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Sam Harris is a neuroscientist and prominent “new atheist,” who along with others like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens helped put criticism of religion at the forefront of public debate in recent years. In two previous books, “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation,” Harris argued that theistic religion has no place in a world of science. In his latest book, “Waking Up,” his thought takes a new direction. While still rejecting theism, Harris nonetheless makes a case for the value of “spirituality,” which he bases on his experiences in meditation. I interviewed him recently about the book and some of the arguments he makes in it.

Gary Gutting: A common basis for atheism is naturalism — the view that only science can give a reliable account of what’s in the world. But in “Waking Up” you say that consciousness resists scientific description, which seems to imply that it’s a reality beyond the grasp of science. Have you moved away from an atheistic view?

Sam Harris: I don’t actually argue that consciousness is “a reality” beyond the grasp of science. I just think that it is conceptually irreducible — that is, I don’t think we can fully understand it in terms of unconscious information processing. Consciousness is “subjective”— not in the pejorative sense of being unscientific, biased or merely personal, but in the sense that it is intrinsically first-person, experiential and qualitative.

The only thing in this universe that suggests the reality of consciousness is consciousness itself. Many philosophers have made this argument in one way or another — Thomas Nagel, John Searle, David Chalmers. And while I don’t agree with everything they say about consciousness, I agree with them on this point.

The primary approach to understanding consciousness in neuroscience entails correlating changes in its contents with changes in the brain. But no matter how reliable these correlations become, they won’t allow us to drop the first-person side of the equation. The experiential character of consciousness is part of the very reality we are studying. Consequently, I think science needs to be extended to include a disciplined approach to introspection.

G.G.: But science aims at objective truth, which has to be verifiable: open to confirmation by other people. In what sense do you think first-person descriptions of subjective experience can be scientific?

S.H.: In a very strong sense. The only difference between claims about first-person experience and claims about the physical world is that the latter are easier for others to verify. That is an important distinction in practical terms — it’s easier to study rocks than to study moods — but it isn’t a difference that marks a boundary between science and non-science. Nothing, in principle, prevents a solitary genius on a desert island from doing groundbreaking science. Confirmation by others is not what puts the “truth” in a truth claim. And nothing prevents us from making objective claims about subjective experience.

Are you thinking about Margaret Thatcher right now? Well, now you are. Were you thinking about her exactly six minutes ago? Probably not. There are answers to questions of this kind, whether or not anyone is in a position to verify them.

And certain truths about the nature of our minds are well worth knowing. For instance, the anger you felt yesterday, or a year ago, isn’t here anymore, and if it arises in the next moment, based on your thinking about the past, it will quickly pass away when you are no longer thinking about it. This is a profoundly important truth about the mind — and it can be absolutely liberating to understand it deeply. If you do understand it deeply — that is, if you are able to pay clear attention to the arising and passing away of anger, rather than merely think about why you have every right to be angry — it becomes impossible to stay angry for more than a few moments at a time. Again, this is an objective claim about the character of subjective experience. And I invite our readers to test it in the laboratory of their own minds.

G. G.: Of course, we all have some access to what other people are thinking or feeling. But that access is through probable inference and so lacks the special authority of first-person descriptions. Suppose I told you that in fact I didn’t think of Margaret Thatcher when I read your comment, because I misread your text as referring to Becky Thatcher in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”? If that’s true, I have evidence for it that you can’t have. There are some features of consciousness that we will agree on. But when our first-person accounts differ, then there’s no way to resolve the disagreement by looking at one another’s evidence. That’s very different from the way things are in science.

S.H.: This difference doesn’t run very deep. People can be mistaken about the world and about the experiences of others — and they can even be mistaken about the character of their own experience. But these forms of confusion aren’t fundamentally different. Whatever we study, we are obliged to take subjective reports seriously, all the while knowing that they are sometimes false or incomplete.

