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Posts Tagged ‘religion’

15 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Sam Harris on Spirituality without Religion, Happiness, and How to Cultivate the Art of Presence

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“Our world is dangerously riven by religious doctrines that all educated people should condemn, and yet there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit.”

Nietzsche’s famous proclamation that “God is dead” is among modern history’s most oft-cited aphorisms, and yet as is often the case with its ilk, such quotations often miss the broader context in a way that bespeaks the lazy reductionism with which we tend to approach questions of spirituality today. Nietzsche himself clarified the full dimension of his statement six years later, in a passage from The Twilight of Idols, where he explained that “God” simply signified the supersensory realm, or “true world,” and wrote: “We have abolished the true world. What has remained? The apparent one perhaps? Oh no! With the true world we have also abolished the apparent one.”

Indeed, this struggle to integrate the sensory and the supersensory, the physical and the metaphysical, has been addressed with varying degrees of sensitivity by some of history’s greatest minds — reflections like Carl Sagan on science and religion, Flannery O’Connor on dogma, belief, and the difference between religion and faith, Alan Lightman on science and spirituality, Albert Einstein on whether scientists pray, Ada Lovelace on the interconnectedness of everything, Alan Watts on the difference between belief and faith, C.S. Lewis on the paradox of free will, and Jane Goodall on science and spirit.

In Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (public library | IndieBound), philosopher, neuroscientist, and mindful skeptic Sam Harris offers a contemporary addition to this lineage of human inquiry — an extraordinary and ambitious masterwork of such integration between science and spirituality, which Harris himself describes as “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.” Or, perhaps most aptly, an effort “to pluck the diamond from the dunghill of esoteric religion.”

Sam Harris by Bara Vetenskap

Harris begins by recounting an experience he had at age sixteen — a three-day wilderness retreat designed to spur spiritual awakening of some sort, which instead left young Harris feeling like the contemplation of the existential mystery in the presence of his own company was “a source of perfect misery.” This frustrating experience became “a sufficient provocation” that launched him into a lifelong pursuit of the kinds of transcendent experiences that gave rise to the world’s major spiritual traditions, examining them instead with a scientist’s vital blend of skepticism and openness and a philosopher’s aspiration to be “scrupulously truthful.”

Harris writes:

Our minds are all we have. They are all we have ever had. And they are all we can offer others… Every experience you have ever had has been shaped by your mind. Every relationship is as good or as bad as it is because of the minds involved.

Noting that the entirety of our experience, as well as our satisfaction with that experience, is filtered through our minds — “If you are perpetually angry, depressed, confused, and unloving, or your attention is elsewhere, it won’t matter how successful you become or who is in your life — you won’t enjoy any of it.” — Harris sets out to reconcile the quest to achieve one’s goals with a deeper longing, a recognition, perhaps, that presence is far more rewarding than productivity. He writes:

Most of us spend our time seeking happiness and security without acknowledging the underlying purpose of our search. Each of us is looking for a path back to the present: We are trying to find good enough reasons to be satisfied now.

Acknowledging that this is the structure of the game we are playing allows us to play it differently. How we pay attention to the present moment largely determines the character of our experience and, therefore, the quality of our lives.

This message, of course, is nothing new — half a century ago, Alan Watts made a spectacular case for it, building on millennia of Eastern philosophy. But what makes our era singular and this discourse particularly timely, Harris points out, is that there is now a growing body of scientific research substantiating these ancient intuitions.

Harris recounts one of his own early empirical dabblings into how physical experience precipitates metaphysical awareness — taking the drug 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine (MDMA), commonly known as Ecstasy, with a close friend — which profoundly shifted his sense of the human mind’s potential. Remarking on the “moral and emotional clarity” of the experience, Harris describes it not as a muddling of consciousness but as a homecoming to truth:

It would not be too strong to say that I felt sane for the first time in my life. And yet the change in my consciousness seemed entirely straightforward… I had ceased to be concerned about myself. I was no longer anxious, self-critical, guarded by irony, in competition, avoiding embarrassment, ruminating about the past and future, or making any other gesture of thought or attention that separated me from him. I was no longer watching myself through another person’s eyes.

