Sam Harris - Rational Mysticism

Rational Mysticism
by Sam Harris

Tom Flynn, the editor of Free Inquiry, has invited me to contribute four essays to this magazine over the course of the next year. This invitation comes after he wrote a mixed, misleading, and ultimately exasperating review of my book, The End of Faith, in these very pages.[1] Having accepted his invitation, I now feel a mixture of emotions about which psychological science has precious little to say. In this first essay, I will resist the temptation to rise heroically to the defense of my own book—but I will fail.

If anyone has written a book more critical of religious faith than I have, I’m not aware of it. This is not to say that The End of Faith does not have many shortcomings—but appeasing religious irrationality is not among them. These claims are not as self-serving in this context as they might first appear. While Flynn is guilty of some surprising misinterpretations of my argument,[2] his support for my book was fundamentally eroded by something I did, in fact, do: I used the words spirituality and mysticism affirmatively, in an attempt to put the range of human experience signified by these terms on a rational footing. It seems to me that the difficulty Flynn had with this enterprise is not a problem with my book, or merely with Flynn, but a larger problem with secularism itself.

As a worldview, secularism has defined itself in opposition to the whirling absurdity of religion. Like atheism (with which it is more or less interchangeable), secularism is a negative dispensation. Being secular is not a positive virtue like being reasonable, wise, or loving. To be secular, one need do nothing more than live in perpetual opposition to the unsubstantiated claims of religious dogmatists. Consequently, secularism has negligible appeal to the culture at large (a practical concern) and negligible content (an intellectual concern). There is, in fact, not much to secularism that should be of interest to anyone, apart from the fact that it is all that stands between sensible people like ourselves and the mad hordes of religious imbeciles who have balkanized our world, impeded the progress of science, and now place civilization itself in jeopardy. Criticizing religious irrationality is absolutely essential. But secularism, being nothing more than the totality of such criticism, can lead its practitioners to reject important features of human experience simply because they have been traditionally associated with religious practice.

The final chapter of my book, which gave Flynn the most trouble, is devoted to the subject of meditation. Meditation, in the sense that I use the term, is nothing more than a method of paying extraordinarily close attention to one’s moment-to-moment experience of the world. There is nothing irrational about doing this (and Flynn admits as much). In fact, such a practice constitutes the only rational basis for making detailed (first-person) claims about the nature of human subjectivity. Difficulties arise for secularists like Flynn, however, once we begin speaking about the kinds of experiences that diligent practitioners of meditation are apt to have. It is an empirical fact that sustained meditation can result in a variety of insights that intelligent people regularly find intellectually credible and personally transformative. The problem, however, is that these insights are almost always sought and expressed in a religious context. One such insight is that the feeling we call “I”—the sense that there is a thinker giving rise to our thoughts, an experiencer distinct from the mere flow of experience—can disappear when looked for in a rigorous way. Our conventional sense of “self” is, in fact, nothing more than a cognitive illusion, and dispelling this illusion opens the mind to extraordinary experiences of happiness. This is not a proposition to be accepted on faith; it is an empirical observation, analogous to the discovery of one’s optic blind spots. Most people never notice their blind spots (caused by the transit of the optic nerve through the retina of each eye), but they can be pointed out with a little effort. The absence of a reified self can also be pointed out, though this tends to require considerably more training on the part of both teacher and student. The only “faith” required to get such a project off the ground is the faith of scientific hypothesis. The hypothesis is this: if I use my attention in the prescribed way, it may have a specific, reproducible effect. Needless to say, what happens (or fails to happen) along any path of “spiritual” practice has to be interpreted in light of some conceptual scheme, and everything must remain open to rational discussion. How this discussion proceeds will ultimately be decided by contemplative scientists. As I said in my book, if we ever develop a mature science of the mind, most of our religious texts will be no more useful to mystics than they now are to astronomers.

What words should we use to acknowledge the fact that the happiest person on this earth at this moment might have spent the last twenty years living alone in a cave? Any experienced meditator knows that this is a serious possibility. (Indeed, I consider it not only possible, but likely.) What can we say about the fact that the conventional sources of human happiness—association with family and friends, positive engagement with society, diverse experiences of physical pleasure, etc.—might be neither necessary nor sufficient to produce happiness in its most profound forms? This is not New Age mumbo jumbo. What secularists like Flynn tend not to realize is that there are genuine, introspective insights that can be terribly difficult to acquire. The lack of general accessibility does not render such insights at all suspect. The average person could spend the rest of his life trying to determine whether string theory makes any sense (and still fail); this is not a measure of whether string theory is mumbo jumbo. As any serious practitioner of meditation knows, there is something to the claims that have been made by mystics over the ages. And yet, the fact that such claims have always been advanced in the language of one or another religious ideology continues to confound secularists.

