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SURRENDER TO THE VOID: A Metaphysical Q&A With Sam Harris, International Man Of Reason

 

BY STEVE VOLK Sam Harris doesn’t much care for the term “atheism.” To him, the idea that he doesn’t believe in the old myths shouldn’t require any sort of marker. Once counted among the Four Horseman of the New Atheism, bringing death to religion, Harris seems to have outdistanced his pack. Christopher Hitchens is, sadly, gone. Philosopher Daniel Dennett doesn’t maintain the same dialogue with the larger, cultural conversation between books. And Richard Dawkins has come to epitomize the worst of the materialist creed—lobbing unwelcome and, dare we say, unreasonable hand grenades about ladies in elevators, child molestation and babies with Down Syndrome.

Now Harris has re-emerged with his fifth full-length book, the briskly titled Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. Harris, an accomplished meditation practitioner, has always stood out in the New Atheist movement for distinguishing his criticisms of religion from any wholesale rejection of “spirituality”— a subject he’s explored, deeply, through many years of meditative practice. His new book is a concise and powerful attempt to put spirituality in a whole new framework for believers and non-believers alike. In terms of a thinker issuing a challenge to his own audience, Harris’s Waking Up is akin to Dylan standing before an audience of folkies, ready to worship at his acoustic altar, then plugging in his electric guitar. Sure, Harris’s new book still offers trenchant criticism of belief. But this time out, Harris is critical of non-believers, too—for thinking spirituality offers them nothing to care about in the first place.

PHAWKER: So, even with all the writing you’ve done criticizing religion, I think you might be scaling your biggest problem here, with this book, because the key word, “Spirituality,” is so loaded. Could you start just by addressing how you felt about trying to create a whole new context around a word that carries such tremendous baggage?

SAM HARRIS: Yes, there really is a lot of baggage around this term, and many unfortunate associations. I do my best to distinguish what I’m talking about from all of the various things spirituality is often conflated with—like belief in Atlantis, and the healing power of crystals and extraterrestrials being channeled by your neighbor who wears too much jewelry. And then you have the more straightforward religious associations, which are also inconvenient given my criticism of religious faith and dogmatism. There’s significant work I need to do to distinguish those things from what I actually want to talk about. But the problem is that we simply don’t have a good word that isn’t similarly encumbered with bad associations, to describe this project: of trying through some method of training, to transform the nature of our own consciousness—and therefore our moment to moment experience in the world.

PHAWKER: Did you spend much time trying to think of another word to use instead?

SAM HARRIS: Yeah, the problem is, jargon, and coining your own terminology is almost always a foolish and ultimately arrogant thing to do. To think of a new word and now insist everyone start using it is just truly is hopeless and annoying simultaneously. I’ve truly never attempted to do that. I can’t remember the last time I viewed that effort as successful in another effort, so we’re stuck with the English language as we’ve inherited it. The only other words that come close to naming this area of inquiry are even worse than “spirituality”—something like “mysticism.” I use the word “contemplative” which is also useful and also needs to be explained. It’s a little more rarified.

PHAWKER: The word “spirituality” gets at the idea that there’s some sort of treasure here, which “contemplative” doesn’t quite capture.

SAM HARRIS: Many people can think they’re engaged in the contemplative life just by thinking about contemplative topics and that’s obviously not what I’m talking about. You need to talk about specific insights, specific experiences and specific practices there are relative for attaining them. That’s what I tried to do with the book. Unfortunately you just need a name for the general area and using words like “positive psychology” or “well being,” “happiness” or “awe,” these are just far more narrow concepts. I just think, for better or worse, “spirituality” is not a word I’m comfortable with, but again I saw no alternatives.

PHAWKER: So, as concisely as you can describe it, what has meditation provided you?

SAM HARRIS: Obviously, there’s a lot there. But the core insight and most useful one is that the self most of us think we have is an illusion and cutting through this illusion brings immense benefits. But to be brief, there are two doors in: one is sheer intellectual interest, wanting to know what’s true about one’s own mind. And the second door is to mitigate and reduce the amount of suffering we experience, which is something we can readily accomplish through meditation, and by realizing the true nature of the self.

