Ask Sam

July 1, 2011 • 7:17 am

Sam Harris has recorded a new video in which he answers questions from Reddit readers.  It’s nearly an hour long, so you might want to watch it while having lunch or doing some other light task, as there’s nothing heavyweight here that requires extreme concentration. However, it’s still worth watching, for Sam takes up a number of good questions, and some of his answers are provocative.  The questions include these (I’ve paraphrased them, and put asterisks and times for the ones that most interested me):

How do we best advance our agenda of rationality and atheism?

What’s up with all your meditation experiences?  What did it do for you, and what does that mean for the rest of us?

Should we be afraid of using the term “spirituality”?

There was a fair amount of criticism of your latest book, The Moral Landscape.  Did you think any of it had substantial merit?

**Why should atheists take seriously the “transcendent” experiences reported by the faithful and others? (starts 14:07).

You’ve admitted to the use of MDMA (Ecstasy).  What was your experience like, and did you consider it beneficial?

Can one ethically defend eating meat?

Why are you so concerned with personal security?

Why isn’t atheism to blame for Stalinism and Nazism?

**Is there anything said in defense of religion that has ever given you pause or made you think you were wrong in attacking it? (starts at 38:00)

How can we really measure “well-being”—your ultimate criterion for judging morality—given all the possible and unknowable consequences that could result from a given act (for example, even nuclear accidents might be “good” in the sense that they could make us more careful in the future and ultimately save more lives)?

What kind of research are you up to in neuroscience?

To me the most interesting part begins at about 14:07, when Sam talks about the non-equivalence of our “spiritual experiences of beauty and awe” with the real and much deeper transcendent experiences reported by religious people, mystics and those who meditate. Sam says this:

“There’s a spectrum of experience that we have to acknowledge that many, many millions of people have experienced that is a hell of a lot more interesting in the end—and transforming of the human personality—than just being in awe at the beauty of nature. So atheists deny this at their peril because people who have had these experiences know that they’re not being captured in this language of: “What a beautiful sunset.”

This discussion continues at 21:25, when Sam criticizes atheists, scientists and secularists for failing to “connect to the character of those experiences” and for failing to “give some alternate explanation for them that is not entirely deflationary and demeaning and gives some warrant to the legitimacy of those experiences.”  He implies that these experiences are somehow beyond the purview of science.  I find that strange given Sam’s repeated emphasis on the value of science in studying mental states.

I’m not quite sure what he’s getting at here, and he doesn’t elaborate, but I don’t see why giving credence to these über-transcendent experiences as experiences says anything about a reality behind them.  Yes, they might indeed change one’s personality and view of the world, but do any of us deny that?

I had similar experiences on various psychoactive substances when I was in college, and some of them were even transformative.  The problem is not with us realizing that people can feel at one with the universe or, especially, at one with God; the problem comes with us taking this as evidence for some supernatural reality.  What does it mean to say that an experience is legitimate?  If someone thinks that he saw Jesus, I am prepared to believe that he thought that he saw Jesus, but I am not prepared to say that he really did see Jesus, nor that that constitutes any evidence for the existence of Jesus.

So my question for Sam would be this:  “So if we accept that people do have these seriously transcendent experiences, what follows from that—beyond our simple desire to study the neurobiology behind them?”  (I’d also like to ask him why he always wears black!)

h/t: Grania Spingies for the video

132 thoughts on “Ask Sam

  1. Oh dear. More obsessive Buddhist mumbo jumbo from our friend Sam Harris. His obsession is becoming rather an embarrassing elephant in the room.

    1. Mysticism is by no means limited to Buddhism,nor is it mumbo jumbo. It is at the heart of all western religions and is very well understood by a large number of disciplines from the history of religion to neuro-physiology. This is precisely the kind of ignorance that Harris is rightly vigilant against.

      1. Just read Sam’s whole reply.


        Should “transcendent” states be studies neurologically? Yes?

        Is there ANY evidence that these states are “deeper” than any other mind states?


        Why would a feeling of “wholeness,” a dissolution of the separation between self and The Rest be “deeper”? It’s certainly not necessarily a more accurate way of seeing the world.

        It’s one OTHER way of seeing the world.

        Separate is often good. Things are out there to prey on you, and it’s probably best not to approach them with an elevated transcendent sense of dissolving unity (cf. Obama & the Republicans, Custer at LBH, and every single other life-and-death confrontation happening right now everywhere).

        Unity is also good. We are all branched on the tree of life, and that is astonishing and awe-inspiring. We do tribally divide ourselves to our own detriment. But those divisions are not always products of our “clouded” mindset.

        BOTH states are valid. Its irksome–and starts to feel very much like proselytizing–when Sam valorizes “oneness” over conventional mindstates.

        1. Its irksome–and starts to feel very much like proselytizing–when Sam valorizes “oneness” over conventional mindstates.

          I’m more baffled.

          As far as I remember it (not having looked into it, so memory slips easily) the brain & correlated health effects from meditation is as easily achieved by getting to the dissociative state where you are effectively day-dreaming.

          It doesn’t matter much if you daydream, try to take a nap or are actually napping (or
          meditating), positive effects occurs after around 15 minutes “breaks from reality” regularly.

          I am baffled Harris doesn’t look into that or simply dismisses it. [Yeah, I haven’t listened to him yet.]

          Everything else the same, Coyne’s question is as ever effective – why would we make a special pleading on behalf of meditation, seeing that similar effects* follow from similar processes? It reeks of religion.

          * The “oneness” is of course anecdotal judgment. Most people like the special valor of daydreaming respectively relaxing/napping too.

          1. Okay, I listened – he claims there is “spirituality” and he likes atheists not to dismiss it.

            The first one is arguable, he defines the circumstances but leaves open for the kind of anecdotal dismissal I described. The second implies _that_ specific dismissal. (I take your dismissal Harris, and raise you one! (O.o))

      2. I’m not at all impressed by his dismissal of criticism as “There are several people there who have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about”.

        1. I see no valid criticism here. I see only ignorance. Sam is exactly right.

          I have never had a transcendent experience. I find sunsets beautiful, as Sam discusses, but I have never had an experience where my sense of self dissolves into oneness with the universe.

          But it seems extremely stupid to dismiss either 1) the possibility of these altered mindstates given the overwhelming preponderance of evidence both for their frequency of occurrence (millions of people have had them, or 2) the extraordinary nature of these experiences (people report these experiences to be transformative and life-changing).

          SAm is simply saying that this is a real phenomena, and a very interesting one as well, and it deserves to be studied using the full set of scientific and technological tools now at our disposal, free from the religious baggage these phenomena with which they have traditionally been associated.

          I would have thought this would be obvious, given how clearly and thoughtfully Sam articulated these points, both in his Q&A and in The Moral Landscape.

          1. But from where I stand he seems to bind it with the type of special pleading that religious like to use. Meditation (or other religious practices) isn’t unique in achieving these mindstates (see my previous comment).

            1. Your previous comment offers no sources, no evidence, nothing but empty claims that there is nothing special about meditation. That may be true, but you’ve given me no reason to believe your assertions.

              Sam Harris talks about meditation from the standpoint of his personal experience, but at no time does he claim that meditation is the only way to have transcendent experiences. He cites his use of MDMA as another example of how he has had self-transcending experiences.

              You’ve offered nothing but empty ad hominem.

  2. I’m reminded of your question regarding what mechanism of thought overrides molecules.

    Perhaps Sam’s “spiritual” focus should be on neuroplasticity and how different modules in the brain override other modules in the brain competing for space.

