On certain questions, scientists and philosophers sometimes just have to admit defeatby Jonathan Derbyshire / January 29, 2015 / Leave a comment
I first met Sam Harris, the American writer, neuroscientist and proponent of “New Atheism”, nearly four years ago, when he was in London to promote his book “The Moral Landscape”. By then, Harris’s reputation as one of the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheism (the others were Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens) was secure.
“The Moral Landscape” was both a response to critics of “militant” atheism of the Dawkins-Harris variety and a defence of the claim that there could be such a thing as a “science of human flourishing”—that, pace the adepts of the world’s great monotheisms, science does have significant things to say about “morality and human value”. “Questions about values,” he wrote, “are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures.”
When we met in 2011, Harris reiterated the argument of his first book, “The End of Faith”, that “religion and science are in a zero-sum conflict with respect to facts.” But his latest book, “Waking Up”, strikes a rather different, much less belligerent tone. And that has a good deal to do with its subject matter. He is engaged here, as the book’s subtitle puts it, in “Searching for spirituality without religion”. “Waking Up” begins with Harris giving an account of an adolescent experiment with Ecstasy. The drug induced states which he saw could plausibly be described as “religious”. Religions, he still believed, were “mere intellectual ruins,” but he now thought that “important psychological truths could be found in the rubble.” The rest of the book is devoted to elaborating and articulating those truths, which he thinks are more accurately described as “spiritual” rather than “religious”.
When I spoke to him recently on the phone from the United States, I began by asking him whether the book was intended as a kind of provocation to his fellow atheists and skeptics.
SH: Yes. I see it as a provocation to both sides. In fact, there may be more than two sides here! That’s to say, as a provocation to traditional religious people, obviously. It’s another moment where I say you don’t need to believe anything on faith—and in fact you shouldn’t—to get your arms around what is truly meaningful. It’s also a provocation to New Age types who, while they may not consider themselves religious, essentially function just like people of faith on specific points—whether it’s astrology, or crystals, strange diets, etc. Then there’s a provocation to my fellow atheists and skeptics, and students of science who, for whatever reason, have ruled out introspection as an important arm in our efforts to understand ourselves and the nature of the human mind.
JD: Your claim at the beginning of the book is that there are “important psychological truths” to be found in the realm of organised religion and religious doctrine. You also say that there aspects of human experience and of the human condition that science and secular culture generally don’t admit, or can’t illuminate. But it’s not entirely clear from the book if that’s an insight that took hold of you relatively early on, after your youthful experiments with Ecstasy which you describe very beautifully, or whether this is a much more recent recognition. Your previous books do, to some extent, articulate and propound precisely that kind of scientific, secular and materialist worldview don’t they?
Well, in The End of Faith, in the last chapter on consciousness, I make some of these same noises—to the consternation of my fellow atheists. That book was much celebrated by the atheist community, but many of them wanted to ignore or otherwise apologise for that last chapter, where I do get into very much the same territory. So it’s definitely not a recent epiphany I’ve had. Before I was an atheist, before I became a representative of the growing concern about the conflict between religion and science, I was someone who was interested in these kinds of experience, and in introspection as an important tool. So it does precede my career as an atheist author, and indeed my career as a scientist. I came into science from the philosophical side of wanting to understand consciousness and subjectivity. Then it became obvious to me that I had to know more about the brain in order to be able to talk about the mind.
And you do, in any case, try to reassure your scientifically minded comrades that “bullshit detector” remains in good working order! The book turns, it seems to me, on a distinction between spirituality and religion. Could you say something about that distinction?
Notwithstanding the embarrassment I still feel, and many readers will feel for me, over the term “spirituality”, there is a very clear line to be drawn between what I’m calling “spirituality” and religion/New Age spirituality. When you have certain experiences in meditation, or with psychedelics, that show you a very different possibility for your experiences, moment to moment, those don’t tell you anything about the nature of the cosmos. You can’t extrapolate from a feeling of unconditional love, for instance, to a belief that the energy of love pervades the cosmos, that it preceded the Big Bang or anything like that, which is a very common New Age-kind of extrapolation. Nor can you say that this experience entitles you to say that the doctrine of Christianity is true and that Jesus was really born to a virgin. Those are both religious moves.
What I’m saying is that these experiences do entitle you to say something about the nature of human experience and its possibilities. These are psychological facts that can be appreciated directly from the first-person side. We can then understand them further by understanding what’s happening in the brain when we have them. So there’s a game of correlation we play between first-person experience and third-person science. But the first-person experience is indispensable. It’s indispensable—and this is a controversial claim, though it shouldn’t be—because when we’re understanding the conscious mind through techniques like neural imaging, we’re inevitably correlating the first-person side with the third-person side, but that doesn’t entitle us to throw out the first-person side.
Can we pursue the spiritual/religious distinction a bit further? As I understand it, your claim is that spirituality refers to a certain kind of state or experience, whereas religion has to do with beliefs, or with inferences from those states or experiences to conclusions about the ultimate nature of reality.
Yes, though the claim isn’t that there’s no cognitive content to these experiences. You can make inferences about the nature of human experience. And if you do further work—in, for example, neuroscience—you can make scientific inferences and claims about the nature of the human mind. But you can’t talk about the universe at large based on these experiences. So the connection that’s often drawn between spiritual experience and science is at the frontiers of spooky physics, like quantum mechanics or cosmology, where you get people wanting to talk about things like “non-locality” or the role of consciousness in determining micro-events in the very fabric of reality. This is something that people like Deepak Chopra often do. And that, I think, is clearly illegitimate and deserves the kind of opprobrium that most secular, atheist scientists want to heap on it. That’s where the work of differentiating what I’m saying from what someone like Deepak Chopra is saying is important to do. But the experiences are there to be discovered, and they’re important, deeply rewarding and therapeutic. And they should be, at least potentially, of interest to everyone.
