I was recently interviewed onstage at George Washington University by Michelle Boorstein, a religion reporter for the Washington Post. The next day, Boorstein published an article summarizing our conversation, in which she excerpted a few quotations that made me appear somewhat sexist. I believe that these quotations are accurate, but they are also incomplete and misleading. Boorstein seemed to anticipate that they would spark a little controversy, and they have.
My exchange with Boorstein in the Lisner Auditorium had been somewhat prickly, in fact. At one point, she flatly denied that a significant percentage of Americans are fundamentalist Christians. I cited poll results going back 80 years that suggest the number hovers around 45 percent. Boorstein then asserted her authority as a journalist, having focused on these issues, studied all the relevant polls, and written multiple articles explaining them to the public. According to her, the kinds of questions I claimed had been asked and answered, and upon which I based my case—Do you think God created humans in their present form? (46 percent); Do you think Jesus will return to earth in the next 40 years? (41 percent)—hadn’t been asked at all, and wouldn’t indicate a person’s actual beliefs even if they had. I found her remarks stunningly uninformed. I did my best not to let this derail the interview, but after we left the stage I told her that she had a professional responsibility to get her facts straight. She seems to have now paid me back in print.
I also asked Harris at the event why the vast majority of atheists—and many of those who buy his books—are male, a topic which has prompted some to raise questions of sexism in the atheist community. Harris’ answer was both silly and then provocative.
It can only be attributed to my “overwhelming lack of sex appeal,” he said to huge laughter.
“I think it may have to do with my person[al] slant as an author, being very critical of bad ideas. This can sound very angry to people… People just don’t like to have their ideas criticized. There’s something about that critical posture that is to some degree intrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women,” he said. “The atheist variable just has this—it doesn’t obviously have this nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that you would want by default if you wanted to attract as many women as men.”
It is a measure of the ridiculous paranoia engendered by political correctness that in the second it took me to make that joke about my sex appeal, I worried whether my assuming that most women are heterosexual would offend some number of lesbians in the audience. And though the phrase “extra estrogen vibe,” spoken in a tone that acknowledged its silliness, also got a laugh, Boorstein surely knew that setting it down in print would make me look stupid. (If further evidence of her intentions were needed, her announcement of the article on Twitter read: “@samharris on why chicks don’t dig atheism.”) It’s very difficult to speak the way one writes, but this unpleasant encounter with direct quotation gives me further impetus to try. On the upside, however, one of my critics coined the hashtag #EstrogenVibe, and many have savaged me with it to delightful effect.
Let me be clear about what I was trying to say (and actually do believe):
1. I started by claiming that my readership seems more male than female. And when I shifted to speaking about atheists as a group, I was referring to active atheists—that is, the sort of people who go to atheist conferences, read atheist books, watch atheists debate pastors on YouTube, or otherwise rally around atheism as a political identity. I was not talking about everyone on Earth who doesn’t believe in God.
2. Although I share the common perception that there is a gender imbalance among active atheists, I don’t actually know whether this is the case. I used to joke that my average “groupie” was a 75-year-old man. Happily, my audiences are now filled with young people, but I still encounter many more men than women. I wouldn’t be surprised if the split were 70/30. I would be very surprised if it were 50/50. Again, I am talking about active atheists. I have no idea whether there are more male unbelievers than female.
3. My work is often perceived (I believe unfairly) as unpleasantly critical, angry, divisive, etc. The work of other vocal atheists (male and female) has a similar reputation. I believe that in general, men are more attracted to this style of communication than women are. Which is not to say there aren’t millions of acerbic women out there, and many for whom Hitchens at his most cutting was a favorite source of entertainment. But just as we can say that men are generally taller than women, without denying that some women are taller than most men, there are psychological differences between men and women which, considered in the aggregate, might explain why “angry atheism” attracts more of the former. Some of these differences are innate; some are surely the product of culture. Nothing in my remarks was meant to suggest that women can’t think as critically as men or that they are more likely to be taken in by bad ideas. Again, I was talking about a fondness for a perceived style of religion bashing with which I and other vocal atheists are often associated.
4. I believe that a less “angry,” more “nurturing” style of discourse might attract more women to the cause of atheism.
5. However, I haven’t spent even five minutes thinking about how or whether to modify my writing or speaking style so as to accomplish this.
6. As I said onstage, I don’t think of myself as primarily an “atheist” figure (or a “figure” at all). And while I am probably one of the most vocal critics of religion on earth, I don’t spend any energy advocating atheism as a political identity.
I suspect these ideas came across as intended to most of the audience at GWU. However, the remarks that Boorstein quoted, even in their full context of an hour-long conversation, managed to offend at least one woman in attendance. Looking back on our encounter at my book signing later that evening, she now strikes me as the Ghost of Things to Come. This is more or less how our conversation went:
She: I want you to know that what you said about Sarah Palin, and about women in the atheist community, was incredibly sexist. As a leader in our community, and as a writer with a large platform, you have a responsibility not to say such insensitive and bigoted things.
Me: I don’t know what you’re talking about. How were my remarks about Sarah Palin sexist? I merely said that she almost became Vice President of the United States, and would have been one heart attack away from becoming President, and this was terrifying, given her religious beliefs.
She: No, you said her candidacy “was like putting lipstick on a pig”!
Me: Wait, wait, wait…. I was quoting her [misquoting her, as it turns out], referencing her famous laugh line from the Republican National Convention. I was simply recalling that moment when she was at the absolute height of her influence, when her candidacy seemed entirely plausible. I found her star power a serious cause for concern, given the religious demagoguery that lay behind it.
She: Okay, let’s forget what you said about Sarah Palin. What you said about women in the atheist community was totally denigrating to women and irresponsible. Women can think just as critically as men. And men can be just as nurturing as women.
Me: Of course they can! But if you think there are no differences, in the aggregate, between people who have Y chromosomes and people who don’t; if you think testosterone has no psychological effects on human minds in general; if you think we can’t say anything about the differences between two bell curves that describe whole populations of men and women, whether these differences come from biology or from culture, we’re not going to get very far in this conversation.
She: I’m not saying that women and men are the same.
Me: Okay, great. So I think you misunderstood the intent of what I was saying. I was just acknowledging that some differences in the general tendencies of men and women might explain why 84 percent of my followers on Twitter are men. Unfortunately, we don’t have time to get into this, because there are 200 people standing behind you in line patiently waiting to have their books signed.
She: You should just know that what you said was incredibly sexist and very damaging, and you should apologize.
Me: You really are determined to be offended, aren’t you? It’s like you have installed a tripwire in your mind, and you’re just waiting for people to cross it.
She: No. You’re just totally unaware of how sexist you are.
Me: Listen, I was raised by a single mother. I have two daughters. Most of my editors have been women, and my first, last, and best editor is always my wife. If you really want to know the truth about me, I tend to respect women more than men. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, but it’s actually an honest statement about my psychological biases. I’m not the sexist pig you’re looking for.
I knew that this honest (and admittedly desperate) confession could be cynically viewed as a version of the “Some of my best friends are black!” defense. (It isn’t. I’m not saying that my fondness for certain women proves that I’m not sexist. I’m saying that I actually respect women more than men by default. Again, I’m not saying that this is necessarily good; I’m saying that it is a fact.) However, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the mixture of contempt and pity my words elicited from this young woman. Her expression of disdain for me couldn’t have been any more intense had I said, “Listen, honey. I go to strip clubs every week. I love women—especially when they’re covered in oil.”
There ended our happy meeting—and, I thought, the controversy. However, in the wake of Boorstein’s article, I’ve been attacked as a sexist bigot by several atheist bloggers and their many fans. So it seems that a few words of clarification are in order.
I am well aware that sexism and misogyny are problems in our society. However, they are not the only factors that explain differences in social status between men and women. For instance, only 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by women. How much of this is the result of sexism? How much is due to the disproportionate (and heroic) sacrifices women make in their 20’s or 30’s to have families? How much is explained by normally distributed psychological differences between the sexes? I have no idea, but I am confident that each of these factors plays a role. Anyone who thinks disparities of this kind must be entirely a product of sexism hasn’t thought about these issues very deeply.
As readers of my blog will know, I often write about violence, self-defense, guns, and related matters—much to the bewilderment of my fellow liberals. As it happens, I tend to look at the ethics of force from a woman’s point of view. Violence is different for women than it is for men. Unlike men, they don’t tend to get into fistfights with strangers after an escalating series of insults. It is far more common for a woman to be attacked, physically controlled, and sexually assaulted by a man. Outside the walls of a prison, adult males almost never have to think about getting raped. For most women, rape is a very real, lifelong concern. Women also suffer from domestic violence in ways that men rarely do. Most of these differences can be explained by general disparities in size, strength, and aggressiveness between the sexes.
If you are a man, just consider how you would feel in the presence of a potential aggressor who is 4 to 6 inches taller and 50 to 100 pounds heavier than yourself. Most women find themselves in this situation with every man they meet. One of the reasons I cannot slavishly follow the liberal line on gun control is that I know that a gun is the only tool that reliably cancels the advantages that (most) men have over (most) women when it comes to physical violence.
Any time a woman comes away from an encounter with a man saying that he gave her the creeps, I trust her. This is not mere chivalry on my part: It is a judgment based on an understanding of human nature. One of the things we are naturally good at is detecting threatening people—indeed, millions of years of evolution have more or less guaranteed this. The silly word “vibe” enjoys its most felicitous application here—when a person must make a split-second judgment about the man at the door. I suspect (but do not know) that women are slightly better at this than men. I’m not denying that honest misunderstandings occasionally arise, or that some men have been falsely accused of sexual harassment and even of rape. But having been raised by a single mother since the age of two, I have always had a very visceral sense that men have a responsibility not to be evil jerks. And when they are, they should be sorted out—physically, if need be—by good men. Call me old-fashioned.
My criticism of Islam—for which I have been vilified by many of the same people who are now attacking me over my remarks about gender—is largely inspired by my concern for women. And I consider it one of the most sickening effects of political correctness that so many liberals appear to care more about the (nonexistent) rights of Muslims to not be offended than about the rights of women to not live as slaves. This malignant derangement of liberal ethics can be seen whenever a “feminist” expresses reservations about (my friend and hero) Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It also came into full flower when I wrote in support of Malala Yousafzai while ignoring the (completely irrelevant) fact that she wouldn’t agree with my full-frontal criticism of Islam. Many liberal blogs erupted in scorn, which eventually led to a private email exchange with a well-known feminist-atheist blogger. This conversation was every bit as hopeless and dispiriting as my encounter at my book signing in D.C. Here was a woman who imagined herself to be bettering the world by fighting for gender equality, and yet she appeared far more concerned that I had “co-opted” Malala and “denied her agency” by ignoring her religious beliefs than that a Taliban thug had put a bullet in her brain. I’m tempted to name this person—so pure and smug and sanctimonious and incorrigible was her moral blindness. But I’ll resist that combative impulse in the interests of maintaining harmony in the atheist community. #EstrogenVibe
By Trevor Quirk
In his speech responding to the horrific murder of journalist James Foley by a British jihadist, President Obama delivered the following rebuke (using an alternate name for ISIS):
ISIL speaks for no religion… and no faith teaches people to massacre innocents. No just God would stand for what they did yesterday and what they do every single day. ISIL has no ideology of any value to human beings. Their ideology is bankrupt…. we will do everything that we can to protect our people and the timeless values that we stand for. May God bless and keep Jim’s memory. And may God bless the United States of America.
In his subsequent remarks outlining a strategy to defeat ISIS, the President declared:
Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not Islamic. No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim…. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way…. May God bless our troops, and may God bless the United States of America.
As an atheist, I cannot help wondering when this scrim of pretense and delusion will be finally burned away—either by the clear light of reason or by a surfeit of horror meted out to innocents by the parties of God. Which will come first, flying cars and vacations to Mars, or a simple acknowledgment that beliefs guide behavior and that certain religious ideas—jihad, martyrdom, blasphemy, apostasy—reliably lead to oppression and murder? It may be true that no faith teaches people to massacre innocents exactly—but innocence, as the President surely knows, is in the eye of the beholder. Are apostates “innocent”? Blasphemers? Polytheists? Islam has the answer, and the answer is “no.”
More British Muslims have joined the ranks of ISIS than have volunteered to serve in the British armed forces. In fact, this group has managed to attract thousands of recruits from free societies throughout the world to help build a paradise of repression and sectarian slaughter in Syria and Iraq. This is an astonishing phenomenon, and it reveals some very uncomfortable truths about the failures of multiculturalism, the inherent vulnerability of open societies, and the terrifying power of bad ideas.
No doubt many enlightened concerns will come flooding into the reader’s mind at this point. I would not want to create the impression that most Muslims support ISIS, nor would I want to give any shelter or inspiration to the hatred of Muslims as people. In drawing a connection between the doctrine of Islam and jihadist violence, I am talking about ideas and their consequences, not about 1.5 billion nominal Muslims, many of whom do not take their religion very seriously.
But a belief in martyrdom, a hatred of infidels, and a commitment to violent jihad are not fringe phenomena in the Muslim world. These preoccupations are supported by the Koran and numerous hadith. That is why the popular Saudi cleric Mohammad Al-Areefi sounds like the ISIS army chaplain. The man has 9.5 million followers on Twitter (twice as many as Pope Francis has). If you can find an important distinction between the faith he preaches and that which motivates the savagery of ISIS, you should probably consult a neurologist.
Understanding and criticizing the doctrine of Islam—and finding some way to inspire Muslims to reform it—is one of the most important challenges the civilized world now faces. But the task isn’t as simple as discrediting the false doctrines of Muslim “extremists,” because most of their views are not false by the light of scripture. A hatred of infidels is arguably the central message of the Koran. The reality of martyrdom and the sanctity of armed jihad are about as controversial under Islam as the resurrection of Jesus is under Christianity. It is not an accident that millions of Muslims recite the shahadah or make pilgrimage to Mecca. Neither is it an accident that horrific footage of infidels and apostates being decapitated has become a popular form of pornography throughout the Muslim world. Each of these practices, including this ghastly method of murder, find explicit support in scripture.
But there is now a large industry of obfuscation designed to protect Muslims from having to grapple with these truths. Our humanities and social science departments are filled with scholars and pseudo-scholars deemed to be experts in terrorism, religion, Islamic jurisprudence, anthropology, political science, and other diverse fields, who claim that where Muslim intolerance and violence are concerned, nothing is ever what it seems. Above all, these experts claim that one can’t take Islamists and jihadists at their word: Their incessant declarations about God, paradise, martyrdom, and the evils of apostasy are nothing more than a mask concealing their real motivations. What are their real motivations? Insert here the most abject hopes and projections of secular liberalism: How would you feel if Western imperialists and their mapmakers had divided your lands, stolen your oil, and humiliated your proud culture? Devout Muslims merely want what everyone wants—political and economic security, a piece of land to call home, good schools for their children, a little leisure to enjoy the company of friends. Unfortunately, most of my fellow liberals appear to believe this. In fact, to not accept this obscurantism as a deep insight into human nature and immediately avert one’s eyes from the teachings of Islam is considered a form of bigotry.
In any conversation on this topic, one must continually deploy a firewall of caveats and concessions to irrelevancy: Of course, U.S. foreign policy has problems. Yes, we really must get off oil. No, I did not support the war in Iraq. Sure, I’ve read Chomsky. No doubt, the Bible contains equally terrible passages. Yes, I heard about that abortion clinic bombing in 1984. No, I’m sorry to say that Hitler and Stalin were not motivated by atheism. The Tamil Tigers? Of course, I’ve heard of them. Now can we honestly talk about the link between belief and behavior?
Yes, many Muslims happily ignore the apostasy and blasphemy of their neighbors, view women as the moral equals of men, and consider anti-Semitism contemptible. But there are also Muslims who drink alcohol and eat bacon. All of these persuasions run counter to the explicit teachings of Islam to one or another degree. And just like moderates in every other religion, most moderate Muslims become obscurantists when defending their faith from criticism. They rely on modern, secular values—for instance, tolerance of diversity and respect for human rights—as a basis for reinterpreting and ignoring the most despicable parts of their holy books. But they nevertheless demand that we respect the idea of revelation, and this leaves us perpetually vulnerable to more literal readings of scripture.
The idea that any book was inspired by the creator of the universe is poison—intellectually, ethically, and politically. And nowhere is this poison currently doing more harm than in Muslim communities, East and West. Despite all the obvious barbarism in the Old Testament, and the dangerous eschatology of the New, it is relatively easy for Jews and Christians to divorce religion from politics and secular ethics. A single line in Matthew—“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”—largely accounts for why the West isn’t still hostage to theocracy. The Koran contains a few lines that could be equally potent—for instance, “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256)—but these sparks of tolerance are easily snuffed out. Transforming Islam into a truly benign faith will require a miracle of re-interpretation. And a few intrepid reformers, such as Maajid Nawaz, are doing their best to accomplish it.
Many believe it unwise to discuss the link between Islam and the intolerance and violence we see in the Muslim world, fearing that it will increase the perception that the West is at war with the faith and cause millions of otherwise peaceful Muslims to rally to the jihadist cause. I admit that this concern isn’t obviously crazy—but it merely attests to the seriousness of the underlying problem. Religion produces a perverse solidarity that we must find some way to undercut. It causes in-group loyalty and out-group hostility, even when members of one’s own group are behaving like psychopaths.
But it remains taboo in most societies to criticize a person’s religious beliefs. Even atheists tend to observe this taboo, and enforce it on others, because they believe that religion is necessary for many people. After all, life is difficult—and faith is a balm. Most people imagine that Iron Age philosophy represents the only available vessel for their spiritual hopes and existential concerns. This is an enduring problem for the forces of reason, because the most transformative experiences people have—bliss, devotion, self-transcendence—are currently anchored to the worst parts of culture and to ways of thinking that merely amplify superstition, self-deception, and conflict.
Among all the harms caused by religion at this point in history, this is perhaps the most subtle: Even when it appears beneficial—inspiring people to gather in beautiful buildings to contemplate the mystery existence and their ethical commitments to one another—religion conveys the message that there is no intellectually defensible and nonsectarian way to do this. But there is. We can build strong communities and enjoy deeply moral and spiritual lives, without believing any divisive nonsense about the divine origin of specific books.
And it is this misguided respect for revelation that explains why, in response to the starkest conceivable expression of religious fanaticism, President Obama has responded with euphemisms—and missiles. This may be the best we can hope for, given the state of our discourse about religion. Perhaps one day we will do “everything that we can to protect our people and the timeless values that we stand for.” But today, we won’t even honestly describe the motivations of our enemies. And in the act of lying to ourselves, we continue to pay lip service to the very delusions that empower them.
A forum with Paul Bloom, Peter Singer, Jack W. Berry, Lynn E. O’Connor, Marianne LaFrance, Nomy Arpaly, Christine Montross, Barbara H. Fried, Leslie Jamison, Leonardo Christov-Moore, Marco Iacoboni, Simon Baron-Cohen, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, Sam Harris, and Jesse Prinz
In recent weeks, Israeli bombs have rained down on Gaza, and images of the resulting death and destruction have inflamed world opinion. Never mind that the government in Gaza is run by Hamas, an avowedly genocidal organization that uses its own civilians as human shields. Nor does it matter that some of this carnage seems to have been caused by Hamas’s own rockets gone astray. To bear witness to the suffering of the Palestinian people is all: the sight of a lifeless girl pulled from the rubble, her inconsolable parents, the spokesman for UNRWA breaking down in sobs during an interview—every image presents its own moral imperative and settles the case. Israel stands convicted of evil.
It’s not often that one comes across a scientific argument that could help resolve moral and political emergencies of this kind—much less one that is deeply counterintuitive and yet easily understood. In his provocative article, Paul Bloom has produced such an argument.
Bloom’s thesis is that emotional empathy, the ability to identify with others and “feel their pain,” is generally a poor guide for ethical behavior. As he acknowledges, many will find this idea grotesque—how could sharing another’s pain be anything less than a virtue? Indeed, many readers will feel that their very humanity depends on the strength of their emotion when witnessing suffering of the sort on display in Gaza. To question the merits of empathy is to question love, compassion, and basic human decency.
However, Bloom likens empathy to anger, and the comparison is remarkably astute. We want to be able to feel anger when circumstances warrant it, but then we want to stop feeling it the moment it is no longer useful. A person who is unable to feel anger would be, as Bloom says, “the perfect victim,” but feeling too much of it reliably leads to misery and chaos. Generally speaking, to have one’s moral judgment colored by anger is to have it clouded. Bloom argues that empathy is like anger in this respect, and I am convinced that he is right.
One commentator on the war in Gaza unwittingly echoed Bloom’s thesis when he responded to those condemning Israel by saying, “Dead babies are not an argument.” It was a brave and arresting statement that requires some unpacking. He surely did not mean to minimize the suffering of the Palestinians nor the horror concealed by the phrase “collateral damage.” But the truth is that noncombatants die in every war, however just. In fact, one finds dead babies in many other circumstances—and they are rarely, if ever, the only consideration.