For instance, consider an emotion like fear. We now have many physiological markers for fear that we consider quite reliable, from increased activity in the amygdala and spikes in blood cortisol to peripheral physiological changes like sweating palms. However, just imagine what would happen if people started showing up in the lab complaining of feeling intense fear without showing any of these signs — and they claimed to feel suddenly quite calm when their amygdalae lit up on fMRI, their cortisol spiked, and their skin conductance increased. We would no longer consider these objective measures of fear to be valid. So everything still depends on people telling us how they feel and our (usually) believing them.

However, it is true that people can be very poor judges of their inner experience. That is why I think disciplined training in a technique like “mindfulness,” apart from its personal benefits, can be scientifically important.

G.G.: You deny the existence of the self, understood as “an inner subject thinking our thoughts and experiencing our experiences.” You say, further, that the experience of meditation (as practiced, for example, in Buddhism) shows that there is no self. But you also admit that we all “feel like an internal self at almost every waking moment.” Why should a relatively rare — and deliberately cultivated — experience of no-self trump this almost constant feeling of a self?

S.H.: Because what does not survive scrutiny cannot be real. Perhaps you can see the same effect in this perceptual illusion:
stone-optical-illusion-blog480
It certainly looks like there is a white square in the center of this figure, but when we study the image, it becomes clear that there are only four partial circles. The square has been imposed by our visual system, whose edge detectors have been fooled. Can we know that the black shapes are more real than the white one? Yes, because the square doesn’t survive our efforts to locate it — its edges literally disappear. A little investigation and we see that its form has been merely implied.

What could we say to a skeptic who insisted that the white square is just as real as the three-quarter circles and that its disappearance is nothing more than, as you say, “a relatively rare — and deliberately cultivated — experience”? All we could do is urge him to look more closely.

The same is true about the conventional sense of self — the feeling of being a subject inside your head, a locus of consciousness behind your eyes, a thinker in addition to the flow of thoughts. This form of subjectivity does not survive scrutiny. If you really look for what you are calling “I,” this feeling will disappear. In fact, it is easier to experience consciousness without the feeling of self than it is to banish the white square in the above image.

G.G.: But it seems to depend on who’s looking. Buddhist schools of philosophy say there is no self, and Buddhist meditators claim that their experiences confirm this. But Hindu schools of philosophy say there is a self, a subject of experience, disagreeing only about its exact nature; and Hindu meditators claim that their experiences confirm this. Why prefer the Buddhist experiences to the Hindu experiences? Similarly, in Western philosophy we have the phenomenological method, an elaborate technique for rigorously describing consciousness. Some phenomenologists find a self and others don’t. With so much disagreement, it’s hard to see how your claim that there’s really no self can be scientifically established.

S.H.: Well, I would challenge your interpretation of the Indian literature. The difference between the claims of Hindu yogis and those of Buddhist meditators largely boil down to differences in terminology. Buddhists tend to emphasize what the mind isn’t — using words like selfless, unborn, unconditioned, empty, and so forth. Hindus tend to describe the experience of self-transcendence in positive terms — using terms such as bliss, wisdom, being, and even “capital-S” Self. However, in a tradition like Advaita Vedanta, they are definitely talking about cutting through the illusion of the self.

The basic claim, common to both traditions, is that we spend our lives lost in thought. The feeling that we call “I”— the sense of being a subject inside the body — is what it feels like to be thinking without knowing that you are thinking. The moment that you truly break the spell of thought, you can notice what consciousness is like between thoughts — that is, prior to the arising of the next one. And consciousness does not feel like a self. It does not feel like “I.” In fact, the feeling of being a self is just another appearance in consciousness (how else could you feel it?).

