(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.
* * *
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.
(Note 6/4/2014: I have made several changes to this 2011 essay and added an audio version.—SH)
Everything we do is for the purpose of altering consciousness. We form friendships so that we can feel certain emotions, like love, and avoid others, like loneliness. We eat specific foods to enjoy their fleeting presence on our tongues. We read for the pleasure of thinking another person’s thoughts. Every waking moment—and even in our dreams—we struggle to direct the flow of sensation, emotion, and cognition toward states of consciousness that we value.
Drugs are another means toward this end. Some are illegal; some are stigmatized; some are dangerous—though, perversely, these sets only partially intersect. Some drugs of extraordinary power and utility, such as psilocybin (the active compound in “magic mushrooms”) and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), pose no apparent risk of addiction and are physically well-tolerated, and yet one can still be sent to prison for their use—whereas drugs such as tobacco and alcohol, which have ruined countless lives, are enjoyed ad libitum in almost every society on earth. There are other points on this continuum: MDMA, or Ecstasy, has remarkable therapeutic potential, but it is also susceptible to abuse, and some evidence suggests that it can be neurotoxic.
One of the great responsibilities we have as a society is to educate ourselves, along with the next generation, about which substances are worth ingesting and for what purpose and which are not. The problem, however, is that we refer to all biologically active compounds by a single term, drugs, making it nearly impossible to have an intelligent discussion about the psychological, medical, ethical, and legal issues surrounding their use. The poverty of our language has been only slightly eased by the introduction of the term psychedelics to differentiate certain visionary compounds, which can produce extraordinary insights, from narcotics and other classic agents of stupefaction and abuse.
However, we should not be too quick to feel nostalgia for the counterculture of the 1960s. Yes, crucial breakthroughs were made, socially and psychologically, and drugs were central to the process, but one need only read accounts of the time, such as Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, to see the problem with a society bent upon rapture at any cost. For every insight of lasting value produced by drugs, there was an army of zombies with flowers in their hair shuffling toward failure and regret. Turning on, tuning in, and dropping out is wise, or even benign, only if you can then drop into a mode of life that makes ethical and material sense and doesn’t leave your children wandering in traffic.
Drug abuse and addiction are real problems, of course, the remedy for which is education and medical treatment, not incarceration. In fact, the most abused drugs in the United States now appear to be oxycodone and other prescription painkillers. Should these medicines be made illegal? Of course not. But people need to be informed about their hazards, and addicts need treatment. And all drugs—including alcohol, cigarettes, and aspirin—must be kept out of the hands of children.
I discuss issues of drug policy in some detail in my first book, The End of Faith, and my thinking on the subject has not changed. The “war on drugs” has been lost and should never have been waged. I can think of no right more fundamental than the right to peacefully steward the contents of one’s own consciousness. The fact that we pointlessly ruin the lives of nonviolent drug users by incarcerating them, at enormous expense, constitutes one of the great moral failures of our time. (And the fact that we make room for them in our prisons by paroling murderers, rapists, and child molesters makes one wonder whether civilization isn’t simply doomed.)
I have two daughters who will one day take drugs. Of course, I will do everything in my power to see that they choose their drugs wisely, but a life lived entirely without drugs is neither foreseeable nor, I think, desirable. I hope they someday enjoy a morning cup of tea or coffee as much as I do. If they drink alcohol as adults, as they probably will, I will encourage them to do it safely. If they choose to smoke marijuana, I will urge moderation. Tobacco should be shunned, and I will do everything within the bounds of decent parenting to steer them away from it. Needless to say, if I knew that either of my daughters would eventually develop a fondness for methamphetamine or crack cocaine, I might never sleep again. But if they don’t try a psychedelic like psilocybin or LSD at least once in their adult lives, I will wonder whether they had missed one of the most important rites of passage a human being can experience.
This is not to say that everyone should take psychedelics. As I will make clear below, these drugs pose certain dangers. Undoubtedly, some people cannot afford to give the anchor of sanity even the slightest tug. It has been many years since I took psychedelics myself, and my abstinence is born of a healthy respect for the risks involved. However, there was a period in my early twenties when I found psilocybin and LSD to be indispensable tools, and some of the most important hours of my life were spent under their influence. Without them, I might never have discovered that there was an inner landscape of mind worth exploring.
There is no getting around the role of luck here. If you are lucky, and you take the right drug, you will know what it is to be enlightened (or to be close enough to persuade you that enlightenment is possible). If you are unlucky, you will know what it is to be clinically insane. While I do not recommend the latter experience, it does increase one’s respect for the tenuous condition of sanity, as well as one’s compassion for people who suffer from mental illness.
Human beings have ingested plant-based psychedelics for millennia, but scientific research on these compounds did not begin until the 1950s. By 1965, a thousand studies had been published, primarily on psilocybin and LSD, many of which attested to the usefulness of psychedelics in the treatment of clinical depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, alcohol addiction, and the pain and anxiety associated with terminal cancer. Within a few years, however, this entire field of research was abolished in an effort to stem the spread of these drugs among the public. After a hiatus that lasted an entire generation, scientific research on the pharmacology and therapeutic value of psychedelics has quietly resumed.
Psychedelics such as psilocybin, LSD, DMT, and mescaline all powerfully alter cognition, perception, and mood. Most seem to exert their influence through the serotonin system in the brain, primarily by binding to 5-HT2A receptors (though several have affinity for other receptors as well), leading to increased activity in the prefrontal cortex (PFC). Although the PFC in turn modulates subcortical dopamine production—and certain of these compounds, such as LSD, bind directly to dopamine receptors—the effect of psychedelics seems to take place largely outside dopamine pathways, which could explain why these drugs are not habit-forming.
The efficacy of psychedelics might seem to establish the material basis of mental and spiritual life beyond any doubt, for the introduction of these substances into the brain is the obvious cause of any numinous apocalypse that follows. It is possible, however, if not actually plausible, to seize this evidence from the other end and argue, as Aldous Huxley did in his classic The Doors of Perception, that the primary function of the brain may be eliminative: Its purpose may be to prevent a transpersonal dimension of mind from flooding consciousness, thereby allowing apes like ourselves to make their way in the world without being dazzled at every step by visionary phenomena that are irrelevant to their physical survival. Huxley thought of the brain as a kind of “reducing valve” for “Mind at Large.” In fact, the idea that the brain is a filter rather than the origin of mind goes back at least as far as Henri Bergson and William James. In Huxley’s view, this would explain the efficacy of psychedelics: They may simply be a material means of opening the tap.
Huxley was operating under the assumption that psychedelics decrease brain activity. Some recent data have lent support to this view; for instance, a neuroimaging study of psilocybin suggests that the drug primarily reduces activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region involved in a wide variety of tasks related to self-monitoring. However, other studies have found that psychedelics increase activity throughout the brain. Whatever the case, the action of these drugs does not rule out dualism, or the existence of realms of mind beyond the brain—but then, nothing does. That is one of the problems with views of this kind: They appear to be unfalsifiable.
We have reason to be skeptical of the brain-as-barrier thesis. If the brain were merely a filter on the mind, damaging it should increase cognition. In fact, strategically damaging the brain should be the most reliable method of spiritual practice available to anyone. In almost every case, loss of brain should yield more mind. But that is not how the mind works.
Some people try to get around this by suggesting that the brain may function more like a radio, a receiver of conscious states rather than a barrier to them. At first glance, this would appear to account for the deleterious effects of neurological injury and disease, for if one smashes a radio with a hammer, it will no longer function properly. There is a problem with this metaphor, however. Those who employ it invariably forget that we are the music, not the radio. If the brain were nothing more than a receiver of conscious states, it should be impossible to diminish a person’s experience of the cosmos by damaging her brain. She might seem unconscious from the outside—like a broken radio—but, subjectively speaking, the music would play on.
Specific reductions in brain activity might benefit people in certain ways, unmasking memories or abilities that are being actively inhibited by the regions in question. But there is no reason to think that the pervasive destruction of the central nervous system would leave the mind unaffected (much less improved). Medications that reduce anxiety generally work by increasing the effect of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA, thereby diminishing neuronal activity in various parts of the brain. But the fact that dampening arousal in this way can make people feel better does not suggest that they would feel better still if they were drugged into a coma. Similarly, it would be unsurprising if psilocybin reduced brain activity in areas responsible for self-monitoring, because that might, in part, account for the experiences that are often associated with the drug. This does not give us any reason to believe that turning off the brain entirely would yield an increased awareness of spiritual realities.
However, the brain does exclude an extraordinary amount of information from consciousness. And, like many who have taken psychedelics, I can attest that these compounds throw open the gates. Positing the existence of a Mind at Large is more tempting in some states of consciousness than in others. But these drugs can also produce mental states that are best viewed as forms of psychosis. As a general matter, I believe we should be very slow to draw conclusions about the nature of the cosmos on the basis of inner experiences—no matter how profound they may seem.
One thing is certain: The mind is vaster and more fluid than our ordinary, waking consciousness suggests. And it is simply impossible to communicate the profundity (or seeming profundity) of psychedelic states to those who have never experienced them. Indeed, it is even difficult to remind oneself of the power of these states once they have passed.
Many people wonder about the difference between meditation (and other contemplative practices) and psychedelics. Are these drugs a form of cheating, or are they the only means of authentic awakening? They are neither. All psychoactive drugs modulate the existing neurochemistry of the brain—either by mimicking specific neurotransmitters or by causing the neurotransmitters themselves to be more or less active. Everything that one can experience on a drug is, at some level, an expression of the brain’s potential. Hence, whatever one has seen or felt after ingesting LSD is likely to have been seen or felt by someone, somewhere, without it.
However, it cannot be denied that psychedelics are a uniquely potent means of altering consciousness. Teach a person to meditate, pray, chant, or do yoga, and there is no guarantee that anything will happen. Depending upon his aptitude or interest, the only reward for his efforts may be boredom and a sore back. If, however, a person ingests 100 micrograms of LSD, what happens next will depend on a variety of factors, but there is no question that something will happen. And boredom is simply not in the cards. Within the hour, the significance of his existence will bear down upon him like an avalanche. As the late Terence McKenna never tired of pointing out, this guarantee of profound effect, for better or worse, is what separates psychedelics from every other method of spiritual inquiry.
Ingesting a powerful dose of a psychedelic drug is like strapping oneself to a rocket without a guidance system. One might wind up somewhere worth going, and, depending on the compound and one’s “set and setting,” certain trajectories are more likely than others. But however methodically one prepares for the voyage, one can still be hurled into states of mind so painful and confusing as to be indistinguishable from psychosis. Hence, the terms psychotomimetic and psychotogenic that are occasionally applied to these drugs.
I have visited both extremes on the psychedelic continuum. The positive experiences were more sublime than I could ever have imagined or than I can now faithfully recall. These chemicals disclose layers of beauty that art is powerless to capture and for which the beauty of nature itself is a mere simulacrum. It is one thing to be awestruck by the sight of a giant redwood and amazed at the details of its history and underlying biology. It is quite another to spend an apparent eternity in egoless communion with it. Positive psychedelic experiences often reveal how wondrously at ease in the universe a human being can be—and for most of us, normal waking consciousness does not offer so much as a glimmer of those deeper possibilities.
People generally come away from such experiences with a sense that conventional states of consciousness obscure and truncate sacred insights and emotions. If the patriarchs and matriarchs of the world’s religions experienced such states of mind, many of their claims about the nature of reality would make subjective sense. A beatific vision does not tell you anything about the birth of the cosmos, but it does reveal how utterly transfigured a mind can be by a full collision with the present moment.
However, as the peaks are high, the valleys are deep. My “bad trips” were, without question, the most harrowing hours I have ever endured, and they make the notion of hell—as a metaphor if not an actual destination—seem perfectly apt. If nothing else, these excruciating experiences can become a source of compassion. I think it may be impossible to imagine what it is like to suffer from mental illness without having briefly touched its shores.
At both ends of the continuum, time dilates in ways that cannot be described—apart from merely observing that these experiences can seem eternal. I have spent hours, both good and bad, in which any understanding that I had ingested a drug was lost, and all memories of my past along with it. Immersion in the present moment to this degree is synonymous with the feeling that one has always been and will always be in precisely this condition. Depending on the character of one’s experience at that point, notions of salvation or damnation may well apply. Blake’s line about beholding “eternity in an hour” neither promises nor threatens too much.
In the beginning, my experiences with psilocybin and LSD were so positive that I did not see how a bad trip could be possible. Notions of “set and setting,” admittedly vague, seemed sufficient to account for my good luck. My mental set was exactly as it needed to be—I was a spiritually serious investigator of my own mind—and my setting was generally one of either natural beauty or secure solitude.
I cannot account for why my adventures with psychedelics were uniformly pleasant until they weren’t, but once the doors to hell opened, they appeared to have been left permanently ajar. Thereafter, whether or not a trip was good in the aggregate, it generally entailed some excruciating detour on the path to sublimity. Have you ever traveled, beyond all mere metaphors, to the Mountain of Shame and stayed for a thousand years? I do not recommend it.
On my first trip to Nepal, I took a rowboat out on Phewa Lake in Pokhara, which offers a stunning view of the Annapurna range. It was early morning, and I was alone. As the sun rose over the water, I ingested 400 micrograms of LSD. I was twenty years old and had taken the drug at least ten times previously. What could go wrong?
Everything, as it turns out. Well, not everything—I didn’t drown. I have a vague memory of drifting ashore and being surrounded by a group of Nepali soldiers. After watching me for a while, as I ogled them over the gunwale like a lunatic, they seemed on the verge of deciding what to do with me. Some polite words of Esperanto and a few mad oar strokes, and I was offshore and into oblivion. I suppose that could have ended differently.
But soon there was no lake or mountains or boat—and if I had fallen into the water, I am pretty sure there would have been no one to swim. For the next several hours my mind became a perfect instrument of self-torture. All that remained was a continuous shattering and terror for which I have no words.
