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…