  3. (I’d also like to ask him why he always wears black!)

    Wearing black hides things. Maybe he is putting on weight – his hair is more grey.

    I don’t wish to touch upon the other questions. Some of his answers just cause frustration.

  4. It seems to me like he is equating atheists criticism of the average “Hey I talked to Jesus and it felt good” American Christian with Monks mediating alone in a cave for years. Certainly there is a range of experience.

  5. I never really understood why Sam Harris was so interested in people’s ‘transcendental experiences’ as some sort of means of knowledge. I’ve yet to see someone have one of those and come out with a real, original idea that they couldn’t have come up with on their own. It smacks of the psychic who learns a lot of vague, feel good stuff, but never brings back the plans to allow fusion power, or new antibiotics.

    I think when it is all sorted out, they’ll probably be not too dissimilar from dreams, which seem to play an important but unknown part of our mental health, but are not some connection to the ‘universe’.

    1. What has been come up out of mystical experience is Christianity and Islam. While we may not like them,it s not as though we can ignore them.

      1. Did they really come out of mystical experiences though? It seems like the larger amount of the religions derived from bureaucratic analysis and application from quasi-mythical stories. Or, as in the case of Scientology and Mormonism, from deliberate fraud to garner money and influence.

    2. Hey, I’m fascinated by people’s transcendental experiences! It’s just that I can take an interest without thinking they’re transcending anything other than their usual neurological states.

  6. (I’d also like to ask him why he always wears black!)

    As we sci-fi/fantasy/gamer types know, black is slimming.


    1. Or possibly he has secretly moved to Melbourne (we do have the world’s biggest atheist conference) where black is de facto uniform, “Melbourne black” they call it. 😉

  7. I will watch hopefully this weekend, but to demean “what a beautiful sunset” as somewhat shallow and less meaningful than a “transcendental” experience irks me. Hiking to the top of a peak overlooking a canyon with no noise but your own breath and a gentle wind playing with your hair – In those moments I am truly overcome with awe and wonder. Being aware of all the natural forces around me…from the warmth of the sun on my face to the geological forces that carved the canyon is a tribute to the fact that I can have this “sense” that seems too big and wonderful for my physical mind and body yet completely within the realm of natural science.

      1. ..or you haven’t experienced nature in the same way Jeanine has, so you have no basis for comparison. Just because you’ve been to a similar place doesn’t mean that you have had the same experience.

        1. thanks…I just couldn’t think of a proper response other than “nu uh!”. I have felt love, peace, oneness to the point that it has brought me to tears – does that make my experiences less valid than someone who claims a transcendental experience based on the supernatural?

            1. No, just that they shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand or dissed with demeaning explanations.

              1. I don’t understand why not. The people who have them claim that they “mean something” (a la Close Encounters of the Third Kind). They don’t. At best they could be massive sudden brain alterations that let you experience things you didn’t know you could and stick with you for the rest of your life, nothing a bottle of whiskey couldn’t accomplish.

              2. Dismissing out of hand? There is a massive body of evidence that conscious experiences have a neurochemical basis and require no extranatural explanation. At this point in the history of neuroscience, it is incumbent on those who think there is something actually philosophically transcendental about an experience to give compelling evidence that it is so.

  8. I don’t know why Harris would say that mystical experience is in some way not subject to scientific investigation (except insofar as they are personal experiences that can’t be reproduced in detail), or even that he says so (I have not heard it, but then, I won’t watch it until lunch).

    I will offer this as evidence that the phenomenon is of great importance. Paul most likely converted to Christianity because of a mystical experience (I would recommend Alan Segal’s Paul the Convert on this–the account in Acts certainly can’t be taken at face value). If that had not happened and Paul continued as a persecutor of the Church, its possible Christianity might not have been spread around the Roman world in the way that it did, and might have been over and done with at some point during the second century or have become a weird local cult somewhere in the NE like the Mandaeans (who worship John the Baptist as their savior). Of course, speculation like that is based on shifting sand, but I would argue that the history that did occur was driven by that single Mystical experience. One could say the same thing about Islam. If Mohammed had never practiced mysticism, its hard to see how that religion could have been founded.

    1. Although there’s no doubt that somebody wrote the Pauline epistles, and that it’s a reasonable hypothesis that the majority of them were written by the same individual in the latter part of the first century…well, even given all that, it’s highly unlikely that said individual bore much semblance to the “Paul” of the New Testament.

      The heart of the biography — “favored son” of the Sanhedrin spectacularly turned to the other side — is the exact sort of thing that especially Philo but also others couldn’t help but have noticed…and yet nobody did. Indeed, if such a thing is possible, there’s even less reason to think there was an historical “Paul” than there was an historical “Jesus.” Kinda like, once you know that Holmes is a fiction, there’s not much need to wonder about Watson, either.

      Further, the account of the Road to Damascus is a textbook example of a patient report of a neurophysical event, quite likely a temporal lobe seizure. Anybody experiencing something like that today needs to get to the ER, stat.



      1. 1. You’ll notice I discounted the Damascus experience in my original comments. Being caught up to the third heaven is far more informative about the kind of mystical practice Paul had. No historical documents can be accepted as a presenting the simple truth it claims, and certainly not Acts.

        But beyond that I simply don’t understand the kind of argument you present, and that I see more and more int he atheist community. Or rather I do understand them, but not int he way you wish. It looks pretty clearly clearly like you’re making an irrational denial of Christianity, just like climate deniers, and other conspiracy theorists.

        Someone, you agree, spread Christianity around the Mediterranean and wrote the genuine epistles–but you know it wasn’t Paul. Someone led an apocalyptic cult among Jewish peasants in the first third of the first century in Palestine, and he got written up in the NT, but you know it wasn’t Jesus.

        Remind me, please, which work of Philo contains his detailed history of the legal proceedings of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin that we would expect to read about Saul in?

        1. Someone, you agree, spread Christianity around the Mediterranean and wrote the genuine epistles–but you know it wasn’t Paul. Someone led an apocalyptic cult among Jewish peasants in the first third of the first century in Palestine, and he got written up in the NT, but you know it wasn’t Jesus.

          Erm…no. I don’t agree with any of that. Sorry.

          The Jesus story is a 100% pure, unadulterated fabrication, through and through, Alpha to Omega.

          Christianity was born the exact same way all the other indistinguishable syncretic pagan cults of the era were born.

          Or is it your position that there was an historical Hercules, a real Ra, or an actual Arthur?

          It’s utterly beyond me why any non-Christian should privilege this one faery tale, above all the others, as somehow having actually happened, just with all the magic tricks having been legerdemain.

          Remind me, please, which work of Philo contains his detailed history of the legal proceedings of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin that we would expect to read about Saul in?

          Sorry — that was a thinko on my part. Philo died too early to have known of Saul’s conversion to Paul. I meant to type, “Josephus,” in relation to Paul / Saul, but was thinking “Philo” in relation to Jesus himself.



          1. So, where is the thinking these days as far as the stuff about Jesus in Joespheus? One of them seemed like a simple scholarly mistake that confounded Jesus Christ with some other Jesus, but there was that longer verse, and it sounded like people were still arguing about whether a portion or the whole of it was fabricated by later authors.

            1. I can’t write for others — especially considering that the overwhelming majority of “scholars” who comment on the origins of Christianity are active evangelists.