An encounter like that takes something out of you. Even if LSD and similar drugs are biologically safe, they have the potential to produce extremely unpleasant and destabilizing experiences. I believe I was positively affected by my good trips, and negatively affected by the bad ones, for weeks and months.
Meditation can open the mind to a similar range of conscious states, but far less haphazardly. If LSD is like being strapped to a rocket, learning to meditate is like gently raising a sail. Yes, it is possible, even with guidance, to wind up someplace terrifying, and some people probably shouldn’t spend long periods in intensive practice. But the general effect of meditation training is of settling ever more fully into one’s own skin and suffering less there.
As I discussed in The End of Faith, I view most psychedelic experiences as potentially misleading. Psychedelics do not guarantee wisdom or a clear recognition of the selfless nature of consciousness. They merely guarantee that the contents of consciousness will change. Such visionary experiences, considered in their totality, appear to me to be ethically neutral. Therefore, it seems that psychedelic ecstasies must be steered toward our personal and collective well-being by some other principle. As Daniel Pinchbeck pointed out in his highly entertaining book Breaking Open the Head, the fact that both the Mayans and the Aztecs used psychedelics, while being enthusiastic practitioners of human sacrifice, makes any idealistic connection between plant-based shamanism and an enlightened society seem terribly naïve.
As I discuss elsewhere in my work, the form of transcendence that appears to link directly to ethical behavior and human well-being is that which occurs in the midst of ordinary waking life. It is by ceasing to cling to the contents of consciousness—to our thoughts, moods, and desires— that we make progress. This project does not in principle require that we experience more content. The freedom from self that is both the goal and foundation of “spiritual” life is coincident with normal perception and cognition—though, admittedly, this can be difficult to realize.
The power of psychedelics, however, is that they often reveal, in the span of a few hours, depths of awe and understanding that can otherwise elude us for a lifetime. William James said it about as well as anyone:
One conclusion was forced upon my mind at that time, and my impression of its truth has ever since remained unshaken. It is that our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question,—for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. Yet they may determine attitudes though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.
(The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 388)
I believe that psychedelics may be indispensable for some people—especially those who, like me, initially need convincing that profound changes in consciousness are possible. After that, it seems wise to find ways of practicing that do not present the same risks. Happily, such methods are widely available.
- A wide literature now suggests that MDMA can damage serotonin-producing neurons and decrease levels of serotonin in the brain. Here is the tip of the iceberg: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. There are credible claims, however, that many of these studies used poor controls or dosages in lab animals that were too high to model human use of the drug. ↩
- What is moderation? Let’s just say that I’ve never met a person who smokes marijuana every day who I thought wouldn’t benefit from smoking less (and I’ve never met someone who has never tried it who I thought wouldn’t benefit from smoking more).↩
- Physicalism, by contrast, could be easily falsified. If science ever established the existence of ghosts, or reincarnation, or any other phenomenon which would place the human mind (in whole or in part) outside the brain, physicalism would be dead. The fact that dualists can never say what would count as evidence against their views makes this ancient philosophical position very difficult to distinguish from religious faith.↩
- Terence McKenna is one person I regret not getting to know. Unfortunately, he died from brain cancer in 2000, at the age of 53. His books are well worth reading, and I have recommended several below, but he was, above all, an amazing speaker. It is true that his eloquence often led him to adopt positions which can only be described (charitably) as “wacky,” but the man was undeniably brilliant and always worth listening to. ↩
- I should say, however, that there are psychedelic experiences that I have not had, which appear to deliver a different message. Rather than being states in which the boundaries of the self are dissolved, some people have experiences in which the self (in some form) appears to be transported elsewhere. This phenomenon is very common with the drug DMT, and it can lead its initiates to some very startling conclusions about the nature of reality. More than anyone else, Terence McKenna was influential in bringing the phenomenology of DMT into prominence.
DMT is unique among psychedelics for a several reasons. Everyone who has tried it seems to agree that it is the most potent hallucinogen available (not in terms of the quantity needed for an effective dose, but in terms of its effects). It is also, paradoxically, the shortest acting. While the effects of LSD can last ten hours, the DMT trance dawns in less than a minute and subsides in ten. One reason for such steep pharmacokinetics seems to be that this compound already exists inside the human brain, and it is readily metabolized by monoaminoxidase. DMT is in the same chemical class as psilocybin and the neurotransmitter serotonin (but, in addition to having an affinity for 5-HT2A receptors, it has been shown to bind to the sigma-1 receptor and modulate Na+ channels). Its function in the human body remains mysterious. Among the many mysteries and insults presented by DMT, it offers a final mockery of our drug laws: Not only have we criminalized naturally occurring substances, like cannabis; we have criminalized one of our own neurotransmitters.
Many users of DMT report being thrust under its influence into an adjacent reality where they are met by alien beings who appear intent upon sharing information and demonstrating the use of inscrutable technologies. The convergence of hundreds of such reports, many from first-time users of the drug who have not been told what to expect, is certainly interesting. It is also worth noting these accounts are almost entirely free of religious imagery. One appears far more likely to meet extraterrestrials or elves on DMT than traditional saints or angels. As I have not tried DMT, and have not had an experience of the sort that its users describe, I don’t know what to make of any of this. ↩
- Of course, James was reporting his experiences with nitrous oxide, which is an anesthetic. Other anesthetics, like ketamine hydrochloride and phencyclidine hydrochloride (PCP), have similar effects on mood and cognition at low doses. However, there are many differences between these drugs and classic psychedelics—one being that high doses of the latter do not lead to general anesthesia. ↩
Huxley, A. The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell.
Stevens, J. Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream.
Related article: What’s the Point of Transcendence?
(Photo via Steven Kersting)
Last August, I issued the following challenge:
It has been nearly three years since The Moral Landscape was first published in English, and in that time it has been attacked by readers and nonreaders alike. Many seem to have judged from the resulting cacophony that the book’s central thesis was easily refuted. However, I have yet to encounter a substantial criticism that I feel was not adequately answered in the book itself (and in subsequent talks).
So I would like to issue a public challenge. Anyone who believes that my case for a scientific understanding of morality is mistaken is invited to prove it in under 1,000 words. (You must address the central argument of the book—not peripheral issues.) The best response will be published on this website, and its author will receive $2,000. If any essay actually persuades me, however, its author will receive $20,000, and I will publicly recant my view.
Several hundred of you entered this contest—which was an extremely gratifying turnout. The philosopher Russell Blackford judged the essays and picked a winner. Here begins my exchange with its author, Ryan Born.—SH
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Russell Blackford is a conjoint lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle, Australia. He is a philosopher, a literary critic, and a commentator on a range of topics including legal and political philosophy, philosophy of religion, meta-ethics, and philosophical bioethics. His works include Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, 50 Great Myths About Atheism (co-authored with Udo Schuklenk), and Humanity Enhanced: Genetic Choice and the Challenge for Liberal Democracies. Dr. Blackford is the editor in chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology.
Ryan Born holds a BA in cognitive science from the University of Georgia and an MA in philosophy from Georgia State University. He blogs at Pointofcontroversy.com.
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The Moral Landscape Challenge attracted well over 400 essays, and the standard was high. Almost all entries were thoughtful; almost none took an abusive tone; and many were sophisticated and impressive. A notably large proportion—perhaps even the majority—found merit in the ideas advocated in The Moral Landscape while also perceiving limitations or weaknesses. Alas, there was no agreement on just what those might be!
A considerable number of the authors offered their personal thanks or good wishes to Sam Harris and his family, sometimes commenting about the value they’d found in Sam’s writings over the past decade, even if they perceived problems with certain of The Moral Landscape’s central claims and arguments. In all, much goodwill was shown, which helped make the contest far more enjoyable to judge than it might have been. My thanks to the many entrants who took part in such a pleasing spirit.
We could have only one winner. All the same, there’s much worth discussing in the 400-plus other entries, so I encourage the authors to present their ideas in whatever forums are available to them. In many cases, this will mean publication on personal blogs; I should note that some entries have already been published online. The issues raised by The Moral Landscape and the Moral Landscape Challenge are of great interest and importance, and I hope the debate continues. If that is one outcome of the competition, it will have achieved something worthwhile. Which prompts me to add my own thanks to Sam, both for conducting such a productive competition in the first place and for inviting me to judge it.
The criticisms put forward in the essays varied considerably, although there were some popular themes. Some entrants attacked the validity of The Moral Landscape’s central argument as Sam represented and summarized it on his website in announcing the challenge. For me, this raises an interesting question as to whether the book’s actual argument may be more complex and subtle than the website suggests. Even if the argument as presented there is invalid, that is not necessarily fatal to the book or its overall thesis.
Other essays questioned whether well-being is a concept that can be used to measure or rank moral systems, customary practices, etc., objectively. Although the authors pursued this question in a variety of ways, most did not deny that whatever might be encompassed by the concept of well-being is of some relevance when we try to evaluate or influence moral systems. They did, however, see various limits to how far we can employ the concept. Unfortunately, this brief report is not the place for me to try to settle the issues.
Others challenged the “worst possible misery for everyone” argument in Chapter 1 of The Moral Landscape. 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? Even if all people who are likely to read such a book evaluated the worst possible misery for everyone as very bad indeed, could we really, even in principle, produce an objective, uncontroversial rank order of all the other possible situations that might have diverse redeeming features?
To be fair, The Moral Landscape addresses some of the problems that arise here, though of course many entrants to the competition argued that it does so inadequately. Again, complex issues surfaced in the essays, as they do in the book itself, and they will need to be explored on another occasion.
A variety of other objections were made, but one of the most common was that the moral theory developed in The Moral Landscape is not really one in which science determines human values. Rather, the primary value, that of “the well-being of conscious creatures,” is not a scientific finding. Nor is it a value that science inevitably presupposes (as it arguably must presuppose certain standards of evidence and logic). Instead, this value must come from elsewhere and can be defended only through conceptual analysis, other forms of philosophical reasoning, or appeals to our intuitions.
Such was the point pursued by the winner of the competition, Ryan Born, who presented it the most persuasively, in my view (although he had some close rivals among the other entrants). Others might have been worthy winners, but I was especially impressed by the penetration and clarity of Ryan’s essay.
Ryan is from Atlanta, where he has taught philosophy at Georgia State University. Without more fuss, I’ll let him commence what should be an interesting exchange.
—Russell Blackford, May 2014
Ryan Born: In issuing the Moral Landscape Challenge, you suggested some ways to refute your claim that questions of morality and value have scientific answers. One was to show that “other branches of science are self-justifying in a way that a science of morality could never be.” Here you seem to invite the “Value Problem” objection to your thesis, which you attempted to meet in your book’s afterword. I’ll be renewing that objection. Despite your efforts to invalidate it, the Value Problem remains a serious challenge to your thesis.
The “Value Problem” is your term for a common criticism of your proposed science of morality—namely, that it presupposes answers to fundamental questions of morality and value. You claim that what is good (the basic value question) is that which supports the well-being of conscious creatures, and that what one ought to do (the basic moral question) is maximize the well-being of conscious creatures. But science cannot empirically support either claim. Even granting that both claims are objectively true, science can do little more than fill in the descriptive empirical particulars. Such particulars may help illuminate specific moral values and principles, but only in light of the general ones you presuppose. Thus, your 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.
You respond to the Value Problem in the following way: Every science must presuppose evaluative judgments. Science requires epistemic values—e.g., truth, logical consistency, empirical evidence. Science cannot defend these values, at least not without presupposing them in that very defense. After all, a compelling empirical case for the three values just named must show that they are truly values by using a logically consistent argument that employs empirical evidence. So when you speak of science as “self-justifying,” you appear to refer to the reflexive justification of certain epistemic values that all sciences share. But then you also note that the science of medicine requires a non-epistemic value—health. 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. Still, by definition, the science of medicine seeks to promote health (or else combat disease, which in turn promotes health). Insofar as you take the science of medicine to be “self-justifying,” you appear to hold that the very meaning of the science of medicine entails its non-epistemic evaluative foundation. From these two analogies (one to epistemic values, the other to medicine), you conclude that your proposed science of morality, in pulling itself up by the evaluative bootstraps, does no different from the science of medicine or science as a whole. In your view, to make any scientific claim, we must presuppose certain evaluative axioms.
Neither of your analogies invalidates the Value Problem. 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. Meanwhile, your two moral axioms have already declared that (i) the only thing of intrinsic value is well-being, and (ii) the correct moral theory is consequentialist and, seemingly, some version of utilitarianism—rather than, say, virtue ethics, a non-consequentialist candidate for a naturalized moral framework. Further, both (i) and (ii) resist the sort of self-justification attributed above to science’s epistemic axioms; that is, neither is any more self-affirming than the value of health and the goal of promoting it. You might reply that the non-epistemic axioms of the science of medicine enjoy the sort of self-justification you have in mind for the moral (and likewise non-epistemic) axioms of your science of morality. But then your second analogy, between the science of medicine and your science of morality, fails. The former must presuppose that health is good and ought to be promoted; otherwise, the science of medicine would seem to defy conception. In contrast, a science of morality, insofar as it admits of conception, does not have to presuppose that well-being is the highest good and ought to be maximized. Serious competing theories of value and morality exist. If a science of morality elucidates moral reality, as you suggest, then presumably it must work out, not simply presuppose, the correct theory of moral reality, just as the science of physics must work out the correct theory of physical reality.
Nevertheless, you seem to believe you have worked out, scientifically, that your form of consequentialism, grounded in the supreme intrinsic value of well-being, is correct. Your defense of this moral theory is conceptual, not empirical, and requires engagement with work in moral philosophy, the intellectual home of consequentialism (in its myriad guises) and its competitors. Yet you identify science, not philosophy, as the arbiter of moral reality. In your view, no significant boundary exists between science and philosophy. In your book, you say that “science is often a matter of philosophy in practice,” subsequently reminding readers that the natural sciences were once known as natural philosophy. Bear in mind, however, the reason natural philosophy became the natural sciences: The problems it addressed became ever more empirically tractable. Indeed, some contemporary analytic philosophers hold that metaphysics will eventually yield (more or less) to the natural sciences. But even if that most rarefied of philosophical disciplines does fall to earth, metaphysics is a descriptive enterprise, just as science is conventionally taken to be. Ethics, i.e. moral philosophy, is a prescriptive enterprise, and thus will not yield so easily.