PHAWKER: Even the most fervent religious believers out there are aware that other people disagree or think of religious belief as ridiculous. But most people don’t ever question the nature of the self, right? So, you really do have a mountain to climb here in explaining yourself to a general audience. If we aren’t the self we take ourselves to be—what are we?

SAM HARRIS: We need to be precise in our use of the term “self.” We use this word in a wide variety of ways. Some people use it to describe a whole person, your body and your mind in totality, everything about you—the parts you’re conscious of, the parts you’re not conscious of, and the parts you couldn’t possibly be conscious of. It includes all 40 trillion cells in your body and 400 trillion bacteria in your gut. That’s your self. And that self is not an illusion. I’m not saying people don’t exist, or that we can’t talk about individual persons as discrete entities in the world. The self that doesn’t withstand scrutiny is the feeling that most of us call “I.” That feeling of not being identical to your bodies is the feeling of an interior subject, inside your body—that being inside your head, behind your eyes, riding around in your body as though it were a kind of vehicle. The feeling of not being identical to the continuum of your experience, but being an unchanging entity and experiencer in the midst of that experience, that self is also called the ego. And it is this feeling that we call “I,” “me,” the feeling of being a “me,” of being a thinker in addition to the thoughts that arise in consciousness, that doesn’t survive scrutiny. And you can actually find, if you pay close enough attention to this, this thing you think you have in your head, you can discover its absence in a way, and it’s conclusive. That is the feeling of self-transcendence I’m talking about in the book.

PHAWKER: So, I meditate on a regular basis, and my own experience, it’s much less than yours, and it’s mostly centered on, as you put it, the reduction of suffering. I used to spin out of control for hours and days at a stretch with fear, anxiety. Those sorts of episodes, which could be hugely destructive to my relationships, and my health, just don’t happen anymore. If I spin out of control like that now, and dwell on something that upsets me, I can usually see the episode for what it is—a temporary appearance in consciousness, like the weather—and allow it to pass very quickly: minutes instead of hours; hours instead of days. I think that experience is relatable for people in some way. But I’ve also had this feeling of selflessness you describe. I’d say I ‘lucked’ into it because I can’t create it, on a daily basis, as you say you can in Waking Up. But I’ve had it, and what concerns me about it—in the sense that I’d like to see more people experience it—is that I don’t think it is relatable. Words seem to me an insufficient tool to describe the experience. I mean people talk about feeling this self-transcendence or a boundless love or a sudden sense of connectedness between themselves and everyone and every thing, but somehow the experience still seems ineffable. And this has always struck me as one of the fundamental problems when encouraging people to take up meditation. Did you struggle with writing about these peak experiences?

SAM HARRIS: Well, I struggled with the knowledge that a significant percentage of my audience would not know what I was talking about despite my best efforts. So even if it’s clear to me on the page, I know that it’s asking too much of a book to provoke this insight in the reader. It requires some contemplative tools to pay attention to the nature of the experience closely enough that anyone would have this insight. And you can’t give those tools to your reader really by describing them, no more than you could make your reader a good golfer merely just by describing how to hit a golf ball. There’s some training, in most people, required to be able to pay attention sufficiently to notice the kinds of things I’m talking about. So the real goal, the more reasonable goal of my book, is to convince the reader that this is worth looking into. This is worth taking seriously, to carve out an intellectual space in the mind of even the most skeptical reader, which can be filled in by further investigation. This space, for consideration, may not exist or for most people once they realize religion is bullshit. Once they realize there’s a zero sum contest between faith and reason—that you can believe in things for good reasons or believe in things for bad ones—this space seems to close for many people. Because the people who are describing experiences of these kinds, spiritual experiences—for the most part, these people seem eager to believe things for bad reasons and to make a wide range of obvious philosophical and scientific errors when they talk about things like spiritual experience. Like Deepak Chopra, he is one of those people who may say reasonable things about the kinds of experiences people can have in meditation but then say really intellectually embarrassing things about the implication of these experiences for our understanding of the cosmos and what preceded the big bang. So my goal, really, was to create a space in the reader’s mind for a serious investigation of the nature of consciousness from a first person side, the subjective side—and very much in the context of a scientific, rational world view.

