Transcendence: What’s the Point?

6 Jul

Transcendence.” “What’s-the-Point?” …

Jerry Coyne gives an excellent critique of Sam Harris’ recent discussion of spiritual experience and transcendence from a Q&A he did on Reddit.

Coyne questions Harris’ remarks about transcendent experiences and expresses interest in his points about

… the non-equivalence of our “spiritual experiences of beauty and awe” [of nature] with the real and much deeper transcendent experiences reported by religious people, mystics and those who meditate.

Coyne’s argument about whether the latter actually qualify as ‘higher experiences’ over the ordinary moments of awe at nature and the universe that we all experience is a very good one.  Chemically-induced experiences also produce such effects.  Therefore, it’s not so simple to say “meditation” yields objectively-deeper “higher experience”, ergo producing increased well-being in the mediating subjects and greater degrees of ethical behavior, etc., etc. Not that these functions can’t produce increased wellbeing in
individuals and lead to more moral behavior on the part of societies that place value on such activities, but there’s more to it than what Harris is saying when he identifies “meditation” with “higher experience.”

I’m not going to say Coyne’s correct either  …

He seems to be indicating that the fruits of meditation and spiritual experience are absolutely no different from drug-induced altered states of consciousness, dream states, and so forth.  They may, in fact, be molded out of the same stuff; yet to automatically conclude and infer from that, that they are as fictitious and delusional as fairies dancing on the lawn, and are therefore to be dismissed as quackery, confuses the matter as much as Harris’ considerations do.

The dilemma is that neither Harris’ or Coyne’s solutions here are helpful ones.  Apply what Harris suggests and you’re left with a pop [therapeutic] psychology of meditation that can’t go the distance in understanding its essential nature as a practice, and that ultimately misses its opportunity in actually providing a reference point from which the classical principles of meditation can be cross-referenced with neuroscientific research and psychological study.  Yet, to go along with Coyne, is to accept a neutered perspective of human experience, one in which neither the meditating subject’s situation nor the poetic awe of the world is given much credence beyond pooh-poohing and cursory scientific curiosity of the subject.

It’s to be made short-shrift of as one might dismiss the hallucinations of the mentally ill, and let go at that.

But, again, that’s not helpful either!

The issue of spiritual experiences should be given better attention than this.  The reality of these experiences in peoples’ lives (and the psychological, neurobiological state of EXPERIENCE itself) should be more readily acknowledged by scientists in their work other than to peg them as just being pie-in-the-sky fantasies or figments of the human imagination [as Harris purports to demonstrate in his writing about these issues].

Furthermore, for the fact they do exist, this does tell us
something about the world in which we live
. …

No!  Not that we live in a conscious universe (ala Deepak Chopra) or that the universe is imbued with Life-Force (ala modern conceptions of Vitalism) … But that (1) the material-physical universe in which we live was complex enough and dynamic enough to project-for life systems in the first place and rational entities [as Homo sapiens on earth] in the second … & that, (2) just as we can be opened to more enhanced experiences of nature, that “nature” itself was predisposed by virtue of the way it developed as a complex, material system – that creatures like us can explore, investigate, and even experience it in the way that we do.

That’s what we must comes to grips with:

That the world of E Equals MC Squared … that is our material-physical-natural universe produced the world of Gautama Buddha, of Lao Tse, and other spiritual luminaries of human history.

That’s the real miracle!  And, it didn’t require supernatural or
metaphysical agencies to do it.


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