Tag Archives: Sam Harris

Theism Versus Spirituality

Prominent neo-atheist Sam Harris continues to reject theism, and does so thoughtfully and eloquently. In his latest book, Waking Up, he continues to argue the case against religion, but makes a powerful case for spirituality. Harris defines spirituality as an inner sense of a good and powerful reality, based on sound self-awarenesses and insightful questioning of one’s own consciousness. This type of spirituality, quite rightly, is devoid of theistic angels and demons. Harris reveals more in his interview with Gary Gutting, professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.

From the NYT:

Sam Harris is a neuroscientist and prominent “new atheist,” who along with others like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens helped put criticism of religion at the forefront of public debate in recent years. In two previous books, “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation,” Harris argued that theistic religion has no place in a world of science. In his latest book, “Waking Up,” his thought takes a new direction. While still rejecting theism, Harris nonetheless makes a case for the value of “spirituality,” which he bases on his experiences in meditation. I interviewed him recently about the book and some of the arguments he makes in it.

Gary Gutting: A common basis for atheism is naturalism — the view that only science can give a reliable account of what’s in the world. But in “Waking Up” you say that consciousness resists scientific description, which seems to imply that it’s a reality beyond the grasp of science. Have you moved away from an atheistic view?

Sam Harris: I don’t actually argue that consciousness is “a reality” beyond the grasp of science. I just think that it is conceptually irreducible — that is, I don’t think we can fully understand it in terms of unconscious information processing. Consciousness is “subjective”— not in the pejorative sense of being unscientific, biased or merely personal, but in the sense that it is intrinsically first-person, experiential and qualitative.

The only thing in this universe that suggests the reality of consciousness is consciousness itself. Many philosophers have made this argument in one way or another — Thomas Nagel, John Searle, David Chalmers. And while I don’t agree with everything they say about consciousness, I agree with them on this point.

The primary approach to understanding consciousness in neuroscience entails correlating changes in its contents with changes in the brain. But no matter how reliable these correlations become, they won’t allow us to drop the first-person side of the equation. The experiential character of consciousness is part of the very reality we are studying. Consequently, I think science needs to be extended to include a disciplined approach to introspection.

G.G.: But science aims at objective truth, which has to be verifiable: open to confirmation by other people. In what sense do you think first-person descriptions of subjective experience can be scientific?

S.H.: In a very strong sense. The only difference between claims about first-person experience and claims about the physical world is that the latter are easier for others to verify. That is an important distinction in practical terms — it’s easier to study rocks than to study moods — but it isn’t a difference that marks a boundary between science and non-science. Nothing, in principle, prevents a solitary genius on a desert island from doing groundbreaking science. Confirmation by others is not what puts the “truth” in a truth claim. And nothing prevents us from making objective claims about subjective experience.

Are you thinking about Margaret Thatcher right now? Well, now you are. Were you thinking about her exactly six minutes ago? Probably not. There are answers to questions of this kind, whether or not anyone is in a position to verify them.

And certain truths about the nature of our minds are well worth knowing. For instance, the anger you felt yesterday, or a year ago, isn’t here anymore, and if it arises in the next moment, based on your thinking about the past, it will quickly pass away when you are no longer thinking about it. This is a profoundly important truth about the mind — and it can be absolutely liberating to understand it deeply. If you do understand it deeply — that is, if you are able to pay clear attention to the arising and passing away of anger, rather than merely think about why you have every right to be angry — it becomes impossible to stay angry for more than a few moments at a time. Again, this is an objective claim about the character of subjective experience. And I invite our readers to test it in the laboratory of their own minds.

G. G.: Of course, we all have some access to what other people are thinking or feeling. But that access is through probable inference and so lacks the special authority of first-person descriptions. Suppose I told you that in fact I didn’t think of Margaret Thatcher when I read your comment, because I misread your text as referring to Becky Thatcher in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”? If that’s true, I have evidence for it that you can’t have. There are some features of consciousness that we will agree on. But when our first-person accounts differ, then there’s no way to resolve the disagreement by looking at one another’s evidence. That’s very different from the way things are in science.

S.H.: This difference doesn’t run very deep. People can be mistaken about the world and about the experiences of others — and they can even be mistaken about the character of their own experience. But these forms of confusion aren’t fundamentally different. Whatever we study, we are obliged to take subjective reports seriously, all the while knowing that they are sometimes false or incomplete.