For now, I say you have not brought questions of ethics into science’s domain. No empirical inquiry into such questions can determine anything of clear moral significance without having normative conceptual answers already in place. And finding and justifying those answers requires a distinctly philosophical, not scientific, approach.
I’d like to congratulate Ryan for writing such an excellent essay and winning our contest. I would also like to thank Russell for doing the heroic work of judging the entries. I will respond in my next blog post.—SH
(Photo via Ryan Heaney)
I can now say, at the advanced age of 47, that I no longer take my health for granted. In truth, I’ve always been a bit of a hypochondriac—but, as any hypochondriac aware of the relevant science can tell you, I am perfectly justified in this. If I wash my hands more often than your uncle with obsessive-compulsive disorder does, it’s because hand washing really is the best way to avoid most forms of contagious illness.
Until recently, my physical complaints were always minor and self-limiting, and were invariably treated as such by doctors. When I was in my twenties and thirties, having escaped childhood cancers and other serious strains of bad luck, every doctor knew that whatever seemed to be wrong with me would probably sort itself out. After I turned forty, however, I began to notice a change in attitude: Doctors suddenly took my aches and pains quite seriously. Many seemed frankly open to the possibility that I could die at any moment. Cancer, heart disease, Parkinson’s—these and other delights were now on the menu. The body is like a clock—and it is a perverse one. It is by growing less and less reliable that it signals the passage of time. What time is it now? It’s time to worry about your prostate, you poor son of a bitch…
Everyone understands that aging is a process of losing ground to the conquests of time. But apart from cosmetic changes, my first real experience of the finality of these losses came when I suddenly started experiencing tinnitus after I turned 40. I remember the moment of onset clearly: I was at the 2007 Aspen Ideas Festival and suddenly noticed a high-frequency ringing in my right ear. Seven years have passed, and the ringing hasn’t stopped. Like any other physical complaint, tinnitus can range from the scarcely consequential to the life-wrecking. I would put mine somewhere in between. I certainly mourn the loss of silence. In its place, I have an endless whistle—part cricket, part electrical interference—that makes any condition of external silence unpleasant. This sound is the first thing I notice upon waking, and it waxes and wanes throughout the day. Only significant external noise—a loud restaurant, for instance—can mask it.
On the few occasions when I’ve referred to tinnitus in my work—as an example of a private phenomenon that we can speak about objectively—I’ve heard from readers also suffering from this condition who are extremely grateful to hear it talked about in public. That is one of the reasons I have produced this essay. Many people who experience illness imagine that everyone else is blissfully getting on with life in perfect health—and this illusion compounds their suffering. So while I would generally prefer to keep my health problems private, I’ve been moved by the response I’ve gotten to my mentioning tinnitus in the past—as well as by emails I’ve received from people suffering from conditions far worse—to share my further adventures in the land of illness.
Last fall, in addition to the tinnitus, I began to experience dizziness—an undulating instability reminiscent of one’s first steps on dry land after several days at sea. When seated or standing, I often feel as if I were in a car that has suddenly accelerated or on an elevator that has just begun its descent. Combined with the tinnitus, the feeling recalls the aftermath of having been hit hard in the head. As a martial artist, I left off voluntarily acquiring brain trauma decades ago, but now my bell seems to be perpetually getting rung by an unseen opponent. In the beginning, these vestibular symptoms were accompanied by low-grade nausea. That has abated, thankfully, but my body has remained in the grip of strange new forces for more than six months. This sudden change in my health has given me great respect for how precarious the feeling of physical well-being can be.
As you might imagine, the onset of these symptoms was followed by an increasingly frantic search for a diagnosis and a rational course of treatment. Unfortunately, both have so far eluded me. Because of my tinnitus, episodic hearing loss, and other inner ear symptoms, a diagnosis of Ménière’s disease was tempting—and I lived for several months believing that I had this condition. A few minutes online can yield a bounty of terrors: Ménière’s sufferers sometimes have something called a “drop attack”—a sudden onset of vertigo so severe that it literally knocks them off their feet and keeps them down for hours. There is no acknowledged cure for this condition, and the available treatments seem both risky and ineffective. Receiving a diagnosis of Ménière’s, I was told to go on a low-sodium diet and cut out alcohol and caffeine—life changes that appeared calculated to further depress me.
If it was Ménière’s, however, mine was an atypical case—and rival diagnoses were soon forthcoming. One otologist believes I am suffering from vestibular migraines—for which he prescribed supplements and further dietary restrictions. A neurologist diagnosed me with mal de debarquement (French for “disembarkment sickness”), in which people who have traveled by boat experience a perpetual swaying once they return to land. But I hadn’t traveled by boat, or even by plane, for many months prior to the onset of my symptoms. More important, neither of these diagnoses accounts for my tinnitus. Nevertheless, my neurologist recommended that we treat my disorder empirically, and offered me a long list of anticonvulsants and antidepressants that he thought held promise. Feeling desperate, having suffered for months with no relief in sight, I picked one: Let’s give Cymbalta a try…
Being generally averse to taking medication, and knowing the power of the “nocebo” effect (the evil twin of the placebo effect), I deliberately did not look up the list of side effects for this drug. I also started at half the lowest effective dose. After a day or two, I detected a new form of unpleasantness—a slight stupor—superimposed upon my dizziness. I was also finding it difficult to urinate. On a whim, I consulted the oracle: A Google search for “Cymbalta and diff-” helpfully autocompleted to “Cymbalta and difficulty urinating.” Two minutes of reading convinced me that I was experiencing a rare and worrying side effect of the medication. I stopped taking it at once, but the urinary symptoms persisted. A trip to the urologist delivered a rival diagnosis of prostatitis. Perhaps its onset after my first dose of Cymbalta was just a coincidence. The remedy? “Eat an even more boring diet than the one you’re on for your ear.”
None of these health complaints were life-threatening, but I was beginning to feel like an invalid. And I was now visibly surrounded by the elderly and infirm. There is nothing like the waiting room of a urologist’s office to make one feel that one has grown old before one’s time—except for the waiting room of a hearing and balance specialist. Judging from the look of things, the median age in both places is about eighty. (For years, this also seemed to be the median age of my atheist fans.)
It has been interesting for me, as a proponent of science and skepticism, to experience the feelings of vulnerability and desperation that come with an illness for which science has no clear remedy or even a diagnosis. Acupuncture? Sure, let’s give that a try. Regenokine therapy? It seems to have cured Dana White, the UFC promoter, of his Ménière’s disease. Regenokine is a procedure in which a large sample of one’s own blood is spun, heated, and incubated—and a fraction thereof, thought to contain anti-inflammatory properties, is injected back into the problem area. It is, however, exclusively prescribed for orthopedic injuries. So White’s purported cure was an off-label use of a fringe treatment. It also cost $10,000.
But Regenokine might also heal my injured hip!—another geriatric complaint I had acquired courtesy of my obsession with Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. Injure your neck or your knee, and you will feel like an athlete who must simply bide his time. Injure your hip, and you will feel like someone’s shuffling grandpa. But Kobe Bryant received Regenokine for his knees with apparent success. My friend Joe Rogan had it for his back and is a believer. Six rounds of injections into my hip socket later, I’m not sure it was anything more than a scary form of acupuncture. My hip is a little better, and I’m training in BJJ again—but my recovery could well be explained by the passage of time. I am, however, rather comfortable with needles now.
As someone who will soon release a book about meditation, the illusion of the self, and the transcendence of unnecessary suffering, I feel I should offer some account of how my own mind has fared when tested in this way. I’m happy to say that it is possible to find equanimity in the midst of unpleasant experiences like these. But I am also humbled by how often I forget this.
Framing is an important variable here: If my neighbor had a machine in his backyard that emitted a high-pitched squeal identical to my tinnitus, I would never stop suing him. If his machine was also producing my dizziness, and the law offered no recourse, I might very well enforce a law of my own. However, given that my enemy is my own body, equanimity is much easier to achieve.
Of course, worrying about the future is a recipe for unhappiness. “What if this gets worse? What if I’m permanently incapacitated?” If the answer to a question cannot be known and would serve no purpose even if one could know it, there is no point in asking the question. The truth is that I don’t know how I will feel an hour from now, much less next year.
I have also noticed a propensity in myself to complain—especially to my wife—which seems profoundly unhelpful. Complaining is, nevertheless, a very seductive behavior. Why do I do it? On one level, I am just being honest: I am simply not pretending to feel better than I do. But in rejecting pretense, I am actually increasing my suffering, and worrying my wife in the process. Complaining now strikes me as a toxic form of intimacy. It is surely best to “keep calm and carry on,” as the British wartime slogan ran. Like meditation, this takes practice.
My vestibular symptoms first emerged as I was finalizing the text of Waking Up, so I do not discuss them in the book. The point of this essay is to report that the case I make in the book still stands: Meditation really works—at least at my current level of inconvenience. It is possible to accept the present moment fully, even when it isn’t the present one wants. If this offers encouragement to any of you who are dealing with similar challenges, I will be very happy.
(Photo via Getty Images)
Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Mogadishu in 1969. The daughter of a political opponent of the Somali dictatorship, she lived in exile, moving from Saudi Arabia to Ethiopia and then to Kenya. Like 98 percent of Somali girls, Ayaan was subjected to female genital mutilation. She embraced Islam while she was growing up, but eventually began to question aspects of the faith. One day, while listening to a sermon about the many ways in which women must be obedient to their husbands, she couldn’t resist asking, “Must our husbands obey us too?”
In 1992, Ayaan was married off by her father to a distant cousin living in Canada. In order to escape this forced marriage, she fled to the Netherlands where she was granted asylum and then citizenship. In her first years in Holland she worked in factories and as a maid—but she quickly learned Dutch and was then able to study at the University of Leiden. She soon began working as a translator for Somali immigrants, where she witnessed firsthand the clash between liberal Western values and those of Islamic culture.
After earning her M.A. in political science, Ayaan began working as a researcher for the Wiardi Beckman Foundation in Amsterdam. She eventually served as an elected member of the Dutch parliament from 2003 to 2006. While in parliament, she focused on furthering the integration of non-Western immigrants into Dutch society and on defending the rights of Muslim women. She campaigned to raise awareness about violence against women, including honor killings and female genital mutilation—practices that had followed Muslim immigrants to Holland. In her three years in government, she found her voice as an advocate for an “enlightened Islam.”
In 2004, Ayaan gained international attention following the murder of Theo van Gogh, who had directed her short film, Submission, depicting the oppression of women under Islam. The assassin, a radical Muslim, left a death threat for Ayaan pinned to Van Gogh’s chest.
In 2006, Ayaan was forced to resign from parliament when the Dutch minister for immigration revoked her citizenship, arguing that she had misled the authorities at the time of her asylum application. However, the Dutch courts later reversed this decision, leading to the fall of the administration. Disillusioned with the Netherlands, Ayaan then moved to the United States.
Ayaan is a fellow with the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School. She is also a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, currently researching the relationship between the West and Islam. Her willingness to speak out for the rights of women, along with her abandonment of the Muslim faith, continue to make her a target for violence by Islamic extremists. She lives with round-the-clock security.
In 2005, Ayaan was named one of TIME magazine’s “100 Most Influential People,” one of the Glamour Heroes, and Reader’s Digest’s European of the Year. She is the author of The Caged Virgin, Infidel, and Nomad. She is now working on Short-cut to Enlightenment, a dialogue between Mohammed, the founder of Islam, and three of her favorite Western thinkers: John Stuart Mill, Karl Popper, and Friedrich Hayek.
A few weeks ago, Ayaan and I had a long conversation about her critics and about the increasingly pernicious meme of “Islamophobia”—which our inimitable friend Christopher Hitchens once dubbed “a word created by fascists, and used by cowards, to manipulate morons.” [NOTE 5/11/14: This wonderful sentence seems to have been wrongly attributed to Hitch (who was imitable after all). I’m told these words first appeared in a tweet from Andrew Cummins. Well done, Andrew!]
The following text is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Harris: Ayaan, it’s great to speak with you. This conversation is obviously timely, given recent events. Unfortunately, a conversation about Islam is now always timely—and, I fear, will remain so for the rest of our lives.
We happen to be speaking just after the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing. The Islamic militant group Boko Haram has also been targeting innocent civilians in Nigeria—even going so far as to massacre schoolboys and kidnap schoolgirls. Needless to say, their justification for this barbarity is explicitly religious. There have also been atrocities carried out by jihadists in several other countries in recent weeks, notably in Iraq and Pakistan. So that is the context in which we are having this conversation.
Hirsi Ali: One just needs to open the newspaper on any given morning. It’s that crazy.
Harris: I know, and it has been this way for years. Of course, most of this suffering is visited on Muslims themselves, and on their neighbors in the developing world. In the West, we tend to focus on the threat that Islamic terrorism poses to our own societies. But as galling as that is, radical Islam currently causes much more suffering elsewhere, in the form of sectarian violence, the repression of women, and the suppression of free thought in dozens of countries that can ill afford to stifle so much of their populations—mired as they are in economic and political conditions akin to what Europe and America left behind 150 years ago. For reasons that are not especially mysterious, the House of Islam remains the most ramshackle house on the street.
There are two main issues I want us to tackle in this conversation. First, I’d like to talk about the way you’ve been treated by your critics. Second, I’d like us to address the issue of “Islamophobia”—which has become the catchall criticism applied to anyone who is more worried about Islam than, say, Mormonism.