              But the Testamonium is undoubtedly a wholesale fabrication by Eusebius, who was the first to quote it and in whose edition it first appeared. He also promoted the Platonic tactic of spreading “necessary” lies if it brought people to a grater Truth.

              The other reference is to “James, brother of Jesus.” But the passage makes clear that the Jesus in question (remember, it was one of the most popular names of the period) was the son of High Priest Damneus.

              Indeed, Origen bemoaned the fact that Josephus didn’t write anything about Jesus, which should be all one needs to dismiss the sorry claims of more modern apologists.



              1. Tim O’Neill, a historian who is also unabashedly atheist, makes a very carefully thought out and powerful argument against the mythicist position in general and one particularly poor representation of it in his review of ‘Nailed’. See – it’s the first post. It’s a long review and worthy of a careful read. The comments are also instructive.

              2. I skimmed it and I’ll read it more carefully later…but I’m not impressed.

                In his “Failed Argument from Silence,” he writes, “If we did indeed have “scores of writers” from Jesus’ time with such an interest in Jesus’ region and who wrote about ‘failed Messiahs’ then it would certainly be very strange that we have no contemporary mentions of Jesus. Unfortunately, as we will see, this is one of several places where Fitzgerald lets his overblown rhetoric run well ahead of what he can then actually substantiate.”

                I haven’t read Fitzgerald, either, so I don’t know how he presents that aspect of the argument. However, O’Neill doesn’t even mention the Dead Sea Scrolls, Philo, Pliny the Elder, the Roman Satirists, or any of the others who fit that description.

                Such an omission on O’Neill’s part hardly bodes well.



              3. Indeed, Origen bemoaned the fact that Josephus didn’t write anything about Jesus, which should be all one needs to dismiss the sorry claims of more modern apologists.

                Origen seems to be under the impression that Josephus did write something about Jesus:


                But only in passing as a passing reference though. (And Origen inflates all evidence way beyond proportion, of freaking course. Hey he’s an apologist, so of course he’s going to be a tad bit bonkers.)

              4. Indeed, Origen bemoaned the fact that Josephus didn’t write anything about Jesus, which should be all one needs to dismiss the sorry claims of more modern apologists.

                I still think you’re taking some liberties with Origen, but the hell with it. Origen “hey my middle name is mister liberties taker” Adamantius reads way too much into Josephus. We don’t even know what Jodsephus said vs. what Origen said he said. Not only that, he doesn’t give us any citations. Wow, what a nice guy. The hell with you Origen, I don’t trust a damn word you write. What a kook.

              5. Since you don’t seem to be able to reply to replies on this thread …

                Below Ben says he “skim read” my review of Fitzgerald’s “Nailed” and thinks he’s found an omission on my part. He quotes me saying that we have no writers from Jesus’ time with an interest in Jesus’ region and who wrote about ‘failed Messiahs’ and then says “O’Neill doesn’t even mention the Dead Sea Scrolls, Philo, Pliny the Elder, the Roman Satirists, or any of the others who fit that description.”

                None of these examples qualify. Almost all of the DSS material dates to well before Jesus’ time and none of it discusses any failed Messiahs. Philo mentions no Messiahs nor does he mention any of the other preachers and prophets like Jesus, despite the fact we know there were several such figures at the time. And why Ben thinks Pliny the Elder or “the Roman Satirists” would be discussing any Jewish Messiahs, preacher or prophets I have no idea, since they mention none at all either. That leaves his unnamed “any of the others”, but I think we can safely assume they didn’t mention any other failed Messiahs or any Jewish preachers at all, since no writer other than Josephus did in this period.

                For an argument from silence to work here the sources have to mention other Messiahs, or just other Jewish preachers or prophets but not mention Jesus. None of these works mention any of these figures, therefore a valid argument from silence simply can’t be made using them.

                Ben would know this if he’d bothered to do more than “skim read” my review. Jesus Mythicism is fast becoming atheism’s version of Creationism – kooky, sloppy pseudo scholarship indulged in by amateurs with an axe to grind. Real rationalists should be very sceptical of it.

            2. Try ‘The Jesus Puzzle’ by Earl Doherty. Very detailed (there’s a new version vastly more detailed if you’re that keen) exposition of the evidence for Jesus being completely mythical. There’s also “The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man” by Robert Price, much more readable and comes at the question from a different perspective.

              1. I believe Earl Doherty himself weighs in on one of the discussion threads (it spills over onto a Christian blog) on the article I referred to.

                Bart Ehrman also has a new e-book on Jesus mythicism (FWIW, he’s not a mythicist).

            3. One more thing I should add:

              If you’re going to put any effort into your own research, you owe it to yourself to formulate a “theory of Jesus” and then find evidence that either affirms your theory of refutes it.

              For example, if your theory is that the Gospels are a reasonably accurate depiction of the facts as they happened, how do you account for Philo’s failure to mention the Great Zombie Uprising of ’33? If your theory is that Jesus was a rebel commando, how do you account for the fact that the Pauline Epistles — by far the earliest historical mention of Jesus — radically contradict such a theory? And so on.

              I’ve only ever encountered one such theory that works: Christianity is as indistinguishable in its origins from other Classical Pagan syncretic mystery cults as it is in ever other facet of its existence. That is, it was all made up by shamelessly stealing from everything that was popular at the time.



              1. As an atheist, I certainly don’t hold that the Gospels are reasonably accurate as to the facts. Therefore I don’t think Philo’s not mentioning the Great Zombie Uprising, for example, is a problem requiring explanation – there was no uprising, obviously, so neither Philo nor any other historian would mention a non-event. Hell, it’s not even in all the Gospels.

                There’s no particular reason to think that Philo would even mention Jesus at all, since he lived in Alexandria and was largely Hellenized – the tradition of Jesus the Messiah may simply never have reached him by the time of his death in 50 AD, since it took centuries for Christianity to emerge as a force in the Roman empire. I believe Paul himself was just beginning his ministry around the time of Philo’s death. In any case, there are a variety of plausible, mundane ‘explanations’ as to why Philo didn’t mention Jesus – and the lack of a mention certainly does not count as ‘positive’ evidence for the mythical Jesus. At best it’s neutral.

              2. It’s not just the Great Zombie Uprising that Philo didn’t mention, but the trial, the crucifixion, and even the presence of a charismatic preacher whose sermons Philo himself could have written.

                You see, if any single individual can be credited as the progenitor of Christianity, it’s Philo. Not only did Christians steal his philosophy wholesale, they turned Jesus into the human manifestation of Philo’s crowning achievement, the integration of the Greek Logos into Judaism.

                Oh — and let’s not forget that Philo was Herod Agrippa’s brother-in-law (and Herod Agrippa was the reigning king at the time of the alleged crucifixion).

                And Philo’s works (in which he mentions seemingly everybody with a religious or philosophical position relevant to his, pro or con) remain mostly intact (in the usual copies-of-copies form for most of everything from that period).

                And the last of those works is Philo’s account of his part in an embassy to Rome to petition Caligula about Rome’s unjust treatment of Jews.

                And that Philo corresponded with his family in Jerusalem.

                And he made at least one trip to Jerusalem, possibly during the period of Jesus’s alleged ministry.

                Really, there’s no way for anybody vaguely resembling somebody even remotely recognizable as Jesus to have slipped under Philo’s radar. You have to throw out every single non-supernatural Gospel story — and, at that point, what’re you left with? Certainly not Jesus.