For instance, more than 30,000 people die in traffic accidents in the United States each year, and many more are grievously injured. Much of this death and suffering is inflicted upon helpless children. But when was the last time you saw an image of parents howling with grief over the body of their son or daughter killed in a car crash? Children are killed and disfigured on our roads every day, and every day we fail to stop the slaughter. Yet a simple solution exists: we need only set the maximum speed limit on our roads at fifteen miles per hour. Why don’t we do this? The answer could hardly be more callous, and it surely has nothing to do with self-defense or any other existential concern (as it does in the case of Israel). We simply prefer to drive faster than that. Indeed, to drive so safely as to ensure the lives of all our children would be to guarantee inefficiency and boredom. Apparently, we judge these evils to be worse than some number of dead babies.
To be moved to action merely by empathy is to lurch blindly toward who knows what. The harrowing images coming out Gaza are not the whole story, and they manipulate world opinion in ways that few people seem willing to acknowledge. I am making no claims about the ethical or strategic necessity of Israel’s actions. I am simply saying that emotional arousal over the plight of the Palestinians offers little insight. Bloom has finally given us an argument for why wisdom and compassion must apply the brakes to empathy so that we can think clearly about decisions that affect the lives of millions.
I once participated in a twenty-three-day wilderness program in the mountains of Colorado. If the purpose of this course was to expose students to dangerous lightning and half the world’s mosquitoes, it was fulfilled on the first day. What was in essence a forced march through hundreds of miles of backcountry culminated in a ritual known as “the solo,” where we were finally permitted to rest—alone, on the outskirts of a gorgeous alpine lake—for three days of fasting and contemplation.
I had just turned sixteen, and this was my first taste of true solitude since exiting my mother’s womb. It proved a sufficient provocation. After a long nap and a glance at the icy waters of the lake, the promising young man I imagined myself to be was quickly cut down by loneliness and boredom. I filled the pages of my journal not with the insights of a budding naturalist, philosopher, or mystic but with a list of the foods on which I intended to gorge myself the instant I returned to civilization. Judging from the state of my consciousness at the time, millions of years of hominid evolution had produced nothing more transcendent than a craving for a cheeseburger and a chocolate milkshake.
I found the experience of sitting undisturbed for three days amid pristine breezes and starlight, with nothing to do but contemplate the mystery of my existence, to be a source of perfect misery—for which I could see not so much as a glimmer of my own contribution. My letters home, in their plaintiveness and self-pity, rivaled any written at Shiloh or Gallipoli.
So I was more than a little surprised when several members of our party, most of whom were a decade older than I, described their days and nights of solitude in positive, even transformational terms. I simply didn’t know what to make of their claims to happiness. How could someone’s happiness increase when all the material sources of pleasure and distraction had been removed? At that age, the nature of my own mind did not interest me—only my life did. And I was utterly oblivious to how different life would be if the quality of my mind were to change.
Our minds are all we have. They are all we have ever had. And they are all we can offer others. This might not be obvious, especially when there are aspects of your life that seem in need of improvement—when your goals are unrealized, or you are struggling to find a career, or you have relationships that need repairing. But it’s the truth. Every experience you have ever had has been shaped by your mind. Every relationship is as good or as bad as it is because of the minds involved. If you are perpetually angry, depressed, confused, and unloving, or your attention is elsewhere, it won’t matter how successful you become or who is in your life—you won’t enjoy any of it.
Most of us could easily compile a list of goals we want to achieve or personal problems that need to be solved. But what is the real significance of every item on such a list? Everything we want to accomplish—to paint the house, learn a new language, find a better job—is something that promises that, if done, it would allow us to finally relax and enjoy our lives in the present. Generally speaking, this is a false hope. I’m not denying the importance of achieving one’s goals, maintaining one’s health, or keeping one’s children clothed and fed—but most of us spend our time seeking happiness and security without acknowledging the underlying purpose of our search. Each of us is looking for a path back to the present: We are trying to find good enough reasons to be satisfied now.
Acknowledging that this is the structure of the game we are playing allows us to play it differently. How we pay attention to the present moment largely determines the character of our experience and, therefore, the quality of our lives. Mystics and contemplatives have made this claim for ages—but a growing body of scientific research now bears it out.
A few years after my first painful encounter with solitude, in the winter of 1987, I took the drug 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine (MDMA), commonly known as Ecstasy, and my sense of the human mind’s potential shifted profoundly. Although MDMA would become ubiquitous at dance clubs and “raves” in the 1990s, at that time I didn’t know anyone of my generation who had tried it. One evening, a few months before my twentieth birthday, a close friend and I decided to take the drug.
The setting of our experiment bore little resemblance to the conditions of Dionysian abandon under which MDMA is now often consumed. We were alone in a house, seated across from each other on opposite ends of a couch, and engaged in quiet conversation as the chemical worked its way into our heads. Unlike other drugs with which we were by then familiar (marijuana and alcohol), MDMA produced no feeling of distortion in our senses. Our minds seemed completely clear.
In the midst of this ordinariness, however, I was suddenly struck by the knowledge that I loved my friend. This shouldn’t have surprised me—he was, after all, one of my best friends. However, at that age I was not in the habit of dwelling on how much I loved the men in my life. Now I could feel that I loved him, and this feeling had ethical implications that suddenly seemed as profound as they now sound pedestrian on the page: I wanted him to be happy.
That conviction came crashing down with such force that something seemed to give way inside me. In fact, the insight appeared to restructure my mind. My capacity for envy, for instance—the sense of being diminished by the happiness or success of another person—seemed like a symptom of mental illness that had vanished without a trace. I could no more have felt envy at that moment than I could have wanted to poke out my own eyes. What did I care if my friend was better looking or a better athlete than I was? If I could have bestowed those gifts on him, I would have. Truly wanting him to be happy made his happiness my own.
A certain euphoria was creeping into these reflections, perhaps, but the general feeling remained one of absolute sobriety—and of moral and emotional clarity unlike any I had ever known. It would not be too strong to say that I felt sane for the first time in my life. And yet the change in my consciousness seemed entirely straightforward. I was simply talking to my friend—about what, I don’t recall—and realized that I had ceased to be concerned about myself. I was no longer anxious, self-critical, guarded by irony, in competition, avoiding embarrassment, ruminating about the past and future, or making any other gesture of thought or attention that separated me from him. I was no longer watching myself through another person’s eyes.
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 must be 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 its being no longer obscured. Love was—as advertised by mystics and crackpots through the ages—a state of being. How had we not seen this before? And how could we overlook it ever again?
It would take me many years to put this experience into context. Until that moment, I had viewed organized religion as merely a monument to the ignorance and superstition of our ancestors. But I now knew that Jesus, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, and the other saints and sages of history had not all been epileptics, schizophrenics, or frauds. 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.
Twenty percent of Americans describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Although the claim seems to annoy believers and atheists equally, separating spirituality from religion is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. It is to assert two important truths simultaneously: 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. One purpose of this book is to give both these convictions intellectual and empirical support.
Before going any further, I should address the animosity that many readers feel toward the term spiritual. Whenever I use the word, as in referring to meditation as a “spiritual practice,” I hear from fellow skeptics and atheists who think that I have committed a grievous error.
The word spirit comes from the Latin spiritus, which is a translation of the Greek pneuma, meaning “breath.” Around the thirteenth century, the term became entangled with beliefs about immaterial souls, supernatural beings, ghosts, and so forth. It acquired other meanings as well: We speak of the spirit of a thing as its most essential principle or of certain volatile substances and liquors as spirits. Nevertheless, many nonbelievers now consider all things “spiritual” to be contaminated by medieval superstition.
I do not share their semantic concerns. Yes, to walk the aisles of any “spiritual” bookstore is to confront the yearning and credulity of our species by the yard, but there is no other term—apart from the even more problematic mystical or the more restrictive contemplative—with which to discuss the efforts people make, through meditation, psychedelics, or other means, to fully bring their minds into the present or to induce nonordinary states of consciousness. And no other word links this spectrum of experience to our ethical lives.
Throughout this book, I discuss certain classically spiritual phenomena, concepts, and practices in the context of our modern understanding of the human mind—and I cannot do this while restricting myself to the terminology of ordinary experience. So I will use spiritual, mystical, contemplative, and transcendent without further apology. However, I will be precise in describing the experiences and methods that merit these terms.
For many years, I have been a vocal critic of religion, and I won’t ride the same hobbyhorse here. I hope that I have been sufficiently energetic on this front that even my most skeptical readers will trust that my bullshit detector remains well calibrated as we advance over this new terrain. Perhaps the following assurance can suffice for the moment: Nothing in this book needs to be accepted on faith. Although my focus is on human subjectivity—I am, after all, talking about the nature of experience itself—all my assertions can be tested in the laboratory of your own life. In fact, my goal is to encourage you to do just that.
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.
There is now a large literature on the psychological benefits of meditation. Different techniques produce long-lasting changes in attention, emotion, cognition, and pain perception, and these correlate with both structural and functional changes in the brain. This field of research is quickly growing, as is our understanding of self-awareness and related mental phenomena. Given recent advances in neuroimaging technology, we no longer face a practical impediment to investigating spiritual insights in the context of science.
Spirituality must be distinguished from religion—because people of every faith, and of none, have had the same sorts of spiritual experiences. While these states of mind are usually interpreted through the lens of one or another religious doctrine, we know that this is a mistake. 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 a world that is separate from yourself—can be altered or entirely extinguished. Although such experiences of “self-transcendence” are generally thought about in religious terms, there is nothing, in principle, irrational about them. From both a scientific and a philosophical point of view, they represent a clearer understanding of the way things are. Deepening that understanding, and repeatedly cutting through the illusion of the self, is what is meant by “spirituality” in the context of this book.
Confusion and suffering may be our birthright, but wisdom and happiness are available. The landscape of human experience includes deeply transformative insights about the nature of one’s own consciousness, and yet it is obvious that these psychological states must be understood in the context of neuroscience, psychology, and related fields.
I am often asked what will replace organized religion. The answer, I believe, is nothing and everything. Nothing need replace its ludicrous and divisive doctrines—such as the idea that Jesus will return to earth and hurl unbelievers into a lake of fire, or that death in defense of Islam is the highest good. These are terrifying and debasing fictions. But what about love, compassion, moral goodness, and self-transcendence? Many people still imagine that religion is the true repository of these virtues. To change this, we must talk about the full range of human experience in a way that is as free of dogma as the best science already is.
This book is by turns a seeker’s memoir, an introduction to the brain, a manual of contemplative instruction, and a philosophical unraveling of what most people consider to be the center of their inner lives: the feeling of self we call “I.” I have not set out to describe all the traditional approaches to spirituality and to weigh their strengths and weaknesses. Rather, my goal is to pluck the diamond from the dunghill of esoteric religion. There is a diamond there, and I have devoted a fair amount of my life to contemplating it, but getting it in hand requires that we remain true to the deepest principles of scientific skepticism and make no obeisance to tradition. Where I do discuss specific teachings, such as those of Buddhism or Advaita Vedanta, it isn’t my purpose to provide anything like a comprehensive account. Readers who are loyal to any one spiritual tradition or who specialize in the academic study of religion, may view my approach as the quintessence of arrogance. I consider it, rather, a symptom of impatience. There is barely time enough in a book—or in a life—to get to the point. Just as a modern treatise on weaponry would omit the casting of spells and would very likely ignore the slingshot and the boomerang, I will focus on what I consider the most promising lines of spiritual inquiry.
My hope is that my personal experience will help readers to see the nature of their own minds in a new light. A rational approach to spirituality seems to be what is missing from secularism and from the lives of most of the people I meet. The purpose of this book is to offer readers a clear view of the problem, along with some tools to help them solve it for themselves.
THE SEARCH FOR HAPPINESS
One day, you will find yourself outside this world which is like a mother’s womb. You will leave this earth to enter, while you are yet in the body, a vast expanse, and know that the words, “God’s earth is vast,” name this region from which the saints have come.
I share the concern, expressed by many atheists, that the terms spiritual and mystical are often used to make claims not merely about the quality of certain experiences but about reality at large. Far too often, these words are invoked in support of religious beliefs that are morally and intellectually grotesque. Consequently, many of my fellow atheists consider all talk of spirituality to be a sign of mental illness, conscious imposture, or self-deception. This is a problem, because millions of people have had experiences for which spiritual and mystical seem the only terms available. Many of the beliefs people form on the basis of these experiences are false. But the fact that most atheists will view a statement like Rumi’s above as a symptom of the man’s derangement grants a kernel of truth to the rantings of even our least rational opponents. The human mind does, in fact, contain vast expanses that few of us ever discover.
And there is something degraded and degrading about many of our habits of attention as we shop, gossip, argue, and ruminate our way to the grave. Perhaps I should speak only for myself here: It seems to me that I spend much of my waking life in a neurotic trance. My experiences in meditation suggest, however, that an alternative exists. It is possible to stand free of the juggernaut of self, if only for moments at a time.
Most cultures have produced men and women who have found that certain deliberate uses of attention—meditation, yoga, prayer—can transform their perception of the world. Their efforts generally begin with the realization that even in the best of circumstances, happiness is elusive. 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 avoidance of pain? Is there a happiness that does not depend upon having one’s favorite foods available, or friends and loved ones within arm’s reach, or good books to read, or something to look forward to on the weekend? 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 pain, old age, disease, and death?
We are all, in some sense, living our answer to this question—and most of us are living as though the answer were “no.” No, nothing is more profound than repeating one’s pleasures and avoiding one’s pains; nothing is more profound than seeking satisfaction—sensory, emotional, and intellectual—moment after moment. Just keep your foot on the gas until you run out of road.
Certain people, however, come to suspect that human existence might encompass more than this. Many of them are led to suspect this by religion—by the claims of the Buddha or Jesus or some other celebrated figure. And such people often begin to practice various disciplines of attention as a means of examining their experience closely enough to see whether a deeper source of well-being exists. They may even sequester themselves in caves or monasteries for months or years at a time to facilitate this process. Why would a person do this? No doubt there are many motives for retreating from the world, and some of them are psychologically unhealthy. In its wisest form, however, the exercise amounts to a very simple experiment. Here is its logic: 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.
One clue to how daunting most people would find such a project is the fact that solitary confinement—which is essentially what we are talking about—is considered a punishment inside a maximum-security prison. Even when forced to live among murderers and rapists, most people still prefer the company of others to spending any significant amount of time alone in a room. And yet contemplatives in many traditions claim to experience extraordinary depths of psychological well-being while living in isolation for vast stretches of time. How should we interpret this? Either the contemplative literature is a catalogue of religious delusion, psychopathology, and deliberate fraud, or people have been having liberating insights under the name of “spirituality” and “mysticism” for millennia.
Unlike many atheists, I have spent much of my life seeking experiences of the kind that gave rise to the world’s religions. Despite the painful results of my first few days alone in the mountains of Colorado, I later studied with a wide range of monks, lamas, yogis, and other contemplatives, some of whom had lived for decades in seclusion doing nothing but meditating. In the process, I spent two years on silent retreat myself (in increments of one week to three months), practicing various techniques of meditation for twelve to eighteen hours a day.
I can attest that when one goes into silence and meditates for weeks or months at a time, doing nothing else—not speaking, reading, or writing, just making a moment-to-moment effort to observe the contents of consciousness—one has experiences that are generally unavailable to people who have not undertaken a similar practice. I believe that such states of mind have a lot to say about the nature of consciousness and the possibilities of human well-being. Leaving aside the metaphysics, mythology, and sectarian dogma, what contemplatives throughout history have discovered is that there is an alternative to being continuously spellbound by the conversation we are having with ourselves; there is an alternative to simply identifying with the next thought that pops into consciousness. And glimpsing this alternative dispels the conventional illusion of the self.
Most traditions of spirituality also suggest a connection between self-transcendence and living ethically. Not all good feelings have an ethical valence, and pathological forms of ecstasy surely exist. I have no doubt, for instance, that many suicide bombers feel extraordinarily good just before they detonate themselves in a crowd. But there are also forms of mental pleasure that are intrinsically ethical. As I indicated earlier, for some states of consciousness, a phrase like “boundless love” does not seem overblown. It is decidedly inconvenient for the forces of reason and secularism that if someone wakes up tomorrow feeling boundless love for all sentient beings, the only people likely to acknowledge the legitimacy of his experience will be representatives of one or another Iron Age religion or New Age cult.
Most of us are far wiser than we may appear to be. We know how to keep our relationships in order, to use our time well, to improve our health, to lose weight, to learn valuable skills, and to solve many other riddles of existence. But following even the straight and open path to happiness is hard. If your best friend were to ask how she could live a better life, you would probably find many useful things to say, and yet you might not live that way yourself. On one level, wisdom is nothing more profound than an ability to follow one’s own advice. However, there are deeper insights to be had about the nature of our minds. Unfortunately, they have been discussed entirely in the context of religion and, therefore, have been shrouded in fallacy and superstition for all of human history.
The problem of finding happiness in this world arrives with our first breath—and our needs and desires seem to multiply by the hour. To spend any time in the presence of a young child is to witness a mind ceaselessly buffeted by joy and sorrow. As we grow older, our laughter and tears become less gratuitous, perhaps, but the same process of change continues: One roiling complex of thought and emotion is followed by the next, like waves in the ocean.
Seeking, finding, maintaining, and safeguarding our well-being is the great project to which we all are devoted, whether or not we choose to think in these terms. This is not to say that we want mere pleasure or the easiest possible life. Many things require extraordinary effort to accomplish, and some of us learn to enjoy the struggle. Any athlete knows that certain kinds of pain can be exquisitely pleasurable. The burn of lifting weights, for instance, would be excruciating if it were a symptom of terminal illness. But because it is associated with health and fitness, most people find it enjoyable. Here we see that cognition and emotion are not separate. The way we think about experience can completely determine how we feel about it.
And we always face tensions and trade-offs. In some moments we crave excitement and in others rest. We might love the taste of wine and chocolate, but rarely for breakfast. Whatever the context, our minds are perpetually moving—generally toward pleasure (or its imagined source) and away from pain. I am not the first person to have noticed this.
Our struggle to navigate the space of possible pains and pleasures produces most of human culture. Medical science attempts to prolong our health and to reduce the suffering associated with illness, aging, and death. All forms of media cater to our thirst for information and entertainment. Political and economic institutions seek to ensure our peaceful collaboration with one another—and the police or the military is summoned when they fail. Beyond ensuring our survival, civilization is a vast machine invented by the human mind to regulate its states. We are ever in the process of creating and repairing a world that our minds want to be in. And wherever we look, we see the evidence of our successes and our failures. Unfortunately, failure enjoys a natural advantage. Wrong answers to any problem outnumber right ones by a wide margin, and it seems that it will always be easier to break things than to fix them.
Despite the beauty of our world and the scope of human accomplishment, it is hard not to worry that the forces of chaos will triumph—not merely in the end but in every moment. Our pleasures, however refined or easily acquired, are by their very nature fleeting. They begin to subside the instant they arise, only to be replaced by fresh desires or feelings of discomfort. You can’t get enough of your favorite meal until, in the next moment, you find you are so stuffed as to nearly require the attention of a surgeon—and yet, by some quirk of physics, you still have room for dessert. The pleasure of dessert lasts a few seconds, and then the lingering taste in your mouth must be banished by a drink of water. The warmth of the sun feels wonderful on your skin, but soon it becomes too much of a good thing. A move to the shade brings immediate relief, but after a minute or two, the breeze is just a little too cold. Do you have a sweater in the car? Let’s take a look. Yes, there it is. You’re warm now, but you notice that your sweater has seen better days. Does it make you look carefree or disheveled? Perhaps it is time to go shopping for something new. And so it goes.
We seem to do little more than lurch between wanting and not wanting. Thus, the question naturally arises: Is there more to life than this? Might it be possible to feel much better (in every sense of better) than one tends to feel? Is it possible to find lasting fulfillment despite the inevitability of change?
Spiritual life begins with a suspicion that the answer to such questions could well be “yes.” And a true spiritual practitioner is someone who has discovered that it is possible to be at ease in the world for no reason, if only for a few moments at a time, and that such ease is synonymous with transcending the apparent boundaries of the self. Those who have never tasted such peace of mind might view these assertions as highly suspect. Nevertheless, it is a fact that a condition of selfless well-being is there to be glimpsed in each moment. Of course, I’m not claiming to have experienced all such states, but I meet many people who appear to have experienced none of them—and these people often profess to have no interest in spiritual life.
This is not surprising. The phenomenon of self-transcendence is generally sought and interpreted in a religious context, and it is precisely the sort of experience that tends to increase a person’s faith. How many Christians, having once felt their hearts grow as wide as the world, will decide to ditch Christianity and proclaim their atheism? Not many, I suspect. How many people who have never felt anything of the kind become atheists? I don’t know, but there is little doubt that these mental states act as a kind of filter: The faithful count them in support of ancient dogma, and their absence gives nonbelievers further reason to reject religion.
This is a difficult problem for me to address in the context of a book, because many readers will have no idea what I’m talking about when I describe certain spiritual experiences and might assume that the assertions I’m making must be accepted on faith. Religious readers present a different challenge: They may think they know exactly what I’m describing, but only insofar as it aligns with one or another religious doctrine. It seems to me that both these attitudes present impressive obstacles to understanding spirituality in the way that I intend. I can only hope that, whatever your background, you will approach the exercises presented in this book with an open mind.
RELIGION, EAST AND WEST
We are often encouraged to believe that all religions are the same: All teach the same ethical principles; all urge their followers to contemplate the same divine reality; all are equally wise, compassionate, and true within their sphere—or equally divisive and false, depending on one’s view.
