Thursday, February 02, 2006

Sam Harris: Contemplative Science

I have been pretty hard on Sam from time to time, especially when he is advocating torture, advocating atheism, or advocating the destruction of all religions. However, Sam recently attended a silent meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society. For six days he did not speak.

Sam argues that such an event, which hosted mostly his fellow scientists, could be a landmark in the development of a new kind of science, a science based in contemplation. However, in keeping with his abhorrence of all forms of religion, he wants to strip away the Buddhism from Buddhist meditation.

On the surface, this isn't too far from what Ken Wilber argued for in The Marriage of Sense and Soul, as pointed out by tuff ghost in response to my post attempting to refute Harris's condemnation of all religions. Still, I feel Harris holds a flatland view of the world, completely lacking any verticality.

I am forced to wonder what might happen if Harris continues to meditate. How will he understand experiences of the psychic, subtle, causal, or nondual states of consciousness? Will he reduce the experiences to fluctuations in brain chemistry? For example:
As some of the retreatants discovered, when thoughts are seen to be mere phenomena arising and passing away in consciousness (along with sights, sounds, sensations, etc.), the feeling that there is a "self" who is the thinker of these thoughts can disappear. This experience of selflessness is interesting for two reasons: it makes perfect sense from a neurological perspective, as there is no privileged position for a self to occupy in the brain.
Harris has the exterior individual quadrant holding all the meaning for an interior individual quadrant experience. As he continues to meditate, will he attribute any sense of interior meaning he gains from such states (like selflessness) to wish fulfillment or some other Freudian reductionism? Or will it always be brain chemistry and neurons?

Unless he can move up a developmental ladder he does not believe in, all of his meditation experiences will necessarily be filtered through the Orange lens of flatland science.

If Wilber is correct in his admonition to "just meditate," maybe there is hope that Harris will grow beyond a flatland worldview and embrace the Great Chain of Being. He is a bright man with the potential to create great change. Let's hope he will one day use his powers for good.

6 comments:

Mr. Morgan said...

Hey William,

I think there are people with similar positions to Harris, for example, Susan Blackmore, John Horgan, the guy who wrote "Buddhism without beliefs" (his name escapes me), and Brad Warner. All hold some variation of the scientific-meditation view, with varying degrees of skepticism.

I think it's interesting to note that all have meditated or investigated meditation within the parameters of Buddhism, particularly Zen, as it's the most 'science friendly' of the contemplative traditions (has the least metaphysics, or the least emphasis on metaphysics). As a result of this, there are less experiences that fall within the psychic/subtle bands, and as such most experiences are of the Big Self/Selfless variety. Unfortunately, this view lends itself most readily to a flatland intepretation, because of a seeming correlation with certain neuroscientists (Dennett for example) and their interpretations of consciousness (eg, there's no 'Self' in the brain, therefore, it makes sense that there's no self, period).

As a result of this, I think a fair bit of scientific investigation into meditation, when done by those coming from a more overtly scientific background (excluding here Blackmore and Warner) starts and ends with a 'peak' experience of no-self, and boom, there it is. The Dalai Lama said something to the effect of 'too many westerners come away from one retreat thinking they're the Buddha'. A good example is the book "Holy Cow!" By Sarah McDonald, in which she describes a Vipassana retreat she's been on, suggesting that here experience of an extension of the self-boundary is one and the same thing as enlightenment, which is merely the realization that we're all just lots of vibrating matter. I'm paraphrasing but I think you get the gist of it.

To answer your question: I think if anyone meditates for long enough they're bound to run into some things that are a bit weird. However, if your worldview is still 'scientism' (as distinguished from informed skepticism) then you can always just reduce things to the right hand quadrants. After all, they never go away. Perhaps some very extraordinary proof might shift your bias (Wilber's video of his brainwaves going almost to zero, voluntarily, then snapping up again) but other than that, nothing short of a full blown Kensho experience will shift you (and maybe there's something to be said for that, the transrational insights that seem to become unshakeable after some spiritual experiences).

