Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Sam Harris on Reason and Mysticism

The May 18, 2013 review of Sam Harris's book, The End of Faith, here, shows that Harris rejects religion because it relies on faith. By "faith," Harris means the acceptance of fundamental principles based on supposed historical authority, not on evidence that we can examine and debate today. Harris offers two alternatives to faith. This post examines those alternatives, drawing again from The End of Faith.

REASON. We need fundamental principles to guide us in living our lives. If, as Harris says, we should not rely on fundamental principles acquired through faith, how should we develop those principles? Harris has a two-part answer. First is reason. In a manner typical of his style, Harris offers no concise, rigorous definition of that concept. He does provide many cognitive elements which he apparently thinks the concept subsumes, though he does not say so explicitly.

For example, Harris says we should observe (p. 76), search for evidence (p. 15), and reject ideas that are not based on evidence. (p. 25) "Our beliefs should be representations of the world." (p. 58) We should exercise "commonsense judgments" (p. 75). We should experiment, at least in the sciences (p. 76). We should ratiocinate (p. 76), as well as engage in "discursive reasoning" and "rational discourse" (p. 25) We should critique and discuss our principles, as paths to progress. Religion is not open to progress. (p. 22) "Whatever is true now should be discoverable now, and describable in terms that are not an outright affront to the rest of what we know about the world." (p. 22) Harris also sees that one's ideas must be logically consistent; he says our ideas must not contradict one another, but then he adds: "at least locally." (p. 53) "By recourse to intuitions of truth and falsity, logical necessity and contradiction, human beings are able to knot together private visions of the world that largely cohere." (p. 51)

Most of those cognitive elements, with the exceptions of "commonsense judgments" and "intuition," are referents of the concept "reason" objectively formed. So, Harris has basically the right elements—looking at the world and thinking about it—for forming the concept of reason.

Confusingly, Harris sometimes uses the term "reason" ("rational") to mean merely syllogistic consistency: "In fact, even the most extreme expressions of faith [such as "Jehovah's Witnesses refusing blood transfusions"] are often perfectly rational, given the requisite beliefs." (p. 69) "Which beliefs one takes to be foundational will dictate what seems reasonable at any given moment." (p. 69) And: "Given what Islamists believe, it is perfectly rational for them to strangle modernity wherever they can lay hold of it." (p. 136) Harris does not grasp that reason is present only when objectivity is present, that is, when we form ideas logically from sense-perception of reality. For Harris, a link missing from the cognitive chain that connects observation to our most fundamental principles is a theory of concept formation. He has no way to account for logically building concepts of objects in reality (such as "dog" or "chair") and then building higher and higher level abstractions. We will see how he fills this cognitive gap.

MYSTICISM. Besides his truncated, unintegrated version of "reason," Harris offers a second alternative to faith: a certain other type of mysticism. Some background information is required. For Harris, "spiritual" and "mystical" are synonyms. (p. 40) Harris defines "spirituality" as "the cultivation of happiness directly, through precise refinements of attention," that is, "meditation." (p. 192) Mystical experiences are experiences of "meaningfulness, selflessness, and heightened emotion that surpass our narrow identities as 'selves' and escape our current understanding of the mind and brain." (pp. 39-40)

There is no denying that most of us have emotional and spiritual needs that are now addressed—however obliquely and at a terrible price—by mainstream religion. And these are needs that a mere understanding of our world, scientific or otherwise, will never fulfill. There is clearly a sacred dimension to our existence, and coming to terms with it could well be the highest purpose of human life. But we will find that it requires no faith in untestable propositions—Jesus was born of a virgin; the Koran is the word of God—for us to do this. (p. 16)

If our highest purpose requires understanding a "sacred dimension" of our world, but neither faith nor science (which is an application of reason) will provide that understanding, then where will it come from? Harris's answer is "empirical mysticism." (p. 215)

For millennia, contemplatives have known that ordinary people can divest themselves of the feeling that they call 'I' and thereby relinquish the sense that they are separate from the rest of the universe. This phenomenon, which has been reported by practitioners in many spiritual traditions, is supported by a wealth of evidence—neuroscientific, philosophical, and introspective. Such experiences are 'spiritual' or 'mystical', for want of better words, in that they are relatively rare (unnecessarily so), significant (in that they cover genuine facts about the world), and personally transformative. They also reveal a far deeper connection between ourselves and the rest of the universe than is suggested by the ordinary confines of our subjectivity. (pp. 40-41)

The claims of mystics are neurologically quite astute. No human being has ever experienced an objective world, or even a world at all. You are, at this moment, having a visionary experience. The world that you see and hear is nothing more than a modification of your consciousness, the physical status of which remains a mystery. (p. 41)

What then is mysticism? As usual, Harris defines his terms obliquely.