PHAWKER: When you remove that feeling of self, that feeling of the “I” behind the eyes, what’s left is this experience of a pure consciousness. What’s the best most succinct way you found to describe that?

SAM HARRIS: Well, what’s left in terms of the qualitative character of the experience could be anything. It could be an entirely ordinary experience. Nothing need actually change in terms of the content of consciousness. I would distinguish self-transcendence from many of the other very positive spiritual experiences with which it’s often associated. So you mentioned unconditional love, or bliss, rapture these are meditative experiences people can have. These are psychedelic experiences people can have. But none of them entail self-transcendence and self-transcendence doesn’t entail any of them. When you lose your feeling of self and you spend any amount of time in that state of consciousness then many good things tend to happen, and feelings of love and compassion and peace become pretty natural to you. But it’s not necessarily the character of your consciousness in any one moment so, this sense of self-transcendence is just the sense of the center dropping out of the experience. Most people feel they are the center of their experience. They are behind their eyes looking out at a world that is ‘not self.’ Let’s say your practice of meditation is to focus on your breath. Most people would start that practice feeling they are the subject, behind their eyes or in their heads, now given the task of paying attention to the breath and their doing this dualistically. They’re doing this in a subject/object way of they the subject are trying to get closer to the breath, the object with their attention. And that structure, subject/object, attention can be maintained for, forever, probably even in the mode of trying to transcend the self through meditation.

Some people experience a loss of that subject-object dichotomy through the dualistic practice of meditation just by paying such close attention to the breath or any other object that they can have the experience of, for a moment, seemingly out of nowhere, ‘Oh, there is no one. There is no subject being aware of an object. There is just awareness, pure seeing, just pure hearing, just pure feeling. And it’s no longer divided into the one who knows and the thing that’s known. It’s just pure knowing. And again that experience, the lights don’t go out, it’s compatible with being aware of sights and sounds and sensations. It’s just an awareness that’s so direct that you’re not, there’s no longer this distance between, something that’s, subject, object, and predicate, it’s just a single appearance. Now that distance between subject and object can collapse in a way that’s somewhat haphazard and you can’t really bring on yourself directly. You just hope it happens to you the more you pay attention to experience. But it’s also possible to recognize that that’s the way consciousness already is, and to look for this subject closely enough that you fail to find it again and again and again and again. That failure becomes more natural to you and begins to seem like, if you practice something like the Buddhist practice of mindfulness, you can then at that point become mindful of selflessness, rather than be strategically mindful of the breath or any other object in the hopes that one day you transcend yourself. You can become mindful of the self, of the intrinsic self of consciousness or the intrinsic essentialessness of consciousness. And that’s just the skill, like any other skill in a way. But it’s not something you’re producing. It’s something that you are recognizing about the nature of consciousness, and it becomes clear in that moment that you’ve been producing this feeling of self. And that’s the, your default state of feeling like a self has been a construct which doesn’t survive inspection.

PHAWKER: Let’s back up for a second and get a bit broader here. After publishing The End of Faith you’ve been at the center, in a lot of ways, of our culture’s conversation, and your primary audience is that of nonbelievers. And I am very curious about how you’ve handled this topic when you are talking to fellow nonbelievers. Does the topic come up socially or only at events and how do you tend to introduce these ideas, if at all?

SAM HARRIS: It often comes up in the context of having to argue that it is an idea worth being interested in, and taking seriously. What I tend to confront in any type of context where people have self-selected around the variable of atheism or skepticism or opposition to religion is people who either have not had experiences of this kind or have no interest in them; or people who have had them, but have found some way to view them as somehow insignificant or not suggestive of any deeper possibilities, in terms of lasting insights to be had on the nature of human consciousness. So it’s a lot of work to do to convince people that there is a there there. And I have some standard ways of attempting that but it is an unusual demographic to try to appeal to on this topic because atheists are by tendency people who have just not have had these experiences or view these experiences—the accounts of others—as un-compelling. People who have had these experiences tended to have them in the context of one or another religious indoctrination and they viewed them as further proof of the truth of those doctrines. So the experience self-transcending love or self-transcendence for a Christian can prove the truth of Christianity, and a Hindu the truth of Hinduism. These experiences act a kind of filter, in that regard, and that’s inconvenient given the conversation I’m attempting to have.

