Sam Harris, one of the so-called New Atheists, has been making waves recently with his new book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. In it Harris talks openly about his meditation practice and spiritual experience–something he has done before but doesn’t seem to have gained as much interest or notice as it has now. (Harris is also in the news recently for his statements on Islam, but I’m not going to focus on those here.)
The video above begins with Harris making an important point about the nature of consciousness. Contrary to most philosophy and science (particularly in North America), Harris argues that human consciousness can’t be reduced to states of the brain. Harris mentions a few other philosophers who have made similar arguments recently, e.g. David Chalmers, John Searle, and Thomas Nagel. In so doing Harris adds his voice to the conversation and places himself squarely on the minority side of the debate within atheism and the wider secular philosophical world.
The basic premise here is that the felt sense of having an inner world complete with thoughts, emotions, and sensations can’t be reduced solely to material events (e.g. changes in neurons or brain states). As Harris points out the best science can do is correlate certain brain states with states of consciousness, states like anger, fear, sadness, or calm meditative repose. There’s a strong interest in mapping brain states for meditators–it’s important research but it’s research is about correlation not causation, a point too often missed in the literature itself, not to mention in wider public discourse. As Harris correctly notes we still have to trust the reported subjective experiences of individuals because no matter how many physical experiments a scientist may do, none of them gain access to the inner world of 1st person, subjective experience. The methods of science are 3rd person, objective measurements, whereas the inner world is one of 1st person, subjective experience.
Therefore, in order to gain individual access to the data of 1st person, inner, subjective experience one has to take up some an inner practice like meditation, describing one’s feelings, and the like. Human subjectivity is qualitative not quantitative.
So far so good. It’s a sad commentary on the status of Western philosophy that Harris’ point is seen as controversial. It should be an absolute no brainer (bad pun not intended), but unfortunately it’s actually a hugely disputed point. So hats off to Harris for making this point in a straightforward, clear manner.
This takes us up to the 2:50 mark in the video. And here’s where the problems arise.
Harris states that he doesn’t believe that examining subjective consciousness gives humans any insight into non-scientific matters or that consciousness exists separate from the brain (i.e. life after death). He then states that he does hold that the self or the ego-I sense is an illusion. His point is that learning through meditation that the self is an illusion only teaches us about human subjectivity–nothing more, nothing less.
In other words, Harris is arguing that through certain practices (e.g. mindfulness meditation) the sense of being a separate egoic self inside the body somewhere (often the head) can be dissolved and one simply is the consciousness experience of thoughts, sensations, emotions, experiences. In sum, there is no experiencer separate from those phenomena.
The argument is subtle and multi-faceted. Unfortunately Harris glides over a number of very controversial points–points I now would like to flesh out.
The first piece of information to know is that Harris studied vipassana (insight or mindfulness) Buddhist meditation. That ends up being a really important piece of background context for this discussion.
Vipassana has its roots in the earliest forms of Buddhism, perhaps going back directly to the historical Buddha himself–at least in substantial ways. The historical Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) seemed to take a very agnostic or perhaps ignoring position relative to metaphysical questions. He simply bracketed them out. He was a kind of spiritual realist. The Buddha taught very simply to inquire into the nature of the subjective experience such that it eventually dropped away in the state of nirvana. This is the Buddhist teaching of no-self. In other words there is no substantial separate self and that to hold to that otherwise illusory self sense is to invite pain and suffering given that life is nothing but change and impermanence. The Buddha did not concern himself with questions of cosmic origins or gods or goddesses or heavens or hells. He found those issues a distraction from the more pressing, existential question of suffering. Therefore whenever asked such questions he always simply pointed back to present experience.
Therefore, at least in early Buddhism, the realization of nirvana was not meant to give insight into a wider story of cosmic origins or meaning.
That view is a historically legitimate one. It is the foundation of the Buddhist path. All later forms of Buddhism, even ones that invoke gurus, mantras, and cosmic Buddhas do so under the explicit teaching that such images are images of selfless Buddha Nature, that they are all are empty of metaphysically separate, substantial reality.
It needs to be said however that this framework makes Buddhism somewhat unique within the mystical traditions of humanity. Many other spiritual and mystical traditions realize the experience of the self-dropping but they understand the experience and the implications of that experience very differently.
Traditions like Kabbalah (mystical Judaism), Vedanta Hinduism, mystical Christianity, and Sufism (mystical Islam). All of them in their nondual variants teach that the separate self-sense can drop just as in Buddhism. In these traditions, when the separate self sense drops one identifies with all reality very much as in Zen or Mahamudra Buddhism. However in these others traditions, all the reality that one identifies with is none other than the manifestation of God. What Jesus called the kingdom of heaven on earth. Whereas of course in Buddhism there is no God.
