Monday, April 13, 2009

Atheist Spirituality

Sam Harris, one of the major figures in the worldwide atheist movement, is the author of "The End of Faith" and of "Letter to a Christian Nation".

His words vindicate my assertion that atheists and theists alike are heart-driven (aka spiritual) at their core, and that they, deep down, hold the sublime feelings of beauty, love, humility as the highest values in humanity.

"There is clearly a sacred dimension to our existence, and coming to terms with it could well be the highest purpose of human life." (The End of Faith)

"Clearly, it must be possible to bring reason, spirituality, and ethics together in our thinking about the world. This would be the beginning of a rational approach to our deepest personal concerns. It would also be the end of faith." (The End of Faith)

"Finally, Harris turns to spirituality where he takes his inspiration from the practices of Eastern religion, arguing that as far as Western spirituality is concerned, "we appear to have been standing on the shoulders of dwarfs." He discusses the nature of consciousness, and how our sense of "self" can be made to vanish by employing the techniques of meditation. To support his claims, Harris quotes from Eastern mystics such as Padmasambhava, but he does not admit any supernatural element into his argument – "mysticism is a rational enterprise," he says, "religion is not." He states that it is possible for one's experience of the world to be "radically transformed", but that we must speak about the possibility in "rational terms"." (Wikipedia article on "The End of Faith")

"Harris wishes to recapture spirituality for the domain of human reason. He draws inspiration from the practices of Eastern religion, in particular that of meditation, as described principally by Hindu and Buddhist practitioners." (Wikipedia article on Sam Harris)

"The only angels we need invoke are those of our better nature: reason, honesty, and love. The only demons we must fear are those that lurk inside every human mind: ignorance, hatred, greed, and faith, which is surely the devil's masterpiece." (The End of Faith)

...

Richard Dawkins doesn't fare much better. He seconds Einstein's statement about being a "deeply religious non-believer":

"I have never imputed to Nature a purpose or a goal, or anything that could be understood as anthropomorphic. What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism."

15 comments:

Swati said...

Richard Dawkins "doesn't fare much better".

And that is because...?

Harmanjit Singh said...

As the post says, he is in agreement with Einstein's statement and agrees with the label "deeply religious non-believer".

This phrase is the title of the first chapter of his book "The God Delusion", presumably referring to himself.

Not to mention "humility"! Which is a subject for another post.

We are all born spiritual, and have to work out of our spirituality. Atheism is easy, non-spiritualism is very, very hard.

There are only a handful of people around the world, who are genuinely atheistic as well as non-spiritual (i.e. not holding the heart-felt feelings of love, oneness, humility, compassion etc. as sacred).

Swati said...

Yes, that clarifies for me your view on "doesn't fare much better". I guess I would've been able to figure it out had I been more familiar with all your posts regarding the subject but I am not and I didn't want to make the effort :-)

Siddharth said...

i think you are jumping way way ahead on the non spiritual idea than rationality warrants.

i still have seen no good reason to believe that the AF has anything 'real' to offer.

the principle claim of spirituality in the scientific domain is that the human brain can be rewired to override all biologically selfish impulse and this leads to happiness as long as a human is alive.

AF's principle claim is that in addition to spiritality's base claim, somehow the mechanism of first person autobiography(which involves emotions) and all neural circuitry which produces states of humility / awe etc, or even that which produces reason can just be modified (or erased ?) and replaced by some pure consciousness(?) neural correlate.

You shouldn't forget that a subjective worldview (like AF) makes claims about neurobiology.

I see no reason why the AF's claim on human neurobiology is any better or more plausible than traditional spiritality's claim. If anything, it is an even bigger set of claims on what physical states the brain + nervous system can attain.

If there is any concrete explanation as to why AFs claims cannot and do not violate current understanding of human neurobiology, i'd like to see that.

till then, AF is most likely a unscientific superstition.

Harmanjit Singh said...

Hi Siddharth:

"the principle claim of spirituality in the scientific domain is that the human brain can be rewired to override all biologically selfish impulse and this leads to happiness as long as a human is alive."

# Even if your phrasing of spirituality as above is accurate from the scientific standpoint (i.e. you are correctly saying what spirituality is, seen from the eyes of a neuro-biologist), my question is: what is the nature of happiness for a spiritual person. Is he happy, or dissociated?

As for Actual Freedom compared with Spiritual Freedom, I suggest you go through:

http://actualfreedom.com.au/library/topics/180-degrees.htm

Please join (and discuss at) actualfreedom@yahoogroups.com (I am a member there) if you have any questions regarding the above page's contents.

Siddharth Sharma said...

i am still not convinced that AFs claim on neurobiology is any more plausible than spirituality's claim.

