Newsflash: Sam Harris writing another book

Ever since Harris received his PhD in neuroscience, he has become very busy setting up his own think tank and publishing popular books.  Now, I have not read his books, but from what I can tell, the first one adopts a crank position and argues science can determine what is right and wrong.  Aha.  Now, you might think that his second book would give us the results of him actually using science to tell us what is right and wrong, but it doesn’t.  Instead, the second book is an argument against free will.  Now, Harris has decided to use his training as a scientist to write a third book. 

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.

So Harris is going to write a book about atheist spirituality!

He explains:

 Of course, “spiritual” and its cognates have some unfortunate associations unrelated to their etymology—and I will do my best to cut those ties as well. But there seems to be no other term (apart from the even more problematic “mystical” or the more restrictive “contemplative”) with which to discuss the deliberate efforts some people make to overcome their feeling of separateness—through meditation, psychedelics, or other means of inducing non-ordinary states of consciousness. And I find neologisms pretentious and annoying. Hence, I appear to have no choice: “Spiritual” it is.

 

Ain’t scholariness wonderful?  Now that Harris has his PhD, he is returning to his original “research”:

What he’ll say is this: At age 19, he and a college friend tried MDMA, better known as ecstasy, and the experience altered his view of the role that love could play in the world. (“I realized that it was possible to be a human being who wished others well all the time, reflexively.”) He dropped out of Stanford, where he was an English major, in his sophomore year and started to study Buddhism and meditation. He flew around the country and around the world, to places such as India and Nepal, often for silent retreats that went on for months. One of his teachers was Sharon Salzberg, a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass.

Of course, I am not surprised by any of this.  Given the inherent nihilism that comes with atheism, it would make sense that atheist spirituality would amount to getting high or drunk to escape from it all.

 

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31 Responses to Newsflash: Sam Harris writing another book

  1. Crude says:

    “I realized that it was possible to be a human being who wished others well all the time, reflexively.”

    Apparently, he decided that was a possibility to be avoided at all costs.

  2. chunkdz says:

    Except for those that we should preemptively kill, that is.

  3. d says:

    Many mystical customs have used mind altering substances as part of spiritual rituals, because of the emotions, and states of mind they tend to cause. Such customs extend far back beyond the relatively new (by comparison) Christian mysticism. So is it really surprising people, either purposefully or accidentally, have revelations about their spiritual life while using such substances? Do they become automatically invalid? Why the negative insinuations?

    Often people doing drugs like MDMA aren’t doing them to “forget about it all”, rather to connect with others and feel a sense of belonging. So I think the glib and uncharitable characterization in the OP is more than a little presumptuous.

  4. Crude says:

    Many mystical customs have used mind altering substances as part of spiritual rituals, because of the emotions, and states of mind they tend to cause.

    The New Atheism: Cold, hard reason, rejecting the supernatural, and embracing materialism. Except, you know, for the mystical customs and spiritual rituals. The drugs help with that.

    Often people doing drugs like MDMA aren’t doing them to “forget about it all”, rather to connect with others and feel a sense of belonging.

    Sure, it’s like drinking alcohol. Plenty of people get hammered a lot, but it’s not like they have a problem or anything. In fact, they can quit anytime they want.

    They just don’t want to right now.

  5. chunkdz says:

    “I realized that it was possible to be a human being who wished others well all the time, reflexively.”

    I did drugs once and I realized that the trees were laughing at me and if I didn’t vomit up some yellow play-dough the paper-bag people would get me.

  6. Crude says:

    Yeah, I’m kind of getting a kick out of the implied message Harris is sending.

    Cult of Gnu routes to reliable, trustworthy knowledge:

    A) Science
    B) Getting stoned out of your mind

  7. Michael says:

    So I think the glib and uncharitable characterization in the OP is more than a little presumptuous.

    Like dude. That’s so uncool.

  8. Michael says:

    Apparently, he decided that was a possibility to be avoided at all costs.