PHAWKER: From your perspective, because you had these experiences as an atheist or humanist, did this experience of self-transcendence, of feeling connected to everyone around you, with no god present for you, did that confirm your humanism?

SAM HARRIS: Yeah, again humanism is one of these words that we had to create in opposition to religious dogmatism. And all of these words, I think, we’re casualties to all of these words. They really should be unnecessary. Humanism, naturalism, rationalism, skepticism, these are all polite ways of saying atheism. They’re all defensive words. I think the experience of self-transcendence convinces me, above everything else, that most of us suffer to an extraordinary degree quite unnecessarily for most of our lives. Most of our pain and suffering is unnecessary, and that is obviously tragic and in some ways even more tragic than if it were necessary. Because then our lives mean being far less happy and far less compassionate and far less connected to the people around us than we might be. But the change required in us is pretty simple even though it’s not necessarily easy to accomplish.

PHAWKER: I’ve noticed a lot of resistance in the skeptical community at times too, to the idea of positive thinking. And certainly, while meditation is not positive thinking, there’s a relationship there. In both there is this idea that by changing the contents of our consciousness, we can shift our emotion and suffer less. But the skeptical view often seems to be that when things are bad then people should suffer. We should not divert ourselves from this negative thing that’s going on. So I just think there’s another area where you’ll meet resistance in the community that’s been most supportive of you over the years.

SAM HARRIS: Yeah, there’s an obvious default bias among atheists, skeptics, and lovers of science, to want their beliefs about themselves and the world to track reality. So you don’t want to be self-deceived. You don’t want to be thinking positively in defiance of the real data of your life. And I share that bias. I want my beliefs to track reality as far as possible. The truth, however, as you point out, is that psychological reality is not written in stone. And what we believe, how we think, how we pay attention to our experience determines—to a large degree—what is psychologically true of us. If you’re somebody that walks into a situation of adversity believing there’s a silver lining in most problems, you will confront those problems differently and in fact find a silver lining in most problems. And a person who believes problems are just problems—who believes problems are unambiguous sources of suffering—won’t find silver linings. We’re all engaged in a collaboration with reality, and our minds are a product of that collaboration.

PHAWKER: I referenced this earlier, this book presents you with maybe your toughest challenge, to follow up on that. In Waking Up, you write “Many scientists and philosophers believe that consciousness is always tied to one of the five senses—and that the idea of a ‘pure consciousness’ apart from seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching is a category error and a spiritual fantasy. I am confident that they are mistaken.” I found this passage remarkable for a couple of reasons: One, I was brought to meditation by beginning a lucid dreaming practice. And Dr. Stephen LaBerge,  the dream researcher who found a way to objectively verify the existence of lucid dreaming, told a very similar story about his early days in science. He was told, over and over again, by more senior scientists, that lucid dreaming was “impossible.” Dreaming was thought to be a state of unconsciousness, so how could anyone be conscious while they were unconscious, the thinking went.

LaBerge was undeterred because he had been having lucid dreams on a regular basis since he was a boy. In his mind, his own subjective experience weighed more heavily than the current science, and he was able to prove himself right. I feel like you’re in very different territory than LaBerge, in that he was able to conduct a repeatable, objective experiment. He had himself hooked up to monitors that confirmed he was asleep and in the dream state. While dreaming he was able to control his eyes and give a predetermined, directed movement with his eyes that was also measured and confirmed. This experience you describe of “pure consciousness” can’t be verified in the same way. So you seem to be stating here that your own subjective experience—and that of many other meditators—trumps the dominant scientific thinking. Obviously, if you feel like I am not accurately characterizing your position, correct me. Otherwise, this seems like it might be uncomfortable territory for a rationalist. Do you expect to take much heat on this score, and how do you respond to it?

