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Sam Harris Doesn’t Understand Meditation

July 8, 2021

This is certainly one of the oddest products I’ve covered here. Sam Harris is selling a meditation app that he claims will help you erase your racial identity. The result is a bizarre form of New Age political quackery.

Why anyone should even be instructed to renounce their race is a valid question, but it is outside the scope of this blog. (For coverage of the implications for racial politics, see the footnotes.) The focus here will be purely on Harris’s claims about meditation.

For someone who has been a practicing Buddhist for three decades, Harris displays an extraordinary degree of ignorance about what meditation is and how it works. He also displays a most hilarious lack of self-awareness, and a confuses meditation with something that is simply an egoistic attachment to certain ideas.

In short, Harris makes three fundamental errors. He thinks you can simply force yourself to meditate; he assumes that insights gained from meditation can be directly carried over into everyday mental life; and instead of helping you dis-identify from their race, he is really coaxing people into identifying even more strongly with a set of (utterly fatuous) ideas.

These are beginner’s mistakes, though they also tend to be replicated by meditation teachers who exaggerate the efficacy of their product.

I’ve previously praised Harris for the way he dealt with Deepak Chopra’s spiritual bluster (see the footnotes), but here we will see Harris making exactly the same errors that he criticised Chopra for, as well as pulling all the standard New Age promotional tricks. Here is the classical 5 Step approach to promoting spiritual quackery that we are about to watch Harris impliment:

1. Find a problem (and if there isn’t one, invent one or exaggerate an existing minor one)

2. Find a single simple “cause” for that problem

3. Find a single simple “cure” for that cause

4. Exaggerate, oversell, or even fabricate the effectiveness of that “cure”

5. Treat all criticism of the product as a personal and unjustified attack on the teacher themselves

Sam Harris is best known as a “New Atheist” and a member of a right wing thinkers’ club, the hilariously pompous “Intellectual Dark Web”. A light touch, a practical approach, and a gently self-ironic attitude to his own foibles are not part of Harris’s character.

In his 5 minute ad for his app, Harris compares himself to Jesus; calls religion a perversion — a perversion of his own “true” meditative experience; claims that he himself possesses “genuine compassion”; and claims that the real reason why he is often accused of bigotry is because people don’t understand meditation. Ninety-nine percent of people, Harris complains, misunderstand the role that meditation plays in his political and philosophical thinking…. That’s 99% of the people in his own audience! Obviously, it’s them who need to change, not him. They need to start meditating so that poor Sam can have his ideas understood by people in the manner he wishes.

This is clearly a rather demanding child……

Oh yeh, and he claims his meditation app will grant you “meditation on demand”. Dis-identifying yourself from your racial identity has never been easier.

It is true that meditation, especially the Buddhist type that Harris likes, can be said to involve a kind of “dis-identification” with one’s idea of “self”. But the way Harris talks about it is completely mad. Despite thirty odd years of Buddhist practice, he doesn’t seem to know the most basic aspects of meditation and it effects.

Here is Harris’s version of the 5 Step sales pitch:

1. The problem is hypersensitivity to racial discrimination on “the Left”

2. The cause is over-identification with racial identity

3. The cure is Dr Sam’s meditation app

4. The exaggerated sales pitch is “meditation on demand”

5. Any criticism is treated as a personal attack on Harris himself

It’s all laid out in his short podcast titled A Few Points of Confusion.

As always in his podcasts, Harris opens by expressing his shock and bafflement that he has yet again been misunderstood by a great many people. As always, he will he have to correct everyone. The “points of confusion” that people have had concern the role that meditation plays in Harris’s life.

Sam Harris’s subjective experience of his own consciousness is of course very important to “people”, but sadly, they get confused, so that needs to be cleared up pronto. Harris explains:

—> Unless you’re deeply into it, the term meditation almost certainly conjures the wrong ideas in your mind.

