Sam Harris: The Self is an Illusion

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
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
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.
And yet we feel that we have this self that’s
just this center of experience. Now it’s
possible I claim and people have claimed for
thousands of years to lose this feeling, to
actually have the center drop out of the experience
so that you just rather than feeling like
you’re on this side of things looking in
as though you’re almost looking over your
own shoulder appropriating experience in each
moment, you can just be identical to this
sphere of experience that is all of the color
and light and feeling and energy of consciousness.
But there’s no sense of center there. So
this is classically described as self- transcendence
or ego transcendence in spiritual, mystical,
new age religious literature. It is in large
measure the baby in the bathwater that religious
people are afraid to throw out. It’s – if
you want to take seriously the project of
being like Jesus or Buddha or some, you know,
whatever your favorite contemplative is, self-transcendence
really is at the core of the phenomenology
that is described there. And what I’m saying
is that it’s a real experience.
It’s clearly an experience that people can
have. And while it tells you nothing about
the cosmos, it tells you nothing about what
happened before the Big Bang. It tells you
nothing about the divine origin of certain
books. It doesn’t make religious dogmas
any more plausible. It does tell you something
about the nature of human consciousness. It
tells you something about the possibilities
of experience but then again any experience
does. You can – there’s just – people
have extraordinary experiences. And the problem
with religion is that they extrapolate – people
extrapolate from those experiences and make
grandiose claims about the nature of the universe.
But these experiences do entitle you to talk
about the nature of human consciousness and
it just so happens that this experience of
self-transcendence does link up with what
we know about the mind through neuroscience
to form a plausible connection between science
and classic mysticism, classic spirituality.
Because if you lose your sense of a unitary
self – if you lose your sense that there’s
a permanent unchanging center to consciousness,
your experience of the world actually becomes
more faithful to the facts. It’s not a distortion
of the way we think things are at the level
of the brain. It’s actually – it brings
your experience into closer register with
how we think things are.

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

  1. The only evidence we have about universe is our experience. Therefore, experience is as real as matter. Experience is an objective component of universe, therefore we can asume all things in universe are experiencing reality in a form or another, therefore we are part of an universal experience, therefore we are part of universal mind.

  2. Sam Harris just go ask your mom for more money man. Your 12 year old fans will eventually grow up and see you for what you are.

  3. What a jokester. I always like fifty cent philosophers and ten cent Zen talkers. He figures if he's anti Trump he can fool us. Sorry Sam, go at Bernie or someone.

  4. I'm pretty sure I don't 'know' anything of the sort, but easily recognize yet another utterly idiotic 'insight' from the world's most commonplace, pedestrian, not to mention condescending excuse for a 'philosopher' (a leap, to be sure) to ever cross the internet screen; the 'self' is NOT an illusion, it's just not a rigid or fixed subjective entity/construct.

  5. I am outside my body right now been that way for over 2 years it eventually will kill you my ego has regressed the best way I can explain it you lose all your strength and appetite you can’t walk to far without being physically tired you lose sense of time and you don’t feel rested because you don’t feel your body..if anybody has experimented with drugs it’s like constantly being on lsd eventually it wears you down and you die I’m at my last stage I can barely keep my eyes open and I’m only 54.

  6. Imagine this guy's poor wife – I'll bet she NEVER wins an argument at home. Ol' Sammy just starts dropping $3 adjectives and referencing theories that only people who have roughly 37 years of higher education would understand.

    She probably just withholds sex. I have found, in my own life, this approach wins every single time.

  7. Sam Harris 2018 – The Self Is Not An Illusion

  8. extrapolation is a common theme in any scientific field. a "religious conclusion or explanation isn't an extrapolation, it's recognising that the claim that there isn't a creator for this universe is tantamount to saying there isn't a writer to a book which contains a letters, a plot, characters etc.

  9. Hamza tszortzis reacting to your weird claims

  10. Sam’s right eyebrow is permanently raised. His left hemisphere must be in a constant state of suspicion and disapproval.

  11. This scientists are like mad.says anything.there are two type of consciousness.1) DIPENDENT CONSCIOUSNESS AND 2) INDIPENDENT CONSCIOUSNESS WHICH IS LIFE.

  12. Yes self is an illusion at the dependent level of consciousness.but at the indipendent level of consciousness is self which is the indipendent sense. sciencely proved.ALL IS YES AND ALL IS NO AS SIMILARITY OF TIME,WAY AND SITUATION.

