Thursday, January 07, 2010

Why I Side with William James and Not Sam Harris

In his famous book on The Varieties of Religious Experiences (James, 1902/2002) William James has been quoted as saying:
[T]o study religion from a psychological point of view the best one can do is to study the most religious man in his most religious moments.
I can't find the actual quote in the text, though it does seem many people have cited it (including Jerome Bruner).

Let's start with James' definition of religious experience:
Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine. Since the relation may be either moral, physical, or ritual, it is evident that out of religion in the sense in which we take it, theologies, philosophies, and ecclesiastical organizations may secondarily grow. In these lectures, however, as I have already said, the immediate personal experiences will amply fill our time, and we shall hardly consider theology or ecclesiasticism at all. (pg. 29-30)
This is crucial. James distinguishes religious experience from the secondary structures (i.e., religions) that are built upon the subjective experience. He is clear that the subject of his interest is the subjective experience of the mystic while s/he is experiencing the divine.

This is not a distinction that people such as Sam Harris (see The God Fraud, 2010), despite his dabbling in meditation, would generally make - and one that Dan Dennet (Consciousness Explained, 1992) would never make in that he rejects the validity of qualia (subjective experiences).

Much later in the book, in his Conclusions, James does make the following statements:
Summing up in the broadest possible way the characteristics of the religious life, as we have found them, it includes the following beliefs: —

1. That the visible world is part of a more spiritual universe from which it draws its chief significance;
2. That union or harmonious relation with that higher universe is our true end;
3. That prayer or inner communion with the spirit thereof — be that spirit “God” or “law” — is a process wherein work is really done, and spiritual energy flows in and produces effects, psychological or material, within the phenomenal world.

Religion includes also the following psychological characteristics:

4. A new zest which adds itself like a gift to life, and takes the form either of lyrical enchantment or of appeal to earnestness and heroism.
5. An assurance of safety and a temper of peace, and, in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections. (pg. 375)
A short time later he makes the following statements, of which the unverified quote I began with might be seen as a summary:
I reply that I took these extremer examples as yielding the profounder information. To learn the secrets of any science, we go to expert specialists, even though they may be eccentric persons, and not to commonplace pupils. We combine what they tell us with the rest of our wisdom, and form our final judgment independently. Even so with religion. We who have pursued such radical expressions of it may now be sure that we know its secrets as authentically as any one can know them who learns them from another; and we have next to answer, each of us for himself, the practical question: what are the dangers in this element of life? and in what proportion may it need to be restrained by other elements, to give the proper balance?

But this question suggests another one which I will answer immediately and get it out of the way, for it has more than once already vexed us.1 Ought it to be assumed that in all men the mixture of religion with other elements should be identical? Ought it, indeed, to be assumed that the lives of all men should show identical religious elements? In other words, is the existence of so many religious types and sects and creeds regrettable?

To these questions I answer “No” emphatically. (pg. 376)
Item #3 in the list above reads as equivalent to the idea of involution.

In integral thought, involution is the process by which the Divine manifests the cosmos. The process by which the creation rises to higher states and states of consciousness is the evolution. Involution prepares the universe for the Big Bang; evolution continues from that point forward. The term involution comes from the idea that the divine involves itself in creation. After the creation, the Divine (i.e. the Absolute, Brahman, God) is both the One (the Creator) and the Many (that which was created).

This process continues as a part of the evolutionary process through the attainment of religious experience and mystical states. Involution is a purely subjective experience that can never demonstrate objective proof - each is of different experiential realms.

In defining the mystical states of experience, however, James gives us something we can begin to look for in the experience of others, the exhibition of which would be objectively indicative of a truly religious experience.
I will do what I did in the case of the word “religion,” and simply propose to you four marks which, when an experience has them, may justify us in calling it mystical for the purpose of the present lectures. In this way we shall save verbal disputation, and the recriminations that generally go therewith.

