I'm re-reading Sam Harris' Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.
Having read it first in 2014, I wanted to see if I looked upon the book any differently now -- having altered my views about meditation, consciousness, and such during the past few years.
Well, I'm still having a problem with how Harris looks upon consciousness. It's pretty much the same problem I talked about in "Questions I had in Sam Harris' 'Waking Up' meditation chapter."
It sure seems in the "In fact..." passage that Harris is touting the good that comes from feeling that he is a subject with awareness, who looks upon sadness or fear as a content of the consciousness that he is not, he being consciousness itself.
Well, I have no idea what "consciousness itself" could be like. Yet in various places in his book Harris implies that consciousness isn't just the workings of the mind/brain, even though he also says that no one is sure what consciousness is.
This bothered me. It appeared to bring back a big dose of dualism into "Waking Up" that wasn't much different from the soul-body dualism Harris had decried in earlier chapters.
For now Harris was implying that there is (1) consciousness and (2) what consciousness knows. In order for this to be true, rather than just a belief, seemingly there would have to be demonstrable evidence that consciousness can be separated from any and all objects or contents of consciousness.
Let's be clear: Sam Harris considers that the brain produces consciousness. He doesn't show any sign of believing in a transcendent non-physical consciousness (like soul or spirit) which exists apart from the brain. So I have no problem with this aspect of Harris' view of consciousness.
But as I said in the previous post, I can't grasp what Harris is getting at when he writes about what he experienced while meditating:
There were periods during which all thought subsided, and any sense of having a body disappeared. What remained was a blissful expanse of conscious peace that had no reference point in any of the usual sensory channels.
Many scientists and philosophers believe that consciousness is always tied to one of the five senses -- and that the idea of a "pure consciousness" apart from seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching is a category error and a spiritual fantasy. I am confident that they are mistaken.
Hmmmm. I'm just as confident that they are not mistaken. It seems obvious that everyday consciousness isn't limited to sense experiences. Dreaming is a conscious act. It doesn't involve seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or touching via the five senses.
Likewise, I can believe that in a state of deep meditation, Sam Harris did indeed lose any sense of having a body, and wasn't thinking in any ordinary sense. But Harris was still conscious of something, right? He speaks of this as "a blissful expanse of conscious peace."
That doesn't sound like "pure consciousness." It sounds like consciousness of a blissful expanse of conscious peace. No thought. No sensory impressions. But there were contents within Harris' consciousness: bliss, an expanse, peace.
Harris appears to view consciousness as something separate and distinct from what the brain does. Yet Harris makes clear that brains are us. For example:
We know, of course, that human minds are the product of human brains. There is simply no question that your ability to decode and understand this sentence depends upon neurophysiological events taking place inside your head at this moment. But most of this mental work occurs entirely in the dark, and it is a mystery why any part of the process should be attended by consciousness.
This passage makes good sense. Aside from the final part of the last sentence.
Harris sees a mystery where there doesn't have to be one. He distinguishes between (1) brain processes and (2) consciousness. But if consciousness is a product of the human brain, not something separate and distinct from the brain, then consciousness is part of what the brain does.
Consciousness is a brain process.
Another book I'm reading, Paul Singh's The Great Illusion: The Myth of Free Will, Consciousness, and the Self, has a more accurate way of looking upon consciousness.
Unscientific philosophy has been able to talk about "consciousness" ever since the word was invented during the Middle Ages. For centuries, this consciousness (mind or soul) has been credited with possessing all sorts of unnatural and immaterial features and powers.
Philosophical discussions of consciousness down to this day have a common strategy: start from the claim that this consciousness has key features that aren't simply examples of being aware or sentient or thoughtful about what is going on, and then claim that only a second kind of mental reality can explain those peculiar features.
Philosophers make this claim appear intuitive and hard to deny. It's so easy to convert being "conscious" into "consciousness" just by adding the suffix "ness" to that word. The English language makes it easy to convert an adjective into a noun. What else can the suffix "ness" get attached to, in order [to] make a new thing seem to pop into its own existence?
If that apple looks red, then why can't that apple have redness. Then why can't we just detach that redness and suppose that redness can be its own sort of entity, quite apart from red things like apples? After this linguistic magic, philosophers can then say things like, "I see the red apple in front of me, but I can also be conscious of that redness as well, and that redness is something else besides any apple's color."
And where is this extra redness, if it isn't something in the apple itself?
Likewise, Sam Harris seems to believe that consciousness is something "extra" that gets added on to brain processes. Otherwise, why would Harris speak about "pure consciousness"?
Here's another passage from Singh's book which speaks to this issue.
Complaining that psychology can't explain why red things look red to our brains is like complaining that a chef who has demonstrated how to combine and cook all the ingredients of a casserole still hasn't explained why a casserole has come out of the oven.
Casseroles simply are what get produced by that precise cooking procedure. Conscious experiences simply are what get produced by environments stimulating brains to deal with ongoing events.
I'm with Singh.
Harris has an extensive history of meditating under the tutelage of various teachers. He has left behind most of the mystical crap that was part of those teachings, but seemingly not all of it. Harris' attachment to "consciousness" being something distinct from what the brain does appears to be a holdover from those earlier Buddhist days.
This is another Paul Singh quote that makes a lot of sense to me.
Being conscious is necessary for enjoying life, but consciousness isn't something that people have. Biologically and psychologically, it only makes sense to say that an animal can consciously enjoy eating food, but it is the eating of food that is enjoyed and not the consciousness as well.
We don't say, "That meal was a pleasure to eat, and my consciousness of eating was pleasurable too." There is no such thing as consciousness as yet another thing for us to enjoy. We simply enjoy the things around us. It is the food that is enjoyable, not the consciousness of the food.
Similarly, when I open my eyes and look at an apple on the table in front of me, I see the apple, not a consciousness of the apple. There aren't two things, a seen apple and a consciousness of the apple, involved here. If I say, "The apple is in my consciousness," I can only mean to say "I see the apple," or "The apple is in my range of vision."
Imagine a psychologist asking a subject to look at that apple on the table, and then asking, "Don't tell me whether you see the apple. I'm sure that you see the apple. I just want you to tell me if the apple is in your consciousness."
Surely this would be a joke. Seeing the apple is just being conscious of the apple. Having consciousness is simply being conscious of what's going on. There is no such thing as consciousness over and above simply being alive and aware of one's surroundings.