Who am I? Well, as far as I know, my name is Nick Alimonos. I am a father, a husband, and a writer. Admittedly, on occasion, I also sell pizza. But do these qualities define me? If you take them away, do I become someone else? Or do I have a soul, a deeper part of me, some immaterial and eternal essence living behind my eyes, somewhere in my body? In other words, what defines the “self” and does it even exist? This fundamental question has puzzled mankind since time immemorial. It has been the subject of debate within religious, philosophical, and scientific circles.
Philosophy has been hijacked, or perhaps “won-over” is a more accurate term, by the materialists. Thanks to advances in science, and new technologies that enable us to peer into the world at the subatomic level, it is commonly accepted that physical matter is all there is. But the problem remains of how to make sense of this new information. As always, there is a danger of “leaps of logic,” even when based on evidence. I recently came across an interesting YouTube video, part of a series called the Asimov Debates, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, where he and other astrophysicists were discussing the birth of the universe “from nothing.” Lawrence Krauss, author of A Universe from Nothing, was on the panel, and he was arguing in favor of truly empty space, or absolute “nothing,” from which came the Big Bang. The other physicists, however, were not so convinced. “What about subatomic particles in a vacuum?” “What about gravity waves?” “What about the fabric of time-space itself?” Nope, said Krauss, those do not count. As a student of philosophy, I found this exchange utterly baffling. It’s not as if these scientists didn’t all have access to the same data. But the debate had nothing to do with well defined concepts, like the size and shape of the Earth, and everything to do with vague ideas like “nothingness.” Without realizing it, these astrophysicists had stumbled into the realm of philosophy, where evidence has less currency, and people like Krauss are left making silly statements hearkening to the days of Descartes, Kant and Heidegger. I personally think (in my very unprofessional opinion) that it would be more accurate to say, “absolute nothing does not exist.” But the nature of the universe isn’t what this post is about. Instead, I wish to address a different kind of nothing.
In his book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Sam Harris posits “there is no such thing as the self.” What you call “I” or “me” is simply an illusion. Now, it is no surprise that Harris has spent a great many years abroad studying and meditating with mystics and yogis, and was once a practicing Buddhist. Most of his ideas regarding the self originate from the Far East. He even admits, offhandedly, that his wife teaches meditation to children. So, right from the start, there is evidence of bias. Though he often cites scientific research, it is usually taken out of context, things done by other scientists in other fields, and is typically anecdotal. As far as I can tell, Harris is never hindered by the rigors of experimentation. There is no double-blind testing, no chance for contrasting evidence to emerge. He continuously states how, through meditation, his beliefs become self-evident (like finding the blind spot of your eye), but how does this experience differ from Christian scientist and head of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins, who claims to have found God in a frozen waterfall? Waking Up feels a lot like a Buddhist-apologetic. From the very beginning, I had problems with his methodology. Science does not formulate a theory, then go in search of evidence to support it. This is how Intelligent Design got started. But while I’d never put Harris in a camp with Creationists (he’s much too smart for that), it’s tempting to do so, when one considers that the premise of his book was first imagined five centuries before Christ.
Sam Harris offers numerous fact based statements to support his argument, but every time he does so, I am reminded of Krauss and the semantic problem of “nothing.” Harris writes, and I paraphrase: there is nothing in the brain where anything like a soul could be located; the brain can be split in half, and each half will then become its own identity; there are people who, due to some damage of the brain, are convinced one of their limbs does not belong to them; everything we do or do not do is based on a chemical reaction (again, in the brain) and these chemical reactions happen before we are consciously aware of them. All of these examples, you’ll notice, involve the brain, which is no surprise, considering that Harris is a neuroscientist. But again, I feel this makes for a biased viewpoint, and a narrow one at that. None of this convinces me that “I” is an illusion. Are you convinced? Even a little? Well, Harris argues this is difficult to realize, at first, that you may need years of meditation, and careful instruction by a learned teacher. Does this sound familiar? Scientology makes a very similar claim. If you “study” anything long enough, you can be made to “realize” it. This is what is called confirmation bias, and Harris has written whole books on the subject, so I am stupefied by his inability to “know thyself.”