Flynn condemns my book simply because I have found no better words than spiritual or mystical to denote this rarefied terrain.[3] As Flynn concedes, I took great pains to distance myself from the unfortunate associations these terms carry in our culture, deluded as it is by absurd religious certainties. Still, Flynn felt that my caveats were insufficient, and he would have had me employ words like “meditative” or “attentional” to describe the experience of human consciousness shorn of the illusion of the human ego. The problem, however, is that there is a kernel of truth in the grandiosity and otherworldly language of religion. It really is possible to have one’s moment-to-moment perception of the world radically transfigured by “attentional” discipline. Such a transfiguration, being both rare and profoundly positive, may occasionally merit a little poetry.

1. Tom Flynn, “Glimpses of Nirvana,” Free Inquiry 25, no. 2 (February/March 2005).

2. Flynn accuses me of “implicit Zionism” when what I explicitly say is this:

Judaism is as intrinsically divisive, as ridiculous in its literalism, and as at odds with the civilizing insights of modernity as any other religion. Jewish settlers, by exercising their “freedom of belief” on contested land, are now one of the principal obstacles to peace in the Middle East. They will be a direct cause of war between Islam and the West should one ever erupt over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

While I argue that there is a profound ethical disparity between the ways in which the Israelis and their enemies in the Muslim world currently resort to violence, observing this disparity does not make me “a partisan for Israel.” I am simply a partisan for civilization.

Flynn also cites a passage as evidence that I do “not view living without religion as an attainable goal.” The passage begins:

Faith enables many of us to endure life’s difficulties with an equanimity that would be scarcely conceivable in a world lit only by reason.

However, any reader who consults the text will see that I am talking about the false consolations of religious faith. The passage ends with the following:

But the fact that religious beliefs have a great influence on human life says nothing at all about their validity. For the paranoid, pursued by persecutory delusions, terror of the CIA may have great influence, but this does not mean that his phones are tapped.

3. I also took considerable heat from Flynn for a few remarks I made about the nature of consciousness. Most atheists appear to be certain that consciousness is entirely dependent upon (and reducible to) the workings of the brain. In the last chapter of the book, I briefly argue that this certainty is unwarranted. I say this as one who is deeply immersed in the neuroscientific and philosophical literature on consciousness: the truth is that scientists still do not know what the relationship between consciousness and matter is. I am not in the least suggesting that we make a religion out of this uncertainty, or do anything else with it. Needless to say, the mysteriousness of consciousness does nothing to make conventional religious notions about God and paradise any more plausible. Still, consciousness remains a genuine mystery, and anyone who attempts to study it is confronted by serious conceptual and empirical problems.

Hambydammit's picture

I've not read Sam Harris's

I've not read Sam Harris's book, but I have read numerous articles and interviews, and have watched several video interviews.

I have no real criticism of his arguments against religion. I do think that Sam resorts to scare tactics a bit too much.

I do wish he would stop using the idea of the end of civilization as a threat posed by the continuation of religion. No matter how big the conflagration, civilization, religious or not, will continue so long as there are people alive. He's probably right in saying that a world dominated by religious governments waging religious wars would really suck. This is a much more palatable argument for me, and I think would resonate more with the oh-so-sought-after moderate christian. Let's face it. A moderate Christian is going to read Harris's work and think, "Oh, he's just as wacky as those fundies, predicting the end of civilization. Why can't we just get along?"

I know that Sam doesn't literally mean "the end of civilization." That is precisely why I wish he'd stop using the phrase. Saying precisely what you mean is an art, and using scare tactics against the religious is no better than using scare tactics to convert to religion.

So says hambydammit.

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darth_josh's picture

I have a huge problem with

I have a huge problem with people that answer the religion question with:
"None, but spiritual."

My flaw is that I have 'faith' in science. The usage of the word uncertainty carries with it the question of "Will it ever be certain?" My faith is that science will answer that question of neuroscience/consciousness but only after we stop philosophizing about it.

There is where I split with people who lack belief in everything. I place a great deal of faith and trust in science. Who/What else have we gotten real results from in the past?

I'd like to take every existentialist philosopher in the world and put them in a room away from the scientists. Then have one person listen to the unending conversation writing down the really good questions and giving them to the scientists to analyze, theorize, and experiment.

We've seen it countless times on the 'creation science' front. Men with good educations allowing their 'faith' to enter the equation. It taints their results. They're in such a hurry to answer the question that they cursorily disregard any piece that doesn't fit with the answer that they're expected to provide.

