By Sam Harris
Although we are only beginning to understand the human mind at the level of the brain, and we know nothing about how consciousness itself comes into being, it isn’t too soon to say that the conventional self is an illusion. There is no place for a soul inside your head.
Sometime around her third birthday, my daughter asked, “Where does gravity come from?” After talking about how objects attract each other—and wisely ignoring the curvature of space-time—my wife and I arrived at our deepest and most honest answer: “We don’t know. Gravity is a mystery. People are still trying to figure it out.”
This type of answer continues to divide humanity. We could have said, as billions of people would have, “Gravity comes from God.” But this would have merely stifled our daughter’s intelligence—and taught her to stifle it. We could have told her, “Gravity might be God’s way of dragging people to hell, where they burn in fire. And you will burn there forever if you doubt that God exists.” No Christian or Muslim can offer a compelling reason why we shouldn’t have said such a thing—or the moral equivalent—and yet that would have been nothing less than the emotional and intellectual abuse of a child. I have now heard from many thousands of people who were oppressed in this way, from the moment they could speak, by the terrifying ignorance and fanaticism of their parents. The reason for this widespread mistreatment of children is clear: Most people still believe that religion provides something essential that cannot be had any other way.
Twelve years have now passed since I first realized how high the stakes are in this war of ideas. I remember feeling the jolt of history when the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center. For many of us, that was the moment we understood that things can go terribly wrong in our world—not because life is unfair or moral progress impossible but because we have failed, generation after generation, to abolish the delusions and animosities of our ignorant ancestors. The worst ideas continue to thrive—and are still imparted, in their purest form, to children.
What is the meaning of life? What is our purpose on earth? These are some of the great, false questions of religion. We need not answer them, for they are badly posed, but we can live our answers all the same. At a minimum, we can create the conditions for human flourishing in this life—the only life of which any of us can be certain. That means we should not terrify our children with thoughts of hell or poison them with hatred for infidels. We should not teach our sons to consider women their future property or convince our daughters that they are property even now. And we must decline to tell our children that human history began with bloody magic and will end with bloody magic in a glorious war between the righteous and the rest.
Such sins against reason and compassion do not represent the totality of religion, but they lie at its core. As for the rest— charity, community, ritual, and the contemplative life—we need not take anything on faith to embrace those goods. It is one of the most damaging lies of religion—whether liberal, moderate, or extreme—to insist that we must.
Spirituality remains the great hole in secularism, humanism, rationalism, atheism, and all the other defensive postures that reasonable men and women strike in the presence of unreasonable faith. People on both sides of this divide imagine that vision ary experience has no place within the context of science—apart from the corridors of a mental hospital. Until we can talk about spirituality in rational terms—acknowledging the validity of selftranscendence—our world will remain shattered by dogmatism. This book has been my attempt to begin such a conversation. There is experience, and then there are the stories we tell about it.
At its best, religion is a set of stories that recount the ethical and contemplative insights of our wisest ancestors. But these stories come to us bundled with ancient confusion and perennial lies. And they invariably harden into doctrines that defy revision, generation after generation. The great pressure of accumulating knowledge—in science, medicine, history—has begun to scour our culture of many of these ideas. With the force of a glacier, perhaps, but at a similar pace. The exponential increase in the power of technology brings with it a commensurate increase in the consequences of human ignorance. We do not have centuries to wait for our neighbors to come to their senses. Religious stories may bring meaning to people’s lives, but some meanings are patently false and divisive. What does a spiritual experience mean? If you are a Christian sitting in church, it might mean that Jesus Christ survived his death and has taken a personal interest in the fate of your soul. If you are a Hindu praying to Shiva, you will have a very different story to tell.