Imagine your best friend comes to your house and says to you, “Hey, I do not believe you own a car. In fact, your belief in your car is simply an illusion.” To that, you might say, “You must be crazy! Look! Just look in my driveway. My Volkswagen Beetle is sitting right there.” But then, your friend retorts, “Ah, but you’ve never looked closely, have you?” at which point he proceeds to take your car apart, piece by piece, removing the engine, the tires, the doors, everything. After working all night, every single component is laid out in front of you. It no longer resembles a car in any way. Now, looking smugly, your friend remarks, “Where is your car? You see, there is no car. There was never any car.” At this point, you’d probably want to punch him. But this is what happens in science. Interestingly, philosophers have been tackling this same problem of identity for thousands of years. In the first century, Plutarch conceived of a thought experiment, The Ship of Theseus, where each plank of a ship is removed and replaced, one by one. The same is done for the sails, the oars, the tiller, and every other part, until nothing of the original ship remains. At what point, Plutarch asks, does the ship become new?
The Large Hadron Collider, Switzerland
It is, perhaps, the nature of scientific inquiry to dissect things, and sometimes to destroy things, to better understand how they work. The Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, arguably the largest scientific experiment in history, works by smashing atoms together at nearly the speed of light, breaking them into their constituent parts. This has given us great new insights into how the world works, like the discovery of the Higgs boson particle, which is responsible for giving things mass. Problems arise, however, when scientists cannot see the forest from the trees, or the forest from the leaves. There is always a risk of misinterpreting the world at the macro-scale, and failing to assign proper meaning to the data. Case in point: particle physicists claim, “almost all matter is empty space.” This is in reference to the distances (at the quantum level) between individual atoms, and the gap within the atom between the nucleus and its electron, which is (comparatively) great. But calling an iron skillet “mostly empty space” is meaningless, because everyday experience tells us skillets are heavy, and that we cannot pass our hands through them. Now, if we could shrink like Ant-Man, and look between the atoms, things might appear differently. Essentially, what is “empty” at the quantum level is “not so empty” at the macro-level. When I consider my brain, I do not think of it at the level of the neuron. I know there is no single location where I am defined, or where my soul resides. There isn’t a lobe marked, “Nick Alimonos.” But this isn’t to say that I do not have a self. To get a true understanding of what something is, you have to look at the whole picture. This is what I call Tapestry Theory.
Consider this: you are visiting a museum and come across Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry, Starry Night. Right away, you recognize a picture of the night sky. However, looking much more closely, what at first seemed like a starry night becomes swirls of blues and violets and yellows. In fact, the closer you look, the less you are able to identify what you are seeing. If you are someone like Sam Harris, you might wonder where the painting went, or ask whether there was any painting to begin with. There is no marker in the pigment, or in the texture of the canvas, that defines the painting, or what it might look like at the macro-level. If we were to break it apart into its constituent atoms, scientists could study each atom under a microscope, using the most advanced computers, and never, ever complete the entire picture. Starry, Starry Night can only exist when looked at as a whole. Harris might call this an illusion, and in a way, it is. But it’s an illusion that is real.
Taking this macro-level approach, how do I define myself? Am I the entirety of my brain? No. I have always hated sports, because I have never been athletic. Put me in the body of Michael Jordan, however, and I might find basketball a little more enjoyable, even if I lacked his lifetime of experience. Does identity, then, equal brain + body? Again, no. Using my sports analogy, I might have found basketball more enjoyable had my teammates not been able to run circles around me. Even still, we need to move further out if we are to get a real sense of who we are as individuals. We have to consider not only the parts that make up our bodies, not only the people we interact with, but the environment we live in and the time and space we move through. All of these things together define us.
As a neuroscientist, it is only fitting that Sam Harris look to the brain to understand identity. I, on the other hand, write fiction. When I think upon matters of identity, I think about characters. What defines a character? For me, it has everything to do with their place in a story. In my novel, Ages of Aenya, Xandr is born in the mountains of Ilmarinen, is mentored by QuasiI, and at fourteen is forced from his home to wander the swamps, before being called to Hedonia, where he meets the woman he loves, Thelana. These events make up Xandr’s life, and consequently, his character. In the same way, who we are depends on where we have lived, what we have done, and the people who play supporting roles in our story. Without these outside factors, identity could not exist.
