Tackling the Doctrine of Anatta
That principle is the subject of this book: the feeling that we call “I” is an illusion. There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is–the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eyes, looking out at a world that is separate from yourself–can be altered or entirely extinguished.
Harris clearly demonstrates that he has matured in his contemplative practice and gained important insights, and he also brings the perspective of a neuroscientist into his evaluation of the doctrine of anatta. This adds even more authority to the doctrine, as presented in the book. Based on his experiences as a meditator, Harris declares:
It’s possible to stand free of the juggernaut of self, if only for moments at a time.
Yet, Harris also exposes the vanity and emptiness of so-called “enlightenment” (nirvana), which is defined–in plain Buddhist terms–as the extinction of self and of desires. He even confesses that he has “never met an enlightened person”. Perhaps nirvana is an unnatural, impractical, pointless, or unattainable goal? Harris seems to insinuate that it is with his plain admission, after having spent years experimenting with contemplative practices under various gurus.
But cessation never arrived.
The insights that lead Buddhists to declare that there is no self, no soul within the body, deal with the experience of consciousness as a mindstream with no permanent physical fixture. When we try to find the self, we can not; ergo Harris says that there is no subject, only objects of our observation and attention, and calls this the “selfless nature of consciousness”.
This is why many lamas and gurus throughout the ages have asked “Where is the self?”, and invited their disciples to point the self to them.
Harris makes it his project to root the doctrine of anatta in neuroscience. He carries out thought experiments with little empirical backing. Much of what he argues rests on the theory that consciousness can be divided and produce two separates mindstreams, two separate conscious “selves”, or halves of brain. He argues this as a neuroscientist, and cites the surgery known as callostomy, where a certain portion of the brain is removed which keeps the two halves of the brain from communicating with each other. He produces no concrete experiment to test his theory. Would it be ethical to produce a schizophrenic patient whose brain lobes can’t connect, just to test this theory? If not, his theory is not provable.
The same happens with his teleportation thought experiment, which is wild speculation and an impractical hypothesis. Here, he asks the question of whether the self remains, if all the atoms in our bodies are teleported to Mars–in essence, destroyed and rebuilt–and retain memory of our past. Harris concludes:
I agree with most of what Parfit has to say about personal identity (that “there is no stable self that is carried along from one moment to the next”). However, because his view is purely the product of logical argument, it can seem uncannily detached from the reality of our lives.
In the end, other than thought experiments, there is no convincing and tangible proof that a natural philosopher can really evaluate for the theory of no-self, and it appears to be not empirical.
Also, a very strong case can be made in ethics for respecting the ego’s needs. There are many practical reasons why a sense of self is needed by natural beings. The ego is far more than merely a source of suffering and confusion, as the ascetics assert.
Harris seems to have entirely bought into no-self, yet this doctrine of anatta does nothing to address the very real problems of inter-subjective relations and ethics, although it may by philosophically interesting and help us to question in what way we exist and to avoid painful entanglements.
Anatta–even Harris admits–does not mean that people are illusory. It’s actually a quite sophisticated reaction by Siddhartha Gautama (the historical Buddha) against the Vedic conception of the immortal soul (atman), which is not based on the study of nature. It does not mean that there is no self, but that self does not exist as we conventionally imagine it. That it’s not eternal, that it depends fully on temporary, changing factors coexisting here and now.
Buddhism teaches that the (appearance of) self is made up of skandhas, or aggregates. The true meaning of these aggregates may be lost in translation, as Sanskrit and English are very different languages from very different ages, but the five functions or aspects that constitute a sentient being according to Buddhist doctrine are translated as: matter (the body), sensation, perception, mental formations and consciousness.
What this means is that we are constituted of these factors, which together create the appearance of a self. When one or more of these factors fails to exist, the self vanishes. The self is, therefore, a composite product of many variables. The idea here is that each of these aggregates do not constitute a self, but that when found together in nature, the phenomenon of self emerges just as molecules are made up of certain kinds of atoms, and just as elements are made up of certain combinations of molecules.
Notice the sense of emergence that is presupposed in materialism. We believe that, first, there are atoms and molecules, then progressively more complex things. We believe that from inert matter emerges living matter, and that living things evolve by developing complex symbiotic relations with each other, and only then there emerges egoism, the self, the me versus another in struggle or cooperation, identity and consciousness.
But for the idealist, consciousness is a mysterious word that gets thrown around as if it automatically evidenced a non-natural or supernatural realm. Worse yet, and in spite of all the evidence that can be attained from the study of nature, they believe that consciousness came first (although it is more complex than inert matter). While it’s true that living entities have the power to influence their environment, this influence only occurs once they have emerged, once they have evolved consciousness. But all the living entities emerged from progressively simpler forms, all the way down to the stardust at the dawn of all things.
I contrast this paradigm of emergence from simpler to more complex forms with the idealist paradigm of projection from the top-down (consciousness exists first, then matter), which is not what we see when we study nature. This is generally understood to be the key difference between the naturalist philosophers and the theologians.
It may be that the error that Harris makes has to do in part with looking for the self in a top-down approach. He won’t find it. The sense of self is complex, and it will therefore emerge from simpler factors as do all complex things in nature.