Book Club: Does The Self Exist?

Andrew Sullivan —  Oct 21 2014 @ 12:02pm


In our discussion of Sam Harris’ Waking Up, I want to try a different tack than in previous Book Club discussions. I want to throw this over to you as quickly as possible, rather than write a review of the entire book as an introduction. And with Sam’s dense but deep little tome, there’s one question I’m eager to ask Dish readers about: were you convinced by his argument that there is no real self as we usually understand it?

Sam makes the case with a dozen little perspective shifts. He cites the fact that the right side of the brain often has no idea what the left side is doing, and vice-versa and asks: how can there be a coherent “I” if that is true? Or he challenges us with Derek Parfit’s thought experiments about the inherently unstable entity called a self “that is carried along from one moment to the next.” Or he notes how much of our lives are lived without our active consciousness at all, where even the task of sipping a cup of coffee is undergirded by

motor neurons, muscle fibers, neurotransmitters I can’t feel or see. And how do I initiate this behavior? I haven’t a clue. In what sense, then do I initiate it? That is difficult to say.

Much of this argument is entirely by a process of elimination. He merely chips away at a stable notion of the self – even in its most intuitive form – and challenges us to ask what remains:

However one looks for it, this self is nowhere to be found. It cannot be seen amid the particulars of experience, and it cannot be seen when experience itself is viewed as a totality. However its absence can be found – and when it is, the feeling of being a self disappears. This is an empirical claim.

The key argument, it seems to me, is that we are not identical to our thoughts. Our existence is rooted elsewhere – in fact, in the banishment of thought. It reminded me of the account given by Pope Francis of his experience before he signed the document that would make him Pope:

Before I accepted I asked if I could spend a few minutes in the room next to the one with the balcony overlooking the square. My head was completely empty and I was seized by a great anxiety. To make it go away and relax I closed my eyes and made every thought disappear, even the thought of refusing to accept the position, as the liturgical procedure allows.

I closed my eyes and I no longer had any anxiety or emotion. At a certain point I was filled with a great light. It lasted a moment, but to me it seemed very long. Then the light faded, I got up suddenly and walked into the room where the cardinals were waiting and the table on which was the act of acceptance. I signed it …

For Sam, this is evidence merely that meditation works, that stilling unending thoughts enables a person to live mindfully rather than to experience life as one goddamned distraction after another. He sees this as proof of the absence of a self and a way to live with clarity and calm as we are beset by feelings and passions, good and bad.

But the Pope suggests another way of seeing this: not as proof of the absence of self so much as the simplicity and calm of being oneself with God. It is a mysterious way of being, this communion with God. And maybe, experientially, it is indistinguishable from Sam’s meditative clarity and occasional epiphanies. But in it, for a Christian like me, the self does not disappear. It is merely overwhelmed by divine love and thereby fully becomes itself. In fact, this is the core mystery of our faith: communion with something greater and other than us, and a communion marked by love. In fact, something even more miraculous than that: a divine love that actually loves you uniquely.

I can read much of Sam’s book, in other words, and yet reach a very different conclusion about what’s really going on. Or am I only projecting what I want to believe onto the experience itself? Feel free to tell me. Not that it usually requires a request.

More relevant: Did Harris persuade you on the question of the self? Where was his argument’s weakest – or strongest – link for you? Email your thoughts to