There are glimmers of this insight in the Western philosophical tradition, as you point out. But the West has never had a truly rigorous approach to introspection. The only analog to a Tibetan or Indian yogi sitting for years in a cave contemplating the nature of consciousness has been a Christian monastic exerting a similar effort praying to Jesus. There is a wide literature on Christian mysticism, of course. But it is irretrievably dualistic and faith-based. Along with Jews and Muslims, Christians are committed to the belief that the self (soul) really exists as a separate entity and that the path forward is to worship a really existing God. Granted, Buddhism and Hinduism have very crowded pantheons, and a fair number of spooky and unsupportable doctrines, but the core insight into the illusoriness of the self can be found there in a way that it can’t in the Abrahamic tradition. And cutting through this illusion does not require faith in anything.

G.G.: Suppose we agree that “spiritual experiences” can yield truths about reality and specifically accept the truth of Buddhist experiences of no-self. Many Christians claim to have direct experiences of the presence of God — not visions or apparitions but a strong sense of contact with a good and powerful being. Why accept the Buddhist experiences and reject the Christian experiences?

S.H.: There is a big difference between making claims about the mind and making claims about the cosmos. Every religion (including Buddhism) uses first-person experience to do both of these things, but the latter pretensions to knowledge are almost always unwarranted. There is nothing that you can experience in the darkness of your closed eyes that will help you understand the Big Bang or the connection between consciousness and the physical world. Look within, and you will find no evidence that you even have a brain, much less gain any insight into how it works.

However, one can discover specific truths about the nature of consciousness through a practice like meditation. Religious people are always entitled to claim that certain experiences are possible — feelings of bliss or selfless love, for instance. But Christians, Hindus and atheists have experienced the same states of consciousness. So what do these experiences prove? They certainly don’t support claims about the unique divinity of Christ or about the existence of the monkey god Hanuman. Nor do they demonstrate the divine origin of certain books. These reports only suggest that certain rare and wonderful experiences are possible. But this is all we need to take “spirituality” (the unavoidable term for this project of self-transcendence) seriously. To understand what is actually going on — in the mind and in the world — we need to talk about these experiences in the context of science.

G.G.: I’m not talking about highly specific experiences of Christ or of a monkey god. I mean simply a sense of a good and powerful spiritual reality—no more, no less. Why accept Buddhist experiences but not experiences like that?

S.H.: I wouldn’t place the boundary between religious traditions quite where you do — because Buddhists also make claims about invisible entities, spiritual energies, other planes of existence and so forth. However, claims of this kind are generally suspect because they are based on experiences that are open to rival interpretations. We know, for instance, that people can be led to feel an unseen presence simply by having specific regions of their brains stimulated in the lab. And those who suffer from epilepsy, especially in the temporal lobe, have all kinds of visionary experiences.

Again, the crucial distinction is between making claims about reality at large or about possible states of consciousness. The former is the province of religious belief and science (though science has standards of intellectual honesty, logical coherence and empirical rigor that constrain it, while religion has almost none). In “Waking Up,” I argue that spirituality need not rest on any faith-based assumptions about what exists outside of our own experience. And it arises from the same spirit of honest inquiry that motivates science itself.

Consciousness exists (whatever its relationship to the physical world happens to be), and it is the experiential basis of both the examined and the unexamined life. If you turn consciousness upon itself in this moment, you will discover that your mind tends to wander into thought. If you look closely at thoughts themselves, you will notice that they continually arise and pass away. If you look for the thinker of these thoughts, you will not find one. And the sense that you have — “What the hell is Harris talking about? I’m the thinker!”— is just another thought, arising in consciousness.

If you repeatedly turn consciousness upon itself in this way, you will discover that the feeling of being a self disappears. There is nothing Buddhist about such inquiry, and nothing need be believed on insufficient evidence to pursue it. One need only accept the following premise: If you want to know what your mind is really like, it makes sense to pay close attention to it.

Gary Gutting is a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, and an editor of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. He is the author of, most recently, “Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy since 1960,” and is a regular contributor to The Stone.

nose

The TRUTH?
The truth is,
that,

THE
T r u u u t h
IS

So close,
if not for being C L O S E D.
Self-contained,

Like a fistful of hair and bone.
Like an aperture
Judging the light.