To say that the human brain can undergo change which allows it to be permanently happy and totally harmless("devoid of all instinctual passions") by turning off all moral and social identity mechanisms and "all" belief mechanisms is a very significant and broad reaching scientific claim.

you shouldn't forget that erasing all social identity could lead to known pathological conditions.

and i am really skeptical that the "genetically inherited instinctual passions" can be erased this way in the first place.

i see how AF and spirituality are 180 apart in a methodical sense, but both make rather outlandish claims on scientific facts.

this comment was repetitive but that is because you haven't responded to the scientific plausibility of AF.

Harmanjit Singh said...

Hi Siddharth,

The plausibility of actual freedom is currently limited to the testimony of a man who claims to be actually free, and of a handful of others, who claim varying degrees of success with it.

The man, Richard, has been extensively interrogated as to his description of how he lives, and how he came to it, and his descriptions and answers are remarkably cogent, rational and consistent.

Since an actual freedom from the human condition is a new discovery (and I am not just wanting to make it sound novel, it /is/ novel if you try to find any other human being who has described anything similar), it might take a while for science to fully acknowledge the possibility of it. However, what gives me encouragement, in this particular respect, is that the latest findings of neurobiology are consistent with Richard's descriptions of how emotions and instinctual passions work. His state is entirely consistent with the latest scientific knowledge. It may be in part inexplicable, but it is consistent with modern science in-so-far as it is explicable.

More than that, however, my personal experience is that emotions and passions make for a sorrowful and malicious existence, and how living without them, even if they be minimized, and not completely absent for good, is far superior than normal living. This gives me the requisite conviction to carry on the minimizing process.

Ultimately the proof is experiential, and only you can provide that proof, depending upon how much you value happiness and harmlessness.

Science will catch up. Do you want to wait for that to be happy?

Siddharth Sharma said...

it is good to see that you acknowledge that AF is 'soft' right now, as far as science goes.
You are taking a calculated bet in your best judgement.

"It may be in part inexplicable, but it is consistent with modern science in-so-far as it is explicable.

More than that, however, my personal experience is that emotions and passions make for a sorrowful and malicious existence, and how living without them, even if they be minimized, and not completely absent for good, is far superior than normal living. This gives me the requisite conviction to carry on the minimizing process."

Can you think over and confirm that there is no bias in your evaluation of AF's scientific plausibility in light of your interest in attaining a 'happy and harmless' state.

Are there any strictly scientific criticisms(not ideological / philophical) of AF? I'd like to know about that.

To me, such complete disappearance of baser instincts sounds like a very highly improbable event. I find reductions of intensity plausible, but claims of a complete removal of base instinct and selfishness sound magical and get me skeptical, whether we talk of spirituality or AF.

Harmanjit Singh said...

"Can you think over and confirm that there is no bias in your evaluation of AF's scientific plausibility in light of your interest in attaining a 'happy and harmless' state.

Are there any strictly scientific criticisms(not ideological / philophical) of AF? I'd like to know about that."

# There are a few issues: Richard claims, for example, that the universe is infinite and eternal as "experienced in a PCE". This is not in consonance with the big bang model (note "model") of the universe. I will write an article about this issue sometime soon. The other thing I find inexplicable as of now is the ambiguous status of psychic phenomena and vibes (described by Richard as quite "real" as experienced by a "normal" human being). I will write about that also sometime soon. My thoughts are summarized here (even if a bit outdated):

http://harmanjit.blogspot.com/2008/03/state-of-affairs.html

"To me, such complete disappearance of baser instincts sounds like a very highly improbable event."

# And that's only natural. Nobody should be gullible and take another's claim to be a factual statement. However, do note that Richard doesn't talk about doing away with instincts (e.g. the startle response, and the pre-birth-formed heterosexual orientation, and the instinct to close one's eyes if a bright light suddenly flashes are still present in Richard, AFAIK), but about doing away with instinctual passions (i.e. which cause malice and sorrow).

Ketan said...

I have not completely gone through 'Actual freedom' web site.

However, what I wanted to state is, despite my having 'issues' with how people are, and finding a huge scope for improvement for how things in the society are, somehow I have never developed a genuine urge to escape the 'human condition' (assuming, I have been able to get this usage correctly).

I have recognized in myself this ability to live my life in at least 3 distinct emotional states:

1. The most usual manner of living - 'participating' in my life, i.e., having stakes in occurrences in my life - feeling 'losses' and 'gains', acting and reacting, feeling and acknowledging the emotions. Also recognizing my innermost drives, and letting the events around me influence those drives.

2. Observing everything dispassionately. But deducing and performing mental experiments. What I observe is the stimulus, and what I conclude is the 'response'. Except for a twinge of satisfaction and sense of accomplishment felt on understanding 'one more thing', no other emotions are evoked. Yet, my 'active' participation is required, as in I have to compare the plausibilities of two contending conclusions. Of course, what would be the 'subjects' of my study could vary from something outrightly scientific to trying to understand the reasons behind my own emotional responses.

