Some more very good Sam Harris

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  1. Posted September 10, 2014 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

    How useful are Sam Harris’s books to the development of secular Buddhist community in the 21st century? Not a lot, I’d suggest. The view that Sam Harris is ‘very good’ is questionable.

    In the recommended interview, Harris blurs the differences between Buddhism and Hinduism in ways which strike me as being both unscientific and ahistorical. What do I mean by this? Christians have been examining their texts from a philological point of view for 200 years, while the Pali canon and other Buddhist texts have only recently started to be examined. British academic Kenneth Norman tells us, for instance, that the earliest version of the sutta which supposedly unfurls the ‘four noble truths’ actually didn’t have the term ‘noble truth’ in it. That’s a turn up for the books! What else might we find?

    Harris talks approvingly in the interview of the form of Hinduism known as Advaita Vedanta but omits that it was developed in the 9th century of the common era specifically to counter the successes of the Buddha’s teachings, to which it was quite antithetical. So could terms like ‘unborn’ and ‘unconditioned’ be synonyms for a creator god in the idiom of Buddhists who are more influenced by the vedantic traditions than by the teachings of Siddhattha Gotama? I suspect this to be the case.

    Trying to convince someone that the evidence coming out of the labs of neuroscientists shows there is no creator god is, in my experience, a waste of time. Nineteenth century positivist logic gets us nowhere. How would a believer respond? ‘Well, I believe, and you should too,’ might be their answer. If we want to have a meaningful discussion with people like this I’ve found it helpful to use a framework based on mutual respect similar to that developed by moral philosopher Jonathan Haidt in his examination of the similarities and differences between ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ and how they might communicate in a meaningful way. Haidt, by the way, is understandably frustrated by the antics of U.S. Congresspeople and Members of the House of Representatives.

    Harris has written elsewhere about the destructive power of religion, which he defines in the most literal and extreme terms, in particular the global threat of radical Islam. Everything can be explained, according to Harris, by the menace of mobilised religious dogma, which is exacerbated by liberals and their sense of tolerance. Pacifism, despite its (allegedly) high moral standing is actually ‘immoral’ because it leaves us vulnerable to ‘the world’s thugs’, Harris tells us.

    He has reduced all belief to a fundamentalist interpretation of sacred texts, projecting his simple-mindedness and literal reading onto believers whose faith may foster an epistemology far more subtle than his positivist convictions. In doing so he completely misses the point – first made by sociologist Emile Durkheim – that religion, in the first instance, is a cultural practice around which communities form. Members of those communities can regard religious beliefs as mere myths without excluding themselves from the practices and communities in question, and are increasingly doing so.

    I picked up one of his books in an airport bookshop once for the long haul back to Auckland and wished I hadn’t. His espousal of Buddhism seems equally to have blinkered him to any possible benefit to be gained from the western intellectual tradition – ‘Thousands of years have passed since any Western philosopher imagined that a person should be made happy, peaceful, or even wise, in the ordinary sense, by his search for truth.’ Has he never read Montaigne, Martin Buber, Meister Eckhart or a host of other Protestants including Don Cupitt and New Zealand’s Lloyd Geering, not to mention so many other Jews, Catholics and, yes, humanists?

    I remember well my introduction to Buddhist meditation many years ago. The class was taught two techniques: the first focussing on the breath, and the second on what is known in the Pali language as metta (translated usually as loving kindness, but I prefer the term ‘unconditional friendliness’). These two practices, I would suggest, cater for the two sides of the brain, the right and the left. The writings of Harris the neurologist cater for people whose right side predominates, those for whom the head dominates the heart.

    Complexity is thus absent from Harris’s appreciation of scientific ethics. It’s very much a black and white view of the world – neurons on, neurons off. For a secular approach to Buddhism to be meaningful, it needs to allow people to develop some balance in our lives between the heart and the head, and Sam Harris’s writings do not offer that balance. I therefore conclude they have no place in the development of secular Buddhist community.

    Rather than take Harris’s assertions with a pinch of salt I suggest a Tibetan salt lamp would be better.

    • Tony Reardon
      Posted September 11, 2014 at 7:33 am | Permalink

      if reading Sam’s piece helps confirm the way you see ‘the world’ -as opposed to how Sam sees it,that’s great.

      when i say “it’s great” i mean that reading such things is a stimulus that helps see what is natural for me.

    • Peter Barlow
      Posted October 7, 2014 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

      Good stuff on Sam Harris. Having studied theology for the last six years and had a reasonable go at practicing the Christian faith for three of them I have, as a matter of course, studied the views of people like Richard Dawson and others of an atheist bent. 

      Firstly though I’d like to explain that I began my theological journey with the intention of being able to blast the Christian faith out of the water because I had failed to find a god and just could not get this faith bizzo. But what happened was that I realised I had a love of study for its and my own pleasure and, to pat my own back I’ve become a very knowledgeable and wise (ha ha ha) with things religious. 

      I’ve watched docos and read up the ideas of the atheists and neuro bods and I agree with you when you say they only see black and white, neurons on neurons off. It’s the no ghost in the machine thing. For me there is a ghost in the machine, and it’s us, our own soul, spirit, call it what you will and this is what draws us humans to seek our inner self. 

      Everything, as science teaches us, is made up of matter, neurons etc., and all the theories of quantum physics, string theory and all the other stuff I know is fact but don’t quite understand, show us the physical make up of life. What happens is that it leaves the scientist with the idea that to them there findings prove the nonexistence of any energy that can’t be explained by mathematics. They fail to note that there very findings have been made by a being, themselves, that is animated, and in in such a way that they can’t explain. 