Face it.
It is right in front of my face.
Clear as the nose on my face,

t h a t

The t r u t h is not.
It IS not.
There is no thing as the truth.

No angry hole of teeth
Spitting and chewing.
No compulsory feeding,

Pocketed and banked.
No allowance.
No righteous currency.

The truth,
The truth is, that the truth is
Discovery.

The space between.
The distance i am willing to go
To K N O W

My limited perspective.
Honestly,
Who am i? Who am I?

The veracity and mendacity of me
Stretching and bending
The distance between two points.

The truth is,
I am the distance between two points
Forever

Longing to be whole.
Circling around and around
The hole

Until the hole
Becomes greater than the whole
And i am traveling, spiraling,

Discovering that
It was always
As plain as the nose on my face.

November 2013

george_segal_woman_on_white_wicker_chair_d5624711hSculpture by George Segal

You sat me down then.
Back then, sat me down.
S a t m e d o w n.
Even now I feel myself resist,
Knees won’t bend
Knowing how much support I still need.

“What?” I said, then.
“What??”
And you said,
Then you said,
“Sit down,
I want to tell you something.”

And a mother knows.
And I wanted to say, “No.”
“No, I am busy.”
“No, not now.”
“No!”
“NO!!!”

“I want to tell you something.”
You said.
“And I don’t want you to say anything until I finish.”
Your voice, a case full of arrows, quivered.
Your face flushed feverishly as you took aim.
I saw that your hands were shaking with your shot across the bow.

And I sat in the chair on the deck in the sun,
Becoming the chair on the deck in the sun.
I was a chair on the deck in the sun when you told me.
My legs rigid with resistance,
My back stiff, inflexible.
As you spoke I became a soft, green cushion buttoned shut.

And when you said,
When you said,
And even now,
My heart is a deep, dark bruise burned into my chest,
Tender and throbbing, aching to be rubbed
Clean of the awful injury

That cut bone-sharp and deep,
Branding a hot hole in my life.
Looking into the red-hot raked-over coals,
I could finally see
The fire he set in you,
That set out to destroy you.

You told on him in measures, weighting my fortitude,
But still, I was losing ground,
Desperate to get around your careful telling,
Trying to look past what you were guarding against,
Trying to see where this was all going,
But even your slow telling of it was too fast for me.

My hands held tight to the chair on the deck in the sun.
My arms becoming white wicker. My hands claws, holding on.
The whole world was barreling down fast,
This freight train of a story,
A story, The Story, THE STORY.
It rounded a sharp corner and I was thrown hard.

You were kind and beautiful,
The last brave thing I saw before I was blown to bits.
Your grace, the only clean, white thread holding me together.
You spoke of forgiveness like a chaplain kneeling beside the dying.
And your deep-throated cry was like a church bell,
Something to hold on to at the screw in the twisted story.

Their fucking miserable story.
Their impudent, reckless, and dangerous behavior.
Their perversions of never accounting for anything
That finally accounted for how I became a chair on the deck in the sun
Made to watch them watching him hurting you.
The mendacious bastards.

And NOW, some time later,
My heart no longer broken,
But mended into a giant, ireful fist.
I am nothing but a hot piston firing relentlessly.
Pounding everything like a sledgehammer,
Hammering and hammering and hammering away.

A pick ax picking it out,
Chiseling away at all their haunts,
Until all their hiding places lay at my feet.
Their recumbent positions of doing too little exposed.
All their lies plain to see.
All their false Gods broken.

Liars,
Liars,
Liars,
Liars, liars, liars,
Fucking liars,
You liars.

I will not be a chair on the deck in the sun.
I will not be a buttoned up soft, green cushion.
I will not.
I will not sit for this.
I will not stand for it.
I will not.

I am the mother of a daughter raped.
There, I’ve said it NOW, aloud and plain for hearing.
The veracity of us both strapped to a chair, trapped.
My close-knit and knotted family tying everyone in, everyone down.
Hollow, deviled monsters.
Malevolent molesters.

