When I was an evangelical Christian, my thinking on spiritual matters was very much influenced by C. S. Lewis, who was the most famous Christian apologist of the 20th century. In fact, people, and not just evangelical protestant people, still buy and read both his fiction and non-fiction books in this century, a tribute to not only his writing ability, but his endurance as a respected Christian thinker.
His most popular apologetical work is the classic Mere Christianity, many parts of which I have read dozens and dozens of times. The book, essentially a compilation of BBC radio talks he gave during World War II, presents arguments for Christianity that the average person can understand. The reason I mention C. S. Lewis and that book is because of a fascinating interview with Sam Harris that appeared yesterday on The New York Times’ “Opinionator” page. That interview, which I will get to in a minute, made me think of the following passage from Mere Christianity, which I edited for brevity:
At the beginning I said there were Personalities in God. I will go further now. There are no real personalities anywhere else. Until you have given up your self to Him you will not have a real self….
But there must be a real giving up of the self. You must throw it away “blindly” so to speak. Christ will indeed give you a real personality: but you must not go to Him for the sake of that. As long as your own personality is what you are bothering about you are not going to Him at all. The very first step is to try to forget about the self altogether….
The principle runs through all life from top to bottom. Give up yourself, and you will find your real self.
That’s a fairly orthodox way of stating what “following Christ” means, or should mean, to serious Christians. So, with that in mind, let’s move on to that Times interview of Sam Harris.
Harris, a neuroscientist and philosopher and one of the most interesting thinkers in the country today, is mostly famous for critiquing, often mercilessly, the central claims of fundamentalist religion, especially its Christian and Islamic forms. Like Mere Christianity, I have also read parts of Harris’ first book, The End of Faith, many times. He followed that up with Letter to a Christian Nation, and has expressed his science-based criticism of fundamentalism and theistic religion in several debates, discussions, and interviews that can be found on YouTube and elsewhere. (He also has written two excellent books on free will and the intersection of science and morality, which I urge those interested in those subjects to read.)
Harris has a new book out (which I have not yet read), this one on a subject that might surprise many people, but shouldn’t if you carefully read his other works. In Waking Up: A Guide To Spirituality Without Religion, he tries to demonstrate, “that a certain form of spirituality is integral to understanding the nature of our minds.” The shape of that understanding, and its relationship to that Lewis quote above, can be glimpsed in the interview that Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, did with Harris for the Times. Here is part of it:
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:
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.
Later in the interview, Harris expresses in another way his argument against the notion that there is a self or an “I”or a “sense of being a subject” inside our bodies:
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?).
Breaking that “spell of thought,” cutting through the illusion that there is a little “me” or “soul” inside our heads or elsewhere, is really what meditation—the kind without “invisible entities, spiritual energies, other planes of existence and so forth”—is all about, Harris insists:
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.
Recall that C. S. Lewis’ said the first step in truly becoming like Christ “is to try to forget about the self altogether.” But then he says, “Give up yourself, and you will find your real self.” Undoubtedly, Harris would say that such a notion of expunging one’s self in favor of another self in Christ is as misguided as simply sticking with the illusion of the first self. And, also undoubtedly, not many people predisposed to believe in the idea of a soul or self at the center of their consciousness will be convinced by Harris’ arguments.
But before one rejects Harris on this subject, one should remember that he is a neuroscientist. He knows a thing or two about the brain and what science has discovered about how it works, after more than a century of examining it. And I will quote something he said in that Times interview that everyone should consider, especially those folks among us who are inclined to make “faith-based assumptions about what exists outside of our own experience”:
...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.
Think about that. A doctor poking around in your brain can make you feel like We Are Not Alone. Mind-blowing stuff.
As for more on our experiences of the metaphysical and how they appear to be generated, researchers at the University of Missouri “have found a neuropsychological basis for spirituality, but it’s not isolated to one specific area of the brain,” according to a professor of health psychology, Dr. Brick Johnstone. He added,
Spirituality is a much more dynamic concept that uses many parts of the brain. Certain parts of the brain play more predominant roles, but they all work together to facilitate individuals’ spiritual experiences.
As far as that disputed “self” we have been discussing, Dr. Johnstone said,
Neuropsychology researchers consistently have shown that impairment on the right side of the brain decreases one’s focus on the self. Since our research shows that people with this impairment are more spiritual, this suggests spiritual experiences are associated with a decreased focus on the self.
Leaving aside the temptation to snarkily associate “impairment” with enhanced spiritual experiences, I will close by noting that other studies, involving non-impaired people, those who devotedly practice meditation and prayer, have shown that they can purposely reduce the influence of the right side of their brains and thus enhance their spiritual experiences. That seems to me what Harris is essentially arguing.
From all of this the question arises: Is that a good thing? Is earnestly pursuing experiences of self-transcendence or spirituality something all of us should do? Beats me. I’ll have to spend more time thinking about it. But I will let Harris have the last word for now:
A rational approach to spirituality seems to be what is missing from secularism and from the lives of most of the people I meet.