No serious adherents of any faith can believe these things, because most religions make claims about reality that are mutually incompatible. Exceptions to this rule exist, but they provide little relief from what is essentially a zero-sum contest of all against all. The polytheism of Hinduism allows it to digest parts of many other faiths: If Christians insist that Jesus Christ is the son of God, for instance, Hindus can make him yet another avatar of Vishnu without losing any sleep. But this spirit of inclusiveness points in one direction only, and even it has its limits. Hindus are committed to specific metaphysical ideas—the law of karma and rebirth, a multiplicity of gods—that almost every other major religion decries. It is impossible for any faith, no matter how elastic, to fully honor the truth claims of another.
Devout Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe that theirs is the one true and complete revelation—because that is what their holy books say of themselves. Only secularists and New Age dabblers can mistake the modern tactic of “interfaith dialogue” for an underlying unity of all religions.
I have long argued that confusion about the unity of religions is an artifact of language. Religion is a term like sports: Some sports are peaceful but spectacularly dangerous (“free solo” rock climbing); some are safer but synonymous with violence (mixed martial arts); and some entail little more risk of injury than standing in the shower (bowling). To speak of sports as a generic activity makes it impossible to discuss what athletes actually do or the physical attributes required to do it. What do all sports have in common apart from breathing? Not much. The term religion is hardly more useful.
The same could be said of spirituality. The esoteric doctrines found within every religious tradition are not all derived from the same insights. Nor are they equally empirical, logical, parsimonious, or wise. They don’t always point to the same underlying reality—and when they do, they don’t do it equally well. Nor are all these teachings equally suited for export beyond the cultures that first conceived them.
Making distinctions of this kind, however, is deeply unfashionable in intellectual circles. In my experience, people do not want to hear that Islam supports violence in a way that Jainism doesn’t, or that Buddhism offers a truly sophisticated, empirical approach to understanding the human mind, whereas Christianity presents an almost perfect impediment to such understanding. In many circles, to make invidious comparisons of this kind is to stand convicted of bigotry.
In one sense, all religions and spiritual practices must address the same reality—because people of all faiths have glimpsed many of the same truths. Any view of consciousness and the cosmos that is available to the human mind can, in principle, be appreciated by anyone. It is not surprising, therefore, that individual Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists have given voice to some of the same insights and intuitions. This merely indicates that human cognition and emotion run deeper than religion. (But we knew that, didn’t we?) It does not suggest that all religions understand our spiritual possibilities equally well.
One way of missing this point is to declare that all spiritual teachings are inflections of the same “Perennial Philosophy.” The writer Aldous Huxley brought this idea into prominence by publishing an anthology by that title. Here is how he justified the idea:
Philosophia perennis—the phrase was coined by Leibniz; but the thing—the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being—the thing is immemorial and universal. Rudiments of the Perennial Philosophy may be found among the traditionary lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions. A version of this Highest Common Factor in all preceding and subsequent theologies was first committed to writing more than twenty-five centuries ago, and since that time the inexhaustible theme has been treated again and again, from the standpoint of every religious tradition and in all the principal languages of Asia and Europe.
Although Huxley was being reasonably cautious in his wording, this notion of a “highest common factor” uniting all religions begins to break apart the moment one presses for details. For instance, the Abrahamic religions are incorrigibly dualistic and faith-based: In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the human soul is conceived as genuinely separate from the divine reality of God. The appropriate attitude for a creature that finds itself in this circumstance is some combination of terror, shame, and awe. In the best case, notions of God’s love and grace provide some relief—but the central message of these faiths is that each of us is separate from, and in relationship to, a divine authority who will punish anyone who harbors the slightest doubt about His supremacy.
The Eastern tradition presents a very different picture of reality. And its highest teachings—found within the various schools of Buddhism and the nominally Hindu tradition of Advaita Vedanta—explicitly transcend dualism. By their lights, consciousness itself is identical to the very reality that one might otherwise mistake for God. While these teachings make metaphysical claims that any serious student of science should find incredible, they center on a range of experiences that the doctrines of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam rule out-of-bounds.
Of course, it is true that specific Jewish, Christian, and Muslim mystics have had experiences similar to those that motivate Buddhism and Advaita, but these contemplative insights are not exemplary of their faith. Rather, they are anomalies that Western mystics have always struggled to understand and to honor, often at considerable personal risk. Given their proper weight, these experiences produce heterodoxies for which Jews, Christians, and Muslims have been regularly exiled or killed.
Like Huxley, anyone determined to find a happy synthesis among spiritual traditions will notice that the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart (ca. 1260–ca. 1327) often sounded very much like a Buddhist: “The knower and the known are one. Simple people imagine that they should see God, as if He stood there and they here. This is not so. God and I, we are one in knowledge.” But he also sounded like a man bound to be excommunicated by his church—as he was. Had Eckhart lived a little longer, it seems certain that he would have been dragged into the street and burned alive for these expansive ideas. That is a telling difference between Christianity and Buddhism.
In the same vein, it is misleading to hold up the Sufi mystic Al-Hallaj (858–922) as a representative of Islam. He was a Muslim, yes, but he suffered the most grisly death imaginable at the hands of his coreligionists for presuming to be one with God. Both Eckhart and Al-Hallaj gave voice to an experience of self-transcendence that any human being can, in principle, enjoy. However, their views were not consistent with the central teachings of their faiths.
The Indian tradition is comparatively free of problems of this kind. Although the teachings of Buddhism and Advaita are embedded in more or less conventional religions, they contain empirical insights about the nature of consciousness that do not depend upon faith. One can practice most techniques of Buddhist meditation or the method of self-inquiry of Advaita and experience the advertised changes in one’s consciousness without ever believing in the law of karma or in the miracles attributed to Indian mystics. To get started as a Christian, however, one must first accept a dozen implausible things about the life of Jesus and the origins of the Bible—and the same can be said, minus a few unimportant details, about Judaism and Islam. If one should happen to discover that the sense of being an individual soul is an illusion, one will be guilty of blasphemy everywhere west of the Indus.
There is no question that many religious disciplines can produce interesting experiences in suitable minds. It should be clear, however, that engaging a faith-based (and probably delusional) practice, whatever its effects, isn’t the same as investigating the nature of one’s mind absent any doctrinal assumptions. Statements of this kind may seem starkly antagonistic toward Abrahamic religions, but they are nonetheless true: One can speak about Buddhism shorn of its miracles and irrational assumptions. The same cannot be said of Christianity or Islam.
Western engagement with Eastern spirituality dates back at least as far as Alexander’s campaign in India, where the young conqueror and his pet philosophers encountered naked ascetics whom they called “gymnosophists.” It is often said that the thinking of these yogis greatly influenced the philosopher Pyrrho, the father of Greek skepticism. This seems a credible claim, because Pyrrho’s teachings had much in common with Buddhism. But his contemplative insights and methods never became part of any system of thought in the West.
Serious study of Eastern thought by outsiders did not begin until the late eighteenth century. The first translation of a Sanskrit text into a Western language appears to have been Sir Charles Wilkins’s rendering of the Bhagavad Gita, a cornerstone text of Hinduism, in 1785. The Buddhist canon would not attract the attention of Western scholars for another hundred years.
The conversation between East and West started in earnest, albeit inauspiciously, with the birth of the Theosophical Society, that golem of spiritual hunger and self-deception brought into this world almost single-handedly by the incomparable Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in 1875. Everything about Blavatsky seemed to defy earthly logic: She was an enormously fat woman who was said to have wandered alone and undetected for seven years in the mountains of Tibet. She was also thought to have survived shipwrecks, gunshot wounds, and sword fights. Even less persuasively, she claimed to be in psychic contact with members of the “Great White Brotherhood” of ascended masters—a collection of immortals responsible for the evolution and maintenance of the entire cosmos. Their leader hailed from the planet Venus but lived in the mythical kingdom of Shambhala, which Blavatsky placed somewhere in the vicinity of the Gobi Desert. With the suspiciously bureaucratic name “the Lord of the World,” he supervised the work of other adepts, including the Buddha, Maitreya, Maha Chohan, and one Koot Hoomi, who appears to have had nothing better to do on behalf of the cosmos than to impart its secrets to Blavatsky. 
It is always surprising when a person attracts legions of followers and builds a large organization on their largesse while peddling penny-arcade mythology of this kind. But perhaps this was less remarkable in a time when even the best-educated people were still struggling to come to terms with electricity, evolution, and the existence of other planets. We can easily forget how suddenly the world had shrunk and the cosmos expanded as the nineteenth century came to a close. The geographical barriers between distant cultures had been stripped away by trade and conquest (one could now order a gin and tonic almost everywhere on earth), and yet the reality of unseen forces and alien worlds was a daily focus of the most careful scientific research. Inevitably, cross-cultural and scientific discoveries were mingled in the popular imagination with religious dogma and traditional occultism. In fact, this had been happening at the highest level of human thought for more than a century: It is always instructive to recall that the father of modern physics, Isaac Newton, squandered a considerable portion of his genius on the study of theology, biblical prophecy, and alchemy.
The inability to distinguish the strange but true from the merely strange was common enough in Blavatsky’s time—as it is in our own. Blavatsky’s contemporary Joseph Smith, a libidinous con man and crackpot, was able to found a new religion on the claim that he had unearthed the final revelations of God in the hallowed precincts of Manchester, New York, written in “reformed Egyptian” on golden plates. He decoded this text with the aid of magical “seer stones,” which, whether by magic or not, allowed Smith to produce an English version of God’s Word that was an embarrassing pastiche of plagiarisms from the Bible and silly lies about Jesus’s life in America. And yet the resulting edifice of nonsense and taboo survives to this day.
A more modern cult, Scientology, leverages human credulity to an even greater degree: Adherents believe that human beings are possessed by the souls of extraterrestrials who were condemned to planet Earth 75 million years ago by the galactic overlord Xenu. How was their exile accomplished? The old-fashioned way: These aliens were shuttled by the billions to our humble planet aboard a spacecraft that resembled a DC-8. They were then imprisoned in a volcano and blasted to bits with hydrogen bombs. Their souls survived, however, and disentangling them from our own can be the work of a lifetime. It is also expensive.
Despite the imponderables in her philosophy, Blavatsky was among the first people to announce in Western circles that there was such a thing as the “wisdom of the East.” This wisdom began to trickle westward once Swami Vivekananda introduced the teachings of Vedanta at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. Again, Buddhism lagged behind: A few Western monks living on the island of Sri Lanka were beginning to translate the Pali Canon, which remains the most authoritative record of the teachings of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. However, the practice of Buddhist meditation wouldn’t actually be taught in the West for another half century.
It is easy enough to find fault with romantic ideas about Eastern wisdom, and a tradition of such criticism sprang up almost the instant the first Western seeker sat cross-legged and attempted to meditate. In the late 1950s, the author and journalist Arthur Koestler traveled to India and Japan in search of wisdom and summarized his pilgrimage thus: “I started my journey in sackcloth and ashes, and came back rather proud of being a European.”
In The Lotus and the Robot, Koestler gives some of his reasons for being less than awed by his journey to the East. Consider, for example, the ancient discipline of hatha yoga. While now generally viewed as a system of physical exercises designed to increase a person’s strength and flexibility, in its traditional context hatha yoga is part of a larger effort to manipulate “subtle” features of the body unknown to anatomists. No doubt much of this subtlety corresponds to experiences that yogis actually have—but many of the beliefs formed on the basis of these experiences are patently absurd, and certain of the associated practices are both silly and injurious.
Koestler reports that the aspiring yogi is traditionally encouraged to lengthen his tongue—even going so far as to cut the frenulum (the membrane that anchors the tongue to the floor of the mouth) and stretch the soft palate. What is the purpose of these modifications? They enable our hero to insert his tongue into his nasopharynx, thereby blocking the flow of air through the nostrils. His anatomy thus improved, a yogi can then imbibe subtle liquors believed to emanate directly from his brain. These substances—imagined, by recourse to further subtleties, to be connected to the retention of semen—are said to confer not only spiritual wisdom but immortality. This technique of drinking mucus is known as khechari mudra, and it is thought to be one of the crowning achievements of yoga.
I’m more than happy to score a point for Koestler here. Needless to say, no defense of such practices will be found in this book.
Criticism of Eastern wisdom can seem especially pertinent when coming from Easterners themselves. There is indeed something preposterous about well-educated Westerners racing East in search of spiritual enlightenment while Easterners make the opposite pilgrimage seeking education and economic opportunities. I have a friend whose own adventures may have marked a high point in this global comedy. He made his first trip to India immediately after graduating from college, having already acquired several yogic affectations: He had the requisite beads and long hair, but he was also in the habit of writing the name of the Hindu god Ram in Devanagari script over and over in a journal. On the flight to the motherland, he had the good fortune to be seated next to an Indian businessman. This weary traveler thought he had witnessed every species of human folly—until he caught sight of my friend’s scribbling. The spectacle of a Western-born Stanford graduate, of working age, holding degrees in both economics and history, devoting himself to the graphomaniacal worship of an imaginary deity in a language he could neither read nor understand was more than this man could abide in a confined space at 30,000 feet. After a testy exchange, the two travelers could only stare at each other in mutual incomprehension and pity—and they had ten hours yet to fly. There really are two sides to such a conversation, but I concede that only one of them can be made to look ridiculous.
We can also grant that Eastern wisdom has not produced societies or political institutions that are any better than their Western counterparts; in fact, one could argue that India has survived as the world’s largest democracy only because of institutions that were built under British rule. Nor has the East led the world in scientific discovery. Nevertheless, there is something to the notion of uniquely Eastern wisdom, and most of it has been concentrated in or derived from the tradition of Buddhism.
Buddhism has been of special interest to Western scientists for reasons already hinted at. It isn’t primarily a faith-based religion, and its central teachings are entirely empirical. Despite the superstitions that many Buddhists cherish, the doctrine has a practical and logical core that does not require any unwarranted assumptions. Many Westerners have recognized this and have been relieved to find a spiritual alternative to faith-based worship. It is no accident that most of the scientific research now done on meditation focuses primarily on Buddhist techniques.
Another reason for Buddhism’s prominence among scientists has been the intellectual engagement of one of its most visible representatives: Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama. Of course, the Dalai Lama is not without his critics. My late friend Christopher Hitchens meted out justice to “his holiness” on several occasions. He also castigated Western students of Buddhism for the “widely and lazily held belief that ‘Oriental’ religion is different from other faiths: less dogmatic, more contemplative, more . . . Transcendental,” and for the “blissful, thoughtless exceptionalism” with which Buddhism is regarded by many.
Hitch did have a point. In his capacity as the head of one of the four branches of Tibetan Buddhism and as the former leader of the Tibetan government in exile, the Dalai Lama has made some questionable claims and formed some embarrassing alliances. Although his engagement with science is far-reaching and surely sincere, the man is not above consulting an astrologer or “oracle” when making important decisions. I will have something to say in this book about many of the things that might have justified Hitch’s opprobrium, but the general thrust of his commentary here was all wrong. Several Eastern traditions are exceptionally empirical and exceptionally wise, and therefore merit the exceptionalism claimed by their adherents.
Buddhism in particular possesses a literature on the nature of the mind that has no peer in Western religion or Western science. Some of these teachings are cluttered with metaphysical assumptions that should provoke our doubts, but many aren’t. And when engaged as a set of hypotheses by which to investigate the mind and deepen one’s ethical life, Buddhism can be an entirely rational enterprise.
Unlike the doctrines of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the teachings of Buddhism are not considered by their adherents to be the product of infallible revelation. They are, rather, empirical instructions: If you do X, you will experience Y. Although many Buddhists have a superstitious and cultic attachment to the historical Buddha, the teachings of Buddhism present him as an ordinary human being who succeeded in understanding the nature of his own mind. Buddha means “awakened one”—and Siddhartha Gautama was merely a man who woke up from the dream of being a separate self. Compare this with the Christian view of Jesus, who is imagined to be the son of the creator of the universe. This is a very different proposition, and it renders Christianity, no matter how fully divested of metaphysical baggage, all but irrelevant to a scientific discussion about the human condition.
The teachings of Buddhism, and of Eastern spirituality generally, focus on the primacy of the mind. There are dangers in this way of viewing the world, to be sure. Focusing on training the mind to the exclusion of all else can lead to political quietism and hive-like conformity. The fact that your mind is all you have and that it is possible to be at peace even in difficult circumstances can become an argument for ignoring obvious societal problems. But it is not a compelling one. The world is in desperate need of improvement—in global terms, freedom and prosperity remain the exception—and yet this doesn’t mean we need to be miserable while we work for the common good.
In fact, the teachings of Buddhism emphasize a connection between ethical and spiritual life. Making progress in one domain lays a foundation for progress in the other. One can, for instance, spend long periods of time in contemplative solitude for the purpose of becoming a better person in the world—having better relationships, being more honest and compassionate and, therefore, more helpful to one’s fellow human beings. Being wisely selfish and being selfless can amount to very much the same thing. There are centuries of anecdotal testimony on this point—and, as we will see, the scientific study of the mind has begun to bear it out. There is now little question that how one uses one’s attention, moment to moment, largely determines what kind of person one becomes. Our minds—and lives—are largely shaped by how we use them.
Although the experience of self-transcendence is, in principle, available to everyone, this possibility is only weakly attested to in the religious and philosophical literature of the West. Only Buddhists and students of Advaita Vedanta (which appears to have been heavily influenced by Buddhism) have been absolutely clear in asserting that spiritual life consists in overcoming the illusion of the self by paying close attention to our experience in the present moment.
As I wrote in my first book, The End of Faith, the disparity between Eastern and Western spirituality resembles that found between Eastern and Western medicine—with the arrow of embarrassment pointing in the opposite direction. Humanity did not understand the biology of cancer, develop antibiotics and vaccines, or sequence the human genome under an Eastern sun. Consequently, real medicine is almost entirely a product of Western science. Insofar as specific techniques of Eastern medicine actually work, they must conform, whether by design or by happenstance, to the principles of biology as we have come to know them in the West. This is not to say that Western medicine is complete. In a few decades, many of our current practices will seem barbaric. One need only ponder the list of side effects that accompany most medications to appreciate that these are terribly blunt instruments. Nevertheless, most of our knowledge about the human body—and about the physical universe generally—emerged in the West. The rest is instinct, folklore, bewilderment, and untimely death.
An honest comparison of spiritual traditions, Eastern and Western, proves equally invidious. As manuals for contemplative understanding, the Bible and the Koran are worse than useless. Whatever wisdom can be found in their pages is never best found there, and it is subverted, time and again, by ancient savagery and superstition.
Again, one must deploy the necessary caveats: I am not saying that most Buddhists or Hindus have been sophisticated contemplatives. Their traditions have spawned many of the same pathologies we see elsewhere among the faithful: dogmatism, anti-intellectualism, tribalism, otherworldliness. However, the empirical difference between the central teachings of Buddhism and Advaita and those of Western monotheism is difficult to overstate. One can traverse the Eastern paths simply by becoming interested in the nature of one’s own mind—especially in the immediate causes of psychological suffering—and by paying closer attention to one’s experience in every present moment. There is, in truth, nothing one need believe. The teachings of Buddhism and Advaita are best viewed as lab manuals and explorers’ logs detailing the results of empirical research on the nature of human consciousness.
Nearly every geographical or linguistic barrier to the free exchange of ideas has now fallen away. It seems to me, therefore, that educated people no longer have a right to any form of spiritual provincialism. The truths of Eastern spirituality are now no more Eastern than the truths of Western science are Western. We are merely talking about human consciousness and its possible states. My purpose in writing this book is to encourage you to investigate certain contemplative insights for yourself, without accepting the metaphysical ideas that they inspired in ignorant and isolated peoples of the past.
A final word of caution: Nothing I say here is intended as a denial of the fact that psychological well-being requires a healthy “sense of self”—with all the capacities that this vague phrase implies. Children need to become autonomous, confident, and self-aware in order to form healthy relationships. And they must acquire a host of other cognitive, emotional, and interpersonal skills in the process of becoming sane and productive adults. Which is to say that there is a time and a place for everything—unless, of course, there isn’t. No doubt there are psychological conditions, such as schizophrenia, for which practices of the sort I recommend in this book might be inappropriate. Some people find the experience of an extended, silent retreat psychologically destabilizing.
Again, an analogy to physical training seems apropos: Not everyone is suited to running a six-minute mile or bench-pressing his own body weight. But many quite ordinary people are capable of these feats, and there are better and worse ways to accomplish them. What is more, the same principles of fitness generally apply even to people whose abilities are limited by illness or injury.
So I want to make it clear that the instructions in this book are intended for readers who are adults (more or less) and free from any psychological or medical conditions that could be exacerbated by meditation or other techniques of sustained introspection. If paying attention to your breath, to bodily sensations, to the flow of thoughts, or to the nature of consciousness itself seems likely to cause you clinically significant anguish, please check with a psychologist or a psychiatrist before engaging in the practices I describe.
It is always now. This might sound trite, but it is the truth. It’s not quite true as a matter of neurology, because our minds are built upon layers of inputs whose timing we know must be different.  But it is true as a matter of conscious experience. The reality of your life is always now. And to realize this, we will see, is liberating. In fact, I think there is nothing more important to understand if you want to be happy in this world.
