Sam Harris on consciousness

October 19th, 2011 in clues. Tags: , , , , , ,


I have twice before blogged about high-profile atheist Sam Harris, none too favourably – in Sam Harris – man of reason? and Sam Harris on faith – sensible or silly?.

So it is pleasing to report some of Sam’s thinking that I can resonate with.

It came in a post, The mystery of consciousness, on Sam’s blog. I believe Sam is making five main points:

1. Definition:

He defines consciousness as sentience characterised by subjective experience.

2. Consciousness does not seem to fit within physical reality.

Although the human brain may be described scientifically in terms of atoms and chemical reactions, this is not the whole story. “At the level of your experience, you are not a body of cells, organelles, and atoms; you are consciousness and its ever-changing contents, passing through various stages of wakefulness and sleep, and from cradle to grave.” Harris goes on to say:

…. no evidence for consciousness exists in the physical world …. The only thing in this universe that attests to the existence of consciousness is consciousness itself …. Absolutely nothing about a brain, when surveyed as a physical system, suggests that it is a locus of experience. Were we not already brimming with consciousness ourselves, we would find no evidence of it in the physical universe

3. Consciousness is our primary reality.

Everything else could be an illusion, like the world in The Matrix, but our experience of consciousness would still be real. “… the fact that I am having an experience is indisputable (to me, at least)…. Consciousness is the one thing in this universe that cannot be an illusion.”

4. It is difficult to explain how consciousness emerged in the evolutionary process.

He says: “this notion of emergence strikes me as nothing more than a restatement of a miracle” It is a similar problem to trying to explain how the universe appeared out of nothing:

The idea that everything (matter, space-time, their antecedent causes, and the very laws that govern their emergence) simply sprang into being out of nothing seems worse than a paradox. “Nothing,” after all, is precisely that which cannot give rise to “anything,” let alone “everything.”

5. We don’t really understand consciousness.

He concludes: “an analysis of purely physical processes will never yield a picture of consciousness”.

Why I find this significant

It is fascinating that an educated and outspoken atheist should be making these points, because they are generally points made by christians. For example:

  • Many atheists would be ‘physicalists’, believing that the observable and measurable physical world is all of reality. But Harris is arguing that the physical world cannot explain consciousness, which is a view more commonly held by christians.
  • CS Lewis and others have used the experiential reality of our conscious minds, together with its rationality and ethics, to construct arguments for the reality of God.
  • Most surprising of all (to me) are his comments on the origin of the universe, which could easily be taken to be the beginnings of a Cosmological argument for the existence of God.

It will be interesting to see where these thoughts lead him.

Read more on consciousness and the origin of the universe.