I am not a chair on the deck in the sun, now.
I am not a soft, green cushion buttoned shut, now.
My hips are flexible in consideration,
My knees pliant in self-forgiveness,
My arms compassionately wide open.
I am a supplicant healer, a besieger of my girl’s divine truth,

Traveling back in time, this time a sedulous nurse,
Singing careful songs,
Tucking her in safely.
Soothing my girl’s deep wounds,
Washing them right in the warm, salty waters of my abjectly regretted kin,
Stitching them closed with patient kisses.

I will sit down now, without exception,
Sit down with you, my girl. The good mother you deserve.
Forever leaning forward to hear you speak,
Knees easily bending beneath the chair,
My back, relaxed and strong for you,
Unarmed my hands endeared to you, lovingly extended for when you reach.

September 2013

destroyer 2
Wooden Sculpture by Dan Webb

A block of hard wood,
Dense,
Unable to fit in,
Toe stubbing and dull,
A heavy reminder,
A loathsome remainder –
No longer welcome and
Cast out on an unknown sea.

Adrift on the cold, dark water
Obtuse, deadwood turned stupidly with the earth.

Then,

S e r e n d i p i t o u s l y,
Pulled in by a mothering tide.
Rolled playfully in a salty, green-gray swell and
Rocked in a lustrous, silky emerald ocean.
Water thinned celadon lapped
The straight-grained, reddish-brown timber,
Washed it smooth,
Gently persuaded, and perfected its inherent qualities,
Its hard and sturdy truth.
Turning hardship into a handsome beauty,
A dark mahogany heart buoyant with love.

Moonbeams cast a light and pulled the trusting heart to shore.
At dawn, the sun took the moon’s place.
Shone brightly, the polished, red mahogany heart glistened,
Beating in the gentle lap of a warm turquoise pool,
Lulled in a lullaby of
Shishh hhhaaaa,
Shishh hhhaaaa
And dutifully prepared to be treasured.

September 2013

thoughtful child

It is sad to report that the poet John Hollander died Saturday in Brandford, Conn. He was 83.
JOHN HOLLANDER
October 28, 1929 – August 17, 2013
________________________________

Some Playthings

A trembling brown bird
standing in the high grass turns
out to be a blown

oakleaf after all.
Was the leaf playing bird, or
was it “just” the wind

playing with the leaf?
Was my very noticing
itself at play with

an irregular
frail patch of brown in the cold
April afternoon?

These questions that hang
motionless in the now-stilled
air: what of their

frailty, in the light
of even the most fragile
of problematic

substances like all
these momentary playthings
of recognition?

Questions that are asked
of questions: no less weighty
and lingeringly

dark than the riddles
posed by any apparent
bird or leaf or breath

of wind, instruments
probing what we feel we know
for some kind of truth.

Excerpt from A DRAFT OF LIGHT. Copyright © 2008 by John Hollander. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

sexualabuse1

I learned what you did,
And then what she did,
And then what he did about what you did.
And I saw that she and he felt fury for what you did.
And I thought about what you did,
And I remembered that someone said maybe he did that too.
And then I wondered if you did that to him.

I learned what you did,
And then everything changed.
Like a thin veil of fog blazed by the sun,
Burned off,
Exposing the raw truth of you, and her, and her.
I stepped around it carefully.
Tripped wires,

Wired and wired and wired.
“I can’t make sense of this,” I said to him.
And he said, “I will kill him.”
And I felt afraid for him,
And for her,
And for her,
And for her.

I learned what you did,
And then it was crystal clear
What I would do.
Sounds from a Greek chorus.
Perfectly choreographed
Sunlight magnified on the pitch of the truth,
Set a fire that I could not contain.

Robin Williams, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon are in a movie called “Good Will Hunting”.  It takes place in Boston.  I have spent time in Boston and like the city.  One of my nephews looks like Ben Affeck and I told him that once.  The movie is about the courage to follow your own truth.