Saturday, November 29, 2014

Harris, Faith and Science. Commentary on Waking Up Part 5

This is the fifth part of my commentary on Sam Harris's Waking Up.

A theme that Harris repeatedly emphasizes in Waking Up is that the Eastern spirituality he advocates does not necessarily require any belief in a faith-based system (which Harris thinks is pernicious) or subscription to any metaphysical dogmas. According to Harris, it can be approached entirely empirically. For these reasons it is allegedly superior to Western spirituality, in particular Christian-inspired spirituality.

But Harris's proposed spirituality does in fact require faith, or at least faith as it has been understood in the Christian tradition. This differs from the currently popular understanding of "faith", which just means willed belief in propositions without evidence. The traditional understanding of "faith" is closer in meaning to what we think of as trust; as in we believe in something because we trust the person proposing it, and have reason to think he is in a position to know the truth of it. This understanding of faith is, in fact, not restricted to religion but is how the mass of individuals are related to, for instance, science. The average man cannot duplicate the experiments of the trained scientist or perhaps even understand the details of the scientist's theories. But he believes what the scientist proposes to him because he has reason to believe that the scientist knows what he is talking about when it comes to science. The average man is rightly impressed with the technological wonders that are based on science and sees them as confirmation of the scientist's theories. Trust is involved because, not understanding the science and therefore the true connection between science and technical wonders, the average man must take the scientist's word for what the science truly is and what it implies.

With respect to Christianity, and specifically with respect to the Catholic Church, faith does not mean believing propositions without evidence, but in trusting  that the Church is a true witness to what it claims to have witnessed - the Resurrection of Christ. That witness, and its ratification by Christ Himself,  is the basis of the authority of the original Apostles, and that authority has been passed on through history to the generations of bishops. The average man's relationship to the bishops is much like that of his relationship to scientists. He must trust the bishop, as he does the scientist, to communicate to him the true meaning and significance of that which he is in no position to fully understand.

The big difference, of course, between the bishop and the scientist is that the bishop does not have the full spectrum of modern technical wonders with which to impress the average man. But he does have, perhaps, the occasional miracle, and he certainly has the ordinary witness of saints. The impressive lives of saints like Francis, Thomas Aquinas, Francis Xavier, and many others, testify to the effect of Christ in their lives and through that testimony support the witness of the Church.

What is the nature of the faith involved in Sam Harris's spirituality? He claims there is none, but in fact the prospective meditator is taking it on faith that meditation will have the effects that Harris claims it will. In the extreme, Harris claims that meditation will reveal the illusion of the self, but even if this is true, it will be experienced only after many years of meditation. The person who spends years meditating just to discover if the claims about meditation are true so he can take up meditating, has of course already answered his question. Skeptics rightly make the same point with respect to some Christian apologists who claim prayer can be tested empirically. When prayer doesn't soon have the evidential effect that was hoped, the apologist counsels patience that God works in his own time (which He does). But asking someone to pray for an indefinite period as a way to establish that prayer is a worthwhile activity in the first place is hardly a reasonable request.

Sam Harris is asking us to trust that meditation will have the evidential effect he says it will - specifically, that it will bring one to perceive the illusion of the self. Harris implicitly admits this by spending considerable time bringing in science in an attempt to support this belief (which I have addressed in earlier posts.) Such preliminaries would not be necessary if Harris weren't writing a check he promises to cash later.

But the same thing is true of "faith-based" Christian spirituality. The Church claims that through prayer, fasting, and reception of the Sacraments, the Christian will discover a relationship with Christ that fulfills all the promises that the Church makes about Him. Such a promise must be taken on trust (faith) but, like Harris, the Church does not demand that anyone believe this promise without evidence, but marshalls evidence in support of its promise - just as does Sam Harris.

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