As one teacher described it (quite brilliantly in my opinion), Buddhism is the tradition of zero and Vedanta is the tradition of one (you can also add Kabbalah, Sufism, mystical Christianity to Vedanta as in the one category). What is the same is that neither teaches duality. Both zero and one are not-two. But zero and one are distinct from each other.
The reason I share all that is that Sam Harris is from the Buddhist tradition and therefore comes from a ‘zero school’ of contemplative interpretation. As it goes that is a perfectly legitimate school of interpretation. It’s not one I happen to belong to but it is a time-honored one with a profound lineage that I respect and admire profoundly.
But it needs to be said the Buddhist view is a point of view on the question of the relationship of mystical experience to questions of metaphysical and cosmic origins. And, as stated earlier, it’s actually in the minority when it comes to that question. Minority doesn’t mean inherently wrong of course, it just means minority. But you won’t hear that in the Harris version of events because it would undermine his argument for a scientific and purely rational spirituality with its hidden Buddhist-bias.
All of those other traditions like Vedanta and Kabbalah–with their roots in shamanism–argue that there are in fact spiritual realities of differing orders and realities. And that just like one can experience the dropping of self through certain meditation practices, one can through other types of spiritual practice (e.g. prayer, shamanic journeying) experience and commune with these spiritual realities.
Harris, however, blithely waves away the entire rest of the mystical traditions with a brief wave of his hand (calling such views “spooky”). Traditions that are just as old, and in some cases, older than Buddhism.
There’s no way to prove that traditions like Vedanta, Kabbalah, or Sufism are wrong to extrapolate from their experiences to wider possibilities and questions. Harris’ answer is less a scientific proposition so much as a philosophical position from his Buddhist background. Just so, we can’t prove Buddhism is wrong as to its view–namely that we can’t and shouldn’t extrapolate from mystical experience into wider cosmic and metaphysical questions.
Harris wants to create what he calls a scientific pursuit of contemplation but he wants to do so under Buddhist principles. He wants to square that circle by arguing that his viewpoint isn’t Buddhist rather it’s scientific. But all he did there was take a Buddhist perspective, ignore all the other traditions of mystical interpretation, and then call it scientific.
Even though Harris seems to be going way out on a limb by advocating for the irreducibility of human subjective consciousness, he really isn’t straying that far from the scientific fold. He’s still fundamentally arguing that our understanding of the real is set by science. And science (or really the metaphysical philosophy backing science) is that only things that science can study and explain are real. So science sets the standard of the real and then he can use certain Buddhist practices and try to strip them of their Buddhist flavor and swallow them up into a science based form of contemplation.
But here’s the core problem–Harris doesn’t really understand the fullness of the scientific process. In Harris’ articulation there’s basically experimentation and then evidence leading to the codification of a community of the learned/adequate. So when it comes to his proposed science of contemplation, Harris says there’s a practice (say mindfulness meditation), then the experience (in this case identifying with all experience in the moment), which tells us something about the nature of human consciousness (only).
Except–and this a big except–in the scientific process there’s a movement between experience and social confirmation: interpretation. In a classic scientific process, one has a hypothesis and undertakes an experiment to test the hypothesis, gathers the data, and then the data has to be interpreted before it is decided whether the experiment has confirmed or disconfirmed the hypothesis. In the scientific community interpretation involves placing one’s research within the existing models, theories, and frameworks necessary to make meaningful sense of the data.
For example, if one is studying fossils, then the fossils one discovers have to be placed within the theory of evolution by natural selection. Outside that theory, individuals fossils are just individual fossils. Without evolution by natural selection there’s no context within which to put them to make sense of them and how they relate to the wider questions of anatomy, speciation, and biological life.
When it comes to Harris’ proposed science of contemplation, he’s completely blind to the moment of interpretation. It’s not that his work bypass interpretation. Quite the opposite. His writings are soaked in interpretation. He simply isn’t conscious of the fact. Or worse he is conscious of it and is purposefully hiding his true intentions. Sometimes it’s tough to tell but overall I think the generous read is that it’s the former not the latter.
Action leads to experience which is then interpreted/framed, and then confirms/disconfirms the original hunch.
When it comes to mysticism, one undertakes a practice, say meditation. Then as Harris says there is the experience of being experience itself.