And then came the insight that irrevocably transformed my sense of how good human life could be. I was feeling boundless love for one of my best friends, and I suddenly realized that if a stranger had walked through the door at that moment, he or she would have been fully included in this love. Love was at bottom impersonal — and deeper than any personal history could justify. Indeed, a transactional form of love — I love you because . . . — now made no sense at all.

The interesting thing about this final shift in perspective was that it was not driven by any change in the way I felt. I was not overwhelmed by a new feeling of love. The insight had more the character of a geometric proof: It was as if, having glimpsed the properties of one set of parallel lines, I suddenly understood what must be common to them all… The experience was not of love growing but of its being no longer obscured. Love was — as advertised by mystics and crackpots through the ages — a state of being. How had we not seen this before? And how could we overlook it ever again?

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

Such a formulation calls to mind the sentiment at the heart of Tolstoy’s letters to Gandhi (where, one can assume based on the time period, there was no Ecstasy involved) — a testament to the immutability of this basic human truth. For Harris, it laid the foundation for what would become his life’s work:

I still considered the world’s religions to be mere intellectual ruins, maintained at enormous economic and social cost, but I now understood that important psychological truths could be found in the rubble.

This sentiment, it turns out, is one shared by about a quarter of the population, who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” – a seemingly paradoxical proposition that, Harris argues, captures the crux of our ancient struggle for integration:

Although the claim seems to annoy believers and atheists equally, separating spirituality from religion is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. It is to assert two important truths simultaneously: Our world is dangerously riven by religious doctrines that all educated people should condemn, and yet there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit.

Even the term “spiritual” itself comes so loaded with cultural baggage — from self-help books to off-the-deep-end kooks — that its usage seems to warrant a special kind of self-conscious, almost apologetic justification, and Harris offers an elegant one:

There is no other term — apart from the even more problematic mystical or the more restrictive contemplative — with which to discuss the efforts people make, through meditation, psychedelics, or other means, to fully bring their minds into the present or to induce nonordinary states of consciousness. And no other word links this spectrum of experience to our ethical lives.

Much of our unease with nonreligious spirituality and the integration of science and spirit, Harris argues, comes from the blinders that narrow the view of both camps. Scientists “generally start with an impoverished view of spiritual experience, assuming that it must be a grandiose way of describing ordinary states of mind,” while New Age thinkers “idealize altered states of consciousness and draw specious connections between subjective experience and the spookier theories at the frontiers of physics” — a fault line that leaves us with the lose-lose choice “between pseudo-spirituality and pseudo-science.”

A lucid approach to integration, Harris suggests, requires the acknowledgment of some “well-established truths about the human mind,” ones revealed equally through meditation, in the scriptures of the major religious traditions, and by neuroscience — the illusory nature of what we call the “self,” the notion that how we pay attention shapes our “reality,” the idea that happiness can be taught and its psychological detractors uprooted. Harris writes:

Nothing that a Christian, a Muslim, and a Hindu can experience — self-transcending love, ecstasy, bliss, inner light — constitutes evidence in support of their traditional beliefs, because their beliefs are logically incompatible with one another. A deeper principle must be at work.

[…]

The feeling that we call “I” is an illusion. There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is — the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eyes, looking out at a world that is separate from yourself — can be altered or entirely extinguished. Although such experiences of “self-transcendence” are generally thought about in religious terms, there is nothing, in principle, irrational about them. From both a scientific and a philosophical point of view, they represent a clearer understanding of the way things are…

Confusion and suffering may be our birthright, but wisdom and happiness are available. The landscape of human experience includes deeply transformative insights about the nature of one’s own consciousness, and yet it is obvious that these psychological states must be understood in the context of neuroscience, psychology, and related fields.

