[This is a recovered/reconstructed version of a 2004 interview with Sam Harris.]
Sam Harris is author of the new book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. The book's central thesis is that religious thinking brings with it predictable perils--perils most recently exemplified by the attacks on 9/11. For that reason, meaningful tolerance cannot mean tolerance for views that, like those of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, claim to have unique knowledge of God and God's will. And indeed tolerance requires that we subject such beliefs--as we would any other kind of belief--to the standard tests of rationality and reasonableness. To suggest otherwise is to sanction intolerance for rational discourse.
Given Harris' convictions about the manifest irrationality of religion, his convictions about spirituality will come as a surprise to many. Harris believes that spirituality is a "rational enterprise," so long as it is unimpeded by dogma. For Harris, reason commends a specific, undogmatic form of spiritual practice because it yields substantial, net-postive existential and social utility. On this view of spirituality, then, religion is actually a hindrance. (For a similar view on this topic by yours truly, go here.)
It is toward this somewhat narrower thesis that the [INTERVIEW SERIES] is aimed. (Thanks to Harris for his participation, and to The Raving Atheist for his invitation. Make sure to read other upcoming segments at *****.)
STRANGE DOCTRINES: You state that the physicalist thesis--roughly, that the brain causes (or in your word, that it "produces") consciousness--is an "article of faith" among scientists, and that "the truth is that we simply do not know what happens after death." Why isn't it more accurate to say that the physicalist thesis is less an object of faith than it is a sound abduction based on our current evidence (and that, a fortiori, we do in fact know what happens after death)?
SAM HARRIS: I think there is an important distinction to be made between consciousness (the fact that it is "like something" to be a physical system) and mind. We can well imagine most mental processes occurring without consciousness -- in fact, most do. Your decoding of this sentence, for instance, is something that takes place outside the sphere of your conscious experience. While the process itself is complicated, there in no fundamental mystery as to how light can be transduced into patterns of neuronal firing and gene-expression, leading to neural circuits capable of processing written language. What is a mystery is that it should be like something, at any level, for a brain to do this -- and this is the problem of consciousness.
The question of what happens after death is really a question about the relationship between consciousness itself and the physical world. If consciousness really is an emergent property of large collections of neurons, then when these neurons die (or become sufficiently disordered) the lights must really go out. The point I make in my book is that, while we know that mental functions (like the ability to read) can be fully explained in terms of information processing, we don't know this about consciousness. For all we know, consciousness may be a more fundamental property of the universe than are neural circuits. Needless to say, many people have tried to invoke some of the spookiness found in quantum mechanics in support of such an idea. I've never been a fan of such efforts, however. Nevertheless, there is no result in neuroscience that rules out dualism, panpsychism, or any other theory that denies the reduction of consciousness to states of the brain. To my mind, neuroscience has demonstrated the supervenience of mind upon the brain, but the status of consciousness remains a mystery.
STRANGE DOCTRINES: You say that the "self" is a function of a competence in the brain to represent itself to itself as part of the world, and that with meditative practice one can suppress or dissolve this sense of self by interrupting the process of auto-representation. Yet it seems to me that I commonly lose all sense of my self in a myriad of my routine activities--activities that don't involve meditative practice.
Would you say that this loss of self I am referring to is qualitatively different from the loss of self you describe? Or is your point that meditative practice gives one the ability to revert to this state under a greater variety of conditions?
SAM HARRIS: That's a great question. In an important sense, there is a difference between these two types of selflessness, but the experiences you describe really do indicate that loss of self is an ordinary potential of the human mind--or, rather, that the self is something that is conceptually superimposed on the flow of experience. The difference between the selflessness that is the goal (and ultimately the means itself) of meditation and the experiences of selflessness that many people encounter in routine activities (like watching a movie or playing sports ) is that the latter form of selflessness is generally retrospective. Because it happens, more or less inadvertently, a person generally feels that he has come back to himself (so to speak), realizing that the previous interval of time was one in which he had disappeared into (or merged with) the flow of his experience. Genuine meditation really requires the ability to do this disappearing act consciously, in the present moment, with the full presence of one's faculties. It also requires that one become increasingly sensitive to the differences between a genuine, vivid break in the subject/object dichotomy and the many dull (though pleasant) states of mind that are its counterfeits. Once again, the one thing that is so impressive about the Buddhist literature (modulo the mumbo jumbo) is that phenomenology here has been described and debated in extraordinary detail.
STRANGE DOCTRINES: You state, "[T]he feeling we call 'I' is one of the most pervasive and salient features of human life: and its effects upon the world, as six billion 'selves' pursue diverse and often incompatible ends, rival those that can be ascribed to almost any other phenomenon in nature. Clearly, there is nothing optimal--or even necessarily viable--about our present form of subjectivity."
This puts me in mind of W.H. Auden's remark: "We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don't know." I read Auden's irony here as laying bare a central puzzle about the notion that the highest morality (or the most advanced state of being) consists in setting the self and its reflective interests aside: The meaning of my existence surely must include me, and so subjectivity (and whatever degree of egoism that entails) would seem necessary for any meaningful human life.
Is Auden (as I read him) wrong? If so, why? If not, what would the "optimal" form of subjectivity look like?
SAM HARRIS: Leaving aside the issue of what Auden may or may not have meant, I think your question goes to the link between ethics and spiritual experience. I discuss this a little in my book. To my mind, the contradiction between true selfishness and true selflessness is only apparent. (I'm by no means the first person to make this observation.) From the perspective of most spiritual traditions (once again, I use the word "spiritual" squeamishly and in a restricted sense), to be truly selfish is to seek the happiness that only comes with the total abandonment of self, and the abandonment of self opens the door to those states of mind that have been traditionally associated with saint-like selflessness. There's a passage in my book (p. 186-187) that gets at this issue with respect to the emotion of love, ending with the following observation: "There is a circle here that links us to one another: we each want to be happy; the social feeling of love is one of our greatest sources of happiness; and love entails that we be concerned for the happiness of others. We discover that we can be selfish together."
The other point to make, perhaps, is that even on strict retreat, while attempting to meditate every waking moment, most of us will still spend much of our time lost in thought, feeling like separate selves, and motivated on the basis of this feeling. So the total loss of self is a very rare problem, if it is a problem at all.
Another thing to mention, perhaps, is that successful (selfless) meditation is by no means synonymous with the total suppression of thought. There are types of meditation that try to achieve this, of course. And in the beginning, discursive thinking really is an obstacle to concentration. But there comes a point of stability in meditation in which thoughts can arise and yet cease to be distracting, which is to say they cease to imply the existence of an inner thinker who is thinking them. There's a beautiful image that the Tibetan Buddhists use, describing thoughts at this stage as being like "thieves entering an empty house." So the "optimal" form of subjectivity is surely compatible with thinking.