Luckily for me, I am deeply into meditation. In fact I’ve been meditating about as long as Harris has. I was even in India in the 1990s at the same time as him, and in a similar milieu. I’ve also read his book Waking Up and had thought that I was in broad agreement with his approach. But it turns out that I’ve been “confused” all along.

—> Meditation is just a bad word for the recognition of specific truths about the mind.

Hang on — what??? So meditation doesn’t mean awareness, but rather a “recognition” of certain “truths”??? That’s insane! That’s not meditation by any normal definition. That will only lead to being egotistically identified with a set of ideas, only now with the added mistake of taking them to be “truths” instead of just ideas. That’s not even what his own book says!

I’m stunned. I can’t believe he said that. But yes, that is indeed a direct transcription of what he said.

According to the Buddhist/Vedanta style I thought he advocated, meditation is, more or less, simply awareness. Or if you want to get technical, awareness of awareness. Meditation is not centered around conceptual thought like that — recognition, specific truths, etc. That’s stupid.

What Harris just said is like saying that swimming is just a bad word for conceptually understanding what it feels like to get wet.

He continues:

—> It’s a process of discovering what is already true of your mind.

Which “mind” is he talking about here? The mind with a lower-case m, or the capital-M Mind that some translators use for various Buddhist terms for consciousness? He seems to be conflating both these meanings in an odd way. This will become clearer below.

—> People can’t understand positions I take on this podcast without understanding your mind.

Harris is really pissed off that communication involves an awareness of other people’s existing knowledge and perspective, rather than just being able to blab out whatever is going through his mind at the current moment. I thought meditation makes you less egocentric, not more!

—> And these are positions which, on their surface have nothing to do with mediation. My experience here [he means his own experience with meditation] is often the key to understanding my criticism of specific scientific and philosophical ideas….

No wonder 99% of his audience gets confused.

Harris then uses the examples of free will and the illusion of “self”, as insights that can be gained through meditation. And this is where he really goes off the rails.

He thinks that you can not only discover these “facts” through meditation, but then also simply ram this awareness into your everyday non-meditative consciousness. In fact he demands that people do this. And he calls resulting dogma, born of the interpretation of a memory, “knowledge”.

Sure, I can remember that while I was meditating my self or my feeling of free will disappeared, and I can intellectually believe that they must be illusions. But in normal everyday consciousness, I can’t keep on experiencing that absence of self or free will. The actual experience in the moment it is happening is one thing; the memory of that experience is something completely different. And the interpretation of the memory is yet another step removed. But Harris sees none of these distinctions. In fact he thinks it’s merely a lack of courage that prevents people from dragging their meditative experience into their everyday consciousness.

He thinks that people–

—> ….don’t really have the courage of their convictions, because they still feel like selves that enjoy free will.

Nope. You can’t simply decide to stop “feeling like a self” or “feeling like you have free will”. Note the use of the verb. And the pronoun.

There is no escaping this, with or without a meditation app. As soon as you start doing, meditation ends. Nor can you force yourself to stay in a meditative state. Ask any Buddhist for the last 3000 years. The mere attempt to do so instantly destroys meditation. There are no verbs inside the Gates of Eden, (as Dylan might have sung).

What you can do, however, is convince yourself that you believe that you don’t have a self or free will.

That will make you a very special meditator indeed. Instead of getting out of the mind, you can simply inflate the mind so that it includes all the great ideas like “I have the consciousness of Jesus”, “I have no self”, “I have no free will”, and then you can walk around smugly all day babbling about how non-egotistical you are.

—> I can say this because there’s nothing hypothetical to me about the kinds of experiences that people like Jesus were rattling on about to anyone who would listen. And if you’ve had these experiences, and can have them on demand…

And there it is folks — Meditation on demand!

Seriously, has this guy EVER meditated?

I recall hearing a talk by one of Joseph Goldstein’s rather smug followers (maybe Stephen Levine), who was laughing about people thinking Goldstein’s institute was called “Instant Meditation” instead of “Insight Meditation”. Well, Harris isn’t an innocent newbie. He is an experienced meditation teacher with some rather grand claims about his own degree of spiritual development. Yet here he is making exactly the same mistake.