Altered states of consciousness are empirical facts, and human beings experience them under a wide range of conditions. To understand this, and to seek to live a spiritual life without deluding ourselves, we must view these experiences in universal and secular terms. Happiness and suffering, however extreme, are mental events. The mind depends upon the body, and the body upon the world, but everything good or bad that happens in your life must appear in consciousness to matter. This fact offers ample opportunity to make the best of bad situations—changing your perception of the world is often as good as changing the world—but it also allows a person to be miserable even when all the material and social conditions for happiness have been met. During the normal course of events, your mind will determine the quality of your life.
Of course, the mind is as contingent as the body—and the limits of the body are obvious: I am precisely as tall as I am, and not an inch taller. I can jump as high as I can, and no higher. I can’t see what is behind my head. My knee hurts. The boundaries of my mind are just as clear: I cannot speak a word of Korean. I don’t remember what I did on this date in 2011, or the last words I read of Dante, or even the first words I spoke to my wife this morning. Although I can alter my mood and states of attention, I can do so only within a narrow range. If I am tired, I can open my eyes a little wider and try to perk myself up, but I cannot completely banish the feeling of fatigue. If I am slightly depressed, I can brighten my mood with happy thoughts. I can even access a feeling of happiness directly by simply recalling what it is like to be happy—deliberately putting a smile in my mind—but I cannot reproduce the greatest joy I have ever felt. Everything about my mind and body seems to feel the weight of the past. I am just as I am.
But consciousness is different. It appears to have no form at all, because anything that would give it form must arise within the field of consciousness. Consciousness is simply the light by which the contours of mind and body are known. It is that which is aware of feelings such as joy, regret, amusement, and despair. It can seem to take their shape for a time, but it is possible to recognize that it never quite does. In fact, we can directly experience that consciousness is never improved or harmed by what it knows. Making this discovery, again and again, is the basis of spiritual life.
As we have seen, there is no compelling reason to believe that the mind is independent of the brain. And yet the deflationary attitude toward consciousness taken by many scientists—wherein reality is considered only from the outside, in third-person terms— is also unwarranted. A middle path exists between making religion out of spiritual life and having no spiritual life at all.
We have long known that how things seem in the world can be misleading, and this is no less true of the mind itself. And yet many people have found that through sustained introspection, how things seem can be brought into closer register with how they are. In one sense, the science that underlies this claim is in its infancy—but in another, it is complete. Although we are only beginning to understand the human mind at the level of the brain, and we know nothing about how consciousness itself comes into being, it isn’t too soon to say that the conventional self is an illusion. There is no place for a soul inside your head. Consciousness itself is divisible—as we saw in the case of split-brain patients—and even in an intact brain consciousness is blind to most of what the mind is doing. Everything we take ourselves to be at the level of our subjectivity—our memories and emotions, our capacity for language, the very thoughts and impulses that give rise to our behavior—depends upon distinct processes that are spread out over the whole of the brain. Many of these can be independently interrupted or extinguished. The sense, therefore, that we are unified subjects—the unchanging thinkers of thoughts
and experiencers of experience—is an illusion. The conventional self is a transitory appearance among transitory appearances, and it vanishes when looked for. We need not await any data from the lab to say that self-transcendence is possible. And we need not become masters of meditation to realize its benefits. It is within our capacity to recognize the nature of thoughts, to awaken from the dream of being merely ourselves and, in this way, to become better able to contribute to the well-being of others.
Spirituality begins with a reverence for the ordinary that can lead us to insights and experiences that are anything but ordinary. And the conventional opposition between humility and hubris has no place here. Yes, the cosmos is vast and appears indifferent to our mortal schemes, but every present moment of consciousness is profound. In subjective terms, each of us is identical to the very principle that brings value to the universe. Experiencing this directly—not merely thinking about it—is the true beginning of spiritual life.
We are always and everywhere in the presence of reality. Indeed, the human mind is the most complex and subtle expression of reality we have thus far encountered. This should grant profundity to the humble project of noticing what it is like to be you in the present. However numerous your faults, something in you at this moment is pristine—and only you can recognize it.
Open your eyes and see.