Imagine this (albeit horrible) scenario: a scientist culls stem cells from a zygote to produce an infant brain. But this brain is entirely isolated, left in a jar with only fluids to keep it functioning. Utterly divorced from stimuli, the brain does not process sound, sight, smell, or sensory input of any kind. While both human and alive, such an organ could not become aware of itself, and would thus have no concept of self. Sam Harris gives a similar but contrasting example, of someone with “soap opera amnesia”—who remembers nothing of who he is. Despite his absence of memory, the amnesiac still has a sense of self. He still says, “I do not remember anything.” But Harris stops there, telling only half the story. If you were to say to this man, “Well, if you don’t remember who you are, it doesn’t matter; self is an illusion anyway,” the amnesiac would likely get very annoyed. He would have a strong desire to learn who he used to be, knowing that more than likely, he had a life (a story), perhaps a wife and kids who are missing him. In other words, he would be seeking his sense of self. If self were an illusion, why would he bother?
While it is true that our sense of self can be transitory (we are rarely the same people we were a decade, a year, or even a day ago) this fact does not invalidate our identities. For one thing, our past selves continue to exist in space-time. Whoever you become later in life does not change the fact of your childhood, and your childhood continues to affect your identity, whether you can remember it or not. Even someone who has suffered from a stroke, who loses all memory of their past (I knew someone like this) is still defined by their past, because of the interactions they’ve had with other people and with their environment. My aunt, Tessia, is in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and no longer remembers who she is. But this does not mean she ceases to be Tessia. The life she lived still happened, and her family (like my Mom) continues to recognize her.
For Sam Harris, rejecting the self also means rejecting any possibility of a soul. In his mind, there is no eternal, immutable inner-substance that makes us what we are, or which persists beyond death. So far, we are in agreement. Nothing in the universe is permanent. But it is a leap in logic to suggest that impermanence and mutability necessitate illusion. If this were the case, everything would be illusion. The self, like matter, can even be transformed from one form into another, but that still doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Consider the Twilight Zone scenario. Imagine that one day, you wake up on a rice farm in China. A strange woman calls you by a name you do not recognize, and two kids you’ve never seen start jumping excitedly onto your bed. As the days go by, you slowly come to realize that the woman is your wife, and that her kids believe you are their father. For weeks, you might try to convince them otherwise, but everywhere you go, people take you for a Chinese rice farmer. Even when you look into the mirror, you see a face you do not recognize. Given no option to return to your previous life, you would eventually accept your new identity. You might even be convinced that you were crazy to have believed differently. A student of Sam Harris might read this story and say aha! this proves identity is an illusion, but it doesn’t. It only demonstrates how social and environmental interactions define who we are. Changing these aspects of our lives, however, does not make identity any less substantial than changing your clothes makes your laundry insubstantial. Perhaps what Harris means by identity and illusion, and what I take it to mean, greatly differ. Typically speaking, an illusion is a trick, something false, not to be trusted. And to say that the self is false is to greatly diminish it.
Neil deGrasse Tyson once wrote, “Science is true whether you believe in it or not.” This is one of my favorite quotes, as it beautifully illustrates the core quality of science. Barring new evidence, accepted scientific theories are irrefutable. In religion, people murder each other, sometimes for millennia, over interpretation of scripture. But no genuine scientist can deny the Heliocentric model of the Solar System, or the basics of evolution. Sam Harris’ theories in Waking Up, by comparison, more closely resemble pseudoscience, metaphysics, philosophy and religion (take your pick). While data can be cited to support his claims, particularly regarding meditation and its effect on the brain, the data is selective, and does not take into account other religious practices, like prayer, which has also been shown to have a positive influence. At any rate, there may never be a way to prove, definitively, whether the self is an illusion or something more, as these terms themselves are indefinite.
Comparing meditation to religious ritual is not necessarily a bad thing, however, and if we had to choose from religions, Buddhism is the one I’d go with. Like the Buddha, Sam Harris wants to save mankind from suffering, by helping us to realize the illusory aspect of the self. Without self, we can overcome the selfishness that stands in the way of compassion. Now, I am a strong advocate of compassion. I find that this is what we are most lacking in the world, but I do not believe we need to surrender our sense of self to do it, and even if we could, I do not imagine Western culture could ever be made to accept it. Europeans and Americans have long celebrated individuality. As someone of Greek descent, I have taken to heart the philosophy of Socrates, who said, “An unexamined life is not worth living,” so that, rather than abolish thought, I try to be more thoughtful and sincere about my life. The solution to suffering, I believe, is not an outright rejection of the self, but an understanding that what we define as “self” is inseparable from the world and the people in it.