We could really just stop this right here and save this fellow from further embarrassment. But, as Harris thinks he’s really onto a great new product that will save civilisation from “the Left”, it’s worth plowing on.

Harris continues:

—> When it’s absolutely obvious to you that the conventional sense of self is an illusion…

Um, Dr Harris– “absolutely obvious” to WHOM exactly? Has he even realised that his own illusory self is currently addressing your and my illusory self?

Sam Harris thinks his grand godly capital-M Mind of Buddhism has comprehended the illusory nature of his lower-case-m mind. The bad news for Harris is that he has merely convinced himself that he is in a permanent state of Jesus-consciousness.

This is exactly the same mistake that every channeler, conversationalist with God, Angelic Healer, every Pope, priest, faith healer, and snake-handling speaker-in-tongues makes. The promised land of the Higher Self gets colonised by the lower self and proudly proclaimed and blabbed about in public.

Harris continues, saying that if you can get these experiences on demand, then you won’t get dependent on a religion. And now that he’s cleared up that “point of confusion” in 99% of his audience, he moves on to politics.

….. Racial politics…… What could go wrong?

—> How can I be so sure that the explosion of identity politics that we see all around us isn’t a sign of progress. How can I know that it’s an ethical and psychological dead end to be deeply identified with one’s race?

Before asking “how can I know” it would be better to demonstrate that it is really the case, rather than just assuming it.

Whoops, that sentence is still going. He’s shoehorned a few more assumptions into it–

—> …and that all the people who are saying that there’s no way to get past race in our politics are just confused?

Hang on, what is he talking about? This is the “problem” his app will fix, but who exactly is it who says you “can’t get past race in politics”? What does that even mean?

—> Well it’s because I know that a person need not identify with the face he sees in the mirror each day.

Howwwleeee shit.

Well that was stupid.

Yep, stare at yourself in mirror each morning and repeat the affirmation “I don’t know who the hell I am.” That will improve your mental health no end.

—> How unnecessary is it to identify with millions of strangers who just happen to look like you in that they have the same skin colour. In light of what’s possible, psychologically and inter-personally, in light of what is actually required to get over yourself…

Does anyone know what he means by this?

—> ….and to experience genuine compassion for other human beings…

The Grand Master of Meditative Compassion speaketh.

—> It is a form of mental illness to go through life identified, really identified, with one’s race.

Yes, your racial identity is a mental illness….. Now please don’t tell Sam that he’s barking up the wrong tree. Or that he’s climbed up the wrong tree and is sitting there happily, blowing on a dog whistle.

—> Of course to say that as a white guy…

And here it comes. Point five on the standard model for the promotion of quackery — to treat all criticism as a personal attack.

—> Of course, to say that as a white guy, in the current environment, is to stand convicted of racial insensitivity, and even seeming indifference to the problem of racism in our society.

Poor Sam — all he said was that racial identity is a form of mental illness and is selling a product to cure you of it, and now people are calling him insensitive. …So let’s all talk about his victimhood now, rather than any of the problems with his ideas about race or the product he is selling.

He continues, saying that “most well intentioned people” have been “successfully bullied” into dismissing his ideas on race because he’s white.

Then he adds that the white people who criticise him — like me for example — are only doing so because there are “massive incentives” on offer. This shoehorning of assumption upon assumption, each with an implicit accusation of bad motivation in his critics, is really just about the only thing that Sam Harris’s statements ever consist of.

—> But to insist on the primacy of race is to be obscenely confused.

Who, exactly, insists on the “primacy of race”? Does he mean me?

Whoops– the sentence was still going.

—> …obscenely confused about human potential…

Hang on — what? Human potential? The Golden Age, the Promised Land awaits if we only fulfill our potential. This is seriously weird. I really didn’t know Harris thinks like this.

—> …and society’s potential. And I’m not going to pretend to be unaware of that.

