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I Thought I Hated the New Atheists. Then I Read Sam Harris's New Book.

The new atheist trounce: Science, spirituality, and common sense bump heads


I have never liked Sam Harris, neuroscientist, philosopher, prominent New Atheist. I don’t personally know him, so it would be more accurate to say I dislike his writings and persona. I find most of his “philosophy” exactly the sort that should be bracketed by cautionary punctuation, his geopolitics are some of the most hideously unreflective I’ve encountered, and he belongs to a group of naïve iconoclasts who laughably fancy themselves scientific dissidents in the tradition of Galileo and Copernicus. But after reading Harris’s new book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, I’ve decided the true reason I never liked Harris is that he makes me uncomfortable, profoundly.

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

Despair at a pointless existence is as ancient as our species. I think my discomfort comes from elsewhere. I’ve come to see the facile heresy of the New Atheists more as bourgeois theatre than legitimate intellectual debate. As with so many aspects of our culture, the entertainment value goes unquestioned. Maybe you’ve noticed the ways Harris et al. are frequently depicted in the galleria of Internet videos (all titles below are [sic]):

Sam Harris simply destroys catholicism

A Very Wise Christopher Hitchens Brutalizes Dishonest William Dembski in this debate

Sam Harris demolishes Christianity

Hitchslap 34 – Jerry Fawell deserves something worse than hell

Richard Dawkins espouses Militant Atheism: “Mock them, Ridicule them.”

I mean, is this not entertainment? Who wouldn’t rollick at seeing the demented paladins of fundamentalist religion shown just how outmatched they are? Nobody takes up debate with an implacable creationist for the purpose of converting them to reason. No, we do so to “destroy,” to “demolish,” to “brutalize.” How else are we to account for the ubiquity of a neologism like “hitchslap”? Not all spectacular violence happens just in the coliseum, you know. By debate criteria, most of the New Atheists’ opponents lose as surely as pinioned slaves lose the fight against hungry lions. But who cares. The outcome was predetermined; we want to watch.

It is one thing to denounce hatred, intolerance, and ignorance, and quite another to take vicious delight in ridiculing humanity at its most vulnerable. However much I despise this darker impulse, there have been times when I worried my enmity for Harris foreclosed any chance of sympathizing with him. In his new book, Harris identifies a similar discordance in his view of certain spiritual leaders: "The link between self-transcendence and moral behavior is not as straightforward as we might like. It would seem that people can have genuine spiritual insights, and a capacity to provoke those insights in others, while harboring serious moral flaws." Now, I cannot think of a better description of Harris, though for a long time I was content to equate him with his “moral flaws.”

The fact is that Waking Up lends a different picture of Harris (at least to me): an intelligent and sensitive person who is willing to undergo the discomfort involved in proposing alternatives to the religions he’s spent years degrading. His new book, whether discussing the poverty of spiritual language, the neurophysiology of consciousness, psychedelic experience, or the quandaries of the self, at the very least acknowledges the potency and importance of the religious impulse—though Harris might name it differently—that fundamental and common instinct to seek not just an answer to life, but a way to live that answer.

All spiritual guides of this nature begin with more or less the same diagnosis. First, the vague despondency of modernity: “There is something degraded and degrading about many of our habits of attention as we shop, gossip, argue, and ruminate our way to the grave.” Then, our source of suffering: “Even for extraordinarily lucky people, life is difficult. And when we look at what makes it so, we see that we are all prisoners of our thoughts.” The simplicity of our imprisonment is what makes it so complete, and hard to recognize. Most of us do not even realize that suffering cannot arise without thought, or that we have the power to choose what and how to think. This is worth contemplating, and for those skeptical of this tyranny, the typical test is to ask them to not think, say, for one minute. Most of us fail immediately.

Worse still is our derivation of identity from thoughts and memories. It is commonsense to assume the existence of a “self” that experiences and thinks and remembers, which we locate “in the head.” As Harris argues, this “conventional sense of self is an illusion—and […] spirituality largely consists in realizing this, moment to moment.” As with much that is easily described, this is damningly hard to execute. One lesson that Harris attempts to impart is how horribly clever and tenacious the self can be: selves that endlessly yearn to extinguish the suffering from which they cannot dissociate; selves addicted to the strange dualistic conversation we call thought; selves so mesmerized they cannot enjoy “limitless” comfort, let alone access the transcendental nature of their experience. We find ourselves in a strange and recursive predicament. Our solution is found in recognizing “thoughts as thoughts,” as Harris writes, for that reveals the true nature of consciousness, which breaks the cycle and shatters the prison. There are a variety of ways to achieve this goal, if only momentarily, and Harris supplies various methods, both pharmacological and meditative, while being (sensibly) more prescriptive about the latter.

