Sunday, October 26, 2014

Commentary on Waking Up by Sam Harris, part 2

On pages 12 and 13, Harris makes some good points about happiness and the variability of existence (points that are standard fare in classical philosophy) but are well-made nonetheless:

We seek pleasant sights, sounds, tastes, sensations and moods. We satisfy our intellectual curiosity. We surround ourselves with friends and loved ones. We become connoisseurs of art, music, or food. But our pleasures are, by their very nature, fleeting. If we enjoy some great professional success, our feelings of accomplishment remain vivid and intoxicating for an hour, or perhaps a day, but then they subside. And the search goes on. The effort required to keep boredom and other unpleasantness at bay must continue, moment to moment.

Ceaseless change is an unreliable basis for lasting fulfillment. Realizing this, many people begin to wonder whether a deeper source of well-being exists. Is there a form of happiness beyond the mere repetition of pleasure and the avoidance of pain?... is it possible to be happy before anything happens, before one's desires are gratified, in spite of life's difficulties, in the very midst of physical pin, old age, disease and death?

This is well-said, and Harris goes on to draw out the logic of the situation:

If there exists a source of psychological well-being that does not depend upon merely gratifying one's desires, then it should be present even when all the usual sources of pleasure have been removed. Such happiness should be available to a person who has declined to marry her high school sweetheart, renounced her career and material possessions, and gone off to a cave or some other spot that is inhospitable to ordinary aspirations.

The first thing to note is that Harris is looking for merely psychological well-being. But what of well-being simpliciter? We are more than merely our psychology, and the question may be asked if psychological well-being is a good when our overall human well-being is not. Tony Soprano, for example, sought help from a psychologist to overcome his panic attacks. It turned out that treating the panic attacks involved a more comprehensive psychological analysis of Soprano's life - the life of a mafia boss and killer. Can a mob killer be "psychologically healthy" yet remain, and be comfortable with, his life of crime? This was the question that bedeviled Soprano's psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, and raises the question of the relationship of the psychological sciences to an evaluation of human character.

In the book Artificial Happiness, physician Ronald Dworkin discusses the widespread use of psychotropic drugs to give people a feeling of well-being they don't really deserve. While such drugs are appropriate in some cases of genuine psychological illness, they are increasingly administered to people who are simply unhappy, and often for very good reasons. They are unhappy because they have messed up their lives through poor choices, alcohol, simple irresponsibility or unfortunate circumstances (e.g. a woman staying with an abusive husband.) Their feelings of unhappiness could be a spur to a reconsideration of their lives. Instead, they seek and are sometimes granted drugs that merely make them feel better, derailing any motivation they had to change themselves or their situations. The man who can't keep a job because he's too lazy to consistently get to work on time feels just cool with that; the woman with the abusive husband abandons any plans she had to leave him and thinks things are fine because she feels content with what is going on.

Psychological well-being is not a good thing if it doesn't reflect genuine well-being. Why does Harris focus on it? It is because he is captured by the scientistic mindset that does not permit a deep philosophical analysis of human nature. Such an analysis presupposes that some views of human well-being are better than others and, even more significantly, that they can be objectively ranked through philosophical investigation. And that implies that the truth about human nature, including its end or purpose, is also a philosophically available truth. The Enlightenment tradition of which Harris is a modern exemplar holds that such truth simply isn't available to us. We can pursue "happiness", but of what happiness consists - in terms of desires and their fulfillment - isn't something that can be objectively determined. We cannot say precisely in what absolute human well-being consists; but we can at least say in what psychological well-being consists.

The classical philosopher, as exemplified by Aristotle, is not afraid to rank desires or to insist that the truth concerning human nature, including its end, is a philosophically available truth.  That truth is that man is by nature a rational animal, and that fulfillment for him involves ordering his being to reason. Psychological well-being is not the primary goal here, it is merely a by-product of a deeper transformation, a transformation of character. Well-being for man means well-being in terms of virtue. The good man (the man who is truly "well") is courageous, temperate, just and wise, all virtues conditioned by reason. Man will experience pleasure at the result - psychological well-being - but that well-being is simply delight in the true good he possesses. Pursuing psychological well-being as an end in itself is, on this view,  to mistake the by-product for the product.

Modern thinkers are wary of speaking of human nature classically understood - that is, in terms that go beyond the restrictions of science to a philosophical consideration of man as such. Psychological well-being has the advantage that it sidesteps questions of the nature of man in terms of man's end or purpose, but for that very reason, will not turn out to be what an unsatisfied man is really looking for.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Commentary on Waking Up by Sam Harris, part 1

I'm reading Sam Harris's new book Waking Up, A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. Harris, you may remember, is one of the New Atheists and is the author of, among other books, the popular The End of Faith. Less well-known is that Harris is an advocate of Buddhist meditation, and in this book he discusses meditation in terms of its benefits and its relationships to religion in general and atheism. As I've mentioned elsewhere, Harris is a pleasant author to read because of his straightforward style and obvious sincerity. I think he is sincerely wrong about many things, but one of his virtues is that he has the courage of his convictions and tells you exactly what he thinks in plain language. As I was reading along I noticed that he wrote so many things of which I felt the urge to respond that my space in the margins filled up. So instead of writing there, I'm going to write here. This will not be a book review or essay on Harris's work, simply my comments on Harris as I read through the book.

