Wednesday, July 06, 2011

We are lost in thought.

Some clips from Sam Harris' contribution to this year's Edge Question "What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?"
While most of us go through life feeling that we are the thinker of our thoughts and the experiencer of our experience, from the perspective of science we know that this is a distorted view. There is no discrete self or ego lurking like a minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. There is no region of cortex or pathway of neural processing that occupies a privileged position with respect to our personhood. There is no unchanging "center of narrative gravity" (to use Daniel Dennett's phrase). In subjective terms, however, there seems to be one — to most of us, most of the time.

Our contemplative traditions (Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, etc.) also suggest, to varying degrees and with greater or lesser precision, that we live in the grip of a cognitive illusion. But the alternative to our captivity is almost always viewed through the lens of religious dogma. A Christian will recite the Lord's Prayer continuously over a weekend, experience a profound sense of clarity and peace, and judge this mental state to be fully corroborative of the doctrine of Christianity; A Hindu will spend an evening singing devotional songs to Krishna, feel suddenly free of his conventional sense of self, and conclude that his chosen deity has showered him with grace; a Sufi will spend hours whirling in circles, pierce the veil of thought for a time, and believe that he has established a direct connection to Allah.

The universality of these phenomena refutes the sectarian claims of any one religion. And, given that contemplatives generally present their experiences of self-transcendence as inseparable from their associated theology, mythology, and metaphysics, it is no surprise that scientists and nonbelievers tend to view their reports as the product of disordered minds, or as exaggerated accounts of far more common mental states — like scientific awe, aesthetic enjoyment, artistic inspiration, etc.

Our religions are clearly false, even if certain classically religious experiences are worth having. If we want to actually understand the mind, and overcome some of the most dangerous and enduring sources of conflict in our world, we must begin thinking about the full spectrum of human experience in the context of science.

But we must first realize that we are lost in thought.


  1. Bill Faulkner9:58 AM

    Interesting stuff as usual.

  2. I don't follow any organized religion, but I do engage in a few temporary practices and meditations.

    Isn't saying "we must begin thinking about the full spectrum of human experience in the context of science" just as mindless as a mantra repeated from any other dogmatic doctrine? Wouldn't we just be following and believing in the mantra of a scientist or someone who told us to?

    I'm not dismissing science at all and really enjoy reading scientific research, but dismissing religious ideas and then telling us we should think about our experience from the context of science sounds like a sneaky and easily dismissed non-sequitur of any other religion.