C. S. Lewis, The Selfless Brain, And The Rational Approach To Spirituality

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 fWaking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religionundamentalist 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.

 

13 Comments

  1. King Beauregard

     /  September 8, 2014

    Wanna hear my half-assed opinion? Of course you do. I say there is a great deal of irrationality that our brains impose upon us, that we deal with simply because it is part of how our brains process reality. We are apes at heart and construct ever more complex societies along lines that are at least compatible with our ape brains. We love immediate family members whom we might despise if they were strangers. We form attachments to people who are wholly fictitious (TV characters) or whom we will never meet (celebrities). Our brains are nuts, but since we can’t trade them in for less buggy models, we need to work with the nuttiness.

    Of course it’s possible for the nuttiness to get out of hand; no matter how many love letters I write to Colt Seavers the Fall Guy, he’s never going to marry me. (And it’s not just because he’s been bewitched by Howie.) Because I have at least a little intelligence, it’s up to me to keep the nuttiness in check.

    Which gets us back to religion, and I’m sure you see where I’m going with this. Now, I believe in God of some kind, and I can tell you that, while I have my intellectual doubts about it, I can’t deny that my world makes more sense to me with a God somewhere in the mix. Even if I can’t prove it, and indeed said proof seems to be impossible to substantiate objectively, I’m good with God being in my head. Just as long as I don’t try to convert my neighbors to King Beauregardism, and as long as I don’t let my choices cause harm to others, I’ll believe whatever nonsense works best for me.

    One more thought: pets. Many of us have them, and while they serve no practical purpose, we couldn’t imagine being without them. I say that pets are another example of an entirely irrational indulgence that our buggy ape-brains are prone to, but since that’s simply how we are, it makes more sense to run with it than to very reasonably deny one’s heartfelt wish to take on a furbound companion.

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    • Sounds like a full-assed opinion to me!

      Yes, we do “need to work with the nuttiness” in our brains. Harris mentions in one of his books (I think it was The Moral Landscape) that evolution may or may not be responsible for certain notions we have, notions that were once useful in pre-civilized societies but that are no longer useful today. But even if evolution is the culprit, even if some of what we might call “nuttiness” was actually an adaptive benefit a long time ago, we still should seek to use our brains to construct societies that are based on more rational ideas. He argues that science can lead us to find better ways to live, ways that increase the well-being of more people, without the need for religion. I’m not sure, though, if Harris has any advice for your infatuation with Colt Seavers, but I would advise you to ease your pain by going here.

      In any case, I like this statement you made:

      I’m good with God being in my head.

      Sometimes I feel that way, too. Other times, though, I’m not so sure. It seems that it is an essential attribute of a deity that he or she does us the favor of actually existing. Hmm.

      Yes, pets can be “an entirely irrational indulgence,” especially cats who cynically and uncaringly take advantage of such a flaw in the human brain. But dogs also represent such an indulgence, albeit with no cynicism and with much affection. Like our miniature Dachshund, Fosters. We have spent a lot of money on him, including an expensive back surgery. He bit my youngest son in the face this summer, causing much damage that will probably require plastic surgery in the future, meaning more expenses. Yet, there he lies, right now, in the chair beside me as I type, with absolute confidence that, apparently no matter what he does, he will always be the object of our indulgence. If only we could be sure that God felt the same way about us, then maybe we would have a religion worth following.

      Duane

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      • King Beauregard

         /  September 10, 2014

        “Lee Majors hearing aid” my ass — it was the Bionic Woman who had the electronic ear. Test me not, Satan!

        As for this …

        “If only we could be sure that God felt the same way about us, then maybe we would have a religion worth following.”

        … perhaps the religion people “need” is Supermanism: Superman is being tirelessly decent in another dimension right now, but someday he will return to this one and never let us down.

