Sam Harris’s Lazy Argument against the Self

Sam Harris’s Lazy Argument against the Self February 13, 2019

“There is no place in the brain for a soul to be hiding.”

I recently heard this phrase on a podcast by Sam Harris, who is an American cognitive neuroscientist and philosopher. Harris, one of the Four Horsemen of Atheism, believes that the self is an illusion that will disappear upon close examination. For Harris, this is a profound liberation, a “relief” akin to waking from sleep.

Harris’ argument for this view, though, is based in error. Allow me to explain.

The self as illusion

Sam Harris believes that each person has the experience of being a “self.” This is characterized by a sense of a coherent identity, as well as the impression of free will. However, this sense of self does not exist apart from the person’s subjective consciousness. There is no evidence, in the brain or elsewhere in the body, for the existence of a real “self.” And as such, Harris concludes that the sense of self is an illusion.

Why, then, does this sense of self exist? Harris claims this illusion is a useful tool that the brain uses in order to integrate thoughts and behaviors into a coherent framework. In other words, the brain generates a narrative to make sense of, and unite, its various experiences. This subjective narrative is the illusory “self.”

Wait a second… even if the brain produces the sense of self, mustn’t there be an “I” to perceive this illusion? Harris believes that this is a conceptual problem, a mere accident of our language because of which we cannot discuss the self without a referent.

In sum, his argument is this: there is no physical evidence for an objective self. A “sense of self,” therefore, is merely a subjective, illusory experience generated by brain processes. As a result, there is no soul.

Harris’ error

There is a basic problem with this line of reasoning. Namely, Harris begins from a certain set of assumptions, and, finding that dualism fails their test, embraces his premises as conclusions.

He believes that a “self” would necessarily reside in a physical location in the brain or body. Such a location could be identified as the “seat” of the self, and therefore would provide physical correlates for the sense of self. Thus Harris assumes that, if such a physical location cannot be found, there cannot be a self.

Then, Harris uses these assumptions to evaluate a dualistic understanding of the soul. Most forms of dualism claim that the mental and the physical are radically different kinds of things. Such theories understand the mind/soul and the brain/body to be separate; the soul does not reside in the body, and its existence is not reducible to or derived from a set of physical processes.

So of course “There is no place in the brain for your soul to be hiding.” Of course dualism fails Harris’ test. Harris’ test is rooted in a physicalist understanding of the person, which dualism explicitly rejects.

In this disagreement, there is a fundamental mismatch in assumptions about the nature of the human person, the mind and the body. But Harris does not argue for his view of the soul, nor does he argue against those of dualism. All he does is use his own assumptions to evaluate dualism, and finding that dualism fails, interprets his premises as conclusions.

Thus, he begs the question of the illusory existence of the self.

The negative and positive against Sam Harris

Please don’t mistake me: I am not arguing for dualism. Dualism has its own set of flaws and failings. All I am arguing is that Sam Harris does not prove what he thinks he does.

On the one hand, I can’t really blame him. Our modern life is characterized by implicit assumptions of both dualism and physicalism. And often, people don’t acknowledge the inherently contradictions in their own thought. So I understand why Sam Harris is tempted to take an easy shot at blasting dualism out of the water.

But on the other, I can totally blame him. Harris makes a very basic logical error by interpreting his premises as conclusions. And so, his argument falls to the ground upon close scrutiny.

My argument against Harris thus does not depend on my own vision of the soul. That said, what positive agenda can I advance?

As science progresses, we are increasingly able to characterize the human person in a way that does not fall into dualism on the one hand and materialism on the other. This characterization is one of fundamental embodiment, of unity of mind and brain, soul and body. I hope to engage and further this promising field throughout my career. In the mean time, I will continue to expose Sam Harris as a lazy philosopher.

Further reading recommendations

Jaegwon Kim’s “Philosophy of Mind” presents a great overview of essential ideas in philosophy of mind. On dualism, read Gilbert Ryle’s foundational work, “The Concept of Mind.

