Sunday, October 26, 2014

Spirituality: Sam Harris versus Thomas Merton, Duelling Banjos of the Self

     So, I had a sudden inspiration to read Thomas Merton's book The Inner Experience , which talks a lot about the "I", and play that off against Harris' book, which will talk about how the "I" is an illusion, and see whether anything interesting comes from it. Maybe, maybe not.

Spirituality: The Case of Sam Harris, Entry 3, Taking on OMMM Mechanics

     Here Harris is right on. There is no reason to conclude from QM that the universe is fundamentally Mind. QM is indeed mysterious and counter-intuitive in many ways, but Idealism is not the necessary consequence of this. As Harris points out, 'measurement' does not invoke Mind per say, it only invokes measurement.
     Now, there are strange things in QM, mainly non-separability, which is genuinely strange, but that doesn't mean we have to smoke doobies and try to use The Force.
     Additionally, Harris points out that the Mind is still dependant upon the physical processes within the body, and, as much as I find Penrose an interesting read, it is not obvious that QM gets us anywhere when it comes to solving the PHILOSOPHICAL problem of Mind.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Spirituality: The Case of Sam Harris, entry 2

     Here I'm going to digress onto some of his comments about Christianity and its relationship to mysticism. I'll open by quoting the opening of Dante's Paradiso:

"The glory of the One who moves all things
permeates the universe and glows
in one part more and in another less."

This is from the Allen Mandelbaum translation. Other Christian mystics, many of whom are quoted in The Perennial Philosophy, which Harris takes to task for being an inaccurate representation of Christianity, make similar points to the above.  I see the mysticism in Christianity as not merely the result of a few outliers, but as part of the mainstream integration of Greek thought into Christianity. The opening Gospel of John is as mystical as anything you are likely to read:

"In the beginning was the Word
and the Word was with God, and
the Word was God ...
All things were made and came into
existence through Him; and without Him
was not even one thing made that has
come into being. In Him was Life, and the
Life was the Light of men.
And the Light shines on in the darkness, for
the darkness has never overpowered it"

     This shows an obvious neo-Platonic influence, whereas the Dante bit has a strong dose Aristotle as well. There is thus a tendency toward union with God that runs throughout Christianity that Harris downplays in remarks such as

"In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the human soul is conceived as genuinely separate from the divine reality of God. The appropriate attitude for a creature that finds itself in this circumstance is some combination of terror, shame, and awe. In the best case, notions of God's love and grace provide some relief -- but the central message of these faiths is that each of us is separate from, and in relationship to, a divine authority who will punish anyone who harbors the slightest doubt about His supremacy."(Harris, pg. 21)

His description here does NOT represent my own experience of being a Christian, nor do I think it adequately represents the relationship to God most of the Christians I know have, or think they have. God represents that which is the most real in the self, yet transcends the self. A relationship with God is with an entity that invades the soul, remakes the soul, unites with the soul. Harris' characterization, while good fodder for his atheist readers(including myself) is, in my opinion, a misrepresentation of a wide swath of Christian experience.


Lest you think this type of mysticism is only a Medieval Church thing, protestant thinkers like Paul Tillich(Martin Luther King wrote his dissertation on him) emphasized 'The Ground of Being' etc.. as central to his thought. This kind of talk can be hard to parse, and there is not the same emphasis in Christian thought as there is in Eastern religion that the self IS God, more that God is the activating principle behind all things, including the soul.  This element is different from Eastern thought, but is not given its due by Harris. Aspects of this tendency are in the usual 'come to Jesus' invitations to allow "Jesus into your heart".

     Finally, I'm not arguing that the Inquisition didn't come out against many mystics, of course it did, but I am saying that the experience of Christianity has had an element of UNION with God that is undeniable and Harris just misses the boat here.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Spirituality: The Case of Sam Harris, entry 1

     So, I got Sam Harris' new book, Waking Up . I am not going to venture into his recent controversy with Ben Affleck and Bill Maher. I am only going to respond to the topic of this book  -- sorry, folks.

    Harris recounts a life-changing experience on Ecstasy. I used to hear this kind of stuff when I was in college; I didn't buy it then and I don't buy it now. When I started college I read a lot of Aldous Huxley, including The Doors of Perception and The Perennial Philosophy(which Harris quotes and then criticizes -- I'll have more to say about this later). I once wrote a paper in a philosophy class about Huxley -- it was assigned as our final paper. I wrote that if a drug can create the same experience as meditation then logic won't allow me to distinguish one from the other. The professor didn't like my answer: he claimed that the drug would have to make you virtuous etc..., in keeping with traditional Christian mysticism. I still disagree with him. Look, I have a lot of experiences, some when I'm tired or my blood sugar is high or low, some when I've had a lot of caffeine, and so on, but there is no reason to think an experience is telling me anything profoundly metaphysical, including about the nature of the 'self'. And it's certainly not obvious that virtue, faith etc.. are a gateway to mystical insight. So, in my paper I was rejecting the entire mystical program, which I am doing again.

     I don't need to have a drug-induced, or meditation induced, experience, to reject traditional notions of the self; ordinary experience and logic suffice. It is interesting that Harris, who in other contexts tows the line of scientific atheism, would be prone to such hippy-dippy thought processes when it comes to Buddhism and the 'self'. This does not mean I think meditation is bad: it can be very relaxing and can allow you to pause and passively perceive what is occupying your mind in a way that you don't when you are too involved in your life.

   In my next entry I will examine Harris' comments about the separateness of God in Western religion and the unity with God in Eastern religion. Not that what he says is necessarily wrong, but I'm going to talk about the influence of neo-Platonic and Aristotelian thought on medieval Christianity, which added some Eastern sounding elements -- which may not be surprising as Plato was influenced through Pythagoras, who is reputed to have travelled to the East.