London Karl brings to my attention an article by Sam Harris touching upon themes dear to my heart. Harris is an impressive fellow, an excellent public speaker, a crusader of sorts who has some important and true things to say, but who is sometimes out beyond his depth, like many public intellectuals who make bold to speak about philosophical topics. (But Harris is surely right clearly and courageously to point out that, among the ideologies extant at the present time, radical Islam is the most dangerous.)
In Rational Mysticism, Harris responds to critic Tom Flynn and in doing so offers characterizations of secularism, religion, and rational mysticism:
I used the words spirituality and mysticism affirmatively, in an attempt to put the range of human experience signified by these terms on a rational footing. It seems to me that the difficulty Flynn had with this enterprise is not a problem with my book, or merely with Flynn, but a larger problem with secularism itself.
As a worldview, secularism has defined itself in opposition to the whirling absurdity of religion. Like atheism (with which it is more or less interchangeable), secularism is a negative dispensation. Being secular is not a positive virtue like being reasonable, wise, or loving. To be secular, one need do nothing more than live in perpetual opposition to the unsubstantiated claims of religious dogmatists. Consequently, secularism has negligible appeal to the culture at large (a practical concern) and negligible content (an intellectual concern). There is, in fact, not much to secularism that should be of interest to anyone, apart from the fact that it is all that stands between sensible people like ourselves and the mad hordes of religious imbeciles who have balkanized our world, impeded the progress of science, and now place civilization itself in jeopardy. Criticizing religious irrationality is absolutely essential. But secularism, being nothing more than the totality of such criticism, can lead its practitioners to reject important features of human experience simply because they have been traditionally associated with religious practice.
The above can be distilled into three propositions:
1. Secularism is wholly defined by what it opposes, religion.
2. Religion is irrational, anti-science, and anti-civilization.
3. It would be a mistake to dismiss mysticism because of its traditional association with religious practice.
The final chapter of my book, which gave Flynn the most trouble, is devoted to the subject of meditation. Meditation, in the sense that I use the term, is nothing more than a method of paying extraordinarily close attention to one’s moment-to-moment experience of the world. There is nothing irrational about doing this (and Flynn admits as much). In fact, such a practice constitutes the only rational basis for making detailed (first-person) claims about the nature of human subjectivity. Difficulties arise for secularists like Flynn, however, once we begin speaking about the kinds of experiences that diligent practitioners of meditation are apt to have. It is an empirical fact that sustained meditation can result in a variety of insights that intelligent people regularly find intellectually credible and personally transformative. The problem, however, is that these insights are almost always sought and expressed in a religious context. One such insight is that the feeling we call “I”—the sense that there is a thinker giving rise to our thoughts, an experiencer distinct from the mere flow of experience—can disappear when looked for in a rigorous way. Our conventional sense of “self” is, in fact, nothing more than a cognitive illusion, and dispelling this illusion opens the mind to extraordinary experiences of happiness. This is not a proposition to be accepted on faith; it is an empirical observation, analogous to the discovery of one’s optic blind spots.
To continue with the distillation:
4. Meditation, defined as careful attention to conscious experience, is the only basis for sustainable claims about subjectivity. There is nothing irrational about it.
5. Deep meditation gives rise to unusual, and sometimes personally transformative, experiences or "insights."
6. One such "insight" is that the "sense of self" or the "feeling called 'I'" can disappear when carefully searched for.
7. The sense of "self" is a cognitive illusion, and can be seen to be such by empirical observation: it is not a proposition to be accepted on faith.
There is much to agree with here. Indeed, I wholeheartedly accept propositions (1), (3), (4), and (5). Of course, I don't accept (2), but that is not what I want to discuss. My present concerns are (6) and (7).
Let me say first that, for me, 'insight' is a noun of success, and in this regard it is like 'knowledge.' There cannot be false knowledge; there cannot be false insights. Now does deep meditation disclose that there is, in truth, no self, no ego, no I, no subject of experience? Harris does not say flat-out that the self is an illusion; he says that the "sense of self" is an illusion. But I don't think he means that there is a self but that there is no sense of it in deep meditation. I take him to be saying something quite familiar from (the religion?) Pali Buddhism, namely, that there is no self, period. Anatta, you will recall, is one of the pillars of Pali and later Buddhism, along with anicca and dukkha.
So I will assume that Harris means to deny the the existence of the self as the subject of experience and to deny it on empirical grounds: there is no self because no self is encountered when we carefully examine, in deep meditation, our conscious experience.
It seems to me, however, that the nonexistence of what I fail to find does not logically follow from my failing to find it.
It may be that the self is the sort of thing that cannot turn up as an object of experience precisely because it is the subject of experience.
Here is an analogy. An absent-minded old man went in search of his eyeglasses. He searched high and low, from morning til night. Failing to find them after such a protracted effort, he concluded that he never had any in the first place. His search, however, was made possible by the glasses sitting upon his nose!
The analogy works with the eyes as well. From the fact that my eyes do not appear in my visual field (apart from mirrors), it does not follow that I have no eyes. My eyes are a necessary condition of my having a visual field in the first place. Their nonappearance in said field is no argument against them.
It could be something like that (though not exactly like that) with the self. It could be that the self cannot, by its very nature, turn up as an object of experience, for the simple reason that it is the subject of experience, that which is experiencing.
It is simply false to say what Harris says in (7), namely that one empirically observes that there is no self. That is not an observation but an inference from the failure to encounter the self as an object of experience. It is an inference that is valid only in the presence of an auxiliary premise:
Only that which can be experienced as an object exists.
The self cannot be experienced as an object.
The self does not exist.
This argument is valid, but is it sound? The second premise is empirical: nothing we encounter in experience (inner or outer) counts as the subject of experience. True for the standard Humean and Buddhist reasons. But we cannot validly move from the second premise to the conclusion. We need the help of the auxiliary premise, which is not empirical. How then do we know that it is true? Must we take it on faith? Whose faith? Harris's?
My point, then, is that (7) is false and that Harris is operating with a dogmatic, non-empirical assumption, the just-mentioned auxiliary premise.
Harris needs to be careful that in his war against "absurd religious certainties" he does not rely on absurd dogmatic certainties of his own.
For a more detailed and rigiorous presentation, see Can the Chariot Take Us to the Land of No Self?