Thursday, January 24, 2008

Sam Harris on Religious Experience

Over the holidays I watched most of the video of a dialogue among Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris (the “Four Horsemen” of the recent mini-boom in books criticizing religion by atheists). There was a brief discussion near the beginning led by Harris which I wanted to highlight (the transcript is here). One thing I have liked about Harris, who is pursuing a doctorate in neuroscience in his day job, is his respect for the challenge that the “hard problem” of first person conscious experience poses for a conventionally materialistic worldview. In the video, he discusses an obstacle to the ability of the atheists to win the hearts and minds of believers: the phenomenon of what is traditionally referred to as “religious” experience.

Here’s the excerpt:

[Harris] Well. I think there's one answer to that question which may illuminate a difference, or at least the difference that I have, I think, maybe with all three of you. There's something about … I mean, I still use words like "spiritual" and "mystical" without furrowing my brow too much and, I admit, to the consternation of many atheists. I think there is a range of experience that is rare, and that is only talked about without obvious qualms in religious discourse. And because it's only talked about in religious discourse, it is just riddled with superstition. And it's used to cash out various metaphysical schemes which it can't reasonably do. But clearly people have extraordinary experiences. Whether they have them on LSD, or they have them because they were alone in a cave for a year, or they have them because just happen to have the neurology that is particularly labile that allows for it, but people have self-transcending experiences. And people have the best day of their life where everything seemed, you know, they seemed at one with nature. And for that, because religion seems to be the only game in town in talking about those experiences and dignifying them, that's one reason why I think it seems to be taboo to criticise it, because you are talking about the most important moments in people's lives and trashing them, at least from their view.

[Dawkins] Well, I don't have to agree with you, Sam, in order to say that it's a very good thing you're saying that sort of thing, because it shows that, as you say, religion is not the only game in town when it comes to being spiritual. It's like it's a good idea to have somebody from the political right who is an atheist, because otherwise there's a confusion of values which doesn't help us. And it's much better to have this diversity in other areas. But I think I sort of do agree with you. But even if I didn't, I think it was valuable to have that.

[Harris] Right.

[Hitchens] If one could make one change, and only one, mine would be to distinguish the numinous from the supernatural.

[Dawkins] Yes.

[Harris] Right.

[Hitchens] You had a marvelous quotation from Francis Collins, the genome pioneer, who said, while mountaineering one day, he was so overcome by the landscape, and then went down on his knees and accepted Jesus Christ. A complete non sequitur.

I agree with the spirit of that last comment by Hitchens – I find it extremely implausible to think that someone who has not been exposed to Christianity will ever have any vision or experience specific to it. People have experiences marked by powerful positive feelings of transcendence, unity, etc. and then interpret them through the familiar conceptual lens which appears to do justice to them.

Where I go further than Harris does here is that I see this as a special example of the general problem of first person experience. People mostly don’t think experience is an accidental part of an essentially non-experiential reality. They think experience is something fundamental, and I agree. The trick is to see that one can have a worldview which privileges experience in this way without otherwise embracing supernatural entities or interventions.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Smolin and Rovelli Respond to Edge's Annual Question

The Edge annual question for this year, asked of over 100 scientists, journalists, and assorted intellectual types was “What have you changed your mind about and why?” I checked out the responses of some of the physicists who participated.

Lee Smolin’s entry discusses the impact that his evolving views about time have had on his quantum gravity work. His earlier research was on loop quantum gravity (LQG), which as it seeks to quantize the geometry described by general relativity results in a basically “timeless” theory (unlike quantum mechanics itself, where a background time is part of the picture). Now, however, Smolin has come to believe that time, in the guise of causality, needs to be a fundamental element of a theory. This leads him to be interested in theories where causality is built in at the ground level and where the more familiar “laws of physics” (general relativity and quantum field theory) are emergent features which may themselves evolve in time (for more see my previous post on Smolin).

It was interesting to me to note a contrast with fellow loop quantum gravity pioneer Carlo Rovelli. Rovelli’s entry was about his realization that the standard interpretation of quantum mechanics made sense, but not if you tried to apply it to the whole universe. The insight led to his formulation of relational quantum mechanics a bit over 10 years ago. Now, from my outsider’s perspective, it seems that Rovelli’s relational qm is philosophically in harmony with Smolin’s interest in “emergent” quantum gravity approaches which start with a causal network of quantum systems at the fundamental level. However, while Rovelli says that relational qm has “affected substantially” his quantum gravity work, in his case, it appears this involves inspiring the ongoing extensions to the loop program rather than working on approaches which have a different fundamental starting point.

Finally, relevant to this topic is John Baez on why he decided to stop working on quantum gravity.