    Indeed. It’s clear that Harris never wished Francis Collins well when appointed to head the NIH. On the contrary, Harris used the pages of a major newspaper to smear Collins as someone who would harm the NIH and science.

  9. And the cycle will be completed! Gnu atheism turns out to be a real religion after all. Who says religion has to be theistic? But similar to Buddhism, in the future there will surely be followers of the cult of Gnu who sincerely believe that ScienceReason is a real deity.

  10. d says:

    Ugh, it seems most of you guys have just pounced with glee on the bit about drugs, to indulge in cheap shots and ad hominems.

    If Sam had seen Jesus while high on ecstasy and converted, I wonder how the tune would be different…

  11. Crude says:

    Ugh, it seems most of you guys have just pounced with glee on the bit about drugs, to indulge in cheap shots and ad hominems.

    Yeah, heavens forbid a leader of the Cult of Gnu, which has as one of its defining features ’embracing and endorsement of cheap shots and ad homs, and believing those they criticize aren’t worthy of respect’, be on the receiving end of some mockery for inconsistency and stupidity.

    If Sam had seen Jesus while high on ecstasy and converted, I wonder how the tune would be different…

    Yeah, do you think Sam would change HIS tune if someone saw Jesus while high and converted based on that? Do you think we’d be hearing ‘See? In addition to science, getting high is one route to knowledge!’ in that case?

    And what makes you think the tune would be different? Because I, or even Christians generally, see this as a game where any pickup for the ‘team’ is to be celebrated? Again, that’s Cult of Gnu thought. If someone told me they converted to Christianity because, say… “evolution doesn’t make sense, because if we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys around? So clearly God exists, and Christianity is true”, I wouldn’t be all giddy and talking about how that’s a sensible argument. I’d be a bit horrified.

  12. The Deuce says:

    Mystic crystal revelations

  13. d says:

    Crude,

    Well I suppose that’s fine in so far as you only aspire to embody all the qualities of those you criticize, just on the other side of the coin.

  14. Crude says:

    d,

    Well I suppose that’s fine in so far as you only aspire to embody all the qualities of those you criticize, just on the other side of the coin.

    Of course, your estimation is wrong. The Cult believes in conversions by any means necessary, including by (really, especially by) mockery, humiliation or wretched reasoning/arguments. I already said I’d find that horrifying, and reject it. The Cult believes in mockery, ad homs and contempts for religious people and theists (really, for just about anyone they disagree with), as a rule. I believe in sincerely respectful dialogue and finding common ground when possible – I simply expect it to be a two-way street. When it’s not, I have zero problem replying with mockery and ad homs. It’s a little like the difference between a country that, as a core standard, will violently invade any enemy that has something they want, and a country that is normally peaceful, but has no problem attacking violent invaders that threaten them. Trying to say “They act the same way!” when the second country starts shooting back is inane.

    Really, let’s state what the real point here is: you’re fine with the Cult mocking, laughing at, and using ad homs constantly against theists. But you get very uncomfortable when the Cult of Gnu is treated in kind. Pretty much, “Woah hey only the Cult of Gnu is able to mock and laugh at and use ad homs against theists. Theists can’t use those on the Cult of Gnu! That’s mean! 😦 😦 :(” I suggest if you don’t like it, you should start criticizing the Cult for taking that route. In fact, why not hit one of the popular cesspools (PZ Myers’ place, for example) and tell everyone that theists should be treated with respect, and it’s wrong to use ad homs and mockery on people just because you disagree with their beliefs.

    Let us know how that goes.

  15. Michael says:

    Very well said, Crude.

    d,

    Sorry if you do not see the humorous irony in atheist spirituality as “meditation, psychedelics, or other means of inducing non-ordinary states of consciousness.” Or, the humorous irony in that Sam Harris is the one promoting this idea.

  16. d says:

    Crude,

    Uh huh – so what we really have here is this blanket assumption that anyone deemed to be part of the “GNU Cult” mocks, makes fun of, derides you – therefore blanket permission exists to rightly mock anybody anytime, in any instance, if deemed to be in the “Cult”.

