Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

waking upSam Harris is the co-founder and CEO of Project Reason, a non-profit organization dedicated to spreading science and secular values. Many of its members speak openly against the dangers and evils of religion, so I find it significant that in 2014 Harris released Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.

It’s significant because it’s a risk. It doesn’t play to a large audience. According to the jacket, Waking Up is for the “20 percent of Americans who follow no religion but who suspect that important truths can be found in the experiences of such figures as Jesus, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, Rumi, and the other saints and sages of history.”

Most of Harris’ fans are hardline atheists and anti-theists who probably wouldn’t deign to admit that there is such a thing as “spirituality.” Even Harris’ brilliant contemporaries like Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens haven’t entertained “spirituality” with much respect, and I suspect that a large number of people simply never will. So this book is not for them, and Harris has risked alienating himself from some of his own team.

There are also a number of other public meditation advocates who portray reason and rational thinking as an enemy to spiritual progress. Shunning reason has left many of these gurus open to absurd beliefs about consciousness and the cosmos. I assume advising against critical thinking is one of the reasons some of them remain so popular.

When I first became interested in meditation, yoga, and various techniques for the manipulation of consciousness, I went to the beginning. I read several ancient Indian yoga books, doing my best to account for cultural differences. I took claims about conquering death and walking on water with an arched eyebrow, and tried let the exercises and proofs of experience speak for themselves.

As I worked my way through history, things clarified slightly, becoming more contemporary and palatable, but even now the amount of pure garbage written about consciousness is staggering and time-consuming. I wish I had found Waking Up years ago when I first began.

Harris’ writing is clear, his claims based on evidence and experience, and he adds no metaphysical nonsense to the completely practical, physical, real-world exercise of meditation. He also expresses many of the philosophical issues about consciousness in a tidy fashion, peppering in humour and sharp skepticism along the way.

Much of the opening explains what he means when he says “spiritual.” Transcendent experiences are valid, he says, and they have long been misinterpreted through the lens of religion. Granted, some people may never have these experiences, and many will confuse transcendence with moments of aesthetic contemplation or ecstatic bliss (both of which may be extremely valuable), but for Harris, transcendence is the subjective experience of consciousness in a state prior to thought, when the illusion of the self is annihilated.

Of course, we’re all thinking all the time, so getting to that state can prove quite difficult. With years of meditation training, a firm grounding in philosophy and a PhD in neuroscience, Harris gives straightforward advice, tips about the snags and traps one can find on the path of meditation, and ample evidence that meditation is for most people an entirely beneficial practice.

Harris has successfully written a brief but engaging overview of meditation from scientific, philosophical, and personal perspectives. At 237 pages, Waking Up provides ample explanations and citations in the endnotes from a wide variety of sources. Waking Up will hopefully serve as an olive branch to people searching for peace without the usual religious baggage.

How To Argue Badly And Fool People

In the last few months I followed a handful of Twitter accounts about neuroscience. Occasionally I’ll read a post that is intriguing, offering the latest insights into the mind and the workings of the brain based on scientific evidence. But recently @NeuroNow posted an argument that disturbed me. The writer of the article was the millionaire New-Age guru Deepak Chopra.

In the article, he criticized “Are We Really Conscious?” by Michael S. A. Graziano, an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times. He says Graziano’s post will generate conversation, and he wanted to contribute. When I read the contribution, I was frustrated and decided to add my two cents to Chopra’s two cents.

Chopra writes: “[Graziano] states the extreme case for brain-as-machine: We are fooling ourselves to believe we are conscious. He also states, quite falsely, that this mechanistic view is the only viable explanation for consciousness currently to be found in science.” Quite falsely, he says, so surely Chopra must have a better explanation for consciousness, and surely he will cite this explanation to refute Graziano’s point.

Wrong. And this is Chopra’s appeal; he uses authoritative-sounding language to hide the fact that he has no explanation at all outside of his hodgepodge of pseudo-mystical solipsism. Let me show a handful of examples so the next time you think of taking Chopra seriously, you can avoid his little traps.

Graziano says that human beings are not a special act of creation, but a twig on the tree of evolution. Chopra writes, “Actually, human beings are neither of these. Our nervous system makes us unique on the evolutionary ladder, which is more than being a twig.” The word “actually” makes him sound really authoritative doesn’t it?

Saying our nervous systems make us unique in evolution is nonsense. Our nervous systems are similar to other primate nervous systems. Also, one could argue that every species is “unique” in evolution. The fur, ears, incredible sense of smell, loyalty, and limited intelligence make dogs unique evolution too. Being the apex predator of the sea makes sharks unique in evolution. All of this is meaningless, yet the sentence makes him sound like an expert while sidestepping the real issue.

Graziano’s position, roughly, is that electrical and chemical activity in the brain forms experience, and that what we experience as “mind” is the actual electro-chemical activity and not some metaphysical observer. We know that chemical or electrical changes in the brain manifest in experience because we can test this. But Chopra says this is wrong, and says that Graziano’s argument is like solving the question on gender equality by saying that women don’t exist. Yes, he actually wrote that.