SAM HARRIS: I think that your consciousness question is less important—I don’t think much turns on whether or not there is a pure consciousness experience there. I think the transcendence of the self is the potentially easier to test. You could, once we understood this feeling of self closely through neuroimaging, then we could just presumably show that characteristic neurophysiology is not an accident in people who claim to be free of this feeling. That’s an experiment that could be reasonably easy to do, certainly as easy as confirming lucid dreaming, which is still relying on subjective reports. You have the people who come in and say, ‘Yes I was lucid there,’ and we find something interesting about their EEG or their ability to signal with their eyes while they’re still sleeping. But it’s still correlating external measures with first person reports and you have to honor those reports. The whole phenomenon of dreams would be impossible to prove except for the fact that people say they have them. Just imagine what it would be like to be a skeptic about dreams: You’ve never had a dream and you’re surrounded by people who claim to be visiting other places and having conversations and going on adventures while they sleep. Sounds like the craziest thing you’ve ever heard and all you’ve got is them saying they’ve done this and moving their eyes in various phases of sleep. Apart from the fact we’ve all had them, dreams would be very easy to be skeptical about, the very existence of dreams.

PHAWKER: I don’t want to get bogged down in this but what’s interesting to me about Laberge’s experiment is that it’s all very objective. They’re measuring—they can verify, in real-time, that the subject has gone into REM. The acronym stands for “rapid eye movement” but it really should be “random eye movement” because the eyes are going all over the place. And the subject of the study has agreed, beforehand, when they are dreaming, to become lucid, to become aware that they’re dreaming and then arrest this random eye movement and direct it into a smooth, even, side to side motion with their eyes, like they are watching a tennis match. And it strikes me that this is an entirely objective way of verifying the existence of lucid dreaming. And I am not sure the same level of evidence is really available to you. But, moving on, this is connected, I was also curious how you might answer a question about Dr. Andrew Newberg. He’s looked at people in the peak meditative state. He’s been able to see what parts of the brain kind of ‘turn off,’ and what parts of the brain seem to be mediating the experience when we feel this sense of connection to everything and everyone else. And he found that, when they felt all the boundaries between them and everything else fall away, there were predictable, measurable changes in their brain functions. Activity in parts of the brain that help us locate ourselves and other objects in space, that help us navigate from one side of the room to the other, that keep us from bumping into the furniture, dropped off. Hence, with the parts of the brain that mediate the boundaries between us and everything else turned off, we feel connected to everything and everyone else. Why isn’t this just a ‘trick of the brain’? Why should we grant this state any more reality or importance than the form and function our brain displays when we feel totally like a ‘self’, located in space, or eat chocolate ice cream?

SAM HARRIS: Well I wouldn’t want to put much emphasis on Newberg’s work. I don’t know if he’s been doing anything lately on this topic. But the earlier stuff he did I thought was somewhat confused in the design of the experiment. He looked at many different types of spiritual experience and tied them all in together and came up with this result*, which was also based on a form of imaging he used that is not especially current at the moment. There have been better studies, and there’s better studies on more narrowly defined types of meditation by people like Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin. But as to the general question of it being just a trick of the brain—well, it’s all a trick of the brain. I’m saying that the self is a trick of the brain and that it’s an unnecessary trick. It’s a trick that doesn’t make a lot of sense. It makes more sense to view the self as a construct and an abstraction that isn’t the stable feature of consciousness because we just know that the sense of having a unitary self, that is unchanged from one moment to the next, that bobs on this stream of consciousness like a boat on the water, we know that doesn’t make any neurological sense. I mean there’s no place for this unitary self, that is the convergence point of everything that’s happening in the brain, where everything finally arrives, and becomes available to this entity, it just, everything that we experience as a matter of our conscious life is a process that is distributed more or less over the whole of the brain. And yet we all feel that we are this center point to it, that is unchanged, that the self that went to sleep last night is the same self that woke up this morning. And there’s unchanging ego in the midst of change. But this unchanging ego can’t be found in the brain, and I’m arguing that it can’t be found in your direct experience. And when you realize that some good things happen. Even if good things didn’t happen it would bring your experience of the world into closer register with how we believe things to be in terms of underlying neurology.

PHAWKER: You’re very careful in drawing conclusions on what these meditative experiences say about the nature of reality. What strikes me about my own, admittedly more limited experiences, though, is that they felt more vivid, more intense, more real than anything I’ve ever encountered and there’s something that seems profoundly meaningful about them. You also suggest that science is currently unable, and may forever remain unable to explain the very existence of the place where these experiences take place—i.e., our consciousness. Am I characterizing your position rightly? And if so, to say science may never explain consciousness strikes me as, again, uncomfortable territory for a rationalist.