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment

10 responses to “Sam Harris’s Lazy Argument against the Self”

  1. I read your post, and followed the links to your Church Life Journal article. I’m confused what you mean by some terms. I’ve no foundational difficulty with the idea that there is a “self” that is non-deterministic, or that there’s free will. You speak of mind and brain being continuous and indivisible. Fine.

    So what do “soul” and “spirit” mean? Are they different, even? Are they immaterial, are they seperable from the physical body/brain? Do you think something of our personality continues to exist after our deaths… and if so, what, and why do you think that? And if not, do we need those terms at all?

    I know those are a lot of questions, sorry. Links to any pertinent previous writings of yours that address them would be appreciated, in the reasonable case that you don’t feel like answering directly.

    And darn it, I fell off track on habitual kitchen cleaning. Trying again…

  2. Thanks for your response, and for following my links beforehand!

    You’ve hit on an important point – This is definitely an area where clear terminology is imperative. While some theorists see “soul/spirit” and “self” as different, I’ve used them interchangeably in this article. I define them as the spiritual principle of the human person. They are not material insofar as they cannot be reduced to, equated with, identified with, or found in any physical process. However, this does not mean that the soul/spirit is separable from materiality; it requires unity with our material bodies in order to form the single nature of the human person.

    That said, upon death, our soul continues its existence. What changes is that it resides in a new space/time, no longer the space & time of our earthly bodies but that (God willing) of eternity. Of course this raises a host of philosophical questions, and working them out in a theologically coherent manner is a real challenge. Maybe I’ll write a post exploring various positions.

    One final note: I think it’s very important that the body will eventually be Resurrected and reunited with the soul. Though to body will be a redeemed body, it will be our body, and this is essential because the form of our person is a thoroughgoing continuity of body and spirit.

    I hope this answers some of your questions.

    As for the habit formation: make sure you are starting small… harder to fall off the bandwagon if there’s minimal cognitive effort. Let me know how it goes.

  3. Thank you, it does. Of course, there’s still “upon death, our soul continues its existence”, for which position I see no rational justification, but it’s hardly surprising that we differ here.

    I’ve started again, as I said. Just going to try to do something toward it every day.

  4. I think Sam Harris distinguishes between the sense of self, and consciousness itself. The sense of self is an illusory appearance in consiousness, but consciousness is not an illusion. You seem to think that there needs to be a self in order for there to be consciousness. Sam sees the self as a downstream product of consciousness.

  5. So basically you’re arguing against Harris from a Christian’s point of view, while Harris from an atheistic one. While arguing that Harris interprets his premise as conclusion, aren’t you also defending your premise as a conclusion?
    On the one hand you, say that you do not advocate for dualism but on the other, you believe that soul will continue existing after death. Isn’t that dualism? And it seems to me that you believe there must be a self or soul within our bodies to explain our behaviors and beliefs, but I fail to see why that is necessary. Why don’t we just say that the sense of soul is the subjective concept of our brain activity instead of claiming that the soul really exists? If you argue that the existence of soul is self-evident or we just know that, then I guess there is no need to continue the discussion .

  6. Yes, Harris sees the self as a product of consciousness, which is itself produced by brain processes. The problem with his argument against the self remains! He still strives to evaluate a dualist worldview with physicalist assumptions.

  7. No, I’m not arguing against Harris from a Christian point of view. If you read my article, you would know that I merely point out a logical error in his reasoning.

    I do not point out my own positive view until the very end, and I do not provide an argument for my own view. Because the point is NOT “My view is better than that of Sam Harris.” The point is, “Sam Harris doesn’t actually argue for his own view.”

  8. If you meditate the right way the realization of the self being an illusion is 100% there to be realized for anybody, he is talking about aspects of consciousness that are self evident.

  9. For all that you accuse Sam Harris of making assumptions, assuming that there is a thing called a soul that survives the body after death and continues to have some kind of personhood is a huge assumption that has absolutely no evidence whatsoever to support it.

  10. As I have said, time and again, my argument against Sam Harris does NOT depend on my positive understanding of the soul. Just on his mistakes.