So you’re arguing for the value of the activity of introspection. I wonder where, exactly, the value of that activity lies. What is it that we derive from the states that we undergo during an extended period of solitude, for example? Does their value reside in intellectual discovery of some sort—about the nature of consciousness, say? In other words, is their value primarily intellectual, rather than, say, moral or ethical?
It’s perhaps a matter of taste what one emphasises here. You can certainly talk about it in terms of curiosity and its satisfaction, and the purely intellectual reward of discovering something true about the nature of your own mind. But for most people it is as much, or even more, a matter of mitigating psychological suffering. Once you become interested in the mechanics of your own unhappiness, and you begin to see that that machinery is within reach, in terms of how you pay attention to the present moment, then it becomes very compelling purely on therapeutic grounds.
But there is a non-therapeutic dimension to this too, isn’t there? You devote a chapter to “The Mystery of Consciousness”. So let’s be clear what you understand that mystery to consist in. Presumably, for you, it’s the fact that neurophysiological events, uniquely among physical events in the universe, are accompanied by conscious states?
They seem to be unique—as far as we know, for the moment. But I don’t see any reason why consciousness couldn’t be instantiated in suitably advanced computers, which is to say, in non-biological systems. If it is just a fact that consciousness is arising out of unconscious information processing, that still strikes me as a miracle that’s impossible to actually grasp. We can assert it. It may actually be true. There may be no reason to doubt it. But that’s not the same as understanding it.
You express at one point some sympathy with Colin McGinn’s “mysterian” position on the “hard problem” of consciousness. How would you respond to the accusation that to treat the problem of consciousness as a mystery that human beings are not equipped to solve is an admission of intellectual defeat?
There’s no shame in honestly admitting defeat if you see the problem as insuperable. And I think there are good reasons to think that it is. So I am sympathetic with McGinn’s scepticism about the progress we’re going to make here, simply because I don’t see what thesis would fit in the space provided. Normally, with a scientific mystery, you can imagine what would explain it if it were true. If you’re trying to figure out why people are getting sick from a certain source, you may know nothing about the invisible processes that are delivering a macro-level event, but you can imagine what they might be in such a way that makes sense of the event. But with the emergence of consciousness, everything just seems like a miracle.
It sounds there as if you’re coming close to saying that the point is not to solve the problem, but rather to dissolve it, to find our way to a position in which we no longer feel the itch or the throb of the problem of consciousness at all.
I don’t think so. I think it will remain a problem. I expect one day we will have computers which are so persuasive as minds—better than we are at every cognitive task we set them—that this will give significant motivation to the idea that there’s nothing special about the salty porridge inside our heads. You can build a mind out of other material. Once that happens, we’ll get out of that uncanny valley where everything just seems weird and creepy, and we’ll have artificial intelligences that display interest and compassion. Then our intuitions will just be overwhelmed by the sense that we’re in the presence of another point of view. And I think we could get all the way there without actually understanding how consciousness arises.
What’s the connection between those arguments about consciousness and the very strong arguments you make in the book about the “illusory” nature of the self?
The self is an idea—and I’d also put free will in this category—which we know doesn’t actually make sense in terms of what’s going on at the level of the brain. And it also doesn’t make sense if you pay close enough attention to your conscious experience. It’s hard to describe how the universe would have to be to make those common intuitions make sense—especially in the case of free will, but also in the case of the self. I guess I could imagine that there’s some way in which the brain is structured such that there is a unitary, unchanging self carrying over from one moment to the next. But it’s not structured that way. And the feeling that there is such a self can be undermined by introspection. The reason why someone is so convinced there is a self that has free will is itself vulnerable to inspection and, when you look closely enough at it, you simply have no reason to want such an explanation any more. The first-person data would longer have to be confirmed by a scientific description of the world because the data would have disappeared.
Where does that leave our ability to describe convincingly our moral lives? Notions like agency, for example, seem to trade on the idea of a self.
I think that our moral lives need to be captured in consequentialist terms, when you’re talking about what will increase wellbeing or diminish it reliably. We certainly don’t need to believe in really existing selves or in free will in order to defend ourselves from various threats in the world, and to contain those threats in any way we can. If there were wild bears or other predators roaming the streets killing people, we wouldn’t attribute free will to them, but we could defend ourselves against them, we could lock them up, we could medicate them. It would be totally rational to fear a grizzly bear if you happened to see one in the parking lot, but it’s not rational to attribute free will to it. Of course a bear is going to be a danger to you—that’s what bears do. The same can be said of a psychopath or a person who takes sadistic pleasure in causing suffering to others. The relevant distinction is in terms of how much of a threat someone poses to others and how reliably you can predict their behaviour in the future. What we find most incriminating in a person is their intention to do harm, the pleasure they take in doing harm. The thing you do based on brooding about it for a month and a half says much more about you than the thing you do when you’re drunk or suddenly provoked. All those mitigating factors can be taken into account without thinking about it in terms of free will.
In the conclusion to the book, you write that what you call the “great false questions of religion”—about the meaning of life or our purpose on earth—are badly posed. Do you mean that they have no content at all outside the religious context in which, according to you, they first arose? Surely we can make non-religious sense of them? To ask about the “meaning” of life, for example, might just be to ask how a human life goes better rather than worse, or to ask, as the ancient Greek philosophers did, about the nature of good life. Do you those sorts of questions are also meaningless?
I think the good life question is the most important question. I just think it’s ill-posed when you talk about “meaning” or “purpose”. It should be thought of as a navigation problem, [figuring out] how to collaborate in creating a viable and flourishing civilisation.
Sam Harris’s “Waking Up: Searching for spirituality without religion” is published by Bantam (£20)