Sam Harris Acknowledges the Folly of Scientism

We’ve seen that Sam Harris, one of the leaders in the New Atheist movement, wants to be compared to the New Age mystic, Eckhart Tolle. However, when I quoted Harris to document this, I left out part of the quote. Let me rectify this:

It’s interesting that you mention Tolle, because when someone asks me for the two-second summary of my new book, I’m often tempted to say, “It’s Eckhart Tolle for smart people”—that is, people who suspect that something important can be discovered about consciousness through introspection, but who are allergic to the pseudoscience and irrationality that generally creeps into every New Age discussion of this truth.

Harris is admitting that we can discover important truths without science. We can discover important truths through introspection. Harris has essentially acknowledged the limitations of science (good for him) and his position can be cited when we are confronted by New Atheists who aggressively peddle their scientism (thanks, sam).

So far, no other New Atheist leader has criticized Harris concerning this abandonment of scientism. Why this silence?

Then again, recall that Harris is one of those New Atheists who is trying to dumb-down the definition of science. So perhaps Harris would argue that introspection is science.

This raises the question of how to evaluate the results of a spiritual practice—and whether those results, however transformative they may be for someone, can be credible to others.

What constitutes evidence that there is a path to wisdom at all? From the outside, it’s very difficult to judge—because there are charismatic charlatans who are probably lying about everything, and there are seemingly ordinary people who have had quite profound experiences. From the inside, however, the evidence is clear; so each person has to run the experiment in the laboratory of his own mind to know that there’s anything to this.

Ah, yes. Run the experiment.

In the laboratory of his own mind.

How sciencey.

Experiments subjectively run + data subjectively gathered = subjective evidence. But subjective evidence does not equal scientific evidence.

I happen to agree there are truths that can be discovered through introspection and there are truths beyond the reach of science. I also think all evidence comes with a distinct subjective aspect. But then I also don’t go around promoting and preaching scientism and trying to make it sound like my subjective beliefs are science. Neither do I attack science by dumbing-down its definition to advance some personal agenda. I value intellectual honesty. I doubt many New Atheists can understand this approach to life.

Harris does make an important point:

The truth is that most of us are bound to appear like ordinary schmucks to others no matter how much we meditate. If you’re lost in thought, as you will be most of the time, you become the mere puppet of whatever those thoughts are. If you’re lost in worries about the future, you will seem to be an ordinary, anxious person—and the fact that you might be punctuating this experience with moments of mindfulness or moments of non-duality isn’t necessarily going to change the way you appear in the world. But internally, the difference can be huge. This gap between first-person and third-person data is a real impediment to communicating the significance of meditation practice to people who haven’t experienced it.

Really, Sam? When Francis Collins wrote about his first- person experience in becoming a Christian, you mocked it and demanded third-person data. Clearly, “the significance of meditation practice” does not entail a decreased likelihood of wallowing in hypocrisy.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in atheism, New Atheism, Sam Harris and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Sam Harris Acknowledges the Folly of Scientism

  1. Crude says:

    Really, Sam? When Francis Collins wrote about his first- person experience in becoming a Christian, you mocked it and demanded third-person data. Clearly, “the significance of meditation practice” does not entail a decreased likelihood of wallowing in hypocrisy.

    Sharp. I was about to point this out as well.

    If we’re able to affirm first-person data and adhere to it despite the lack of first-person data, Harris is finished. All you have to say is one thing: “The Testimony of the Holy Spirit.”

  2. Crude says:

    Fouled up my quoting, but the gist gets through I hope.

  3. Martin Tuelay says:

    Got it. The author only accepts science as presented by people like Ken Ham.
    Good luck in life.

  4. Dena says:

    Mentioning that one can learn something about themselves through introspection isn’t equivalent to abandoning science.

  5. Crude says:

    Mentioning that one can learn something about themselves through introspection isn’t equivalent to abandoning science.

    Scientism. Not science.

  6. Kevin says:

    I don’t understand the Ken Ham reference. Is Michael a young-earth creationist?

  7. TFBW says:

    No, Kevin, I’m the only one who participates here on a regular basis and wears the YEC label on my sleeve. I would translate Martin Tuelay’s comment for you as follows.

    I neither properly understand nor am able to construct a cogent refutation of this article, so I will make a snide, baseless comment which implies that the author is a mindless follower of a well-known Young-Earth Creationist instead.

    I hope that clarifies things for you.

  8. Dhay says:

    Martin Tuelay > Got it. The author only accepts science as presented by people like Ken Ham. Good luck in life.

