The issue of Newsweek International for Oct. 25, 2010, contains an article by Lisa Miller entitled “Sam Harris Believes in God.” It quotes John Green, a research adviser at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life: “People have a vague, fuzzy notion of transcendence, and they substitute God for it.” “What Sam Harris believes in—” Miller writes, “rationality, morality, transcendence, humility, awe, community, selflessness, and love—meets a fairly common definition of God.” (Note: The word God in the title of the article does not convey this nontheological “definition,” and is misleading, if not hyperbolic.) At the end of the piece Miller again describes Harris as “believing in transcendence.”
Let us categorize the things “Sam Harris believes in.” Rationality denotes the possession of reason as a faculty of the mind (Miller notes that “Harris places reason at the apex of human abilities and achievement”). Morality can be regarded as a rating system for human behavior, which in the context of a given society prescribes some behaviors and proscribes others. Humility and awe are emotions. Their appearance in this list presumably is a result of the fact that they are felt when people are strongly impressed by things that are majestic, complex, or poorly understood. (The article cites “that feeling I get on a walk in the woods” and “the awesome aspects of existence I’ll never understand” as things that “spiritual but not religious” people equate with God.) Love also is an emotion. Community presumably refers to belonging to a group whose members are mutually friendly and helpful. Selflessness refers to various socially approved and personally rewarding behaviors such as altruism, generosity, and helpfulness, performed in such a manner as to give the impression that the actor values other persons more than him- or herself. All these things are explicable in naturalistic terms.
What is left from the list is “transcendence.” Miller does not attempt to describe what she means by this word. Relevant to Harris’ views on transcendence, she reports that in his youth he used a psychoactive drug (methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA) and later practiced meditation with the help of “Hindu and Buddhist teachers.” He finds “wisdom” in both Asian and Western mysticism. Miller describes comments in Harris’s book The End of Faith as “praise of the contemplative experience.”
The root meaning of transcend is to exceed or surpass. It seems likely that in Miller’s article the word has its philosophical meaning of “to go beyond the limits of experience,” and that by transcendence she means “the state of transcending the world of sense, as in mystical experience” (Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, ed. 2). If so, one may ask whether meditation (or the use of psychoactive drugs) goes “beyond the limits of experience.”
The mental states induced by meditation and by euphorigenic drugs have these features in common: 1. they are unusual, differing qualitatively and/or quantitatively from states experienced in everyday life, 2. they do not occur spontaneously and one must perform some specific mental act or ingest a drug to experience them, and 3. they are pleasurable. They sometimes are called “altered” states, referring to their unusual nature. But fear, strong feelings of love, and other emotional conditions could also be called altered states. For purposes of this essay, the phrase evoked states will be used to denote the mental conditions induced by meditation and drugs.*
Does the fact that these mental states are unusual and require specific actions to attain mean, however, that they are surpassing one’s senses or introducing one into a realm other than that of experience? Suppose that dreaming was not an everyday event but was attainable only by practice. Would people who experienced dreaming under these conditions not make the same statements made by those who meditate about its “transcendent” qualities? Might not they hypothesize that while dreaming they were in a superlative realm in which they can have experiences and perform actions that are impossible in “real life”?
One alleged evidence for “transcendence” is that meditation enables one to acquire knowledge not obtainable through the senses. Those who meditate may gain some knowledge by introspection, such as the fact that they are capable of feelings of certain kinds and intensities (this may be the basis of the statement that meditation enables one to “get in touch with his feelings”). Practitioners of meditation sometimes report that it enhances their “understanding” of the world, but such remarks seem to refer to an altered mental outlook chiefly emotional in character (feeling more tranquil, more sympathetic) than to acquisition of knowledge. At the extreme, some practitioners of meditation believe that it enables them to apprehend supernatural beings, so that they know of the existence of such beings. In general, however, providing knowledge about the natural world is not a reason why meditation is valued. And how many users of psychoactive amphetamines claim that the drug gave them new information about the external world?
