Meditation and The Philosophy of the Self

Can meditation reveal to us real knowledge about the nature of the self? In his recent book ‘Waking Up’ Sam Harris argued that indeed it could.  When reading Harris’s well written little book, I was in the position of a person being told about a land he had never visited and who had to take the word of his guide. So when Harris claimed that experience x or y was possible when meditating, I had to take his word for it about the experiences, as I have only done limited meditation. Harris’s book was very informative and I learned a lot from it. Nonetheless I had some problems with aspects of it from philosophical perspective.
One problem I had with the book was that he wrongly claimed that Dan Dennett and Paul Churchland are eliminativists about consciousness. Dennett has long argued that he is not claiming that consciousness does not exist rather he arguing that consciousness exists but it is just not what you think it is. Paul Churchland never ever claimed that consciousness does not exist. Harris knows both thinkers deny being eliminativists about consciousness so if he is going to claim that they are he should have at least provided some textual evidence to support his claim.  His bald assertion that they are eliminativists is not supported by any evidence.
The reason Harris accused Churchland and Dennett of being eliminativists was because he wanted to create a kind of forced choice. Either you deny consciousness exists or you admit that it exists and cannot be explained by current and (possibly any future science). But I don’t think we need this forced choice. Dennett has worked hard to give us an alternative to this view and I think that if Harris wanted to demonstrate that this view is insufficient he would need to engage with it seriously and not simply caricature it. I personally am coming around to the view that there is a hard problem of consciousness and that Dennett has not explained this issue away. However, Harris didn’t engage with his opponents on this issue at all.

A particularly weak aspect of ‘Waking Up’ was Sam Harris’s claim that we could prove the non existence of the self through meditation. I have long thought of the self as a theoretical fiction;  like Dennett I just think of the self as a centre of descriptive gravity. Harris cites the work of Hume and Parfit as presenting good reasons to be sceptical about the existence of the self. However he goes on to argue that if a person meditates they will have direct experience of the non-existence of the self. He even argues that this direct experience is better evidence than the theoretical arguments of Hume and Parfit. I am sceptical about drawing large scale philosophical conclusions from direct experiences in meditation. Harris seems to agree with me on the point that we shouldn’t draw large scale metaphysical conclusions from meditation but on the issue of the self, but he ignores his own advice and uses his direct experience in meditation to make a controversial philosophical claim.
Philosophers like Locke and Berkeley used to engage in disputes about mental faculties based their direct introspective experiences. Introspective psychology discovered that some people have different mental capacities than others. Some are eidetic images, some can only form vague mental images, while some people are non-imagers (See Galton and William James for statistical introspective evidence, for neuroscientific and behavioural evidence see Kosslyn et al (2006)). Now when Harris argues that he has direct experience of the non-existence of the self he has no evidence other than his own subjective impressions. To support his conclusions he needs to show that most people meditating have the same experiences of the non-existence of the self as him and show that those who don’t have these experiences are meditating incorrectly. Furthermore when people like Descartes, and Berkeley argue that they have a strong experience of the self through direct introspection Harris needs to provide evidence that his experiences in meditation are more valid than their experiences when directly introspecting. If a person doing phenomenological analysis (or introspective psychology) draws a different conclusion from their analysis about the nature of the self how can Harris show that they are mistaken through his direct experiences in meditation? It seems to me he cannot. His claims about the nature of experience of people who meditate are subject to the same objections about claims raised about introspection.

If a person claims that upon close introspection they experience the self (Descartes, Berkeley), and another person claims on close introspection they do not experience the self (Hume) you are at an impasse. It takes philosophical analysis and third person science to decide the issue. Likewise if Harris claims that the self doesn’t exist and he knows this from direct observation in meditating and another spiritualist claims they directly experience the self when in deep meditation we have no way of deciding the issue.  Unless he can overcome these problems Harris must accept that he wrong to draw metaphysical conclusions from his experiences meditating.

Consider Descartes and James differing conceptions of the mind:
“When I consider the mind—i.e. consider myself purely as a thinking thing—I can’t detect any parts within myself; I understand myself to be something single and complete. The whole mind seems to be united to the whole body, ·but not by a uniting of parts to parts, because if a foot or arm or any other part of the body is cut off, nothing is thereby taken away from the mind. As for the faculties of willing, understanding, of sensory perception and so on, these are not parts of the mind, since it is one and the same mind that wills, understands and perceives, They are (I repeat) not parts of the mind, because they are properties or powers of it. (Descartes: Meditations on First Philosophy p. 11)”
Let the case be what it may be for others, I am as confident as I am of anything that, in myself, the stream of thinking (which I emphatically recognize as a phenomenon) is only a careless name for what, when scrutinized reveals itself to consist of the stream of my breathing. (James 1904)
There is I mean no aboriginal stuff or quality of being, contrasted with that of which material objects are made, out of which our thoughts of them are made, but there is a function in experience which thoughts perform…(namely)…knowing. Consciousness is supposed necessary to explain the fact that things not only are, but get reported, are known. (James: 1904 p.101)
Everyone assumes that we have direct introspective acquaintance with our thinking activity as such, with our consciousness as something inward contrasted with the outer objects which it knows. Yet I must confess that for my part I cannot feel sure of that conclusion. Whenever I try to become sensible of my thinking activity as such, what I catch is some bodily fact an impression coming from my brow, or head, or throat or nose. It seems as if consciousness as an inner activity were rather a postulate than a sensibly given fact. (James: 1892: Text Book of Psychology p. 467)

