Sam Harris: Consciousness Is Puzzling

In his latest blog post, Sam Harris comments on the mystery of consciousness, and vaguely stakes out a position. One thing he does make quite clear is that he cannot accept what his friend Daniel Dennett seems to be saying, which is that consciousness is just some sort of illusion. In this he’s in good company, because neither can John Searle, David Chalmers, Bill Vallicella, or just about anybody else, including me. The very assertion seems to contradict itself, and even after having read a great deal of Dennett over the years I can’t get my head round what he’s trying to put across in this regard. I fully understand, and agree with, what Dennett says about our being fooled into thinking our conscious experience is far more continuous and plenary than it really is, but there remains the undeniable fact that we have conscious, subjective experiences, and I quite agree with Sam Harris that “Consciousness is the one thing in this universe that cannot be an illusion.” I think Harris oversimplifies when he says “either the lights are on or they are not” — I would say that the truth involves something like a dimmer switch — but yes, at bottom there is a binary fact of the matter: an organism has some sort of subjective experience or it doesn’t.

The rest of the post is just a throwing-up of hands. After pausing to remark on the current disfavor of “mind-first’ ontologies fashionable in the mid-20th century in favor of reductionist materialism (with his apparent approval), he goes on to say that the currently prevailing view — that consciousness emerges from the activities of certainly types of matter, suitably configured — is “incomprehensible”:

To say that consciousness emerged at some point in the evolution of life doesn’t give us an inkling of how it could emerge from unconscious processes, even in principle.
I believe that this notion of emergence is incomprehensible—rather like a naive conception of the big bang….

[T]he idea that consciousness is identical to (or emerged from) unconscious physical events is, I would argue, impossible to properly conceive—which is to say that we can think we are thinking it, but we are mistaken. We can say the right words, of course—“consciousness emerges from unconscious information processing.” We can also say “Some squares are as round as circles” and “2 plus 2 equals 7.” But are we really thinking these things all the way through? I don’t think so.

Well, I don’t know what it means to Harris to “properly” conceive an idea, but it seems to me that the idea that consciousness emerges somehow from the activity of our brains (a distinction needs to be made here between what our biological brains do and mere “information processing”, I think) is surely conceivable, and not incoherently or incomprehensibly so, despite our ignorance as to how the trick is done. It may be that the answer will elude us forever; to fully understand it may even require intelligence, or ways of modeling the world, quite beyond what our modified ape brains are capable of. But the hypothesis itself is comprehensible enough, and given all the evidence that consciousness is supervenient upon the physical brain — and the fact that the only loci of consciousness that we know to exist are our own supremely complex brains, which came into existence through a gradual process of evolution from inanimate matter — I don’t think it’s about to go away anytime soon.

But I will admit: it’s a poser.

You can read Harris’s post here.


  1. JK says

    “…beyond what our modified ape brains are capable of. … — and the fact that the only loci of consciousness that we know to exist are our own supremely complex brains…”

    There’s the rub, “…the only loci of consciousness that we know to exist are our own. …”

    I’m incapable of the sorts of expressions ya’ll do – a confirmed hillbilly, kinda/sorta literate, meaning only that I can read after a fashion – but I really only come here to learn if I can.

    I am aware of our “ape brains” evolving from our other common brain — ie:

    I’d enjoy you really smart guys taking it out of Harris’ language and making it available to us fourth grade level Arkies.

    Most of us would appreciate being “smarterin’ up some by our betterin’.”

    If ya’ll don’t do it – it’ll be Texan Execuratan.

    Posted October 17, 2011 at 12:59 am | Permalink
  2. John says

    Dennett does not require the “emergence” of much at all to create consciousness. This is because he is on record as being very close to Direct Realism. See Dennett’s Dualism for a discussion.

    Posted October 17, 2011 at 3:31 am | Permalink
  3. bob koepp says

    I’m not sure precisely what Harris would count as a “properly” conceived idea, any more than I can explain what Descartes was on about with his “clear and distinct” ideas. But I tend to agree with Harris that it’s “incomprehensible” how consciousness could “emerge” from “suitable configurations” of matter. Although it’s undergone some changes, our understanding of matter since Descartes has attributed to it only properties and dispositions that can be exhaustively characterized in terms of spatio-temporal parameters — which are as objective as objective can be. And so long as we hold onto such a notion of matter, there is nothing here to support a story about the the emergence of anything but more spatio-temporal objective stuff — not subjectivity. Our concept of matter will have to break free from space and time to manage the trick being asked of it (which is how I think the story will actually unfold).

