Monday, January 01, 2007

Sam Harris' (Failed) Contemplative Science

A post on the need for an intersubjective spiritual path.

Writing in the Huffington Post, Sam Harris noted atheist calls for a science of contemplation--Or what I would call a--shhh--religion.

First some of his words, then commentary on why the project is doomed to (partial) failure. He recounts how he spent one week at the Vipassana Insight Meditation center meditating with fellow scientists. He describes some of the experiences, background on the practice, and the potential positive health benefits that can result.

Then the kicker (in my mind):

Needless to say, any truths uncovered about the human mind through meditation cannot be "Buddhist". And if meditation ever becomes widely adopted as a tool of science, it will be quickly stripped of its Buddhist roots. There are, after all, very good reasons we don't talk about "Christian physics" or "Muslim algebra". Physics and algebra are genuine domains of human inquiry, and as such, they transcend the cultural conditions out of which they arose. Today, anyone emphasizing the religious roots of these intellectual disciplines would stand convicted of not understanding them at all. In the same way, if we ever develop a scientific account of the contemplative path, speaking of "Buddhist" meditation will be synonymous with a failure to assimilate the changes that will have occurred in our understanding of the human mind.

The retreat might have been a significant event in the history of ideas. It could mark the beginning of a discourse on ethics and spiritual experience that is as unconstrained by dogma and cultural prejudice as the discourses of physics, biology, and chemistry are. Other retreats for scientists are now being planned. What effect this will have on our collective understanding of the human mind remains to be seen. But we could be witnessing the birth of a contemplative science.

Actually it is not apparent--not needless to say--that such truths wouldn't be Buddhist. But I'll let that one go. More importantly, there is the notion that by creating a scientific view of contemplation (assuming one already doesn't exist) it transcends the cultural conditions out of which they arose.

This is important point Harris needs to slip in bc he needs to show that all religions are bad (End of Faith), so if he is pilfering something of value from religionists, he has to be able to strip it from their context.

Now he certainly would transcend the ethnocentric-mythic basis of those traditions but what he can not escape is his own cultural construction.

Tibetan Medieval Monks did not dream about airplanes. They did not (and do not today) have visions of Christ Crucified, just as the Christian mystic has no visions of Krishna with the maidens nor the Celestial Buddha nor the Celestial Chariot that assumed Elijah to heaven.

Peirce to James: "perception is semiotic." Even highly rareified, very mindful perception. James recall the author of the Varieties of Religious Experience the greatest book on a modern contemplative science. Dierkes to Harris: "perception is semiotic."

Harris does not understand (and this is why his project will fail in a larger sense) that what he is perceiving in the interior world is deeply based on the Vipassana path, itself only one of many with its own strengths and limitations, funneled through the American non-dogmatic (experience-only) stream. Hence his attaction to it. But that stream is only one of many and can not in a pluralistic world declare itself, without deep violation of relationship and hubristic ignorance, declare itself normative beyond all such contexts and present & future cultures/belief systems.

The contemplative science he dreams for will only be an accurate description of his own stream--the phenomena that will arise on the illusory film screen of consciousness are determined by the choices/assumptions he has made in life about Ultimate Reality. He will "atheistic" subtle phenomena emerge. And then he will map those as if there were a pre-given world for all of us to be so represented by a monadic observer who then accurately records the data.

On the positive side, Harris contra to the other militant atheists Dawkins and Dennett at least meditates and gives credence to the interior world. He is a true rationalist as opposed to the other two because he observes and rationally coaltes the evidence of both the interior and exterior worlds.

On the negative side it suffers from the same flaw as every other contemplative system in human history--it does not incorporate the intersubjective turn in consciousness. For too long spiritual writers have tried to bring spirituality back by showing its coherence with modern scientific methodology: from James up to Tao of Physics to Deepak Chopra, to now Sam Harris. But that is not the fundamental issue--it is an issue just not the more primary one--the issue is that postmodernism has transcended/deconstructed the whole phenomenology-scientific method. The postmodern critique of modernity that is--while not necessarily holding to every postmodernist flaw (relativism, nihilism). But that criticism remains and it is correct and is unanswered, and once more proving some link (which does exist) between the rationality of interior and exterior observation does not help spirituality or religion, even of the atheistic variety.

