Pop psychologist Sam Harris tells us that
Everything we do is for the purpose of altering consciousness. We form friendships so that we can feel certain emotions, like love, and avoid others, like loneliness. We eat specific foods to enjoy their fleeting presence on our tongues. We read for the pleasure of thinking another person’s thoughts. Every waking moment—and even in our dreams—we struggle to direct the flow of sensation, emotion, and cognition toward states of consciousness that we value.
I think this encapsulates in a single paragraph the worst and most persistent error in philosophical thinking in all recorded history, East and West. It is inspired by the wholly mistaken thought that our minds are essentially non-physical, and so are “cut off” from the physical world. If my mind doesn’t directly interact with the physical world, the idea goes, then I don’t see the physical world directly, but instead exist as a centre of consciousness or “eye” watching a “cinema screen” of conscious experiences. And when I act, the idea goes, I am really trying to make pleasant things appear on my “screen”, rather than manipulate the physical world that lies behind the “screen”, outside my mind. Does this sound familiar? If so, you may require a sort of philosophical “therapy”!
I think it’s pretty clear where the idea comes from. Man is a religious animal. We have an awareness of — but aversion to — our own mortality, and so prefer not to face up to it. So we pretend to ourselves that our minds do not really belong to the physical world: the physical world of disease, decay and death. Thus, all over the world and throughout history, we humans have a weakness for belief in ghosts and we trust “shamans” who supposedly can “transcend the physical”. (A recent science-fiction version of these ideas imagines that a person’s mind is a mere “pattern” that can be transferred to a super-computer by super-intelligent computer boffins, thereby making that lucky person’s mind immortal.)
But whatever the source of the idea may be — you don’t have to agree with my story above — the idea is just plain mistaken. Minds are what brains do, and brains are the product of evolution. Unlike a “soul”, a brain is not a non-physical entity “breathed into” an alien physical body by God. A brain is a functioning physical organ shaped by natural selection to serve its purpose in a living organism, of which it is an integral part.
Primarily, the brain of an organism helps the organism to achieve its goals (which are shaped by the common goal of its genes, to proliferate in future generations). And almost all of the organism’s goals are external, not internal. In other words, the brain’s main purpose is to make sure external physical things are arranged in a particular way, rather than to make sure internal experiences have a particular quality. Organisms have goals such as getting food and shelter, killing enemies, and so on, as opposed to removing the experience of hunger, or having the sensation of warmth, or enjoying the conscious satisfaction of revenge.
The goals are external, because that is where natural selection applies pressure. An animal will not pass its genes on if it does not eat food or find shelter, or if it gets killed by its enemies. So there is selective pressure to pursue food, seek shelter, and alas, to kill. These are external goals. But there is no selective pressure to have this or that sort of conscious experience. A wide variety of “primitive” creatures do not experience anything at all, neither hunger nor cold. Some are emotionally indifferent when they kill others. Natural selection is largely indifferent to the internal experiences that accompany our perceptions of outside conditions.
Humans evolved through a long series of small steps from earlier creatures that did not have brains at all. There is no line dividing “before” and “after” — between earlier creatures that sought external goals, and later creatures that sought internal goals. The “after” here is largely illusory, a figment of our imagining that the mind is a “ghost in the machine”. What really happened as mammalian-type brains evolved was that organisms’ goals became more and more multifarious, and the internal representations (like maps) needed to achieve them became more and more detailed, and hence the “internal” life of some organisms became richer and richer. But at no stage did any organism’s goals move inwards to become primarily “internal”.
Let us return to Sam Harris’s claims quoted above. We emphatically do not “form friendships so that we can feel certain emotions, like love, and avoid others, like loneliness”. We seek friendships because alliances are of real value in passing on our genes to future generations. Alliances enable reciprocal altruism, in other words, mutual support between individuals who are unrelated by descent. If we do not achieve our goal of forming friendships, we recognize that fact, and the recognition is accompanied by a conscious sense of failure which we call loneliness.
Love is not an emotion. It is a biological condition, usually of benefit to the genes of those who are in it. Love enables the sharing of burdens and the division of labour in raising offspring. This can be a rocky road, and the fortunes of those who travel along it vary. As they vary, lovers can experience a wide range of emotions, from lust to murderous jealousy.
Harris’s Bambi-and-butterflies approach to “love” isn’t just laughable, it’s downright dangerous. A lot of people think they aren’t in love when actually they are, and vice versa, because they have swallowed a “spiritual” philosophy that assumes the mind is essentially disembodied, so that the human condition boils down to “feelings”.
That mistake can have a very dark side. What’s wrong with killing? — If your answer to this appeals to experience, you’ll probably say what’s wrong with killing is it causes pain to the person or animal that gets killed. But then you’d have to accept that killing is OK as long as it’s painless. That is a licence to murder.
Against Harris, I would argue that we do not usually “eat specific foods to enjoy their fleeting presence on our tongues”. Usually, we eat food because our stomachs are empty, and we are drawn to foods that provide us with the nutrition we need most, foods that are typically high in calories, high in fat, salt or protein, and unsurprisingly taste best to us. To deliberately create food with a specific taste, appearance and texture is as much to create good food as to create the experience of eating good food. If it were possible to have the experience on its own, as in a dream, I think most of us would opt for the real thing instead. The legendary “vomitorium” of the decadent Roman empire had nothing to do with puking, for the simple reason that people like good food, not the mere experience of eating.
But I accept, sometimes we do seek particular sorts of experience. That is a relatively rare occurrence, and when it happens it is part of a larger project that has an external goal as its eventual object. To seek a particular sort of experience is a bit like deliberately programming a flight simulator to give a trainee pilot the experience of a particular sort of aircraft malfunction: the eventual aim is to deal with real malfunctions of that sort better.
Harris’s assumptions about motivation — essentially, that we always do things in order to have various kinds of conscious experience — is remarkable in two respects. First, it seems untouched by the most important breakthroughs of twentieth-century philosophy, such as those of the later Wittgenstein or the American pragmatist movement. Second, it amounts to a denial of evolution. Living things whose primary purpose is to achieve “internal” goals simply cannot evolve through the process of natural selection.
(The quoted passage is taken from his blog post “Drugs and the Meaning of Life”, in which he argues for the legalization of all drugs. I’m happy enough to accept its conclusion, but I refuse to accept a discredited, non-physical view of the mind as the basis for that conclusion.)