Mysticism is a rational enterprise. Religion is not. The mystic has recognized something about the nature of consciousness prior to thought, and this recognition is susceptible to rational discussion. The mystic has reasons for what he believes, and these reasons are empirical. The roiling mystery of the world can be analyzed with concepts (this is science), or it can be experienced free of concepts (this is mysticism). (p. 221, emphasis added)

A mystical state thus is a state of consciousness, that is, a state of awareness. Awareness of what? Of "the world," but without thinking about it. Thus mysticism is some sort of direct apprehension of the world, without concepts, without thoughts, without reasoning. That conclusion is confirmed by Harris in statements such as:

There is something to realize about the nature of consciousness, and its realization does not entail thinking new thoughts. (p. 218)

Now we live in ignorance of the freedom and simplicity of consciousness, prior to the arising of thought. (p. 219)

Mysticism, as Harris conceives it, is thus preconceptual consciousness, which, the reader may realize, is the consciousness of an animal.

"My debt to a variety of contemplative traditions that have their origin in India will be obvious to many readers," Harris notes. "The esoteric teachings of Buddhism . . . and Hinduism . . . have done much to determine my view of our spiritual possibilities." (n. 12, Ch. 7, on p. 293)

Harris supports two other forms of mysticism (defined objectively here), though he does not call them that. First is self-evidency. Harris sometimes claims certain insights are "self-evident," even when they are complex and abstract. (See p. 31 for an example.) (For a brief discussion of rational and mystical uses of the term "self-evidency," see: aristotleadventure.blogspot.com/search/label/self-evidency.)

Harris's second additional form of mysticism is intuition.

Whatever its stigma, 'intuition' is a term that we simply cannot do without, because it denotes the most basic constituent of our faculty of understanding. . . . When we can break our knowledge of a thing down no further, the irreducible leap that remains is intuitively taken. Thus, the traditional opposition between reason and intuition is a false one: reason is itself intuitive to the core, as any judgment that a proposition is 'reasonable' or 'logical' relies on intuition to find its feet. (p. 183)

Intuition is thus the same as claiming "It is obvious." (p. 184) (See other discussions here and here.) Harris says: 

How the loom of cognition first begins weaving is still a mystery, but there seems little doubt that we come hardwired with a variety of proto-linguistic, proto-doxastic (from the Greek doxa, 'belief') capacities that enable us to begin interpreting the tumult of the senses as regularities in the environment and in ourselves. (p. 248, n. 14 of Ch. 2, from p. 58)

RELATION OF REASON AND MYSTICISM. The advocates of the major Abrahamic religions often say they support reason and faith, each in its own domain, but usually relying on faith to "establish" such notions as the existence of another world, a god, and the god's ethical rules. Harris rejects the notion of peace between reason and faith as "delusional." (p. 16) What then is Harris's view of the relationship of reason and mysticism as he has defined these concepts (if he has)?

"We cannot live by reason alone," Harris states. (p. 43) To handle the greatest stresses in life—such as losing a loved one or facing an incurable fatal disease—we need something that will give us "an abiding sense of the sacred." (p. 43) Harris says, however, that we do not need to be irrational in order to have that sense of the sacred. "On the contrary, I hope to show that spirituality [which Harris says is synonymous with mysticism] can be—indeed, must be—deeply rational, even as it elucidates the limits of reason." (p. 43)

In conclusion, Sam Harris is indeed an opponent of faith, in the form of religion, but also an advocate of other forms of mysticism, alongside a form of "reason" so limited that we must "intuit" the ethical principles that serve as our guides in life. Adding his reductionism and determinism (not discussed here) to the mixture, one can say that he is not an advocate of reason.

Burgess Laughlin
Author of The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith at http://www.reasonversusmysticism.com/

Saturday, May 18, 2013

BkRev: Sam Harris, The End of Faith

Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, New York, W. W. Norton, 2004, 348 pages (paperback with Afterword).