              3. “Really, there’s no way for anybody vaguely resembling somebody even remotely recognizable as Jesus to have slipped under Philo’s radar. ”

                Really? Theudas was a prophet and preacher like Jesus who actually attracted bigger crowds of followers and had to be suppressed by Roman troops. Did Philo mention him? No, he didn’t.

                The Egyptian Prophet was another preacher who also attracted very large numbers of followers and had to be put down by Roman forces. Did Philo mention him? No, he didn’t.

                Okay, how about the Samaritan who led a vast multitude up Mount Gerzim via an apocalyptic prophecy and whose followers were also scattered by Roman troops. Any mention of him in Philo? No again.

                So why are you saying that someone like Jesus, who even according to the most naive face-value reading of the gospels wasn’t anywhere near as prominent as these guys, should be mentioned by Philo when he mentioned none of these other prophet-preachers? He clearly had no interest in ANY such figures.

                So to argue he should have mentioned Jesus simply makes no sense. You don’t seem to have an adequate grasp of the material.

  9. There’s a spectrum of experience that we have to acknowledge that many, many millions of people have experienced that is a hell of a lot more interesting in the end—and transforming of the human personality—than just being in awe at the beauty of nature. So atheists deny this at their peril because people who have had these experiences know that they’re not being captured in this language of: “What a beautiful sunset.”

    That’s a straw experience. He assumes that “What a beautiful sunset” is the extent of atheists’ experience of nature, which I resent. And he makes the same assumption that many religious people do: that atheists have all always been atheists. This is obviously untrue. Many have been religious and had “transcendental” and “mystical” religious experiences such that they have a basis for comparison. Many have meditated. He’s basically saying “You can’t understand how profound and transformative these religious experiences are.” Well, I’m saying I can and that reality-based experiences are more profound and transformative. So put that in your ritual pipe and smoke it.

    1. The neuro-biology of mystical experience is entirely different from any conscious experience you’ve had. There is nothing about it made of straw.

      1. The neuro-biology of mystical experience is entirely different from any conscious experience you’ve had. There is nothing about it made of straw.

        How so?

        And what are “mystical” and “biology” doing in the same sentence?

        1. This is the problem that Harris is facing. When the brain enters a mystical state, the mystic reports experiences that unrelated to any other form of perception. In recent years this has been studied with brain imaging techniques which confirm that the mystical experience is associated with unique patterns of activity within the brain. The level of difference is the same as between thinking and dreaming.

          The two words are in the same sentence, because mystical experience is a physical phenomenon that can be studied by biology like any other human experience. Too often people unfamiliar with this area of research equate ‘mysticism’ with ‘supernatural.’ It is true that like anything else, religion imagines a supernatural cause for the phenomenon. But Aquinas also imagined a supernatural cause for the sun rising. That doesn’t mean that the sun doesn’t rise, just that Aquinas didn’t understand why.

          1. I associate the mystical with “other ways of knowing,” divinity, spiritual truth, mind-body dualism, transcendental, supernatural, etc. Is that not accurate? I don’t think fMRI data confirms any of these things? Saying mysticism is “other” of course isn’t enough.

            Also, there has been plenty of cautionary tales of over-interpreting fMRI data–it’s a very tricky and sometimes subjective technique based on models and algorithms. fMRI is a tentative first step in investigating brain states.

            …when the brain enters a mystical state the mystic reports experiences that unrelated to any other form of perception

            You’re very close to placing mystical experiences beyond the range of testability. What makes a mystical state unrelated to any other form of perception? How can you know?

            Can you show me where mysticism has been classified by scientists as a distinct and separate state of mind?

          2. Assuming that you have had some of these transcendental states, I don’t detect anything in the way you write, to express yourself, that seems remarkable or above and beyond anyone else. However, maybe that is a big step forward for you?

        2. The neurobiology of mystical experience may be the same or different or some combination of the two, and we will no doubt be able to map the experience of it with fMRI at some point. This is what the two words are doing in the same sentence. There is, at the bottom of these experiences, undoubtedly, scientific explanation, even if the explanation is not at hand yet. So?

          I agree with Sam Harris that a lot of people (including atheists) have what they’d describe as “mystical” experiences. Those who’ve had them may (or may not) report these experiences as a new or different way of learning or knowing about something.

          1. If mystical is a delusional/hallucinatory event similar to dropping acid, a brain seizure, sleep deprivation, or resulting from a prolonged sensory deprived meditative period then it’s not actually transcendental mindfulness, or a way of accessing special truths about the universe. But then who cares?

            Now it appears from your second paragraph that you are entertaining the idea that a so-called mystical state is something more, some different way of knowing to which only special people have access. That’s not scientific at all.

            So which is it?

            1. Why characterize mystical states as “so-called”? This a point that Harris is making: that these states, their underlying science notwhithstanding, are real, that a lot of (non) religious people have them, and that blowing the users’ experiences off is counter-productive.

              When you ask me, “so which is it”, what are you asking me?

              1. Because it’s definitely yet to be determined if these so-called mystical states are real. Real in the sense first that mysticism fits its common usage definition of spiritual, transcendental, dualist states, completely separate from all other sensory experiences (as H. Constantine asserts) and go the extra step of actually providing other ways of knowing akin to revelation, as you entertain. Also real in the sense that they are biologically altogether different than already named states of mind such as FTL seizures, hypnosis, hallucinations, dream states, etc.

          2. The $10,000 question is if these mystical experiences actually result in gaining new knowledge. What are they experiences *of*? Something outside our mind? How can that be possible?

            I believe they exist and should be studied, but I don’t see any evidence they are much more than a weird brain hiccup that results in feelings of euphoria and a vague inter-connectedness.

      2. The neuro-biology of mystical experience is entirely different from any conscious experience you’ve had. There is nothing about it made of straw.

        How do you know? You are making assumptions.

        But, even if your thesis is correct, so what? Both you, religionists and Sam Harris seem to mistake the intensity of subjective “transcendent” experience as meaning that they are objectively meaningful and beyond ordinary biology. But there is no sound for that to be the case. There is no sound reason to think that transcendent experience is anything other than a powerful illusion of the brain, no matter how subjectively powerful it may feel. I wish Harris would acknowledge that. He seems to have a soft spot in his brain for “transcendence”.

  10. I watched and listened, and there’s nothing about Sam’s position about transcendent experiences via meditation that couldn’t also be said about transcendent experiences via sex or yoga or any other “transcendent” catalyst.

    Yes, the character and nature of these experiences is worth exploring and studying and discussing.

    But it’s not evidence of anything supernatural or anything else except that unusual state of mind. And?

    1. Wow, you really didn’t get what Sam was talking about at all, did you?

      You might want to read his books and then watch the whole video again.

      Sam has spent his entire career as a writer and speaker making the point the *nothing* is supernatural.

      The term “mystical experience” is a shorthand reference to a common experience that millions of people have had. Most of those people associate the experience with their religion. Sam’s whole point is that this association is unnecessary.

      Also, it seems clear that Sam has spent a great deal more time researching transcendental experiences than you have. My guess is that if he claims the evidence suggests that meditation can invoke mindstates that are VERY different from good sex and sunsets that make your heart ache with the beauty of the world, then he probably has VERY good reasons for making those claims.

  11. Oh, and my position is that our mental states of feeling have absolutely no probative evaluate on what reality is.

    Sam, of all people, should know that. Emotions are fun, but they don’t indicate reality.