And then there is interpretation–this is the key element and the one Harris simply tries to glide over under the cover of being scientific, rational, and logical.
His interpretation is that the self is an illusion. His interpretation is that such experience does not give insight into matters not studied by mainstream science.
Those are perfectly valid interpretations. They might be right. They might also be partial and limited in their outlook. But for Harris to acknowledge those as interpretations would wreck his entire project. Such an admission would radically circumscribe his aims. He could still make that argument. He would simply have to be honest about the ways in which they are based on interpretive judgments rather than scientific truth. He could do his best to persuade other people that his Buddhist-influenced interpretation is the correct interpretive scheme. But he couldn’t definitely prove his interpretative scheme in the same way one can prove say Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion (themselves an interpretation of data) because, as Harris argued from the beginning, consciousness is inherently subjective not objective.
There is no way to get at consciousness except through the testimony of practitioners and there’s a long history (as well as contemporary advocates) of such individuals arguing that their experience is an experience of a wider set of possibilities than those studied by science.
If one holds the philosophical position (as Harris does) that science is the sole arbiter of truth in our society then fine. That’s a philosophical judgment. It’s an interpretation. It’s a worldview or perspective.
Many individuals, including many very intelligent ones, have made such arguments throughout history, as well as presently. The rationale for the view is straightforward.
It is however a philosophical judgment. It’s not itself scientific. It’s philosophical. As a philosophical best guess and value-laden perspective, it doesn’t prove that realities not studied by science (especially ones unable to be studied by science) are not real. It simply proves that they have no scientific validity since they can’t be studied by science.
But the argument behind all of this is whether science is really the sole arbiter of truth. For Harris it is and as a consequence he interprets his spiritual experience through a lens and a framework meant to make spirituality “rational”. (Since in Harris‘ mind, rationality is conflated with science).
Atheists have mystical experiences all the time. They will interpret them according to their atheist philosophical persuasion. Famed staunch atheist philosopher A.J. Ayer wrote about his mystical experience through his materialist atheist worldview.
The fly in the ointment then for Harris is interpretation.
Harris says the self is an illusion. But this isn’t always true if we’re simply sticking to the pure data of inner subjective experience. It would be more accurate to say that in many forms of human subjective experience there is a self (or ego) and in other forms (e.g. nirvana) there isn’t. That’s the pure phenomenology of it.*
The technical term for what Harris is up to is hermeneutics, i.e. the study of human meaning-making, discourse, and interpretation. As I argued earlier, science has its own hermeneutics–the way it makes meaning out of data. And so do the contemplative traditions. Harris is doing hermeneutics. He’s simply doing it a very unconscious way.
When you really grasp that hermeneutics, meaning-making is intrinsic to life itself–and here contemplation is just one form of living–you’re really headed down a very interesting rabbit role.
To wit, the deeper mindf#@! of all of this is that the kind of spiritual practice one undertakes and the interpretive framework one brings to one’s spiritual practice subtly shapes the content of one’s mystical experience. So on one level I’ve been writing as if Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike have the same mystical experiences. In a way yes. In another way no. (Remember this metaphor of Buddhism as a zero experience and the other traditions as a ‘one’ experience. Both are non-dual but they are distinct from each other in subtle ways).
Let me give an example. For a period of time I became very drawn to Sufi mysticism. I began to read Sufis and follow some of the practices they outlined. As I did so I began to have classically Islamic subtle mystical experiences. Now in Islam of course there are no icons of God (as in Judaism). God isn’t to be depicted. Consequently in my Islamic mystical experiences, I never saw an image of God because the context of Islamic theology and practice would not allow such an experience to occur. It would violate a central tenet of the religion.
In Christianity however one can have images of God (at least in most forms of Christianity, including The Roman Catholicism of my upbringing). For the majority of my path I practiced as a Christian and therefore when I had some subtle Christian mystical experiences I did see visionary images of The Trinity, angels, the saints, Mary, and so on. Those were all allowed within the interpretative frame of Catholic Christianity.
Is Christianity right and Islam wrong? Is Islam right and Christianity wrong?
Neither is right or wrong (or both are right, just distinct). They are both paths co-created in part by the traditions themselves. They do hold deeply commonalities or points of resonance–both sets of experiences involved intense light, visionary modes of being, dream-like qualities, but one revealed images for God and one didn’t And for the record, if one practices deity yoga in Tibetan Buddhism one sees subtle imagery of Buddhas. Because Tibetan Buddhism like Catholic Christianity is an iconographic tradition. Whereas in vipassana Buddhism there aren’t subtle visualizations so typically one doesn’t experience such things.