For instance, consider an emotion like fear. We now have many physiological markers for fear that we consider quite reliable, from increased activity in the amygdala and spikes in blood cortisol to peripheral physiological changes like sweating palms. However, just imagine what would happen if people started showing up in the lab complaining of feeling intense fear without showing any of these signs — and they claimed to feel suddenly quite calm when their amygdalae lit up on fMRI, their cortisol spiked, and their skin conductance increased. We would no longer consider these objective measures of fear to be valid. So everything still depends on people telling us how they feel and our (usually) believing them.

However, it is true that people can be very poor judges of their inner experience. That is why I think disciplined training in a technique like “mindfulness,” apart from its personal benefits, can be scientifically important.

Read the entire story here.

Dawkins: Radical Atheist

At any point in time, every major religion seems to be home to a handful of outspoken radicals who act as both standard-bearers and lightening rods for the broader movement. And, atheism is no different. If you Google “atheist” it is highly likely that the most frequent hits will highlight Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, our beloved, and recently departed, Chris Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins.

Of course, they all have their very own, very different approaches to prosletyzing — that is, if atheists are indeed allowed to do such a thing. Hitchens, for example, used his unsurpassed erudition, elephantine memory and linguistic eloquence, and logic, to crush contrary opinion in a relentless but very thoughtful and charming way. Dawkins on the other hand comes across as more arrogant and impatient. He’s on a mission to save the world from the believers.

From the Guardian:

On the top floor of Random House’s offices in London, the world’s number one thinker – according to Prospect magazine’s annual poll – walks in from the roof terrace and shakes my hand. Richard Dawkins is a trim 72-year-old with one of those faces that, no matter the accumulation of lines, will always draw the adjective “boyish”.

There’s a smoothness to the way he carries himself – a touch of the Nigel Havers – that could no doubt be construed as an arrogance befitting his intellectual status, but in conversation he is restrained, even hesitant, and faultlessly modest throughout our interview.

Perhaps the renowned evolutionary biologist and the world’s most famous atheist was feeling especially cautious. The day before I met him he had become embroiled in a Twitterstorm, which grew into a broader media monsoon, after he had tweeted the following: “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the middle ages, though.”

He defended himself in the ensuing furore by saying that he was merely stating a fact. And it’s true, it was a fact. Many objected that it was a fact used to demonise Muslims, that it was racist (Dawkins responded by pointing out that Islam is not a race), and that, out of context, it was, at the very least, mischievous and misleading.

I returned later to this dispute, but first of all we got down to discussing his memoir, An Appetite for Wonder, a sort of portrait of the scientist as a young man. The first of two volumes, it takes us from boyhood to the publication of his landmark bestseller, The Selfish Gene. The story begins with his colonial childhood in Kenya and Nyasaland (now Malawi), and is full of dusty anecdotes of our young hero rummaging without a care in the great African outdoors. Does he look back with nostalgia at that now largely disappeared way of life?

“Yes,” he says slowly, as if watchful for hidden traps. “It’s now unfashionable and in many ways it’s something we British have to live down. But yes, there is a nostalgia for it and, although I was never in India, I get it reading novels of the Raj. It’s a lost era that you can’t help having a certain affection for, even if you disapprove politically.”

His parents were hardy, practical types, unflustered by war or life in the bush or, it seems, anything else. His father was a botanist, working in the agricultural office in Nyasaland, so Dawkins grew up in a family that took a scientific interest in living organisms, though he insists he never inherited his parents’ extensive knowledge of flora and fauna.

He moved to England when he was nine and went through a very typical public school experience for the era, except that he managed to fend off the sexual predations of older boys. Other than in relation to genetic research, sex doesn’t raise its titillating head at all in the book – apart from one occasion. We learn that at the ripe age of 22 he lost his virginity to a cellist in London. She “removed her skirt in order to play to me in her bedsitter (you can’t play the cello in a tight skirt) – and then removed everything else.”

But that’s all that Dawkins allows in terms of romance.

“Well that was a little token to say, ‘This is all you’re going to get,’?” he says firmly. “I wanted to announce that this is not going to be that kind of autobiography.”

Why not? “Fear of betraying confidences,” he says, shifting in his chair. “These things are private. Some people let it all hang out but I prefer not to.”

You can say that again. Dawkins may have an appetite for wonder, but he is positively anorexic when it comes to personal revelation. Perhaps the most confessional section – and it can hardly be called exposing – deals with his years teaching at Berkeley in the late 60s, when the campus was a hotbed of countercultural revolt. Dawkins took part in protests against the Vietnam war, of which he remains proud, but also got caught up in a local militant initiative to take over some university waste ground and turn it into a “people’s park”. “With hindsight,” he writes, “it was a trumped-up excuse for radical activism for its own sake.”

