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(Photo by AlicePopkorn)

You are not aware of the electrochemical events occurring at each of the trillion synapses in your brain at this moment. But you are aware, however dimly, of sights, sounds, sensations, thoughts, and moods. At the level of your experience, you are not a body of cells, organelles, and atoms; you are consciousness and its ever-changing contents, passing through various stages of wakefulness and sleep, and from cradle to grave.

The term “consciousness” is notoriously difficult to define. Consequently, many a debate about its character has been waged without the participants’ finding even a common topic as common ground. By “consciousness,” I mean simply “sentience,” in the most unadorned sense. To use the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s construction: A creature is conscious if there is “something that it is like” to be this creature; an event is consciously perceived if there is “something that it is like” to perceive it. ⁠Whatever else consciousness may or may not be in physical terms, the difference between it and unconsciousness is first and foremost a matter of subjective experience. Either the lights are on, or they are not.[1]

 
 

The full video is an hour long. Links to specific topics/questions are provided below:

1. Eternity and the meaning of life 0:42
2. Do we have free will?  4:43
3. How can we convince religious people to abandon their beliefs? 14:52
4. How can atheists live among the faithful? 19:09
5. How should we talk to children about death? 21:52
6. Does human life have intrinsic value? 26:01
7. Why should we be confident in the authority of science? 30:36 
8. How can one criticize Islam after the terrorism in Norway? 35:43
9. Should atheists join with Christians against Islam? 41:50
10. What does it mean to speak about the human mind objectively? 45:17
11. How can spiritual claims be scientifically justified? 50:14
12. Why can’t religion remain a private matter? 54:52 
13. What do you like to speak about at public events? 58:09

 
 



The above talk was sent to me by a reader and is well worth watching. In it, the neuroscientist David Eagleman says many very reasonable things and says them well. Unfortunately, on the subject of religion he appears to make a conscious effort to play the good cop to the bad cop of “the new atheism.” This posture will win him many friends, but it is intellectually dishonest. When one reads between the lines—or even when one just reads the lines—it becomes clear that what Eagleman is saying is every bit as deflationary as anything Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens or I say about the cherished doctrines of the faithful.

I don’t know Eagleman, but I’ve invited him to discuss these and other issues with me on this blog. He also has a book out on the brain that looks very interesting and which I intend to read:

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

 

 
 

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(Photo by JB Banks)

Everything we do is for the purpose of altering consciousness. We form friendships so that we can feel certain emotions, like love, and avoid others, like loneliness. We eat specific foods to enjoy their fleeting presence on our tongues. We read for the pleasure of thinking another person’s thoughts. Every waking moment—and even in our dreams—we struggle to direct the flow of sensation, emotion, and cognition toward states of consciousness that we value.

Drugs are another means toward this end. Some are illegal; some are stigmatized; some are dangerous—though, perversely, these sets only partially intersect. There are drugs of extraordinary power and utility, like psilocybin (the active compound in “magic mushrooms”) and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), which pose no apparent risk of addiction and are physically well-tolerated, and yet one can still be sent to prison for their use—while drugs like tobacco and alcohol, which have ruined countless lives, are enjoyed ad libitum in almost every society on earth. There are other points on this continuum—3,4-methylene-dioxy-N-methylamphetamine (MDMA or “Ecstasy”) has remarkable therapeutic potential, but it is also susceptible to abuse, and there is some evidence that it can be neurotoxic.[1]

One of the great responsibilities we have as a society is to educate ourselves, along with the next generation, about which substances are worth ingesting, and for what purpose, and which are not. The problem, however, is that we refer to all biologically active compounds by a single term—“drugs”—and this makes it nearly impossible to have an intelligent discussion about the psychological, medical, ethical, and legal issues surrounding their use. The poverty of our language has been only slightly eased by the introduction of terms like “psychedelics” to differentiate certain visionary compounds, which can produce extraordinary states of ecstasy and insight, from “narcotics” and other classic agents of stupefaction and abuse.

 
 

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(Image by Alex Grey)

My friend Jerry Coyne has posted a response to my recent video Q&A where he raises a few points in need of clarification about meditation, transcendence, spiritual experience, etc.:

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?”

