same human nature as the rest of us. So when he makes statements like
The idea of a soul arises from the feeling that our subjectivity has a unity, simplicity, and integrity that must somehow transcend the biochemical wheelworks of the body.
we can respond that any scientific talk about biochemical wheelworks is only possible if there is subject around with the unity, simplicity and integrity to support it.