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sam harris: a neo-buddhist after my own heart

July 2, 2011

Sam Harris is by far my favourite of the so-called ‘New Atheists.’ I especially like his approach to trying to bring things like science, spirituality and reason together, and I think he’s more or less on the right track when it comes to these kinds of things, i.e., having no problem being a vocal atheist and critic of religion while at the same time being open to the fact that people have ‘spiritual’ experiences. As he wrote in “10 Myths – And 10 Truths – About Atheism“:

There is nothing that prevents an atheist from experiencing love, ecstasy, rapture and awe; atheists can value these experiences and seek them regularly. What atheists don’t tend to do is make unjustified (and unjustifiable) claims about the nature of reality on the basis of such experiences. There is no question that some Christians have transformed their lives for the better by reading the Bible and praying to Jesus. What does this prove? It proves that certain disciplines of attention and codes of conduct can have a profound effect upon the human mind. Do the positive experiences of Christians suggest that Jesus is the sole savior of humanity? Not even remotely — because Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and even atheists regularly have similar experiences.

Being a ‘Buddhist’ myself, I also like the fact that he’s actually practiced meditation, and comes at things like vipasana meditation from the standpoint of neuroscience, de-emphasising their strictly religious roots in an attempt to move more towards developing “a scientific account of the contemplative path” (A Contemplative Science).

I think that if there were more people like Sam Harris who were interested in what Buddhism and other contemplative paths have to offer from a scientific standpoint, we could easily create a contemplative science of our own utilizing the latest in modern technology and knowledge of how the brain functions. For example, I think his latest blog post does a great job of pointing out the importance and usefulness of meditation and transcendent experiences:

My friend Jerry Coyne has posted a response to my recent video Q&A where he raises a few points in need of clarification about meditation, transcendence, spiritual experience, etc.:

This discussion continues at 21:25, when Sam criticizes atheists, scientists and secularists for failing to “connect to the character of those experiences” and for failing to “give some alternate explanation for them that is not entirely deflationary and demeaning and gives some warrant to the legitimacy of those experiences.” He implies that these experiences are somehow beyond the purview of science. I find that strange given Sam’s repeated emphasis on the value of science in studying mental states.

I’m not quite sure what he’s getting at here, and he doesn’t elaborate, but I don’t see why giving credence to these über-transcendent experiences as experiences says anything about a reality behind them. Yes, they might indeed change one’s personality and view of the world, but do any of us deny that?

I had similar experiences on various psychoactive substances when I was in college, and some of them were even transformative. The problem is not with us realizing that people can feel at one with the universe or, especially, at one with God; the problem comes with us taking this as evidence for some supernatural reality. What does it mean to say that an experience is legitimate? If someone thinks that he saw Jesus, I am prepared to believe that he thought that he saw Jesus, but I am not prepared to say that he really did see Jesus, nor that that constitutes any evidence for the existence of Jesus.

So my question for Sam would be this: “So if we accept that people do have these seriously transcendent experiences, what follows from that—beyond our simple desire to study the neurobiology behind them?”

These are all good points. I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that transcendent experiences are “beyond the purview of science.” On the contrary, I think they should be studied scientifically. And I don’t believe that these experiences tell us anything about the cosmos (I called Deepak Chopra a “charlatan” for making unfounded claims of this sort). Nor do they tell us anything about history, or about the veracity of scripture. However, these experiences do have a lot to say about the nature of the human mind—not about its neurobiology, per se, but about its qualitative character (both actual and potential).

So, to answer Jerry’s question: yes, many things follow from these transcendent experiences. Here’s a short list:

1. It is possible to feel much better (in every sense of “better”) than one tends to feel. It is, in fact, possible to be utterly at ease in the world—and such ease is synonymous with relaxing, or fully transcending, the apparent boundaries of the “self.” Those who have never experienced such peace of mind will view the preceding sentences as yet another eruption of “mumbo jumbo” on my part. And yet it is phenomenologically true to say that such states of well-being are there to be discovered. I am not claiming to have experienced all relevant states of this kind. But there are people who appear to have experienced none of them—and many of these people are atheists.

This is not surprising. After all, experiences of self-transcendence are generally only sought and interpreted in a religious or “spiritual” context—and these are precisely the phenomena that tend to increase a person’s faith. How many Christians who have felt self-transcending love for their neighbors in church, or body-dissolving bliss in prayer, decide to ditch Christianity? Not many, I would guess. How many people who never have experiences of this kind (no matter how hard they try) become atheists? I don’t know, but there is no question that these states of mind act as a kind of filter: they get counted in support of ancient dogma by the faithful; and their absence seems to give my fellow atheists yet another reason to doubt religion.

Reading the comments on Jerry’s blog exposes the problem in full. There are several people there who have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about—and they take this to mean that I am not making sense. Of course, religious people often present the opposite problem: they tend to think they know exactly what I’m talking about, in so far as it can seem to support one religious doctrine or another. Both these orientations present impressive obstacles to understanding.

2. There is a connection between feeling transcendently good and being good. Not all good feelings have an ethical valence, of course. And there are surely pathological forms of ecstasy. I have no doubt, for instance, that many suicide bombers feel extraordinarily good just before detonating themselves in a crowd. But there are forms of mental pleasure that seem intrinsically ethical. In fact, there are states of mind for which phrases like “boundless love and compassion” do not seem overblown. Of course, it is possible for a person not to know that this is a potential of the human mind, or to imagine that such experiences must be signs of psychopathology. Again, people who think this way seem to gravitate toward atheism. And it is decidedly inconvenient for the forces of Reason that if a person wakes up tomorrow feeling “boundless love and compassion” the only people likely to acknowledge the legitimacy of his experience will be representatives of one or another religion (or New Age cult).

3. Certain patterns of thought and attention prevent us from accessing deeper (and wiser) states of well-being. Transcendent experiences, in so far as they are usually temporary, are often surrounded by a penumbra of other states and insights. Just as one can glimpse deeper strata of well-being, and briefly see the world by their logic, one can notice the impediments to feeling this way in each subsequent moment. There is no question that all of these mental states have neurophysiological correlates—but the neurophysiology often has subjective correlates. Understanding the first-person side of the equation is essential for understanding the phenomenon. Everything worth knowing about the human mind, good and bad, is taking place inside the brain. But that doesn’t mean that there is nothing to know about the qualitative character of these events. Yes, qualitative character can be misleading, and certain ways of talking about it can manufacture fresh misunderstandings about the mind. But this doesn’t mean that we can stop talking about the nature of conscious experience. At one level, there is nothing else to talk about.

4. Certain “spiritual” experiences can help us understand science. There are insights that one can have through meditation (that is, very close observation of first-person data) that line up rather well with what we know must be true at the level of the brain. I’ll mention just two, which I have written about before and will return to in subsequent posts: (1) the ego/self is a construct and a cognitive illusion; (2) there is no such thing as free will. There is simply no question that these statements are well grounded scientifically (in fact, it is very difficult to even imagine a physical account of the human mind that would suggest their falsity at this point). So, here are two facts which science gives us good reason to believe, and which I believe we can know through introspection, but which seem quite paradoxical and troubling to most people.

As for the “various psychoactive substances” Jerry mentions, I’ll address the risks and rewards of these in my next post.

At this point, I should probably make it explicitly clear that my admiration for Sam Harris isn’t due to his vocal support of atheism nor to his vocal criticism of religion; but because of his scientific approach to contemplative issues. I think he finds a good balance between his atheistic/materialistic worldview and the fact that people have and can benefit from these kinds of spiritual experiences, something that’s definitely missing from other ‘New Atheist’ writers such as Richard Dawkins.

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