Tag Archives: Sam Harris

Inquiry into Consciousness Part III – The Self

There is the experience of consciousness. On the surface, it carries with it the assumption of individual agency. This assumption assumes that there is a self which experiences consciousness and that this self has some degree of agency or free-will.

In my last post I examined the “internal” experience of consciousness which consists of various kinds of thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations. This examination revealed to me that although the assumptions of self and agency seem obvious they tend to break down under scrutiny.

Say I have a creative idea and act on it (e.g., I write a novel, song or paint a picture). I implicitly want to take credit for this idea even though I do not know the process by which that idea came into being. Nor do I know that I am responsible for this process even on a subconscious level. The implicitness of this desire to take credit stems from the fact that the idea seemed to originate inside my head. My head is a part of my body and seemingly encasing the physical space where consciousness exists (i.e., behind the eyes and between the ears). Concurrent with this assumption of credit is the assumption that there is a “me” who is capable of taking credit. The implicitness of this assumption seems to primarily stem from the fact that I have a body which occupies physical space and that I have memories which form a continuous timeline of my experience. So there is a conflict that exists between my inability to control my internal experience and the assumption that I should nevertheless take credit for it.

I have been exposed to the idea of “no self” for some time but I cannot say that I totally understand it or feel it. The fact that thoughts occur and I want to take credit for them without understanding the process of their creation begins to shed light on this illusive concept. Not only do I not understand the process of thought creation but I cannot predict or control my thought creation. If I don’t understand the process by which something is created, nor can I predict or control that thing, can I really take credit for it? The self is intimately connected to my thoughts and internal experience, none of which I control. As such, can I really claim there is a self?

But still, the feeling of a self seems very strong and real most of the time especially when I do not directly place my attention on it. Perhaps I could say that there is a self but that this self does not control it’s thoughts and internal experience. In this respect, the self is more of a vessel for this experience. But the self I feel myself to be is not the vessel it is the internal experience. And much like my internal experience, I don’t control most of the functions of my body. I can control my breathing to an extent, but I don’t consciously control my pancreas (for example). If there is a self, I cannot define it as that which I control. It is really what I experience. But saying my self is my experience is different than thinking of my self as an autonomous, sovereign being.

Alan Watts talks about the self being an illusion and that there are only experiences without the need for a self to be the the one who experiences the experiences. This is a difficult idea to understand because as I said it feels like I exist and act autonomously. I have memories that connect my experiences into a life. I have a body etc. etc. I guess the best I can do is say that my self is my experience. This includes both internal and external experience (i.e., the world). Alan Watts says as much. If I am my heart beating then I am also the sun shining.

I recently listened to the audio book version of “Free Will” by Sam Harris. His basic premise is that human beings generally exist with the assumption that they have free will. That is, they believe they are to some degree consciously choosing the actions they take in life. Harris argues this assumption is incoherent in that thoughts appear in the human conscience out of nowhere and therefore the humans experiencing these thoughts cannot take credit for them. Moreover, human experience is shaped by external forces that are out of one’s control. For example, humans have no control over the family, social class and geographic location they are born into. To a large degree, the events in life are also out of one’s control and all of these external forces shape the decisions we make as humans. Curiously, Harris is a staunch atheist. But the idea of no self and no free will tends to tilt me more in the theist camp. After all, something is going on. The experience exists even though my self does not. Something has to be the beneficiary of this experience of consciousness.

The idea of no self can be disappointing because it goes against the implicit assumptions regarding the experience of consciousness. But if there is no me, then who is getting disappointed by the fact that there is no me? This is indeed difficult to wrap one’s head around. Perhaps the idea of the self is the wrong way to go about it. I do not claim to know the right way to go about it. Let us say for now, (1) there is consciousness, both internal and external, (2) there is experience of consciousness and (3) there is existence. Perhaps this is the implication of the statement “I am that I am” (Exodus 3:14). There is simply pure “am-ness” and maybe it is only God that has a self and can create thought. I will explore this in the next blog post.

1 Comment

Filed under Psychology, Religion

An Analysis of “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill: Part I, Chapter One – Introduction

CONTEXT

I recently started my own web based business. Around the same time, I heard through multiple sources that I should read a curious book entitled “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill. This book surprised me in that it described in unique detail how the psychology and physics of wealth and success function and interact according to the author. He claims to have arrived at this understanding by interviewing 500 people who climbed from nothing to great wealth. There is some controversy about the veracity of this claim. But enough sources recommended this book to overcome this controversy.

Hill first published the book in 1937 during the tail end of the Great Depression which he attributed to a generalized lack of confidence in the economic systems around the world. Obviously, this time period predates our current politically correct mindsets as is demonstrated by some of the examples he cites in his introduction including a “colored child who deliberately master[ed] an adult white person” demanding, “MY MAMMY’S GOTTA HAVE THAT FIFTY CENTS!” and the “Oriental” who described what he perceived to be the “queer slant” of an American’s eyes. For those easily offended persons take note. At the risk of being taken out of context and branded a racist, I actually found it refreshing to read the writing of a person who’s context and psychology is so different than the typical modern perspective.