The accusation here is of course that everyone else is just pretending “not to be aware” of human and societal potential, despite it being so obvious, whatever it is.

—> …So when I’m talking about racial politics I am also talking about meditation.

We got there finally. All that was just to explain why he sees a connection between meditation and politics. It’s all so simple– all the confused people think Sam Harris is talking about racial politics, but really he’s just talking about meditation. The undeniable FACTS of meditation that you would know are facts if only you would use his app. Really, I don’t know why 99% of people find this so hard to follow…

Harris continues with his usual lucidity.

—> There are certain things that I actually understand about my own mind, and about the mind in general [he means your mind]. And the idea that racial identity is something that we can’t get past is total bullshit.

Get with the program people! Stop this obscene confusion about your own identity, and listen to Dr Sam. Force yourself to understand him. He is right. He knows the facts, the scientific and meditational facts. He is offering you meditation on demand. Use the app and force yourself to dis-identify with your race and get identified instead with the fact that you have no self and no free will.

And if you believe — if you truly believe — a Golden Age will dawn. And the people shall rise up and attain the peak of human and societal potential– namely, they shall correctly interpret the role that meditation plays in Sam Harris’s political and philosophical thinking. And their confusion about this shall be no more. And they will stop calling him a bigot, a fool, a klutz, an ignoramus, an enabler of white supremacy. A racist. A white guy.

Footnote & Links: I used to follow Sam Harris and have praised him in the past–

see this article

–until I got bored with his habit of making long-winded complicated arguments and then whining about being misinterpreted, and making the whole issue about himself. Then, when he took up with a–

right wing pseudo-intellectual Christian scammer

–I started ignoring him as completely as possible. A recent series of podcasts called Woking Up alerted me not only to this ridiculous meditation scam, but also to Harris’s constant and completely hysterical attacks on “the Left” and his inexcusable support for white nationalists. Links to the series (which bullied me into writing this blogpost and benefiting from the massive incentives from doing so) can be found here

Part 1 — Some of my best friends are…. (and intro to Harris’s worst takes disgracefully ignorant conception of racism)

Part 2 — Steal-manning Champion

Part 3 — Election Aftermath (this deals especially with Harris’s claim that “White supremacy is the fringe of the fringe” and that “Wokism” is a far greater threat to civilisation)

Part 4 — Nothing to do with racism

Part 5 — Sam Harris loves identity politics

Eiynah’s ‘Polite Conversations’ podcast can be found here

Posted by Yakaru

26 comments

  1. Well said, Yakaru. As promised, we’ll stop bullying you for a month, and the cheque’s in the post – the Left.

    Getting into meditation can be harmful, I fear, and one of the main dangers seems to be what Harris has fallen for, as you describe well here, inflating his certainty about mental truths. (I should say, I’ve not dipped into the actual content other than these transcribed passages, but I have often been concerned about Sam’s dim appreciation of the power of his own ego and heard him whine about being misunderstood.)

    I was also dismayed by a talk I heard him give on his idea that morality could be scientifically judged, in which he chose an example that seemed to be based on nothing more than his cultural and personal biases, while he thought he was elucidating obvious moral certainties. It’s amazing how often he makes arguments that are circular. There’s a defined, arbitrary outcome, but he doesn’t see that, so he thinks he’s demonstrated a given.

    I feel a lot of sympathy for him, because he’s not really responsible for all this, as there’s no self and no free will (hehe). The imaginary higher self ties itself in knots trying to undermine the tyranny of the imaginary ego. We work at our “spiritual growth” or whatever we call it, trying to practise being less egotistical, freer of our attachments, and if we seem to make progress, we conclude we’re a “better” or “wiser” or “nicer” person than we once were. Pretty soon, we might compare ourselves with other people rather than just our previous self (not that there ever was one, remember), and that involves the awkward paradox that we might mention it to others, which tends to piss them off.

