Monday, October 20, 2014

Chris Dierkes - Sam Harris’ Buddhist Bullshit

Read this, it's good, and it's worth your time.

Sam Harris’ Buddhist Bullshit

Posted by Chris Dierkes in Mystics, Spirituality
October 16, 2014

Sam Harris, one of the so-called New Atheists, has been making waves recently with his new book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. In it Harris talks openly about his meditation practice and spiritual experience–something he has done before but doesn’t seem to have gained as much interest or notice as it has now. (Harris is also in the news recently for his statements on Islam, but I’m not going to focus on those here.)

The video above begins with Harris making an important point about the nature of consciousness. Contrary to most philosophy and science (particularly in North America), Harris argues that human consciousness can’t be reduced to states of the brain. Harris mentions a few other philosophers who have made similar arguments recently, e.g. David Chalmers, John Searle, and Thomas Nagel. In so doing Harris adds his voice to the conversation and places himself squarely on the minority side of the debate within atheism and the wider secular philosophical world.

The basic premise here is that the felt sense of having an inner world complete with thoughts, emotions, and sensations can’t be reduced solely to material events (e.g. changes in neurons or brain states). As Harris points out the best science can do is correlate certain brain states with states of consciousness, states like anger, fear, sadness, or calm meditative repose. There’s a strong interest in mapping brain states for meditators–it’s important research but it’s research is about correlation not causation, a point too often missed in the literature itself, not to mention in wider public discourse. As Harris correctly notes we still have to trust the reported subjective experiences of individuals because no matter how many physical experiments a scientist may do, none of them gain access to the inner world of 1st person, subjective experience. The methods of science are 3rd person, objective measurements, whereas the inner world is one of 1st person, subjective experience.

Therefore, in order to gain individual access to the data of 1st person, inner, subjective experience one has to take up some an inner practice like meditation, describing one’s feelings, and the like. Human subjectivity is qualitative not quantitative.

So far so good. It’s a sad commentary on the status of Western philosophy that Harris’ point is seen as controversial. It should be an absolute no brainer (bad pun not intended), but unfortunately it’s actually a hugely disputed point. So hats off to Harris for making this point in a straightforward, clear manner.

This takes us up to the 2:50 mark in the video. And here’s where the problems arise.
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