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.
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.