Increasingly, questioning Islam results in a person’s being vilified as an “Islamophobe” and a “bigot”—or, in a ridiculous but omnipresent misuse of the term, as a “racist.” These charges come from Muslims themselves and from their apologists on the Left. Even major news sites, such as The Guardian and Salon, frequently publish these attacks.
Let’s begin with your experience as a public figure. There are certain aspects of your journey about which you are repeatedly and unfairly attacked. I’d like to address three of them in particular. The first relates to a comment you once made in a talk about Anders Behring Breivik, the lunatic who massacred nearly a hundred young people in Norway. The second relates to your immigration interview in the Netherlands. The third is your affiliation with the American Enterprise Institute.
The reason why I think it’s important to deal with these personal attacks—apart from your being a dear friend—is that you are also an incredibly valuable symbol. Unlike almost any other person on earth, you have fully recapitulated the Enlightenment in your own life. You went from being a devout Muslim standing barefoot in a village in Somalia to being a secular Member of Parliament in the Netherlands in a few short years. It’s astonishing to me what you managed to accomplish and the speed with which you accomplished it. If I had been obliged to follow in your footsteps, I’d still be struggling to learn Dutch.
I also find it very depressing, and rather ominous, that liberal women are not celebrating you as the best example in a generation of what could and should happen for nearly a billion of their sisters currently living under Islam. Your lack of feminist allies is alarming. And the fact that so many liberals ditch their commitment to gender equality and attack you in the name of “religious sensitivity,” despite all that you’ve been through—making your life both less pleasant and more dangerous in the process—is just infuriating.
Hirsi Ali: Thank you, Sam. I’m very happy to talk to you. Well, on the topic of Breivik, it goes without saying that I was horrified by his actions. He is one of the worst mass murderers in history, and there’s no question about that. Like most people, I had never heard of him before he went on his killing spree. However, he did write a thousand-page manifesto in which he quoted John Stuart Mill and other thinkers, and even me. Trying to use other people to justify your own actions is not unusual in mass murderers. Osama bin Laden quoted Noam Chomsky with approval. Does that make Chomsky in any way culpable for the behavior of bin Laden? Of course not. Just as no one quoted by Breivik is responsible for him.
In any case, I gave a speech at an award ceremony in Berlin, in the spring of 2012, on the shortcomings of policies based on the theory of “multiculturalism,” and I said that Breivik was one deeply unfortunate product of these policies, as are the rising number of European jihadis. They are unintended products, to be sure, because multiculturalism is all about good intentions. But an analysis of Breivik’s writing and testimony shows that he complains bitterly of seeing no way to engage in politics other than to use violence. I also said that I have come across many other people who complained in this way. Instead of violence, for now, these people preach apathy, distrust of the system, and “white flight.” But it is all too easy to see the progression from this type of thinking to violence, and that is a very dangerous place for society to be. Sadly, in extreme cases, until something changes, I think we should expect more violence.
My remarks in Berlin were a plea to lift the iron curtain of political correctness so that citizens can engage in politics through peaceful means and debate, and thus channel their frustrations with immigration and Islam through the system. This is elementary political science—but, of course, Islamists and their friends on the Left have twisted my words to make me sound like I was applauding an atrocity. Multiculturalist policies and political correctness make it easier for radical Muslims to preach, inspire, mobilize, and target immigrant communities on the grounds of religious freedom. And those who criticize them in Europe are silenced or branded as racist Islamophobes. In the long run, you get more jihadist ghettoes and intolerant right-wing enclaves. That is the tragic outcome of decades of policies that had good intentions in theory, but in reality have instead cemented divisions between groups and bred too much insularity and mistrust. We cannot be so afraid of causing verbal offense that we lose the ability to have open debate—because that debate will still be had, but by less peaceful means.
Harris: The unfair treatment you’ve received on this point illustrates the terrible irony of Breivik’s existence: He was obsessed with the problem of Islam in Europe, but his psychopathic behavior has made that problem much more difficult to speak about. The man has been a gift to jihadists and Islamists everywhere.
Let’s talk about the misconceptions surrounding your asylum in the Netherlands.
Hirsi Ali: When I arrived in the Netherlands, in 1992, I misrepresented the year of my birth at my intake interview. I said I was born in 1967, but I was born in 1969. I also changed my grandfather’s name. In many tribal societies, instead of a surname you have a string of names—I am Ayaan; my father is Hirsi; and my father’s father, when he was born, was named Ali. But later on, when he grew up and became a warrior, he was called Magan (Somali for “protection” or “refuge”), because he protected some of the peoples whom he conquered. Magan is, basically, a nickname that he acquired later in life. Technically, I did not lie about Ali, because that was also his name. I used it deliberately, because I figured that if I could get this intake interview, then my father or the man he married me off to could come and say that they were looking for Ayaan Hirsi Magan, born November 13, 1969, and they would find me very easily. I wanted to prevent that, so I called myself Ayaan Hirsi Ali and changed my birth year to 1967. I was trying to cover my trail just enough that I wouldn’t have the fear of being immediately found. I had never before lived in a system where there were any protections put in place for me.
Harris: So you did this because you were afraid that someone would come to the Netherlands for the purpose of harming you?
Hirsi Ali: Oh, yes. Absolutely. I was terrified that either my father or some of our clansmen—or the man whom I had been married off to—would come looking for me and find me. And they did come! My ex-husband was accompanied by three other men when he showed up at the asylum center where I was. But by then I had been in the country for something like four to six months, and even in that very, very short period, I came to understand that I had rights.
On the day that they showed up, I went to the reception center and confessed everything to one of the people working there. Her name was Sylvia, and she said, “You don’t have to go with him if you don’t want to. You’re over the age of 18. In fact, here in the Netherlands, your marriage isn’t even recognized, because he is Canadian and the marriage took place somewhere else. So we will just protect you. I’ll simply call the police.” It was in this period that I found my independence. I had been able to live on my own for months, so I thought I could live on my own for longer.
I don’t know whether things have since changed, but back then, if you asked for asylum, a member of the legal-aid community was referred to your case to prepare you for your interview. I told my legal-aid lawyer about my forced marriage, and she said that it was not sufficient grounds for asylum and that I would have to come up with something else. So, based on the information she gave me, I adapted my story.
In 1992, the civil war in Somalia was at one of its worst points, and most European governments were giving asylum to Somalis. In fact, it was almost enough to just say that you were Somali. So, during my interview, instead of talking about my forced marriage, or about living in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Kenya, I just pretended I came straight from Somalia, and that I was fleeing the civil war.
Then, in 2002, the VVD, the liberal party, asked me to enter Parliament to help work on human rights issues related to Muslim immigrants—and I said yes. As a party, they give an in-depth interview to all potential MPs to determine whether there is anything in a person’s background that could produce a scandal. I was very honest with them and told them everything. The party leaders consulted lawyers to find out how problematic the details of my immigration might be, and the lawyers said, “Oh, no, voters will be far more interested in the fact that she has adapted so well to our society. No one will care about this white lie.”
So, when it became possible to tell the truth, I told the truth. Back in 2002, I was no longer afraid. I had found my way. I felt strong. I had a network of friends. So there was no need to keep up the lie. And since that time, I have given hundreds of interviews in which I have openly told the truth—that I had lived in other countries after Somalia and that I came to Holland fleeing a forced marriage.
The scandal arose only when the Minister of Immigration and Integration used what I had said in my original asylum interview as a political tool to take away my citizenship. The government forced her to give it back to me, and that’s what led to a political crisis. When she gave me back my citizenship, a member of a smaller coalition demanded that the minister resign, and threatened to pull out of the government. This coalition did pull out, and the government fell. That’s how that part of my life became a news story.
Harris: Clearly, you told the immigration officials what they needed to hear to ensure your own safety. You were fleeing people who scared you for reasons that are completely understandable. I don’t see how any serious person can hold this against you.
Hirsi Ali: They’re not holding it against me. It’s just an instrument. For a vilification campaign to be effective, you need material, and that’s one of the things they use. If she wasn’t always completely honest, then her statements about Islam must be a lie, too.
Harris: As though the claims you make about Islam are difficult to confirm. I sometimes think that it would be great, as an act of performance art, for you to come forward and say, “You caught me! I’ve been lying about Islam. Women have full equality with men under its doctrines—and there’s no problem for apostates or blasphemers either!”
Hirsi Ali: Yes—and honor killings, denying girls an education, denying women the right to leave their homes without permission from a male relative, performing marriages on girls as young as age 9, the continued practice of female genital mutilation for “purity,” the stoning of homosexuals, those are all just coincidences.
Harris: The last personal issue I want to address is your affiliation with the American Enterprise Institute. Tell me how you came to work at the AEI and why that made sense for you.
Hirsi Ali: Back in 2005, I already knew that I did not want a second term in the Dutch parliament. In my first term, I promised to address the issues of women’s rights and the integration of Muslims into Dutch society, and I felt that going back for a second term wouldn’t add much to what I had done already. In the Dutch system, you address a certain issue in one term and then you move to another issue in the next. But I didn’t want to move on to other issues. And I didn’t want a career in politics.
So I reached out to Cynthia Schneider, who had served under President Bill Clinton as ambassador to the Netherlands. I told her that I was going to be in New York, working on a book, and asked if she could introduce me to various think tanks, because I wanted to get back into academia. I also wanted to have a life, because in 2004 and 2005, the level of security that the Dutch government had me under was like living in a prison. It was also accompanied by considerable notoriety. I had paparazzi following me, and I couldn’t walk outside without being recognized. Holland is a very small country. I wanted a quiet life in academia, and I wanted to be safe.
So I approached Cynthia, and she took me to the Brookings Institute, and to Rand, and to Johns Hopkins, and to Georgetown—she took me to all these institutions, and there was no interest. They didn’t say it to my face, but I got the feeling that they were uncomfortable with what I had been saying about Islam.
Then, on the last day, just before I left the country, Cynthia suggested that we try the AEI. And I said something like “I can’t believe you’d take me there. It’s supposed to be a right-wing organization.” And she said, “Oh, come on. You Dutch people are too prejudiced against the U.S. Things here are really very different than you think. I was a Clinton appointee, and one of my best friends—one of Clinton’s best friends—Norm Ornstein, is there. So it’s not what you think it is. And it’s definitely not religious.”
So we went to the AEI, and I met with Norm Ornstein and a woman named Colleen Baughman, and they were so enthusiastic. They immediately introduced me to their president, who suggested that we talk again in a month. And we just kept talking. I spoke about my work; they told me about what they do. And I didn’t hear back from any of the other institutions that I had solicited.
Harris: So the truly mortifying answer to the question of why you are at the AEI is that no liberal institution would offer you shelter when you most needed it—and when your value to the global conversation about free speech, the rights of women, and other norms of civilization was crystal clear. And ever since, your affiliation with the one institution that did take you in has been used to defame you in liberal circles. Perfect.
Hirsi Ali: Well, it certainly seemed at the time that none of the other institutions were willing to talk about Islam in the way that I do—and specifically about its treatment of women.
Harris: And they still won’t. I consider this one of the great moral scandals of our time. How you’ve been treated reminds me of what many liberals did during the Salman Rushdie affair, blaming him for his recklessness in the face of the hair-trigger sensitivities of the Muslim community.
I’m a liberal by nearly every measure. Give me a list of liberal values and prejudices, and I will check almost every box.
Hirsi Ali: So will I.
Harris: But because of your association with the AEI, many people don’t know this about you. I remember what it was like when the Dutch government withdrew your security detail, and your friends—among whom I was very proud to count myself—were faced with the task of raising money to pay for your security. Without the AEI’s help at that moment, it would have been an even scarier time than it was. So the fact that liberals hold this affiliation against you is just shameful.
Hirsi Ali: I find it sad. And you should know that during all my interviews with the AEI and my subsequent years there, they’ve always understood that I’m a liberal. No one within the organization has tried to change my mind about anything—not about Islam, or euthanasia, or abortion, or religion, or gay rights, or any of the other things that many of my colleagues have problems with. They’ve never opposed my atheism or confronted me with anything I have said in public. It’s a wonderful institution.
Harris: As a relevant counterpoint, I should say that when I was raising money for your security, I got in touch with some of my contacts in the “moderate” Muslim community. In particular, I reached out to Reza Aslan, with whom I was on entirely cordial terms. I said, essentially, “Reza, wouldn’t it be great if the vast majority of Muslims who are moderate helped protect Ayaan from the minority who aren’t?” It seems to me undeniable that if people like Reza are going to argue that Islam is just like any other religion, they have a real interest in ensuring that people can safely criticize their faith—or even leave it.
But all Reza did was attack you as a bigot and deny, against all evidence, that you had any security concerns worth taking seriously. His response came as quite a shock to me, frankly. I was unprepared to encounter this level of moral blindness and ill will, especially at a moment when I was reaching out for help.
Hirsi Ali: Here’s the thing, Sam. Some moderate Muslims hate me—and yes, that’s a strong word, but I think what they’ve said supports it—because I make them feel uncomfortable. The things I talk about put them in a state of dissonance that they can’t live with. Many of them seem to hate me more than they hate al-Qaida.
Harris: Let’s explore why that might be the case, and turn to the subject of Islam in general. I doubt there is any daylight between us on this topic, but let’s go into it in some detail.
Hirsi Ali: When I read the work of my critics, whether it’s a blog or an article or a full book, they introduce me as a “controversial figure.” I’ve been trying to wrap my head around what I say, exactly, that makes me controversial.
Consider my views about the treatment of women under Islam. Where is the controversy? Can anyone argue that women are treated well in traditional Muslim societies? Under Islam, every woman is a second-class citizen. She can inherit only half as much as her brother. Her testimony in court—say, in the case of her own rape—is worth half that of her rapist. A Muslim woman has to ask a male guardian for permission to get married or have a child—in some places to even leave the house. And all these various oppressions are justified using the core texts of Islam: the Koran and the hadith. I’m amazed by the accusation that something I’ve said on this topic is controversial. It’s simply horrible to treat women like this. Is that a controversial thing to say? Is it controversial to say that men and women should be equal? I would have thought this was the most boring statement a person could make.