I am often asked what will replace organized religion. The answer, I believe, is nothing and everything. Nothing need replace its ludicrous and divisive doctrines — such as the idea that Jesus will return to earth and hurl unbelievers into a lake of fire, or that death in defense of Islam is the highest good. These are terrifying and debasing fictions. But what about love, compassion, moral goodness, and self-transcendence? Many people still imagine that religion is the true repository of these virtues. To change this, we must talk about the full range of human experience in a way that is as free of dogma as the best science already is.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Perhaps Harris’s most central focus in the book is the art of presence as a gateway to true happiness — something Alan Watts so eloquently championed more than half a century ago but, crucially, without the advances in neuroscience and cognitive psychology that make Harris’s case so compelling. Reflecting on how the hamster wheel of achievement and approval can cheat us of the very happiness with which we so often equate it, Harris writes:

Even in the best of circumstances, happiness is elusive. We seek pleasant sights, sounds, tastes, sensations, and moods. We satisfy our intellectual curiosity. We surround ourselves with friends and loved ones. We become connoisseurs of art, music, or food. But our pleasures are, by their very nature, fleeting. If we enjoy some great professional success, our feelings of accomplishment remain vivid and intoxicating for an hour, or perhaps a day, but then they subside. And the search goes on. The effort required to keep boredom and other unpleasantness at bay must continue, moment to moment.

Ceaseless change is an unreliable basis for lasting fulfillment… Is there a form of happiness beyond the mere repetition of pleasure and avoidance of pain?

[…]

If there exists a source of psychological well-being that does not depend upon merely gratifying one’s desires, then it should be present even when all the usual sources of pleasure have been removed.

[…]

We seem to do little more than lurch between wanting and not wanting. Thus, the question naturally arises: Is there more to life than this? Might it be possible to feel much better (in every sense of better) than one tends to feel? Is it possible to find lasting fulfillment despite the inevitability of change?

Spiritual life begins with a suspicion that the answer to such questions could well be “yes.” And a true spiritual practitioner is someone who has discovered that it is possible to be at ease in the world for no reason, if only for a few moments at a time, and that such ease is synonymous with transcending the apparent boundaries of the self. Those who have never tasted such peace of mind might view these assertions as highly suspect. Nevertheless, it is a fact that a condition of selfless well-being is there to be glimpsed in each moment.

In the remainder of the altogether spectacular Waking Up, Harris goes on to outline the practices, mechanisms, and psychoemotional tools that enable us to access that “selfless well-being,” exploring such dimensional themes as the frontier of the conscious and the unconscious mind, the elusive but highly teachable skills of happiness, and the nature of consciousness. Complement it with Alan Lightman’s beautiful meditation on science and spirituality.

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05 SEPTEMBER, 2014

The Book of Miracles: Rare Medieval Illustrations of Magical Thinking

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A visual record of humanity’s most eternal fears and our immutable longing for grace, mercy, and the miraculous.

In 1552, a curious and lavishly illustrated manuscript titled Augsburg Book of Miraculous Signs appeared in the Swabian Imperial Free City of Augsburg, then a part of the Holy Roman Empire, located in present-day Germany. It exorcised, in remarkable detail and wildly imaginative artwork, Medieval Europe’s growing obsession with signs sent from “God” — a testament to the basic human propensity for magical thinking, with which we often explain feelings and phenomena beyond the grasp of our logic. This unusual Roman manuscript was recently discovered and published for the first time as The Book of Miracles (public library | IndieBound) — a sumptuous box-sized trilingual tome in English, French, and German, produced in Taschen‘s typical fashion of pleasurable aesthetic bombast. Somewhere between Salvador Dalí’s illustrations of Montaigne, the weird and wonderful Codex Seraphinianus, and the visual history of Gotham’s imaginary apocalypse, the book is a singular shrine to some of the most eternal of human hopes and fears, and, above all, our immutable longing for grace, for mercy, for the miraculous.

What makes the book particularly notable is that its vibrant artwork, while strikingly beautiful, also illustrates religion’s heavy reliance on magical thinking. The word “religion” itself originates in the Latin for “binding together,” suggesting a sense not only of creating community but also of bridging complex things we don’t understand with simple ideas we do, via storytelling — something Carl Sagan famously explored.

The manuscript also offers a record of how word-of-mouth propagates the building blocks of belief and, eventually, the belief itself — the history of miracle-sighting is essentially a history of media, as “wonders” were first transmitted via regular letter correspondence and became a news item after the surge in broadsheets and pamphlets made possible by the invention of the Gutenberg press.

Complement the formidable Book of Miracles with other Taschen masterworks of visual delight and cultural history, including the best illustrations from 150 years of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, the life and legacy of infographics godfather Fritz Kahn, a Victorian reimagining of Euclid’s elements, and the visual history of magic.