    1. I consider Sam a friend, so could we avoid comments like “I don’t trust him” or “he’s shifty.” If you want to discuss the issues at hand, that’s fine, but I’d appreciate people laying off of Sam’s character.

      1. We need to avoid cronyism. Friends need to be criticised (rationally and constructively) as much as our enemies. We can’t allow conformation bias to blind us to irrationalities.

        1. Indeed, but Prof. Coyne is asking that personal remarks about Harris be avoided. Even if they’re not our friends, isn’t this a good idea?

        2. Umm. . . I thought I was taking issue with one of Sam’s answers. But Jebus, you don’t have to allow your friends to be called names on your website (which is, after all, the internet equivalent of my home.

          1. For that matter, Jerry, haven’t you even raked him over the coals a couple times?

            I’ve never met Sam, but I’d leap at a chance to have a meal with him. You should be honored to have him as your friend.

            Of course, he’s spectacularly worng on one or three important things (and I’d like to think I could explain to him where he’s gone off the rails), but that’s okay. None of the rest of y’all are perfect — and Sam is a damn sight better than most.


          2. “But Jebus, you don’t have to allow your friends to be called names on your website (which is, after all, the internet equivalent of my home.”

            I imagine Mooney, Kazez, and the rest of the comment rejecting accommodationists might argue similarly.

            I think it is reasonable to suggest that commenters avoid irrelevant ad hominems, but I would hope that otherwise you wouldn’t expect people to refrain from legitimate criticism of a key player the accommodation wars on the basis that he is your friend. Nobody’s arguments are one hundred percent perfect, and it is fundamental to the success of scientific methodology that **nobody’s** claims are above questioning.

  12. Sam’s argument against eating meat I found particularly unsatisfying. His position is that it’s highly immoral to pay somebody else to slaughter an animal for you to eat if you would be horrified do such a thing yourself.

    I would be horrified to be the person to perform a cardiac bypass on my dad — not the least because I have no medical training whatsoever — yet I’m overwhelmed with joy that a superb team of surgeons did exactly that.

    I really don’t want to crawl around in my attic in summer (in Tempe, Arizona) installing a new HVAC duct, yet I’m sure there’s no moral problem with the fact that I just paid a couple guys to do exactly that earlier this week.

    I doubt anybody reading these words would ever want to clean a public toilet, yet I’m sure we’re all happy that there are people who do exactly that.

    I’m sorry, Sam, but I’m becoming less and less impressed by your moral calculus.



    1. Hmmm. Are those tasks the same?

      – I wouldn’t perform surgery because I’m not trained to and I’m squeamish. If I were on an island with a relative suffering from acute appendicitis, I’d probably give surgery a shot, despite my squeamishness and lack of training. It’s not *morally horrifying* to me.

      – I wouldn’t install the HVAC duct because I’m not qualified and getting in the attic is unpleasant. If I had no other choice (no money to pay a professional, no professional around), I’d read up on it and do it, unpleasant or not. I wouldn’t not do it because it’s *morally horrifying.*

      My point is that there are different justifications for not doing those exampled tasks, and those differences matter. Sam’s point seems to be that if you find something morally repugnant, it’s hard to justify being part of chain that does it a sanitizing distance from you.

      (Btw, this gives me a chance to say that I love your replies here, BG. You’re an amazing writer and thinker. I wish you had your own blog!)

      1. But that’s it, exactly.

        If you were marooned on a desert island, would you hunt, slaughter, and eat that boar you spotted in the grass? Or would you respect the boar’s moral right to live, starve yourself, and thereby let the boar scavenge on your carcass? Or would you try to remove yourself entirely from the food chain…to what purpose, exactly?

        Sam’s position that you shouldn’t eat meat unless you’d kill it yourself is exactly as morally reprehensible as “Pro-Lifers” who use pictures of aborted fetuses to try to convince women not to get an abortion.

        It’s one thing to argue against carnivorism based on a moral calculus that places a higher value on the life of the eat-er than the diet of the eat-ee. It’s another thing to crassly appeal to emotion by shamelessly making people feel squeamish about the ickiness of it. Sam of all people should know better.



        1. Didn’t Sam make that point while pointing out a desire for more humane treatment for livestock?

        2. I can assure you that if I had to either kill my own beasts or go vegetarian I would kill them, humanely as possible but still dead. Vegetarian simply isn’t an option for me, I have tried it and I get sick almost immediately because it turns out I need to be on a low fibre diet.

          My grandfather, a butcher in the days when they bought a live cow and did the deed themselves, was as soft as butter. He couldn’t kill his own chickens but he had a neighbour who came and did it for him, he still ate them though. The main reason we pay someone else to do our killing is that this is the most efficient and humane way of doing it. In the days when everyone killed their own animals there were fewer vegetarians, not more.

        3. “Sam’s position that you shouldn’t eat meat unless you’d kill it yourself is exactly as morally reprehensible as “Pro-Lifers” who use pictures of aborted fetuses to try to convince women not to get an abortion.”

          That is not his position. You’re rather badly misrepresenting what he said in that video. What he said is that he could not dispute the moral argument put forth by someone else, that it is unethical to eat meat if you are yourself incapable of doing the slaughter. That is, that one must rely on someone else because one is incapable of the deed, not that one must do the deed personally. And in fact, Sam Harris is not a vegetarian (though was formerly).

          As it happens, I disagree with his assessment of the argument – I do not find it unassailable at all. Say you live in a small village, which is about to be attacked by another group of humans. You are horrified at the thought of having to kill someone, even in self-defense. But at least some of the attackers must die, or all the defenders will. So, are you not permitted to appreciate being alive, if you relied on your friends and family in the village to undertake the actual defense? There are certainly some who think so, but they are not what I’d call moral exemplars.

          Hiring someone to kill an animal for food does not displace moral responsibility, any more than hiring a person to kill your mother-in-law. Those who eat meat may not spend a lot of time thinking about it, but they are not dodging moral responsibility for causing the death of another living creature. Being too squeamish to do the deed in person is quite beside the point.

    2. “Sam’s argument against eating meat I found particularly unsatisfying. His position is that it’s highly immoral to pay somebody else to slaughter an animal for you to eat if you would be horrified do such a thing yourself.”

      So, one wonders if that means Harris would torture people? Because he has argued that torture may be an “an necessity in the war on terror”.

    3. I find the most effective arguments against eating meat on a different moral calculus than just it being cruel to eat an animal (which I don’t agree with, since there are plenty of animals that eat other animals, and there are ways of insuring that the animals we eat live healthy lives with as painless deaths as we can manage), but more of a use of resources argument. Growing meat animals (particularly cows) takes a tremendous amount of energy and land, producing large amounts of animal waste and CO2 from the animals and farm equipment. One could feed more people, more efficiently with plants, and use much, much less land, allowing more of it to return to a natural state.

      1. That’s not an argument against eating meat; it’s an argument in favor of human population control.

        (I’m all for reducing the human population — but by increasing education and access to resources. It might be a counter-intuitive approach, but it’s far more effective than anything else except for war, plague, famine, and the like. Wave a wand, give everybody on the planet a college-level education and an American middle-class lifestyle, and birth rates will instantly go negative.)

        It’s also worth noting that humans are obligate omnivores, just as felines are obligate carnivores. Even vegans know this; just look at all the supplements they’re forced to take to make up for the lack of meat in their diets. Even those foods that come close — such as soy — have the proportions all worng or have stuff you don’t want to consume in large quantities.