But we spend most of our lives forgetting this truth—overlooking it, fleeing it, repudiating it. And the horror is that we succeed. We manage to avoid being happy while struggling to become happy, fulfilling one desire after the next, banishing our fears, grasping at pleasure, recoiling from pain—and thinking, interminably, about how best to keep the whole works up and running. As a consequence, we spend our lives being far less content than we might otherwise be. We often fail to appreciate what we have until we have lost it. We crave experiences, objects, relationships, only to grow bored with them. And yet the craving persists. I speak from experience, of course.
As a remedy for this predicament, many spiritual teachings ask us to entertain unfounded ideas about the nature of reality—or at the very least to develop a fondness for the iconography and rituals of one or another religion. But not all paths traverse the same rough ground. There are methods of meditation that do not require any artifice or unwarranted assumptions at all.
For beginners, I usually recommend a technique called vipassana (Pali for “insight”), which comes from the oldest tradition of Buddhism, the Theravada. One of the advantages of vipassana is that it can be taught in an entirely secular way. Experts in this practice generally acquire their training in a Buddhist context, and most retreat centers in the United States and Europe teach its associated Buddhist philosophy. Nevertheless, this method of introspection can be brought into any secular or scientific context without embarrassment. (The same cannot be said for the practice of chanting to Lord Krishna while banging a drum.) That is why vipassana is now being widely studied and adopted by psychologists and neuroscientists.
The quality of mind cultivated in vipassana is almost always referred to as “mindfulness,” and the literature on its psychological benefits is now substantial. There is nothing spooky about mindfulness. It is simply a state of clear, nonjudgmental, and undistracted attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant. Cultivating this quality of mind has been shown to reduce pain, anxiety, and depression; improve cognitive function; and even produce changes in gray matter density in regions of the brain related to learning and memory, emotional regulation, and self-awareness. We will look more closely at the neurophysiology of mindfulness in a later chapter.
Mindfulness is a translation of the Pali word sati. The term has several meanings in the Buddhist literature, but for our purposes the most important is “clear awareness.” The practice was first described in the Satipatthana Sutta, which is part of the Pali Canon. Like many Buddhist texts, the Satipatthana Sutta is highly repetitive and, for anything but an avid student of Buddhism, exceptionally boring to read. However, when one compares texts of this kind with the Bible or the Koran, the difference is unmistakable: The Satipatthana Sutta is not a collection of ancient myths, superstitions, and taboos; it is a rigorously empirical guide to freeing the mind from suffering.
The Buddha described four foundations of mindfulness, which he taught as “the direct path for the purification of beings, for the surmounting of sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of pain and grief, for the attainment of the true way, for the realization of Nibbana” (Sanskrit, Nirvana). The four foundations of mindfulness are the body (breathing, changes in posture, activities), feelings (the senses of pleasantness, unpleasantness, and neutrality), the mind (in particular, its moods and attitudes), and the objects of mind (which include the five senses but also other mental states, such as volition, tranquility, rapture, equanimity, and even mindfulness itself). It is a peculiar list, at once redundant and incomplete—a problem that is compounded by the necessity of translating Pali terminology into English. The obvious message of the text, however, is that the totality of one’s experience can become the field of contemplation. The meditator is merely instructed to pay attention, “ardently” and “fully aware” and “free from covetousness and grief for the world.”
There is nothing passive about mindfulness. One might even say that it expresses a specific kind of passion—a passion for discerning what is subjectively real in every moment. It is a mode of cognition that is, above all, undistracted, accepting, and (ultimately) nonconceptual. Being mindful is not a matter of thinking more clearly about experience; it is the act of experiencing more clearly, including the arising of thoughts themselves. Mindfulness is a vivid awareness of whatever is appearing in one’s mind or body—thoughts, sensations, moods—without grasping at the pleasant or recoiling from the unpleasant. One of the great strengths of this technique of meditation, from a secular point of view, is that it does not require us to adopt any cultural affectations or unjustified beliefs. It simply demands that we pay close attention to the flow of experience in each moment.
The principal enemy of mindfulness—or of any meditative practice—is our deeply conditioned habit of being distracted by thoughts. The problem is not thoughts themselves but the state of thinking without knowing that we are thinking. In fact, thoughts of all kinds can be perfectly good objects of mindfulness. In the early stages of one’s practice, however, the arising of thought will be more or less synonymous with distraction—that is, with a failure to meditate. Most people who believe they are meditating are merely thinking with their eyes closed. By practicing mindfulness, however, one can awaken from the dream of discursive thought and begin to see each arising image, idea, or bit of language vanish without a trace. What remains is consciousness itself, with its attendant sights, sounds, sensations, and thoughts appearing and changing in every moment.
In the beginning of one’s meditation practice, the difference between ordinary experience and what one comes to consider “mindfulness” is not very clear, and it takes some training to distinguish between being lost in thought and seeing thoughts for what they are. In this sense, learning to meditate is just like acquiring any other skill. It takes many thousands of repetitions to throw a good jab or to coax music from the strings of a guitar. With practice, mindfulness becomes a well-formed habit of attention, and the difference between it and ordinary thinking will become increasingly clear. Eventually, it begins to seem as if you are repeatedly awakening from a dream to find yourself safely in bed. No matter how terrible the dream, the relief is instantaneous. And yet it is difficult to stay awake for more than a few seconds at a time.
My friend Joseph Goldstein, one of the finest vipassana teachers I know, likens this shift in awareness to the experience of being fully immersed in a film and then suddenly realizing that you are sitting in a theater watching a mere play of light on a wall. Your perception is unchanged, but the spell is broken. Most of us spend every waking moment lost in the movie of our lives. Until we see that an alternative to this enchantment exists, we are entirely at the mercy of appearances. Again, the difference I am describing is not a matter of achieving a new conceptual understanding or of adopting new beliefs about the nature of reality. The change comes when we experience the present moment prior to the arising of thought.
The Buddha taught mindfulness as the appropriate response to the truth of dukkha, usually translated from the Pali, somewhat misleadingly, as “suffering.” A better translation would be “unsatisfactoriness.” Suffering may not be inherent in life, but unsatisfactoriness is. We crave lasting happiness in the midst of change: Our bodies age, cherished objects break, pleasures fade, relationships fail. Our attachment to the good things in life and our aversion to the bad amount to a denial of these realities, and this inevitably leads to feelings of dissatisfaction. Mindfulness is a technique for achieving equanimity amid the flux, allowing us to simply be aware of the quality of experience in each moment, whether pleasant or unpleasant. This may seem like a recipe for apathy, but it needn’t be. It is actually possible to be mindful—and, therefore, to be at peace with the present moment—even while working to change the world for the better.
Mindfulness meditation is extraordinarily simple to describe, but it isn’t easy to perform. True mastery might require special talent and a lifetime of devotion to the task, and yet a genuine transformation in one’s perception of the world is within reach for most of us. Practice is the only thing that will lead to success. The simple instructions given in the box that follows are analogous to instructions on how to walk a tightrope—which, I assume, must go something like this:
1. Find a horizontal cable that can support your weight.
2. Stand on one end.
3. Step forward by placing one foot directly in front of the other.
5. Don’t fall.
Clearly, steps 2 through 5 entail a little trial and error. Happily, the benefits of training in meditation arrive long before mastery does. And falling, for our purposes, occurs almost ceaselessly, every time we become lost in thought. Again, the problem is not thoughts themselves but the state of thinking without being fully aware that we are thinking.
As every meditator soon discovers, distraction is the normal condition of our minds: Most of us topple from the wire every second—whether gliding happily into reverie or plunging into fear, anger, self-hatred, and other negative states of mind. Meditation is a technique for waking up. The goal is to come out of the trance of discursive thinking and to stop reflexively grasping at the pleasant and recoiling from the unpleasant, so that we can enjoy a mind undisturbed by worry, merely open like the sky, and effortlessly aware of the flow of experience in the present.
How to Meditate
- Sit comfortably, with your spine erect, either in a chair or cross-legged on a cushion.
- Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and feel the points of contact between your body and the chair or the floor. Notice the sensations associated with sitting—feelings of pressure, warmth, tingling, vibration, etc.
- Gradually become aware of the process of breathing. Pay attention to wherever you feel the breath most distinctly—either at your nostrils or in the rising and falling of your abdomen.
- Allow your attention to rest in the mere sensation of breathing. (You don’t have to control your breath. Just let it come and go naturally.)
- Every time your mind wanders in thought, gently return it to the breath.
- As you focus on the process of breathing, you will also perceive sounds, bodily sensations, or emotions. Simply observe these phenomena as they appear in consciousness and then return to the breath.
- The moment you notice that you have been lost in thought, observe the present thought itself as an object of consciousness. Then return your attention to the breath—or to any sounds or sensations arising in the next moment.
- Continue in this way until you can merely witness all objects of consciousness—sights, sounds, sensations, emotions, even thoughts themselves—as they arise, change, and pass away.
Those who are new to this practice generally find it useful to hear instructions of this kind spoken aloud during the course of a meditation session. I have posted guided meditations of varying length on my website.
THE TRUTH OF SUFFERING
I am sitting in a coffee shop in midtown Manhattan, drinking exactly what I want (coffee), eating exactly what I want (a cookie), and doing exactly what I want (writing this book). It is a beautiful fall day, and many of the people passing by on the sidewalk appear to radiate good fortune from their pores. Several are so physically attractive that I’m beginning to wonder whether Photoshop can now be applied to the human body. Up and down this street, and for a mile in each direction, stores sell jewelry, art, and clothing that not even 1 percent of humanity could hope to purchase.
So what did the Buddha mean when he spoke of the “unsatisfactoriness” (dukkha) of life? Was he referring merely to the poor and the hungry? Or are these rich and beautiful people suffering even now? Of course, suffering is all around us—even here, where everything appears to be going well for the moment.
First, the obvious: Within a few blocks of where I am sitting are hospitals, convalescent homes, psychiatrists’ offices, and other rooms built to assuage, or merely to contain, some of the most profound forms of human misery. A man runs over his own child while backing his car out of the driveway. A woman learns that she has terminal cancer on the eve of her wedding. We know that the worst can happen to anyone at any time—and most people spend a great deal of mental energy hoping that it won’t happen to them.
But more subtle forms of suffering can be found, even among people who seem to have every reason to be satisfied in the present. Although wealth and fame can secure many forms of pleasure, few of us have any illusions that they guarantee happiness. Anyone who owns a television or reads the newspaper has seen movie stars, politicians, professional athletes, and other celebrities ricochet from marriage to marriage and from scandal to scandal. To learn that a young, attractive, talented, and successful person is nevertheless addicted to drugs or clinically depressed is to be given almost no cause for surprise.
Yet the unsatisfactoriness of the good life runs deeper than this. Even while living safely between emergencies, most of us feel a wide range of painful emotions on a daily basis. When you wake up in the morning, are you filled with joy? How do you feel at work or when looking in the mirror? How satisfied are you with what you’ve accomplished in life? How much of your time with your family is spent surrendered to love and gratitude, and how much is spent just struggling to be happy in one another’s company? Even for extraordinarily lucky people, life is difficult. And when we look at what makes it so, we see that we are all prisoners of our thoughts.
And then there is death, which defeats everyone. Most people seem to believe that we have only two ways to think about death: We can fear it and do our best to ignore it, or we can deny that it is real. The first strategy leads to a life of conventional worldliness and distraction—we merely strive for pleasure and success and do our best to keep the reality of death out of view. The second strategy is the province of religion, which assures us that death is but a doorway to another world and that the most important opportunities in life occur after the lifetime of the body. But there is another path, and it seems the only one compatible with intellectual honesty. That path is the subject of this book.
What is enlightenment, which is so often said to be the ultimate goal of meditation? There are many esoteric details that we can safely ignore—disagreements among contemplative traditions about what, exactly, is gained or lost at the end of the spiritual path. Many of these claims are preposterous. Within most schools of Buddhism, for instance, a buddha—whether the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, or any other person who attains the state of “full enlightenment”—is generally described as “omniscient.” Just what this means is open to a fair bit of caviling. But however narrowly defined, the claim is absurd. If the historical Buddha were “omniscient,” he would have been, at minimum, a better mathematician, physicist, biologist, and Jeopardy contestant than any person who has ever lived. Is it reasonable to expect that an ascetic in the fifth century BC, by virtue of his meditative insights, spontaneously became an unprecedented genius in every field of human inquiry, including those that did not exist at the time in which he lived? Would Siddhartha Gautama have awed Kurt Gödel, Alan Turing, John von Neumann, and Claude Shannon with his command of mathematical logic and information theory? Of course not. To think otherwise is pure, religious piety.
Any extension of the notion of “omniscience” to procedural knowledge—that is, to knowing how to do something—would render the Buddha capable of painting the Sistine Chapel in the morning and demolishing Roger Federer at Centre Court in the afternoon. Is there any reason to believe that Siddhartha Gautama, or any other celebrated contemplative, possessed such abilities by virtue of his spiritual practice? None whatsoever. Nevertheless, many Buddhists believe that buddhas can do all these things and more. Again, this is religious dogmatism, not a rational approach to spiritual life.
I make no claims in support of magic or miracles in this book. However, I can say that the true goal of meditation is more profound than most people realize—and it does, in fact, encompass many of the experiences that traditional mystics claim for themselves. It is quite possible to lose one’s sense of being a separate self and to experience a kind of boundless, open awareness—to feel, in other words, at one with the cosmos. This says a lot about the possibilities of human consciousness, but it says nothing about the universe at large. And it sheds no light at all on the relationship between mind and matter. The fact that it is possible to love one’s neighbor as oneself should be a great finding for the field of psychology, but it lends absolutely no credence to the claim that Jesus was the son of God, or even that God exists. Nor does it suggest that the “energy” of love somehow pervades the cosmos. These are historical and metaphysical claims that personal experience cannot justify.
However, a phenomenon like self-transcending love does entitle us to make claims about the human mind. And this particular experience is so well attested and so readily achieved by those who devote themselves to specific practices (the Buddhist technique of metta meditation, for instance) or who even take the right drug (MDMA) that there is very little controversy that it exists. Facts of this kind must now be understood in a rational context.
The traditional goal of meditation is to arrive at a state of well-being that is imperturbable—or if perturbed, easily regained. The French monk Matthieu Ricard describes such happiness as “a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind.”
The purpose of meditation is to recognize that you already have such a mind. That discovery, in turn, helps you to cease doing the things that produce needless confusion and suffering for yourself and others. Of course, most people never truly master the practice and don’t reach a condition of imperturbable happiness. The near goal, therefore, is to have an increasingly healthy mind—that is, to be moving one’s mind in the right direction.
There is nothing novel about trying to become happy. And one can become happy, within certain limits, without any recourse to the practice of meditation. But conventional sources of happiness are unreliable, being dependent upon changing conditions. It is difficult to raise a happy family, to keep yourself and those you love healthy, to acquire wealth and find creative and fulfilling ways to enjoy it, to form deep friendships, to contribute to society in ways that are emotionally rewarding, to perfect a wide variety of artistic, athletic, and intellectual skills—and to keep the machinery of happiness running day after day. There is nothing wrong with being fulfilled in all these ways—except for the fact that, if you pay close attention, you will see that there is still something wrong with it. These forms of happiness aren’t good enough. Our feelings of fulfillment do not last. And the stress of life continues.
So what would a spiritual master be a master of? At a minimum, she will no longer suffer certain cognitive and emotional illusions—above all, she will no longer feel identical to her thoughts. Once again, this is not to say that such a person will no longer think, but she would no longer succumb to the primary confusion that thoughts produce in most of us: She would no longer feel that there is an inner self who is a thinker of these thoughts. Such a person will naturally maintain an openness and serenity of mind that is available to most of us only for brief moments, even after years of practice. I remain agnostic as to whether anyone has achieved such a state permanently, but I know from direct experience that it is possible to be far more enlightened than I tend to be.
The question of whether enlightenment is a permanent state need not detain us. The crucial point is that you can glimpse something about the nature of consciousness that will liberate you from suffering in the present. Even just recognizing the impermanence of your mental states—deeply, not merely as an idea—can transform your life. Every mental state you have ever had has arisen and then passed away. This is a first-person fact—but it is, nonetheless, a fact that any human being can readily confirm. We don’t have to know any more about the brain or about the relationship between consciousness and the physical world to understand this truth about our own minds. The promise of spiritual life—indeed, the very thing that makes it “spiritual” in the sense I invoke throughout this book—is that there are truths about the mind that we are better off knowing. What we need to become happier and to make the world a better place is not more pious illusions but a clearer understanding of the way things are.
The moment we admit the possibility of attaining contemplative insights—and of training one’s mind for that purpose—we must acknowledge that people naturally fall at different points on a continuum between ignorance and wisdom. Part of this range will be considered “normal,” but normal isn’t necessarily a happy place to be. Just as a person’s physical body and abilities can be refined—Olympic athletes are not normal—one’s mental life can deepen and expand on the basis of talent and training. This is nearly self-evident, but it remains a controversial point. No one hesitates to admit the role of talent and training in the context of physical and intellectual pursuits; I have never met another person who denied that some of us are stronger, more athletic, or more learned than others. But many people find it difficult to acknowledge that a continuum of moral and spiritual wisdom exists or that there might be better and worse ways to traverse it.
Stages of spiritual development, therefore, appear unavoidable. Just as we must grow into adulthood physically—and we can fail to mature or become sick or injured along the way—our minds develop by degrees. One can’t learn sophisticated skills such as syllogistic reasoning, algebra, or irony until one has acquired more basic skills. It seems to me that a healthy spiritual life can begin only once our physical, mental, social, and ethical lives have sufficiently matured. We must learn to use language before we can work with it creatively or understand its limits, and the conventional self must form before we can investigate it and understand that it is not what it appears to be. An ability to examine the contents of one’s own consciousness clearly, dispassionately, and nondiscursively, with sufficient attention to realize that no inner self exists, is a very sophisticated skill. And yet basic mindfulness can be practiced very early in life. Many people, including my wife, have successfully taught it to children as young as six. At that age—and every age thereafter—it can be a powerful tool for self-regulation and self-awareness.
Contemplatives have long understood that positive habits of mind are best viewed as skills that most of us learn imperfectly as we grow to adulthood. It is possible to become more focused, patient, and compassionate than one naturally tends to be, and there are many things to learn about how to be happy in this world. These are truths that Western psychological science has only recently begun to explore.
Some people are content in the midst of deprivation and danger, while others are miserable despite having all the luck in the world. This is not to say that external circumstances do not matter. But it is your mind, rather than circumstances themselves, that determines the quality of your life. Your mind is the basis of everything you experience and of every contribution you make to the lives of others. Given this fact, it makes sense to train it.
Scientists and skeptics generally assume that the traditional claims of yogis and mystics must be exaggerated or simply delusional and that the only rational purpose of meditation is limited to conventional “stress reduction.” Conversely, serious students of these practices often insist that even the most outlandish claims made by and about spiritual masters are true. I am attempting to lead the reader along a middle path between these extremes—one that preserves our scientific skepticism but acknowledges that it is possible to radically transform our minds.
In one sense, the Buddhist concept of enlightenment really is just the epitome of “stress reduction”—and depending on how much stress one reduces, the results of one’s practice can seem more or less profound. According to the Buddhist teachings, human beings have a distorted view of reality that leads them to suffer unnecessarily. We grasp at transitory pleasures. We brood about the past and worry about the future. We continually seek to prop up and defend an egoic self that doesn’t exist. This is stressful—and spiritual life is a process of gradually unraveling our confusion and bringing this stress to an end. According to the Buddhist view, by seeing things as they are, we cease to suffer in the usual ways, and our minds can open to states of well-being that are intrinsic to the nature of consciousness.
Of course, some people claim to love stress and appear eager to live by its logic. Some even derive pleasure from imposing stress on others. Genghis Khan is reported to have said, “The greatest happiness is to scatter your enemy and drive him before you, to see his cities reduced to ashes, to see those who love him shrouded in tears, and to gather to your bosom his wives and daughters.” People attach many meanings to terms like happiness, and not all of them are compatible with one another.
In The Moral Landscape, I argued that we tend to be unnecessarily confused by differences of opinion on the topic of human well-being. No doubt certain people can derive mental pleasure—and even experience genuine ecstasy—by behaving in ways that produce immense suffering for others. But we know that these states are anomalous—or, at least, not sustainable—because we depend upon one another for more or less everything. Whatever the associated pleasures, raping and pillaging can’t be a stable strategy for finding happiness in this world. Given our social requirements, we know that the deepest and most durable forms of well-being must be compatible with an ethical concern for other people—even for complete strangers—otherwise, violent conflict becomes inevitable. We also know that there are certain forms of happiness that are not available to a person even if, like Genghis Khan, he finds himself on the winning side of every siege. Some pleasures are intrinsically ethical—feelings like love, gratitude, devotion, and compassion. To inhabit these states of mind is, by definition, to be brought into alignment with others.
In my view, the realistic goal to be attained through spiritual practice is not some permanent state of enlightenment that admits of no further efforts but a capacity to be free in this moment, in the midst of whatever is happening. If you can do that, you have already solved most of the problems you will encounter in life.