Here goes.


In the first chapter, pages 4 and 5, Harris describes the results of his experimenting with the drug MDMA (Ecstasy) in 1987:

And then came the insight that irrevocably transformed my sense of how good human life could be. I was feeling boundless love for one of my best friends, and I suddenly realized that if a stranger had walked through the door at that moment, he or she would have been fully included in this love. Love was at bottom impersonal - and deeper than any personal history could justify. Indeed, a transactional form of love - I love you because... - now made no sense at all. 

The interesting thing about this final shift in perspective was that it was not driven by any change in the way I felt. I was not overwhelmed by a new feeling of love. The insight had more the character of a geometric proof: It was as if, having glimpsed the properties of one set of parallel lines, I suddenly understood what was common to them all. 

The moment I could find a voice with which to speak, I discovered that this epiphany about the universality of love could be readily communicated. My friend got the point at once: All I had to do was ask him how he would feel in the presence of a total stranger at that moment, and the same door opened in his mind. It was simply obvious that love, compassion, and joy in the joy of others extended without limit. The experience was not of love growing but of it no longer being obscured. Love was - as advertised by mystics and crackpots through the ages - a state of being... It would take many years to put this experience into context... I still considered the world's religions to be mere intellectual ruins, maintained at enormous economic and social cost, but I now understood that important psychological truths could be found in the rubble.

Harris writes that what happened was a shift in "perspective" and not driven by "any change in the way I felt", but its significance is calculated in terms of how felt about his best friend, and how he would feel about a total stranger walking through the door. And at the end of the passage, he understands that he found an important psychological truth. Love, then, for Harris is a psychological experience and the state of being he mentions is a psychological state.

We may contrast that with the traditional Christian understanding of love, which is not so much a feeling or psychological state but an action. When Christ teaches what it means to love your neighbor as yourself, he teaches it in terms of parables like the Good Samaritan, a story that tells us what the Samaritan did and very little about what he felt. Harris and his friend take Ecstasy and sit around having warm feelings for each other and the world in general. All very nice, but where does that get Harris or anyone else?

Love, for the Christian, involves a state of being, but that state is much more than psychological and is dynamic rather than static. "Being" is an action word, and a man who is actually in a state of love must actually be doing something based on it. In fact, from the Christian perspective, simply having warm feelings about others that does not issue in action is very dangerous, since it invites one to mistake a mere psychological experience for the genuine state of love.


On page 6, Harris notes that:

Our world is dangerously riven by religious doctrines that all educated people should condemn, and yet there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit.

Admissions like this are one of the things that makes Harris worth reading, since he doesn't deny the obvious as many atheists do. For them, religion must be a malignant force through and through with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. If it were, why have so many people followed it? There must be something about religion that accounts for its persistence over millennia. The typical atheist response here is to account for religion in terms of evolution or some reassuring but false consolation it provides. This isn't good enough either, as it is obvious that, whatever else may be said about it, religion has produced some remarkable people who have managed to transcend the ordinary human condition in some way - the Buddhist monk serene in his contemplation being an example. 


page 9:

Nothing that a Christian, a Muslim, and a Hindu can experience - self-transcending love, ecstasy, bliss, inner light - constitutes evidence in support of their traditional beliefs, because their beliefs are logically incompatible with one another. A deeper principle must be at work.

That principle is the subject of this book: The feeling that we call "I" is an illusion. There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is - the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eyes, looking out at ta world that is separate from yourself - can be altered or entirely extinguished.

It's clear that Harris arbitrarily limits experience here. For example, while Harris does not accept revelation, there is nothing logically impossible about it. Someone could experience a private revelation from God through which God reveals certain truths to him inaccessible by other means. That experience being private, of course, means that it need not carry cognitive weight for anyone else, but that does not rule out the possibility that it could be genuinely meaningful for the person who experiences it. But in any case, Christianity has always depended on public witness rather than private revelation. The Apostles proclaimed the Gospel based on their witness of the risen Christ, a witness that involved him speaking to them, touching them, and eating their food. Subject experiences of ecstasy or love have nothing to do with. Today, the Church carries on the public witness of the Resurrection of Christ that was handed on to them through the ages starting with the Apostles. Now you may not buy that witness - as many did not buy it in the first century - but that is where the game is, not in subjective experience.