It has also happened with good ideas as well. Hwang Woo Suk(sp?) falsified some of his test results to minimize the 'collateral damage' of the research. He had 9 of 11 lines falsified. The other two lost and replaced. Contamination rendered tests on the cloning impossible. In the eyes of the world, he lied. If we simply erase the lie and look at the successful experiments then we see that he really did have success. 1,000's of women have pledged their eggs to Hwang for the research to clone stem cells.
Why did he lie? Unreasonable expectations? Vanity? or whatever.

The point is that just because we say that something is 'uncertain' doesn't mean it must always be so. In fact, I have 'faith' that all uncertainties will one day be answered.

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I like the fact that Harris

I like the fact that Harris talks about spirituality and rational mysticism

Although all the Four

Although all the Four Horsemen are superb, really brilliant minds and excellent gentlemen, I must admit I do think Sam Harris' view is a bit more comprehensive, takes a bit more in.  And it's in this area of the distinction between (as Hitchens called it, in agreeing somewhat with Harris) the "numinous" and the "supernatural".  As Harris points out, mysticism is really quite a distinct thing from religion, and their association is a sort of historical accident.  To see this, think about the way that mysticism is often frowned upon by religionists themselves.  Why are religionists often suspicious of mysticism?  Because it takes a "Protestant" view of things - that no "intermediaries" (priests in an Apostolic Succession, for instance) are required, and that one can get into a personal relationship with the Divine.  That should be a clue for rationalists that something that's not religious is going on in mysticism/

Luminon's picture

This is the first Sam

This is the first Sam Harris' book I'm tempted to read. As a mysticist and meditator myself, (albeit called irrational  ) I think he could use some peer review. And I'm curious how much did he find out.

Of course, most of religious literature will be of no use for this purpose, but I know of occult books that go into great details, that include specific brain centers and detailed description of visions and states of consciousness. The only problem is, that in reading them, even such a scholar as Sam Harris or any other scientist is almost a layman, a beginner. I'm curious if they actually still can search for an information, adapt to the language, understand what they can out of it, and apply it, or if they will spend years and millions of dollars on doing it the hard way.

But it seems all going the right way. Harris makes statements for which certain another person would be ridiculed the hell out of. (gives no evidence and tells people to meditate for it themselves) It's clear as day that religion with it's organization lost any right to spirituality and most of access to it. But there's nothing wrong with non-organized religion, that is free from worship or dogmas.

What is a rational mysticism? If there is God, then rational people want to study it, and if it's someone awesome, then they try to become more like it. There is no need for worship. (that actually describes occultism and it's theoretic basis esotericism, because mysticism is by definition not intellectual but intuitively-emotional activity) So this is my difference between someone religious and non-religious, the presence or lack of worship. Worship is a specific reaction that only religious people have, when they meet the divine.

By end of civilization I think he means this civilization, contemporary "Western", not the civilization as such. Which is, let's admit it, not the best thing that happened to the global village.

Beings who deserve worship don't demand it. Beings who demand worship don't deserve it.

Brian37's picture

I don't think it is wrong to

I don't think it is wrong to point out the fact that religious people hold power in governments with the power to shoot off nukes. I think we should be scared of people who talk to their invisible friends and have armies and nukes. That is not to say we should go to war to stop them. But we should make humanity aware and be a watchdog so it doesn't get to that point.

And the other issue:

"Mysticism" come on folks. I know what he means, but that is a loaded word rooted in a past full of magical baggage. Instead of lending it the er of bullshit woo by using such a word just say, "There is much we don't know about the human brain".

I love Sam, but he gives me a lip twitch using language like this. Ditch the word "Mysticism" and simply say "we don't know". There is nothing "magical" or "mysterious" about lacking knowledge of something. It simply means you don't know.

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Wonderist's picture

Luminon wrote:This is the

Luminon wrote:

This is the first Sam Harris' book I'm tempted to read.

You can read his first ten pages of The End of Faith on his site. I highly recommend it. Sam Harris is one of the clearest, sharpest writers I know.


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Wonderist's picture

Brian37 wrote:"Mysticism"

Brian37 wrote:

"Mysticism" come on folks. I know what he means, but that is a loaded word rooted in a past full of magical baggage. Instead of lending it the er of bullshit woo by using such a word just say, "There is much we don't know about the human brain".

I love Sam, but he gives me a lip twitch using language like this. Ditch the word "Mysticism" and simply say "we don't know". There is nothing "magical" or "mysterious" about lacking knowledge of something. It simply means you don't know.

I agree, Brian. We can have mystery without mysticism. There is no shame in not knowing, only in pretending to know what we don't. I think the best word that encompasses what could reasonably be meant by Sam Harris' 'rational mysticism' is the word 'wonder'. Hence, wonderism.

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