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22 AUGUST, 2014

How We Know What We Know: The Art of Adaequatio and Seeing with the Eye of the Heart

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A timeless guide to “understanding the truth that does not merely inform the mind but liberates the soul.”

“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry memorably wrote in The Little Prince. Indeed, in our quest to perfect thinking, could we be neglecting those deeper, more intuitive gateways to accessing the essential? Susan Sontag memorably argued that the false polarity of intuition vs. intellect imprisons us, but the question remains — how do we really know what we know? By what mechanism can we truly make sense of the world and our place in it?

A decade after his influential clarion call for prioritizing people over goods and creativity over consumption, British economic theorist and philosopher E.F. Schumacher turned to this delicate subject in his 1977 essay collection A Guide for the Perplexed (public library) — not to be confused with this Werner Herzog gem of the same title — in which Schumacher also explored how to map the meaning of life.

Schumacher considers the concept of adaequatio:

What enables man to know anything at all about the world around him? … Nothing can be known without there being an appropriate “instrument” in the makeup of the knower. This is the Great Truth of “adaequatio” (adequateness), which defines knowledge as adaequatio rei et intellectus — the understanding of the knower must be adequate to the thing to be known.

Building upon his notion of the five Levels of Being, Schumacher bridges the physical and the metaphysical:

Our five bodily senses make us adequate to the lowest Level of Being — inanimate matter. But they can supply nothing more than masses of sense data, to “make sense” of which we require abilities or capacities of a different order. We may call them “intellectual senses.” Without them we should be unable to recognize form, pattern, regularity, harmony, rhythm, and meaning, not to mention life, consciousness, and self-awareness. While the bodily senses may be described as relatively passive, mere receivers of whatever happens to come along and to a large extent controlled by the mind, the intellectual senses are mind-in-action, and their keenness and reach are qualities of the mind itself.

Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky from 'On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein' by Jennifer Berne. Click image for more.

He illustrates the spectrum of human ability as it relates to our capacity for adaequatio:

As regards the bodily senses, all healthy people possess a very similar endowment, but no one could possibly overlook the fact that there are significant differences in the power and reach of people’s minds… Beethoven’s musical abilities, even in deafness, were incomparably greater than mine, and the difference did not lie in the sense of hearing; it lay in the mind. Some people are incapable of grasping and appreciating a given piece of music, not because they are deaf but because of a lack of adaequatio in the mind. The music is grasped by intellectual powers which some people possess to such a degree that they can grasp, and retain in their memory, an entire symphony on one hearing or one reading of the score; while others are so weakly endowed that they cannot get it at all, no matter how often and how attentively they listen to it. For the former, the symphony is as real as it was for the composer; for the latter, there is no symphony: there is nothing but a succession of more or less agreeable but altogether meaningless noises. The former’s mind is adequate to the symphony; the latter’s mind is inadequate, and thus incapable of recognizing the existence of the symphony.

This spectrum plays out over and over in every domain of the human experience and, Schumacher argues, making sense of the world in an intelligent way requires that we understand where we fall on the spectrum of adaequatio in every domain of knowledge. Ignorant attitudes, he implies, result from assuming that something is not true or not valuable simply because we lack the adaequatio to grasp it:

For every one of us only those facts and phenomena “exist” for which we posses adaequatio, and as we are not entitled to assume that we are necessarily adequate to everything, at all times, and in whatever condition we may find ourselves, so we are not entitled to insist that something inaccessible to us has no existence at all and is nothing but a phantom of other people’s imaginations.

This pulls into question the notion of capital-T Truth as commonly used and pursued:

People say: “Let the facts speak for themselves”; they forget that the speech of facts is real only if it is heard and understood. It is thought to be an easy matter to distinguish between fact and theory, between perception and interpretation. In truth, it is extremely difficult.

In a sentiment that Philip K. Dick would echo mere months later in asserting that “reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away,” Schumacher adds:

When the level of the knower is not adequate to the level (or grade of significance) of the object of knowledge, the result is not factual error but something much more serious: an inadequate and impoverished view of reality.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman for Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Click image for more.