I suggest that radical movements invariably function on peer pressure and he agrees that he succumbed to the impulse to belong. “There was a sort of feeling of flower power and drugs,” he says. “I never actually took drugs, oddly enough. I never had the opportunity. But the music of the time and the atmosphere – there was a feeling of loyalty to the protesters: these are my people. The same people who marched against the Vietnam war marched for the people’s park and it was an automatic decision to join them. One should be more independent-minded than that.”

That’s Dawkins at his most self-reflective. He avoids any details of interest about his first marriage – to the ethologist Marian Stamp. And according to him, he is unlikely to be any more forthcoming in the second volume about his second marriage to Eve Barham, or his third to the actress Lalla Ward, a former assistant to Dr Who, who was introduced to him by his late friend Douglas Adams.

The couple live in Oxford, where Dawkins has resided almost all of his adult life, and where he spent 13 years until his retirement in 2008 as the professor for public understanding of science. As he was free in that role to pursue his own interests, he says his “nominal retirement” has made no difference at all.

The memoir is strong on the professional excitement of his early years as an academic, but it assiduously sidesteps the rivalries and disputes that mark even the most unremarkable scientific careers, let alone one as distinguished as Dawkins’s. He didn’t want any score settling, he says, or to “appear hostile”.

So although he notes that the biologists Richard Lewontin and Steven Rose were two of the rare voices who criticised The Selfish Gene on its widely acclaimed publication in 1976, he fails to discuss their arguments or his thoughts on them, other than to say that both came from the “political left”. Did he think their case against him was political rather than scientific?

“Yes, I think politics,” he says after another anxious pause. “I actually wrote a fairly savage review of the joint book they produced later [Not in Our Genes] which I suppose I’ll probably mention in volume two.” He weighs his words again and then adds, “It was sarcastic rather than savage.”

Dawkins seems determined in both the memoir and our interview to present a calm, conciliatory side to his character that has not always been associated with his public image. Later the photographer, Andy Hall, will tell me that Dawkins requested to look at the screen on Hall’s camera to see what he had captured during the shoot. “You’ve made me look too harsh,” complained the biologist.

Hall told him he was merely giving him appropriate gravitas.

“I don’t want fucking gravitas,” Dawkins snapped. “I want humanity.”

One senses that for all the recognition he’s garnered – the world’s leading intellectual, the bestselling books, the rapt audiences etc – Dawkins would like to be a little more loved. I ask him if he thinks he’s misunderstood by the media and the general public.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Richard Dawkins, 2010. Courtesy of Cooper Union / Wikipedia.

Morality for Atheists

The social standing of atheists seems to be on the rise. Back in December we cited a research study that found atheists to be more reviled than rapists. Well, a more recent study now finds that atheists are less disliked than members of the Tea Party.

With this in mind Louise Antony ponders how it is possible for atheists to acquire morality without the help of God.

[div class=attrib]From the New York Times:[end-div]

I was heartened to learn recently that atheists are no longer the most reviled group in the United States: according to the political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell, we’ve been overtaken by the Tea Party.  But even as I was high-fiving my fellow apostates (“We’re number two!  We’re number two!”), I was wondering anew: why do so many people dislike atheists?

I gather that many people believe that atheism implies nihilism — that rejecting God means rejecting morality.  A person who denies God, they reason, must be, if not actively evil, at least indifferent to considerations of right and wrong.  After all, doesn’t the dictionary list “wicked” as a synonym for “godless?”  And isn’t it true, as Dostoevsky said, that “if God is dead, everything is permitted”?

Well, actually — no, it’s not.  (And for the record, Dostoevsky never said it was.)   Atheism does not entail that anything goes.

Admittedly, some atheists are nihilists.  (Unfortunately, they’re the ones who get the most press.)  But such atheists’ repudiation of morality stems more from an antecedent cynicism about ethics than from any philosophical view about the divine.  According to these nihilistic atheists, “morality” is just part of a fairy tale we tell each other in order to keep our innate, bestial selfishness (mostly) under control.  Belief in objective “oughts” and “ought nots,” they say, must fall away once we realize that there is no universal enforcer to dish out rewards and punishments in the afterlife.  We’re left with pure self-interest, more or less enlightened.