Harris: It certainly should be. That’s what is so crazy about this Islamophobia charge. The people who commit the worse offenses—the honor killers, the suicide bombers, the Taliban gunman who attempted to murder Malala Yousafzai—are absolutely clear about their motives and articulate them at every opportunity. They are motivated by Islam. Yes, other religions have problematic doctrines. We can even concede that the Old Testament is the most barbaric scripture of them all. But Christians and Jews don’t tend to take the worst of its passages seriously, for reasons that can be explained both by the centuries during which these Western faiths have been weathered by science and secularism and by crucial elements of their own theology. Most important, in my view, is the fact that Christianity and Judaism do not have clear doctrines of jihad, nor do they promise, ad nauseam, that martyrs go straight to Paradise. Islam is truly unique in this respect, which helps explain the fanaticism and violence we see throughout the Muslim world. Of course, your focus has been on the plight of women and girls under Islam, many millions of whom live in conditions that are antithetical to the most basic human happiness, as you know all too well. And the rationale for their oppression is drawn directly from scripture.
Hirsi Ali: Absolutely. And when I expose these oppressions, along with their cultural and religious underpinnings in Islam, I’m not doing it just to annoy people. I’m working in the hope that debating and discussing these issues is going to lead to some form of positive change. Even for the people who disagree with me—even for those who call me naïve or stupid—I remain hopeful that their thinking around these issues will change. Clearly, I’m not doing this work for the fun of it. I take absolutely no pleasure in talking about Islam at all.
In the Netherlands, where the debate was a little more intense because I was in Parliament, at some point my critics shifted from discussing the substance of these issues to “It’s not what you say, but how you say it. We agree, Ayaan, there’s this problem with treatment of women under Islam, but we just don’t like how you say it.” So we would get into these absurd conversations where I would say, “Okay. How exactly do you want me to say it?”
How can you say these things in a way that is inoffensive to the very people who think that women are second-class citizens? There is just no way. I am surprised sometimes that we cannot find more common ground. Liberals notice these same oppressions, but they attribute them solely to economics or politics.
Harris: That’s a point I really wanted us to cover. Most liberals think that religion is never the true source of a person’s bad behavior. Even when jihadists explicitly state their religious motivations—they believe that they have an obligation to kill apostates and blasphemers, and they want to get into Paradise—liberal academics, journalists, and politicians insist on looking for deeper reasons for their actions. However, when people give economic, political, or psychological reasons for doing whatever it is they do, everyone accepts those reasons at face value.
If a man murders his neighbor because he wants to steal his property and doesn’t want to leave a witness, everyone accepts the killer’s account of his actions. But when he says, as every jihadist does, that he was driven by a sense of religious obligation and a yearning for Paradise, liberals insist that the search for an underlying motive must continue. So the game is rigged. If you’re always going to look beneath a person’s religious convictions for something else, of course you’ll never see that religion is an important driver of human behavior.
Hirsi Ali: And that’s where it becomes truly painful. All these Western apologists, no matter where they are on the political spectrum—left, center, or right—are robbing Muslims of the opportunity to reflect. It is very, very difficult in Muslim households, communities, and countries to reflect on Islam. Such a process of introspection and self-criticism has led to the reformations we have seen in other religions—and it’s being denied to Muslims by this focus on economics, politics, and all these other variables that are, in many cases, the result of Islamic doctrine. For instance, there is a very strong case to be made that the desperate economic situation in the Middle East is largely a product of religion.
Harris: You’ve pointed out similar ironies before. The very people who call us bigots are practicing a bigotry of low expectations with respect to the Muslim community. For instance, when those cartoons came out in Denmark, the message from liberal politicians was that Islam is a peaceful and noble religion that should be respected and that the West has callously overindulged its freedom of speech. Meanwhile, these same leaders were busily ramping up security or simply closing their embassies in anticipation of violence in dozens of countries. As you’ve pointed out, secular liberals are not holding the Muslim community to the same standards of civility and reasonableness that they demand of everyone else.
Hirsi Ali: Absolutely. And if we want the Muslim community in America to feel truly American, we have to apply the same standards to them that we apply to everyone else.
We criticize the Catholic Church for its treatment of women, for its sheltering of pedophiles, and for other harms it has caused. And we do this for the purpose of improving people’s lives. But we’re not doing this for the Muslim community. Meanwhile, there’s this assumption that if you engage in satire, or even serious debate, Muslims will fly into a rage and commit acts of violence. It then becomes this perverse process whereby the people who imagine that they are protecting the feelings of Muslims are actually hurting the most vulnerable Muslims, who now don’t have a voice; they are making it more dangerous for women especially to come forward and say, look, sharia law is being applied in parts of the U.S. These women have a much harder time than Mormons, Jews, and Christians do. In any of these other communities, if a woman summons the courage to leave her husband, or her faith, she will find the rest of America on her side. But Muslim women have no one to talk to. Even to address an incident of domestic violence as a policeman, for instance, is to risk being branded a racist. This is one of the problems that we address at the AHA Foundation. We talk to pediatricians, policemen, and other service providers who worry about being perceived as bigots when responding to the obvious suffering of women and girls in the Muslim community. Naturally, these people would rather not be accused of what you and I are accused of all the time. So they generally take a hands-off approach.
Harris: You’ve just exposed another painful irony here. When our critics insist on cultural or religious “sensitivity,” imagining that they are protecting a vulnerable population, they are really protecting thuggish men who are oppressing women, spreading hate, and stifling freedom of thought within their own communities and freedom of expression everywhere else. Anyone who likens the criticism of Islam as a doctrine to a hatred of Muslims as people—or to anti-Semitism, racism, and other forms of bigotry—has made it more difficult for Muslims who are truly suffering to speak about their problems. It never ceases to amaze me that when one complains about Muslim theocrats abusing Muslim women and freethinkers, one inevitably gets accused of anti-Muslim bigotry.
It will probably seem tendentious to many readers for me to put it this way, but our critics are just dishonest. Which reminds me of something you said at the end of one of your public lectures: Someone was challenging you and insisting that Islam is no different from every other religion, and I think you said something like “If it’s the same as every other religion, why do I have to walk around with armed bodyguards?”
Hirsi Ali: Yes, yes. I think that was at the Intelligence Squared debate with Douglas Murray, three years ago.
Harris: Those kinds of reversals are often hilarious, and they ought to flat out end the argument. When the journalist Glenn Greenwald attacked me as an Islamophobe, insisting that my concerns about Islam were both irrational and a symptom of my own bigotry and white privilege, I responded by challenging him on Twitter to a duel of cartoon contests. He could hold one for Islam, and I would hold one for any other religion on earth. That shut him up immediately.
This disparity between Islam and every other religion is so obvious, in fact, that it is somehow considered a low blow to point it out. However, it remains the case that only the Muslim community reliably threatens its critics with violence—not just in the Middle East, but everywhere. Having observed the risks and hassles you’ve had to endure because of this, I find liberal obscurantism on this point just maddening.
Hirsi Ali: There’s also a sophisticated and well-financed radical Muslim lobby that is engaged on this front. These groups, including even so-called mainstream ones like CAIR, have found that people in the West are highly sensitive to accusations of racism. I’ll give you a concrete example: A couple of years ago, in El Cajon, California, an Iraqi woman named Shaima Alawadi was beaten to death. Her own daughter found her dying in a pool of blood. Beside her body was a note that read, “You terrorists, go home.” The interesting part of this case is that CAIR and other Muslim organizations pounced on it and started campaigning against Islamophobia and racism—explicitly linking it to the Trayvon Martin case. On the flimsy basis of this note, there were campaigns called “Hijabs and Hoodies.” And they succeeded in marketing it as a hate crime. Weeks later, of course, the husband was arrested. And just yesterday he was convicted of murdering his wife. She had asked for a divorce, so he beat her to death with a tire iron. It was a plain honor killing.
This sort of thing happens in the U.S., and CAIR and these other organizations don’t say a word about it. When they attack me, they sometimes concede that honor killings, female genital mutilation, and other acts of oppression are legitimate concerns—but somehow the most pressing issue is to silence people like me. And this is where they direct their energy and resources.
Harris: I have long considered CAIR to be an Islamist pressure group masquerading as a human rights organization. Is that too paranoid a description? The moment one says that a person or group is pretending to be one thing while trying to advance an Islamist agenda by stealth, one begins to sound like a right-wing crackpot. What do you think is true in the case of CAIR?
Hirsi Ali: Again, reasonable people need only look at the evidence. CAIR and these other organizations have mission statements, and these statements make it very clear that their agenda is to spread Islam. Initially, CAIR was collecting money for Hamas, and they were exposed for this during the Holy Land Foundation trial. They evolved and started to change their messaging, but today they are basically an arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. This isn’t something that frightened people are just making up. It’s right there in their own paperwork.
Harris: I guess the most amazing thing, from my point of view, is that secular liberals act as though a person’s deeply held religious or moral beliefs do not matter.
Hirsi Ali: Well, they seem to make the greatest exceptions for Muslims.
Harris: Correct. In almost every other context, everyone understands that a person’s beliefs largely determine his behavior. For instance, last week, a former grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan murdered three people outside a Jewish community center in Kansas. This man spent his entire adult life espousing his hatred for Jews, and upon his arrest he shouted, “Heil Hitler.” There is not a person on earth at this moment who is wondering whether his beliefs about Jews were the effective cause of his behavior. And yet, if he had been a Muslim shouting “Allahu Akbar,” most liberals would say that his behavior had nothing to do with his religious beliefs.
Hirsi Ali: That’s the paradox of their argument. I saw someone being interviewed by CNN who made exactly the same statement, to the opposite effect: “If he had shouted ‘Allahu Akbar,’ we would spend so much time and money worrying about jihadist terrorism, when we face a much bigger threat from white-supremacist hatred in this country.” Which, obviously, is empirically not true.
Harris: Especially if one considers the global reality of jihadist violence, the incredibly destructive aspirations of groups like al-Qaeda, the eagerness of their members to be martyred, and the support they have from millions of otherwise ordinary people in the Muslim community. The Ku Klux Klan and other white-power groups are a fringe phenomenon. But how many Muslims truly believe that apostates should be put to death? Is it 300 million? Or is it triple that number? It’s just a false comparison.
Hirsi Ali: And yet that is the way the comparison is used. Clearly, everyone understands that this white supremacist was driven by his beliefs. But for Muslims, we make excuses. And we ignore the fact that the idea of jihad is backed even by rich Muslim states like Saudi Arabia and Iran, and that Islamist movements across the world are destabilizing international politics, from Africa to Asia. You mentioned the Boko Haram in Nigeria that abducted more than 200 girls from their school. I’m going to quote from the reporting of PBS’s NewsHour, hardly a place of conspiracy theories and extremism: “Boko Haram insurgents have been trying for at least five years to turn Nigeria into a strict Islamic state. Lately, they have stepped up attacks on communities, most recently by burning a school and bombing a bus station in addition to the abductions.” The reporter, Larisa Epatko, goes on to say, that prior to the latest and largest school abduction, Human Rights Watch documented the kidnapping of women and young girls from the streets of Maiduguri in November. Boko Haram fighters would brazenly pick up the girl of their choice and throw a bit of money at the parents and declare they had taken the girl as a wife. And Human Rights Watch says the fighters are now using these women and girls “to take the place of their wives for domestic chores or sexual services.” How can speaking out about these kinds of atrocities possibly be seen as an assault on Islam?
Harris: One thing we should say at this point is that neither of us is arguing that Islam is the only source of terrorism or sectarian conflict. In fact, Islam doesn’t even have a monopoly on suicidal violence. Consider the kamikaze pilots in World War II, or the Tamil Tigers of Ceylon. Of course, these examples are frequently submitted as proof that suicide bombing has nothing, in principle, to do with Islam. But that is a logical fallacy. We can freely acknowledge that there are other paths to becoming a suicide bomber without denying the link between jihadist violence and the doctrine of Islam. Also, the kamikazes and the Tamil Tigers were local and idiosyncratic phenomena—and they no longer exist. With jihadism, we are talking about a worldwide movement supported by a theology that is accepted by most Muslims. What’s more, this ideology is contagious.
We now have myriad examples of ordinary Westerners becoming convinced of the necessity of waging jihad because they have converted to Islam. If they became Buddhists or Scientologists, there would be no possibility of their acquiring this belief. Again, we’re not talking about a distortion of the “true” Islam. The ideology that gives us jihadism is arguably the most plausible version of the faith available, according to an honest reading of the scriptures. That’s why millions of people venerate jihadis as martyrs when they die. Presumably, many of these people would never wage jihad themselves, but they understand it to be a central tenet of their religion. Similarly, I trust that most Muslims would not personally murder one of the Danish cartoonists, but vast numbers of them—a majority in many countries—would consider such a murder fully justified.
In fact, you’re in a position to talk about this with some authority, because you used to share this mind-set. Remind our readers how you felt about Salman Rushdie when you were twenty.
Hirsi Ali: I think of myself back then as analogous to a sheep. Everyone in my community believed that Rushdie had to die. After all, he had insulted the Prophet. I believed that if you insult the Prophet, well, then you have to face the consequences—which means you have to be killed. I didn’t question the merits of that idea. I thought it was moral for Ayatollah Khomeini to take steps to ensure that this apostate who had insulted the Prophet would be punished, and the appropriate punishment was death. I didn’t make that up, of course, and I didn’t just get the idea from my friends; it came from scripture and from my religious teachers.
Harris: Funny enough, that was something you had in common with Cat Stevens. Incredibly, it’s possible for a Western rock star, who has every advantage in life, to acquire such a view. And this is not an accident. Death for apostasy really is a tenet of Islam.
