I am wondering what everyone's opinion of chapter 7 is. I think that it is the key to the book, but it is not easy to understand. In this chapter Sam points out several things that might provide an alternative to faith, several areas for further investigation. However I don't feel that many people will be interested because what he is advocating is something that will dethrone the thinking mind. If there is one thing that we humans are attached to it is our thoughts. Anything that threatens the thinking mind threatens the illusory permanent self. The illusory self will react to this the same way that it reacts when it's faith is questioned, by going unconscious or retreating into denial. I'm guessing that most of you probably just scratched your heads at chapter 7 and thought it a bit weird, am I wrong?
I read Chapter 7 from the perspective of someone who’s been studying the history of the battle between a belief in “religion” vs. a belief in “science” over move than 100 years. I think that this history, and misunderstanding what’s really been going on, is largely responsible for the sorry mess we find ourselves in both politically and socially, and that we have to understand this mess before we can get ourselves out of it.
Of course I can’t really go into over 100 yrs. of history in a comment. I think that what essentially happened is that a continuing debate was set up, and that the rules of debate meant focusing on winning rather than on establishing what’s true and false. If this had been a dialog rather than a debate the political and social results would probably have been more benign. Now someone like Sam Harris comes along, looks at the mess, and tries to find some way past it. He’s not the only person in this position. Even the secular humanists, in their official association, are beginning to explore whether some recognition of our spiritual side isn’t necessary. Until extremely recently the argument has been that we must live by “reason” alone, science is the perfect expression of “reason,” and that’s the way things are. The result was that huge chunks of human nature were dismissed as mere hokum. Considering that they’ve insisted there isn’t any such thing as “spirit,” this is amazing.
Sam’s answer may not be perfect, but at least he sees the dilemma, the hardened positions we’ve gotten ourselves into whether they’re ultimately rational or not, and suggests some possible ways out of it.
And just what are those hardened positions? At the extreme, the result is “religious” fanatics functioning as the moral police, and “science” fanatics functioning as the thought police. Think about it.
[quote author=“JustThis”]I am wondering what everyone’s opinion of chapter 7 is. I think that it is the key to the book, but it is not easy to understand. In this chapter Sam points out several things that might provide an alternative to faith, several areas for further investigation. However I don’t feel that many people will be interested because what he is advocating is something that will dethrone the thinking mind. If there is one thing that we humans are attached to it is our thoughts. Anything that threatens the thinking mind threatens the illusory permanent self. The illusory self will react to this the same way that it reacts when it’s faith is questioned, by going unconscious or retreating into denial. I’m guessing that most of you probably just scratched your heads at chapter 7 and thought it a bit weird, am I wrong?
I shared my opinion of Chapter 7 when I started the thread “Harris on Mysticism,” but I’ll opine again here. Chapter 7 is not only embarrassing; it’s out of step with the other six chapters, all of which emphasize rational, discursive thinking. You’ve nailed it when you describe Chapter 7 as “advocating…something that will dethrone the thinking mind.” Why on earth would one ever advocate that? Isn’t it precisely Harris’s opponents (and ours) who would dethrone the thinking mind and put their (mystically or miraculously) revealed religious teachings on the throne instead? Mysticism, says Harris, has its own set of teachings, foremost of which is the one you highlight: the self is an illusion—you and I don’t exist, let alone as separate beings. If my self is literally an illusion, how can it (or I) react to being challenged? If you don’t exist, to whom am I responding?
Those who say we can’t get by if we give pride of place to reason and rationality have a mistakenly narrow view of reason, i.e., as denying the importance of emotion, love, moral and aesthetic value, and so on. No reasonable argument I’ve ever seen shows that those things are unimportant. Famous so-called “excesses” of reason (e.g., episodes in the French Revolution, “scientific materialism”) aren’t excesses of reason; they’re deficiencies of reason, and they can be shown to be such only by further and better use of reason.
Chapter 7 strikes me as a failure of nerve: Harris extols reason when using it to expose the folly of traditional religious faith, but he pulls back when it comes to his own cherished notions. His subtitle contains the phrase “the future of reason.” I hope that future doesn’t amount to a dethroning of the thinking mind. In a world in which we have to live among others, the only alternative to reason is force.