        Until vat-grown meat is a reality, one’s options as a human are to suffer nutritional deficiencies and imbalances; to supplement one’s diet with petrochemical-derived substances that still are suboptimal; or to eat meat.

        Sam’s moral calculus is all about reducing harm and increasing wellbeing. As you point out, the lives (and deaths) of animals in the wild isn’t the magical wonderland of a Disney musical. Even applying Sam’s calculus (which I find frighteningly deficient in many areas), the obvious conclusion is to provide good lives for livestock followed by humane slaughter.

        Even vat-grown meat won’t eliminate the moral conundrums. What is to be done with the billions of farm animals? They can’t simply be turned loose.

        Oh — and anybody who thinks that vat-grown meat will somehow be less resource-intensive than ranching needs to come back down to Earth.



        1. Oh, and I agree with you, its mostly that better resource use was the strongest argument I’ve had presented to me for not eating meat, or eating more poultry and pork, since they are a lot easier to feed than beef. My poor vegan friends… all of them lost a *lot* of weight, sometimes frighteningly large amounts, so it makes me reluctant to believe their endorsements of veganism healthiness.

          Vat grown meat is a curious… it would never be as resource efficient as eating a primary producer like a plant, but when you cut out the need to move around and just feed it raw nutrients, it might shave of some of inefficiencies of the cow, since it’ll just need muscle building stuff. I figure people will always want to real animals, so there may be less domestic animals, but I figure we’ll always have some.

          1. I don’t know about your vegan friends, but as my family and I have been vegan for many years and have very normal health (regular blood tests confirm normalcy), I suspect they are doing it wrong. We don’t take extra supplements, and the fortified foods that are available are quite satisfactory. I don’t see the need for vat-grown meat as vegetable-based protein is already just fine, but knock yourself out when they make it 😉 BTW, vat grown protein does not need to be fed and watered for up to three years, and probably excretes far less than your average bovine, so yes, I would argue that it takes less resources.

            I find the argument of being on a desert island unsatisfactory, as the arguer is typically very far from those sort of places, or in those starving situations. Of course, as a sentient being we want to have survival, and if you are on a desert island, or trapped in the arctic, knock yourself out again. But as a quite large percentage of people are not in those situations, it really doesn’t apply.

            Meat substitutes are available, and require fewer grains, water and other foods to produce than do livestock (not to mention the production of greenhouse gasses), so I cannot see that there is a valid excuse that can be made, except the stubborn ones such as “I like the taste”. And if the mistreatment and wholesale slaughter of animals that can think and feel just so you can enjoy the taste is what you want to do, then I dunno what to say to that. What I can say is that as every living thing will only experience life once in this universe, who are we to say that life should not be given as much opportunity to live as we can. Of course we as humans also have a need to eat, but we are smart enough to be able to do it without causing excessive pain and suffering, or the destruction of the biosphere that we rely on.

            Peter Singer writes on this much more eloquently than I can, such as here , and there is a good Conversation article here.

            1. I long ago found Peter Singer’s argument unassailable. It was quite an irritating experience given that I had to admit that I was wrong. I still eat meat primarily because I haven’t been in a good enough financial situation to have a healthy vegetarian diet.

  13. ” (I’d also like to ask him why he always wears black!)”
    Perhaps he has a goth delusion.

    1. Is it goth to take a perverse pleasure in looking like you wouldn’t be out of place at a Satanic rite? It’s not about wanting to do the rite, it’s just about enjoying the look of horror in others’ eyes when the thought flits across their imagination.

  14. Transcendent experiences in meditation are something I feel qualified to talk about, since it was the experiences I had during my initiation into TM that led me, back in the seventies, into spending nearly 3 years living a monastic life at the European centre of the TM movement in Seelisberg, and at the Press in Rheinweiler, Germany, where I worked long hours for no money.

    At the time it seemed that the often very pleasant unity experiences reflected a new (to me) and better way of understanding and being aware of the universe.

    In retrospect I realise that suggestion, positive reinforcement and wish fulfilment led me (my brain, anyway) to construct the experiences, which, while pleasant, were not putting me in touch with a deeper reality, but rather inducing a dissociation which I interpreted as spiritual progress.

    It ain’t!

    I don’t know how much space there is for an individual comment, so I will continue in a fresh post.

    David B

    1. To continue.

      I have come to the conclusion that what leads many religious or other supernatural believers into being so hard to persuade of the error of their ways is that their experience seems so hard to doubt.

      It took me years – decades – to come out of it completely, with websites like Skepdic and being crucial to my – for want of a better word – recovery.

      A lot of thought and a lot of reading have gone into my current view that suggestibility, positive reinforcement and wish fulfilment lead to very real-seeming experiences in a wide range of fields. Instruction or in some cases treatment from someone with apparent authority and sincerity (the best way to appear sincere is to be sincere), and some sort of ritual and/or rhythm also being aids to having the suggestion take hold.

      I take the view that Transcendental Meditation (and many other forms of meditation), experiences reported during masses, confirmations, ordinations, reading of e-meters, ‘treatments’ such as Reiki and Reflexology (et al) have a great deal in common.

      Continued below

      1. Suggestion of results implanted by teacher/initiator/auditor/practitioner.



        Wish fulfilment

        Positive reinforcement from teacher etc and fellow inductees/patients.

        All the woo-filled stuff mentioned above has many or all or these associated with them, and all produce people who are True Believers, whether in TM, Scientology or Reiki

        Arguing rationally that Reiki (as an example) can’t work seems to have little impact on the True Believer, but maybe an analysis of how beliefs in all sorts of dumb things can be induced by suggestion et al might help more.

        It is that sort of meta-view that led me out of wasting more of my life in a vain search for mystical enlightenment, anyway.

        And, incidentally, has led me in my own small way to be an anti-woo activist.

        David B

    2. Fascinating and excellent comment. Thank you! It has never seemed to me that the types of experience you and Sam refer to are any different from the typical theist’s experience. Just because one doesn’t imagine that one is having personal communication with a specific deity doesn’t make the experience any more sophisticated. Nor any less manufactured, i. e., any less a result of the influences you describe above.

      1. I can agree with David B on the experiences, having experienced it myself for many years. The description of the process of learning how to meditate matches the idea that there is ritual and wish fulfilment or at least expectations. In the instructions before commencing meditation you are told some of the things that you might see or hear in your mind, and inevitably some people will see and hear those things, confirming the experience is “real”. Funnily enough, I never thought of the experience is real, so when I described my first experiences which involved seeing mythical beasts (dragons etc) I thought I was quite normal, but others attending the lesson actually sniggered. I suspect that they had thought what they experienced was really real, but as mine involved actual fantasy, my experience was made up. It was real to me in my mind, but I knew even then that it was not real, and my mind was just making stuff up.

        The mystical experience gets out of hand though, when practitioners are told that what they experience while meditating is real, and what we experience in this world is an illusion. Funny, people can be convinced that an illusion is more real than this real world.

        BTW, meditating every day, even for an atheist, is not a bad thing. Meditation can help reduce stress and calm the mind as well as making thinking more clear.

        1. I think you will find that it is only people with a predilection for finding meditation positive who get results showing that it is a good thing.

          There are other studies suggesting that it can and does sometimes produce dissociative states and very weird behaviour.

          I haven’t checked through the links in the link a posted in an earlier comment to see if they are still valid, but there were one or two there that suggest that the idea that meditation is entirely benevolent is just plain wrong.