Hirsi Ali: Yes, absolutely. But I think the good news is that an increasing number of Muslims are growing uncomfortable with Muhammad and the Koran as moral guides. I don’t know if you recall the story of Hamza Kashgari, the twenty-three-year-old Saudi journalist who tweeted something like “Muhammad, I love you, but I’m not sure I follow everything you said.”
Harris: Yes, I remember.
Hirsi Ali: Everyone called for his death, and he fled. The Saudi government used its influence to get him back from Malaysia. But recently I heard that he was quietly released from prison. Examples like these reveal that I’m not the only one who has questioned the morality of her father’s and mother’s religion. More Muslims in more places are doing it.
I’ve been following what has been called the Arab Spring and its aftermath as closely as I can. Right now, in Tunisia, you have a face-off between people who want sharia law and people who don’t—all of them Muslims. In Egypt, we saw the same thing. They demonstrated against the first elected Muslim government, and there was a coup. But what this shows is that a substantial number of Muslims in Egypt do not want to live under sharia. And yet they think of themselves as Muslims. So, is there hope? Yes.
Muslims who do not want to live under sharia law are attempting to separate religion from politics. But they won’t be able to do that unless they address these doctrinal issues. They won’t be able to win the argument against the Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, because like every other Islamist or jihadist organization, the Brotherhood is delivering a message consistent with what’s really in the Koran and the hadith. If you want to stand up to these people, you have to address the doctrine. You have to look at the Koran and say that there are parts of it you don’t consider moral anymore.
Harris: Which is obviously a very heavy lift. It requires that Muslims repudiate some of the central doctrines of their faith.
One thing I think we should concede is that the political grievances of Islamists, and even jihadists, are often perfectly understandable—or at least they would be understandable if these people weren’t being driven morally insane by their religious beliefs. Take Boko Haram, for instance: The Nigerian state is hopelessly corrupt. Who wouldn’t want to rebel against a government that has stolen something like half a trillion dollars from the people? But what explains the fact that these particular rebels are now kidnapping girls and blowing up children in their schools? The explanation is simple: Members of Boko Haram are not merely at war with a corrupt state. They are at war with what they consider the sin of Western-inspired secularism—and this delusional commitment is the direct result of their religious beliefs. So Western liberals are right to point out that corrupt dictatorships, which our governments often support, are part of the problem. But many of the people who are inclined to rebel against these dictatorships want to replace them with theocracies. The alternative to authoritarianism is often worse, given what the people believe about God.
Hirsi Ali: In a way, it’s easier for Muslims and their friends on the Left to go after people like me and you than it is to go after Boko Haram, the Muslim Brotherhood, or any of these other groups who say they are going to fight corruption by creating some kind of puritanical utopia based on scripture, because moderate Muslims share the teachings of the Koran and hadith. So, intellectually, they never get beyond the point of saying, “Oh, those passages have been misinterpreted.” That’s as far as they ever go.
The reason the so-called Muslim “extremists” are so successful at recruiting, keeping, inspiring, and mobilizing people—and then finally getting them to wage jihad—is that what they’re saying is fully consistent with the teachings of Muhammad. For an intelligent 20-something-year-old, if you say, “Don’t believe me; just read it in the Koran,” he will understand. And then he must make a choice. He must choose whether to stick with Islam or not. And those who stick with it tend to get sucked into this way of life. The moderates don’t do anything about this. They just come after people like you and me.
Harris: But this is the core issue: The moderates can’t reasonably claim to be representing Islam, because the faith has no truly moderate wing. There’s no branch of Islam that says, “Say whatever you want about our Prophet. He’s a big boy. He can take it!” Unlike Christianity and Judaism, every branch of Islam insists that scripture is infallible and that apostasy is a serious crime. Where are the moderate Muslims who will honestly discuss the gravity of this problem? Where are the moderates who have grasped its implications, realized that they are calamitous, and are working to transform Islam itself?
I’d like to recall a point that Paul Berman made in his great book, Terror and Liberalism. I think he was specifically talking about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but it applies across the board. He pointed out that liberals tend to assume that people everywhere want the same things and that they behave badly only when they’re treated badly. (Of course, this applies only to powerless people; people with power can more or less be counted on to be evil.) This liberal intuition suggests that if one sees otherwise powerless people acting in extraordinarily barbaric ways—practicing suicidal terrorism against noncombatants or using human shields, for instance—they must have some commensurately enormous grievances against the people they’re attacking. Thus, the nihilistic behavior of some Palestinians can only be explained by how extraordinarily badly they’re being oppressed by the Israelis. The same holds for 9/11 or any other jihadist atrocity—the fault must lie with Israel or U.S. foreign policy, because nothing else could account for the willingness of ordinary Muslims to murder innocent civilians and throw their own lives away so casually in the process.
Hirsi Ali: Yes, and every time there’s an incident, that reasoning is torn apart. Look at the Boston bombers: The brother who’s alive now and on trial clearly says that he was moved to act in this way by his religious convictions as a Muslim. He says, “As Muslims, we are one body. If you hurt one, you hurt everyone else.” And yet for a full year, we have heard the most ridiculous analysis about how this was a dysfunctional family. There are dysfunctional families all over the world—why doesn’t every one of them produce this type of violence?
Harris: The Boston bombing was an especially interesting case for me because I had just had a very public fight with Glenn Greenwald over his tarring me as an Islamophobe. Ten days later bombs exploded in Boston, and in the immediate aftermath, Greenwald wrote another silly article saying how terrible it was that there had been a rush to judgment defaming Islam.
Apart from one Saudi man who was briefly a suspect, not only was there no rush to judgment but we still can’t get people to admit that this was jihad. People seem to imagine that ethnic Chechens who were devoted to Islam could have a thousand motives for murdering and maiming their neighbors in Boston. The Tsarnaev brothers had every reason to be grateful for their chance to live in America. They had received a lot of help from this country and were living far better than they would have in Chechnya. Given their religious beliefs, however, it is no mystery that they felt a murderous hatred for infidels and a kinship with jihadists everywhere. Rather than a rush to judgment against Islam, we still see this commitment to discounting the role that its doctrines played in their thinking, even a full year after the bombing—and even with the surviving brother, Dzhokhar, still rattling on about jihad.
Everyone reports that the brothers were motivated by our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—the implication being that U.S. foreign policy is to blame. And yet, as you point out, the only plausible reason that a Chechen American would murder innocent people in protest over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would be that he accepted the Islamic doctrine of jihad. Islam is under attack. The infidels have invaded Muslim lands—these grievances are not political. They are religious.
Hirsi Ali: It makes you wonder, when the surviving brother repeatedly says he was waging jihad, why hasn’t there been a single headline calling it jihad?
Harris: I remember what it was like to not know who had set those bombs and to wonder whether it was a homegrown terrorist like Timothy McVeigh or some other psychopath who had no connection to Islam. Everyone seemed poised to use this case to show that all forms of violence are equivalent, and that Islam really isn’t ever the problem.
But if the Boston Marathon bombing had been the work of someone like Timothy McVeigh, that wouldn’t exonerate Islam for all the other crimes that are clearly linked to its central doctrines—of which, once again, Muslims are the most frequent victims. Some young Sunni will wake up tomorrow morning, and despite the fact that he has other prospects in life—and probably a wife and 4.2 children—he will blow himself up in a Shia mosque somewhere. This act will have nothing to do with U.S. foreign policy. It will be based entirely on his belief that Shiites are apostates and that a person can get to Paradise by killing them.
Hirsi Ali: You know, Organization of the Islamic Conference countries send diplomats to the West to dictate what our newspapers may or may not write about Islam—restricting the use of the word “jihad,” for instance. That’s what I find so ridiculous: The leaders of these governments work harder at censoring the media in the U.S. and Europe than they do at addressing the problem of jihadis in their own countries.
Harris: And, of course, many of these states—Saudi Arabia in particular—actively export the ideology of jihadism and Salafi-style Islamism to mosques all over the world.
Hirsi Ali: And sadly, both Western governments and the Western press stay silent.
Harris: Well, Ayaan, I think we’ve gotten ourselves sufficiently worked up. There are surely many other things we could talk about, but this has already been a very long conversation, so I think we should leave it here. Thank you for taking the time to do this. I know that I speak for thousands of our readers in wishing you the greatest happiness and encouraging you to keep up your important work. When I announced that I would be speaking with you this week, many people wrote to me asking how they can support you. I believe I can answer that question: They can donate to your foundation and they can read your wonderful books. I hope they will do both. Thanks again, Ayaan.
Hirsi Ali: Thank you, Sam. It was great speaking with you.
(Photo via h.koppdelaney)
Dan Harris is a co-anchor of Nightline and the weekend edition of Good Morning America on ABC News. He has reported from all over the world, covering wars in Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine, and Iraq, and producing investigative reports in Haiti, Cambodia, and the Congo. He has also spent many years covering religion in America, despite the fact that he is agnostic.
Dan’s new book, 10 Percent Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works—A True Story, hit #1 on the New York Times best-seller list.
Dan was kind enough to discuss the practice of meditation with me for this page.
Sam: One thing I love about your book—admittedly, somewhat selfishly—is that it’s exactly the book I would want people to read before Waking Up comes out in the fall. You approach the topic of meditation with serious skepticism—which, as you know, is an attitude that my readers share to an unusual degree. Perhaps you can say something about this. How did you view the practice in the beginning?
Dan: I was incredibly skeptical about meditation. I thought it was for people who lived in yurts or collected crystals or had too many Cat Stevens records. And I was bred for this kind of doubt. My parents are both physicians and scientists at academic hospitals in the Boston area, and my wife is also a scientist and a physician. I was raised in a very secular environment. I had a Bar Mitzvah, but that was mostly because I wanted the money and the social acceptance. My parents were also recovering hippies who made me go to a yoga class when I was a little kid. The teacher didn’t like the jeans I was wearing, so she forced me to take them off and do Sun Salutations in my tighty-whities in front of all the other kids.
Sam: Rarely has the connection between yoga and child abuse been illustrated so clearly.
Dan: No doubt. And the result was that not only was I skeptical about anything bordering on the metaphysical, which I assumed meditation involved, but I had a long-standing aversion to anything touchy-feely or New Agey. Meditation seemed like the quintessence of everything I was most wary of.
Sam: For those who are unfamiliar with meditation—in particular, the practice of mindfulness that we are discussing—I have described it in a previous article on my blog and also posted some guided meditations that many people have found helpful. But, in essence, we are talking about the practice of paying very careful, non-judgmental attention to the contents of consciousness in the present moment. Usually one begins by focusing on the sensation of breathing, but eventually the practice opens to include the full field of experience—other sensations in the body, sounds, emotions, even thoughts themselves. The trick, however, is not to spend one’s time lost in thought.
How did you get started practicing mindfulness, and what was your first experience like?
Dan: Well, the thing that got me to open my mind just a crack was hearing about the science. I think that’s true for a lot of people who have given it a try of late. You hear about the science that says it can do some pretty extraordinary things to your brain and your body: lowering your blood pressure, boosting your immune system, thickening the gray matter in parts of the brain that have to do with self-awareness and compassion, and decreasing the gray matter in the areas associated with stress. That’s all really compelling. I work out because I want to take care of my health, and meditation seemed like it could fall in the same bucket. But my first taste of it was miserable. I set an alarm for five minutes and had a full-on collision with the zoo that is my mind. It was really hard.
Sam: People who haven’t tried to meditate have very little sense that their minds are noisy at all. And when you tell them that they’re thinking every second of the day, it generally doesn’t mean anything to them. It certainly doesn’t strike most of them as pathological. When these people try to meditate, they have one of two reactions: Some are so restless and besieged by doubts that they can hardly attempt the exercise. “What am I doing sitting here with my eyes closed? What is the point of paying attention to the breath?” And, strangely, their resistance isn’t remotely interesting to them. They come away, after only a few minutes, thinking that the act of paying close attention to their experience is pointless.
But then there are the people who have an epiphany similar to yours, where the unpleasant realization that their minds are lurching all over the place becomes a goad to further inquiry. Their inability to pay sustained attention—to anything—becomes interesting to them. And they recognize it as pathological, despite the fact that almost everyone is in the same condition.
Dan: I love your description. Interestingly enough, the door had opened for me before I tried meditation, in the most unexpected way. One of my assignments at ABC News had been to cover basic spirituality. So I had picked up a book by a self-help guru by the name of Eckhart Tolle, who has sold millions of books and is beloved by Oprah. I had read his book not because I thought it would be personally useful to me but because I was considering doing a story on him. Nestled within all his grandiloquent writing and pseudoscientific claims—and just overall weirdness—was a diagnosis of the human condition, which you just articulated quite well, that kind of blew my mind.
It’s this thunderous truism: We all know on some level that we are thinking all the time, that we have this voice in our heads, and the nature of this voice is mostly negative. It’s also repetitive and ceaselessly self-referential. We walk around in this fog of memory about the past and anticipation of a future that may or may not arrive in the form in which we imagine it. This observation seemed to describe me. I realized that the things I’d done in my life that I was most ashamed of had been as a result of having thoughts, impulses, urges, and emotions that I didn’t have the wherewithal to resist. So when I sat down and had that first confrontation with the voice in my head, I knew from having read Eckhart Tolle that it wasn’t going to be pretty, and I was motivated to do something about it.
Sam: Why didn’t you just become a student of Tolle’s?
Dan: I think that Eckhart Tolle is correct, but not useful. I’m stealing that distinction from the meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg. I think his diagnosis is correct, but he doesn’t give you anything to do about it, at least that I could ascertain. He has sold millions of books about “spiritual awakening.” If he were truly useful, we should have a reasonable population of awakened people walking around, and I’m just not seeing them. I found Tolle to be both extraordinarily interesting and extraordinarily frustrating. The lack of any concrete advice was really the source of my frustration, alongside the aforementioned weirdness. I think Tolle deserves credit for articulating a truth of the human condition extremely well. But I also think that it’s a legitimate criticism to say he doesn’t give you anything to do about it.
