We've all heard about Harris' scathing criticisms of religions of all flavor, including Buddhism. In this 2-part talk at You Tube he defends meditation and contemplation and criticizes the atheist community for throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In my atheistic mind this is indeed a step towards re-visioning the great traditions by nourishing the baby while also pulling the plug on the dirty bathwater.

Also of note is that he echoes kennilingus in claiming one must take up the injunction of meditation before one can criticize its phenomenal experience. He does qualify that one can certainly criticize based on reason alone the metaphysical accoutrements of those who have such experiences. Yet the experiences themselves cannot be refuted by reason alone. And that such experience must be translated into postmetaphysical terms shorn of religious dogma to be of pertinent use in today's world.

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I should probably chime in a bit more lest my position be unclear. When I say that Harris' account is clear and well written, and one of the best accounts of its type, I meant that his account is one of the best examples of the position of "mystical empircism." This is so, I think, precisely because Harris purposefully attempts to keep as much theological and metaphysical baggage as he can out of the equation. This makes his account a good target for analysis.

 

While I have some sympathy with Harris and Dawkins general critique of religion, particularly Dawkins dismantling of creationism, I have reservations about their understanding of the religions they purportedly critique. I'm not sure I would go so far as to call Harris a racist, but he does appear to dismiss the tradition of Islam with some rather blanket statements that suggest that he does not exactly have a well rounded or even a well informed view of the traditions he criticizes. For present purposes, though, I am going to avoid that kettle of smelly fish and stick to the issue I raised above, and which theurg appears to be attempting to pursue.

 

He writes, "You may feel that your consciousness is one thing... and the book another. This is the kind of dualistic (subject/object) perception that characterizes our normal experience of life. It is possible hwoever to look for yourself in such a way as to put this subject object dichotomy in doubt and even banish it altogether." p. 213 He continues, "The contents of our consciousness... are merely the expresssions of consciousness at the level of our experience," and he then goes on to say, "It would seem that a spirituality that undermined this dualism, through the mere contemplation of consciousness, could not but help improve our situation." p. 241 Now why would this necessarily be the case? 

 

It is at this point that Harris' account becomes the most problematic, and ludicrous. He falls for the old stereotype about the "mystical non-dual" East and "dogmatic dualistic" West. He mentions Shankara, Padmashambhava and Nagarjuna as representing the "East," but no mention is made of the numerous Asian theologians, philosophers and exegetes who were antithetical to "non-dualism" of the stripe he describes. It is even doubtful that his description of the Advaita of Shankara is even remotely accurate. It is nonetheless the stereotyped description we receive from Vivekananda to Wilber.

 

To return to our point about naive and romantic stereotyping, notice the language Harris uses: "When the great philosophers and mystics of the East are weighed against the patriarchs of the Western philosophical and theological traditions the difference is unmistakable: the Buddha, Shankara... Nagarjuna... have no equivalents in the West."

 

This statement is simply put,a silly romantic idealizing of the East. In an endnote he appears to sense a criticism of this type and he mentions Eckhart, St John of the Cross, Theresa of Avila, and others. But he then states that while these men and women were certainly "extraordinary," their "mystical insights remained shackled to the dualism of church doctrine, and as a result failed to fly." p. 284.

 

The implication here appears to be that while "dualism" is dogmatic and metaphysical, the teachings of nondualism are "experiencially based." Again, this is but more nonsense. Why should dualism not also be "experientially based" if it is the "experience" of countless bhaktas?  And similarly, since when is non-dualism not doctrinally based. For example, nowhere does Shankara, whom Harris mentions as exemplufying non-dualism, state that the teaching of non-dualism is based on experience. He states quite clearly that it can only be derived from the Vedic revelation. And that the teaching of non-dualism is metaphysical goes without saying.