        I am halfway serious with that recommendation. Halfway. There is even “proof” in the comics that Superman created our world:

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  2. ansonburlingame

     /  September 8, 2014

    Duane,

    I was about 58 years old when I was first exposed to the concept of a “spiritual dimension” in my life. It was said to be a fourth dimension, along with the other three we all experience, the physical, the mental and the emotional. The book in which that information was made available was not a learned book by a scientist or a “preacher” of any sort as well. It came from an ordinary man with a “problem” and he found HIS solution to fix the problem within HIS spiritual dimension. He and a few others then wrote a book to offer that same solution. I have found comfort in that approach as well in my own life and the ability, using that spiritual dimension to at least mitigate some of my own problems in life.

    I probably won’t read all the books mentioned above. I have other things to read for now and I don’t need to read a book(s) about issues I have already learned and feel comfortable with. I hope that does not sound arrogant as well. But bottom line for me at least is there is a vast difference between spiriutality and religion. My own experience is that I have occasionally, but not always, found PEACE, spiritually, but never in religion, dogma that tries to tell me what to do and think.

    My mind and body will never move amongst the “stars” for example. But spiritually, I can go there whenever I like, far about the “clouds” that most liberals believe my head is “in” or some other more phsycal dimension as well, a neter region if you like!!

    Anson

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    • As I have told others, we have to find comfort where we can. And if certain forms of spirituality bring people comfort, I don’t have a problem with it, so long as it brings no harm to others or, especially, so long as children aren’t forced to swallow some doctrinaire claims about a plane of existence that no one can possibly know for certain.

      Oh, and I have no comment on where I think your head is most of the time. But I bet you can guess.

      Duane

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  3. Duane,

    Some time ago, I got interested in the Vedic Upanishads, which are the ancient writings of what would become the Hindu religion. One of the oldest of these, called the Chandogya Upanishad, was written between the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E. and discusses the idea of the “self.” It starts with the following section where the master Sanatkumara (Teacher) instructs a student named Narada (Student) about the infinite.

    Teacher: “The infinite is bliss. There is no bliss in anything finite. Only the Infinite is bliss. One must desire to understand the Infinite.”

    Student: “Venerable Sir, I desire to understand the Infinite.”

    Teacher: “Where one sees nothing else, hears nothing else, understands nothing else—that is the Infinite. Where one sees something else, hears something else, understands something else—that is the finite. The Infinite is immortal, the finite mortal.”

    Student: “Venerable Sir, in what does the Infinite find Its support?”

    Teacher: “In its own greatness—or not even in greatness. Here on earth people describe cows and horses, elephants and gold, slaves and wives, fields and houses, as ‘greatness.’ I do not mean this, for in such cases one thing finds its support in another.

    And the Infinite with reference to the Self:

    “The Self indeed, is below. It is above. It is behind. It is before. It is to the south. It is to the north. The Self, indeed, is all this.

    “Verily, he who sees this, reflects on this and understands this delights in the Self, sports with the Self, rejoices in the Self, revels in the Self. Even while living in the body he becomes a self-ruler. He wields unlimited freedom in all the worlds.

    ‘‘But those who think differently from this have others for their rulers. They live in perishable worlds. They have no freedom in all the worlds.”

    It’s amazing to me how perceptive the Hindus and the Buddhists were all those thousands of years ago. They still have something to teach us.

    Herb

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    • Harris would certainly agree with you, Herb, as far as the East having something to teach. Myself, I’m not so sure how ultimately important it is. I remain a little skeptical about much of it. But I admit I know next to nothing about the actual benefits of meditation techniques. Harris, though, years ago made me want to explore it more. Just haven’t taken the time to look into it like you have.

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  4. I’ve tried to follow Harris’ suggestion to experience the absence of self between thoughts and, so far, can’t do it. Yet, I understand that I am a product of my life experiences as perceived through the body I was born with, and that’s consistent with the doubts I’ve had about religion and notions of an afterlife. The sum total of my being is a composite of material sensations experienced through a material body. I find it impossible to imagine existing on some higher plane without the tactile sensations of a material world around me, breathing air, smelling smells, seeing through eyes, experiencing malaise or elation derived from the wash of hormones I know are within me. Eating, drinking (yes!), bathing, aging, getting tired, resting, dreaming, all are fundamental to my being and all have their being in the material world.

