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.




  1. You may think I'm not seeing his point about how Western religions don't view the self as an illusion. I get that. I'm just pointing out that he is caricaturing Western religion's view of the self's relation to God. For a different view of the intimacy some Christians have with their conception of God, consider "Practicing the Presence of God" by Brother Lawrence.

  2. Actually, it's "The Practice of the Presence of God".