This is a crude attack, meant to turn you against Graziano and blind you to his argument. I mean, how could you listen to someone who says women don’t exist? Well, Chopra’s analogy is an immoral ad hominem attack, that to my mind, has no logical connection with Graziano’s actual argument and merely aims to paint Graziano with a broad brush of sexism for no reason other than the fact that Chopra wants to refute him. This fact alone should let you safely cross Chopra off your reading list forevermore. Chopra seems so sure Graziano’s opinion is wrong because he really, really wants it to be. If Chopra had a coherent, alternative Theory of Mind, he would present it with evidence. But he doesn’t. Battling science with emotions and slander, however subtle, is just distasteful.

Graziano argues that a computer and camera can determine that grass is green, and that what we perceive as green is similar in principle (recognizing contrasts in the spectrum of light). Chopra states this is “flat wrong.” He says that the experience of colour is dependent on a human nervous system, photons have no colour, and that a camera and computer have “no perceptual ability whatever.”

This is a favorite manoeuver of Chopra’s: to retreat into solipsism to refute empirical evidence. He’s basically saying that experience only exists to human beings, and if you push him on this point, I suspect he would stand firm. He is of the type who believe a tree makes no sound if it falls in a forest with no observer.

This is another semantic trick. What we call “sound” is a human experience, filtered through a human nervous system, and it’s called “sound” because we’re the only species that uses human words. So what we call “sound” is technically a human phenomenon, translating vibrations in the atmosphere through the ear into internal experience.

But if a tree falls in the forest with no human around, the tree still falls, and the atmosphere is still disturbed. The vibrations still ripple out across the woods, and it’s those vibrations that become “sound” to our ears and minds (should we be present). The fact that there isn’t a human present to call it sound doesn’t mean the phenomenon we call “sound” isn’t going on. It obviously must be going on, and we know this because of our huge and expanding knowledge of the physics Chopra tries to ignore.

And to say a camera and computer can have “no perceptual ability whatever” is the same argument. Chopra thinks that “perception” must only be a human being having a subjective experience. But the light still goes through the camera’s lens, and the computer creates a representation of the external world for processing. Chopra here suffers from the same species-centric chauvinism as before; he seems to support the idea that humans are the only species to have real experiences, and everything outside of the human experience isn’t real. This is a bad argument of definitions and philosophy, not science, and certainly not neuroscience.

We can confidently infer that light from an event travels through a lens and can be interpreted by a computer, recreated in detail, and we know the information is in the computer. But Chopra refuses to acknowledge that this has happened until a human puts his or her eyes on it, and then he attributes the phenomena to some vaguely miraculous human perception. This is not science, it is fairy magic, and I’m disappointed and troubled that a so-called “neuroscience” article would print such an anti-scientific, ill-considered worldview. Like so many of Chopra’s ideas, it is purely an argument from ignorance.

To Graziano’s claim that we should be skeptical of the validity of our inner feelings, Chopra cites Sam Harris as a defender of subjective experience. But Chopra has almost never agreed with Harris in the past. Harris is a materialist and a (real) neuroscientist, and I bet he would gladly tell Chopra that the mind is a product of the brain. Appealing to an authority he has never sided with in the past—one who seemingly has the exact opposite worldview—shows desperation.

Graziano says the brain builds up models about items in the world, and the models are often not accurate. Chopra says this point “is flogged to death by similar thinkers like Daniel Dennett who somehow believe they can accuse the brain of being faulty, fallacious, and unreliable.” Chopra seems here to believe the brain is not a product of evolution, subject to flaws, trial and error, and so forth; that the brain is a special and perfect gift from heaven. He can’t really believe this, can he?

Both human eyes have a blind spot (which is easily proven with visual tests) yet we never notice it. The visual information in the blind area of each eye is picked up by the other eye, but even looking through one eye we don’t “notice” it unless we know how to look for it. Our impressions of the world are incomplete without us even acknowledging this. Also, as Dennett points out, the mysterious affliction known as “blindsight” shows that brains unreliably report the world.

And what about light and colour? We know (from scientific testing) that light comes in different wavelengths we call colour, but our eyes cannot see this fact. Instead, our perception adjusts to the context of light to give us a general “best impression.” This is the brain inaccurately representing the external world and should be all the proof we need that our brains can be unreliable. Also, dreams. Also, any time someone has ever made a mistake.