    My particular gripe with the “mocking” in the OP isn’t really the mocking, just its profound ignorance. It’s ignorant of Sam’s position on spirituality (he’s talked about it quite a bit – its nothing new), and rather ignorant about drug use, reasons for it, and also rather ignorant about atheism and nihilism.

    If one is going to mock in retaliation to defend their supposed reasonable, rational positions and traditions, perhaps there should be some higher standards?

    A gem straight from the OP: “Now, I have not read his books, but from what I can tell, the first one adopts a crank position and argues science can determine what is right and wrong. Aha.”

    Heh. I have not read his books, but from what I can tell…. Nice… did someone have to many afternoon beers (read drugs) to do actual research? 🙂

  17. Crude says:

    d,

    Uh huh – so what we really have here is this blanket assumption that anyone deemed to be part of the “GNU Cult” mocks, makes fun of, derides you – therefore blanket permission exists to rightly mock anybody anytime, in any instance, if deemed to be in the “Cult”.

    Actually, what we have here isn’t an assumption, but an established track record from the mouths of the Cult of Gnu’s own leadership. Do you think I just made up the whole ‘mock theists, use humiliation and mockery to silence them’? That’s straight out of Dawkins’ public playbook. You can see it in PZ Myers’ anti-theistic rants, you can see it in Jerry Coyne’s constant “jeebus” mocking, the “faithhead” talk. You can see it in Harris’ own writings and acts.

    Further, I don’t need “permission” from you, nor am I asking for it. I’m stating what a pretty reasonable standard is: a group (and this is a group) that employs mockery, ad homs, and similar antics towards those they disagree with as a rule, whose leadership states openly that they’ll use these things as a means to an end, can’t really complain when people treat them likewise. Don’t whine and complain about how mean it is to make fun of a group that finds the idea of treating their intellectual opponents with respect, repugnant.

    My particular gripe with the “mocking” in the OP isn’t really the mocking, just its profound ignorance.

    Not really. Just look at your responses in this thread: you’re trying to find some way, any way, to criticize people who make fun of poor widdle Harris’ “get high – that’s one way to learn reliable knowledge!” pseudo-spirituality. They’ve all failed. You’re just changing your tune, again, hoping to find something that sticks.

    If one is going to mock in retaliation to defend their supposed reasonable, rational positions and traditions,

    “Defend”? Who said this was about “defending”? This isn’t a hard idea to grasp, d: Harris, Dawkins, and the general Cult of Gnu openly embrace mockery and derision as a means to an end. So they (and you in particular) have very little standing to whine and complain about ‘you’re being disrespectful!’ I’m more than happy, and Mike is demonstrably more than happy, to engage reasonable critiques from intellectually respectable people.

    Harris and the Cultists of Gnu don’t make the cut.

    A gem straight from the OP:

    Uh, that’s pretty much a fair summary. It really is a crank position, it was a panned book, and it did amount to “science can tell us what’s right and wrong”. Notice that Mike merely summarized the book – he didn’t pretend to launch into a critique of it.

    Face it, d. Intellectually, Harris kinda sucks. Once you get outside the echo chamber of Gnu fansites (You see the meltdowns on Freethought Blogs lately? Now that’s comedy), he’s kind of a joke. This new move about ‘atheist spirituality’ is just going to help solidify it. I know it may sting to have him be mocked and his position summed up as “New Atheism: where snorting coke is a spiritual journey”, but hey, he brought it on himself.

    As I said, if you don’t want him or Cult ideas mocked, hit Dawkins’ site or Myers’ cesspool and argue that people should be treated respectfully, not mocked, when discussing their views. You won’t do it, because you know what the result will be: they’ll come down on you as a accommodationist theist shill. And you want to be on their side.

    Enjoy the company. 😉

  18. Michael says:

    d,

    Are you a Gnu?

  19. d says:

    Gee I dunno, Michael… is there a checklist?