I don't think Wilber has ever advocated that anyone 'just meditates'. In the interview with the Shambhala Sun, where he gave that interview, he noted that that was a glib answer to Buddhists who didnt want a bar of Integral theory. I think Wilber has been guilty of wildy exaggerating the benefits of meditation (particularly with regards to the ability to shift worldviews) but that in spite of this exaggeration, his own message has been consistent (if cloudy), that is, meditation is not enough. You need therapy (or just to deal with your own normal self first), you need to serve the world, you need to get your body fit, you need to read widely, the basic AQAL checklist. This is the real strength of an Integral spirituality, and it helps to overcome Wilber's exaggeration of meditation (as to why he's made that exaggeration, well, I think it's a confusion or conflation on his behalf. If we accept his general schema or developmental hierarchy, then meditation is surely appropriate for the centauric level, because you need something to kick you over the edge of existential despair and into the transpersonal, but it's innapropriate for any other 'stage' jumping. Getting a fundamentalist to meditate may actually do the opposite, as Wilber himself notes, because a subtle level vision of God becomes God/Allah/Brahman is the one and only God, and God help anyone who thinks otherwise. More personally, think about it in your own life. Was meditation ever the trigger for outgrowing mythic beliefs? For developing rational inquiry? For recognizing the beauty of pluralism and diversity? None of this is to say that meditation won't help, but a) it can hinder and b) it's not enough.

As for Harris: If he continues to just meditate, then who knows. It's really up for grabs. Might I suggest that someone Integrally inclined registers an account and suggests that he reads The Marriage of Sense and Soul? Can't hurt, and I think there's enough there that he'd be willing to accept (if not the worldview, then at least the need for a contemplative science). Might just kickstart something interesting.

Been enjoying your blog, keep up the good work

Best,

TG.

WH said...

Tuff Ghost,

Thanks for stopping by and commenting. What you said about scientists looking into meditation, experiencing selflessness and thinking that is enlightenment is exactly the point of view John Hagelin brings to his discussions and presentations (Don Beck had Hagelin on a "live wire" lecture at the SDi II cert. that I did last year). He argued that frequent exposure to higher states of consciousness (selflessness, mostly, based on his descriptions) was enough to create evolutionary movement along the developmental spiral. I remain skeptical on that point. He based his views on his observations that TM can create new brain physiology over time (new patterns of neuronal connections unseen in non-meditators). To me, this seems necessary but not sufficient to higher stage growth.

I was exaggerating a bit with the Wilber quote. Probably should have made that more clear. It was actually Wilber, more than Leonard & Murphy, who got me into ITP. I liked that I didn't have to do the aikido thing and could make weight training and racquetball the phsycial module of my practice.

The comments section at Huff Post is filled with lots of praise for Harris's "enlightened" viewpoint. A few point him toward deeper practice; a few condemn him for advocating torture one day and meditation the next. I suggested the Wilber book, which I have often loaned to my more flatland friends who think meditation is New Age crap.

Glad you like the blog.

Peace,
Bill

Bill Gardner said...

Interesting perspective, and an interesting blog! I have to dissent, however, from the view that science is a 'flatland' view. I have many scientific friends who are deeply engaged in the arts.

I am discussing Harris at Eternal Peace.

WH said...

Hi Bill,

Not all scientists are flatlanders like Harris, but scientism (as practiced by Harris and Dawkins, among others) is a flatland worldview.

Science, in general, tends toward a flatland perspective in the human realm (left hand quadrants of Wilber's map) even while holding a holonic view of the purely physical world (right hand quadrants).

Clearly, not all scientists reject interiority, Einstein for example. But as a whole, they are not known for their support of subjective states and stages of consciousness.

I checked out your blog--nicely done. I added you to my Integral feeds.

-Bill

Anonymous said...

If you found this book intriguing, you will definitely enjoy reading My Stroke of Insight - a Brain Scientist's Personal Journey" by Jill Bolte Taylor, and her talk on TED dot com about her stroke which is an 18 minute talk you Must Not Miss! (there's a reason it's been forwarded friend to friend millions of times!).
When you read the book and see the TEDTalk, you'll understand why this Harvard brain scientist was named Time Magazine 100 Most Influential People. Her unique experience, combined with her perspective as a neuroanatomist, and her sensitivity and awareness (not to mention beautiful writing style!) has produced something so powerful and so revolutionary that I think it's going to become a transformational movement in itself. Oprah also did four interviews with her (that I was able to download on the Oprah website) that are also worth checking out.
I am trying to share Dr Taylor's story with as many people as I can because I truly believe if everyone saw it the world would be so much better and people would love one another and no longer fight.

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