Quotation from Sam Harris’ book, WAKING UP: A GUIDE TO SPIRITUALITY WITHOUT RELIGION
Michael A. S. Guth, Ph.D., J.D. ►HEOR & Medical Publishing | Epidemiology | SAS Data Analytics | Market Access Strategy | Chronic Disease Prevention◄ Top Contributor
“Authors who attempt to build a bridge between science and spirituality tend to make one of two mistakes: Scientists generally start with an impoverished view of spiritual experience, assuming that it must be a grandiose way of describing ordinary states of mind—parental love, artistic inspiration, awe at the beauty of the night sky. In this vein, one finds Einstein’s amazement at the intelligibility of Nature’s laws described as though it were a kind of mystical insight.
New Age thinkers usually enter the ditch on the other side of the road: They idealize altered states of consciousness and draw specious connections between subjective experience and the spookier theories at the frontiers of physics. Here we are told that the Buddha and other contemplatives anticipated modern cosmology or quantum mechanics and that by transcending the sense of self, a person can realize his identity with the One Mind that gave birth to the cosmos.
In the end, we are left to choose between pseudo-spirituality and pseudo-science.
Few scientists and philosophers have developed strong skills of introspection—in fact, most doubt that such abilities even exist. Conversely, many of the greatest contemplatives know nothing about science. But there is a connection between scientific fact and spiritual wisdom, and it is more direct than most people suppose. Although the insights we can have in meditation tell us nothing about the origins of the universe, they do confirm some well-established truths about the human mind: Our conventional sense of self is an illusion; positive emotions, such as compassion and patience, are teachable skills; and the way we think directly influences our experience of the world.”
David Dressler likes this
David Dressler, BA, RMT
Mike, I am not sure where to enter this conversation. What is Harris’ thesis? I gather that’s it at the end of the quotation. I am not sure what he means by “pseudo-science” and “pseudo-spirituality.” He is not very specific.He seems to be generalizing a great deal. Could you phrase a question more specifically?
Michael A. S. Guth, Ph.D., J.D.
►HEOR & Medical Publishing | Epidemiology | SAS Data Analytics | Market Access Strategy | Chronic Disease Prevention◄Top Contributor
Yes, I will try. When some friends visited Yosemite National Park in Northern California, they told me that the natural beauty of the mountains and rivers and foliage proves “there is a god.” In other words, they had a kind of mystical experience of the natural beauty around them, and they explained the vista in terms consistent with their culture and upbringing. If I witnessed the same mountain view, I would marvel at how glaciers formed the gorge and how old it must be if trees and foliage now cover the mountains. (The Rocky Mountains, by contrast, are mostly rock and soil with very little greenery.)
In healthcare, we have analogous situations. People keep talking about “miraculous” healings, when in fact we still have so much to learn about immune systems, e.g., why some people who smoke do not develop lung cancer. Some people perceive that they don’t have to worry about smoking just as others perceive they don’t have to watch what we eat, “because we all have to die sometime.”
Instead of digging deeper into the meaning of things, people settle for quick, comfortable answers that conform to their cultural heritage. I have a friend, age 70, in London, and he was joking that I take 30 pills per day. I may take more than 30, but that is a good round number. Most of the pills, 95%, are natural substances like Acetyl-L-Carnitine and Vitamin D. Without saying it, he thinks he is superior to me, because he would never take that many supplements. However, this winter he had a bad chest cold that went into bronchitis. I have not had a chest cold in over 10 years. He is diabetic, and I told him that at his age, he most certainly is not producing enough thyroid hormone. So he should see if taking a thyroid hormone pill to supplement his natural production would help bring his glucose levels under control. He has a closed mind and would not ask his doctor about taking a thyroid hormone pill.
I don’t understand how someone could think having a weakened immune system, having full blown diabetes, having all the other conditions associated with the metabolic syndrome is somehow superior to swallowing 20 pills/capsules per day. I told him about zinc sublingual having anti-viral properties. He said he had heard that before, but no, he would not try zinc to help with his chest cold / bronchitis.