SAM HARRIS: It’s not uncomfortable once it’s fully unpacked. It is counter to the biases of many people on its surface, so it’s just a matter of continuing the conversation long enough. I am arguing that consciousness is currently a mystery and may remain one for reasons I go into in the second chapter. Because consciousness is irreducibly first person, qualitative experiential character is the very reality I’m talking about when I talk about consciousness, what we need is a first person methodology to explore it. Now I’m as eager as anyone to see the first person side correlated with third person studies of the brain and you know I think that’s a necessary side, a component of understanding the mind, that we need to understand the brain. But we also need the tools to explore on the first person side and certain things will be discovered in consciousness directly or never discovered at all and the big one being consciousness itself. There’s absolutely no indication that human brains are conscious but for the fact that we know ourselves to be conscious directly from first person experience. That’s what makes consciousness difficult to reduce conceptually to unconscious information processes in the brain. As you know, this is called the hard problem of consciousness in the philosophy of minds. Some scientists are convinced mistakenly that this problem is not hard and just awaits our next breakthrough in neuroimaging or some other mode of third person inquiry, but as I spell out I think they’re mistaken about that. That doesn’t entitle you to make crazy New Age claims about the cosmos, but it does entitle you to value introspection in the form of a trained discipline, like meditation. And as a component of studying the universe and in this case the part we call ourselves or the human mind. So a spiritual experience doesn’t give you the right to make claims about cosmology but it does give you the right to make claims about the possibility of the human experience and therefore, the mind, so the connection we draw between science and spirituality is not where many people want to find it. It’s at the center of psychology and neuroscience that are trying to understand the mind.

PHAWKER: I have to say when you equate the idea that consciousness is an emergent property with magical thinking I almost stood up and applauded, as I read the book.

SAM HARRIS: Yeah, that doesn’t mean it’s not, that doesn’t mean consciousness isn’t an emergent property of unconscious information processes. It’s just that to say it is, is to state a miracle. It is not an explanation of it—of the sort that scientists and philosophers claim to want so I think that’s the contextual problem. Thinking that consciousness arises out of unconscious information processes is like thinking something arises out of nothing, and yeah you can say something arises out of nothing but when you actually look at what you mean by the word something and the word nothing, it’s hard to say you’re actually thinking what you think you’re thinking.

PHAWKER: I got to tell you, the thing I struggle with the most just as a human being, and I think a lot of people struggle with this, is the idea of being ‘spiritual but not religious.’ It’s been reduced to a joke, a line in people’s online dating profiles, yet that pretty much describes where I am. To have had my own fleeting experiences of feeling this kind of boundless love, of feeling—as you put it—my center drop away, so there seemed to be no difference between me and the chair I was sitting on, and everything in the room… . These experiences were so transcendent, the fact that there was this sense of connectedness and love, I mean this is an experience that does smack of the greater ideals expressed within religion. And so there’s this temptation in me to apply this experience to all of the big questions. How did this supposedly mindless universe evolve, so that a sense of connectedness, of selflessness and love, lies at the core of our experience—without being somewhere at the foundation of existence in the first place?

SAM HARRIS: That’s the moment where I would just admit that I don’t know how the universe is functioning. That experience while incredibly valuable—in fact, one might even say it’s the most valuable part of one’s life compared to everything else, that experience doesn’t even provide information about the fact that you have a brain, let alone how the brain works, the relationship between consciousness and the material world. You can’t even figure out you have a brain based on that experience. So it’s a lot that we are not aware of even when we are having a sublime experience of connectedness to everything around us, so it’s the job of science to understand this larger context. I think there is no contradiction between doing that and valuing this direct epiphany about the nature and significance of our own consciousness.

SAM HARRIS SPEAKS AT THE PHILADELPHIA FREE LIBRARY ON OCTOBER 6TH

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Steve Volk, Philadelphia Magazine writer at large, has been reporting on life’s bigger questions for many years now, most notably with his book Fringe-ology: How I tried to Explain Away the Unexplainable—But Couldn’t, in which he covered topics ranging from telepathy to meditation and lucid dreaming.

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