Both thinkers describe their experience of consciousness and thinking differently. From a first person point of view they can say it as they are entitled to do this. The problem comes when they try to generalise their own experiences and claim that all people must experience the world in the same way.  Both thinkers could accuse the other of not introspecting properly. But there seems little we can to resolve the issue. Perhaps both have different types of consciousness or one of them is in the grip of a theory which warps what he experiences. To decide the issue we need to move beyond first person science and use third person science and thought experiments. The exact same situation arises for Sam Harris and his claims about directly experiencing the non-existence of the self. At best he can say is that this is how things seemed to him and he is pretty certain that he is correct. But his subjective reports give him no licence to pontificate about the non-existence of the self for others. Real analysis of whether the self exists or not; relies on philosophical analysis, and third person science, not on the subjective intuitions of people meditating.

4 thoughts on “Meditation and The Philosophy of the Self

  1. oiscarey

    Hi David,

    Very good article. I agree wholeheartedly with your view of Harris caricaturing Dennett, however I would note that Harris admits in Waking Up that he does not understand Dennett’s theory of consciousness. Perhaps he plowed on out of pure stubbornness haha.

    I think that, with regard to your critique of Harris’s view of the selfless nature of consciousness, there was a but more nuance to his argument than “I had an experience therefore everyone else’s experience must be identical”. Harris uses lots and lots of footnotes, and often makes a huge, unsubstantiated claim in-text that has about 4 scientific papers referenced at the end of the book.

    Mattheiu Ricard is a Buddhist monk who works with neuropsychologists to provide scientific understandings of meditation, Harris cites at least one of the papers he coauthored in Waking Up. The science of meditation is in its infancy, but the results of these experiments a particularly strong because they compare the brains of Tibetan Buddhists who have been meditating for decades with non-meditators, or new meditators. The papers can be accessed here:

    This piece seems to be a development on your work on the Typical Mind fallacy, I’m wondering have you read Dennett’s chapter in Consciousness Explained regarding “heterophenomenology”?

    Again, I enjoyed the piece, your writing is wonderfully precise and enjoyable.


    1. surtymind Post author

      Thanks Oisin, Yes I have read Dennett on Heterophenomenology. I am largely positive about it I think that too some degree it is just the standard method of science applied to the mind. But I agree with Thompson and Zahavi that sometimes Dennett though claiming that he is applying the method neutrally is actually presupposing the illusory nature of people’s experiences. I agree with you about Harris he did argue that he isn’t confident of his interpretation of Dennett. I actually share Harris’s view here I am not sure I have Dennett right on Consciousness his theory is complex. On the issue of the studies Harris sites I think these are important studies which demonstrates the effects of meditation on the brain. Together with behavioural studies these studies do show that meditation can be naturalistically studied and has real benefits for practitioners. But I am not sure whether showing neural changes as a result of meditation would prove anything about the existence non-existence of the self. But I will have a read of the papers you linked and think about you said.

  2. mark heyne

    I generally like Sam Harris, but he seems to have started with a Buddhist conclusion about non-ego and this has coloured his experience of meditation. My own experience is less easy to define, but its certainly not of a non-ego state.

  3. Ashok

    the self is complex.. acceptance of a “continuum” for thought to be grammatical in concordance with temporal existence in human actions and apprehensions, postulating the “self”, seems unnecessary to be the tethering back ground in which the search for a non temporal “I” or “self” is undertaken.. the non existence of the same (I), therefore, is as valid does not mean that it necessarily true.. meditation is but a state, non reflectively held… some say “i feel there fore I am” and some others “i think therefore I am”.. and integration of this two rather is the case which is at the disposal for neuro-philosphy.. the relation of thought and behavior, on one hand is no less important than the connection of libido and ego, where the integrating aspect, a priory, or a posteriorily .. constitutes mind.. the effort of the philosopher to establish that mental experiences are not illusory is tremendously important.. a distinction derives rather, as self and mind, and that constitutes the meaning for “mental experience are not illusory” ; consciousness is perhaps is the act of making experiences real, and the derived self is a “value” for transactional significance. the “Buddhist conclusion about non-ego” does not deny but affirm mind fullness.


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