          David B

      2. Thank you.

        A lot of other meditators rather looked down on TM, seeing it as hyped by the Beatles and not genuine. We insiders, of course, rather looked down on other religions and meditation schools, for though we were instructed that TM was not the only way it was the best, and our experiences and mutual reinforcement led to us believing that very strongly.

        As did followers of other religions and other gurus with regard to their own religion or teacher, of course.

        TM was no better or worse than any of them as a technique for providing transcendent experiences, I think, though as a cult there were and remain worse. Cult though it surely was, though, if not from the POV of the average 20 minutes twice a day meditator, from the POV of those who were seriously sucked in, like me.

        I think that is a way in which religions and quasi religions tend to differ from quack medicine – YOUR religion or teacher is best, while once taken in by one bit of fringe medicine it seems – judging from my New Age friends – to open people up to all of them.

        David B

  15. Author, atheist, philosopher (B.A.), neuroscientist (M.A.) and CEO of Project Reason … That’s Sam Harris

    Five years ago Meera Nanda claimed (New Humanist) that he failed to apply the same critical analysis to the eastern traditions as he applied to western religions. That is still true.

    It’s a torture video. It should be looped in interrogation rooms to soften up *suspects*. I was waiting for the philosophy or the neuroscience. I’ve wasted much time over six years looking in his books & talks for a definition of terms…

    Sam Harris isn’t doing science. He isn’t extending philosophy.

    1. Harris has a PhD in Neuroscience, not an MA as you claim.

      He is mostly making a pragmatic argument for mediation, not saying it really points to something supernatural, so I really don’t have much of a problem with the majority of what Harris is saying.

      I do disagree with his claim that somehow mediation must be a useful method of insight because it postulated things like determinism and the disunity of the self that now have scientific evidence for them. That is suspiciously similar to what Christians, Muslims, and a lot of the New Agers do. They look at the finding of science and go back into their holy texts to find something similar, than use the similarity to as evidence for their practices.

      1. I suspect that when Sam is referring to meditation he is working along the lines that the concept of mindfulness is an interesting and practical method of thinking, or concentration. The Buddhist tradition of mindfulness has been modified and used in modern psychology, however I know very little about it, so can’t comment more than what Wikipedia says.

  16. many millions of people have experience[s] that [are] a hell of a lot more interesting in the end—and transforming of the human personality—than just being in awe at the beauty of nature. So atheists deny this at their peril

    What complete hogwash. Harris is just strawmanning atheists now like any other accommodationist. Why would he do that?

      1. But I have not done that! Harris is the one saying that atheists don’t know what we are talking about as if none of us have ever had experienced these kinds of transformative moments. Yes he is wrong, and he really shouldn’t be dismissing us like this.

    1. I think he makes it quite clear that he has personally had very “useful” experiences under MDMA and in meditation and that he feels strongly that such experiences should not be sneered at. I think it would be a good idea if he did a video elaborating on these more so that we could understand what he’s talking about a bit better. He is certainly not suggesting that they came from a supernatural origin.

      1. What I mean to say he is doing, whether intentionally or unintentionally, is painting atheists as Star Trek Vulcans or some such. His response to Ceiling Cat verifies this:

        I am not claiming to have experienced all relevant states of this kind. But there are people who appear to have experienced none of them—and many of these people are atheists.

        So, is his point that atheists are people who can’t have certain powerful human experiences? Is he saying that atheists are people who are missing out on some humbling human experience and that if we had them we wouldn’t be atheists? Forget theists and supernaturalists for a minute, just what implications for atheism is he getting at with this line of reasoning?

    2. If you have never had a transcendent experience, what gives you the right to claim that it is hogwash?

      I have never had such an experience. I have also never been skydiving. I have never tasted Dom Perignon champagne. I’ve never driven a Lamborghini. I’ve never performed on stage in front of 100,000 people.

      These are all extraordinary experiences that others have had. To dismiss the fact that extraordinary experiences are possible is very, very stupid.

      There are *millions* of people who have experienced out-of-body “self-dossolving” transcendence that has literally been life-changing for them.

      I’m an atheist, and I haven’t had one of these. but just because I haven’t doesn’t mean that it is an incontrovertible fact that millions of other people have.

      The only hogwash here is coming from you.

  17. Transcendental Experience – the ability to convince ones self you are privelaged to information that others aren’t and requires no evidence but belief.

  18. Most of these comments are centered on Harris’s wackaloon meditation rant to which I agree with these comments.
    I would like to touch on something else I found rather wacky. And that is the idea of not eating something if it has an equally intelligent relevance as we do to pigs. I think if I were a pig and could kill humans after all the pig slaughtering they have been doing I would be killing and eating humans.
    So if there were a consciousness way greater than humans, but it was killing humans for food, you can bet I’d hunting those bastards down.

    1. It isn’t logical to try to put “you” in the place of a non-human animal like a pig, since your experiences, biology, brain, etc would be so drastically different that “you” wouldn’t be “you” anymore.

      Your quibble with Harris is a strawman. For one thing, he isn’t talking about greater intelligence. He is talking about the moral duties that a species with a vastly greater capacity to experience life has to species with drastically less experiential capacity. Your point about whether a less intelligent species has a right to fight back or not has absolutely nothing to do with Harris’ point.

      1. How do you know that animals don’t have “transcendent” experiences? How do you know that that is how they would interpret them (as transcendent)? Think of how you would think if you had no senses and were born with out any working senses? What would your language be? What words would you use? What senses are used in “sensing” a transcendent experience? Couldn’t a transcendent experience be an illusion of how our senses are interpreting what is happening in our brain?

    2. Which part of the “meditation rant” was wackaloon?

      The preponderance of evidence clearly indicates that meditation (among other things) is capable of producing extraordinary states of mind that are categorically different from ordinary consciousness. *Millions* of people have had these experiences. Many of them have found these experiences so profound as to be life-changing.

      I’m an atheist and have never had one of these experiences. But for me to dismiss them given the enormous evidence on hand would be extraordinarily stupid.

      By analogy, consider never having heard music or tasted chocolate. These are not life-changing perhaps, but extraordinary experiences nonetheless. Millions of people have them every day. What would we make of a person who had never experienced them calling these experiences “wackaloon”? Sour grapes, that’s what I think we would make of it.

  19. One of the questions was the perennial focus on Stalin and Hitler’s Atheists. The perennial answer is that Neither of them killed, murdered, raped and tortured people because they were atheists or because they were spreading atheism. Stalin wanted what the Roman emperors wanted – self-worship and he maintained contact with the Orthodox Church when it suited him. Hitler’s (he also executed many atheists in the camps) anti semitism came from his early Catholicism, and a small book written by Luther called “The Jews and their Lies”, (written in old German), see: So, religion dun it!

  20. I’d also like to ask him why he always wears black!

    Because it is arty, fashionable or moody. =D Actually quite elegant, like wearing boots can be.

  21. “I’d also like to ask him why he always wears black!”

    Perhaps it’s just one his enthusiasms, just wearing western boots is one of mine. is Sam a resident of NYC, where all or mostly black has been the Uniform of the Day (as they say in the Navy)?

    A 5th grader asked me one day, “Why do you wear cowboy boots?” It wouldn’t do to get into an extended philosophical discussion about human motivations and preferences; besides, we had to work on dividing by fractions. Could I, I would have done a Vulcan mind meld to try to discern his motivation for asking that question. Apparently I am “odd” or “weird” for wearing boots. How odd? 3 4/11%? Sqr rt -7/9%? Would he have asked me that had I worn wing-tipped tassled loafers? The latest “with-it” footware? (I have no idea what that is.) Does he take his sartorial cues from his peers?