  13. This Chanel is 40% missleading as statics of YouTube so it's an abnormal range of a Chanel to exist in YouTube.

  14. 'I'am happy
    'I' am sad
    'I' am jealous
    'I' am kind
    'I' am anxious
    'I' am calm
    'I' am thinking/doing
    'I' am XYZ……
    WHO IS THIS 'I' ??…. That's your answer to conciousness.
    Stop relating yourself to the external world and remember the time you were BORN, this conciousness(YOU) were still there without any impressions by brain or senses. Remember that feeling and you will be reborn.
    One can not describe CONCIOUSNESS in words as it is like a 'taste' . I can never describe you the taste of an apple if you have never tasted one before.

  15. Smart smart smart super smart explanation, this is how I can at times experience-the world and have never been able to adequately describe it, Thank you Sam Harris

  16. So…an electro-chemical chain reaction caused Sam to make this video? Why should Anyone pay heed to whatever he thinks if theres no independent thoughtful being behind the comments?

  17. Everywhere I go I see people who believe they understand who we are and how the world works. Not admitting they know shit due to their pride and arrogance. So cute. My humble opinion is that during my short life on this place I will learn nothing because humane nature is too stupid to grasp an universal truth. No matter what you claim to be reality at the end of the day you don't really know.

  18. Things that science has nothing to say about:
    #1 What makes science possible?
    #2 What is consciousness?
    #3 What is energy?
    #4 What is gravity?
    #5 What is good and what is evil?

    Sam Harris and his arguments have appeal…but only to those who haven't seen the arguments against his worldview.

  19. If the Self is an illusion then, if what you think you are saying is right, then it must also be an illusion. There is no stop to illusions… thinking about it may direct you to insanity 🤪

  20. Something about being baked makes me so much more aware of everything going on around me and myself and yet nothing is really happening

  21. “I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self aware, nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself." – Detective Rust Cohle

  22. If I am an illusions does that mean it's okay if I marry my illusionary girlfriend? After all we both are illusions

  23. Let me use a lot of big words to get my point across… wait what was my point? Ego talking about ego, Jesus Christ! 😂

  24. I found the title and rush in and mute the video and then I laugh together with the comments.
    Thank you, its so much fun here.

  25. There is the sense of separation and death and sorrow only because of the illusion of "self".

    Where there is no "self", there is no sense of separation nor death and hence no sorrow… All these are illusions. The Universe exists…I don't…

  26. Basically he's assuming that the brain creates consciousness. I agree it might be difficult to have a self if the brain does create consciousness, I'm not sure. But definitely materialism is incompatible with a persisting self, although Sam doesn't appear to be a materialist properly speaking.

  27. The fact that we can lose the sense of self certainly doesn't imply there is no self. If I close my eyes I lose the sense of a tree in front of me, but that doesn't mean to say it has vanished out of existence, least of all that it was never there to begin with.

  28. The questions about "I" that are hardly asked (read patiently): –

    Q1: Who am I? Do I know myself? How well do I know myself? Since when do I know myself? With whom was I acquainted first, myself or the world? Who has the answer if I don't?

    Q2: Why am "I", the I that I am? If I am "this", why am " I" this? Why somebody else or something else is not "this"? And why am "I" not somebody else or something else? Who has the answer if I don't?

    Q3: Have "I" always been the "I" that I am? If not, since when am "I", the I that I am now? Who or what was I, immediately before " I" became the I, that I am now? And who or what was "that I" before it became "that"/ "him"? If "I" have changed, have I changed entirely? If not, what in me has not changed? If there is something in me that has not changed, has it always been what it has been? Who has the answer if I don't?

    Q4: Am I awake? Since when am I awake? How do I know that I am awake? Before waking up did I know that I was not awake? Where was I before I woke up? Where was I after I fell asleep? Where was I when I was dreaming? Where was I when I was asleep and not dreaming? When did I wake up for the first time? Where was I before that? When did I fall asleep for the first time? And where was I before that? Who was I after I fell asleep? Who was I before I woke up? Who was I when I was dreaming? Who was I when I was neither awake nor dreaming? And who in me dreams dreams? Do I know him? How well do I know him? Since when do I know him? And since when is he dreaming? Where is he now? Is he still dreaming? Or am I still dreaming? Who has the answer if I don't?

  29. Palms sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy, his consciousness is all but head-y, don't forgetty–he's nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready to drop "Ahhmmms" when he's deep down in medi–Meditation, the whole world seems so loud, he opens his mind but the truth's not around. He's chokin' now, everybody's jokin' how he's smarter Ben Stiller, big-nosed breathing–BLAOW!