    Now, if that’s actually the case, there should be nothing wrong with it, but it may be heard as boastful. If it’s not the case, well, we’ve presumably gone wrong somewhere.

    Harris, poor man, has “set himself up as” (or fallen into the role of) hero, moral expert, spiritual guide to millions, and that exaggerates the above problem.

    It’s curious that someone who made such a thing about being scientific now talks about what “people like Jesus were rattling on about” (as a eulogy), even suggesting he knew what Jesus meant, when Jesus was (to any scientific, rational mind, if we take the Gospels as rough indication) completely cuckoo.

    It’s telling that he doesn’t finish the acolade with “…teaching” or “…impeaching”, but “…rattling on about”. Can’t be seen praising Jesus too obviously. I expect he’d say Jesus was not right on certain matters but was trying to teach us the psychological truths he (Sam) has also seen. Oh dear, it won’t end well. He’ll get crucified in the press.

    Thank you so much for the link to my JP critique. I didn’t know, or had forgotten, that he’d got close to that nutjob. I thought they had difficult discussions. I see how they might agree though – the sort of I’m-unimaginably-spiritual-but-not-‘religous-as-you-know-it’ BS, and the I-use-science-to-shed-moral-(white)-light BS.

    Great to see you blogging again, but it’s not about Bruce Lipton! Did he die or something?


  2. I saw a post beginning with Sam Harris and thought, “FRIENDLY FIRE.” xD

    In all seriousness, it’s sad to watch Sam’s trajectory in recent years. I really admired him for advancing secularism and challenging dumb ideas, but his rabid obsession with identity politics is not a good look.


  3. @inhalennihilation,
    Yeh, I also admired him for quite a few years, and felt some sympathy for him for a few more. He certainly copped some very unfair attacks and misrepresentations some years ago too. I’m disgusted by his politics and his pretence of being “of the left”, but I’m a bit more shocked at how much he screwed up about meditation! I really thought he knew that stuff.

    @lettersquash,
    I tried to avoid looking too much at his really quite sickening politics. Other anti-white racists are working on that anyway.
    I’m always glad when I can just link to your JP articles rather than have his name poisoning my eyes by appearing here!

    In politics at least Harris right on board with JP. On religion they disagree but are entirely happy to do debating tours together where each says his convoluted diatribe and then they both bash the left for the rest of the time. I’d like to think he was just doing it for the money, but I think he really genuinely is that much of nitwit.

    “The imaginary higher self ties itself in knots trying to undermine the tyranny of the imaginary ego.” –Yeh, that sums it up. And he really seems to think that it’s effectively his Higher Self that’s doing all the talking. At least I think that’s what happened to him.

    …Lipton has been promoting some covid quackery which I just can’t look at. I’m still a bit shocked that I did 80 posts about that stupid book.


  4. The other awkward paradox for me though is that there is a problem with identity politics, and there is potentially a problem with identifying with one’s race (a form of identity politics), and it’s not easy to say those sorts of things without carefully unpacking what you mean.

    I don’t know how SH unpacks it beyond something a long time ago, so I can’t comment on it, but – pardon me – JP actually analyses the potential problem of IP quite correctly, in my view, which is that it can lead to more and more elements of people’s “identity” being set up as special conditions of particular persons, who must be protected from “offence”, even verbal, increasingly enshrined in law. One of the most dangerous areas is the increasing self-identity craze, leading children to think they can solve their problems by switching to the opposite sex, which is conflated with gender.

    There are a great many problems with IP, but often those get overlooked by the critics in favour of right-wing, reactionary, things-were-better-when-we-beat-the-kids, boys-should-fight-and-girls-clean-house, white-supremacist, or Bible-bashing politics.

    I’m sure you, as a lover of free speech and scientific reason, also see problems in IP.


  5. I could find plenty to criticise on the left and IP. But SH sees the left — the entire left — as a greater threat to civilisation that white supremacy, which he writes off as being nothing but the odd lone kook. I think he massively under-estimates that danger, while massively over-playing the threat of Islamic extremism.