Notice how uneasily the things Harris says in Chapter 7 sit with things he says elsewhere in the book. On p. 204, he praises the Sermon on the Mount as the height of enlightened wisdom. But the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount are exceedingly pacifistic: “Resist ye not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also…. Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you,” etc. Square those teachings with Harris’s entirely correct condemnation of pacifism in Chapter 6. On p. 206, he endorses “spiritual teachings” that would help us “realize that we stand perpetually free of the vicissitudes of experience.” That’s quietism! Square it with the rest of the book, which compellingly describes the horrific and very real experiences caused by unreasoned religious zeal. If the unfortunate people who jumped from the WTC rather than be burned to death by the conflagration had only realized that they were perpetually free of the vicissitudes of experience! How can you blame Osama, then, if the miserable experiences he caused are just so many illusions that we would all do well to get over (and that we’re “free of” anyway)? On pp. 192 (Chapter 6, alas) and 219 (Chapter 7), Harris praises love and compassion and decries the emotion of hatred. Yet he certainly writes as if he hates those who purposely inflict misery in the name of faith, and who can blame him? If it takes some hatred to motivate people to oppose what reason tells us must be opposed, then hatred has value as a means to that end.
Maybe Harris really believes the pacifistic/quietist stuff and just writes as if he condemns pacifism and hates Osama. If so, he’s misleading us. Forum participants who’ve defended Harris against my criticisms of Chapter 7 almost never actually quote from the book, as I have done. If we’re discussing the book, I hope folks will offer textual evidence.
I’m not sure how you jump from “self (ego) is an illusion” to advocating the dismissal of the thinking mind. You say,
“If my self is literally an illusion, how can it (or I) react to being challenged? If you don’t exist, to whom am I responding?”
Just think about that for a second, what does “my self” actually mean? It is as if you already know that you are an existent, living, thinking being and then you posit a “self” that is somehow separated from you. Why I think that extra self (or ego) is an illusion is because it refers to the relational aspects of your being or the soul/mind/spirit that you imagine yourself to be. This other self is constructed outof the roles we play in society and the fictions that we are constantly trying to live up to or project. If you were to ask someone “who are you?” they might answer, “I’m an accountant, the father of two children, , a husband and a writer.” Those nouns all refer to the illusary self that one imagines one’s self to be, they describe your relationship with others and the particular actions that you do in order to live up to those sorts of descriptions. But the real you, the you who you really are, is not captured by those descriptions - the mystic search for the authentic you begins by realizing the nature of “the illusary self.”
As far as the pacifism that Sam approves (sort of) in the NewTestament (Christ) and then disapproves of in the notes on Gandhi - I can only say that the context of the need for pacifism must be condisidered. If we should adopt pacifism in the face of fundamentalists who are willing to blow themselves up for their cause, we will get blown up with them. But the idea of pacifism itself is not degraded, it all depends on the context in which you intend to practise pacifist actions. Also, there are varieties of pacifism, from absolute to relative non-violence to a kind of passive acceptance that promotes no action at all.
How do we know that thoughts and the thinking mind exist, it cannot be studied directly by science. How do we know that the self exists? How do we know that consciousness exists, science does not officially recognize consciousness.
On pg. 219 Sam says “Your consciousness, while still inscrutable in scientific terms, is an utter simplicity as a matter of experience.”
We know that consciousness exists because we all experience it. How do we know that thoughts exist, because we are aware of them. How do we know that the self exists, because we are aware of it. But are we? What is your experience of self right now?
The single biggest article of blind belief or faith that humans possess is the belief in the existence of a permanent individual self.
Most of us take consciousness for granted and don’t bother to explore it.
On pg. 221 Sam Says” The mystic has realized something about the nature of consciousness prior to thought, and this recognition is susceptible to rational thought. The mystic has reasons for what he believes and these reasons are empirical. The roiling mystery of the world can be analyzed with concepts (this is science) or it can be experienced free of concepts this is mysticism). Religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time.”
“There are many ways to explain meditation, what it is, what it does, how it works. Meditation, it is said, is a way to evoke the relaxation response. Meditation, others say, is a way to train and strengthen awareness; a method for centering and focusing the self; a way to halt constant verbal thinking and relax the body-mind; a technique for calming the central nervous system; a way to relieve stress, bolster self-esteem, reduce anxiety, and alleviate depression. All of those are true enough; meditation has been clinically demonstrated to do all of those things. But I would like to emphasize that meditation itself is, and always has been, a spiritual practice. Meditation, whether Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, or Islamic, was invented as a way for the soul to venture inward, there are ultimately to find a supreme identity with Godhead. “The Kingdom of Heaven is within”-and meditation, from the very beginning, has been the royal road to that Kingdom. Whatever else it does, and it does many beneficial things, meditation is first and foremost a search for the God within. I would say meditation is spiritual, but not religious. Spiritual has to do with actual experience, not mere beliefs; with God as the Ground of Being, not a cosmic Daddy figure; with awakening to one’s true Self, not praying for one’s little self; with the disciplining of awareness, not preachy and churchy moralisms about drinking and smoking and sexing; with Spirit found in everyone’s Heart, not anything done in this or that church…
Meditation is spiritual; prayer is religious. That is, petitionary prayer, in which I ask God to give me a new car, help with my promotion, etc., is religious; it simply wishes to bolster the little ego in its wants and desires. Meditation, on the other hand, seeks to go beyond the ego altogether; it asks nothing from God, real or imagined, but rather offers itself up as a sacrifice toward a greater awareness. Meditation, then, is not so much a part of this or that particular religion, but rather part of the universal spiritual culture of all humankind-an effort to bring awareness to bear on all aspects of life.”