What I like about this venture is that it permits Harris to explore a variety of positions that just might appear preposterous. He entertains the possibility that consciousness might be beyond human intelligence to explain, and contrasts the metaphor of a brain that “generates” consciousness to one that “transduces” it (the popular theme in visionary and psychedelic subcultures that likens the brain to a sort of "receiver,” making consciousness the “signal”) and supports the resurging philosophical idea that consciousness inheres in all of matter. He doesn’t exhibit rigid certainty, either. He simply makes arguments.

Even more interesting is when Harris is led to concretize some of his spiritual insights. Harris recounts moments during meditation when he experienced “pure consciousness … where all thought subsided, and any sense of having a body disappeared…” leaving only “a blissful expanse of conscious peace that had no reference point in any of the usual sensory channels.” The tricky part of such an enviable state is deriving meaning and/or sense from it, analogous to basing life decisions on a vivid dream. If we take the proposition of “pure consciousness” seriously, then it must follow that consciousness can exist independent of perception—something many scientists and philosophers would find rebarbative. Yet Harris, relying on experience, is “confident they’re mistaken.” Such bizarre and contingent conclusions are incredibly easy to mock, though I have no intention to do so. I just wouldn’t have guessed he would make himself vulnerable in such a way.

It is odd, though, to see someone so acquainted with the essence of suffering to invoke it in such a pedestrian manner. The most detailed example Waking Up gives of suffering is Harris’s personal anecdote of a recurrent plumbing issue in his home, which he calls a “horror movie.”

A pipe burst, flooding six hundred square feet of ceiling. This time the repair took two weeks and created an immense amount of dust; two cleaning crews were required to deal with the aftermath—vacuuming hundreds of books, drying and shampooing the carpet, and so forth. Throughout all this we were forced to live without heat, for otherwise the dust from the repair would have been sucked into the vents, and we would have been breathing it in every room of the house.

And when the leak returns, Harris is “transformed into a hapless, uncomprehending, enraged man racing down the staircase. I’m sure I would have comported myself with greater dignity had I come upon the scene of a murder.”

This is funny and disarming, yes, and Harris brightly reflects on how he might have responded differently. But compare his example with one written by Eckhart Tolle—a very popular mediator of Eastern spiritual teachings—in The Power of Now. You might see a difference in the character of suffering described:

One night not long after my twenty-ninth birthday, I woke up in the early hours with a feeling of absolute dread. … The silence of the night, the vague outlines of the furniture in the dark room, the distant noise of a passing train—everything felt so alien, so hostile, and so utterly meaningless that it created in me a deep loathing of the world. The most loathsome thing of all, however, was my own existence. What was the point in continuing to live with this burden of misery? … I could feel that a deep longing for annihilation, for nonexistence, was now becoming much stronger than the instinctive desire to continue to live.

The cost of acknowledging the uniqueness and irreducibility of subjectivity is that you can never truly comprehend this sort of suffering until it happens to you. Of course, I would never wish this upon Harris. But to deny our imaginations any access to otherly suffering is not the appropriate conclusion. The depths of human suffering are important to acknowledge, as Tolle intuits. After Tolle resolved to end his own life, he then underwent what can only be described as a mystical experience. He was profoundly changed. Moreover, in the following years he discovered many of the same insights about consciousness that Harris describes in Waking Up, but apparently with a greater understanding of the stakes.

Which brings me to something I was certain I’d never write: Sam Harris should have provided a more extreme example of human suffering, personal or otherwise. For a man who began The End of Faith with a hypothetical depiction of a suicide bomber and Free Will with a detailed account of the crimes of two murderous psychopaths, this shouldn’t be difficult.