The following series of blog posts will be an analysis of Hill’s book. I will also try to connect this material to other writings and ideas I have been exposed to recently as they all seem to relate in an interesting way.

THE NATURE OF THOUGHTS

[W]e are the Masters of our Fate, the Captains of out Souls, because we have the power to control our thoughts. 

Hill bases his philosophy on the premise that people have the power to control their own thoughts. Ironically, if I do  not think about it too hard, this basic premise seems to be true. However, if I do think about it, it is not at all clear that this premise is true. To wit, I do not actually know where my thoughts come from. As I experience thoughts, they materialize “in my head” and I feel justified to take credit for them as if my mind manufactured the thoughts in some intentional way as an architect would plan out the construction of a house. But as far as I am aware, thoughts simply appear from nothing. It is just as likely that I created them as it would be that they are produced somewhere else and then transmitted into my head.

Then again, it is not clear how that thought would have been created by a third party and then transmitted to me. That third party would have had to create the thought themselves and that presumably would have taken some planning (i.e., other thoughts). As such, it does not seem possible that a thought could be created because to create requires forethought which itself is a thought. Perhaps thoughts exist independent of the people who think them as a cloud floating in the air that is encountered by the thinker. Perhaps what I can do is make myself more or less open to these thoughts by adopting a mindset. Although I am not certain of that because a mind set might be no different than a thought in the final analysis.

Alternatively, it seems as if I can genuinely influence my mindset through an act of will. If I am in a negative mood, I can recognize this mental state and then take steps to change it. There seems to be agency to this process. But perhaps this agency is merely the implantation of agency from a third party. It does not feel that way but I cannot be certain about that.

Obviously, this line of reasoning can lead down a rabbit hole. For example, if I am not the creator of my thoughts then what exactly am I? I seem to be the one who experiences my thoughts. That is, I am the consciousness that experiences the thoughts I think. Sam Harris in his book “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion” made the point that there is no “I” but rather consciousness and the content of consciousness. The perception that there is an I who is conscious is an illusion generated by the fact that consciousness seems to take place inside our heads where the brain is located. The nature of consciousness, however, is beyond the scope of “Think and Grow Rich”.  The point is, that thinking is a complicated phenomenon and this complexity is worth considering because the premise of the book is about thinking. In fact it is the first word in the title. However, meta-thinking is probably counteractive to thinking and growing rich in the manner Hill describes.

Accordingly, (I suppose) in order to properly use the book one must assume that the I of consciousness exists and that it (to some extent) controls the thoughts that pop up within it. Let us proceed with that assumption.

USING THE POWER TO CONTROL THOUGHTS

TRULY, “thoughts are things,” and powerful things at that, when they are mixed with definiteness of purpose, persistence, and a BURNING DESIRE for their translation into riches, or other material objects. 

Regardless of where thoughts come from and how they are created (and if they are created) they are things that exist. Of this we can be as certain as we can about anything. Hill states with authority that when thoughts are combined with definiteness of purpose, persistence and desire the result will be the achievement or manifestation of what is desired. The more recent book written ostensibly to appeal to Stage Green, new aged women, “The Secret” made this claim as well. Implicit in this strategy is that the universe will supernaturally cooperate with the thinker as long as the thinker thinks in a specific manner. Indeed, Hill says exactly that.

[T]he ether is filled with a form of universal power which ADAPTS itself to the nature of the thoughts we hold in our minds; and INFLUENCES us, in natural ways, to transmute our thoughts into their physical equivalent [and] this power makes no attempt to discriminate between destructive thoughts and constructive thoughts… 

That is, people with negative mindsets sabotage themselves and the universe they live in through their negative thinking. In the introduction, Hill illustrates this principle with three stories. The first is the story of Edwin Barnes who had no money but through his will and persistence became a business partner with Thomas Edison. The second is the story of R. U. Darby a gold prospector who mined gold but quit when the seam ran out only to later find out that the seam continued three feet away. Subsequently, he became a millionaire by selling life insurance using this lesson of persistence. The third is Henry Ford who seemingly willed the V8 engine into existence when everyone else told him it was impossible.

The supernatural quality of the universe cooperating with a person who possesses the correct mental state is a central premise of this book. Certainly, it seems logical that a person who is motivated and confident to achieve a goal is more likely to achieve that goal than is a person who is lazy and lacks confidence. What seems less likely or unproven is that the universe works to manifest the thoughts that exist in the minds of people. However, as stated earlier, I do not understand how thoughts are created and if they are truly my own. As such, perhaps thoughts are more connected to the external physical universe than I know.

 

 

4 Comments

Filed under Psychology