    I once sported a fanny pack to an informal outdoor weekend event. (Nylon running pants have notoriously shallow pockets; repeated sitting and standing can cause paper currency to work its way up and out. One learns.) A youngster, apparently worldly-wise, subtly admonished me that “No one wears those anymore.” Where does one learn these pearls of advice?

    A high school girl once asked me why I wore my pants so high. I don’t, but in her sartorial sub-culture, where one could use a third hand to constantly keep ones britches pulled up so that others might be deprived of the privilege of seeing the crack of Dawn, no doubt to eyes conditioned to dragging pants mine do appeared to be hiked up.

    1. Ha ha, he/she said “fanny pack”!

      Seriously, thanks for the new term. … I think; is it PC in “real life”?

      Also, why isn’t it “booty bag” now? It would be a nice double entendre.

  22. Now I have listened to Harris on “well being”, and it it is troublesome.

    First he confesses that it is impractical, but he uses “good” and “bad” to denote the degree of avoiding death and suffering. This is presumably what well-being is. While death is pretty objective, suffering can be anything for populations or individuals.

    Second, he bases this on experience. Yes, maybe you could hook people up and see how they really experience suffering, say as pain. Then again you can hook people up and promote their experience “well being”, say in Harris formulation as absence of pain, despite being harmed; in this way a hooked up person is in the ideal well being state of humanity.*

    Harris is, quite literary, entertaining a pipe dream.
    * I’m sure Harris has noted the problem and offers a resolution. However, as in the case of the problem of evil for monotheistic religions I’m not aware of any reasonable resolution.

  23. Jerry,

    I’m glad you pointed out 14:07. This is exactly the type of question I would ask Sam if I had the chance. I just don’t understand why he wants us to take seriously the claims of spiritual experiences of mystics and the like when no one can even explain what they are other than the mystics themselves.

    But I suppose it’s good that at least one atheist is pursuing this avenue, to the extent that we can either accept any scientifically-verifiable evidence he finds or feel even more confident in our rejection of the claims otherwise.

  24. Claiming that transcendent states exist is similar to claiming that illusions or the tricks our senses play on us are real. They are all simply experiences that we interpret in different ways based on our knowledge. Because everyone’s knowledge can be different and vary widely for each of us, our interpretations of our experiences can also vary. Even similar experiences can be interpreted in completely different ways. People can even make up their own explanations of their experiences and these explanations are often, if not totally, explained as based in some sort of “goodness”. Transcendent experiences almost always are interpreted as good or having a positive effect on someone. Is there anyone who had a transcendent experience that was based on something bad or ended up having a negative effect on their lives? Or, that was interpreted as being the effect of some bad cause? For instance, if someone loses a limb in an accident, or becomes paralyzed, these physical changes are just as life changing, if not more so, and can be interpreted as having a good effect, such as the person is able to raise awareness of his and others’ disabilities and raise money to help find a cure or research to help those in this condition, or they meet someone, they fall in love and get married. They will interpret their live-changing experience as something positive based on what it led to.

  25. Jerry Coyne’s view of science is very limited. there’s a science of the exterior and there’s a science of the interior. both can be approached with radical empiricism. Sam is doing a great job at fleshing out the view from the interior as well as the exterior. (looking forward to Sam’s future posts on this topic and his next book which I believe he will further flesh out his vision for a Contemplative Science.)

    so what’s the point of transcendence? well, if the mystics are right, and I believe they are, the experience of transcendence *is* the point of existence. if that sounds too mystical schmystical for you, here’s a scientific approach to the science of transcendence.

    “Divide and Conquer: How the Essence of Mindfulness Parallels the Nuts and Bolts of Science” –

    1. Uh… C4Chaos – In response to your criticism of Sam Harris overlooking the implications and/or usefulness of “Transcendent experiences”. It seems that you have overlooked the many,many times that Sam Harris has mentioned positive aspects of Transcendence in debates or his blogs. Here is a quote from his latest entry – submitted today? 7/5/11 —“The form of transcendence that appears to link directly to ethical behavior and human well-being is the transcendence of egoity in the midst of ordinary waking consciousness. It is by ceasing to cling to the contents of consciousness—to our thoughts, moods, desires, etc.—that we make progress. Such a project does not, in principle, require that we experience more contents.[5] The freedom from self that is both the goal and foundation of “spiritual” life is coincident with normal perception and cognition—though, admittedly, this can be difficult to realize.
      Honestly C4Chaos, is there another rational Atheist, neuroscientist who speaks of ‘Transcent experiences’ in such a positive light? How are the readers of Sam Harris to be responsible for what you see as a sort of neglect of what you view as being valuable, or “the point of existence?”.
      To see a ‘reverent monk’ as your profile pic, I’m almost shocked to see you jump to such a conclusion.
      I myself have practiced the ethic’s of Buddhism for almost a decade ( Madhyamika Buddhism ) I have read lot’s of Buddhist canon’s Dighya, sutta nipata ( not to mention the mulamadhyakarika ). I only say this because I see Sam Harris as treading the “middle ground” between rational Atheist Morality and a compassionate Buddhist “Ganadharma (social duty). Sam Harris only asks for evidence of these experiences — didn’t the Buddha himself say : “Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.” ( Kalama Sutta – a discourse of the Buddha contained in the Aṅguttara Nikaya of the Tipiṭaka) What a ‘Sam Harris’ type of statement! ( ;

      1. Shaun,

        please read my comment again. i wasn’t criticizing Sam Harris. my post is a critique of Jerry Coyne and people who don’t have a concept and/or experience of the transcendent.


    2. using the term “transcendent” is begging the question. it is assuming without proof that the experience is beyond something important (usually the purview of science, but even mystical-inclined atheists won’t say that). on the other hand, to admit that it is within the normal purview of science (like any other emotion or brain state, and therefore must be ultimately have a chemical explanation) then that would tend to deflate the mystical quality of the experience, doesn’t it? we should ask – transcend what? if it is a transcendence of the mundane, well that is not a very high bar to get over.

      transcendence is the point of existence? walking around stoned or delirious or otherwise in an altered state of consciousness is the point of existence? or do you mean to have the luxury of free time to be contemplative (free of the stress & struggle for daily survival that afflict most people) is the point of existence?

  26. In Sam’s blog “What’s the Point of Transcendence?”, Sam purports to answer Jerry Coyne’s question, and lists things that he claims to follow from transcendent experiences. Did Sam misunderstand Jerry’s question, or simply sidestepped it? The question was “So if we accept that people do have these seriously transcendent experiences, what follows from that—beyond our simple desire to study the neurobiology behind them?”

    Sam chose to answer “what follows from transcendent experiences” instead of “what follows from our acceptance that people do have these experiences”. In other words, people feel (transcendently?) good when they meditate, so what?

  27. I’m actually surprised at how many otherwise intelligent people fail to grasp the simplicity (the utter obviousness, really) of what Sam writes about.

    I suspect the problem lies in the nature of introspection: some people are so hoodwinked by the illusory objective/subjective split that they refuse to admit any value to introspection.

    Call it “closed-mindedness”.

  28. Reading all of these comments just makes me feel that there may be some hope for our species after all. I don’t agree with all of them, or with all of Sam’s, but rational, well-thought out arguments will advance us much more than blind adherence to pathetic superstition. Keep it up, everyone!

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