What the hey is Sam Harris up to?

I like Sam Harris. The End of Faith is one of my favorite polemics, and he's always very articulate, incisive and concise when discussing matters of faith and reason.

Well, almost always.

Sam Harris has always been a sort of quasi-Buddhist, and his ramblings on transcendence have confused his readers on more than one occasion, not the least of which is the big section he has on it in The End of Faith. Today on his blog, Sam posted another musing about transcendence in response to Jerry Coyne's comments on an interview Sam had conducted earlier in which he extolled the virtues of transcendent experiences. Now, I've meditated, prayed for hours on end (not recently), studied Zen philosophy, etc. And I still don't have the slightest clue what Sam is trying to say. First, he says that a lot of atheists are missing out on transcendent experiences:
It is, in fact, possible to be utterly at ease in the world—and such ease is synonymous with relaxing, or fully transcending, the apparent boundaries of the “self.” Those who have never experienced such peace of mind will view the preceding sentences as yet another eruption of “mumbo jumbo” on my part. And yet it is phenomenologically true to say that such states of well-being are there to be discovered. I am not claiming to have experienced all relevant states of this kind. But there are people who appear to have experienced none of them—and many of these people are atheists.

This is where I think Sam loses his readers, but he wastes no time blaming them for failing to understand him. Many times in the post, he maligns atheists for failing to have these experiences, but he never moves beyond the generalities of weasel words.

But I think the bigger problem here is that Sam is using such a nebulously defined word: "transcendence". What, exactly, are we transcending? How, exactly, are we supposed to be doing it? Sam is, like most non-believers, a positivist. So since physical reality is all there is, what can we possibly be transcending? The very word is by definition associated with spirituality, so Sam ought not be surprised when his fellow non-believers furrow their brows at his liberal use of the word – particularly when he's failed to define precisely what he means.

Now, I think what Sam might be trying to say is that you can do things like meditate, experience or even induce states of bliss (and other psychological states), gain personal insight through introspection which affects your state of mind, or be overcome with compassion without having to buy into the spiritual mumbo jumbo believers tend to associate with it. And on that point, I don't think many would disagree. I've yet to hear any atheists argue that qualitative experiences are restricted to purview of the faithful. But I think Sam is treading thin ice here with comments like this:
Certain patterns of thought and attention prevent us from accessing deeper (and wiser) states of well-being. Transcendent experiences, in so far as they are usually temporary, are often surrounded by a penumbra of other states and insights. Just as one can glimpse deeper strata of well-being, and briefly see the world by their logic, one can notice the impediments to feeling this way in each subsequent moment.
There he goes again, just tossing around the term "transcendent experiences" like we're all supposed to know precisely what he means, particularly since we're also supposed to know that his use of the term has totally different meanings than, say, the way Sathya Sai Baba would use it. And what's he mean by "other states"? Heck, what's he mean by "states" at all? Sam's problem is that he's using terms that are usually in the vocabulary of new-age fruitcakes, while attempting to frame the discussion in rational terms. If you're going to use terminology that is, by and large, associated with spirituality, then you'd better be really clear on what you mean when you're using those terms stripped of their most common associations.   

But then he jumps into even murkier water:
Certain “spiritual” experiences can help us understand science. There are insights that one can have through meditation (that is, very close observation of first-person data) that line up rather well with what we know must be true at the level of the brain. I’ll mention just two, which I have written about before and will return to in subsequent posts: (1) the ego/self is a construct and a cognitive illusion; (2) there is no such thing as free will.
I'm not sure how "transcendence" can lead to "insights" like the two he names here, particularly since he's wrong. Yes, the ego/self is a construct of consciousness, a pattern of information organized and stored in the brain. That doesn't make it an "illusion" any more than any other sensory information is stored and categorized in the brain. And then he nonchalantly puts the whole free will thing out there, like the debate's been settled and we're supposed to acknowledge that we're all automatons. Sorry Sam, you haven't demonstrated that free will is an illusion. I still think your friend Dan Dennett has a big leg up on you on that topic.

If there's anything that annoys me though, it's comments like this:
Reading the comments on Jerry’s blog exposes the problem in full. There are several people there who have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about—and they take this to mean that I am not making sense.
He had a whole chapter on this stuff in his book, and it elicited the same confused reactions. He's still rambling on about it, and people seem no less confused. Maybe, since he's extolling the virtues of introspection, Sam could use a dose of his own medicine.


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