Sam: It’s interesting that you mention Tolle, because when someone asks me for the two-second summary of my new book, I’m often tempted to say, “It’s Eckhart Tolle for smart people”—that is, people who suspect that something important can be discovered about consciousness through introspection, but who are allergic to the pseudoscience and irrationality that generally creeps into every New Age discussion of this truth. I haven’t read much of Tolle, but I suspect that I largely agree with his view of the subjective insights that come once we recognize the nature of consciousness prior to thought. The self that we all think we have riding around inside our heads is an illusion—and one that can disappear when examined closely. What’s more, we’re much better off psychologically when it does. But from the little reading I’ve done of Tolle, I can see that he also makes some embarrassing claims about the nature of the cosmos—claims that are unjustified both scientifically and philosophically.
However, in the man’s defense, this lack of usefulness you mention is not unique to him. It’s hard to talk about the illusoriness of the self or the non-dual nature of consciousness in a way that makes sense to people.
Dan: You know, I’ve read a little bit about non-duality, but I still don’t fully understand the distinction you’re making. I know you’re supposed to be interviewing me, but I would love to hear more about this from you. I’ve wanted to ask you this question for a long time. What is the non-dual critique of gradual approaches like mindfulness?
Sam: I think the best way to communicate this is by analogy. Everyone has had the experience of looking through a window and suddenly catching sight of his own reflection staring back at him from the glass. At that point, he can use the glass as a window, to see the world outside, or as a mirror, but he can’t do both at the same time.
Sometimes your reflection in the glass is pretty subtle, and you could easily stand there for ten minutes, looking outside while staring right through the image of your own face without seeing it.
For the purposes of this analogy, imagine that the goal of meditation is to see your own reflection clearly in each moment. Most spiritual traditions don’t realize that this can be done directly, and they articulate their paths of practice in ways that suggest that if you only paid more attention to everything beyond the glass—trees, sky, traffic—eventually your face would come into view. Looking out the window is arguably better than closing your eyes or leaving the room entirely—at least you are facing in the right direction—but the practice is based on a fundamental misunderstanding. You don’t realize that you are looking through the very thing you are trying to find in every moment. Given better information, you could just walk up to the window and see your face in the first instant.
The same is true for the illusoriness of the self. Consciousness is already free of the feeling that we call “I.” However, a person must change his plane of focus to realize this. Some practices can facilitate this shift in awareness, but there is no truly gradual path that leads there. Many longtime meditators seem completely unaware that these two planes of focus exist, and they spend their lives looking out the window, as it were. I used to be one of them. I’d stay on retreat for a few weeks or months at a time, being mindful of the breath and other sense objects, thinking that if I just got closer to the raw data of experience, a breakthrough would occur. Occasionally, a breakthrough did occur: In a moment of seeing, for instance, there would be pure seeing, and consciousness would appear momentarily free of any feeling to which the notion of a “self” could be attached. But then the experience would fade, and I couldn’t get back there at will. There was nothing to do but return to meditating dualistically on contents of consciousness, with self-transcendence as a distant goal.
However, from the non-dual side, ordinary consciousness—the very awareness that you and I are experiencing in this conversation—is already free of self. And this can be pointed out directly, and recognized again and again, as one’s only form of practice. So gradual approaches are, almost by definition, misleading. And yet this is where everyone starts.
In criticizing this kind of practice, someone like Eckhart Tolle is echoing the non-dualistic teachings one finds in traditions such as Advaita Vedanta, Zen (sometimes), and Dzogchen. Many of these teachings can sound paradoxical: You can’t get there from here. The self that you think you are isn’t going to meditate itself into a new condition. This is true, but as Sharon says, it’s not always useful. The path is too steep.
Of course, this non-dual teaching, too, can be misleading—because even after one recognizes the intrinsic selflessness of consciousness, one still has to practice that recognition. So there is a point to meditation after all—but it isn’t a goal-oriented one. In each moment of real meditation, the self is already transcended.
Dan: So should I stop doing my mindfulness meditation?
Sam: Not at all. Though I think you could be well served if you ever had the opportunity to study the Tibetan Buddhist practice of Dzogchen.
Dan: Joseph Goldstein, who’s a friend to both of us, recently put out this supplement to daily practice where he says, “Listen to all the sounds that arise in your consciousness and then try to find who or what is hearing them.” I find that when I do that, I’m directed into a space completely different from the one I arrive at when I’m sitting there watching my breath. I’m wondering if that is the kind of shift in attention you’re talking about. Is that what you would recommend as a way to bridge the gap you’ve just described?
Sam: Yes. Looking for the mind, or the thinker, or the one who is looking, is often taught as a preliminary exercise in Dzogchen, and it gets your attention pointed in the right direction. It’s different from focusing on the sensation of breathing. You’re simply turning attention upon itself—and this can provoke the insight I’m talking about. It’s possible to look for the one who is looking and to find, conclusively, that no one is there to be found.
People who have done a lot of meditation practice, who know what it’s like to concentrate deeply on an object like the breath, often develop a misconception that the truth is somewhere deep within. But non-duality is not deep. It’s right on the surface. This is another way the window analogy works well: Your reflection is not far away. You just need to know where to look for it. It’s not a matter of going deeper and deeper into subtlety until your face finally reveals itself. It is literally right before your eyes in every moment. When you turn attention upon itself and look for the thinker of your thoughts, the absence of any center to consciousness can be glimpsed immediately. It can’t be found by going deeper. To go deep—into the breath or any other phenomenon you can notice—is to start looking out the window at the trees.
The trick is to become sensitive to what consciousness is like the instant you try to turn it upon itself. In that first instant, there’s a gap between thoughts that can grow wider and become more salient. The more it opens, the more you can notice the character of consciousness prior to thought. This is true whether it’s ordinary consciousness—you standing bleary-eyed in line at Starbucks—or you’re in the middle of a three-month retreat and your body feels like it’s made of light. It simply doesn’t matter what the contents of consciousness are. The self is an illusion in any case.
It’s also useful to do this practice with your eyes open, because vision seems to anchor the feeling of subject/object duality more than any other sense. Most of us feel quite strongly that we are behind our eyes, looking out at a world that is over there. But the truth—subjectively speaking; I’m not making a claim about physics—is that everything is just appearing in consciousness. Losing the sense of subject/object duality with your eyes open can be the most vivid way to experience this shift in perception. That’s why Dzogchen practitioners tend to meditate with their eyes open.
Dan: So I would look at something and ask myself who is seeing it?
Sam: Yes—but it’s not a matter of verbally asking yourself the question. The crucial gesture is to attempt to turn attention upon itself and notice what changes in that first instant. Again, it’s not a matter of going deep within. You don’t have to work up to this thing. It’s a matter of looking for the looker and in that first moment noticing what consciousness is like. Once you notice that it is wide open and unencumbered by the feeling of self, that very insight becomes the basis of your mindfulness.
Dan: The way you describe it, it’s a practice. I get it. Tolle and the other non-dual thinkers I’ve heard talk aren’t telling us what to do. You’re actually giving me something clear and easy to understand. I think you could use that as a complement to and perhaps even a replacement for the mindfulness practice that stabilizes your attention and helps you recognize that you have an inner life worth focusing on in the first place.
Sam: That’s right. Mindfulness is necessary for any form of meditation. So there’s no contradiction. But there remains something paradoxical about non-dual teachings, because the thing you’re glimpsing is already true of consciousness. Consciousness is already without the sense of self.
Most people feel that the self is real and that they’re going to somehow unravel it—or, if it’s an illusion, it is one that requires a protracted process of meditation to dispel. One gets the sense in every dualistic approach that there’s nothing to notice in the beginning but the evidence of one’s own unenlightenment. Your mind is a mess that must be cleaned up. You’re at the base of the mountain, and there’s nothing to do but schlep to the top.
The non-dual truth is that consciousness is already free of this thing we think we have in our heads—the ego, the thinker of thoughts, the grumpy homunculus. And the intrinsic selflessness of consciousness can be recognized, right now, before you make any effort to be free of the self through goal-oriented practice. Once you have recognized the way consciousness already is, there is still practice to do, but it’s not the same as just logging your miles of mindfulness on the breath or any other object of perception.
Dan: I appreciate what you’re saying, but it seems to present a communication challenge or PR problem. I think most people will buy the basic argument for mindfulness. We all know that we eat when we’re not hungry, check our email when we’re supposed to be listening to our kids, or lose our temper, and then we regret these things later. We all know that we’re yanked around by our emotions. So most people will readily see the value of having more self-awareness so that they can have more—for lack of a better term—emotional intelligence. However, I don’t know that it will be readily apparent to most people why it would be desirable to see the self as an illusion. I don’t even know that most people have considered the nature of the self at all, because I certainly hadn’t. So to ask them to take the further step of considering whether it is an illusion—that requires a lot of work to even wrap your head around. That seems to me to be one of the big issues for non-dualists.
Sam: I agree. It’s a more esoteric concern, almost by definition—but it’s a more fundamental one as well. It’s the distinction between teaching mindfulness in a clinical or self-help context—whether to the Marines, to enhance their performance, or as a form of stress reduction in a hospital or a psychotherapy practice—and going on silent retreat for months in the hope of recapitulating the insights of a great contemplative like the Buddha. Some people really want to get to the root of the problem. But most just want to feel better and achieve more in their lives. There’s nothing wrong with that—until one realizes that there is something wrong with it. The wolf never quite leaves the door.
Ultimately, no matter how much you improve your game, you still have a problem that seems to be structured around this feeling you call “I”—which, strangely, is not quite identical to this body of yours that is growing older and less reliable by the hour. You still feel that you are this always-ready-to-be-miserable center of consciousness that is perpetually driven to do things in the hope of feeling better.
And if you’re practicing mindfulness or some other form of meditation as a remedy for this discomfort, you are bound to approach it in the same dilemma-based way that you approach everything else in life. You’re out of shape, so you go to the gym. You feel a little run down, so you go to the doctor. You didn’t get enough sleep, so you drink an extra cup of coffee. We’re constantly bailing water in this way. Mindfulness becomes a very useful tool to help yourself feel better, but it isn’t fundamentally different from any of these other strategies when we use it that way.
For instance, many of us hate to be late and find ourselves rushing at various points in the day. This is a common pattern for me: I get uptight about being late, and I can feel the cortisol just dump into my bloodstream. It’s possible to practice mindfulness as a kind of remedy for this problem—to notice the feeling of stress dispassionately, and to disengage from one’s thoughts about it—but it is very hard to escape the sense that one is using mindfulness as an antidote and trying to meditate the unpleasant feelings away. Technically, it’s not true mindfulness at that point, but even when one is really balanced with one’s attention, there is still the feeling that one is patiently contemplating one’s own neurosis. It is another thing entirely to recognize that there is no self at the center of this storm in the first place.
The illusoriness of the self is potentially of great interest to everyone, because this false construct really is our most basic problem in every moment. But there is no question that this truth is harder to communicate than the benefits of simply being more self-aware, less reactive, more concentrated, and so forth.
Dan: This is exactly why my book is a great prologue to yours.
Sam: Absolutely. And you’ve written a book that I could never have written. I became interested in meditation relatively early in life. I was a skeptical person, but I was only 19, so I didn’t have all the reasons you had to be skeptical when you first approached the practice. Nor did I have a career, so I wasn’t coming from the same fascinating context in which you recognized that something was wrong with your approach to life. I think your book will be incredibly useful to people.
Can you say something about what it was like to go on retreat for the first time? What sort of resistance did you have? And what was it like to punch through it?
Dan: I blame the entire experience on you. It was largely your idea, and you got me into the retreat—which, to my surprise, was hard to get into. I had no idea that so many people wanted to sign up for ten days of no talking, vegetarian food, and 12 hours a day of meditation, which sounded like a perfect description of one of the inner circles of Dante’s Inferno to me.
As you can gather from the previous sentences, I did not look forward to the experience at all. However, I knew as a budding meditator that this was the next step to take. When we met backstage at the debate you and Michael Shermer did with Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston, which I moderated for Nightline, I realized for the first time that you were a meditator. You recommended that I go on this retreat, and it was almost as if I’d received a dare from a cool kid I admired. I felt like I really needed to do this. It was as horrible as I’d thought it would be for a couple of days. On day four or five I thought I might quit, but then I had a breakthrough.
Sam: Describe that breakthrough. What shifted?
Dan: As I say in the book, it felt as if I had been dragged by my head by a motorboat for a few days, and then, all of the sudden, I got up on water skis. When you’re hauled kicking and screaming into the present moment, you arrive at an experience of the mind that is, at least for me, totally new. I could see very clearly the ferocious rapidity of the mind—how fast we’re hearing, seeing, smelling, feeling, wanting—and that this is our life. We are on the receiving end of this fire hose of mental noise. That glimpse ushered in the happiest 36 hours of my life. But, as the Buddha liked to point out, nothing lasts—and that did not last.
Sam: It’s amazing to realize for the first time that your life doesn’t get any better than your mind is: You might have wonderful friends, perfect health, a great career, and everything else you want, and you can still be miserable. The converse is also true: There are people who basically have nothing—who live in circumstances that you and I would do more or less anything to avoid—who are happier than we tend to be because of the character of their minds. Unfortunately, one glimpse of this truth is never enough. We have to be continually reminded of it.
Dan: This reminds me of the Buddhist concept of suffering. The term “suffering” has certain connotations in English and, as you know, it’s a poor translation of the original Pali term dukkha. The Buddhist concept describes the truth of our existence, which is that nothing is ever ultimately satisfying.
As you said, you can have great friends and live pretty high on the socioeconomic ladder—your life can be a long string of pleasurable meals, vacations, and encounters with books and interesting people—and, yes, you can still have what Eckhart Tolle describes as a background static of perpetual discontent. This is why we see rock stars with drug problems and lottery winners who kill themselves. There is something very powerful about that realization.
Sam: And this is why training the mind through meditation makes sense—because it’s the most direct way to influence the mechanics of your own experience. To remain unaware of this machinery—in particular, the automaticity of thought—is to simply be propelled by it into one situation after another in which you struggle to find lasting fulfillment amid conditions that can’t provide it.