  20. Michael says:

    D: Gee I dunno, Michael… is there a checklist?

    Not that I know of. But for starters, I have never met a non-Gnu who was a Sam Harris fan. Given that my posting seems to have struck a raw nerve in you, it seemed to me like you are a Sam Harris fan.

    As for this:

    Heh. I have not read his books, but from what I can tell…. Nice… did someone have to many afternoon beers (read drugs) to do actual research?

    Er, no. As Crude pointed out, the book has been reviewed on the net. Better than that is the simple title of his book:

    The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values

    Let’s see.

    Me: the first one adopts a crank position and argues science can determine what is right and wrong.

    The book title: The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values

    Me: the first one adopts a crank position and argues science can determine what is right and wrong.

    The book title: The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values

    Is there something hard about this?

    My particular gripe with the “mocking” in the OP isn’t really the mocking, just its profound ignorance. It’s ignorant of Sam’s position on spirituality (he’s talked about it quite a bit – its nothing new), and rather ignorant about drug use, reasons for it, and also rather ignorant about atheism and nihilism.

    By all means, enlighten me and explain why atheists need MDMA to connect with others and feel a sense of belonging.

  21. d says:

    I wouldn’t identify as a “Harris Fan”, though I do agree with some of the things he says. I think his approach to morality is at least on the right track, even if it’s vaguely or badly argued for. It’s certainly not a “crank” theory, depending of course on what you mean by that term. And really, I hate to call what he has put forth in the Moral Landscape a full blown moral theory, but rather the starting point of one.

    It’s a species of consequentialism, and so shares many characteristics with other consequentialist theories that many have defended throughout the years. He’s gotten his share of criticism from theists and atheists alike (but a lot of it has been very bad criticism) – but so what? Most moral theories have mountains of criticisms against them, but that does not make them “crank” theories.

    As for drug use, there are a myriad of motivations for it, including pure recreation, seeking, spiritual “enlightenment”, belonging, and sure – also escape – and many others. I don’t know in which category(-ies) Sam belongs, but on what basis to you claim that:

    a) That atheism and nihilism inevitably go together?
    b) Drug use is necessarily or even probably about “escaping from it all” (on atheism or not)?
    a) Sam’s motivation was to seek an “escape from it all”, especially considering that, so far as we know, his use wasn’t habitual and his experience seem to send him down a path of spiritual seeking?

  22. Michael says:

    d,

    Harris espouses a crank theory because he, like so many other crackpots before him, is trying to turn his metaphysics into science. If he wants to argue for some strain of consequentialism, fine. But he is trying to co-opt the authority of science to promote his values and notions of right and wrong. Harris either doesn’t understand science or he is doing what Gnus often do – water down the definition of science so they can co-opt science into their culture war (and it’s clear from the book description this book has a culture war agenda behind it).

    Look, we can tell he has a crank theory for three reasons (off the top of my head):

    1. It is a hyper-extreme version of fringe scientism.
    2. While promoting his book with his expertise in neuroscience and philosophy, he doesn’t publish this new theory in any academic peer-reviewed journal; he publishes it in a popular book.
    3. Since coming up with his theory, the neuroscientist doesn’t seem to have much interest in actually doing science with this insight to resolve issues of morality or values. He’s moved on to write another book about atheist spirituality.

    I realize it may cause you cognitive dissonance, but the reality here is that Harris is promoting and selling crackpottery.

  23. d says:

    Why’s it so absurd that science be able to answer moral questions?

    I suspect we’ll uncover that you think it so because your particular moral ontology rejects empiricism as a valid way of deciding moral questions. But that begs the question, as it simply presupposes your own moral ontology. Sam presented a different moral ontology – one where empiricism would follow as a valid way of knowing and answering moral claims.

    And consequentialist theories in particular tend to be the sort where science and empiricism can effectively answer many moral problems. This is the case with every form of utilitarianism, for example. In that way, Sam’s ideas aren’t revolutionary, novel, or rare and certainly not crank – he actually sits with lots of good company in thinking morals and science can’t touch one another. So again, not crank – sorry.