      I read somewhere that quantum mechanics is of the view that no event that occurs, physical or otherwise, like thought itself, once thought, that energy never disappears from existence. So for me this shows there’s more to who we are and why we are far far beyond a mathematical equation. There’s the fact that the very presence of the man himself in any form of experiment must be calculated in the outcome. 

      I have come to the conclusion that there is no god or being as the many world religions describe but there is a power, an energy, a non-physical drive – boy it’s hard to describe something that is not describable – that is in all humans and that does not die on our physical demise. There is in our neurons the desire to be at one with this indescribably state, to be in union with it. 

      I have met many poor folk who follow Christianity who really are very deluded, and when questioned as to why they believe what they believe they only know what they have been told. But I do know people whose faith gives them a peace beyond understanding who quote the Bible. These folk are not gullible at all but very intelligent, eloquent beings and by the way they live and relate to life they have something a lot of people would like to have. They, to me, have attained a sort of enlightenment, if you like. They believe it’s from a god where to me it’s their inner soul or life force they have found and made peace with. Good luck to them, I say, a placebo will do. 

      I once caught the tail end of a interview with Richard Dawkins and he was asked, ‘So if a god did not create or make life how did we become life, aliens maybe?’, and he said ‘Why yes, quite possibly.’ Shit, he says he doesn’t believe in gods but believes in aliens from outer space? Me, not believing in both just makes me more weary of the likes of him. 

      Trouble is, he has a very calm convincing modus operandi which can trap the unwary. Boy what a spiel. 

      My life at the moment is really good. My mental health is as peaceful as it can be and I am still finding great joy in meditation. I see my mental health doc this afternoon and will discuss coming off or halving the one medication I am still on. He is really keen on the Buddhist practice of sitting with oneself and gaining strength from the meditation. I am so grateful to him for working with me to stop the other med I was on. 

      It’s been three months now and I did not know how doped I was, no not really doped but unconnected, disconnected from myself. Meditation has given me a small freedom to handle life, with myself, without copious amounts of chemicals. There are still very black days for me but I prefer to experience them with an unfogged mind, even hard reality is better than a confused one.

      • Tony Reardon
        Posted October 8, 2014 at 7:46 am | Permalink

        Great stuff Pete.

        I’m not really interested in liking or disliking what Sam says, i’m interested in what reading him produces in me, the way it helps me see myself and what is going on in me, particularly seeing where i’ve been assuming something without knowing.

        You seem to be thinking for yourself, which is what i hoped to produce in people through the posts.

  2. Brett Shand
    Posted October 6, 2014 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

    Like Ramsey Margolis I find Sam Harris’ voice very disquieting. He speaks and thinks like a True Believer. He seems to embody everything he dislikes in other belief systems: rigidity and a closed mind.

    • Tony Reardon
      Posted October 10, 2014 at 7:38 am | Permalink

      Brett, you comments on finding “Sam Harris voice, disquieting” gave me pause for thought. I went away and watched some video, including the chat show fracas with Ben Affleck, and i think i can see what disquiets you. i think it has the same effect on me.

      Part of what it reminds me of is my time with ,largely western, buddhist monks who i also found to be very direct speaking in a way that could feel disquietingly blunt and direct.

      I think my difference from you, because that does remain, is that the direct assertive speech of both Sam and the monks is something, when i get past my disquiet, that i like and think missing in myself; something i want to cultivate.

      I don’t think Sam is aggressive, i do think he is assertive. His sort of direct speech without being aggressive is not the norm in our society, but as with the monks, i find it refreshingly honest.

  3. Tony Reardon
    Posted October 7, 2014 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    i looked at the 254 comments about one of Sam’s postings and a lot did echo your and Ramsey’s sentiments. For me, as i don’t hear the “true believer” voice you speak of, it’s as if we had read two different things.

    I’m not at all interested in taking Sam as some great authority, it is simply that what he writes makes me think.

    • Brett Shand
      Posted October 7, 2014 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

      Hi Tony

      I understand how you feel. He is a very provocative writer and I like to be provoked too. However that is not sufficient, for me anyway. After all “50 Shades of Grey,” and “God Hates Fags” signs both provoke thought in their different ways!

      Personally I think it’s good that we both see Sam Harris in a different light. But I am concerned at his sometimes (often?) very narrow viewpoint. There’s not much generosity or love in what he writes, in my opinion.

  4. Tony Reardon
    Posted October 7, 2014 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    ok, no problem, i simply don’t recognize MY Sam in YOUR take on him.

  5. Tony Reardon
    Posted October 19, 2014 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    when i wrote my original recommendation for Sam Harris’ new ideas, his new book hadn’t yet been published, it was though, already at no.23 on the NY Times best seller’s list on the basis of pre-sales. Now it’s number 14.

    A friend who has not been a fan of Sam Harris [the friend is a secular meditator] says that he is enjoying the new book without agreeing with everything, and likes the absence of Sam’s usual strident tone.

    Whether this is YOUR secular buddhism or not is one thing, that it is necessarily part of the growing secular buddhist literature need not be in doubt. This book is having a very positive impact in providing a fresh angle on ‘buddhism without buddhism’ which Stephen Batchelor already addresses so well.

    a sample ” The ultimate goal of meditation, whatever it is, cannot be a matter of having fleeting experiences. The goal of meditation is to uncover a form of well-being that is inherent to the nature of our minds. it must therefore be available in the context of ordinary sight, sounds, sensations and even thoughts. Peak experiences are fine, but real freedom must be coincident with normal waking life.”

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