            “Almost all other theories of consciousness are rooted in our intuitions about awareness. Like the intuition that white light is pure, our intuitions about awareness come from information computed deep in the brain. But the brain computes models that are caricatures of real things. And as with color, so with consciousness: It’s best to be skeptical of intuition.” – Michael S. A. Graziano

Chopra says, “neurons are made of molecules, and molecules don’t create or listen to music. They don’t create any experience of the world, any more than the wood and ivory in a piano experience music even though music is played on a piano.” This piece of incoherence, when you strip it down, is just a juvenile, terrible argument. He’s basically saying that molecules can’t do much, so how can something made of molecules get anything done? Think about that. His argument goes as follows, by analogy: I need a car to drive to the store, but molecules can’t drive to the store, and my car is made of molecules, therefore my car can’t drive me to the store.

In the final paragraph Chopra revisits his human-as-center-of-all-experience argument, saying “information” requires a mind. This is a squishy, semantic argument only, even if it sounds authoritative. Any data about a tree is “information.” But the attributes of trees exist even without humans around to call that data “information,” and so much of Chopra’s argument uses this obfuscation that it’s shocking.

I literally can’t tell if Deepak Chopra is maliciously trying to confuse the point to promote his brand, or if he’s genuinely, absolutely confused. Either way, it seems wrong that he’s allowed to call himself a doctor, and it’s especially shameful that he and his religiously addled ideas should be promoted by a Twitter account allegedly supporting neuroscience. There is nothing scientific about the man or his theories, and just because he’s found out how to word things strongly doesn’t make him right. After my first read of this article, my thought was that he’s flat wrong. After reading it again, and checking to make sure my quotes were accurate, I’ve come to believe he’s “not even wrong.”

Free Debate

Last year I read Free Will by Sam Harris. The book impressed me as a concise demolition of folk psychology’s casual (lazy) assumptions about free will, written with straightforward language and a direct approach. I had a few issues with the book, and as an exercise wrote a “Devil’s Advocate” critique in which I used the last vestiges of the dualism I inherited from growing up with church and Catholic school.

Shortly after I read Free Will, I read Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett. The latter struck me as beautifully written, philosophically and scientifically strong, and it razed my already crumbling Cartesian Theater. I remember thinking distinctly that I’d like to read Dennett’s take on Harris’ book, as Free Will openly challenges Dennett’s stance on the issue.

Monday I was happily informed through social media that this has happened. Sam Harris has posted Dennett’s rebuttal here. The rebuttal is a bit long, a bit thorough, and, to my thinking, imperfect, but I highly recommend both Free Will and Dennett’s take on it. Because what’s more fun than sitting at home reading philosophy?

Why should you read Harris’ opinion that free will is an illusion, then read Dennett’s opinion that Harris is wrong? It might seem a bit of a waste on the surface; if neither has the whole answer, what do we gain from these essays? We get a glimpse into a dialogue between two intelligent minds, and dialogue is the reason books like Free Will should be written in the first place.

Newton’s theories of space and time held sway for a couple hundred years until they were shown to be wrong by Einstein. But there could have been no “Einstein” if not for the foundations laid by Newton. Without Newton’s boldness, his willingness to put opinion to paper and publish it, science might have remained a stagnant morass of religious dogma and superstition. Even as Einstein was proving those theories wrong, he was standing on Newton’s shoulders (and the shoulders of many more recent scientists and philosophers).

“[A}ny hypothesis, however absurd, may be useful in science, if it enables a discoverer to conceive things in a new way; but … when it has served this purpose by luck, it is likely to become an obstacle to further advance.” – Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy

It takes guts to point out what you think are mistakes and sloppy thinking in the work of a professional, especially one that is a friend. But Dennett speaks his mind and isn’t worried about Harris’ feelings because this is what intellectual adults do. They make rational arguments, arguments that come from science and sound philosophy. They are not arguing emotionally, and you can be sure since Harris posted the rebuttal on his own website that he respects the man behind it and thinks the rebuttal worthy of our time, even if it is expressly intent on showing Harris is wrong.

Why does this behavior seem strange to me? Because so many outspoken debaters fail at it. Deepak Chopra, for example, debates publicly about God but quickly gets emotional and degrades himself by hurling ad hominem attacks, like this muddled thing he co-authored about Sam Harris. This confused article says nothing of significance, continually attacks Harris, and yet is couched as a sort of moral high road for sloppy thinkers who hold onto beliefs despite evidence.

Some scientific figures like Richard Dawkins think some debates can be a bad idea. Dawkins posted this article on his website admonishing Bill Nye the Science Guy for debating evolution with Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum (what items this “museum” contains, I do not know). Dawkins thinks these debates give undo credence to propositions that are not falsifiable and lack real evidence.

But this free will debate is completely justified, and I’m excited to read Harris’ response. Dialogues like these enrich our understanding, and though Harris and Dennett share many beliefs, they are two very distinct minds with distinct styles of argument. Neither is liable to make a proposition without either empirical evidence or a strong philosophical argument.

I don’t think this dialogue will resolve the issue once and for all. Certainly neither side will convince everyone in the world if scientists can’t even convince creationists of evolution. But if the debate causes us to question our own beliefs, maybe even shed some of our lazy assumptions, it will have done the us good.