This is a Hobbesian view: in the state of nature “[t]he notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have no place.  Where there is no common power, there is no law: where no law, no injustice.”  But no atheist has to agree with this account of morality, and lots of us do not.  We “moralistic atheists” do not see right and wrong as artifacts of a divine protection racket.  Rather, we find moral value to be immanent in the natural world, arising from the vulnerabilities of sentient beings and from the capacities of rational beings to recognize and to respond to those vulnerabilities and capacities in others.

This view of the basis of morality is hardly incompatible with religious belief.  Indeed, anyone who believes that God made human beings in His image believes something like this — that there is a moral dimension of things, and that it is in our ability to apprehend it that we resemble the divine.  Accordingly, many theists, like many atheists, believe that moral value is inherent in morally valuable things.  Things don’t become morally valuable because God prefers them; God prefers them because they are morally valuable. At least this is what I was taught as a girl, growing up Catholic: that we could see that God was good because of the things He commands us to do.  If helping the poor were not a good thing on its own, it wouldn’t be much to God’s credit that He makes charity a duty.

It may surprise some people to learn that theists ever take this position, but it shouldn’t.  This position is not only consistent with belief in God, it is, I contend, a more pious position than its opposite.  It is only if morality is independent of God that we can make moral sense out of religious worship.  It is only if morality is independent of God that any person can have a moral basis for adhering to God’s commands.

Let me explain why.  First let’s take a cold hard look at the consequences of pinning morality to the existence of God.  Consider the following moral judgments — judgments that seem to me to be obviously true:

• It is wrong to drive people from their homes or to kill them because you want their land.

• It is wrong to enslave people.

• It is wrong to torture prisoners of war.

•  Anyone who witnesses genocide, or enslavement, or torture, is morally required
to try to stop it.

To say that morality depends on the existence of God is to say that none of these specific moral judgments is true unless God exists.  That seems to me to be a remarkable claim.  If God turned out not to exist — then slavery would be O.K.?  There’d be nothing wrong with torture?  The pain of another human being would mean nothing?

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article here.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: Sam Harris. Courtesy of Salon.[end-div]

Test-tube truths

[div class=attrib]From Eurozine:[end-div]

In his new book, American atheist Sam Harris argues that science can replace theology as the ultimate moral authority. Kenan Malik is sceptical of any such yearning for moral certainty, be it scientific or divine.

“If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” Dostoevsky never actually wrote that line, though so often is it attributed to him that he may as well have. It has become the almost reflexive response of believers when faced with an argument for a godless world. Without religious faith, runs the argument, we cannot anchor our moral truths or truly know right from wrong. Without belief in God we will be lost in a miasma of moral nihilism. In recent years, the riposte of many to this challenge has been to argue that moral codes are not revealed by God but instantiated in nature, and in particular in the brain. Ethics is not a theological matter but a scientific one. Science is not simply a means of making sense of facts about the world, but also about values, because values are in essence facts in another form.

Few people have expressed this argument more forcefully than the neuroscientist Sam Harris. Over the past few years, through books such as The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, Harris has gained a considerable reputation as a no-holds-barred critic of religion, in particular of Islam, and as an acerbic champion of science. In his new book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, he sets out to demolish the traditional philosophical distinction between is and ought, between the way the world is and the way that it should be, a distinction we most associate with David Hume.

What Hume failed to understand, Harris argues, is that science can bridge the gap between ought and is, by turning moral claims into empirical facts. Values, he argues, are facts about the “states of the world” and “states of the human brain”. We need to think of morality, therefore, as “an undeveloped branch of science”: “Questions about values are really questions about the wellbeing of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood: regarding positive and negative social emotions, the effects of specific laws on human relationships, the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering, etc.” Science, and neuroscience in particular, does not simply explain why we might respond in particular ways to equality or to torture but also whether equality is a good, and torture morally acceptable. Where there are disagreements over moral questions, Harris believes, science will decide which view is right “because the discrepant answers people give to them translate into differences in our brains, in the brains of others and in the world at large.”

Harris is nothing if not self-confident. There is a voluminous philosophical literature that stretches back almost to the origins of the discipline on the relationship between facts and values. Harris chooses to ignore most of it. He does not wish to engage “more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy”, he explains in a footnote, because he did not develop his arguments “by reading the work of moral philosophers” and because he is “convinced that every appearance of terms like ‘metaethics’, ‘deontology’, ‘noncognitivism’, ‘antirealism’, ’emotivism’, etc directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.”

[div class=attrib]More from theSource here.[end-div]