But the most important determinants of our access to knowledge, Schumacher argues, are our direction of interest and our existing beliefs — something even truer today, not to mention more dangerous, in our age of filter bubbles, when we have an ever-harder time changing our minds. Schumacher writes:

The level of significance to which an observer or investigator tries to attune himself is chosen, not by his intelligence, but by his faith. The facts themselves which he observes do not carry labels indicating the appropriate level at which they ought to be considered. Nor does the choice of an inadequate level lead the intelligence into factual error or logical contradiction. All levels of significance up to the adequate level — i.e., up to the level of meaning … — are equally factual, equally logical, equally objective, but not equally real.

It is by an act of faith that I choose the level of my investigation; hence the saying “Credo ut intelligam” — I have faith as to be able to understand. If I lack faith, and consequently choose an inadequate level of significance for my investigation, no degree of “objectivity” will save me from missing the point of the whole operation, and I rob myself of the very possibility of understanding.

Our existing beliefs and baseline assumptions, on which our entire capacity for understanding is predicated, is very much a product of our era, cultural context, and what William Gibson so memorably termed our “personal microculture.” Schumacher writes:

The observer depends not only on the adequateness of his own higher qualities, perhaps “developed” through learning or training; he depends also on the adequateness of his “faith” or, to put it more conventionally, of his fundamental presuppositions and basic assumptions. In this respect he tends to be very much a child of his time and of the civilization in which he has spent his formative years; for the human mind, generally speaking, does not just think: it thinks with ideas, most of which it simply adopts and takes over from its surrounding society.

And yet, Schumacher urges, our greatest responsibility in cultivating true understanding is to question precisely those assumptions, directing at them the types of critical-thinking tools Carl Sagan advocated in his timelessly necessary Baloney Detection Kit and Lewis Carroll outlined in his four rules for digesting information. Schumacher notes:

There is nothing more difficult than to become critically aware of the presuppositions of one’s thought. Everything can be seen directly except the eye through which we see. Every thought can be scrutinized directly except the thought by which we scrutinize. A special effort, an effort of self-awareness, is needed: that almost impossible feat of thought recoiling upon itself — almost impossible but not quite. In fact, that is the power that makes man human and also capable of transcending his humanity.

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince. Click image for more.

Echoing the Little Prince’s memorable assertion that “what is essential is invisible to the eye,” Schumacher writes:

Only through the “heart” can contact be made with the higher grades of significance and Levels of Being.

Cautioning against scientific reductionism, he adds:

For anyone wedded to the materialistic Scientism of the modern age … higher levels of Reality simply do not exist, because his faith excludes the possibility of their existence. He is like a man who, although in possession of a radio receiver, refuses to use it because he has made up his mind that nothing can be obtained from it but atmospheric noises.

Turning to the timeless question of how science and spirituality relate to one another — a question previously addressed by such monumental minds as Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Ada Lovelace, Alan Lightman, Buckminster Fuller, and Jane Goodall — Schumacher writes:

Faith is not in conflict with reason, nor is it a substitute for reason. Faith chooses the grade of significance or Level of Being at which the search for knowledge and understanding is to aim. There is reasonable faith and there is unreasonable faith. To look for meaning and purpose at the level of inanimate matter would be as unreasonable an act of faith as an attempt to “explain” the masterpieces of human genius as nothing but the outcome of economic interests or sexual frustration.

Citing 13th-century Persian poet and philosopher Rumi‘s famous line — “the eye of the heart, which is seventy-fold and of which these two sensible eyes are only the gleaners” — Schumacher revisits the notion of perceiving with something other than the intellect:

The power of “the Eye of the Heart,” which produces insight, is vastly superior to the power of thought, which produces opinions.

[…]

This is the process of gaining adaequatio, of developing the instrument capable of seeing and thus understanding the truth that does not merely inform the mind but liberates the soul.

[…]

Ideas produce insight and understanding, and the world of ideas lies within us. The truth of ideas cannot be seen by the senses but only by that special instrument sometimes referred to as “the Eye of the Heart,” which, in a mysterious way, has the power of recognizing truth when confronted with it.

A Guide for the Perplexed is a magnificent read in its entirety, the kind that gives more every time, the more you bring to it upon each new rereading. Complement it with Schumacher on how to stop prioritizing goods over people, then revisit Alan Watts on becoming who you really are and John Locke on understanding and the folly of our borrowed opinions.

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