Ken Wilber “Grace and Grit”
How do we know that thoughts and the thinking mind exist, it cannot be studied directly by science.
I’m curious as to the basis of this claim. You didn’t elaborate directly.
As a matter of fact some very serious neuroscientists are pursuing this avenue of research. They seem to think it can be studied by science. Similarly there are efforts underway to study the neurological correlates of meditation and meditative experience. See the works of Fransico Varela, Richard Davidson, Paul Ekman, Daniel Goleman, Antonio Damasio and especially read “Destructive Emotions: How can we overcome them?”, A scientific dialogue with the Dalai Lama, narrated by Daniel Goleman (many of the above named researchers were participants in this dialogue).
Strictly speaking science has a hard to studying things which can’t be defined and measured. How are you going to define and mesure happiness or confusion? Science can study brain waves and try to correlate them to mental states but then it is forced to use first person accounts of what is going on in the mind.
Unfortunately I don’t have a copy of the book with me right now so I can only be sketchy with this, but I would urge you to read this one yourself. The book is called “Destructive Emotions: How can we overcome them?”, A scientific dialogue with the Dalai Lama, narrated by Daniel Goleman. I had referenced it previously. In that book is described the methodology that was being developed by Fransisco Varela, who you may recognize from autopoiesis fame, in which 1st person (subjective) accounts are used directly and correlated with 3rd person (objective) measurements. I believe Davidson and others are continuing that development since the sad loss of Varela. The methodology is kind of new to neuroscience, but, of course, has been used in medicine (where does it hurt) and psychology for quite some time. What really matters is not the correlation of any one individual’s account with their recorded brain states, but rather the pattern of many individuals’ accounts correlated with the pattern of their collective brain states.
Two of my most prized books are Goleman’s “Emotional Intelligence” and Damasio’s “Descartes’ Errors” - Now you’ve made me want to read them all over again!
[quote author=“CanZen”]Two of my most prized books are Goleman’s “Emotional Intelligence” and Damasio’s “Descartes’ Errors” - Now you’ve made me want to read them all over again!
Great. But do get Goleman’s “Destructive Emotions”. I think there is a tremendous value in trying to find common ground between introspection (of the kind in Buddhist meditations) and objective observation.
I also highly recommend all of Damasio’s book. I’m working on “Looking for Spinoza”, getting entries for my annotated bibliography.
Those are interesting books but if you want to find the truth develop a strong meditation practice and look for yourself. Daniel Goleman is a long time meditator.
In fact I do practice meditation [30 years+]. I’m a little cautious about the “T” word (truth), but I definitely feel that my brain has benefited from the experiences.
I have just read through the two threads (the one started by pseudomystic, and this one, up to the present).
Mr. Harris is very explicit, about the difference between “irrational thinking”, as used above in this thread, and mysticism (or mystical experience).
The key is reliance on DOGMA, on some unquestioned, sacrosanct set of beliefs which admit of no challenge by evidence—which characterizes religions as critiqued in the book, and something that can be actually accessed by individuals, inquired about, and *discussed* among them (and the response above to what Mr. Harris mean by ‘not suceptable to linguistic analysis’ is spot on, in my view)
Harris is endorsing no dogmas, regarding mystical experience, any more than he is espousing any dogma about, say, qualitative experiential differences that might arise from different means of achieving orgasm.
Mystical experience is “empirical”, just as musical experience is.
His different treatment of mystcism vs religion in general, rests on this distinction (dogma, aka “anti-rational”, vs dogma-free and intersubjectively available for further inquiry), which he makes repeatedly and very emphatically, in his book.
I found, therefore, that there was no impugning whatsoever of his critique of the nature and dangers of irrational thinking, and of the rabid subscription to millennia-old nonesense mythologies, by his inclusion of the material on mysticism.
Indeed, it filled what, in its ABSENCE, would have been a weakness in the book, in as much as human beings DO demonstrably have a thirst for some kind of life-altering or disposition-altering ... consciousness altering, would be the traditional phrase… experience.
Religion hitchhikes, to some degree, on this universal human thirst for something other than workaday, nose-down, task-oriented experience.
By discussing something that might give humanity a means of addressing that thirst, without needing to become irrational and dogmatic, Harris’ inclusion of the remarks on mystical experience complete a logical piece of the architecture of the book’s mission (as I interpret it.)