WHAT *SHOULD* WE BE WORRIED ABOUT?
Imagine that a young, white man has been falsely convicted of a serious crime and sentenced to five years in a maximum-security penitentiary. He has no history of violence and is, understandably, terrified at the prospect of living among murderers and rapists. Hearing the prison gates shut behind him, a lifetime of diverse interests and aspirations collapses to a single point: He must avoid making enemies so that he can serve out his sentence in peace.
One cannot travel far in spiritual circles without meeting people who are fascinated by the “near-death experience” (NDE). The phenomenon has been described as follows:
Frequently recurring features include feelings of peace and joy; a sense of being out of one’s body and watching events going on around one’s body and, occasionally, at some distant physical location; a cessation of pain; seeing a dark tunnel or void; seeing an unusually bright light, sometimes experienced as a “Being of Light” that radiates love and may speak or otherwise communicate with the person; encountering other beings, often deceased persons whom the experiencer recognizes; experiencing a revival of memories or even a full life review, sometimes accompanied by feelings of judgment; seeing some “other realm,” often of great beauty; sensing a barrier or border beyond which the person cannot go; and returning to the body, often reluctantly.
(E.F. Kelly et al., Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007, p. 372)
Such accounts have led many people to believe that consciousness must be independent of the brain. Unfortunately, these experiences vary across cultures, and no single feature is common to them all. One would think that if a nonphysical domain were truly being explored, some universal characteristics would stand out. Hindus and Christians would not substantially disagree—and one certainly wouldn’t expect the after-death state of South Indians to diverge from that of North Indians, as has been reported. It should also trouble NDE enthusiasts that only 10−20 percent of people who approach clinical death recall having any experience at all.
One of the most common objections to my position on free will is that accepting it could have terrible consequences, psychologically or socially. This is a strange rejoinder, analogous to what many religious people allege against atheism: Without a belief in God, human beings will cease to be good to one another. Both responses abandon any pretense of caring about what is true and merely change the subject. But that does not mean we should never worry about the practical effects of holding specific beliefs.
I can well imagine that some people might use the nonexistence of free will as a pretext for doing whatever they want, assuming that it’s pointless to resist temptation or that there’s no difference between good and evil. This is a misunderstanding of the situation, but, I admit, a possible one. There is also the question of how we should raise children in light of what science tells us about the nature of the human mind. It seems doubtful that a lecture on the illusoriness of free will should be part of an elementary school curriculum.
In writing my next book, I will have to confront the animosity that many people feel for the term “spiritual.” Whenever I use the word—as in referring to meditation as a “spiritual practice”—I inevitably hear from fellow skeptics and atheists who think that I have committed a grievous error.
The word “spirit” comes from the Latin spiritus, which in turn is a translation of the Greek pneuma, meaning “breath.” Around the 13th century, the term became bound up with notions of immaterial souls, supernatural beings, ghosts, etc. It acquired other connotations as well—we speak of the spirit of a thing as its most essential principle, or of certain volatile substances and liquors as spirits. Nevertheless, many atheists now consider “spiritual” thoroughly poisoned by its association with medieval superstition.
I am currently under a book deadline, so long blog posts will probably be few and far between until the end of the year. The working title of the book is Waking Up: Science, Skepticism, and Spirituality. This title could very well change, but this should give you some indication of what I’m up to. My goal is to write a “spiritual” book for smart, skeptical people—dealing with issues like the illusion of the self, the efficacy of practices like meditation, the cultivation of positive mental states, etc.
Writing this book has forced me to revisit the work of gurus and spiritual teachers at every point on the spectrum of wisdom and crackpottery—which has been a lot of fun.
Bruce Hood is currently the Director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre at the University of Bristol. He has been a research fellow at Cambridge University and University College London, a visiting scientist at MIT, and a faculty professor at Harvard. He has been awarded an Alfred Sloan Fellowship in neuroscience, the Young Investigator Award from the International Society of Infancy Researchers, the Robert Fantz Memorial Award and voted a Fellow by the Association for Psychological Science. He is the author of several books, including SuperSense: Why We Believe the Unbelievable. This year he was selected as the 2011 Royal Institution Christmas Lecturer—to give three lectures broadcast by the BBC—the most prestigious appointment for the public engagement of science in the UK. Bruce was kind enough to answer a few questions about his new book,The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity.
I have noticed that some readers continue to find my argument about the illusoriness of free will difficult to accept. Apart from religious believers who simply “know” that they have free will and that life would be meaningless without it, my most energetic critics seem to be fans of my friend Dan Dennett’s account of the subject, as laid out in his books Elbow Room and Freedom Evolves and in his public talks. As I mention in Free Will, I don’t happen to agree with Dan’s approach, but rather than argue with him at length in a very short book, I decided to simply present my own view. I am hopeful that Dan and I will have a public discussion about these matters at some point in the future.
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