    The capacity for abstract thought is what makes us different from all other animals. Elephants are thought to mourn a death, but that is far short of planning for death, or planning for anything else for that matter. Chimps can learn things from one another, things like using a stick to fish termites out of a mound for example, but they do not manufacture sticks for the purpose, nor lay in a supply of them for next year. Nor is there any evidence that apes, elephants, porpoises or talking birds worry about the future or the past. Only hominoids do things like that. I think Harris is right about the nonexistence of the “self”, which is an analogy for the soul. But even though the self may be no more real than the white box among the four pac-men, it clearly serves as a virtual soul just as the white space is a virtual box. But when the material body is gone, so goes the box. I buy it.

    I’m wondering whether what Harris refers to as spirituality may be a function of the capacity of the human brain for abstract thought. It is likely, I submit, that evolution would find a need for something like spirituality for a brain like that. Even at my advanced age I find death to be something fearful. Its reality is easy to put aside, until that is, it presents in the demise of someone close to us. Spirituality may be evolution’s solution to insulate abstract thought from the reality of our own mortality.

    I think, on some days at least, that I can buy into deism. After all, how can something derive from nothing? It’s nonsensical. But there’s zero evidence for any kind of heavenly intervention into anything that goes on here on Earth. The essence of science is observation and measurement and you can’t study what you can’t experience.

    Thanks for this post, Duane, and to you others for commenting so candidly. If not for this, I might think there was no one willing to examine these mysteries. I’m going to be reading some more of Harris.

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    • Jim,

      You and I are definitely using the same songbook and singing the same tune. Only I get a little off key from time to time.

      We are indeed the sum of our histories, which I take to mean going all the way back to the Big Bang (if there was a Big Bang.) But I go a little further than the material histories. I think the sum of our histories also plays into the question of free will and from there to morality. Don’t worry, I’m not going through a long dissertation on those issues here.

      But free will is an interesting topic. As you may know, Harris has already written a book on the subject. I haven’t read it, but I see from the reviews that he is not big on the idea. As he says in the book, ““You can do what you decide to do — but you cannot decide what you will decide to do.” In other words, free will is more delusion than choice.

      Anyway, the concept of a “sum of all histories” has fascinated me for awhile. The implications are vast. Especially when you consider that the sum of all histories must include the sum of all causes and effects.

      And I would also throw in memes here. Even though they are short-lived, they influence our thinking and provide trigger mechanisms for making choices.

      But I rattle on too long. To the extent spirituality is a kind of feeling such as being in harmony with the universe, or being at peace within your own thoughts, it definitely does exist. And what we call it doesn’t matter.

      Herb

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      • ansonburlingame

         /  September 13, 2014

        Hmmm Herb,

        I was a boy scout long ago, on a hike with others. I was bending down to look at something when someone yelled “snake”. I immediately, with no thinking whatsoever leapted up. I hit my head on an axe held by another scout with the blade pointed down.

        No careful thought, no looking around, no deciding what to do, just an instinctive reaction to the word “snake”. I had several stitches as a result!!

        Anson

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      • I have read Harris’ book on free will. It is very convincing. That is, until you read something that attempts to refute it, like Daniel Dennett’s efforts. On the free will issue, my heart is with Dennett (because it sure seems we have it and need it for a functioning society) but my head is with Harris (because, after all, our present brain state is nothing more than the result of a previous brain state). So, what in our brains can be called upon to settle this matter? Beats the hell out of me. Wish I knew.

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  5. ansonburlingame

     /  September 12, 2014

    I can only add that it is great to find a topic upon which all of us can agree to some extent.

    I have long said that the political divide in this country will not get any better until people such as ourselves can find room for agreement on some things and build on that in a positive way to find compromise in other areas.

    Anson

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    • Compromise has become such dirty word that I don’t think, at least in the present climate, it can be rehabilitated. But it is nice not to be fighting all the time, isn’t it?

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