- My late friend Christopher Hitchens—no enemy of the lexicographer—didn’t share them either. Hitch believed that spiritual was a term we could not do without. It is true that he didn’t think about spirituality in precisely the way I do. He spoke instead of the spiritual pleasures afforded by certain works of poetry, music, and art. The symmetry and beauty of the Parthenon embodied this happy extreme for him—without there being any need to admit the existence of the goddess Athena, much less devote ourselves to her worship. Hitch also used the terms numinous and transcendent to mark occasions of great beauty or significance, and for him the Hubble Deep Field was an example of both. (I’m sure he was aware that pedantic excursions into the OED would produce etymological embarrassments regarding these words as well.) Carl Sagan also freely used the term spiritual in this way. (See C. Sagan. 1995. The Demon-Haunted World. New York: Random House. p. 29.) I have no quarrel with Hitch and Sagan’s general use of spiritual to mean something like “beauty or significance that provokes awe,” but I believe that we can also use it in a narrower and, indeed, more personally transformative sense. ↩
- A. Huxley.  2009. The Perennial Philosophy: An Interpretation of the Great Mystics, East and West. New York: Harper Perennial, p. vii.↩
- One can speak about Judaism without its myths and miracles—even without God—but this doesn’t make Judaism the equivalent of Buddhism. Buddhism without the unjustified bits is essentially a first-person science. Secular Judaism isn’t. ↩
- A. Rawlinson. 1997. The Book of Enlightened Masters. Chicago: Open Court, p. 38. ↩
- For an entertaining account of Blavatsky’s career, see P. Washington. 1993. Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon. New York: Schocken.↩
- One wonders how it was possible for a charlatan like L. Ron Hubbard to acquire any following at all, because each story about him is more preposterous and embarrassing than the last. For instance, Hubbard claimed to have withdrawn one of his first books from publication “‘because the first six people who read it were so shattered by the revelations that they had lost their minds’” (L. Wright. 2013. Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. New York: Knopf ). According to Hubbard, when he delivered this “dangerous text to his publisher, ‘The reader brought the manuscript into the room, set it on the publisher’s desk, then jumped out the window of the skyscraper.’”
There are many more laughs to be had at Hubbard’s expense. However, several readers who saw the original version of this endnote found it so funny that they had to be hospitalized. Regrettably, I’ve been forced to edit the text out of concern for the health of my readers.↩
- A. Koestler. 1960. The Lotus and the Robot. New York: Harper & Row, p. 285. Koestler was also less than impressed with the spiritual efficacy of psychedelics. See A. Koestler. 1968. “Return Trip to Nirvana.” In Drinkers of Infinity: Essays 1955–1967. London: Hutchinson, pp. 201–12. ↩
- C. Hitchens. 1998.“His Material Highness.” Salon.com.↩
- Purists will insist on important differences among the various schools of Buddhism and between Buddhism and the tradition of Advaita Vedanta developed by Shankara (788–820). Although I touch upon some of these distinctions, I do not make much of them. I consider the differences to be generally a matter of emphasis, semantics, and (irrelevant) metaphysics—and too esoteric to be of interest to the general reader.↩
- The research on pathological responses to meditation is quite sparse. Traditionally, it is believed that certain stages on the contemplative path are by nature unpleasant and that some forms of mental pain should therefore be considered signs of progress. It seems clear, however, that meditation can also precipitate or unmask psychological illness. As with many other endeavors, distinguishing help from harm in each instance can be difficult. As far as I know, Willoughby Britton is the first scientist to study this problem systematically. ↩
- Consider the sensation of touching your finger to your nose. We experience the contact as simultaneous, but we know that it can’t be simultaneous at the level of the brain, because it takes longer for the nerve impulse to travel to sensory cortex from your fingertip than it does from your nose—and this is true no matter how short your arms or long your nose. Our brains correct for this discrepancy in timing by holding these inputs in memory and then delivering the result to consciousness. Thus, your experience of the present moment is the product of layered memories. ↩
- F. Zeidanetal. 2011.“Brain Mechanisms Supporting the Modulation of Pain by Mindfulness Meditation.” Pain 31: 5540–48; B. K. Holzel et al. 2011. “How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work? Proposing Mechanisms of Action from a Conceptual and Neural Perspective.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 6: 537–59; B. Kim et al. 2010. “Effectiveness of a Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Program as an Adjunct to Pharmacotherapy in Patients with Panic Disorder.” J Anxiety Disord 24(6): 590–95; K. A. Godfrin and C. van Heeringen. 2010. “The Effects of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy on Recurrence of Depressive Episodes, Mental Health and Quality of Life: A Randomized Controlled Study.” Behav Res Ther 48(8): 738–46; F. Zeidan, S. K. Johnson, B. J. Diamond, Z. David, and P. Goolkasian. 2010. “Mindfulness Meditation Improves Cognition: Evidence of Brief Mental Training.” Conscious Cogn 19(2): 597–605; B. K. Hölzel et al. 2011. “Mindfulness Practice Leads to Increases in Regional Brain Gray Matter Density.” Psychiatry Res 191(1): 36–43. ↩
- Nanamoli, orig. trans., and Bodhi, trans. and ed. 1995. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications.↩
- However one bounds the concept of enlightenment, there is no escaping the fact that most traditional accounts of it, Buddhist and otherwise, attribute a variety of supernormal powers to spiritual adepts. Is there any evidence that human beings can acquire abilities like clairvoyance and telekinesis? Apart from anecdotes offered by people who are desperate to believe in such powers, we can say that the evidence is impressively thin. Traditionally, gurus and their devotees have sought to have it both ways: The guru will display various siddhis (Sanskrit: “powers”) to entertain and persuade the faithful—but never in such a way as to meet the tests of true skeptics. We are invariably told that to produce miracles on demand would be a crude misuse of a guru’s office. The dharma (Sanskrit: “way” or “truth”), after all, is more precious and profound than worldly powers. No doubt it is. But this doesn’t stop most gurus from taking credit, or their devotees from bestowing it, whenever random coincidences occur. ↩
- M.Ricard.2007. Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill. New York: Little, Brown, p. 19.↩
The following is an edited transcript of a 90-minute telephone conversation that took place on August 6, 2014. I hope readers find it useful.—SH
Harris: First, Andrew, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to speak with me. As you know, this began with a blog post I wrote to which you responded. I don’t want to focus too much on those articles—readers who want to do their homework can go back and see what we said. However, I want to begin by acknowledging that certain topics are simply radioactive. It seems to me that one can’t make sense about them fast enough to defuse the bomb that is set to go off in the reader’s brain when one fails to align with his or her every prejudice.
Unfortunately, this is true of many topics I’ve written about—such as gun control, torture, profiling, and even wealth inequality—and it’s especially true of the subject of Israel and its enemies. People just get emotionally hijacked here. One sign of this happening is that readers notice only half of what you’re saying—or they discount half of it as something you don’t really mean, as though they knew your mind better than you do.
I wanted to talk to you directly because it seems to me that you have gotten emotionally hijacked on this issue. I felt that your response to my blog post was, in certain places, quite unfair. At the very least, you were misreading me. Again, we’ve put links to both our articles above so that people can make their own judgments. I think we should talk about the issue from scratch here, rather than focus on what we’ve already written. And I’m hoping we can do this on two levels: The first is to talk about the war in Gaza; the second is to reflect on why this topic is so difficult to talk about.
To start us off on both points, let’s focus on the matter of Israeli war crimes, the existence of which I acknowledged in my original article. The thing we should observe at the outset is that in times of war, ethics degrade on all sides. Every war is an emergency, and in an emergency, people’s ethics tend to fray—or just get tossed out the window. It seems to me that there is nothing remarkable about this. What’s remarkable is when it doesn’t happen. When rockets are raining down on your head, or you’re in a sustained conflict with people who would murder your entire family if they could, it’s very easy, and perhaps inevitable, to de-humanize the other and to respond in ways that begin to look extremely callous with respect to the loss of life on the other side.
We can’t begin a discussion on this topic without acknowledging the reality of collateral damage, because every war fought with modern weapons entails the risk, if not the certainty, that innocent people will be maimed and killed. Unfortunately, pulling dead children out of the rubble in times of war is now becoming a universal experience. This is where the images coming out of Gaza are misleading, because if we had these images from the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq or World War II—you can pick as righteous a war as you like—you would see the same horrific pictures of dead children.
This is why we need to consider the intentions of the parties involved, which is what I was attempting in my blog post. Needless to say, collateral damage is pure horror, regardless of intentions. Consider how we behaved in World War II: We did things that would now constitute the worst war crimes imaginable—the firebombing of Dresden, the nuclear weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We literally burned hundreds of thousands of noncombatants alive. Was all that carnage strategically necessary? I don’t know—probably not. And we certainly couldn’t behave this way today without invoking the wrath of billions of people. However, the crucial question is, what sort of world were we trying to create? What were the real intentions of the U.S. and Britain with respect to Germany and Japan? Well, you saw our intentions after the war: We helped rebuild these countries. Out of the ashes of this war, we created the allies we deserved. The truth is that we wanted to live in a peaceful world with thriving economies on all sides.
I’m not saying that Israel hasn’t done appalling things—but governments, including our own, do appalling things in times of war. In fact, there is evidence that the Israelis intentionally torpedoed a U.S. ship during the 1967 war, killing some dozens of American soldiers. If true, this was an outrageous crime. But none of this cancels the difference between Israel and its enemies. It seems to me that the Israelis really do want to live in peace, however inept and callous they may have been in trying to secure it, while their neighbors are explicitly committed to their destruction.
The final point I’ll make is to remind people of who those neighbors are: Hamas is a death cult—as are ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabab, the Taliban, Boko Haram, Hezbollah and every other jihadist organization we could name. Despite their differences, they are in fact the same death cult. And in case our readers imagine that jihadists don’t have global aspirations, they should pay attention to what they say among themselves (read, for instance, “The Management of Savagery”). It’s in this sense that I claimed in my blog post that we’re all living in Israel—an assertion you found ridiculous. This death cult is springing up everywhere: It’s more or less ubiquitous in the Muslim world, obviously, but it’s also in Boston, with the Tsarnaev brothers who woke up one morning and decided that the best use of their short time on earth was to bomb the Boston Marathon. The fact that they didn’t have a formal link to any established terrorist organization is irrelevant. It’s the ideas of martyrdom and jihad that are the problem. These ideas have entranced millions of people, and they are spreading.
Sullivan: I’m not quite sure where to begin, except to take one thing at a time. So let me ask a question about both history and proportions in the struggle against jihadism. Are you surprised at how few Americans have died since 9/11 by jihadist terror? It’s quite remarkable.
Harris: Not really. But I’m happy so few have.
Sullivan: You focused on the Tsarnaev brothers in the same context as Hamas, which seems to me depicts a disproportionate understanding of the situation.
Harris: I don’t think you can analyze this risk by body count thus far. The fact is that we are now confronted by people who are undeterrable—who really do love death as much as we love life. These are not rational actors, and their access to destructive weaponry is only growing. We’re living in a world in which nuclear terrorism is going to be increasingly difficult to prevent—and yet we must prevent it, year after year after year after year. Pakistan is just a coup away from letting the big bombs fall into the wrong hands. So that’s the lens through which I view the global threat of jihadism. One can easily imagine a terrorist atrocity two orders of magnitude worse than 9/11. And that would change everything.
Sullivan: Well, it’s not entirely bleak. We did see recently a big, successful attempt to sequester the weapons of mass destruction that the Assad regime had: chemical and biological weapons. Of course, Israel is the only power in that region to have nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons without being a signatory to the nonproliferation treaty.
Harris: Correct. But this just speaks to the difference in intention that I consider paramount. Do you lose any sleep over the fact that Israel has nuclear weapons?
Sullivan: No—but you can see why the people in the region do, because it gives Israel absolute impunity to do whatever it wants, whenever it wants, including the many wars that it has been conducting recently. And to talk about the blitz, I agree with you that the Dresden firebombing was a war crime. But look at what was happening in that situation. Britain was being carpet-bombed itself, with huge numbers of civilian casualties. It was, as you say, an “emergency situation.”
In this current Gaza war, on the other hand, Israelis are all but protected by the Iron Dome, by Israel’s massive superiority in technology, overwhelming military dominance, huge economic superiority, and by being the most powerful country in the entire region backed by the global superpower. And even though the Israelis are protected from any sort of civilian casualties of any significance, they nonetheless have killed an astonishing number of Palestinian civilians in the past few weeks, including roughly 300 children. As you know, there seem to be credible accusations that they have fired into places where, even though they weren’t targeting civilians, they knew full well that many civilians would die, and even may have targeted shelters where children and women are sleeping. So I don’t think Israel was in an emergency. I think it has many other options, rather than killing so many innocent civilians.
Secondly, if one’s worry is jihadism, and it should be our worry, then obviously Israel is making the world a much more dangerous place by its constant provocation of Muslims by putting the Muslims under its control in little-Bantustan regions in the West Bank or cordoning them off into a tiny area in the Gaza Strip. That is where the question of proportionality comes in.
Harris: The Israelis have successfully minimized the consequences of Palestinian terrorism—building the Wall, for instance, and creating the Bantustans you object to—and now you are holding this very success against them as an unconscionable act of provocation. The game is rigged. You can’t say that Israel’s success in containing the terror threat posed by Hamas and other groups is evidence that they need no longer worry about this threat. The only reason that suicide bombing is no longer a weekly occurrence on the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is that there is now a concrete wall separating Israel from the people who want to carry out such bombings. That is why Gaza is a prison camp.
Sullivan: The Wall is not what makes it a prison camp. On top of the Wall, they occupy and control that entire region, and maintain checkpoints that burden and enrage many of the inhabitants. And remember, again, and this is where we have to go back to history, when you say the Israelis only want to live in peace with their neighbors, is that why 1948 is regarded by any non-Israeli in the region as a “catastrophe”? Was that living in peace with their neighbors? That was a terroristic campaign of expulsion, of ethnic cleansing, and of mass murder. That’s how Israel was founded. And many of the people living in Gaza and on the West Bank are the descendants of refugees from that original act of ethnic cleansing. One problem of the debate in the U.S. is that this vital piece of context is so often removed, and so we have an utterly ahistorical understanding in which the motives of one side become unintelligible.
Harris: The problem with invoking history in this discussion is that you have to decide when to start the clock. You could go back further than 1948—and many Jews would have you go back 2,000 years, pointing to the fact that this is their ancestral homeland, as evidenced by the history of the diaspora. The Jews were kicked out of Palestine and hunted and hounded and ghettoized and murdered for millennia—which would seem to justify the decision to return them to their homeland, provided it could be done in a way that wouldn’t ruin the lives of other people.
Sullivan: Well, the problem is that other people happened to live there already in the land assigned to newcomers—and they regarded their lives as ruined. They were the majority, and they were not Jewish. This is the most recent big event in the history of that part of the world—and the Palestinians had almost no say in any of it. So to claim that we just have to accept this as a given and that any complaints about the deep wound in that part of the world are somehow illegitimate or to be bracketed off from the core discussion seems to me to miss the whole point of the conflict.
Harris: As you know from reading my original blog post, I don’t think Israel should exist as a Jewish state. And I don’t support anyone’s religious claims on that land.
Sullivan: But you are supporting Israel based on just such a religious claim, which, given your other arguments, doesn’t make any sense. Because if Israel-Palestine were not an explicitly Jewish state, as you’d prefer, there would be a majority Arab population—that would presumably, in your view, result in the immediate extermination of every Jew in the country.
Harris: If all the Jews in Israel woke up tomorrow and said “This sucks. We’re sick of being attacked by religious lunatics. Let’s just move to America and forget about this godforsaken desert,” I would fully support it. In fact, it reflects how I live my own life. I’m a Jew who sees no point at all in fighting for land that an imaginary Abraham sanctified with his imaginary footsteps, in thrall to an imaginary God. And I’m more than happy to assimilate and to forget about my Jewishness. I’m just trying to be a rational human being living on the third planet from the sun. And I think all Jews would be well served to do likewise.
In fact, I would consider it the crowning achievement of Judaism if all Jews realized simultaneously that their religion was total bullshit and abandoned it en masse. Is that going to happen? Of course not. But imagine if the Jews did leave Israel. Would our conflict with Islam go away? No. Would we see an outpouring of goodwill and gratitude and a reasonable analysis of why this was the best outcome for humanity, all things considered? No. We would see a deranged victory dance throughout the Muslim world. The fall of Israel would be taken as further justification for a fever dream of an ascendant Islam. And the clash of civilizations would just shift to another front.
Sullivan: Let’s try this non-Zionist counter-factual. Any Jew in the world is free to come to America. American Jews are among the most accomplished, integrated, successful, vibrant contributors to American society and culture. And they are among the most popular religious and ethnic groups in the country. They mercifully have peace, security—far away from this kind of Middle Eastern awfulness. So why wouldn’t that have been a credible alternative, rather than actually going in and seizing land from people who—
Harris: Again, you have to acknowledge the burden of the past. First, you’re painting too rosy a picture of the American attitude toward the Jews, especially at the time Israel was founded. For instance, if you read the book The Abandonment of the Jews, by David Wyman, you encounter the most appalling picture of American anti-Semitism. During World War II, with full knowledge that the Jews of Europe were being exterminated, there were anti-Semitic speeches on the floor of Congress. We even turned back boats of Jews who had escaped the inferno of Europe, knowing that they were thereby doomed. You can’t just say the Jews should have come to America.
Sullivan: It’s a shameful episode in American history; I agree, although plenty of xenophobic speeches have been made on the floor of the Congress about any number of waves of immigrants.
Harris: Not ones who were then being murdered by the millions, for whom immigration would have been, quite literally, salvation. And, again, I would point out the double standard here, because we could be talking about the founding of Pakistan, another incredible confection by colonial powers—where new lines drawn on a map affected the lives of millions of people. In this case, 15 times as many people were displaced from Pakistan as from Palestine. Where are the Hindus calling for their right of return?
Sullivan: But the point of that horrifyingly bloody partition was to create a state for Muslims and a state for Hindus. And there is actually a Hindu state—India. But there is not a state for those people in Palestine. In recent years, the Israelis seem determined to prevent that. And the situation is getting much worse. Now, in the occupied territories, Israel is deliberately and aggressively populating that land with some of the most fanatical Jewish sects imaginable.
Harris: Which I condemn as much as you do.
Sullivan: Your piece kept conflating Hamas with all the Palestinians, and was about the Palestinians as murderous Islamists. But the Palestinian Authority is not Hamas. And you would not have gotten a better opportunity for peace partners than Abbas and Fayyad on the West Bank. They’ve been begging for two states. You would not have had a better partner for peace than Barack Obama in 2008. But the Israelis do not want to give up that land. And I fear they will never give up that land. And Netanyahu has said he cannot conceive of—
Harris: Well, I was pretty clear in saying that not all Palestinians support Hamas. And I was also clear in saying that Hamas isn’t the worst Islam has to offer—that honor would probably have to go to ISIS for the time being. But on the topic of trading land for peace: Recall that the Israelis gave up Gaza and were immediately bombarded with rockets. You just can’t separate their security concerns from the land.
Sullivan: If this was about security, Sam, why did Netanyahu prefer to release over a thousand murderers and terrorists from prison rather than relent and give up a single brick of a single settlement on the West Bank, or East Jerusalem? And my point is this, that when you have a power like that, which has already taken a large amount of land and then refused to allow a second state to emerge—and in fact has sequestered the other population in such a way as to render their dignity and self-esteem and self-government impossible, then I think what you’re talking about is a very different situation. It’s not simply a nice, peaceful country fighting forces of jihadist Islam. In fact, you can say that one of the major sources of jihadist Islam and anti-Western terrorism has been not just the founding of Israel, but its expansion and its constant presence in the lives of so many Arabs in the Middle East.
Harris: But, Andrew, much of this is the result of Muslim anti-Semitism, not its cause. Jewish crimes are especially significant—and Jewish victories are especially galling—because the Jews are reserved a place of special scorn under Islam.
Sullivan: If I suddenly found that the south of England, where I grew up, had been occupied by the French through a war of conquest, and they were then populating England with French people dedicated to creating France in Britain, then I don’t think I would be some bigoted anti-Semite to be furious about the land that was taken from me. You don’t need anti-Semitism to explain why people would feel enraged about a hostile takeover of their own land. It’s such a canard to say that there’s something outrageous about being offended that you’ve been thrown out of your land, town, or home. And it’s made worse when even in the place left to you, you are then policed, monitored, harassed, and constantly controlled by an occupying force. This is an absolute recipe for disaster.
Harris: Yes, I agree with much of that. But again, we see the consequences of your framing the issue too narrowly. Where are the Jews in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, Syria—or even Egypt or Jordan, states that are ostensibly at peace with Israel? The ethnic cleansing of the Jews has already been accomplished in the Muslim world.
Sullivan: No, no, hold on. The vast majority of that happened because of the creation of the State of Israel. That was the paroxysm that created the great emigration within the regions. Before that, look, you can look at Palestine in the ’20s or ’30s, I mean, let alone in the last part of the 19th century, and there aren’t that many Jews living there. The big majority of it is Arab and Muslim.
Harris: You are being far too chipper about what life was like for the Jews under Islam before the purge. We are talking about a history of apartheid punctuated by pogroms. And, in any case, there are estimates of the population of Jews in Jerusalem going back to the time of the Romans. And there has probably been a continuous presence of Jews in the so-called “holy land” since before the Babylonian Exile.