In Sam Harris's 2004 book, The End of Faith, the title states not a fact but the author's goal: to put an end to faith. "Throughout this book," Harris says, "I am criticizing faith in its ordinary, scriptural sense—as belief in, and life orientation toward, certain historical and metaphysical propositions." (pp. 64-65) In particular, Harris says, "religious faith is simply unjustified
belief in matters of ultimate concern—specifically in propositions that promise some mechanism by which human life can be spared the ravages of time and death." (p. 65) "When the evidence for a religious proposition is thin or nonexistent, or there is compelling evidence against it, people invoke faith." (p. 232)

Harris writes seven chapters that arc from the world's problem, which is faith, to Harris's solution. Chapter 1, "Reason in Exile," presents the problem: Religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which are faith-based worldviews, cause ignorance, superstition, oppression, and violence because they are irrational, that is, faith-based worldviews are not based on evidence; they are not subject to criticism; they are welded to events that supposedly happened thousands of years ago; and therefore they are not open to revision today in light of modern knowledge. Cultural taboos, such as the constant call for "tolerance," prohibit us from challenging them, Harris argues.

Chapter 2, "The Nature of Belief" describes belief and reason, as Harris understands those concepts. (A later post here on The Main Event will focus on Harris's views of reason and mysticism.) In this chapter Harris shows that he understands that ideas have consequences and irrational ideas, such as those based on faith, have terrible consequences. In Chapter 3, "In the Shadow of God," he shows the roots of the Inquisition and the Holocaust in religious unreason and particularly in holy scripture. In Chapter 4, "The Problem with Islam," Harris demonstrates that the problem with Islam is Islam itself. In Chapter 5, "West of Eden," he shows that Christianity in great measure shapes the legal system of the United States.

Once he has presented the problem, Harris turns to offering an alternative to religion as the source of ethical guidance. Ch. 6, "A Science of Good and Evil," describes opportunities, problems, and (according to Harris) the initial successes of a scientific approach to ethics.

Chapter 7, "Experiments in Consciousness," claims that, despite all their failures, religions have offered a certain truth: One can have extraordinary experiences if one goes beyond the "ordinary uses of attention," that is, consciousness. (p. 204) After a discussion of such topics as striving to lose one's sense of self as a step toward happiness, Harris admits: "Inevitably, the foregoing will strike certain readers as a confusing eruption of speculative philosophy." Harris goes on to advocate "nondualistic empirical mysticism." (p. 215) The West, Harris says, is standing on the shoulders of dwarfs when it relies on Western philosophers—instead of Easterners who pursue goals such as "liberation from the illusion of self." (p. 215)

STYLE. Throughout this 358-page book, Harris's style is generally clear, except that he does not concisely and formally define his terms. He is often vivid, especially in his indictment of the Abrahamic religions. His writing flows. It is casual, even though he writes about fundamentally important subjects. His metaphors are imaginative.

Imagine that we could revive [and talk with] a well-educated Christian of the fourteenth century. The man would prove to be a total ignoramus, except on matters of faith. (pp. 21-22)

Harris is at times sarcastic, which is unfortunate because sarcasm is an indirect form of communication. Readers who need the greatest clarity, those who are first approaching a difficult subject, need direct communication, generally free of sarcasm, except perhaps as an occasional touch for emphasis on the ridiculous. (p. 36, for an example)

Harris's style is often pithy: ". . . 'the rise of Islamic fundamentalism' is only a problem because the fundamentals of Islam are a problem." (p. 148) And, in dealing with Islam today: "We are in the presence of the past." (p. 150)

HARRIS'S ETHICS: APPLIED MYSTICISM AND REASON. Ethics is the study of what humans ought to do—that is, what actions they should take here in this life on earth. Harris is an altruist. He holds that serving others is the standard of action. He rejects religion's support for altruism.

The help rendered to the poor by Christian missionaries in the developing world demonstrates that religious ideas can lead to actions that are both beautiful and necessary. But there are far better reasons for self-sacrifice than those that religion provides. (p. 78)

A rational approach to ethics becomes possible once we realize that questions of right and wrong are really questions about the happiness and suffering of sentient creatures. If we are in a position to affect the happiness or suffering of others, we have ethical responsibilities toward them—and many of these responsibilities are so grave as to become matters of civil and criminal law. (pp. 170-171)

Harris thus takes "happiness and suffering" as a utilitarian starting point of an investigation into what is moral and what is immoral. (pp. 170-171) "To treat others ethically is to act out of concern for their happiness and suffering. It is, as Kant observed, to treat them as ends in themselves rather than as means to some further end." (p. 186) Harris does not explain why he chooses that starting point.