People have a right to their own beliefs and cultural outlook, but it appears irrational to me when people who are obese go right on eating donuts, people with cancer don’t learn about the range of treatment options at each stage, and people with metabolic syndrome conditions just do nothing when their conditions can usually be corrected. My friend in London has two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. So he is not uneducated or a stranger to doing research. There is a kind of pseudo-science at work that says he had a comprehensive blood test, everything is fine, and he does not have to worry. If I saw his blood test results, I would probably be aghast.
I got the quote from Chapter One of Harris’ book. You can read the long chapter here: http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/chapter-one
David Dressler and David Dressler, BA, RMT
So, if I understand right, you are trying to understand two seemingly disconnected ways of believing, and you are distressed at the way some people believe.
On the one hand, there is a seemingly mystical or spiritual belief, not necessarily part of any formal religion but possibly so, and congruent with (in this case) your friends’ cultural background. You, in contrast, would view the same scene (in this case the mountains, etc.) in terms of their physical beauty and the geological and glacial forces that brought them into being. Your friends see the scene as evidence of God, and you see it as manifestation of natural physical forces.
You wonder how there can be this difference in believing when perceiving the very same phenomenon.
Moreover, you identify a similar kind of schism in belief in the health care field, where one’s very life can depend on having the “right” belief system. You are dismayed and, I would guess distressed, at your friend with the weakened immune system who apparently sneers at your 30 pills and goes on coughing and enduring some serious medical conditions. You seem to suggest that he may be victim of “pseudo-science” that says he must be fine because he had a blood test, regardless of what the test actually said.
Is your bottom line question: How can people hold on to such irrational beliefs when it comes to their health, that they ignore their symptoms and even the objective evidence of lab tests? Is another related question: How do people get from the evidence of their senses that tell them about material reality to a belief in God or a non-material reality? Why do they look at the mountain and “see” God and you see the same Mountain but no God? And, I would add, why are some human beings willing to fight and even kill when somebody doesn’t believe what they do?
If this seems to be the gist of your question or issue, let me know. If not, tell me what I didn’t get right. Then perhaps I can go on from there about the key issues you raised.
David Dressler and David Dressler, BA, RMT
Mike, I just read the first chapter of Sam Harris’ book at your link above. I really enjoyed it. Thanks for the invitation. I agree with most of what he says. If it isn’t off topic, I just want to add a personal note. The way I think of religion and spirituality might be expressed by way of this image. It is what I call “the prison and the prism.” Imagine a prism. It is a triangular solid made of glass. It refracts (bends) light. If you shine white light into the prism, what you see on the other side is the spectrum–red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. These distinct colors are like the various religions. If the red disagrees with the blue and tries to extinguish it, there will be a problem. If they co-exist without quarrel, at least there is toleration and the spectrum of belief remains. But, what is not understood by the various colors, the various seemingly conflicting religions is that they emanate from the same source! All the religions come from the same white light! If only the true believers would turn around and look straight into the light…. then we would have spirituality without religious belief. We would realize we all come from the same, the very same, source….
The material world is like the prism. It is real, you can knock your knuckles on it. But it also lets through the light, something that is non-material and is the felt basis of the world’s seemingly disparate religions. If we were to understand the material world as “transparent” to something non-material, we are living with the prism. But if we turn our back on that something coming through the material “prism” and entrench ourselves in the belief in that something, in religious belief, we are living in the “prison.”