    Posted October 17, 2011 at 10:44 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Bob, I think it’s premature to say what can and can’t emerge from matter; I imagine that the same sort of objections could have been raised to the notion that magnetism could arise from matter suitably configured.

    I agree with you that we need some sort conceptual breakthrough in our understanding of both matter and consciousness to understand how our brains can cause subjective consciousness to arise.

    One correspondent in particular presses me rather hard, every time I put up a post like this, to turn things upside down and accept his view that consciousness is primary, and matter illusory; I might be more inclined to agree were it not for what I consider to be overwhelmingly convincing evidence that consciousness is supervenient upon the workings of the physical brain — in particular the extent to which we can modify or even delete consciousness by tampering even slightly with the brain.

    Traveling today; back online tonight.

    Posted October 17, 2011 at 12:05 pm | Permalink
  5. bob koepp says

    Well, we don’t have an operational concept of “emergence” which, when coupled with our currently operational “spatio-temporal” conception of matter, can issue in anything but what I allude to above as more spatio-temporal stuff. (We can do this quite nicely for magnetic phenomena, which are just one flavor of spatio-temporal stuff.) Something’s gotta change in our concept of matter and/or our concept of emergence to get a cognitive grip on conscious configurations of matter. We have good reasons to think that there are, indeed, conscious configurations of matter. But we have no idea how this could be. So what’s premature?

    Posted October 17, 2011 at 1:08 pm | Permalink
  6. Kevin Kim says

    Malcolm, is your hard-charging correspondent a Hindu? Or perhaps a panpsychist? Or maybe he’s a “mind is moving” adept of Dogen Zenji…?

    Posted October 17, 2011 at 3:15 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Bob, I’ve already agreed that we don’t have the theory of consciousness we’d need to explain how it arises from the activity of the brain, and appear to be at least one major scientific/intellectual breakthrough shy of understanding it. Perhaps we’ll never understand it.

    What’s premature is to suggest, as many do, that consciousness is simply “not the sort of thing” that matter can give rise to. (If that’s not what you were suggesting, then please ignore.) All we have so far is that there are very good reasons to suppose that consciousness is somehow the product of a brain in action, and we don’t know yet how the trick is done.

    As for spatio-temporal stuff, I’d say that consciousness is very easily located in time, if not so in space: it exists right now.

    Posted October 17, 2011 at 10:13 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says


    That’s a good question about my correspondent. Closest to being some sort of Hindu, I think, but very very hard to pin down.

    Posted October 17, 2011 at 10:14 pm | Permalink
  9. bob koepp says

    Malcolm –
    I am sorry if my fixation on details is excruciating and annoying. But my point is that we not only don’t know how the trick is done, we don’t even have any idea how it could be done. Of course, that is not to say that it can’t be done. I will trouble you no further with my skepticism.

    Posted October 18, 2011 at 10:36 am | Permalink
  10. “…, but very very hard to pin down.”

    Sounds like your garden variety politician.

    Posted October 18, 2011 at 11:26 am | Permalink
  11. Malcolm says

    That’s all I was saying, Bob – that we don’t know how the trick is done in no way demonstrates that it can’t be done, as many seem to imagine themselves qualified to insist. Given that nobody has any idea how it can be done, and given also that there are very persuasive reasons to believe that the conscious mind somehow does arise from the activity of the physical brain (i.e. that it appears that somehow the trick is being done), I’m content simply not to know for now, and to see where patient inquiry leads us in coming years. (As I said above, I’m prepared to accept that we may never figure it out; understanding consciousness may just be beyond what we’re capable of, in ways we can’t even imagine.)

    Oh, and I only made half the point about spatio-temporality: I think I can fairly say that my consciousness is located wherever I am, right now.

    Posted October 18, 2011 at 1:16 pm | Permalink
  12. Malcolm says

    Also, Bob, I don’t mind skepticism. Trouble me all you like! You’re quite right that we don’t even know yet what a physical theory of consciousness would look like, and admittedly all I’m offering here is vague promissory notes. (I’m afraid that’s the best we have, though!)

    Some folks argue that such a theory is impossible in principle, and I thought that’s what you were saying. Sorry to have misread you.

    Posted October 18, 2011 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

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