Harris says our ethical rules, such as "Murder is wrong," should be "anchored to the facts of this world." (p. 170) What is the nature of that anchoring? According to Harris, we have ethical "intuitions," but he rejects the idea that religions are sources of them. (pp. 170-172) Instead, we "harbor some rudimentary sense that cruelty is wrong." (p. 172) "Our ethical intuitions must have their precursors in the natural world," where we see that even monkeys have some concern for other monkeys. Thus "our ethical intuitions have their roots in biology." (p. 172)

We should, Harris holds, develop ethics from the science of consciousness. However, that science is in its infancy. (p. 174) "There will probably come a time when we achieve a detailed understanding of human happiness, and of ethical judgments themselves, at the level of the brain. Just as defects in color vision can result from genetic and developmental disorders, problems can undoubtedly arise in our ethical and emotional circuitry as well." (p. 175)

To establish a scientific, rational ethics, we will need to abandon not only religious sources but also abandon philosophical relativism and pragmatism. (pp. 178-179) "In philosophical terms, pragmatism can be directly opposed to realism." (p. 180) "To be an ethical realist is to believe that in ethics, as in physics, there are truths waiting to be discovered—and thus we can be right or wrong in our beliefs about them." (p. 181) This ties directly to "intuitions," because with an intuition the world around us enters our brain to deposit a truth.

INSIGHTS. Harris, despite his fundamental flaws, often has valid insights into our society. Consider five examples:

1. Harris knows that ideas ("beliefs") are important because they motivate actions. (p. 44) Harris knows that ideas move history. He does not rely on the cliches of economic, racial, or other determinism. (Harris is, however, a determinist in the sense that he rejects the idea of free will. [Ch. 6, n. 7, pp. 272-274] That position parallels his reductionism, specifically his notion of wanting to reduce the functions of consciousness to circuits in the brain, as on pp. 56 and 123.)

2. "What is the alternative to religion as we know it? As it turns out, this is the wrong question to ask. Chemistry was not an 'alternative' to alchemy; it was a wholesale exchange of ignorance at its most rococo for genuine knowledge." (p. 14) By "genuine knowledge," Harris means scientific knowledge, that is, knowledge gained through the methods of the various specialized sciences such as physics and biology.

3. Harris clearly understands that religious "moderates" are people who have accepted only some elements of their religions or have realized that they are "obliged to loosely interpret (or simply ignore) much of their canons in the interests of living in the modern world." (p. 17)

Religious moderation springs from the fact that even the least educated person among us siimply knows more about certain matters than anyone did two thousand years ago—and much of this knowledge is incompatible with scripture. (p. 19)

The problem that religious moderation poses for all of is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism. (p. 20)

Religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance . . . . (p. 21)

By failing to live by the letter of the [holy] texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally. (p. 21)

To see that our problem is with Islam itself, and not merely with 'terrorism', we need only ask ourselves why Muslim terrorists do what they do. (p. 28) 

The concessions we have made to religious faith—to the idea that belief can be sanctified by something other than evidence—have rendered us unable to name, much less address, one of the most pervasive causes of conflict in our world. (p. 29)

Religious moderates are, in large part, responsible for the religious conflict in our world, because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed. (p. 45)

4. Harris lambastes Christianity and Judaism (e.g., p. 94) as well as Islam, but recognizes that the practices of Christianity and Judaism today are more moderate, that is, adapted to modern knowledge and standards. "While my argument in this book is aimed at faith itself, the differences between faiths are as relevant as they are unmistakable. . . . [and] Muslims have more than their fair share of" bad beliefs.

5. He connects faith and politics. "Because we are a people of faith, taught to concern ourselves with the sinfulness of our neighbors, we have grown tolerant of irrational uses of state power." For example: "Each year, over 1.5 million men and women are arrested in the United States because of our drug laws." (p. 162)

CONCLUSION. For students of contemporary culture, The End of Faith offers a chance to look closely at a mixed case. Politically, Harris is neither conservative nor liberal but a composite. Likewise, philosophically, Harris is neither a religionist appealing to faith nor a nihilist. Instead he attempts to rebuild conventional ethics—altruism, the doctrine that reveres self-sacrifice for the sake of others—not on the foundation of religion but on the twin footing of specialized Western sciences and Eastern mysticism. His attempt fails, but his effort reflects the confused nature of our culture. 

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, http://www.reasonversusmysticism.com