 

To return to the main body of Harris' text, he continues, "It does not seem out of place to briefly examine the Eastern and Western canons..." The Eastern and Western canons? Now what could that possibly mean? Why none other than non-dualism and dualism. It is here that Harris gives us a tract from Padmasambhava on the primordial awareness and asks us to find anything remotely like it in the Bible or the Koran. It is at this point that we begin to feel the invective that Harris has toward these texts. We might begin by noting that the works of Padmasambhava are in no way analogous to the Bible or the Koran. In any case, he continues that the comparison with Muhammed is particularly "invidious" because the two were contemporaries.

 

It is at this point that Harris makes his most outlandish claim, and he has made more than a few already. He states with respect to Padmasambhava's tract on the primordial awareness that it is a "rigourously empirical doctrine, not a statement of metaphysics." p. 217. Where the question of metaphysics is concerned, this statement is truly laughable; as for its claims to be "purely empirical" it reveals Harris' naivity where the history of religions is concerned, as it shows no consideraion for how texts of this type developed within the Indo-Tibetan tradition.

 

Harris has been duped by the rhetoricians of "mystical empiricism." We find evidence in his presentation of "meditation." For example, parades the usual Neo-Advaita stereotypes of the practice of "meditation."

1. It's primary obstacle is "thinking." "Break the spell of thought and the duality of subject and object will vanish." p. 218. Ramana could not have said it better!

2. "There is something to realize about the nature of consciousness, and its realization does not entail thinking new thoughts>" p. 218 Here, the rhetoric of "realization" beyond all thoughts.

3. "Your conscioiuness... is an utter simplicity as a matter of experience. " p. 219 In other words, we have direct access to consciousness.

4. "There is nothing we need to believe to actualize it." p. 219

 

He then enters domain closer to the thinking of Wilber et al:

5. "Spiritual intuitions are ammenable to intersubjective consensus." p. 220

 

I have subjected all of these ideas to analysis and critique at some time or other and I will not rehearse those issues.

 

To conclude, Harris makes use of one more stereotype, that between "spirituality" (or what he calls "mysticism") and "religion" itself. This is a version of the old "esoteric/exoteric" distinction. Harris states, "Mysticism is a rational enterprise. Religion is not." He explains, "The mystic has realized something prior to thought... The mystic has reasons for what he believes and these reasons are empirical."

 

Here, Harris no where considers that mysticism and spirituality might themselves be entirely imbued with religion, religious belief, and faith.

 

 

 

 

In that article that Bruce linked to Lears writes: "As their critics began to realize, positivists had abandoned the provisionality of science’s experimental outlook by transforming science from a method into a metaphysic, a source of absolute certainty."

I was thinking earlier today, while going over a few posts here, that sometimes I see echoes of this kind of thing in discussions on this forum. In certain ways, postmetaphysics is held up as a kind of gold standard against which to measure or judge other ways of thinking and being. I mean, of course, it's a forum on postmetaphysics, duh -- but what I'd noticed were phrases suggestive of a .... postmetaphysical "puritanism" (or asceticism) -- a seeming yearning to cleanse or purge one's thinking of ideas and attitudes with any scent of the metaphysical on it. Here are a few snippets from this thread:

 

"...such experience must be translated into postmetaphysical terms shorn of religious dogma to be of pertinent use in today's world."

"While he's cleaning up the more obvious metaphysicalities from religion he might still be caught in some of the "higher-level" (to be intentionally ironic) or deeper traps himself."

"the transformative power of 'meditation' stripped of 'traditional' baggage."

I'm somewhat taken aback when I re-read that first phrase there (by Edward). Must all translations of meditative experience really be shorn of religious dogma to be of use in today's world? Are you saying that what's true for you must become true for everyone?

P.S. -- Kela, we were posting at the same time, and I just read your post. Thank you for clarifying what you were getting at. I appreciate your critique.
Consider this statement in particular: "It is possible hwoever to look for yourself in such a way as to put this subject object dichotomy in doubt and even banish it altogether." p. 213 Isn't he here asking us to look at the self in a particular manner; in other words, isn't this a way of seeing the self, a kind of understanding?

kelamuni said:

I should probably chime in a bit more lest my position be unclear. When I say that Harris' account is clear and well written, and one of the best accounts of its type, I meant that his account is one of the best examples of the position of "mystical empircism." This is so, I think, precisely because Harris purposefully attempts to keep as much theological and metaphysical baggage as he can out of the equation. This makes his account a good target for analysis.

