A Letter to Sam Harris

If you are unfamiliar with Sam Harris, I highly recommend him. He has ethical concerns for people who consider themselves to be rational human beings, but do not stand up to unreasonable action and thought. I won’t go into the details or else this could turn into a thousands of words post.

Dear Sam,

I am a big fan of yours and align myself pretty completely with your views. I am sure that you get tons of letters everyday from people criticizing your ideas, so it is possible you won’t even read this. Following your lead, I feel that I need to point out a flaw in your argument for upholding spirituality (in the form of isolated meditation). Now I just saw you roll your eyes, since this has probably been your most received letter since your talk at the 2007 AAI Conference.

First off, I said I aligned with you, and this is true on the point of spirituality in that I am a practitioner of Zen forms of meditation. My point is that you cannot use the argument you do to uphold this position. My argument comes from the theory of cognitive dissonance, so if you do not subscribe to this, then my point may be moot.

Your seem to have two main claims. One being that through experiences such as isolation and meditation, we can achieve greater awareness of ourselves and our nature. Or, before you jump on that, at the very least, it is possible for every human to test for themselves whether or not this is a true statement. If you find that it isn’t true, then we can’t totally dismiss it, because as with a great athlete, the training required might be much more than what the individual put in. The second claim being that people that claim to have this higher awareness, are in general happier, selfless, etc making the pursuit a worthy one.

Please keep reading even if the details of the above are not correct, as I feel my argument is not in the details but the general. Suppose someone goes off to live in isolation for a year. He meditates for 15 hours every day. Nothing is happening. Isn’t it possible that some cognitive dissonance is building up? The person is told that they will become enlightened if they put the time and effort in. After months of nothing happening, there is a change. The things that people said will happen are happening: the loss of the sense of self, and more. Isn’t it possible that to resolve the cognitive dissonance that this person has sat alone in isolation for a year with no results, the brain has decided to make the fiction a reality?

If the above is even of slightest, remotest, possibility, then we have a problem. This is quite possibly what goes on in other religions as well. You pray every day of your life, then one day you have a life altering religious experience and “know the truth.” This sounds very similar to the person that meditates and has a life altering experience. According to your own viewpoint, if we condone the “non-religious” spirituality, then we necessarily cannot make an arbitrary distinction and condemn the other (especially if the same cognitive mechanism drives both of them).

What about the outcomes? I believe that it is also your opinion that outcome is irrelevant to justification. Even if it is, there are plenty of Christians (insert religion of choice) that due to their very belief in God do positive things in the world. “It gives meaning to their life.” Can you explain how it is different from when the ascetic gains meaning to their life through meditation?

To end on a more positive note, I still consider myself in alignment with you. But as someone who practices rationality, I feel that I cannot use the reasons you have provided to justify my spirituality. They seem to be too close a variant on the irrational arguments (and possibly the same mechanism) that organized religious people use.


I am going to send this to him, but I would first like to hear if I am missing something major. If you are unfamiliar with Sam Harris, then you probably will have trouble following this post.


6 thoughts on “A Letter to Sam Harris

  1. 1) You list two claims you think Harris is making, but then you don’t tie your argument back into the claims specifically.

    2) Your argument from dissonance doesn’t really address the second claim, and only addresses the first one under the first interpretation.

    Many people feel that they don’t have a good awareness of themselves or their nature. If this process gives them that feeling, then that _could_ be valuable for them regardless of whether it is a fiction. The normal utilitarian problem with fictions of this type is that because they don’t match up with reality, the people that hold them, or other people around those people, wind up getting hurt in some way, but Buddhist awareness is abstruse enough it isn’t clear harm would result from it. Harris’s claim is that it is beneficial.

    I think there is going to be a fundamental problem with any argument from rationality you attempt to make, which is that both Buddhism and “rationality” are, in some sense, attempting to be fundamental. You are presupposing that rationality precedes Buddhism, and that Buddhism must therefore be consistent with it. There is no reason for Buddhists to necessarily agree with this. They have a great deal of literature on the split between the everyday level of existence, in which things never completely make sense but people struggle to get by with what understanding is possible, and the ultimate level of existence, which is arguably beyond rationality.