As an American it does not fundamentally question the atomistc individuality of the ego. Sure he will have a temporary experience of no-self in the Theravadin tradition. But so what? He'll go from being a self to not being a self to being a self whose known what it is to not be a self. He'll still be him.

Chartering and investigating the outer or inner worlds in a modernist frame never gets at the question of meaning. It never gets to Heidegger's fundamental question: what is being in the world? Culture is a dirty word for Harris, which allows him to never see his own. The way in which what we even experience is formatted by the meaning our culture creates and in which we participate--even when we rebel against it in certain ways.

What is it like not to chart and observe, quantify, coordinate, map out, etc but just to be in this world together? To make meaning? How do we do this? Together?

Meditators, of whatever tradition, were as Wilber suggests proto-modernists. They sought evidence not dogmatic assertion. But there never understood the evidence they found was already shaped by the culture they resided in--not to the degree and the depth to which this co-construction occurs.

Here's Harris describing the practice of Vipassana:

The initial instruction given on a vipassana retreat could not be more simple: when seated, pay attention to the sensation of breathing; when walking, notice the feeling of moving your feet; and whenever you find that your mind has wandered into thought, simply come back to the mere awareness of sensation. Once meditators have developed an ability to concentrate on the flow of physical sensations in this way, they are encouraged to pay attention to the entire range of their experience. The practice from then on is to be precisely aware, moment by moment, of the full tumult of consciousness and its contents: sights, sounds, sensations, thoughts, intentions, and emotions. Of critical importance for the purposes of science: there are no unjustified beliefs or metaphysics that need be adopted at all.

Again notice that the practice does a wonderful job of making the meditator much more aware of the range of experience in life, physical, mental, subtle, gross, etc. Never is the fundamental proposition of the individual in your head-watcher watching/experiencing experiences ever questioned. Never deploying attention to us--how we create meaning in the moment, what we do together. What is "at hand" as Heidegger would say. Not this inner stream world, nor fixation on experience, nor observation, but a hammer--it hammers. A hand touches. Not so we can experience a wider range of experiences which still lock us into our skin-suits, but just to do and inter-be. And produce meaning as a cohort, a collective.

Harris, as I mentioned, won't admit because of his own ir-rationality the mounds of evidence that this leap to a mythic-context transcended worldcentric belief can be achieved from within the traditions themselves: Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim (yes Muslim), Jewish, Taoist, which is bad enough.

But much worse is his total modernist myths. In that sense a true American, never fundamentally questioning the modernist mythos. That all will just get better with more precise observation and rationality. Certainly better than Clash of Civilizations but the 20th century would suggest that rationality has inherent within it its own irrationalities which expressed themselves in the violence of the gulags, killing fields of atheist Soviet Union, People Republic China, Cambodia, Catalogs of those irrationalities seen by thinkers known as post-modernists.

This is why an intersubjective spiritual path is so needed. Succumbing neither to the givenness myth of modernity (contemplative and scientific varieties) nor the relativism of deconstructive postmodernism.

And an intersubjective path leads, in a developmental context (which is not to say that is the only context just a very imp. one) to the meaning-making post-metaphysics being discussed in this thread of interrelated posts.


At 6:01 PM, Anonymous Durwin said...

Hi Chris -- I was excited to find your blog -- are you in Vancouver now? I am meeting with my local United church minister tomorrow, hopefully to share some of my vision of contemplative spirituality. Hopefully will touch on integral too, but don't know where she will be at with it. Anyway, if you are in Vancouver, please drop me a line at!

At 8:41 PM, Blogger Joe Perez said...

You might have already seen this post but FYI

At 11:40 PM, Blogger CJ Smith said...


Yeah, saw the post. Thanks. C4 and Ebuddha also linked it. Thanks for all the kind words--looking more into ur stuff on Whole Writing. Really interesting. Definitely, keep in touch bro. Peace.


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