 

While I have some sympathy with Harris and Dawkins general critique of religion, particularly Dawkins dismantling of creationism, I have reservations about their understanding of the religions they purportedly critique. I'm not sure I would go so far as to call Harris a racist, but he does appear to dismiss the tradition of Islam with some rather blanket statements that suggest that he does not exactly have a well rounded or even a well informed view of the traditions he criticizes. For present purposes, though, I am going to avoid that kettle of smelly fish and stick to the issue I raised above, and which theurg appears to be attempting to pursue.

 

He writes, "You may feel that your consciousness is one thing... and the book another. This is the kind of dualistic (subject/object) perception that characterizes our normal experience of life. It is possible hwoever to look for yourself in such a way as to put this subject object dichotomy in doubt and even banish it altogether." p. 213 He continues, "The contents of our consciousness... are merely the expresssions of consciousness at the level of our experience," and he then goes on to say, "It would seem that a spirituality that undermined this dualism, through the mere contemplation of consciousness, could not but help improve our situation." p. 241 Now why would this necessarily be the case? 

 

It is at this point that Harris' account becomes the most problematic, and ludicrous. He falls for the old stereotype about the "mystical non-dual" East and "dogmatic dualistic" West. He mentions Shankara, Padmashambhava and Nagarjuna as representing the "East," but no mention is made of the numerous Asian theologians, philosophers and exegetes who were antithetical to "non-dualism" of the stripe he describes. It is even doubtful that his description of the Advaita of Shankara is even remotely accurate. It is nonetheless the stereotyped description we receive from Vivekananda to Wilber.

 

To return to our point about naive and romantic stereotyping, notice the language Harris uses: "When the great philosophers and mystics of the East are weighed against the patriarchs of the Western philosophical and theological traditions the difference is unmistakable: the Buddha, Shankara... Nagarjuna... have no equivalents in the West."

 

This statement is simply put,a silly romantic idealizing of the East. In an endnote he appears to sense a criticism of this type and he mentions Eckhart, St John of the Cross, Theresa of Avila, and others. But he then states that while these men and women were certainly "extraordinary," their "mystical insights remained shackled to the dualism of church doctrine, and as a result failed to fly." p. 284.

 

The implication here appears to be that while "dualism" is dogmatic and metaphysical, the teachings of nondualism are "experiencially based." Again, this is but more nonsense. Why should dualism not also be "experientially based" if it is the "experience" of countless bhaktas?  And similarly, since when is non-dualism not doctrinally based. For example, nowhere does Shankara, whom Harris mentions as exemplufying non-dualism, state that the teaching of non-dualism is based on experience. He states quite clearly that it can only be derived from the Vedic revelation. And that the teaching of non-dualism is metaphysical goes without saying.

 

To return to the main body of Harris' text, he continues, "It does not seem out of place to briefly examine the Eastern and Western canons..." The Eastern and Western canons? Now what could that possibly mean? Why none other than non-dualism and dualism. It is here that Harris gives us a tract from Padmasambhava on the primordial awareness and asks us to find anything remotely like it in the Bible or the Koran. It is at this point that we begin to feel the invective that Harris has toward these texts. We might begin by noting that the works of Padmasambhava are in no way analogous to the Bible or the Koran. In any case, he continues that the comparison with Muhammed is particularly "invidious" because the two were contemporaries.

 

It is at this point that Harris makes his most outlandish claim, and he has made more than a few already. He states with respect to Padmasambhava's tract on the primordial awareness that it is a "rigourously empirical doctrine, not a statement of metaphysics." p. 217. Where the question of metaphysics is concerned, this statement is truly laughable; as for its claims to be "purely empirical" it reveals Harris' naivity where the history of religions is concerned, as it shows no consideraion for how texts of this type developed within the Indo-Tibetan tradition.

