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Making Sense

Conversations on Consciousness, Morality, and the Future of Humanity

By Sam Harris
18-minute read
Audio available
Making Sense by Sam Harris

Making Sense (2020) consists of conversations about some of life’s biggest questions: the nature of consciousness, the progression of tyranny, the history of racism, the mysteries of the universe, and the challenges posed by artificial intelligence. Though the topics it covers are wide-ranging, its ultimate goal is to explore the ways in which we can understand our minds and harness their power to build the best possible world for everyone.

  • Open-minded thinkers, ponderers, and questioners
  • Fans of psychology, neuroscience, history, and technology
  • Gazers into the past and future

Sam Harris is a neuroscientist, philosopher, and host of the popular Making Sense podcast. His app, Waking Up, aims to teach meditation through a modern, scientific lens. He has written several best-selling and award-winning books, including The End of Faith, The Moral Landscape, and Waking Up.

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Making Sense

Conversations on Consciousness, Morality, and the Future of Humanity

By Sam Harris
  • Read in 18 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 11 key ideas
Upgrade to Premium Read or listen now
Making Sense by Sam Harris
Synopsis

Making Sense (2020) consists of conversations about some of life’s biggest questions: the nature of consciousness, the progression of tyranny, the history of racism, the mysteries of the universe, and the challenges posed by artificial intelligence. Though the topics it covers are wide-ranging, its ultimate goal is to explore the ways in which we can understand our minds and harness their power to build the best possible world for everyone.

Key idea 1 of 11

The evolutionary purpose of consciousness is still a mystery.

Let’s kick things off with a question that, though seemingly simple, is surprisingly difficult to answer: What is consciousness?

It’s variably defined as “sentience,” “awareness,” “subjectivity,” or “experience.” But these are ultimately just synonyms for consciousness – not definitions of it.

A better characterization comes from Thomas Nagel’s 1974 essay, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat? In it, Nagel formulates consciousness as the idea that, as he puts it, “there is something it is like to be” any given organism. For instance, there’s something it is like – something it feels like – to be you. But there isn’t anything it feels like to be, say, a glass of water sitting on a desk. 

Of course, defining consciousness is just the first step toward actually understanding what it is.

The key message here is: The evolutionary purpose of consciousness is still a mystery.

In the early 1990s, the philosopher David Chalmers introduced the widely debated hard problem of consciousness. Chalmers asked: Why does consciousness arise in the first place? We strongly feel as if we’re subjectively experiencing the world. Evolutionarily speaking, why is that so?

The hard problem becomes clearer if we contrast it with what Chalmers called the “easy problems” of consciousness. These are questions about how we behave and function, and they can be understood through the underlying mechanisms within our brains. Take vision, for instance. When we see, light energy is translated into neurochemical events, and the visual field is mapped onto the relevant parts of the brain’s visual cortex. We understand these functional aspects of conscious experience – yet the hard problem remains.

One way of explaining consciousness is that it’s an epiphenomenon – essentially a byproduct of the massive amounts of processing our brains do. Much like the smoke coming out of an old-fashioned steam engine, it’s part of the overall structure, yet not actually propelling it forward.

But this isn’t the only possibility. Neuroscientist Anil Seth proposes another theory. He says that, ultimately, the brain’s objective is to regulate and maintain the body’s internal state; consciousness may be contributing to that goal. Our emotions mark out something in our conscious experience that’s relevant, our brains predict the potential consequences, and we decide how to react.

Take the basic emotion of disgust, for instance. That feeling relates to your body rejecting something perceived as toxic or dangerous, such as decomposing food or an open wound, for the sake of self-preservation.

Obviously, evolution gave us consciousness for some reason. But are humans the only ones who have it?

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