  24. d says:

    Typo above and correction:

    … he actually sits with lots of good company in thinking morals and science CAN touch one another…

  25. Crude says:

    Sam presented a different moral ontology – one where empiricism would follow as a valid way of knowing and answering moral claims.

    What Sam did was write off all the various refutations and criticisms of the unoriginal aspects of idea as boring, useless philosophy-talk, and say words to the effect of “Yes, well, if we just assume that outcome X is moral, then science can help us see what the most effective route to X is.” Of course, that assumption is the tricky part – he tried to blow right past it, and got called on it by atheists and theists alike.

    Yeah, he is a crank. He was out of his depth, tried to come across as cutting edge, and outside of the tiny circle of the Cult of Gnu, most people realized it.

    And as Mike suggests, even Harris probably realizes as much, since for all the talk at the time, he’s just moved on to the next thing. Whatever keeps his cultists entertained, I suppose.

  26. Michael says:

    Why’s it so absurd that science be able to answer moral questions?

    So you really believe science can tell us what is right and wrong? And how does Harris define science?

    Okay show me. Let’s bring up some moral questions. Here is an excerpt from Michael Ruse’s review of Harris’s book:

    The invective against Collins continues for another fifteen—I kid you not, fifteen—pages…… My objection is that in a book on the foundations of ethics it is simply out of place to spend so much time on such a personal attack……In The Moral Landscape there is not a single mention of Thomism or of the natural law approach. Instead there is personal attack after personal attack. “Is it really wise to entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who believes that understanding ourselves through science is impossible, while our resurrection from death is inevitable?”

    1. Is it right for Harris to spend so much time on such a personal attack?
    Use science to provide the objectively true answer.

    2. Harris again tries to smear Collins as someone who is not qualified to run the NIH because he is religious. Since Collins has now run the NIH for almost four years, the empirical data should be test Sam’s “concerns.” Yet Harris, a proponent of empiricism, has ignored the data and “moved on.”

    Question: Given that there is no evidence Francis Collins has been bad for the NIH, should Sam Harris write a public retraction and apology?
    Use science to provide the objectively true answer.

    3. Harris clearly objected to Collins nomination because Harris was relying on his stereotypes.

    Question: Is it right to use stereotypes as a basis for opposing someone’s nomination to head a government agency?
    Use science to provide the objectively true answer.

    So again, not crank – sorry.

    You cognitive dissonance is great. Please explain why Harris did not submit his idea to academic peer review, given that he promotes his book as one in which he uses “his expertise in philosophy and neuroscience.” Please explain why Harris has not been in the lab doing science to resolve moral questions. Sorry – crank.

  27. Michael says:

    Yeah, he is a crank. He was out of his depth, tried to come across as cutting edge, and outside of the tiny circle of the Cult of Gnu, most people realized it.

    Nice. Remember that in science, the belief that DNA is the genetic material is not restricted to some tiny little circle of activists and internet groupies.

  28. The Deuce says:

    Crude:

    What Sam did was write off all the various refutations and criticisms of the unoriginal aspects of idea as boring, useless philosophy-talk, and say words to the effect of “Yes, well, if we just assume that outcome X is moral, then science can help us see what the most effective route to X is.”

    Furthermore, his definition of what is moral, according to science, is supposed to be rooted in what is “good” for us (making it a sort of stupid version of Aristotle, except that he’s too ignorant to realize and acknowledge it), which he thinks the relevant scientific experts are equipped to dictate to us.

    Now then, what do you suppose your typical medical expert is going to tell you if you ask whether dropping acid is good for you?

  29. Michael says:

    Great point, Deuce. Come to think of it, shouldn’t Harris devote at least a chapter of his upcoming spirituality book to the use of science to determine the moral status of drug use?

  30. Michael says:

    d,
    As I show up, Harris’s behavior raises several ethical questions. Aren’t you going to use science to address and resolve these?

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