 

Harris has been duped by the rhetoricians of "mystical empiricism." We find evidence in his presentation of "meditation." For example, parades the usual Neo-Advaita stereotypes of the practice of "meditation."

1. It's primary obstacle is "thinking." "Break the spell of thought and the duality of subject and object will vanish." p. 218. Ramana could not have said it better!

2. "There is something to realize about the nature of consciousness, and its realization does not entail thinking new thoughts>" p. 218 Here, the rhetoric of "realization" beyond all thoughts.

3. "Your conscioiuness... is an utter simplicity as a matter of experience. " p. 219 In other words, we have direct access to consciousness.

4. "There is nothing we need to believe to actualize it." p. 219

 

He then enters domain closer to the thinking of Wilber et al:

5. "Spiritual intuitions are ammenable to intersubjective consensus." p. 220

 

I have subjected all of these ideas to analysis and critique at some time or other and I will not rehearse those issues.

 

To conclude, Harris makes use of one more stereotype, that between "spirituality" (or what he calls "mysticism") and "religion" itself. This is a version of the old "esoteric/exoteric" distinction. Harris states, "Mysticism is a rational enterprise. Religion is not." He explains, "The mystic has realized something prior to thought... The mystic has reasons for what he believes and these reasons are empirical."

 

Here, Harris no where considers that mysticism and spirituality might themselves be entirely imbued with religion, religious belief, and faith.

 

 

 

 

Cioa kela

 

No need of political correcteness here, why not using the term racism if the amalgam he is stupidly doing is a classical form of racial prejudice: "they are not different"

Kela:  in other words, isn't this a way of seeing the self, a kind of understanding?

 

Yes, I think so, as well as a kind of experiencing, just as 'dualism' is.

Mary: "Are you saying that what's true for you must become true for everyone?"

No. What I am saying is that is we, meaning those interested in a postmetaphysical worldview, need to explore together what postmetaphysical means and then how we might enact that in terms of progressive spirituality. That does not mean that everyone should adopt postmetaphysics, or that their own religious beliefs should reflect postmetaphysics. I'm wth the kennilinguists that say there should be a place for everyone to be where they choose. And yet I, and apparently others, have need to push the boundaries and go into something new with the hopes that it will have practical and efficacious implications for making a better world.

More later, out of time.

Balder: "I read his description [about subject object non-duality] more as a phenomenological account than an assertion that any direct contact is made with the metaphysical, myth-of-the-given thing-in-itself..."

theurg: "I don't think a phenomenological account of nondual experience is metaphysical in itself, especially when described as a loss of the separate sense of self."

 

I'm afraid I'll have to chime in here and say I couldn't disagree more. Harris is here clearly being influenced by some sort of (neo) Advaita/Yogachara doctrine, which certainly implies some sort of metaphysical premise about the nature of reality. I'm not sure if whether it's pre or post matters, does it? Harris' view that it is "phenomenological" is either naive or some kind of smokescreen akin to those used by other "mystical empircists."

At the same time, I think there might be some value in using certain techniques as a means to exploring the "nature" of consciousness, though I think that the "results" of such experimentation would need to be tempered by a rigourous third person account, and by that I don't mean the "intersubjective consensus of like minded practioners"; such things are of value only where the belonging to a particular "school" of practitioners is concerned and there is concern that someone is following the teaching according to the received normative standards.

At the same time I wonder about the value of a full-blown spiritual or mystical teaching in this regard. What I'm getting at is that these two approaches -- the "scientific" and the "spiritual" -- have completely different ends and concerns in mind; they are not merely two "complementary modes of knowing," two quadrants in a monological "pie" that defines all things human on a single page in a book. Spiritual and mystical technologies are soteriological by nature, or at least their practice is typically framed by soteriological concerns, even if those concerns are not necessarily the classical ones concerning "moksha" and "nirvana." Sure, someone can abstract a technique from such traditions, and make use of it, but if someone is practising yoga or meditation for relaxation alone, are they practising "spirituality" or "mysticism"? In my books, they are not.