1. Ineffability. — The handiest of the marks by which I classify a state of mind as mystical is negative. The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words. It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others. In this peculiarity mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect. No one can make clear to another who has never had a certain feeling, in what the quality or worth of it consists. One must have musical ears to know the value of a symphony; one must have been in love one’s self to understand a lover’s state of mind. Lacking the heart or ear, we cannot interpret the musician or the lover justly, and are even likely to consider him weak-minded or absurd. The mystic finds that most of us accord to his experiences an equally incompetent treatment.

2. Noetic quality. — Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time.

These two characters will entitle any state to be called mystical, in the sense in which I use the word. Two other qualities are less sharply marked, but are usually found. These are: —

3. Transiency. — Mystical states cannot be sustained for long. Except in rare instances, half an hour, or at most an hour or two, seems to be the limit beyond which they fade into the light of common day. Often, when faded, their quality can but imperfectly be reproduced in memory; but when they recur it is recognized; and from one recurrence to another it is susceptible of continuous development in what is felt as inner richness and importance.

4. Passivity. — Although the oncoming of mystical states may be, facilitated by preliminary voluntary operations, as by fixing the attention, or going through certain bodily performances, or in other ways which manuals of mysticism prescribe; yet when the characteristic sort of consciousness once has set in, the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power. This latter peculiarity connects mystical states with certain definite phenomena of secondary or alternative personality, such as prophetic speech, automatic writing, or the mediumistic trance. When these latter conditions are well pronounced, however, there may be no recollection whatever of the phenomenon, and it may have no significance for the subject’s usual inner life, to which, as it were, it makes a mere interruption. Mystical states, strictly so called, are never merely interruptive. Some memory of their content always remains, and a profound sense of their importance. They modify the inner life of the subject between the times of their recurrence. Sharp divisions in this region are, however, difficult to make, and we find all sorts of gradations and mixtures.

These four characteristics are sufficient to mark out a group of states of consciousness peculiar enough to deserve a special name and to call for careful study. Let it then be called the mystical group. (pg. 294-296)
In looking at mysticism, James is looking at "the most religious man in his most religious moments," essentially looking at the ways in which religious experience is positive, transformative, and compassionate in nature.

On the other hand, Harris, Dennet, Dawkins, and Hitchens (The Four Horsemen of Atheism) are looking at the most fundamentalist expressions of institutionalized religion, not at the nature of religious experience itself. They are condemning all religious experience and expression by looking at the worst of religion on its worst days.

Is that fair? Many people would say YES! absolutely, because on religion's worst days, thousands of people may be killed in the name of some form of dogmatism.

However, it might be an equivalent approach to condemn ALL science because some science has been used to create nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, various poisons that kill people and pollute nature, powerful guns that can penetrate any form of armor, and on and on. The history of science might be viewed, if one were so inclined (and I am not, just to be clear), as the endless progression of new and more efficient ways to kill human beings. The examples of horrible things created by science, and the deaths that have resulted, could fill many volumes.

Yet no one (well, almost no one) will want to end all science because of these creations - yet the atheists want to do away with all religion because of the violent few, or because of their generally harmless magical thinking (harmless, that is, until imposed on others against their will).

To quote my mother, the new atheists want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Silly.

I'll stick with my buddy, William James.


David said...

Nice post, Bill.

cole said...

If you like James's discussion of religion, I suggest looking for the writings of Jonathan Haidt on the emotion of awe (and also disgust) and on moralities of autonomy, community and spirituality (an elaboration of Shweder's earlier work).

We have emotional systems which connect to the seeking of knowledge (even in it's broadest sense, spirituality). These emotions range from 'dumb' 'mute' and 'ignorant' to 'epiphany' and 'awe.' Which such a specific collection of emotional systems, even the finest of evolutionary psychology would suggest that a human would be organized in a way to behave 'spirituality,' to seek the rewards of spirituality, to have communities and cultures about spirituality. Of course, these same emotional systems explain schools, universities, etc.

Perhaps, some people don't want your version of knowledge-seeking mixed up with their version of knowledge-seeking :)

Great review.

WH said...

Thanks for the recommendation Cole - I have seen Haidt on Ted Talks, or Google Talks, or something, but I have not read any of his books - more the wish list :)

Thanks to both you & David for the thumbs up on this post.