Sam Harris has recorded a new video in which he answers questions from Reddit readers. It’s nearly an hour long, so you might want to watch it while having lunch or doing some other light task, as there’s nothing heavyweight here that requires extreme concentration. However, it’s still worth watching, for Sam takes up a number of good questions, and some of his answers are provocative. The questions include these (I’ve paraphrased them, and put asterisks and times for the ones that most interested me):
How do we best advance our agenda of rationality and atheism?
What’s up with all your meditation experiences? What did it do for you, and what does that mean for the rest of us?
Should we be afraid of using the term “spirituality”?
There was a fair amount of criticism of your latest book, The Moral Landscape. Did you think any of it had substantial merit?
**Why should atheists take seriously the “transcendent” experiences reported by the faithful and others? (starts 14:07).
You’ve admitted to the use of MDMA (Ecstasy). What was your experience like, and did you consider it beneficial?
Can one ethically defend eating meat?
Why are you so concerned with personal security?
Why isn’t atheism to blame for Stalinism and Nazism?
**Is there anything said in defense of religion that has ever given you pause or made you think you were wrong in attacking it? (starts at 38:00)
How can we really measure “well-being”—your ultimate criterion for judging morality—given all the possible and unknowable consequences that could result from a given act (for example, even nuclear accidents might be “good” in the sense that they could make us more careful in the future and ultimately save more lives)?
What kind of research are you up to in neuroscience?
To me the most interesting part begins at about 14:07, when Sam talks about the non-equivalence of our “spiritual experiences of beauty and awe” with the real and much deeper transcendent experiences reported by religious people, mystics and those who meditate. Sam says this:
“There’s a spectrum of experience that we have to acknowledge that many, many millions of people have experienced that is a hell of a lot more interesting in the end—and transforming of the human personality—than just being in awe at the beauty of nature. So atheists deny this at their peril because people who have had these experiences know that they’re not being captured in this language of: “What a beautiful sunset.”
This discussion continues at 21:25, when Sam criticizes atheists, scientists and secularists for failing to “connect to the character of those experiences” and for failing to “give some alternate explanation for them that is not entirely deflationary and demeaning and gives some warrant to the legitimacy of those experiences.” He implies that these experiences are somehow beyond the purview of science. I find that strange given Sam’s repeated emphasis on the value of science in studying mental states.
I’m not quite sure what he’s getting at here, and he doesn’t elaborate, but I don’t see why giving credence to these über-transcendent experiences as experiences says anything about a reality behind them. Yes, they might indeed change one’s personality and view of the world, but do any of us deny that?
I had similar experiences on various psychoactive substances when I was in college, and some of them were even transformative. The problem is not with us realizing that people can feel at one with the universe or, especially, at one with God; the problem comes with us taking this as evidence for some supernatural reality. What does it mean to say that an experience is legitimate? If someone thinks that he saw Jesus, I am prepared to believe that he thought that he saw Jesus, but I am not prepared to say that he really did see Jesus, nor that that constitutes any evidence for the existence of Jesus.
So my question for Sam would be this: “So if we accept that people do have these seriously transcendent experiences, what follows from that—beyond our simple desire to study the neurobiology behind them?” (I’d also like to ask him why he always wears black!)
h/t: Grania Spingies for the video