Harris mentions that that he thinks that TM is a purely secular approach. This is the standard line, but I think it is worth questioning. While one does not necessarily have to convert to Vedanta and profess one's faith in Vedanta to practice TM, I would argue that the practice of TM does imply the application of certain principles of Vedanta such that those priniciples "frame" the practice of TM. This is particularly the case for those practising the "siddhi program." And in fact, back in the late seventies, sociologists studying TM showed that this two-tiered system of TM, with its the "exoteric" and "esoteric" branches, is typical of religious sects.

I also think that there may be some value in the use of psychedelics where the "exploration" of consciousness is concerned, and that there might be fewer preconceptions involved (unless someone has already been indoctrinated by Terrence MacKenna and other UFO and fairy chasing nutters who claim "contact" with such things). Unfortunately, moralistic preconceptions cloud the use of pychedelics where this end is concerned.

 

 

Hi, Mary, I posted a response to your questions re: puritanism and asceticism in a separate thread, since I think it's a good topic to discuss: Postmetaphysical Puritanism.

theurg:

What I am saying is that is we, meaning those interested in a postmetaphysical worldview, need to explore together what postmetaphysical means... That does not mean that everyone should adopt postmetaphysics, or that their own religious beliefs should reflect postmetaphysics. I'm [those who :-) ]that say there should be a place for everyone to be where they choose. And yet I, and apparently others, have need to push the boundaries and go into something new with the hopes that it will have practical and efficacious implications for making a better world.

This dichotomy is one of the principle issues here, posed dialectically as it should be.

 

On the one hand there is the (pomo? anarchic?) concern that people be free to "practice" as they please. And yet there may be certain beliefs and "practices" that could be antithetical to the free society in which we live, and these should be subject to discussion and critique.

I'm picking up on another related issue in what theurg states, though it is not explicitly stated by him and he may not want to phrase it the way I will. And that is the tension between, on the one hand, allowing people to practice and believe as they wish to, and, on the other hand, the free critique of religious and metaphysical conceptions.

This tension parallels that between a "hermeneutics of suspicion," on the one hand, and what I call the "hermeneutics of sympathy," on the other. The second approach has traditionally been linked to purportedly "neutral" phenomenological accounts of religion, and it is also linked to "tolerant," if not fully fledged positive, approaches of the traditions of religion.

While there is no doubt some value to "tolerance" toward other cultures, and religions in general, personally over the years I have, run up against what I feel are its limitations. And so I have come to abandon my once held belief that I should be simply "tolerant" toward all religions. This is specifically the case where certain conservative and fundamentalist manifestations of religion in the world are concerned, but it is also the case where I sense that there may be some sleight of hand at work (as in the case of certain questionable "healers" and the conceptions surrounding them).

I also think that there is, among some, a certain and generally held "politically correct" attitude toward religions; I sense that this attitude is an extension of the idea that we should be "open minded" and respectful toward other cultures. While I think the latter is generally a good principle to adhere to, I have reservations about its unreserved extension toward all religions, or religion in general. I think that there is also the matter that intellectuals should be free to criticize relgious concepts in a manner akin to being able to criticize political theories or philosophical concepts that needs to be factored into the equation. The problem of course is that people tend to be even more sensitive about their religious beliefs than they are about their political and philosophical ones, and for this reason we are supposed to "tip toe" around them so as to not "offend" them. The idea, for example, that "religion" and "science" are two "complementary but different spheres" of human existence strikes me -- at least as it is used in defence of relgion over against the "new atheists" -- as an example of tiptoeing around the issue so as to not step on anyone's toes. I often find this particular application of this idea rather disingenuous, if not paternalistic and patronizing; I have come to admire, to a limited degree anyway, those who have had the stones to speak up and voice their concerns about various religious conceptions, even though the ones that are doing so sometimes also reveal their own limited understanding of that which they criticize. If anything though, i think it is a step in the right direction in that it at least gets the conversation going in a way that is not simply superficial and disingenuous.

 

 

Hi, Kela, I invite you to post this recent comment over on my new thread (Postmetaphysical Puritanism), which I linked just above.

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