Michael A. S. Guth, Ph.D., J.D. ►HEOR & Medical Publishing | Epidemiology | SAS Data Analytics | Market Access Strategy | Chronic Disease Prevention◄Top Contributor
David, first of all, thanks for taking the time to write two thoughtful comments in this thread. I know the topic is somewhat philosophical, but I am glad you are up for the challenge. Concerning your first post, all the questions that you posed are correct — those are my questions. But I see “the uninformed” being doctors who are so used to doing the same old thing in medicine that they don’t even make an effort to keep up with latest developments. I’m really not interested in medicine as it was taught to my doctor 30 years ago when he was in medical school. I want to know the latest treatment options from 2014 and 2015. Doctors memorize or load up on their PDAs the drugs approved by the FDA. That is just part of the available scientific evidence. When I had high blood pressure, why didn’t any doctor tell me that the first metabolite of L-Arginine is nitric oxide, the most potent vasodilator known to man (nitroglycerin tablets used for angina work off this same principle)? Damn, people have such closed minds. My dad was a scientist, and what I remember most about him was that he had an open mind. He would listen to arguments and evidence and then decide if it was true. So I could say to him “The sky is green.” And instead of saying “that is stupid,” he would be curious why I am calling the blue sky green. I inherited that natural curiosity, and I would expect doctors to be more open-minded, but I see belief systems are dominant. My doctor thinks the coronary calcium score test is the best overall measure of heart attack risk. He persuaded me to get the test, and I am glad I did. In that case, his subjective beliefs worked in my favor, as most other doctors would not have taken the time to learn about that test. Not all subjective beliefs are bad, especially if they are grounded on evidence. But I have a problem with beliefs that have no grounding on evidence; those beliefs sound more like superstitions. Can someone have religious beliefs that are not based on evidence but not have that kind of belief system spill over into medicine/healthcare without any evidence? Can a person say I am perfectly willing to accept and believe in a deity without any proof just on faith; however, when it comes to treating my arthritis, I demand strict proof with double-blind placebo studies that the medication has efficacy? That does not seem congruous — demanding strict proof it one part of your life, and living on fantasy in another.
Michael A. S. Guth, Ph.D., J.D. ►HEOR & Medical Publishing | Epidemiology | SAS Data Analytics | Market Access Strategy | Chronic Disease Prevention◄
David, on your second post concerning Chapter 1, thanks for sharing the prism / religion analogy. Sam Harris’ central theme is that you can have wonderment or mystical experiences without having to shroud them in religious beliefs. I am only 1/2 through Sam Harris’ book, but he is most likely going to explain awe and wonder in terms of a burst of serotonin in the brain, possibly endorphins, and other neurotransmitters. You seem to have hit on something important with the living in the prism / living in the prison.
David Dressler and David Dressler, BA, RMT
Thanks, Mike, I don’t get to talk about this “philosophical stuff” often, and most people don’t want to. I really appreciate this opportunity. And the questions you raise are good ones, they are very much my questions too. Whenever I raise such questions, I want to know where they come from in me. Why I am raising them. Why they have been with me most of my life. Even more than finding answers, I want to know why I ask. Sometimes I think the answer IS the question.
The need to know. The need to go…where one has never gone before. Inner space IS the final frontier, and it is endless. But we clamp the lid down and settle for easy answers. We want an answer instead of a journey. What if the answer is that we are on a journey? More: WHAT IF WE ARE THE JOURNEY?
What if who we really are is the journey of discovering? What if we are the action of discovering? What if we are, or could be, the child we once were, looking out of adult eyes with wonder and boundless curiosity? If only we did not have to condition our minds so that we can earn a living and do a lifetime of routine things. If only we did not identify with things not our true self–the work we do, our roles, our accomplishments, our religions, in short who we think we are. All of that is what I call “the prison.” Yet, even all those things we identify with but which are not who we really are–are aspects of the light if understood rightly. When I de-identify with all of my beliefs, roles, achievements, etc., it is possible for me to see all of my attachments as expressions of the one light. And at the same time I may see that even my adversary’s beliefs and preoccupations are expressions of the same light that shines through mine. When I see this, I am no longer in “the prison.” I understand how our minds are a “prism” for the same light. We are individuals, prisms, but we are also filled with the same light or life. Our journey seems to me to discover this in oneself.
What do you see as something important with the prism/prison concept?
To return to your question. You seem to be asking how it is possible for the same person to believe in God or some spiritual being without need of evidence and yet demand rigorous scientific proof when practicing ones’ medical profession. You are implicitly raising one of the oldest questions in philosophy and religion. First: what would satisfy you as to “evidence” for God’s existence? Historically, there have been many proofs for God’s existence: the revelations of saints, reports of miracles, visions shared by numerous people simultaneously, healings, predictions of events in the world that came to pass. the list goes on. A skeptic can argue that this kind of evidence is basically hearsay and possibly even delusional, and at the very least open to many interpretations. Science as we know it today developed out of empiricism and pragmatism, two relatively modern movements in philosophy. Science insists on evidence, not subjective reports or hearsay. That evidence is usually quantifiable, the outcome of an experiment to test an hypothesis. God exists.That can be an hypothesis. The problem is what kind of evidence can one find to prove the hypothesis that God exists?