Sullivan: No one’s denying that there were some there. But there were many, many others. Here’s a link to the Wiki page on Israel-Palestine demographics through history. In 1800, there were 268,000 Arabs and 6,700 Jews. Even by 1947, there were twice as many Arabs as Jews: 1.3 million to 630,000. The original idea gave the Jews half the land, despite being a third of the population. And now they have controlled the entire area for nearly 60 years. If I described that in the abstract, you would need no theory of Muslim anti-Semitism to explain the resentment and anger.
And in fact, the first people who came back to report to Theodor Herzl about the promised land knew this very well. They told him, “The bride is beautiful but she is married to another man.” The land they wanted was already populated by another people. There was an option to allow some Jewish immigration to rebuild Jewish culture, Jewish language, Jewish history, and so on and so forth. But not the creation of an actual, physical state with Judaism as the central pillar of it—let alone one that would control the entire area. Now, it seems to me that that’s an important piece of the context. And it’s worth noting that, along with unbelievable oppression over the centuries, the diaspora Jews also achieved enormous success wherever they went.
Harris: But that’s in spite of how they’ve been treated. Again, my interest is not in arguing the justification for the founding of the State of Israel. I think that’s the wrong focus, for many reasons. If we moved the Jews to British Columbia, we’d still be talking about the problem of Islam—and even about the problem of Muslim anti-Semitism. You do realize that most Muslims have never met (and will never meet) a Jew, and yet they hate them, based upon their religion? My friend Ayaan Hirsi Ali recalls being taught as a child—in Somalia, of all places—to pray for the destruction of the Jews.
However, if we are going to discuss the founding of Israel, it does not seem crazy to point out that many nations were born out of theft and chaos—from someone’s point of view—and yet we no longer question their origins. I’ve already mentioned Pakistan, but consider the United States: No one is talking about Apache claims upon Kansas and Oklahoma. The Native Americans are stateless—and for well over a century the only reasonable question to ask has been, how can we ensure that they have better lives given the fact that the United States isn’t going anywhere? But no one will treat Israel this way—not in the Muslim world, certainly, and not even in Europe—and that is part of the double standard that Israel is forced to operate under. Everything Israel does is doubly questioned and doubly stigmatized.
Sullivan: My favorite headline in the Onion, one of the headlines of the century, was— “War-Weary Jews Establish Homeland Between Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt.”
Harris: That’s hilarious.
Sullivan: In other words, there has to be some weight put on the fact that we’re also talking about the seizure of land from people who did not consent to it.
Harris: No one ever consents to it.
Sullivan: We’re talking also about modernity; we’re talking about something not that long ago. You’re right, we are also talking about the fact that Islam has a very—Islam and Judaism together have a very strong attachment to specific lands in a way that Christianity, for example, doesn’t. At least not now. So you’ve created a zero-sum situation, and the point of allowing the Jewish homeland in Israel was always predicated upon a two-state solution. There was no idea in 1948 that they would have just Israel and never have another state for the Arab-Palestinians; never an idea of that.
Harris: There’s also been a very cynical game played by the Arab states to maintain the status quo. Keeping the Palestinians in limbo has been a way of keeping the question of Israel’s very existence on the table for debate—immiserating the Palestinians in the process.
Sullivan: So the Israelis bear the primary responsibility, although the Arabs are absolutely partly responsible for their intransigence, just as Israel is responsible for the deaths of all those civilians in Gaza, even though Hamas is utterly complicit in it. I’m not exonerating Hamas, but I’m certainly not going to defend the killing of 1,800 people in this brutal campaign when Israel is not seriously at risk. Israel is not in danger. Israel has the overwhelming resources behind it.
Harris: You’re being too cavalier about the dangers that the Israelis face.
Sullivan: They have nuclear weapons.
Harris: But they can’t use those weapons. They certainly can’t use them on Gaza.
Sullivan: They’re a massive deterrent.
Harris: Again, you’re blaming the Israelis for how successfully they’ve managed to defend themselves against more or less ceaseless Arab aggression. You just said they’re not under threat—and, therefore, that their actions in Gaza are not truly defensive. But the evidence adduced for this is the fact that there hasn’t been an equal number of civilian casualties on the Israeli side. If there were 5,000 casualties in Tel Aviv as a result of rockets fired from Gaza, you wouldn’t be saying any of this. But the only reasons why there haven’t been massive casualties on the Israeli side is that Israel has had to make its survival a national obsession—building bomb shelters and a missile defense system, among other things—and Hamas doesn’t yet have the rockets it really wants.
Sullivan: Why do you keep listing these hypotheticals? The reality is Israel is secure.
Harris: Having thousands of rockets fired at you, and just waiting for them to land who knows where—that’s security? No missile defense system is 100 percent effective. And there are times when a majority of the population of Israel is now forced to hide in bomb shelters.
Sullivan: When none of them can kill anybody because your defenses are so great, you are pretty secure. You’re secure also in the sense that you have nuclear weapons; you have the support of the superpower, the global superpower behind you. You have the United States, you and I are paying for their rearmament, right now as we speak. And they’re so powerful they’re occupying the region that was designated for the other state for 50 years with impunity. That’s power, Sam. Real power. Easily the dominant power in the region. Overwhelmingly. Militarily. Economically. And it’s come through their alliances.
Harris: Imagine the consequences if that were not the case.
Sullivan: Then I would have a different position on this. If Israel was under that kind of attack, I would totally understand having this kind of response. My point is simply that they’re not the same thing. And when I also have seen the Israeli prime minister talking about “deterrence,” using these wars in Gaza in order to prove to these populations they must simply submit, I’m concerned. We are talking about the impact of collective punishment on people to deter any future attempt to construct their own lives in their own country.
Look, I’m not defending what Hamas is doing. What I’m saying is where we are now is in large part a function of Israel’s inability to understand that it’s powerful enough to make compromises, powerful enough for there to be two states in the region, and its refusing to do so has made the conflict far worse and it also made Israel’s position much less secure. I think we agree on that, right?
Harris: Yes, we agree on that. And I know you don’t support Hamas, any more than I do.
Sullivan: I do support Abbas and Fayyad in attempting to get a two-state solution. I do support the Obama administration in trying to negotiate one for the past six years. But they were repeatedly told to go fuck themselves by the Israeli government while it kept adding settlements to the West Bank.
Harris: There are reasons why the Israelis feel themselves to be in greater jeopardy than you deem strictly rational. For one, you are underplaying the significance of being asked to negotiate with people who—whether they’re going to admit it in every context or not—are committed to your destruction.
Sullivan: Abbas and Fayyad are not committed to Israel’s destruction. They have explicitly recognized the State of Israel and support a two-state solution.
Harris: But Hamas is.
Sullivan: Yes, and if you really wanted to tackle Hamas, you’d give the Palestinians an option with Abbas and Fayyad. But what Netanyahu and the Israelis have done is reward Hamas’s horrible eliminationism with mass brutality, and reward Abbas and Fayyad, who want to have a two-state solution, with more and more settlements, making such a solution impossible.
I just want you to understand what it must feel like to be a Palestinian in your own land, constantly having new settlements built, clearly designed to tell you, you do not belong here; in the end, you will be forced out of here as well.
Harris: Of course, I agree with you about the settlements. Let me say it again for readers who have trouble reading through tears of uncomprehending rage: I agree with you about the settlements.
Sullivan: And then we have one of the deputy speakers of the Knesset saying that they want to put up camps, concentration camps for the citizens of Gaza, and want to annex the entire West Bank. And everything in Israeli society is leading towards the one-state solution on exclusively Jewish lines. And you, I think, would say, well the Palestinians deserve it.
Harris: No, that’s not fair. I would say no such thing. And we must deal with the point you just raised about the deputy speaker of the Knesset. I saw your blog post on that where, in a very inflammatory way, you distorted what was actually being said on the Israeli side. You accused this man being a “genocidal bigot.” You noticed how uncanny it is for a Jew to be suggesting “concentrating” a civilian population within “camps”—leaving the reader to marvel at the irony of the oppressed becoming the oppressors. But this was just a play on words. The man was not suggesting that Israel build concentration camps of the sort we saw under the Nazis. He was suggesting moving Palestinian civilians into camps so that IDF could fight Hamas without killing noncombatants.
Sullivan: In order for them to be subsequently expelled from the region.
Harris: Granted—the man was articulating an extreme view—but that’s still not genocide. You can call it “ethnic cleansing,” but moving people from one place to another, however unjustly, is not genocide. Genocide is when you herd them into gas chambers.
Sullivan: It’s ethnic cleansing.
Harris: Fine. But I don’t want us to slide off this point. Go back and read your blog post. You call it genocide, and you draw the concentration camp implication in a way that does not differentiate between the Jewish version, designed to get civilians out of the way, and the Nazi version, designed to reduce them to ash.
Sullivan: But the idea that anybody would come close to that is horrifying.
Harris: They’re not close at all. This brings me back to the other topic I mentioned at the top of this call, regarding why it’s so damn hard to talk about this issue in the first place. We have to be honest about the plain meaning of words. When you use a word like “genocide” to describe a person’s intentions—
Sullivan: I didn’t.
Harris: You do in your blog post. Just go back and look at it.
Sullivan: I’m looking at it right now.
Harris: Do a keyword search for “genocide.”
Sullivan: I’m not good at doing that kind of thing.
Harris: Just type control-F, or command-F, and then “genocide.”
Sullivan: I see now: “Genocide and ethnic cleansing.” You’re right. But he does believe in killing every civilian in Gaza who resists—
Harris: Andrew, he does not believe in killing every civilian in Gaza. He’s talking about combatants. I only know this person from your blog, but I read what you wrote, and I read what you quoted. The man wants to separate the civilians from the militants so that the IDF can bomb the hell out of the militants.
Sullivan: No, but how can you say that and then not admit that he wants to take these people, completely annex Gaza as part of Israel, Judaize it, remove all of its Arab inhabitants who don’t accede to the new order, and “exterminate””—his words—anyone still resisting.
Harris: I’m not defending this person, and I’m not defending his military strategy. I’m defending the meaning of important words—words like “genocide” and “concentration camp.”
Sullivan: Genocide can mean the intention to kill a whole race—rather than the actual successful attempt to do so. The former chief rabbi of Israel, spiritual leader to many Middle Eastern Jews, said among other things that the Palestinians should “perish from the world.”
Harris: Andrew, you are changing the topic. Stick with our man in the Knesset. I have no doubt that you can find a genocidal rabbi who’s going to liken the Palestinians to the Amalekites and deem them fit for slaughter.
Sullivan: The chief rabbi of Israel, whose funeral was attended by 800,000 people, is not some fringe figure.
Harris: I’m happy to excoriate the ultra-Orthodox as much as you want. But the question is, how many Jews in the world does this rabbi speak for? As I make clear in my post—
Sullivan: —the chief rabbi of Israel. Or how about the former head of Israel’s National Security Council who wants all Gazans, including women, to be thought of as enemy combatants and therefore to be killed.
Harris: Are you alleging that a significant percentage of Jews have genocidal intentions toward the Palestinians? Is that the punch line here?
Sullivan: I’m saying an alarming and growing number of Israelis hold those views. And it’s not a punch line.
Harris: Okay. Then let’s get our intuitions in order. If given a magic button to push that would annihilate the Palestinians—not just Hamas but all men, women, and children—what percentage of Jews do you think would push it?
Sullivan: I’m talking about the evolution of Israeli society in a very, very nationalistic, almost fascistic direction.
Harris: I totally agree that there is a problem here. As I said in my article, I think Israel is being “brutalized”—by which I mean being made brutal—by this conflict.
Sullivan: They have no choice in the matter?
Harris: Not much. I think this is just what happens to people who are living in a continuous state of siege and fear.
Sullivan: Which they chose.
Harris: Well, up to a point. They didn’t choose the legacy of anti-Semitism. They didn’t choose having half the Jews on earth fed into ovens in Europe.
Sullivan: Well, neither am I saying that.
Harris: But that’s the context. Again, we can’t leave the problem of language unresolved. You’re using words in such a way as to make the intentions on both sides of this conflict appear equivalent. I will grant you that you can find some genocidal maniacs on the Israeli side. What you cannot find is an entire culture that has been transformed into a cult of death—where children are routinely brought up to be martyrs. Nor can you find a significant percentage of the population that would sanction a genocide. That is an enormous distinction.
Sullivan: Again, I’m not saying they’re as bad as Hamas. I am not. I am saying that a remarkable and growing number of people in Israel seem to paint the Palestinians as a general threat in a way quite similar to what Hamas does with Israeli Jews. And when you have several wars, continuous wars, in which the civilian casualties of Palestinians dwarf anything on the Israeli side, it begs the question: When you have ethnic settlements continuing on and on, what is the project here? What is the project for Israel?
Harris: That’s exactly my interest—what is the project? What project would either side accomplish if it could accomplish its aims? And insofar as your fears are borne out, and the Israelis become indistinguishable from Hamas in their intentions, then there would be absolutely no moral distinction between the two sides. I don’t have an intrinsic bias for the Israelis, and I have no fondness for ultra-Orthodox Judaism. I’m simply saying that if you find a rabbi who talks about the Palestinians as Amalekites who should just be wiped off the face of the earth, that person speaks for the tiniest extremity of the 15 million Jews on earth. When you find an imam in Gaza or Beirut or London speaking that way about the Jews, he is speaking for at least tens (and probably hundreds) of millions of people.
Sullivan: Even though he was the chief rabbi?
Harris: Well, yes. I’d have to research who you’re talking about. I’m simply taking this story on your authority. However, it is a fact that most Jews are secular—and secular in a way that one can’t currently imagine in the Muslim world. I fully grant you that the ultra-Orthodox in Israel are a real problem, but their views do not reflect the aims of Israel as a nation or the aims of most Jews. The picture changes utterly when we’re talking about anti-Semitism on the Muslim side. Anti-Semitism is so well subscribed among Muslims that they basically drink it in the water—and much of it is eliminative, which is to say, genocidal.
Sullivan: And I’m not denying that, but I have to say that I think that it’s gotten worse because of the way in which Israel has behaved. It has not helped itself in any way.
Harris: I agree, for the most part. But you could also make the case that many of Israel’s enemies understand and respect only strength—i.e. violence or its credible threat. Reasonable concessions, and just basic human decency, aren’t always interpreted in the way that one intends.
Sullivan: Let’s talk about what they would each do if they really had their druthers. And I think this is what both would do. I think that the responsible Palestinians—those represented by Abbas and Fayyad—would want a two-state solution. And I think they’ve been basically foiled by the Israeli government in that endeavor. I do think that many if not most Arab Muslims in the region would like to see Israel wiped off the face of the map; absolutely. What do I think the Israelis want? I think if they had their druthers, they’d have a single state from the river to the sea, in which there was no hint of a threat to a Jewish majority. That’s the Likud charter.
Harris: They would probably want to push all the Palestinians into Jordan and the surrounding Arab states.
Sullivan: That’s where they pushed them in the first wave, from ’48 to ’67. The question is whether we’re witnessing a second phase in which eventually those people in Gaza would also be encouraged to flee to other countries—that was the deputy speaker’s proposal. And I think the Israelis would like, in an ideal world, to get the Palestinians on the West Bank to go to other countries as well. And they will argue, look, it’s still only a tiny amount of land that we’re asking for. Look at all the land the Arabs have. All we’re asking for is Greater Israel. I think that’s what they’d want.
Harris: I agree. But forcing people to emigrate and genocide are very different projects.
Sullivan: They are. But both are basically crimes, of different orders. And I think that if we want to see a sane resolution to this, and I actually accept the idea there should be a Jewish state, unlike you, for the historical reasons of protection of the Jewish people, then I think that the basic original plan of two equal states is not that bad of an option.
Harris: Actually, I agree that it is the only feasible option. So I accept it too.
Sullivan: It’s the only option that could possibly work. I don’t think it’s possible at this point because of the bitterness on both sides and because of the facts on the ground. The Israelis have been very successful at creating facts on the ground over the past 60 years that make the possibility of an actual partition in that region impossible. And I don’t think it’s absurd for a fair-minded observer to note that.
Also, I think it’s fair to ask you to try to understand what it must be like to be an Arab living in Israel in 1948 or even on the West Bank in 1967 or 2014, which now has half a million Israeli immigrant inhabitants, and to see that the country that you believe was yours is no longer yours at all. Now, even if you take religion out of it, the conquest like that and expulsion of peoples is an inherently divisive, terribly destructive, and terribly polarizing act, whatever the outcome.
Harris: I completely agree. And, obviously, displaced people need to be compensated. That would be the only ethical way to do it—if it had to be done.
Sullivan: But do you understand why people would still say, “Fuck it, I live in my home. This has been my home forever. Why should I have to leave my—
Harris: It would be remiss of me not to point out that none of this would be a problem in the absence of religion. That’s what makes a “one-state solution” unthinkable—or, indeed, a “one-world solution.”
Sullivan: Ethnically they’re pretty indistinguishable. Genealogically, genetically, and all the rest of it. So look, we both agree on that, I think, but my contention is simply that with respect to this current war, I think that you’ve gotten the balance slightly wrong. I think I understand why you have that balance, but I think you’re underestimating the power of Israel, and being a little too generalizing about what Palestinians want. I don’t think they’re all Hamas supporters.
Harris: But I acknowledged they’re not all Hamas supporters in my article. And I agree with you now that they’re not all Hamas supporters. However, there is another problem for Israel that you’re ignoring. The people with whom the Israelis must negotiate, even the best of them—even Yasser Arafat after he won his Nobel Peace Prize—often talk a double game and maintain their anti-Semitism and religious triumphalism behind closed doors. They’ll say one thing in English, and then they’ll say another in Arabic to their constituencies. And the things they say in Arabic are often terrifying. In fact, there is a doctrine of deception within Islam called taqiyya, wherein lying to infidels has been decreed a perfectly ethical way of achieving one’s goals. This poses real problems for any negotiation. How can Israel trust anyone’s stated intentions?
For instance, consider the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husseini. He was the leader of the Palestinians in the ’30s and ’40s, prior to most of the history we’re talking about that has so enraged the Palestinians. Nevertheless, the man visited Auschwitz in the company of Himmler and aspired to have his own death camps created in Palestine to exterminate the Jews. He was a full-blown Nazi collaborator, and the head of the Palestinians. As late as 2002, eight years after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Arafat praised al-Husseini as “a hero.” This is the kind of thing Israel has had to deal with continuously.
Sullivan: Sam, you wouldn’t have found a stronger defender of Israel on the lines that you have given than me when Arafat was running the show. My problem is that when the Palestinians actually, finally agreed to recognize Israel, actually cooperated with Israeli security in preventing terrorism, and succeeded in generating some economy and growth and community on the West Bank that is not simply all about death, they were rebuked rather than rewarded. The Israelis have failed dramatically since 2000 to really seize that opportunity, which is an incredibly important opportunity for them and for all of us. Because this conflict also affects us, and it definitely pours gasoline onto the jihadist flames, this whole conflict.
So that’s where I’m coming from, Sam. I’m coming from a sense that the Israeli Right has gotten very powerful. That there is dangerous nationalism and atavistic sentiments that happen when a prime minister stands up and says he wants generalized “revenge” after three murders. I think there are dangerous forces within Israel that have learned to justify or even look at dead children and call them “telegenically dead.”
I know what you’re saying about brutalizing. But I think when a prime minister of a Western country can look at children being dragged out of rubble and call them “telegenically dead,” that a coarseness has overcome the Israelis’ moral sensibility. I’m not saying they’re unique in this moral coarsening at all, but I’m saying I think they’ve gone off the rail in the past ten years or so at a time when it’s crucial that they don’t.
I want to take a moment to discuss why this is so emotional. It’s not terribly emotional for me, inasmuch as I’m only really interested in this topic because I was thrown into it as a New Republic editor and learned it in a very obsessive way over many years. There’s some emotion involved because I had such a strong pro-Israel position for so long that I came to feel I had to speak out in this current situation, to appease my conscience. But I’m not that invested by my identity in any of this. I have been to Israel once and I have nothing but amazed admiration for what they’ve achieved and who they are and have incredible respect for their achievements. I really do. But at the same time, I think they’ve gone overboard and I think that the current mess is a consequence of that.
But the thing that happens to me in this debate in America is that many of my Jewish friends cannot debate this, it seems to me, without extreme emotional investment in it, and that’s a very hard thing to deal with. It seems as if when you criticize Israel, every Jewish American takes it personally. That, I think, makes debate about this very tough. Do you not think that your being a Jew affects the way you talk about this thing? I mean, you seem more emotional about this than many other subjects I’ve talked to you about.
Harris: No, I really don’t. I get emotional trying to keep words like “genocide” from losing their meanings. But I think my being Jewish is irrelevant. I’ve told you that if the Jews decided to assimilate perfectly and cease to be Jews, I would celebrate this decision. And this is how I live my own life. I’m Jewish only in the sense that when it came time to have children, I needed to get screened for the Tay-Sachs gene.
Sullivan: So you feel the same way about Israel as you would feel about Pakistan or England?
Harris: Well, I’m still a Jew in the sense that I know a good pastrami sandwich when I see one. So I’m acculturated in a way that I’m not with respect to Pakistan. But do I harbor any sympathy for the religious project of Judaism? Not at all. Nor do I have any nostalgia for an ancestral homeland in the Middle East. In fact, when I walk the streets of Jerusalem and feel a romantic thrill for antiquity, it’s the Christian thrill that I feel: I think about Jesus having walked those streets. So, I’m not the Jew you’re looking for. The truth is that I just want to live in a sane, global, civil society where religion no longer divides human beings from one another. It is time we recognized that we are all members of the same sect: humanity.
