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/

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