I have been critical of Sam Harris on many points, including his new book, Waking Up. But I got the kindle version of his book and looked though it this morning. This book was not what I expected, and I will have to revise my views of Harris on many points. He is, to my surprise, very much a new ager among new agers, a fact that has so far been unclear, to say the least.
To see my point, and why I was discussing a Sam Harris who is not the man I thought read my short take below from several years ago on Hitchens’ very confused take on the new age movement and ‘enlightenment’. Based on what Hitchens said you would have to conclude the new atheists were a bunch of scientism morons who cannot grasp the first fact of buddhism and declare enlightenment a superstition. That kind of thinking justly discredited the movement, or so we thought.
Harris, to the contrary is more of a new ager than I am (I never had the money to visit India or the guru circuit) and has done all the conventional guru hops that are typical of the new age jetset. To my astonishment I read he has been to the ashram of Poonja the strangely ambiguous guru in the Maharsi sphere who is the ‘instant enlightenment’ source of many ‘credentialed’ ‘not even quite disciples’ who emerged as fully enlightened, or so it seemed. I have to hand it to Harris to have slipped the noose of a fake ‘enlightenment’ medal. What Poonja was doing is not clear. But at this point, it is clear Harris is coming from a very different direction from that of his fellow atheists.
I can justly castigate the new atheists for the views of someone like Hitchens, but here Harris is in the ‘your guess is as good as mine’ realm of trying to decipher gurus, buddhism, consciousness, meditation and its techniques. Etc… I can’t but achieve par here and have to withdraw some of my sarcastic dismissal, which is really about Hitchens.
AT the same time, I would try to restate my earlier criticisms, because Harris is attempting an overly reductionist stance on the issues of spirituality and science. Let me hasten to add that it was always thus: Indian spirituality has always had skeptics, atheists, and materialists, and beside these the proponents of materialist Samkhya, that ‘materialistic’ take on spiritual ‘materialism’.
We confront issues that produce the classic stalemates, the issue of consciousness especially, and the attempt to resolve its relationship to neuroscience.
The distinction of spirituality and the supernatural is actually a variant of that Samkhya view, and the idea is that ‘spirituality’ can be something inside nature, what else could it be? The classic confusion has been to make all spirituality an aspect of the ‘supernatural’. That said, we can’t easily be dogmatic on any of these questions because we simply don’t have the knowledge to resolve them.
That said, I think Harris is too constricted on the issues: we can speak of naturalistic spirituality, but we can’t so easily negate the question of ‘soul’. It just doesn’t amount to conviction to reject all states beyond the body, and the simple equation of mind with physical parameters. It ought to work that way, and maybe future science will finish the account, but til then we are cutting too much out of the spiritual chaff: we are left with a new kind of fallacy.
Harris has a lot to say about ‘self’ and the illusion of ‘self’, and here again I am a little bit wary. It is however a compelling buddhist discourse in a new incarnation and I will have to defer from critique to try and rethink the issue myself.
Much of my criticism then was misplaced, but the fact remains that excessive scientism is getting in the way: the question of mindfulness and enlightenment is unsolved in Harris’ account. Not that anyone else can really manage.
I have always been able to skirt this usually fruitless debate because I had the model of J.G.Bennett in the back of my mind: there we have clear distinctions of types of consciousness, their relation to cosmology, and the clear distinction between consciousness and the ‘will’ without which endless confusion arises. These views have their own problems but they point to a problem solved in some future knowledge.
Since Harris’ book could be defended on the grounds of trying to rewrite buddhism for materialist fanatics I can muster at best a wave of the hand, in a confident realization the new age trojan horse has entered the new atheist stronghold.
I am left with a grumbling ‘why didn’t you say so in first place?’, etc….
How Hitchens shot a hole in the ‘new atheism’
October 7th, 2012 • No Comments
I think the new atheism died at birth the moment that Christopher Hitchens, describing himself as drunk/hung over in Poona, India, outside the Rajneesh ashram, declared ‘enlightenment’ a superstition. Tens of millions of de facto atheists, among them virtually all buddhists, and ten other categories of philosophic belief comprising immense numbers of intelligent secularists, were suddenly on the outside of the gestating cult of the new atheism, thus automatically before forming any real opinion, just by definition. Anyone who wishes to challenge enlightenment might find grounds for doing so, but that is an edgy proposition. To do so drunk outside the Rajneesh ashsram in the period in question, when an active case of an ‘enlightened’ man was present, trying patiently and at great length in hundreds of books and speeches to clarify the obscurities here, simply made Hitchens and the new atheists look ridiculous. Over and out. Period.