In other words, the spiritual practice and the context/interpretation of the practice radically shapes and moulds what kinds of spiritual experiences one can and can’t have.
In other other words, the experience of no-self arises from a context of mindfulness meditation and accompanying Buddhist (largely Theravadin) interpretation. The science Harris points to as supporting those views is irrelevant. People who undertake mystical practice within a theistic religious setting have correlated neurological process as well (see Andrew Newberg). The neuroscience doesn’t have anyway to adjudicate the various meditative processes nor the interpretive schemes that underlie them. As Harris said at the beginning, science can only correlate subjective experience.
Again I’m not saying therefore vipassana meditation and no-self Buddhist interpretation is wrong. It simply contextualizes it. Consequently, if Sam Harris wants to create a spiritual practice within the bounds set by a Western philosophical framework that sees science as the epistemological ground of truth that’s perfectly fine. I don’t come from that tradition but I think a Spiritual Humanism with a strong meditative mindfulness practice is a good thing in the world. It’s only however one variation of the spiritual path. Personally, I think it’s a pretty limited one in a number of ways but as it stands it would be a valid approach. Just not the only and only valid approach.
I titled this piece Sam Harris’ Buddhist Bullshit. I hope it’s clear by now that I’m not saying Buddhism is BS. I’m saying Harris’ project of trying to create a secular contemplative science of spirituality out of Buddhist principles without calling it Buddhist is BS. I think trying to reduce contemplation to science betrays a naive philosophical perspective whereby science is the one and only way in which we come to knowledge.
I will say that Harris, to his credit, is completely up front about his aims. But honest though it may be, his views are deeply flawed. For example, in this video, Harris argues we should de-Buddhize mindfulness teachings because to identify with any one tradition (including Buddhism) is to promote sectarianism.
Actually it’s Harris whose being the sectarian by taking one tradition (vipassana Buddhism) and seeking to enforce it as the absolute truth upon all dissenting views in an attempt to wipe all the others out. That he’s doing so under the guise of being scientific just adds more ideological fuel to his fire. It allows him to claim his irrational view as a rational one.
Harris’ simplistic belief that a person identifying with one religion is inherently sectarian lies at the core of this massive blind spot in his own interpretation and reasoning. A blind spot that shows up as him doing the very thing to others that he says he’s out to protect against.
Harris is trying to hide what is a philosophical (even really a theological) interpretation under the cover of being scientific. It’s a rhetorical power move in other words. In philosophical terms, it’s a hidden metaphysics. I’m not against metaphysics by the way. In fact I think metaphysics is inevitable. What I am deeply opposed to is hidden, unconscious metaphysics.
I propose that Harris should instead see that the view is he’s advocating sets a framework, context, and setting for his own spiritual pursuits. He is in part constructing a path rather than metaphysically describing the true path. Instead of seeking to rid the world of sectarianism (by creating only one sect and thereby being a sectarian par excellence), Harris would do better, I believe, to find ways to create common goals through which various spiritual paths could ascribe and work towards together, though coming from different spiritual viewpoints (not opposed, not combative, simply different). Harris’ earlier work on moral goods and multiple diverse ways to those moral goods could be very helpful in that regard. We could propose standards of discourse, interaction, ethics, and behavior across the traditions that need to be held to and then leave various traditions free to develop their own worlds in the way they see fit.
Coda: On the no science of no self
Science doesn’t prove that there is no self. Harris argues that the subjective experience of no self is supported by neuroscience because there’s no specific place in the brain (or wherever) that would correlate with being an individuated locus of consciousness. But Harris fundamentally misunderstands the subjective experience of the ego. As Harris began the video, science can at best correlate with subjective experience. The ego or self is simply the subjective feeling of being an individual human biological organism, hence the physical correlate to the ego is the processes and pathways described by neuroscience and human biology as a whole.
In other words, if we ever check in with a person who describes their inner subjective experience as being one of a separate individual, the physical correlate of that state is the entire of the biological organism at that moment, including but not limited to the brain.
So yet again the point is that science does not prove vipassana-style Buddhism. And Vipassana-style Buddhism is not correlated with contemporary neuroscience.
* I would also add that there are states where the self arises and is simply transparent rather than made illusory. This I believe is a position deeper even than the one of saying there is no self. For me that is a deeper form of contemplation/nonduality than the one advocated by Harris. But again that is a judgment and I’m open to that debate as it is a controversial point within contemplative mystical schools.