These are all good points. I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that transcendent experiences are “beyond the purview of science.” On the contrary, I think they should be studied scientifically. And I don’t believe that these experiences tell us anything about the cosmos (I called Deepak Chopra a “charlatan” for making unfounded claims of this sort). Nor do they tell us anything about history, or about the veracity of scripture. However, these experiences do have a lot to say about the nature of the human mind—not about its neurobiology, per se, but about its qualitative character (both actual and potential).

 
 

In which I respond to questions and comments posted on Reddit.

 
 

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(Photo by Matthew C. Wright)

One day, you will find yourself outside this world which is like a mother’s womb. You will leave this earth to enter, while you are yet in the body, a vast expanse, and know that the words, “God’s earth is vast,” name this region from which the saints have come.

—Jalal-ud-Din Rumi


Many of my fellow atheists consider all talk of “spirituality” or “mysticism” to be synonymous with mental illness, conscious fraud, or self-deception. I have argued elsewhere that this is a problem—because millions of people have had experiences for which “spiritual” and “mystical” seem the only terms available.

Of course, many of the beliefs people form on the basis of these experiences are false. But the fact that most atheists will view a statement like Rumi’s, above, as a sign of the man’s gullibility or derangement, places a kernel of truth amid the rantings of even our most gullible and deranged opponents.

 
 

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(Albert Einstein lecturing in Vienna in 1921)

In my last post, I suggested that Einstein shared my skepticism about free will. Nothing in my argument turned on this, of course: Several great physicists have believed in free will, and Einstein got many things wrong, both inside and outside of physics. One doesn’t argue these points on the basis of authority in any case—and this is what distinguishes science and philosophy from religion. Respecting one’s elders, however brilliant, is no substitute for making sense.

Nevertheless, it is generally interesting to know what great scientists believe. And a helpful reader has called my attention to the fact that Einstein viewed the connection between scientific and moral truth in terms similar to those I argue for in The Moral Landscape (thanks Matt!).

In the following essay, Einstein endorses a strong conception of moral truth, founded on axioms, and focused on the well-being of humanity. While he does not discuss progress in neuroscience and psychology—which, I maintain, makes the separation between ethics and science ultimately unsustainable—he seems to consider ethical truth to be on all fours with the truths of mathematics and the rest of science. 

I have added a few footnotes to clarify points of interest.

****


The Laws of Science and The Laws of Ethics

By Albert Einstein

Science searches for relations which are thought to exist independently of the searching individual. This includes the case where man himself is the subject. [1] Or the subject of scientific statements may be concepts created by ourselves, as in mathematics. Such concepts are not necessarily supposed to correspond to any objects in the outside world. However, all scientific statements and laws have one characteristic in common: they are “true or false” (adequate or inadequate). Roughly speaking, our reaction to them is “yes or “no.”

 
 

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(The one who does not judge, by h. koppdelaney)

There are many forms of introspection and mental training that go by the name of “meditation,” and I have studied several over the years. As I occasionally speak about the benefits of these practices, people often write to ask which I recommend. Given my primary audience—students of science, secularists, nonbelievers, etc.—these queries usually come bundled with the worry that most traditional teachings about meditation must be intellectually suspect.

It is true that many contemplative paths ask one to entertain unfounded ideas about the nature of reality—or at the very least, to develop a fondness for the iconography and cultural artifacts of one or another religion. Even an organization like Transcendental Meditation (TM), which has spent decades self-consciously adapting itself for use by non-Hindus, can’t overcome the fact that its students must be given a Sanskrit mantra as the foundation of the practice. Ancient incantations present an impediment to many a discerning mind (as does the fact that TM displays several, odious signs of being a cult).

But not all contemplative paths kindle the same doubts or present the same liabilities. There are, in fact, many methods of meditation and “spiritual” inquiry that can greatly enhance our mental health while offering no affront to the intellect.

For beginners, I always recommend a technique called vipassana (Pali, “insight”), which comes from the oldest tradition of Buddhism, the Theravada. The advantage of vipassana is that it can be taught in an entirely secular way. Experts in this practice generally acquire their training in a Buddhist context, of course—and most retreat centers in the U.S. and Europe still teach its associated Buddhist philosophy. Nevertheless, this method of introspection can be brought within any secular or scientific context without embarrassment. The same cannot be said for most other forms of “spiritual” instruction.

 
 

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