3. The purely 'receptive' state of mind. This is probably when I am listening to music.

I had read in one of your posts that you do not get affected by music, but tend to analyze the motifs employed by the composer to manipulate the human mind. And the wonder you feel at the ingenuity of the composer is what gives you pleasure. And I wanted to tell you, I was so pleased to read it because that's how I too listen to my music - and I had never been able to explain it to others! But before you think I digressed, I did not. Because at other times, I feel I am able to allow myself to be carried away by music.

So, there do occur moments when I am purely receptive to sensations. They just register in my mind (and induce feelings). There is no filtration (of conclusions) or choices (of reactions) to be made. There is no sense of loss or gain....

Ketan said...

...I would have added a fourth state of mind - the one I experienced only once during performing 'shavasana' - one of total emptiness of mind, and being acutely aware of that emptiness. I never attempted that state again. I was afraid I would get addicted to it!

But what actually made me wonder was that I am satisfied by the 3 states available to me.

I actually find my life enjoyable this way. I keep on attaching to and detaching myself from the world.

My comfort with my life stems from a few fundamental realizations about my life:

1. There is no external purpose to my life. Meaning, how I end up living, and what all I do, will make a difference only to me and only as long as I live. Whatever my life makes a difference to others after I die does not count. To be honest, on reaching this conclusion for the first time, I had suffered from a bout of depression - losing all drive to live. But eventually, it occurred to me, it's alright if my life had no purpose. It's good enough reason to live that I enjoy living!

2. Our emotions, drives, intentions our just physical-chemical events driven by 'laws of nature'. In fact, this realization had occurred before the first one, and had again made me reall depressed. It was one of the realizations I had actively suppressed and not allowed myself to recall. But I don't know, when it happened but I became comfortable with this idea, too. Somewhere down the line, a very integrally connected realization also dawned on me - lack of genuine free will.

It somehow did not affect me.

So basically, despite both sets of realizations being totally nihilistic in nature, they were also liberating. They took aways any elements of 'ought to' and such obligations from my life, except the ones I chose to impose on myself. :)

I hope, you do not find my comment irrelevant to your post, because explaining my background once would do away with the need to make clarifications.

Also, just in case if you visit my blog, do not be surprised if it gives very different impressions from what I have stated here about myself. ;)

Lastly, I chose to write so much about myself because I can understand others only comparing them (their intentions, aspirations, fears, etc.) with myself (my intentions, aspirations, fears, etc.).

TC.

Pankaj said...

I somehow cannot understand your problem with "spiritualism". I don't have much of a problem with the harris/einstein conception of spiritualism. It embraces the ambiguity inherent in the human condition (no definite answers for humans), and yet embraces our evolutionary heritage (the supposed higher spiritual needs of love, beauty, truth). doesnt spirituality really mean just any search for a "higher meaning"?

Harmanjit Singh said...

hi pankaj

spirituality is, essentially, to find fulfilment in good feelings, in dissociation from the world of the senses, and in mystical self-absorption. for example, the feeling of beauty (or love), a spiritual quality, is not the same as visual or sensual delight.

good feelings are certainly better than bad feelings, but they keep the "feeling being" (the capacity for both good and bad feelings) alive.

in essence: Normal life is being a afraid-of-death psychic entity inhabiting a body. Spiritual freedom is being an immortal psychic entity not limited to (or free from) being identified with a body. Actual Freedom is being a mortal body without a psychic entity.

The psychic entity (which comprises both the feeling being and the social identity) is capable of both good and bad feelings, and is also capable of increasing dissociation in order to achieve spiritual freedom, whereas, only its dispelling in toto (which spirituality cannot achieve) results in actual freedom.

if you accept the above distinction, then you will see that atheists mostly fall in the first category (having a psychic entity), and are therefore capable of spiritual feelings.

Susan said...

Hi Harmanjit,

I am not very sure how AF is different from what UG Krishanamurti had to say. Just to quote some of his words-

"The body is not at all interested in psychological or spiritual matters. Your highly praised spiritual experiences are of no value to the organism. In fact they are painful to the body. Love, compassion, ahimsa, understanding, bliss, all these things which religion and psychology have placed before man, are only adding to the strain of the body". (I am not able to find some of the other quotes at present but i found quite afew similarities)

Harmanjit Singh said...

Hi Susan

may i direct you to:

http://web.archive.org/web/20071114034044/www.actualfreedom.com.au/richard/selectedcorrespondence/sc-ug.htm

(part 2 and 3 are linked to sequentially from the bottom of this page)