    What Sam Harris is presenting is Buddhism. He has deliberately stripped it of the traditional elements which would evince revulsion in his Western readers and turn them away — see http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/killing-the-buddha/ : “Indeed, there are ideas within Buddhism that are so incredible as to render the dogma of the virgin birth plausible by comparison” — eg karma, reincarnation/rebirth/Tibetan Buddhist leaders being the reincarnation of their immediate predecessors, the Buddha’s sacrificing his life to a tigress (in a previous life) so that she could feed her cubs, or Guru Rinpoche’s miraculous birth on the bud of a lotus flower and not from the womb of a woman; but it is still very plain that what Harris is presenting is Buddhism.

    I suspect that any real or imagined resemblance to science is accidental and incidental.

  9. Dhay says:

    When I discovered that Sam Harris had recently published a short book entitled, “Lying”, (http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/new-ebook-lying) I wondered why he had: truthfulness is part of Buddhist morality, but just one part, so where were the other books; it was possible that Harris thinks religion is a load of lies — that eg God is a Santa-type lie that some never grew out of — but if so, that’s just pig-ignorant, or self-deception; so just where in Harris’ Buddhist messages does a book fit that strongly emphasises it is wrong to lie — even little white lies, and even to children — and also that Harris himself (almost) never ever ever lies.

    Sam Harris > …there are charismatic charlatans who are probably lying about everything…

    Ah. Harris is very aware of the need for his flock to trust him, to believe what he says, to believe that he will not lie or deceive, so that his word will be accepted as “evidence that there is a path to wisdom.” “Lying” was stage-setting for “Waking Up.”

  10. Vaigyaani says:

    A 2007 conference speech by Sam Harris, which can found at http://bit.ly/Q7VcYP and is titled ‘The Problem with Atheism’, addresses many of the points raised here.

    Experiments subjectively run + data subjectively gathered = subjective evidence. But subjective evidence does not equal scientific evidence.

    But then I also don’t go around promoting and preaching scientism and trying to make it sound like my subjective beliefs are science.

    You have implied in a few places that Sam Harris advocates mindful introspection as a science, perhaps based on his calling it as an ‘experiment’ to be run ‘in the laboratory of an individual’s mind’. You may correct me, but I have not actually seen him use his subjective experience of meditation as a tool for lending credence to any specific claims about the universe, or matter, or the nature of the brain. He merely presents an account of his subjective experience, fully honest about the fact that neither his experience nor his account allow him more insight into the cosmos, or biology, or geology, or economics. In fact, the only thing he says they do offer insight into is, well, the nature of subjective experience itself, which to me seems a fair thing to say. No?

    Much fairer than for example, some things Francis Collins has said after his subjective experience, like “Almighty God, who is not limited in space or time, created a universe 13.7 billion years ago with its parameters precisely tuned to allow the development of complexity over long periods”.

    Moreover, in that 2007 speech, Sam shares his experience in an effort to salvage atheists (and scientismists?) who are so paralyzed by their skepticism of things not contained perfectly within the realm of scientific inquiry, that they miss out on a range of perfectly valid and beneficial subjective experiences.

    Here is a modest attempt at transcribing part of Sam’s response to a rather condescending criticism of his views on meditation, put forth by Dan Dennett. It happens during the QA period at the end (around 57m45s).

    .. When you look at what we’re thinking – you know, all the cranky, worthless thoughts we tend to think throughout the day – it is the tissue, I mean it is the thread on which much of our suffering is strung. And I can just say that, it [referring to his ideas on medititation] is not science.. You certainly don’t become aware of the neural underpinnings of all this by doing it. But it opens you to a range of experience where the words of the mystics actually make sense, and can reliably be divorced from their crazy metaphysics..

  11. Dhay says:

    You may correct me, but I have not actually seen him use his subjective experience of meditation as a tool for lending credence to any specific claims about the universe, or matter, or the nature of the brain.

    4.Certain “spiritual” experiences can help us understand science. There are insights that one can have through meditation (that is, very close observation of first-person data) that line up rather well with what we know must be true at the level of the brain. I’ll mention just two, which I have written about before and will return to in subsequent posts: (1) the ego/self is a construct and a cognitive illusion; (2) there is no such thing as free will. There is simply no question that these statements are well grounded scientifically (in fact, it is very difficult to even imagine a physical account of the human mind that would suggest their falsity at this point). So, here are two facts which science gives us good reason to believe, and which I believe we can know through introspection, but which seem quite paradoxical and troubling to most people.

    http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/whats-the-point-of-transcendence/

    Looks like scientism and Sam Harris’ subjective experience are used by Harris in mutual support.