  2. Let me modify this a bit, because by putting the argument in terms of Buddhism I have probably left out Harris, who I don’t think claims to be one. I could just as easily cite a dichotomy between Buddhism and Utilitarianism. A utilitarian might value rationality because it works, but might also value other things because they work even if they conflict with rationality, making compromises along the way. Defining “what works” is tricky, of course, but valuing rationality merely because it makes certain things less tricky is strange (and also, arguably, a utilitarian argument). The point is that unless Harris is specifically saying that rationality is the be-all-and-end-all, he has no reason to be compelled by your point here. Normally, that’s a big cop-out, because it is reasonable to expect most things to conform to a rational understanding, but in areas that are fundamental, and where rational approaches have had little traction, things are less clear.

    And, of course, your argument isn’t even saying that the understanding gained through meditative introspection _wouldn’t_ be rational (i.e. wouldn’t conform to reality in some sense), but just that it is possible that it wouldn’t be rational (you have no contradictions to cite, for example). Isn’t this a risk for almost everything, with the possible exception of things proven from first principles (whatever those are)? Couldn’t the Axiom of Choice be the first step on the road to hell? It doesn’t seem like “risk of possible irrationality” is a standard used to prohibit much of anything else — rather, we go investigate places and see whether we turn up contradictions and decide how to resolve them.

  3. I was afraid of this. Harris very clearly argues that rationality IS the be-all-and-end-all. He thinks that not only should no religions be considered sane, but that no rational person should take a passive stance on letting religions go on as if they were sane.

    Then my way of addressing the second point is that Harris is often criticized for saying religious moderates who seemingly do good are at fault for extremists. His main argument is that we can’t look at outcomes. The person that believes a cracker becomes a human body and that after partaking in this cannibalism you are absolved of sin is just as absurd as the person that believes suicide bombing children absolves sin. We can’t look at outcomes and say one is neutral/good and another is bad. It is the idea that we have to evaluate, and we have to evaluate it on rationality grounds only.

    I tried not to add anything that I didn’t say, but now clarifying his own position, do you think there are still holes that need to be patched up?

  4. Hmm. So is the jist of your point that any understanding that is not in terms of ideas (that can therefore be evaluated rationally) is potentially misleading, and therefore to be avoided, or that you think this is what Harris thinks, or should be committed to based on other things he thinks?

    It still seems to me that there is room for an “arational” understanding of the self that wouldn’t cause Harris any problems. When we judge religions to be not sane, we are presumably doing this on the basis of the ideas they are putting forth: we have a positive argument for why their tenants are irrational. But is there this kind of argument against the abstruse sort of understanding one gets through meditation? I certainly doubt you have an a priori justification for everything you believe. What is the “hazard” here?

    It seems like the hazard that Harris is concerned with is the accepting of ideas without justification, or with justification that is unrelated to the ideas (“it makes me feel better”). The ideas one gets about the self through meditation (which aren’t necessarily the most relevant product) are at least the result of the process, and not planted by some third party. Compare this to believing that lead can turn to gold because someone told you versus believing gold has a particular density because you did some experiments.

    You could, of course, be objecting not to the understanding itself, but to the claims that one can reach such an understanding through meditation, but that also seems extreme. If I say that gold has density x, and that you can see that too by doing some experiment with gold, I might be lying or telling the truth, but you can determine that by doing the experiment (and, of course, satisfying yourself that the chains of inference involved in the experiment are sound).

  5. “The ideas one gets about the self through meditation (which aren’t necessarily the most relevant product) are at least the result of the process, and not planted by some third party.”

    I guess my argument most hinges on this. I think that both Harris and I agree that self-meditation is a thing you can personally check, and that religious ideas are planted by a third party. This may be a hasty conclusion, though.

    My claim is that I don’t see the difference between the person who gets a religious idea from a minister, and then says, “I want to test this personally. Does God exist? I will act as if he does.” Then after years of being religious without proof, you get some sort of personal revelation that proves to you personally that God exists.

    Now we have claims that meditation works. We want to test it out for ourselves, so we act as if it works. Then after years of practice we start to see that it does.

    I’m saying that the evidence that it works could very well be the resolution of the cognitive dissonance caused by not seeing any results. If this is the case (which is actually quite probable), how can we condemn the religious type but not the meditator? It seems to be a double standard.

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