The doctrine that the self is an illusion involves profound consequences, and it will be interesting to see where Harris goes with it.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Chesterton and Harry Potter

I'm a longtime Harry Potter hater, having once waged an unsuccessful mini-crusade to keep the series out of my kid's Catholic school. I haven't thought about Potter much in the last few years, but I've recently been reading In Defense of Sanity, a collection of Chesterton essays compiled by Dale Ahlquist, Joseph Pierce and Aidan Mackey for Ignatius Press.

One of the more frustrating aspects of being both a Potter hater and a Chesterton fan was the - to me - perplexing affection some Chestertonians had and still have for Harry Potter. One of the primary reasons for my Potter hatred, and one of the qualities of the series that struck me almost immediately on reading it, was its anti-Chesterton imaginative cast. I never could understand how anyone who read deeply of Chesterton could stomach Harry Potter.

My anti-Potter jihad is long over (and failed), so it is too late that I stumbled across the essay "Magic and Mystery in Fiction" in the Ignatius Press collection. The essay includes a passage relevant to what Chesterton's view of Harry Potter might have been:
In contrast with this, it will be noted that the good miracles, the acts of the saints and heroes, are always acts of restoration. They give the victim back his personality; and it is a normal and not a super-normal personality. The miracle gives back his legs to the lame man; but it does not turn him into a large centipede. It gives eyes to the blind; but only a regular and respectable number of eyes. The paralytic is told to stretch forth his hands, which is the gesture of liberation from fetters; but not to spread himself as a sort of Briarean octopus radiating in all directions and losing the human form. There runs through the whole tradition the idea that black magic is that which blots out or disguise the true form of a thing; while white magic, in the good sense, restores it to its own form and not another.
In these terms, the magic in Harry Potter is all black magic, whether used by Harry himself or Voldemort, for it bears no relation to form. What it does bear relation to is will - the will of the wizard himself and his desire to impose himself on the world. Thus the beginning magic classes in Hogwarts feature students turning small items arbitrarily into other small items, precisely what is of no consequence, since the goal is not to respect the form of the thing but to develop the power of the wizard. For the point isn't what it is with Christian miracles (or the genuinely good magic in Lord of the Rings), which is to restore things to the forms originally intended for them by the Creator, but to practice the technique of forcing things to be what you want them to be, whatever that might be.

The key to understanding the Harry Potter universe is to understand that it is a world without a Creator. A world with a Creator is a world made in the light of transcendent intelligence, in which everything is brought into being according to a pattern of wisdom that includes both the forms of things themselves as well as their relationships to each other. The wisdom of the creature is measured by the extent to which he knows, respects and conforms himself to the Divine Wisdom. "Magic" in such a world - another world for which is "miracle" - is really just another name for a specific act of Divine Grace. The great saint who has submitted himself extraordinarily to the Divine Will also becomes an extraordinary channel of Divine Grace, and so may appear "magical" to the ordinary man when, of course, he is no more magical than anyone else. He is simply more in tune with the way things really are, like the Elves in the Lord of the Rings. Sam Gamgee, on being presented with the gift of an Elvish cloak, asks if it is magical, a question that puzzles his Elvish benefactor. The Elves simply understand and conform themselves to nature to such an extent that they can produce from nature things that others, less consonant with nature than they are, can only interpret in terms of magic.

A world without a Creator is a world that does not express any deep wisdom in its origin; a being in this world has no assurance that his own nature is intelligible or that he necessarily bears any intelligible relation to anything else. Such a world is chaotic. It is chaotic not just in the relationships of things to each other, but in the relationships of things to themselves. Thus Hogwarts is populated with ugly, distorted and disproportionate things, like ghosts with half-severed heads and plants that have babies for roots, the cry of whom is dangerous. Why would a plant have a baby for its roots? Who knows? It's not a question anyone at Hogwarts, teacher or student, is interested in asking. In a chaotic world, questions of form are not worth asking since they don't have answers. Only questions of expediency matter, which is why the students concentrate on the most practical way to handle the Mandrake plant (that's the one with babies for roots) without getting injured. It's also why the students practice seemingly trivial exercises like making a pineapple dance across a desk or turning a beetle into a button. Why would one do either of those things? Again, that is not a relevant question at Hogwarts since beetles and pineapples are not created things with a nature and end informed by the Divine Wisdom, but merely random items that are grist for the will of the wizard.

The point is that the Harry Potter world, not being a created world informed by Divine Wisdom, is not an imaginatively Catholic world; and for Chesterton, this would have been a fatal flaw. Chesterton loved the children's literature of the Western tradition because it made us all imaginative Christians whether or not we ever became confessing ones. The fact that we no longer instinctively recoil from a story in which the "good" magic is less than a metaphor for grace, and is not restricted to creatures like Gandalf with the nature and wisdom to wield it, but is instead distinguished from "bad" magic only in the supposed moral character of those who wield it, should tell how deteriorated our cultural imagination has already become.