  12. TFBW says:

    In that quotation, we also see that “science” and “philosophical materialism” are more or less synonymous for Harris. Not only does he think that science is adequate to explain all phenomena (scientism), he thinks that any scientific account must be a physical account. Put those two together, and you reach philosophical materialism as a logical conclusion.

    I consider it more likely, however, that materialism was an unstated premise which led to scientism, rather than the other way around. If you start with, “all reality is physical” (materialism) and “science is the study of the physical,” then you reach, “science is the study of all reality” (scientism). When confronted with obvious counter-evidence to the proposition “all reality is physical” (e.g. consciousness), one can either abandon the premise, or deny the evidence (e.g. claim it is a “cognitive illusion”).

    As such, when Harris sees congruence between his scientific expectations and his introspective experiences, it’s because he’s interpreting those experiences in accordance with his expectations (i.e. confirmation bias). When he reaches a meditative state in which the self seems to disappear, he’s reached a state where his experiences match his expectations — thus the great confidence in the power of meditation to reveal important truths. He already claimed to know that the experience of “self” was a cognitive illusion on the basis of “science” (materialism, actually); he simply reached the same conclusion via the meditative approach.

    If this analysis is correct, it might be more accurate to say that Harris lends credence to meditation as a path to knowledge on the basis of it aligning with pre-existing scientific claims, rather than vice versa. Or, as Dhay says, it’s a matter of mutual support: it gets a little hazy as to what’s supporting what sometimes.

  13. James says:

    How is it that the proposition, “the self does not exist”, isn’t a non-starter for any further propositions that invoke subjective, first-person experience ?

  14. TFBW says:

    Maybe he meditated and discovered that the law of non-contradiction is an illusion?

  15. TFBW says:

    Actually, it’s not entirely clear that Harris’ position on the existence (or not) of “self” can be expressed in a manner that admits any sort of logical analysis. It’s pretty mystical, despite the sciencey decorations. As Sam says, “It’s hard to talk about the illusoriness of the self or the non-dual nature of consciousness in a way that makes sense to people.” No kidding: it makes no sense to me. Who or what experiences the illusoriness of the self? And what’s this “non-dual” qualification? I can’t even guess with any confidence what its “dual” counterpart is supposed to be.

    Sam also says:

    Consciousness is already free of the feeling that we call “I.” However, a person must change his plane of focus to realize this.

    Presumably, the reason why one must “change his plane of focus” is because consciousness is not normally free of the feeling that we call “I”, and special mental gymnastics are necessary to make it so. René Descartes considered the existence of “I” to be the most fundamental, undeniable fact. One could doubt the reality of everything else, but not the self: “I doubt” affirms the existence of “I” just as much as “I think”. One can not coherently doubt the existence of self: one can only cease to think.

    Thus, as far as I can see, the purpose of Harris’ meditation is to remove oneself from an experience of evidence which is normally constant and ubiquitous. Every thought and feeling is a reminder that we exist as conscious beings. Apparently, Harris’ meditation techniques manage to shut out that barrage of evidence, and he chooses to accept that insensible state as representative of the truth, concluding that there never was a “self” in the first place. Through practised mental techniques, he can make the evidence go away, and he chooses to accept that temporary absence of evidence as conclusive evidence of absence.

    That, at least, is as much sense as I can make of his pronouncements on the subject.

  16. Allallt says:

    Becoming Christian makes claims about the world outside your head. First person meditation does not. Your post didn’t demonstrate any understanding of what the limits are too each method. One cannot experience “non-duality” through hard science, and one cannot formulate physics equations via meditation.
    First person experience is not a reliable way to make claims about the world out of peoples minds.
    This distinction is not complex.

  17. Allallt says:

    TFBW – I’d recommend doing a little more elaborate research on the philosophy of self before resting entirely on Descartes. In fact, I’d look more into Descartes as well: he does clearly say that the self is only momentarily apparent.

    Or, you could make attempts to define ‘self’.

  18. TFBW says:

    I’m not exactly resting on a sophisticated understanding of Descartes, or on anything more than a common-sense understanding of “self”; nor do I feel that anything more sophisticated is necessary to oppose Sam’s position as given. The “self” is such a ubiquitous experience that I’m not sure what additional evidence or definitional clarity can be brought to the table, or why there would be any reasonable need to do so. If I understand Sam Harris correctly, it takes some rather advanced meditative techniques to shut out all experience of “self” while simultaneously retaining any other mental capacities, and that in itself supports my assertion that the evidence is ubiquitous. The fact that the “self” is philosophically complicated and hard to define when considered in detail is hardly an argument against its existence — indeed, it would seem, prima facie, to be a affirmation of its existence.

    Put the onus back on me if you like. I’m satisfied to just shrug it off in this case.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s