    Okay, got that out of my system. Now I can express just how much I admire your logical processing skills and thoroughly coherent explanations of complicated subjects, including that of consciousness and the "Self." Inspired, intellectual, imperterbable and seamless. Sam Harris, my man. 👏👏👏

  30. He's being too reductive. Just because the complex systems of nature contrast with ancient abstractions, doesn't mean a complex system lacks an essence.

    The physical sciences allow for more certainty because they rely on controlled experiments, discrete units of data and mathematical modelling. I think he's arrogant to assume the brain has been understood in that way.

  31. He says clearly that consciousness is the experience, and then says that the experience of a constant self is an illusion. Its one or the other Sam. If consciousness is identical to experience then I have the experience of a constant self and therefor it exists in consciousness.

  32. If I am an illussion who is I?then again who is I is irrelivant because there is no I or me? Yeah sure okay right. "You're" crazy S.H

  33. Sam Harris will discount religion suavely because it earns him a career and sells him books. I would challenge him to dissect the Bhagavad Gita, and the Upanishads and The Vedic philosophy behind it. He'll pay lip service to Jesus and Buddha – who both were themselves practitioners of religion as a means of being the quote-unquote contemplatives he calls them.

  34. Sam is one of the few intellectual giants today who can even attempt to touch on such intricate and complex issues of philosophy.

  35. So far, I haven't seen anyone (including Harris) reckon with the political implications of the self being a myth. Think about it: All mainstream Western doctrines espoused by the United States gov't, the UN, dozens of NGOs, etc. depend on the idea of a discrete self that has free will. Human rights (particularly individual rights), democracy, & limits to governmental power are predicated on the notion of a distinct, conscious self that makes its own decisions. But if the self is an illusion, if the "person" is nothing more than an ambulatory bag of carbon-based chemistry that responds to stimuli, then there is no person to attach any rights or freedom to. If there is no free will, then you can't argue for liberty or freedom since those concepts are effectively invalid. I tend to agree with Harris & similar thinkers on this, but I do wish they would grapple with the ramifications of what modern science tells us about what humans really are (i.e., nothing special).

  36. Of course the illusory self won't accept the simple fact that it doesn't exist, as evident from the comment section.

  37. I go to the Goodwill for books every Thursday & Friday. I have to get there early in order to beat the book scanner poachers. You know what books I always see there, his books. You know what books the poachers are looking for? Bibles, Paulo Coelho, Max Lucado, Carl Jung and so on. I wonder why people buy Sammy's books but end up donating them to the Goodwill?

  38. You know what Sam Harris is. He's the guy that draws up the plan for the battlefield but never steps onto the battlefield. It's easy to talk. It's also easy to find hid book in great numbers collecting dust at the Goodwill.

  39. Only the soul is real constant ..everything else is just transient..impermanent..always taking birth growing and dying.

  40. Why should we believe what a "non-self" tells us? If the self is an illusion, then we have no agency, and nothing we think or say has any value — including Harris' idiotic assertions.

  41. .. And yet – And yet -…
    We DO have a use for words like 'myself' & 'you' – don't we Sam ?
    Indeed those things are not entities of physics, yet nevertheless, in some sense they exist – don't you think ?
    So – if you have the thought still in the back of your mind "When I say this thing exists I really mean that it's a physical object", then you are led to think ".. so since the self is not an object of physics it doesn't REALLY exist"….
    But then you just brought back the confusion that you (rather well I thought) demolished in the first part of the piece.

    I see that for the purpose of freeing oneself from being enslaved to the ego one might wish to see the universe from the perspective that the existence of the self is not inherent in the universe, I feel it is odd to argue that the self doesn't exist – If the word exist is to mean anything, it must apply to the way things do in practice exist.

    We can of course ask whether things INHERENTLY exist – but that does still leave the question of what is going on when things exist in the sense we ordinarily mean it.
    Thanks for opening this up…

  42. Anyone interested by this might find something more in
    "Moral philosopher Mary Midgley argues that the Self is Not an Illusion"–LB1on6Ho

  43. Try telling that to a single mum – who is addicted to crack cocaine, and has three hungry children. Self is an illusion – suffering is real.

  44. His comrade Richard Dawkins would not agree with him:as we know gene is selfish,but if it has no self how can it be selfish.

  45. Fact is, consciousness is the latest product of biological evolution and anything recent appears to be unreliable and illusionary just because it is new, unique and not well-tested.

  46. The guy is talking about a mind bugling subject here, and…loads of nuts making some silly and totally empty comments below.

  47. It's weird how he starts out by logically acknowledging the subjective experience of consciousness and then he proceeds to talk about "the illusion of self" just out of the blue with no reason or logic

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