However, there is another thing I do get emotional about—and that’s the threat of Islam, especially when it is systematically obfuscated by my fellow liberals who should know better. If you want to get to the core of my response, emotionally, here is the kind of thing that drives me absolutely nuts: If a Jewish artist in New York covered a copy of the Koran in pig blood, and the act were well publicized, half the Muslims on earth would take to the streets. But when a group like ISIS starts crucifying noncombatants, or attempts to starve 40,000 men, women, and children to death on the side of a mountain, there are no significant protests at all. This psychopathic skewing of priorities extends not only to the “Arab street” and its lynch mobs; it extends to the talking heads on CNN. Spokesmen for a group like CAIR, devious blowhards like Reza Aslan, and liberal apologists like Glenn Greenwald would also attack the artist—and, if he got butchered by a jihadist on Park Avenue, they would say that although such violence had nothing at all to do with the noble of faith of Islam, the poor bastard surely got what was coming to him. He was too provocative; he should have had more “religious sensitivity.” And yet these people say scarcely a word about the mass murders of Muslims, by Muslims, committed on a daily basis in a score of countries.
Of course, some Muslims do denounce terrorism or groups like ISIS, but they almost always do this in a dishonest and self-serving way. They will say that these people “do not represent Islam.” But this is just obscurantism. When not actually lying and seeking to implement their own sinister agenda—here I’m thinking of a group like CAIR—they are just expressing their fear of being associated with such sickening behavior. Most Muslims don’t want their faith tarnished. They don’t want any hassles from the TSA. They don’t want to be stigmatized. All of this is perfectly understandable but perfectly wrongheaded, given the reality of what is going on in the world. The scandal here is that so few Muslims are speaking honestly about problematic doctrines within their faith. The few who are—such as Asra Nomani, Irshad Manji, and Maajid Nawaz—are heroes. The crucial difference is that they admit that the doctrines related to martyrdom, jihad, blasphemy, apostasy, the rights of women, etc. really are at the bottom of all the intolerance and violence we see in the House of Islam. And, needless to say, these brave people are regularly denounced and threatened by their fellow Muslims.
Everything we needed to know about the masochism and moral blindness of the Left, we should have learned during the Salman Rushdie affair. There we saw the whole problem in miniature—the infantile rage of religious maniacs concerned about their so-called “dignity” side-by-side with the complacency, sanctimony, hypocrisy, and cowardice of their liberal apologists. And it’s this same schema that is shaping world opinion about the war between Israel and the Palestinians. If you detect any emotional charge in me, that’s where it’s coming from.
Sullivan: I basically agree that willful blindness as to the extremes of political Islam and the unique sensitivity and overreaction of Islam in the modern world to affronts to its religion is something that everybody, right and left, needs to get into their thick heads. My point is that, nonetheless, it’s pragmatically foolish to provoke jihadism in such a way as to render it even more extreme.
Now, I’m not saying that the State of Israel is itself or should be a provocation. I am saying that its conduct, certainly since ’67, is not helping at all. But I also agree with you. Let me just be clear, because I don’t want to give any false impression, but what is going on in Syria and Iraq right now, the atrocities and the inhumanity, it dwarfs what is happening in Gaza by a factor of ten. Similarly also what has happened with the Syrian civil war—unbelievable, direct targeting—
Harris: But then don’t you find it strange, and rather telling, that the focus is on Israel and Gaza?
Sullivan: Well, I think partly it’s because we’re paying for it.
Harris: That’s surely not the reason on the Muslim side. And that can’t be what is driving European opinion.
Sullivan: All I can tell you is what I think. I think one reason that there’s a lot of fuss about this is that we are so directly involved. And I don’t think it’s crazy to make a distinction between atrocities that are occurring or horrible things that are occurring which we are actually funding and defending, and those in Iraq or Syria over which we have no control—
Harris: You mean to say that if we had not given arms to Israel in the past ten years, there would be less outrage over Israel’s behavior now? I think Israel would be more or less in the same situation.
Sullivan: No, I don’t. I think it would be less. Now, I’m not saying it would disappear. I’m just saying that for a lot of us, those of us who are just simply horrified by this kind of obviously civilian collateral damage, that when I think that my taxpayer dollars are actually paying for that military campaign, I have a slightly different reaction to it than I would knowing that Assad, with arms from Russia or wherever he’s getting them from, has just killed innocent civilians in a civil war.
Now look, on the Dish, we constantly monitor ISIS, constantly monitor Syria, and try to make that distinction. But since Israel is basically in some ways an extension of the United States, I think it’s a problem. Now, I think we’d be in a stronger position if we ended aid to all those countries in that region, especially military aid. I think we could then be better able to have some kind of neutral role. And, frankly, I think a lot of Israelis think that, too. I mean, we wouldn’t have the relationship where we feel responsible for things we have no power over. And we are blamed by the rest of the world for things we don’t really have any control over. I think that’s a genuine matter.
Now, I agree with you that lots of people will hate Israel regardless, but I think some of us would be less horribly conflicted about this.
How do you account for the way in which Arab lives are treated as worth so much less than Jewish lives in this conflict?
Harris: Well, I would point out that they seem to be worth less to the Arabs themselves. Consider what happens when it comes time to have a prisoner swap: Hamas will accept no less than 1,000 prisoners for a single Israeli soldier. Again, I don’t think you can divorce the belief in martyrdom and paradise from this circumstance. Many Palestinians—I suspect most—are under the sway of religious beliefs that devalue human life in this world. And one of the problems, especially for secular liberals, is to understand that they actually believe these things.
Sullivan: Look: a parent wakes up in his home and sees his own child murdered in the bedroom next to him and has to dig him out with the head missing. This does not need to be explained by religious beliefs. I mean, I’m sorry, Sam, but I can’t imagine what these people have gone through.
Harris: Neither can I. But neither am I tempted to ignore how religious beliefs color their thinking and their resulting behavior.
Sullivan: No one in Israel has ever experienced what they’re doing to other people.
Harris: Not so fast. The percentage of Israelis who know someone who has been blown to bits by a Palestinian suicide bomber has to be pretty high. And if you go back to ’48, you’ll find Jordan bombing the Jewish quarter in an attempt to annihilate every Jew in Jerusalem. Of course, there are still a few people walking around who survived the Holocaust. So I think the Jews in Israel can well imagine what it is like to have people trying to kill them, or their children, and succeeding.
Sullivan: If 300 Jewish children had been buried under rubble in Tel Aviv, I think the world would have a completely different view of this, and the United States would, too. And in fact, people would assume that Israel had an unassailable moral right to do whatever it needed to in response to that. And yet the Palestinians in Gaza experience this astonishing loss of life, of innocent life, and they’re told to shut up about their “telegenically dead” children.
Harris: They’re not being told that by most of the world. Most of the world has taken their side and now despises Israel.
Sullivan: Well, I think we’re probably starting to go in circles now. But I think it is good that we can have a civil conversation about these things.
Harris: I agree. And I’m very grateful you took the time to do this, Andrew. It makes me very happy that we can have exchanges like this.
Sullivan: Any time, Sam. Any time.
AUDIO TRANSCRIPT [Note: This is a verbatim transcript of a spoken podcast. However, I have added notes like this one to clarify controversial points.—SH]
I was going to do a podcast on a series of questions, but I got so many questions on the same topic that I think I’m just going to do a single response here, and we’ll do an #AskMeAnything podcast next time.
The question I’ve now received in many forms goes something like this: Why is it that you never criticize Israel? Why is it that you never criticize Judaism? Why is it that you always take the side of the Israelis over that of the Palestinians?
Now, this is an incredibly boring and depressing question for a variety of reasons. The first, is that I have criticized both Israel and Judaism. What seems to have upset many people is that I’ve kept some sense of proportion. There are something like 15 million Jews on earth at this moment; there are a hundred times as many Muslims. I’ve debated rabbis who, when I have assumed that they believe in a God that can hear our prayers, they stop me mid-sentence and say, “Why would you think that I believe in a God who can hear prayers?” So there are rabbis—conservative rabbis—who believe in a God so elastic as to exclude every concrete claim about Him—and therefore, nearly every concrete demand upon human behavior. And there are millions of Jews, literally millions among the few million who exist, for whom Judaism is very important, and yet they are atheists. They don’t believe in God at all. This is actually a position you can hold in Judaism, but it’s a total non sequitur in Islam or Christianity.
So, when we’re talking about the consequences of irrational beliefs based on scripture, the Jews are the least of the least offenders. But I have said many critical things about Judaism. Let me remind you that parts of Hebrew Bible—books like Leviticus and Exodus and Deuteronomy—are the most repellent, the most sickeningly unethical documents to be found in any religion. They’re worse than the Koran. They’re worse than any part of the New Testament. But the truth is, most Jews recognize this and don’t take these texts seriously. It’s simply a fact that most Jews and most Israelis are not guided by scripture—and that’s a very good thing.
Of course, there are some who are. There are religious extremists among Jews. Now, I consider these people to be truly dangerous, and their religious beliefs are as divisive and as unwarranted as the beliefs of devout Muslims. But there are far fewer such people.
For those of you who worry that I never say anything critical about Israel: My position on Israel is somewhat paradoxical. There are questions about which I’m genuinely undecided. And there’s something in my position, I think, to offend everyone. So, acknowledging how reckless it is to say anything on this topic, I’m nevertheless going to think out loud about it for a few minutes.
I don’t think Israel should exist as a Jewish state. I think it is obscene, irrational and unjustifiable to have a state organized around a religion. So I don’t celebrate the idea that there’s a Jewish homeland in the Middle East. I certainly don’t support any Jewish claims to real estate based on the Bible. [Note: Read this paragraph again.]
Though I just said that I don’t think Israel should exist as a Jewish state, the justification for such a state is rather easy to find. We need look no further than the fact that the rest of the world has shown itself eager to murder the Jews at almost every opportunity. So, if there were going to be a state organized around protecting members of a single religion, it certainly should be a Jewish state. Now, friends of Israel might consider this a rather tepid defense, but it’s the strongest one I’ve got. I think the idea of a religious state is ultimately untenable. [Note: It is worth observing, however, that Israel isn’t “Jewish” in the sense that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are “Muslim.” As my friend Jerry Coyne points out, Israel is actually less religious than the U.S., and it guarantees freedom of religion to its citizens. Israel is not a theocracy, and one could easily argue that its Jewish identity is more cultural than religious. However, if we ask why the Jews wouldn’t move to British Columbia if offered a home there, we can see the role that religion still plays in their thinking.]
Needless to say, in defending its territory as a Jewish state, the Israeli government and Israelis themselves have had to do terrible things. They have, as they are now, fought wars against the Palestinians that have caused massive losses of innocent life. More civilians have been killed in Gaza in the last few weeks than militants. That’s not a surprise because Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on Earth. Occupying it, fighting wars in it, is guaranteed to get woman and children and other noncombatants killed. And there’s probably little question over the course of fighting multiple wars that the Israelis have done things that amount to war crimes. They have been brutalized by this process—that is, made brutal by it. But that is largely the due to the character of their enemies. [Note: I was not giving Israel a pass to commit war crimes. I was making a point about the realities of living under the continuous threat of terrorism and of fighting multiple wars in a confined space.]
Whatever terrible things the Israelis have done, it is also true to say that they have used more restraint in their fighting against the Palestinians than we—the Americans, or Western Europeans—have used in any of our wars. They have endured more worldwide public scrutiny than any other society has ever had to while defending itself against aggressors. The Israelis simply are held to a different standard. And the condemnation leveled at them by the rest of the world is completely out of proportion to what they have actually done. [Note: I was not saying that because they are more careful than we have been at our most careless, the Israelis are above criticism. War crimes are war crimes.]
It is clear that Israel is losing the PR war and has been for years now. One of the most galling things for outside observers about the current war in Gaza is the disproportionate loss of life on the Palestinian side. This doesn’t make a lot of moral sense. Israel built bomb shelters to protect its citizens. The Palestinians built tunnels through which they could carry out terror attacks and kidnap Israelis. Should Israel be blamed for successfully protecting its population in a defensive war? I don’t think so. [Note: I was not suggesting that the deaths of Palestinian noncombatants are anything less than tragic. But if retaliating against Hamas is bound to get innocents killed, and the Israelis manage to protect their own civilians in the meantime, the loss of innocent life on the Palestinian side is guaranteed to be disproportionate.]
But there is no way to look at the images coming out of Gaza—especially of infants and toddlers riddled by shrapnel—and think that this is anything other than a monstrous evil. Insofar as the Israelis are the agents of this evil, it seems impossible to support them. And there is no question that the Palestinians have suffered terribly for decades under the occupation. This is where most critics of Israel appear to be stuck. They see these images, and they blame Israel for killing and maiming babies. They see the occupation, and they blame Israel for making Gaza a prison camp. I would argue that this is a kind of moral illusion, borne of a failure to look at the actual causes of this conflict, as well as of a failure to understand the intentions of the people on either side of it. [Note: I was not saying that the horror of slain children is a moral illusion; nor was I minimizing the suffering of the Palestinians under the occupation. I was claiming that Israel is not primarily to blame for all this suffering.]
The truth is that there is an obvious, undeniable, and hugely consequential moral difference between Israel and her enemies. The Israelis are surrounded by people who have explicitly genocidal intentions towards them. The charter of Hamas is explicitly genocidal. It looks forward to a time, based on Koranic prophesy, when the earth itself will cry out for Jewish blood, where the trees and the stones will say “O Muslim, there’s a Jew hiding behind me. Come and kill him.” This is a political document. We are talking about a government that was voted into power by a majority of Palestinians. [Note: Yes, I know that not every Palestinian supports Hamas, but enough do to have brought them to power. Hamas is not a fringe group.]
The discourse in the Muslim world about Jews is utterly shocking. Not only is there Holocaust denial—there’s Holocaust denial that then asserts that we will do it for real if given the chance. The only thing more obnoxious than denying the Holocaust is to say that it should have happened; it didn’t happen, but if we get the chance, we will accomplish it. There are children’s shows in the Palestinian territories and elsewhere that teach five-year-olds about the glories of martyrdom and about the necessity of killing Jews.
And this gets to the heart of the moral difference between Israel and her enemies. And this is something I discussed in The End of Faith. To see this moral difference, you have to ask what each side would do if they had the power to do it.
What would the Jews do to the Palestinians if they could do anything they wanted? Well, we know the answer to that question, because they can do more or less anything they want. The Israeli army could kill everyone in Gaza tomorrow. So what does that mean? Well, it means that, when they drop a bomb on a beach and kill four Palestinian children, as happened last week, this is almost certainly an accident. They’re not targeting children. They could target as many children as they want. Every time a Palestinian child dies, Israel edges ever closer to becoming an international pariah. So the Israelis take great pains not to kill children and other noncombatants. [Note: The word “so” in the previous sentence was regrettable and misleading. I didn’t mean to suggest that safeguarding its reputation abroad would be the only (or even primary) reason for Israel to avoid killing children. However, the point stands: Even if you want to attribute the basest motives to Israel, it is clearly in her self-interest not to kill Palestinian children.]
Now, is it possible that some Israeli soldiers go berserk under pressure and wind up shooting into crowds of rock-throwing children? Of course. You will always find some soldiers acting this way in the middle of a war. But we know that this isn’t the general intent of Israel. We know the Israelis do not want to kill non-combatants, because they could kill as many as they want, and they’re not doing it.
What do we know of the Palestinians? What would the Palestinians do to the Jews in Israel if the power imbalance were reversed? Well, they have told us what they would do. For some reason, Israel’s critics just don’t want to believe the worst about a group like Hamas, even when it declares the worst of itself. We’ve already had a Holocaust and several other genocides in the 20th century. People are capable of committing genocide. When they tell us they intend to commit genocide, we should listen. There is every reason to believe that the Palestinians would kill all the Jews in Israel if they could. Would every Palestinian support genocide? Of course not. But vast numbers of them—and of Muslims throughout the world—would. Needless to say, the Palestinians in general, not just Hamas, have a history of targeting innocent noncombatants in the most shocking ways possible. They’ve blown themselves up on buses and in restaurants. They’ve massacred teenagers. They’ve murdered Olympic athletes. They now shoot rockets indiscriminately into civilian areas. And again, the charter of their government in Gaza explicitly tells us that they want to annihilate the Jews—not just in Israel but everywhere. [Note: Again, I realize that not all Palestinians support Hamas. Nor am I discounting the degree to which the occupation, along with collateral damage suffered in war, has fueled Palestinian rage. But Palestinian terrorism (and Muslim anti-Semitism) is what has made peaceful coexistence thus far impossible.]
The truth is that everything you need to know about the moral imbalance between Israel and her enemies can be understood on the topic of human shields. Who uses human shields? Well, Hamas certainly does. They shoot their rockets from residential neighborhoods, from beside schools, and hospitals, and mosques. Muslims in other recent conflicts, in Iraq and elsewhere, have also used human shields. They have laid their rifles on the shoulders of their own children and shot from behind their bodies.
Consider the moral difference between using human shields and being deterred by them. That is the difference we’re talking about. The Israelis and other Western powers are deterred, however imperfectly, by the Muslim use of human shields in these conflicts, as we should be. It is morally abhorrent to kill noncombatants if you can avoid it. It’s certainly abhorrent to shoot through the bodies of children to get at your adversary. But take a moment to reflect on how contemptible this behavior is. And understand how cynical it is. The Muslims are acting on the assumption—the knowledge, in fact—that the infidels with whom they fight, the very people whom their religion does nothing but vilify, will be deterred by their use of Muslim human shields. They consider the Jews the spawn of apes and pigs—and yet they rely on the fact that they don’t want to kill Muslim noncombatants. [Note: The term “Muslims” in this paragraph means “Muslim combatants” of the sort that Western forces have encountered in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The term “jihadists” would have been too narrow, but I was not suggesting that all Muslims support the use of human shields or are anti-Semitic, at war with the West, etc.]
Now imagine reversing the roles here. Imagine how fatuous—indeed comical it would be—for the Israelis to attempt to use human shields to deter the Palestinians. Some claim that they have already done this. There are reports that Israeli soldiers have occasionally put Palestinian civilians in front of them as they’ve advanced into dangerous areas. That’s not the use of human shields we’re talking about. It’s egregious behavior. No doubt it constitutes a war crime. But Imagine the Israelis holding up their own women and children as human shields. Of course, that would be ridiculous. The Palestinians are trying to kill everyone. Killing women and children is part of the plan. Reversing the roles here produces a grotesque Monty Python skit.
If you’re going to talk about the conflict in the Middle East, you have to acknowledge this difference. I don’t think there’s any ethical disparity to be found anywhere that is more shocking or consequential than this.
And the truth is, this isn’t even the worst that jihadists do. Hamas is practically a moderate organization, compared to other jihadist groups. There are Muslims who have blown themselves up in crowds of children—again, Muslim children—just to get at the American soldiers who were handing out candy to them. They have committed suicide bombings, only to send another bomber to the hospital to await the casualities—where they then blow up all the injured along with the doctors and nurses trying to save their lives.
Every day that you could read about an Israeli rocket gone astray or Israeli soldiers beating up an innocent teenager, you could have read about ISIS in Iraq crucifying people on the side of the road, Christians and Muslims. Where is the outrage in the Muslim world and on the Left over these crimes? Where are the demonstrations, 10,000 or 100,000 deep, in the capitals of Europe against ISIS? If Israel kills a dozen Palestinians by accident, the entire Muslim world is inflamed. God forbid you burn a Koran, or write a novel vaguely critical of the faith. And yet Muslims can destroy their own societies—and seek to destroy the West—and you don’t hear a peep. [Note: Of course, I’m aware that many Muslims condemn groups like ISIS. My point is that we don’t see massive protests against global jihadism—even though it targets Muslims more than anyone else—and we do see such protests over things like the Danish cartoons.]
So, it seems to me, that you have to side with Israel here. You have one side which if it really could accomplish its aims would simply live peacefully with its neighbors, and you have another side which is seeking to implement a seventh century theocracy in the Holy Land. There’s no peace to be found between those incompatible ideas. That doesn’t mean you can’t condemn specific actions on the part of the Israelis. And, of course, acknowledging the moral disparity between Israel and her enemies doesn’t give us any solution to the problem of Israel’s existence in the Middle East. [Note: I was not suggesting that Israel’s actions are above criticism or that their recent incursion into Gaza was necessarily justified. Nor was I saying that the status quo, wherein the Palestinians remain stateless, should be maintained. And I certainly wasn’t expressing support for the building of settlements on contested land (as I made clear below). By “siding with Israel,” I am simply recognizing that they are not the primary aggressors in this conflict. They are, rather, responding to aggression—and at a terrible cost.]
Again, granted, there’s some percentage of Jews who are animated by their own religious hysteria and their own prophesies. Some are awaiting the Messiah on contested land. Yes, these people are willing to sacrifice the blood of their own children for the glory of God. But, for the most part, they are not representative of the current state of Judaism or the actions of the Israeli government. And it is how Israel deals with these people—their own religious lunatics—that will determine whether they can truly hold the moral high ground. And Israel can do a lot more than it has to disempower them. It can cease to subsidize the delusions of the Ultra-Orthodox, and it can stop building settlements on contested land. [Note: Read that again. And, yes, I understand that not all settlers are Ultra-Orthodox.]