Another statement sometimes made by those who experience evoked mental states is that they cause one to feel “connected.” A feeling of liaison or unity with something outside oneself appears to be an element of the alleged “transcendent” character of these states. In some cases the perception of connectedness does not seem to be either complex or profound, such as the transient feelings of affection and sympathy produced by MDMA. Possible objects with which one might feel unity during meditation include other people, the universe (material world), and a noumenal being. The first two are perceived by the senses, and it seems difficult to assert that a feeling of unity with them “transcends the world of sense.” Persons who experience what they believe is unity with a supernatural being may identify him or her with a deity or the deity of their religion (an interpretation that Harris presumably would reject). But they may only have awareness of a being who does not identify or offer details about himself. In either case the perception is subject to both naturalistic and supernaturalistic interpretations.
Practitioners of meditation may develop a sustained sense of “oneness” persisting even when they are not meditating. This is difficult to analyze (and requires further study). Tranquility, and the enhanced sensory perception of the external world reported by some practitioners of meditation, might contribute to the feeling of unity, but it does not seem to be reducible just to these. It is not obvious, however, that the persistent feeling of unity is transcendent in the sense of surpassing sensation; one might regard it as a new interpretation by the individual of his or her sensations from the external world.
Prolonged practice of meditation can alter the functioning of the brain. Although detailed correlations between these changes and evoked states have not yet been made, the burden of proof that a supernatural event has occurred during meditation, rather than a change in the physiology of the brain, rests on those who allege the supernatural event.
With respect to what she calls “things that support human flourishing,” Miller quotes Harris: “Ecstasy, rapture, bliss, concentration, a sense of the sacred … I think all of that is indispensable.” This list also merits scrutiny. Ecstasy, rapture and bliss all describe a state of extreme happiness or feeling of well-being. Some persons experience such feelings during meditation. They are the principle reason for the use of psychotropic drugs; “ecstasy” is the common name for the derivative of amphetamine that Miller’s article suggests started Harris on a search “to achieve a state of loving unselfishness.” The situation in which people most often have sensations that they might describe as ecstasy, however, is coitus leading to orgasm. Intense pleasure is transcendent in the sense of “superior, surpassing, or extraordinary.” But it is a physiologic phenomenon that can be localized anatomically in the brain; it is an instance of sensation, not a state of transcending it.
Mental concentration can be used as a technique of meditation (as can its opposite, trying to “let the mind go blank” or “become empty”). Concentration in itself, however, is not a mystical phenomenon; it occurs in countless ordinary events such as solving a mathematical problem and playing football.
With the phrase “a sense of the sacred” Harris seems to part company with his often-stated rejection of religion. The common meanings of sacred are “religious in nature” or “holy.” Perhaps sacred in his list of “indispensable” things is “a vague, fuzzy notion of transcendence.”
To regard the mental states produced by meditation as naturalistic phenomena ought not diminish their value to those who experience them. While it is true that even some persons who do not hold to a supernatural source of aesthetic and emotional experiences are concerned lest naturalistic explanation devalue those experiences, such fears are unfounded. Future research will yield explanations of mental phenomena that are much more detailed than the present regional anatomical siting and the demonstration of associations with electrophysiological events and actions of neurotransmitters. But even that analysis will not describe—or alter—the meaning of feelings, which are perceived in a context of mental life much larger than the experience itself. The analysis will not even address the creative act of integrating an experience into the ensemble of thoughts, perceptions, and habits that constitute personality. To make a rough analogy, a minutely detailed account of the placement of the brush strokes and the choice of colors might enable one to imitate a painting (similar to eliciting feelings by chemical or electrical stimulation of the brain), but it would not describe the experience of viewing the painting.
Harris’ reported desire to find a way to make the human mind “more loving, more generous, less egocentric than it is in its natural state” is praiseworthy, and no less so if it is undertaken using the principles of naturalism rather than by postulating supernatural events. Describing evoked states as transcendence is problematical; that is the language of metaphysics and theology, not of the neuroscience of which Harris is an exponent.
* Some people experience, as a result of reading or hearing certain texts, hearing certain passages of music, or engaging in specific acts of artistic creation, mental states that seem similar to the evoked states discussed here. It is the task of the psychologist to analyze the mental similarities and differences of these various conditions, and of the neurobiologist to analyze their physiological similarities and differences.