The End of Faith by Sam Harris

Another problem unique to Harris’s spiritual guide is his attempt to forge a new dialectic between the tripole of science, spirituality, and commonsense. A demotic volume this slender is not going accomplish this, and Harris knows it. Yet books like these can never avoid lexical toil over words like “self” and “ego” and “spiritual” and “mind” and “consciousness.” The commonsense conception of “self,” for instance, is very different from what scientists and philosophers mean by “psychic continuity,” which is in turn very different from what Eastern teachings mean by “ego.” Yet we know all these terms bare loose relation to the subject in question. Thus contradictions arise. We can learn from meditation that the “self is an illusion,” as Harris writes, while also accepting the truism that “Obviously, there is something in our experience that we are calling ‘I,’ apart from the sheer fact that we are conscious; otherwise, we would never describe our subjectivity in the way we do...”

Harris is somewhat inconsistent in recognizing this contradiction—mostly, I gather, because he views contradiction as an unacceptable failure. In terms of personal experience, you will never think your way out of the problem of suffering, and while you may have qualms about the way contemplative practice is described, this says nothing about what you will experience if you choose to engage it. Generally, I think the way to proceed is not to universally regard the self as an illusion, but as something real, rich, and complex that nevertheless must be tantamount to the register in us which makes its perception possible. Some people call this a truer self, or a soul.

Free Will by Sam Harris

Waking Up concludes on a rather curious pitch. The last chapter “Gurus, Death, Drugs, and Other Puzzles” is basically an enormous qualification, meant to finalize the distinction between “religion” from “spirituality.” Throughout the book, Harris repeatedly offers reminders like “my bullshit detector remains well calibrated” and “I make no claims in support of magic or miracles in this book.” Initially, these pleas seem understandable, as he’s trying to demonstrate that one needn’t sacrifice rationality or sanity in order to glimpse the spiritual dimensions of life. But it starts to register in an all too familiar way when Harris unaccountably assails Eban Alexander’s Proof of Heaven, a childish account of a neurosurgeon’s experience while in a coma that Alexander interprets as proof of an afterlife.

Considering all the interesting things Harris has to say about figures like Aldus Huxley, William James, and Terrance McKenna—not to mention his impressive defense of Douglas Harding’s On Having No Head against the obtuse and uncharacteristic sneers of Douglas Hofstadter—this last opprobrium for Proof of Heaven seems like a tiresome waste of energy. Harris must know that very few, if any, of his readers require convincing on this point. Oh, but the Alexander case has all the ingredients of an irresistible New Atheist trounce. Because Alexander is a neurosurgeon and not a neuroscientist, Harris gets to employ the Hitchensesque quip on professional distinctions: “If a neuroscientist were handed a drill and a scalpel and told to operate on a living patient’s brain, the result would be horrific. From a scientific point of view, Alexander’s performance is no prettier.” Because Alexander describes himself as a “faithful Christian” without “actual belief,” we get the inevitable suggestion that his religious conditioning may have infected his interpretation. And because Alexander is dead certain about that interpretation, we get an alternative parable in which Harris has a dream that turned out to be somewhat prescient, after which we are invited to compare Harris’s refusal to draw metaphysical conclusions from his dream with the reckless “attitude” that “Dr. Eban Alexander will most likely exhibit before crowds of credulous people for the rest of his life.” Even if someone who bought Alexander’s story were to read Harris’s book, which I doubt, is this the rhetoric that would convince them? Again, the tactic reveals the intention.

It’s probably best this chapter occurred toward the end of the book. I’m not sure this piece would have been the same if I encountered the familiar Sam Harris in the beginning. In his conclusion, Harris relates a memory of his three-year-old daughter asking him about gravity’s origin, and in his response you see the mechanics of his self-elevation beginning to churn. He confesses uncertainty—“We don’t know. Gravity is a mystery.”—which he then contrasts to what many American’s might say—“Gravity comes from God.”—which then leads him to wonder what scriptural argument a Muslim or Christian could give against him hypothetically saying, “Gravity might be God’s way of dragging people to hell, where they burn in fire.” This bizarre exercise ends with the predictable imagery of September 11, to reestablish the price of stupidity.

All the while I was reading this, I thought: wrong question. It doesn’t much matter what his daughter asked him; the question relevant to his project is: “What’s the purpose of my life?” That correction satisfied me for a moment. But then I thought: It’s likely that his daughter will ask him this question, if she hasn’t already. And this gave way to a realization that I could not dismiss: I truthfully, sincerely hope he can find within himself an answer, whatever it might be. Surely that means something.