These incompatible religious attachments to this land have made it impossible for Muslims and Jews to negotiate like rational human beings, and they have made it impossible for them to live in peace. But the onus is still more on the side of the Muslims here. Even on their worst day, the Israelis act with greater care and compassion and self-criticism than Muslim combatants have anywhere, ever.
And again, you have to ask yourself, what do these groups want? What would they accomplish if they could accomplish anything? What would the Israelis do if they could do what they want? They would live in peace with their neighbors, if they had neighbors who would live in peace with them. They would simply continue to build out their high tech sector and thrive. [Note: Some might argue that they would do more than this—e.g. steal more Palestinian land. But apart from the influence of Jewish extremism (which I condemn), Israel’s continued appropriation of land has more than a little to do with her security concerns. Absent Palestinian terrorism and Muslim anti-Semitism, we could be talking about a “one-state solution,” and the settlements would be moot.]
What do groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda and even Hamas want? They want to impose their religious views on the rest of humanity. They want to stifle every freedom that decent, educated, secular people care about. This is not a trivial difference. And yet judging from the level of condemnation that Israel now receives, you would think the difference ran the other way.
This kind of confusion puts all of us in danger. This is the great story of our time. For the rest of our lives, and the lives of our children, we are going to be confronted by people who don’t want to live peacefully in a secular, pluralistic world, because they are desperate to get to Paradise, and they are willing to destroy the very possibility of human happiness along the way. The truth is, we are all living in Israel. It’s just that some of us haven’t realized it yet.
(Photo via M.Richi)
I’d like to begin, once again, by congratulating Ryan Born for winning our essay contest. The points he raised certainly merit a response. Also, I should alert readers to a change in the expected format of this debate: Originally, I had planned to have an extended conversation with the winning author, with Russell Blackford serving as both moderator and commentator. In the end, this design proved unworkable—and it was not for want of trying on our parts. I know I speak for both Ryan and Russell when I say that our failure to produce an acceptable text was frustrating. However, rather than risk boring and confusing readers with our hairsplitting and backtracking, we’ve elected to simply publish Russell’s “Judge’s Report” and Ryan’s essay, followed by my response, given here.—SH
The meaning of “science”
Most criticisms of The Moral Landscape seem to stumble over its subtitle, “How Science Can Determine Human Values,” and I admit that this wording has become an albatross. To my surprise, many people think about science primarily in terms of academic titles, budgets, and architecture, and not in terms of the logical and empirical intuitions that allow us to form justified beliefs about the world. The point of my book was not to argue that “science” bureaucratically construed can subsume all talk about morality. My purpose was to show that moral truths exist and that they must fall (in principle, if not in practice) within some (perhaps never to be complete) understanding of the way conscious minds arise in this universe. For practical reasons, it is often necessary to draw boundaries between academic disciplines, but physicists, chemists, biologists, and psychologists rely on the same processes of thought and observation that govern all our efforts to stay in touch with reality. This larger domain of justified truth-claims is “science” in my sense.
For instance, what was the source of the Black Death that killed nearly half the population of Europe in the 14th century? It appears to have been Yersinia pestis, a bacterium that was delivered to unsuspecting people by fleabite. The fleas were transported to the Continent by rats, which were themselves carried by merchant ships. What kind of facts are these? Are they facts of nautical history, zoology, epidemiology, or medicine? Strange question. They belong to all these disciplines—and perhaps to several not yet invented. The only thing that matters is that this account of the Black Death appears to be true. (Note 6/9/14: Or perhaps it isn’t true.)
Another example, in case the point still isn’t clear:
You awaken to find water pouring through the ceiling of your bedroom. Imagining that you have a gaping hole in your roof, you immediately call the man who installed it. The roofer asks, “Is it raining where you live?” Good question. In fact, it hasn’t rained for months. Is this roofer a scientist? Not technically, but he was thinking just like one. Empiricism and logic reveal that your roof is not the problem.
So you call a plumber. Is a plumber a scientist? No more than a roofer is, but any competent plumber will generate hypotheses and test them—and his thinking will conform to the same principles of reasoning that every scientist uses. When he pressure tests a section of pipe, he is running an experiment. Would this experiment be more “scientific” if it were funded by the National Science Foundation? No. By contrast, when a world-famous geneticist like Francis Collins declares that the biblical God installed immortal souls, free will, and morality in one species of primate, he is repudiating the core values of science with every word. Drawing the line between science and non-science by reference to a person’s occupation is just too crude to be useful—but it is what many of my critics seem to do.
I am, in essence, defending the unity of knowledge—the idea that the boundaries between disciplines are mere conventions and that we inhabit a single epistemic sphere in which to form true beliefs about the world. This remains a controversial thesis, and it is generally met with charges of “scientism.” Sometimes, the unity of knowledge is very easy to see: Is there really a boundary between the truths of physics and those of biology? No. And yet it is practical, even necessary, to treat these disciplines separately most of the time. In this sense, the boundaries between disciplines are analogous to political borders drawn on maps. Is there really a difference between California and Arizona at their shared border? No, but we divide this stretch of desert as a matter of convention. However, once we begin talking about non-contiguous disciplines—physics and sociology, say—people worry that a single, consilient idea of truth can’t span the distance. Suddenly, the different colors on the map look hugely significant. But I’m convinced that this is an illusion.
My interest is in the nature of reality—what is actual and possible—not in how we organize our talk about it in our universities. There is nothing wrong with a mathematician’s opening a door in physics, a physicist’s making a breakthrough in neuroscience, a neuroscientist’s settling a debate in the philosophy of mind, a philosopher’s overturning our understanding of history, a historian’s transforming the field of anthropology, an anthropologist’s revolutionizing linguistics, or a linguist’s discovering something foundational about our mathematical intuitions. The circle is complete, and it simply does not matter where these people keep their offices or which journals they publish in.
Ryan wrote that my “proposed science of morality cannot offer scientific answers to questions of morality and value, because it cannot derive moral judgments solely from scientific descriptions of the world.” But no branch of science can derive its judgments solely from scientific descriptions of the world. We have intuitions of truth and falsity, logical consistency, and causality that are foundational to our thinking about anything. Certain of these intuitions can be used to trump others: We may think, for instance, that our expectations of cause and effect could be routinely violated by reality at large, and that apes like ourselves may simply be unequipped to understand what is really going on in the universe. That is a perfectly cogent idea, even though it seems to make a mockery of most of our other ideas. But the fact is that all forms of scientific inquiry pull themselves up by some intuitive bootstraps. Gödel proved this for arithmetic, and it seems intuitively obvious for other forms of reasoning as well. I invite you to define the concept of “causality” in noncircular terms if you would test this claim. Some intuitions are truly basic to our thinking. I claim that the conviction that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad and should be avoided is among them.
Contrary to what Ryan suggests, I don’t believe that the epistemic values of science are “self-justifying”—we just can’t get completely free of them. We can bracket certain of them in local cases, as we do in quantum mechanics, but these are instances in which we are then forced to admit that we don’t (yet) understand what is going on. Our knowledge of the world seems to require that it behave in certain ways (e.g. if A is bigger than B, and B is bigger than C, then A will be bigger than C). When these principles are violated, we are invariably confused.
So I think the distinction that Ryan draws between science in general and the science of medicine is unwarranted. He says, “Science cannot show empirically that health is good. But nor, I would add, can science appeal to health to defend health’s value, as it would appeal to logic to defend logic’s value.” But science can’t use logic to validate logic. It presupposes the value of logic from the start. Consequently, Ryan seems to be holding my claims about moral truth to a standard of self-justification that no branch of science can meet. Physics can’t justify the intellectual tools one needs to do physics. Does that make it unscientific?
First, your analogy between epistemic axioms and moral axioms fails. The former merely motivate scientific inquiry and frame its development, whereas the latter predetermine your science of morality’s most basic findings. Epistemic axioms direct science to favor theories that are logically consistent, empirically supported, and so on, but they do not dictate which theories those will be.
I disagree. Epistemic axioms do more than motivate scientific inquiry. They determine what we find reasonable—or even intelligible—at every stage of that inquiry. And my notion of well-being wouldn’t “predetermine [the] science of morality’s most basic findings” because it allows for an uncountable number of peaks on the moral landscape. I trust that many of these peaks are not only stranger than I imagine but stranger than I can imagine. I am simply saying that certain of these conscious states will be better than others (by the only conception of “better” that makes any sense) and that the paths leading to them must arise out of the laws of nature. Ethics, in my view, is a navigation problem.
Again, I admit that there may be something confusing about my use of the term “science”: I want it to mean, in its broadest sense, our best effort to understand reality at every level, but I also acknowledge that it is a specialized form of any such effort. The problem, however, is that there is no telling where and how the pursuits of journalists, historians, and plumbers will become entangled with the work of official “scientists.” To cite an example I’ve used elsewhere: Was the Shroud of Turin a medieval forgery? For centuries, this was a question for historians to answer—until we developed the technique of radiocarbon dating. Now it is a question of chemistry.
I’m concerned with truth-claims generally, and with conceptually and empirically valid ways of making them. The whole point of The Moral Landscape was to argue for the existence of moral truths—and to insist that they are every bit as real as the truths of physics. If readers want to concede that point without calling the acquisition of such truths a “science,” that’s a semantic choice that has no bearing on my argument.
What we talk about when we talk about “ethics”
Ryan also seems to take for granted that the traditional categories of consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics are conceptually valid and worth maintaining. However, I believe that partitioning moral philosophy in this way begs the very question at issue—and this is one reason I tend not to identify myself as a “consequentialist.” Everyone knows—or thinks he knows—that consequentialism fails to capture much of what we value. This is true almost by definition, because, as Ryan observes, “serious competing theories of value and morality exist.”
But if the categorical imperative (one of Kant’s foundational contributions to deontology, or rule-based ethics) reliably made everyone miserable, no one would defend it as an ethical principle. Similarly, if virtues such as generosity, wisdom, and honesty caused nothing but pain and chaos, no sane person could consider them good. In my view, deontologists and virtue ethicists smuggle the good consequences of their ethics into the conversation from the start.
It seems clear that a complete scientific understanding of mind would yield a complete understanding of all the ways in which conscious beings can thrive or suffer in this universe. What would such an account leave out that we (or any other conscious being) could conceivably care about? Gender equality? Respect for authority? Courage? Intellectual honesty? Either these have consequences for the minds involved, or they have no consequences. Ryan seems to believe that a person can coherently value something for reasons that have nothing to do with its actual or potential consequences. It is true that certain philosophers have claimed this. For instance, John Rawls said that he cared about fairness and justice independent of their effects on human life. But I don’t find this claim psychologically credible or conceptually coherent. After all, these concerns predate our humanity. Do you think that capuchin monkeys are worried about fairness as an abstract principle, or do you think they just don’t like the way it feels to be treated unfairly?
Traditional moral philosophy also tends to set arbitrary limits on what counts as a consequence. Imagine, for instance, that a reckless driver is about to run over a puppy, and I, at great risk to myself, kick the puppy out of the car’s path, thereby saving its life. The consequences of my actions seem unambiguously good, and I will be a hero to animal lovers everywhere. However, let’s say that I didn’t actually see the car approaching and simply kicked the puppy because I wanted to cause it pain. Are my actions still good? Students of philosophy have been led to imagine that scenarios of this kind pose serious challenges to consequentialism.
But why should we ignore the consequences of a person’s mental states? If I am the kind of man who prefers kicking puppies to petting them, I have a mind that will reliably produce negative experiences—for both myself and others. Whatever is bad about being an abuser of puppies can be explained in terms of the consequences of living as such a person in the world. Yes, being deranged, I might get a momentary thrill from being cruel to a defenseless animal, but at what price? Do my kids love me? Am I even capable of loving them? What rewarding experiences in life am I missing? Intentions matter because they color our minds in every moment. They also determine much of our behavior, and thereby affect the lives of other people. As our minds are, so our lives (largely) become.
Of course, intentions aren’t the only things that matter, as we can readily see in this case. It is quite possible for a bad person to inadvertently do some good in the world. But the inner and outer consequences of our thoughts and actions seem to account for everything of value here. If you disagree, the burden is on you to come up with an action that is obviously right or wrong for reasons that are not fully accounted for by its (actual or potential) consequences.
The spuriousness of our traditional categories in moral philosophy can be seen in how we teach our children to be good. Why do we want them to be good in the first place? Well, at a minimum, we’d rather they not wind up bludgeoned in a ditch. More generally, we want them to flourish—to live happy, creative, meaningful lives—and to help make the world a better place. All this entails talking about rules and heuristics (deontology), a person’s character (virtue ethics), and the good and bad consequences of certain actions (consequentialism). But it all reduces to a concern for the well-being of our children and (generally to a lesser extent) of the people with whom they will interact. I don’t believe that any sane person is concerned with abstract principles and virtues—such as justice and loyalty—independent of the ways they affect our lives.
What do we mean by “should” and “ought”?
I also disagree with the distinction Ryan draws between “descriptive” and “prescriptive” enterprises. Ethics is prescriptive only because we tend to talk about it that way—and I believe this emphasis comes, in large part, from the stultifying influence of Abrahamic religion. We could just as well think about ethics descriptively. Certain experiences, relationships, social institutions, and technological developments are possible—and there are more or less direct ways to arrive at them. Again, we have a navigation problem. To say we “should” follow some of these paths and avoid others is just a way of saying that some lead to happiness and others to misery. “You shouldn’t lie” (prescriptive) is synonymous with “Lying needlessly complicates people’s lives, destroys reputations, and undermines trust” (descriptive). “We should defend democracy from totalitarianism” (prescriptive) is another way of saying “Democracy is far more conducive to human flourishing than the alternatives are” (descriptive). In my view, moralizing notions like “should” and “ought” are just ways of indicating that certain experiences and states of being are better than others.
Many readers seem confused by the fact that my account of ethics isn’t overtly prescriptive. Russell raises this point in his Judge’s Report when he writes:
This argument relies on a claim that we must all accept that a situation of universal, unremitting, and extreme agony is bad. But if we do so, does that mean we’re committed to maximizing the aggregate (or perhaps average) well-being of all conscious creatures? What if that conflicts with other values that some of us hold dear?
There need be no imperative to be good—just as there’s no imperative to be smart or even sane. A person may be wrong about what’s good for him (and for everyone else), but he’s under no obligation to correct his error—any more than he is required to understand that π is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. A person may be mistaken about how to get what he wants out of life, and he may want the wrong things (i.e., things that will reliably make him miserable), just as he may fail to form true/useful beliefs in any other area. I am simply arguing that we live in a universe in which certain conscious states are possible, some better than others, and that movement in this space will depend on the laws of nature. Ryan, Russell, and many of my other critics think that I must add an extra term of obligation—a person should be committed to maximizing the well-being of all conscious creatures. But I see no need for this.
Imagine that you could push a button that would make every person on earth a little more creative, compassionate, intelligent, and fulfilled—in such a way as to produce no negative effects, now or in the future. This would be “good” in the only moral sense of the word that I understand. However, to make this claim, one needs to posit a larger space of possible experiences (e.g. a moral landscape). What does it mean to say that a person should push this button? It means that making this choice would do a lot of good in the world without doing any harm. And a disposition to not push the button would say something very unflattering about him. After all, what possible motive could a person have for declining to increase everyone’s well-being (including his own) at no cost? I think our notions of “should” and “ought” can be derived from these facts and others like them. Pushing the button is better for everyone involved. What more do we need to motivate prescriptive judgments like “should” and “ought”?
Following Hume, many philosophers think that “should” and “ought” can only be derived from our existing desires and goals—otherwise, there simply isn’t any moral sense to be made of what “is.” But this skirts the essential point: Some people don’t know what they’re missing. Thus, their existing desires and goals are not necessarily a guide to the moral landscape. In fact, it is perfectly coherent to say that all of us live, to one or another degree, in ignorance of our deepest possible interests. I am sure that there are experiences and modes of living available to me that I really would value over all others if I were only wise enough to value them. It is only by reference to this larger space of possible experiences that my current priorities can be right or wrong. And unless one were to posit, against all evidence, that every person’s peak on this landscape is idiosyncratic and zero-sum (i.e., my greatest happiness will be unique to me and will come at the expense of everyone else’s), the best possible world for me seems very likely to be (nearly) the best possible world for everyone else. After all, do you think I’d be better off in a world filled with happy, peaceful, creative people, or one in which I drank the tears of the damned?
Part of the resistance I’ve encountered to the views presented in The Moral Landscape comes from readers who appear to want an ethical standard that gives clear guidance in every situation and doesn’t require too much of them. People want it to be easy to be good—and they don’t want to think that they are not living as good a life as they could be. This is especially true when balancing one’s personal well-being vs. the well-being of society. Most of us are profoundly selfish, and we don’t want to be told that being selfish is wrong. As I tried to make clear in the book, I don’t think it is wrong, up to a point. I suspect that an exclusive focus on the welfare of the group is not the best way to build a civilization that could secure it. Some form of enlightened selfishness seems the most reasonable approach—in which we are more concerned about ourselves and our children than about other people and their children, but not callously so. However, the well-being of the whole group is the only global standard by which we can judge specific outcomes to be good.
The question of how to think about collective well-being is a difficult one, and Russell raises this concern in his Judge’s Report. However, I think the paradoxes that Derek Parfit famously constructed here (e.g. “The Repugnant Conclusion”) are similar to Zeno’s paradoxes of motion. How do any of us get to the coffeepot in the morning if we must first travel half the distance to it, and then half again, ad infinitum? Apparently, this geometrical party trick enthralled philosophers for centuries—but I suspect that no one took Zeno so seriously as to doubt that motion was possible. Once mathematicians showed us how to sum an infinite series, the problem vanished. Whether or not we ever shake off Parfit’s paradoxes, there is no question that the limit cases exist: The worst possible misery for everyone really is worse than the greatest possible happiness. Between these two poles, it seems to me, we can talk about moral truth without hedging. We are still faced with a very real and all-too-consequential navigation problem. Where to go from here? Some experiences are sublime, and some are truly terrible—and all await discovery by the requisite minds. Certain states of pointless misery are possible—how can we avoid them? As far as I can see, saying that we “should” avoid them adds nothing to the import of the phrase “pointless misery.” Is pointless misery a bad thing? Well if it isn’t bad, what is? Even if you want to dispense with words like “bad” and “good” and remain entirely nonjudgmental, countless states of suffering and well-being are there to be realized—and we are moving toward some and away from others.
And if we are going to worry about how our provincial human purposes frame our thinking about reality, let’s worry about this consistently. Ryan writes that “Science cannot show empirically that health is good,” but he admits that, without this assumption, “the science of medicine would seem to defy conception.” I believe morality is also inconceivable without a concern for well-being and that wherever people talk about “good” and “evil” in ways that clearly have nothing to do with well-being they are misusing these terms. In fact, people have been confused about medicine, nutrition, exercise, and related topics for millennia. Even now, many of us harbor beliefs about human health that have nothing to do with biological reality. In Africa, for instance, they can’t seem to divorce their understanding of medicine from a belief in the power of sympathetic magic. Are these signs that health falls outside the purview of science?
And if we are going to balk at axiomatically valuing health or well-being, why accept any values at all in our epistemology? For instance, how is a desire to understand the world any more refined? I would argue that satisfying our curiosity is a component of our well-being, and when it isn’t—for instance, when certain forms of knowledge seem guaranteed to cause great harm—it is perfectly rational for us to decline to seek such knowledge. It seems strange for me to end on so pragmatic a note (because, as a student of Richard Rorty’s, I drove the man crazy with my realism), but we engage with reality in many modes, and curiosity is just one of them. I’m not even sure that curiosity grounds most of our empirical truth-claims. Is my knowledge that fire is hot borne of curiosity, or of my memory of having once been burned and my inclination to avoid pain and injury in the future?
We have certain logical and moral intuitions that we cannot help but rely upon to understand and judge the desirability of various states of the world. The limitations of some of these intuitions can be transcended by recourse to others that seem more fundamental. In the end, however, we must work with intuitions that strike us as non-negotiable. To ask whether the moral landscape captures our sense of moral imperative is like asking whether the physical universe is logical. The universe is whatever it is. To ask whether it is logical is simply to wonder whether we can understand it. Perhaps knowing all the laws of physics would leave us feeling that certain laws are contradictory. This wouldn’t be a problem with the universe; it would be a problem with human reasoning. Are there peaks of well-being that might strike us as morally objectionable? This wouldn’t be a problem with the universe; it would be a problem with our moral cognition.
As I argue in my book, we may think merely about what is—specifically about the possibilities of experience in this universe—and realize that this set of facts captures all that can be valued, along with every form of consciousness that could possibly value it. Either a change in the universe can affect the experience of someone, somewhere, or it can’t. I claim that only those changes that can have such effects can be coherently cared about. And if there is a credible exception to this claim, I have yet to encounter it. There is only what IS (which includes all that is possible). If you can’t find your oughts here, I can’t see any other place to look for them.
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Once again, I’d like to thank Ryan and Russell for their hard work. I appreciated the chance to clarify my views, and I hope readers have found this exchange useful.