Dan: What’s interesting is that so many people reflexively reject this—just as I would have five or six years ago—because of their misconceptions about meditation. I think there are two reasons why people don’t meditate. Either they think it’s complete baloney that involves wearing robes, lighting incense, and subscribing to some useless metaphysical program, or they accept the fact that it might be good for them, but they assume that they couldn’t do it because their minds are too busy. I refer to this second reason as “the fallacy of uniqueness.” If you think that your mind is somehow busier than everyone else’s—welcome to the human condition. Everyone’s mind is busy. Meditation is hard for everybody.
Sam: The first source of resistance you mentioned is especially prevalent among smart, skeptical people. And I’m a little worried that the way in which many of us respond to this doubt ultimately sells the whole enterprise short. For instance, consider the comparison people often make between meditation and physical exercise—in fact, you drew this analogy already. At first glance, it’s a good one, because nothing looks more ridiculous on its face than what most of us do for exercise. Take the practice of lifting weights: If you try to explain weightlifting to someone who has no understanding of fitness, the wisdom of repeatedly picking up heavy objects and putting them down again is very difficult to get across. And until you’ve actually succeeded at building some muscle, it feels wrong too. So it is easy to see why a naïve person would say, “Why on earth would I want to waste my time and energy doing that?” Of course, most people understand that lifting weights is one of the best things they can do if they want to retain muscle mass, protect their joints from injury, feel better, etc. It’s also extraordinarily satisfying, once a person gets into it.
Meditation presents a similar impasse at first. Everyone asks, “Why would I want to pay attention to my breath?” It seems like a shameful waste of time. So the analogy to exercise is inviting and probably useful, but it doesn’t quite get at what is so revolutionary about finally paying attention to the character of one’s own mental life in this way.
Truly learning to meditate is not like going to the gym and putting on some muscle because it’s good for you and makes you feel better. There’s more to it than that. Meditation—again, done correctly—puts into question more or less everything you tend to do in your search for happiness. But if you lose sight of this, it can become just another strategy for seeking happiness—a more refined version of the problem you already have.
Dan: I’m guilty of using the exercise analogy repeatedly. My feeling—and I think you’d agree with this—is that the analogy is good enough to get people in the door. It may be misleading, but I don’t think in a harmful way. Obviously, when done correctly, meditation is much more transformative than ordinary exercise, but you need to meet people where they are. I think that mindfulness, and potentially even non-duality, has the potential to become the next public health revolution, or the spirituality of the future. In order for that to happen, you need to communicate with people in a way that they can understand. Not to keep whaling on Eckhart Tolle, but part of my problem with him is that I just don’t know that anybody actually understands what he’s saying, despite the fact that he has sold millions of books.
Sam: This raises the question of how to evaluate the results of a spiritual practice—and whether those results, however transformative they may be for someone, can be credible to others.
What constitutes evidence that there is a path to wisdom at all? From the outside, it’s very difficult to judge—because there are charismatic charlatans who are probably lying about everything, and there are seemingly ordinary people who have had quite profound experiences. From the inside, however, the evidence is clear; so each person has to run the experiment in the laboratory of his own mind to know that there’s anything to this.
The truth is that most of us are bound to appear like ordinary schmucks to others no matter how much we meditate. If you’re lost in thought, as you will be most of the time, you become the mere puppet of whatever those thoughts are. If you’re lost in worries about the future, you will seem to be an ordinary, anxious person—and the fact that you might be punctuating this experience with moments of mindfulness or moments of non-duality isn’t necessarily going to change the way you appear in the world. But internally, the difference can be huge. This gap between first-person and third-person data is a real impediment to communicating the significance of meditation practice to people who haven’t experienced it.
Dan: I agree, although, as we’ve already mentioned, there are some external manifestations that one can measure—changes in the brain, lowered blood pressure, boosted immune function, lowered cortisol, and so forth. People find these things compelling, and once they get in the door, they can experience the practice from the inside.
I would also say—and perhaps you were just getting into this—it’s hard to gauge whether some spiritual teachers are telling the truth. I’ve been privileged to meet many of these people, and I just go by my gut sense of whether they’re full of crap or not.
I have to say that with Eckhart Tolle, I did not get that feeling. I got the sense that he is for real. I don’t understand a lot of what he’s saying, but I didn’t feel that he was lying to himself or to me. Obviously this isn’t really data, but I found it personally convincing. To what end, I don’t know.
Sam: As distinct, say, from our friend with the rhinestone glasses…
Dan: Correct. I think I say in the book that I had no questions about whether Tolle was authentic, although I had many questions about whether he was sane. It was the reverse with Deepak Chopra.
Sam: Now I find myself in the unusual position of rising to Deepak’s defense—I think this happens once a decade, when the planets align just so. As I was saying before, a person like Deepak could have authentic and life-transforming experiences in meditation that nevertheless failed to smooth out the quirks in his personality. If he spends most of his time lost in thought, it will not be obvious to us that he enjoys those moments of real freedom. We will inevitably judge him by the silly things he says and the arrogance with which he says them.
But I’ve learned, as a result of my humbling encounters with my own mind, to charitably discount everyone else’s psychopathology. So if a spiritual teacher flies into a rage or even does something starkly unethical, that is not, from my point of view, proof that he or she is a total fraud. It’s just evidence that he or she is spending some significant amount of time lost in thought. But that’s to be expected of anybody who’s not “fully enlightened,” if such a rarefied state is even possible. I’m not saying that every guru is worth listening to—I think most aren’t, and some are genuinely dangerous. But many talented contemplatives can appear quite ordinary. And, unfortunately, cutting through the illusion of the self doesn’t guarantee that you won’t say something stupid at the next opportunity.
Dan: I fully agree with you. I enjoy picking on Deepak, but the truth is that I like the guy.
Sam: Let’s leave it there, Dan. It was great speaking with you, and I wish you continued success with your book.
Dan: Many thanks, Sam.
Startling, provocative, and often very funny . . . [10% HAPPIER] will convince even the most skeptical reader of meditation’s potential. (Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project)
10% HAPPIER is hands down the best book on meditation for the uninitiated, the skeptical, or the merely curious. . . . an insightful, engaging, and hilarious tour of the mind’s darker corners and what we can do to find a bit of peace. (Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence and Focus)
The science supporting the health benefits of meditation continues to grow as does the number of Americans who count themselves as practitioners but, it took reading 10% HAPPIER to make me actually want to give it a try. (Richard E. Besser, M.D., Chief Health and Medical Editor, ABC News)
An enormously smart, clear-eyed, brave-hearted, and quite personal look at the benefits of meditation that offers new insights as to how this ancient practice can help modern lives while avoiding the pitfall of cliché. This is a book that will help people, simply put. (Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love)
This brilliant, humble, funny story shows how one man found a way to navigate the non-stop stresses and demands of modern life and back to humanity by finally learning to sit around doing nothing. (Colin Beavan, author of No Impact Man)
In 10% Happier, Dan Harris describes in fascinating detail the stresses of working as a news correspondent and the relief he has found through the practice of meditation. This is an extremely brave, funny, and insightful book. Every ambitious person should read it. (Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith)
A compellingly honest, delightfully interesting, and at times heart-warming story of one highly intelligent man’s life-changing journey towards a deeper understanding of what makes us our very best selves. As Dan’s meditation practice deepens, I look forward to him being at least 11% happier, or more. (Chade-Meng Tan, author of Search Inside Yourself)
10% Happier is a spiritual adventure from a master storyteller. Mindfulness can make you happier. Read this to find out how. (George Stephanopoulos)
(Photo via Bala Sivakumar)
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 begin to think about the full range of human experience in a way that is as free of dogma, cultural prejudice, and wishful thinking as the best science already is. That is the subject of my next book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.
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, many doubt that such abilities even exist. Conversely, many of the greatest contemplatives know nothing about science. I know brilliant scientists and philosophers who seem unable to make the most basic discriminations about their own moment to moment experience; and I have known contemplatives who spent decades meditating in silence who probably thought the earth was flat. And yet there is a connection between scientific fact and spiritual wisdom, and it is more direct than most people suppose.
I have been waiting for more than a decade to write Waking Up. Long before I saw any reason to criticize religion (The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation), or to connect moral and scientific truths (The Moral Landscape, Free Will), I was interested in the nature of human consciousness and the possibility of spiritual experience. In Waking Up, I do my best to show that a certain form of spirituality is integral to understanding the nature of our minds. (For those of you who recoil at every use of the term “spirituality,” I recommend that you read a previous post.)
My goal in Waking Up is to help readers see the nature of their own minds in a new light. The 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.” It is also my most personal book to date.
If you live in the U.S. or Canada, you can order a special hardcover edition of Waking Up through this website. This edition of the book will have the same text as the trade version, but it will be printed on nicer paper and have several other aesthetic enhancements. Simon and Schuster will be doing only one printing, and all orders must be placed by April 15th. Proceeds from the sale of the special edition of Waking Up will be used to develop an online course on the same topic.
Peter Watson is an intellectual historian, journalist, and the author of thirteen books, including The German Genius, The Medici Conspiracy, and The Great Divide. He has written for The Sunday Times, The New York Times, the Observer, and the Spectator. He lives in London.
He was kind enough to answer a few question about his new book The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God.
1. You begin your account of atheism with the 19th-century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. Why is he a good starting point?
In 1882 Nietzsche declared, roundly, in strikingly clear language, that “God is dead”, adding that we had killed him. And this was a mere twenty years after Darwin’s Origin of Species, which is rightly understood as the greatest blow to Christianity. But Nietzsche’s work deserves recognition as a near-second. Darwinism was assimilated more quickly in Germany than in Britain, because the idea of evolution was especially prevalent there. Darwin remarks in one of his letters that his ideas had gone down better in Germany than anywhere else. And the history of Kulturkampf in Germany – the battle between Protestantism and Catholicism – meant that religion was under attack anyway, by its own adherents. Other people responded to Nietzsche more than to anyone else – Ibsen, for example, W. B. Yeats, Robert Graves, James Joyce. In Germany there was the phenomenon of the Nietzschean generations – young people who lived his philosophy in specially-created communities. And people responded to Nietzsche because, his writing style was so pithy, to the point, memorable, and crystal clear. It is Nietzsche who tells us plainly, eloquently, that there is nothing external to, or higher than, life itself, no “beyond” or “above”, no transcendence and nothing metaphysical. This was dangerous thinking at the time, and has remained threatening for many people.
2. You say at one point in your book that psychology, or perhaps therapy, has taken over from religion as a way to understand our predicament, and – to an extent – deal with it. Do you follow Freud in viewing religion as, essentially, a product of neurosis?
I do think there is sound anthropological evidence that the first “priests”, the shamans of Siberia, were probably psychological misfits or malcontents, and that throughout history we have gone on from there, because many well known religious figures – some of the Hebrew prophets, John the Baptist, St. Paul, St. Augustine, Joan of Arc, Luther – were psychologically odd. Religion is not so much neurosis as psychological adjustment to our predicament – that’s the key, religion is to be understood psychologically, not theologically. It was George Carey, when he was archbishop of Canterbury, not me, who said “Jesus the Saviour is becoming Jesus the Counselor”. (This was in the 1990s.) And it was a well known Boston rabbi, Joshua Loth Liebman, who, soon after the end of World War Two, wrote a best-selling book that admitted that traditional religion had been too harsh on ordinary believers and that the churches and the synagogues and the mosques had a great deal to learn from what he called the new depth psychology – he meant Freudianism. So the church invited the psychologists to put their tanks on its lawn, so to speak. And psychotherapy hasn’t looked back. More people go into therapy now as a search for meaning than for treatment for mental illness.
3. What do you conclude from this?
That worship, the religious impulse, is best understood as a sociological phenomenon, rather than a theological one. In your own books you point up some of the absurdities of religion, but the two I regard as most revealing are the worship of a Royal Enfield motor-bicycle in a region of India, a bike involved in a crash in which its driver was killed but now is reckoned to have supernatural powers. And second, the Internet site, godchecker.com, which lists – apparently without irony – more than 3,000 “supreme beings.” I wonder how many fact-checkers they have. (That last sentence is written in a new type-face I have invented, called Ironics.)
In the recent world-wide survey of religion and economics by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, they show convincingly that religion is expanding in those areas of the world where ‘existential insecurity’ – poverty, natural disasters, disease, inadequate water supplies, HIV/AIDS, the lack of decent health care – is endemic and growing, whereas in the more prosperous and secure West, including now the USA, atheism is inexorably on the rise. Religion is prevalent among the poor and in decline in the more prosperous parts of the world. It is less that religion is on the rise as poverty is.
4. In your book you survey the views of a great number of people. How would you describe your own atheism?
We are gifted with language and Nietzsche had a gift for language. I follow people like the German poet Rilke and the American philosopher Richard Rorty who say that our way to find meaning in life is to use language to “name” the world, to describe new aspects of it that haven’t been described before, and in so doing enlarge the world we inhabit, enlarge it for everyone. This links science and the arts, in particular poetry. When new sciences are invented they bring with them new language, and scientific discoveries – continental drift, say, dendrochronology, the Higgs boson – that enlarge our understanding precisely through incorporating new language. But so does the best art, the best poetry, the best theatre. This is therefore an exercise for the informed – increasingly the very well informed, as the more mature sciences are now more or less inaccessible to the layman. Language enables us to be both precise about the world, and to generalize. As a result we know that life is made up of lots and lots of beautiful little phenomena, and that large abstractions, however beautiful in their own way, are not enough. There is no one secret to life, other than that there is no one secret to life. If you must have a transcendent idea then make it a search for “the good” or “the beautiful” or “the useful”, always realizing that your answers will be personal, finite and never final. The Anglo-American philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre said “The good life is the life spent seeking the good life.” That implies effort. We can have no satisfaction, no meaning, without effort.