Friday, December 31, 2010

Sam Harris on spiritual experience

We've all heard about Harris' scathing criticisms of religions of all flavor, including Buddhism. In this 2-part talk at You Tube he defends meditation and contemplation and criticizes the atheist community for throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In my atheistic mind this is indeed a step towards re-visioning the great traditions by nourishing the baby while also pulling the plug on the dirty bathwater.

Also of note is that he echoes kennilingus in claiming one must take up the injunction of meditation before one can criticize its phenomenal experience. He does qualify that one can certainly criticize based on reason alone the metaphysical accoutrement of those who have such experiences. Yet the experiences themselves cannot be refuted by reason alone. And that such experience must be translated into postmetaphysical terms shorn of religious dogma to be of pertinent use in today's world.

Here's an interview with Harris on meditation. For example he says:

"I have no doubt that interesting experiences await the man or woman who prays to Jesus for 12 to 18 hours a day. In fact, I have no doubt that some of those experiences would be normative (that is, desirable and worth seeking out). I just dispute the logic by which such experiences are sought and interpreted."

In this video he argues that science can indeed answer moral questions. He decries moral relativism and entreats for universal moral values that can still express in plural ways. Without using kennilingus he contends moral development along a qualitative spectrum of better and worse, and like Habermas thinks we can find rational, intersubjective agreement as to what constitutes such values.

I also want to highlight Harris' comments about the nondual from the above interview. He was asked about his comments on the subject/object dissolution where consciousness nevertheless remains "vividly aware of the continuum of experience." He said:

"When I say that...I simple mean that nothing necessarily changes at the level of perception. If the birds are chirping you will still be able to hear them. The difference is that rather than feeling like 'you' are hearing 'them' (subject and object) there will simply be the pure experience of hearing (without hearer or thing heard)."

While he does show how awareness of phenomena continues and is not some form of cessation, It seems with this language like he might be getting into myth of the given type metaphysical territory here? But maybe since he qualifies it as a pure perceptual experience this leaves wiggle room between perception and the thing in itself? Perhaps but he doesn't go into this distinction. What he does discuss in this section is that the separate self-sense arises from the representational habit of egoic rationality, and that such representation is not necessary for perception. It is very much like L&J's distinction between false and embodied reason, but not quite in those terms. He also doesn't go into the distinction of pre-rational versus post-rational perception here.*

On criticism that such language indeed lends itself to metaphysicality he said:

"'Spirituality" or 'mysticism' both are...terrible words, but there are no alternatives in English at the moment."

*Harris does go into the pre-trans distinction with reference to Wilber in The End of Faith, much to the chagrin of Geoffrey Falk in his book Norman Einstein. Falk is though making the same argument about its metaphysical appearance and notes that Dennett, while also being a meditator, frames it thus (quoting Meyers):

"He [Dennett] just disagrees that it [meditation] gives someone insight into the nature of how the entire universe works, vs. into the nature of how the mind works."

In the interview he says something interesting about consciousness:

"The question of what happens after death is really a question about the relationship between consciousness itself and the physical world. If consciousness really is an emergent property of large collections of neurons, then when these neurons die (or become sufficiently disordered) the lights must really go out. The point I make in my book is that, while we know that mental functions (like the ability to read) can be fully explained in terms of information processing, we don't know this about consciousness. For all we know, consciousness may be a more fundamental property of the universe than are neural circuits [my highlight]. Many people have tried to invoke some of the spookiness found in quantum mechanics in support of such an idea. I've never been a fan of such efforts, however. Nevertheless, there is no result in neuroscience that rules out dualism, panpsychism, or any other theory that denies the reduction of consciousness to states of the brain. To my mind, neuroscience has demonstrated the supervenience of mind upon the brain, but the status of consciousness remains a mystery.”

However he qualifies this in a postscript to the interview:

“My remarks about the mysteriousness of consciousness (i.e. the fact that we don't know the relationship between consciousness and the physical world) were intended to convey the state of our scientific ignorance on this subject (as well as to hint at some of its conceptual difficulties). I was not suggesting that we have good reasons to believe that consciousness floats free of the brain at the moment of death. Nor was I suggesting that one need believe anything spooky about consciousness in order to meditate. Many diehard philosophical materialists have derived great benefit from meditation.

“Most atheists appear to be certain that consciousness dies with the brain. Given the state of the science, this is a false certainty. To my mind, the only intellectually rigorous position to stake out here is to say that we don't know what happens to consciousness after death. Once again, I am not suggesting that one make a religion out of this uncertainty, or do anything else with it. It is just over-reaching to say that we know that consciousness arises from neuronal complexity (or anything else). It is not, however, over-reaching to say that the faculties of mind (language processing, proprioception, etc.) arise in this way or that most religious beliefs are preposterous (they are).”


  1. Balder at IPS replied:

    I read his description more as a phenomenological account than an assertion that any direct contact is made with the metaphysical, myth-of-the-given thing-in-itself, but I agree further clarification would be helpful to ward off such concerns. (I expect much of his audience doesn't even have those concerns, however.) The subject-object structuring of experience is not itself a 'given,' so a shift in the 'configuration' of experience away from subject-object polarity doesn't necessarily represent a move towards the assertion of metaphysical essences (as I know you agree), but as you point out (after Wilber, Levin, and others), it is still important to distinguish between pre-rational/pre-personal configurations and post-rational ones. I think speaking of 'nonduality' simply as a post-rational 'mode' of experiencing or configuring experience (that may be found to be promotive of well-being, of deepened or expanded empathy, etc, and which is marked by certain phenomenological -- and, likely, neurological -- features) is sufficient, and does not necessarily entail making any metaphysical assertions about "reality in itself." What do you think?

  2. I said:

    I don't think a phenomenological account of nondual experience is metaphysical in itself, especially when described as a loss of the separate sense of self. But when one starts to wonder if consciousness might be a "more fundamental property of the universe" because "no result in neuroscience...rules out dualism" I'd say this is a metaphysical speculation. Dualism as you know is one form of metaphysics, that consciousness can be split from embodiment. It seems to me that the type of embodied nondualism of the cogscipragos indeed rules out this type of dualism. And that Harris makes such a dualist speculation directly from the Buddhist tradition of meditative practice on which he draws. One which, incidentally and ironically, arises from the representation paradigm that he is so critical of elsewhere. I'm all for meditation sans religion like Harris, but perhaps this is one of those remnant holdovers, though more subtle than reincarnation or literal deities, that needs to go.


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