Saturday, March 31, 2007

No One Experiences An Objective World

“The claims of mystics are neurologically quite astute. No human being has ever experienced an objective world, or even a world at all. You are, at this moment, having a visionary experience. The world that you see and hear is nothing more than a modification of your consciousness…. This is not to say that sensory experience offers us no indication of reality at large; it is merely that, as a matter of experience, nothing arises in consciousness that has not first been structured, edited, or amplified by the nervous system.”

- Sam Harris, The End of Faith


Mystic Wing said...

I just finished "The End of Faith," recently, and found myself unable to dispute its contentions, yet still uncomfortable with Harris' position.

The blanket portrayal of religious traditions as being the source of most of the world's woes disturbs me a bit, since many of the world's genuine mystics have worked within the context of established traditions.

Harris does make the point that the search for transcendency is the most noble of pursuits. But to cast off Ghandi, Rumi, Jesus, Mohammad, Eckhart, Augustine, and Merton as agents of evil seems a little extreme to me.

But I cannot think of a book that has made me think any harder than this one. This is one that should be taught in school, simply for the intelligent debate it would stimulate.

Patty said...

What is your opinion on it, Paul?

Brendan said...

It still bothers me that Harris was so dismissive of Campbell. I also think he misses that the violence of the world is done on incidentally in the name of what he is calling religion. Nationalistic and ethnic identities, and social inequality are a much more powerful force behind the violence of the world than religion.

That's why Harris's positions on torture and rather jingoistic "American" nationalism indicate to me a little bit of unwillingness on his part to turn his otherwise incredibly incisive eye on his own beliefs.

Paul said...

Hi Mystic!

I confess I've been cherry picking "The End of Faith". That is, I've paid a whole lot more attention to Harris on the subject of mysticism than I have to Harris on the evils of faith.

I think Harris' comments on mysticism are astute and even in places prophetic (i.e. we will indeed someday see a science of mysticism).

Thank you for a good post!

Hi Patty!

Thanks for asking! I have so many opinions on Harris that I can't cover them all here -- and might write a follow up post to the quoted passage. Yet, I do believe Harris is right in that we don't experience objective reality.

Perhaps more importantly, I believe he is right to recognize that mystics can be very astute about that point.

What do you think?

Hi Brendan!

It would be ironic if Harris gained a cult following who clung to "The End of Faith" like fundamentalists cling to their scriptures.

In fact, given human nature, I think he will gain a cult following, although I don't know how numerous it will be. No doubt the "Harrisites" will hold Campbell in undue low regard and vote for proponents of torture -- thus demonstrating to all the world that wacky irrationality is not confined to the religiously minded among us.

Harris wrote his book in response to the attacks of 9/11. It is always inadvisable to be reactionary and to some extent "The End of Faith" is that. As I mentioned to Mystic Wing, however, I must confess to cherry picking it for what I think of as its positive parts.

Like you, it seems to me absurd to blame all the violence in the world on religion. No one was able to study the minds of the 9/11 terrorists, and frankly, I'm not sure we really know what pathologies they harbored. To reduce their sickness to faith alone seems speculative.

Thank you for a good post!

Speaking in general, I think Harris is still a bit young. The younger we are, the more likely we are to have a comparatively limited view of things -- although our view can be at one and the same time both limited and profoundly insightful too. It's just that when we are young, we haven't yet the experience to appreciate how many causes there are to anything.

Take the fall of a single leaf. How many causes govern that fall? How much would you need to know about the world to accurately predict when that leaf will fall from its tree, the path it will take to the ground, and where it will land? There are certainly dozens -- tens of dozens -- of scientific truths and principles relevant to the fall of a single leaf. So, how many things played a critical role in determining the behavior of the 9/11 terrorists? If the fall of a single leaf evidences unimaginable complexity, what kind of complexity applies to the actions of a terrorist? It seems preposterous to argue that faith alone was the crucial factor.

It seems to me Harris is young and still trying to reduce human behavior to one or two crucial influences.

Of course, in saying that, I'm reducing Harris' behavior to the mere fact he's young. So, in a way, this is actually a comment on both his folly and mine. :)

Patty said...

What I think is that Mr. Harris is using specific meanings for words like "objective world" and "experienced" in order to communicate an idea to a specific target audience, and while I don't disagree with his effort, I do with his method. I think some of his audience, who are not "target," will only be baffled by his use of the words. I just think it easier to "correct" the meanings of the words, rather than try to portray the idea within the structure of unworkable meanings.

For instance, "objective world" as he's used it is 'out there.' Instead of insisting that "no human being has experienced an objective world," easier to simply recognize that "objective world" actually means 'out there from in here.' Then the insistence that it's a "visionary experience" (a world of images) doesn't have to appear so contradictory, because everyone sees it from the same footing. In other words, it becomes unnecessary to deny what is so evident to people's sensibilities; all that's necessary is to put it into a proper context.

But that's just me.

Paul said...

Thanks for an interesting comment, Patty!

I suspect Harris is using "objectivity" in the ways it's used by formal philosophers working within the Western philosophical tradition. I can see your point: that could be confusing to those of us who do not use the word to mean quite the same things professional philosophers mean by it.

Patty said...

Somehow I doubt that. When it is said that, "No one experiences an objective world," 'objective' is used as a characteristic. Up until Kierkegaard, at least, people well understood that "objective" was a perspective on, and not a characteristic of, a thing.