I’m vaguely interested in whether I have a self but can’t bring myself to follow Sam Harris’s advice to look inside myself for 10,000 hours to see if I am able to locate myself there. Sam reckons that if you look long enough and find no one there then you can safely conclude that there is no one at home and you have no self.
I’m not so sure. Firstly, I don’t really know what kind of self Sam thinks we don’t have. After all, even a lobster must be aware that the claw nearby belongs to itself, otherwise it would tuck in and then wonder why eating hurt so much. Just because a lobster doesn’t imagine there is a tiny lobster in its head pulling the levers doesn’t mean that it is unaware of itself.
Also, I tend to think that if I look inside and don’t find myself this could be because I am no longer in there but have taken a step back so as to look inside. After all, the only thing a camera can’t take a picture of is itself but this doesn’t mean that cameras don’t really exist.
Sam also recommends Douglas Harding’s suggestion of imagining you have no head. Actually, Harding suggests that you stop imagining you do have a head. Since you can never actually see your own head unless you are looking in a mirror you generally have to imagine it there. If you drop your rationality and rely only on what you can see, you will perhaps feel headless, as though you were pure consciousness moving through the world with no sense of division between yourself and the world.
I may have misunderstood but if this is really what Harding believes, he must be a fool. Firstly, you know you have a head whether you can see it or not since no one relies only on their senses to make sense of the world. We all use reason, too. Apart from this you can simply touch your head so as to verify your head is still screwed on. The fact that you can’t see it is of little consequence. I don’t imagine that my house disappears every time I leave for work, and neither do babies believe that the world disappears when they blink. The idea is just silly.
Even so, I sort of see what they are driving at. They want to do away with the subject/object divide that leads to a feeling of separation by relying only on the senses but that surely turns you back into a creature with a lobster-like experience of the world. Also, I don’t think you even need to deny the self to overcome the feeling of being separate and isolated from everything around you. You just have to look and listen properly instead of always mapping yourself on to every situation. Always including yourself in your picture of the world is a little like having double vision: your eyes are looking at the world but your mind’s eye is superimposing yourself onto that picture, like one of those photos taken with an old film camera that, when developed, showed two ghostly exposures on one negative.
At the end of one of my classes last week the students were taking pictures of the blackboard as I write too much for them to copy down. While they were snapping away I became aware that one of the students was taking a photo of me rather than the board. Rather than embarrass her I pretended I hadn’t noticed and continued staring out of the window. However, in truth I could no longer see anything out there because my mind was too busy picturing myself being photographed.
Getting out of the habit of self-consciousness strikes me as being a much better way of overcoming a feeling of separateness from the world than trying to convince yourself that ‘you’ don’t really exist and are therefore ‘One with Everything’. So instead of picturing yourself being photographed, try instead to see what your eyes are fixed on outside the window.