    He rejects any notion of systemic racism, but conversely accuses anyone who criticises him for that of anti-white racism against him.

    I think he started off as basically a troll but picked a reasonable cause (criticism of religion & leftists giving a pass to radical Muslims), and has jest been repeating that mode. He doesn’t have any other mode of communication. Everything he says is put in the most provocative manner possible, surrounded with massive buffer-zones of convoluted “logic” that he assumes is unassailable, and then drags any critics into that logical morass. Or he instantly accuses critics of bad motives.

    The mistakes you point out in his ideas about morals are exactly the same ones that he makes with his politics. His perspective is the right one. All that’s left to do is measure people’s wrongness in terms of their distance from his ideas.

    And he’s a complete hypocrite. I recall him comparing religious belief to people who believe Elvis is still alive, and saying religious should be made to pay the same price in terms of credibility as Elvis-believers, and yet nowadays he says that he’d “take a point from Hitler if it was made well”. And then he’ll whinge if anyone dares find that a bit odd.


  6. Just another fatuous narcissist trying to make himself feel special.


  7. Yes– he would rank very highly on the narcissist scale. He can dish it out, but can’t take it back. Claims he could withstand solitary confinement without a problem because of his meditative prowess, but can’t let a person he disagrees finish a sentence without butting in and correcting them.


  8. I enjoyed his book, ‘Letter to a Christian Nation’. I was unaware of his work on meditation. I see meditation as a personal, relaxing tactic to help with anxiety and such.
    Claiming persecution and being misunderstood is something that runs as deep with some Atheists as it undoubtably does with religions.
    Woody


  9. But we have to be careful not to go the other way and assume everything someone says comes from their flawed ideas or corrupt politics. Valid logic, even from Hitler, is still valid logic, which presumably is what Harris meant.

    Even then, we have to remember that words don’t analyse exactly, like maths, so we can dismiss a statement and/or become offended by it when we might have misunderstood the meaning. Regarding “systemic racism”, he might mean there’s no secret society writing dastardly plans to subjugate a “race”, which is easier to accept, but ignores the other comprehension of systems, that they develop and tend to be maintained even unwittingly by our personal prejudices.

    It would also be logical to declare the same on the grounds that “race” is a flawed concept, although that kind of argument can get used as a way to prove whatever you want, like child abuse can’t exist because there’s no agreed definition of adulthood.

    Unfortunately, Harris seems to demonstrate all the time that he’s never learned the difference between formal logic and verbal reasoning, and that is a dangerous condition for anyone preaching to the masses.

    Oh heck, I should have known Lipton would start using Covid to sell more snake oil. I’ve not been keeping myself in the loop.


  10. Hi Woody!

    Personally, I’d trace Harris’s claims of persecution back to his personality rather than his atheism.

    I read The End of faith, and found it okay… But recall being a bit irritated by it too — he draws out looooooong lines of argumentation and treats his conclusion as obviously true, without accounting for the possibility that some might reject some of his premises.

    Thought his meditation book was quite good and previously recommended it to people.

    @Lettersquash,
    On its own, his statement about Hitler would have been unobjectionable –apart from the intellectual laziness and the absence of an example of Hitler ever saying anything that I would consider “valid”. (Thankfully Harris didn’t offer any examples!)

    My problem lies with it being *Harris* who said it. This is the same guy who rejected various holy books on the grounds that anything of value in them is to be found elsewhere and better said. It just looks weird that someone rejects the Bible or Quran out of hand, but demands the right to be taken seriously if he agrees with Hitler.

    He also told (rabbi) David Wolpe to his face that he (Wolpe) deserves as much credibility as an “Elvis Lives” believer, simply for being a rabbi. Yet he thinks he deserves to be able to agree with Hitler without any loss of credibility.

    And he fails completely to consider that even if a black person successfully dis-identifies with their race, this is no protection against racists. He simply ignores it beyond asserting that racism in the US is vastly exaggerated.

    In fact I think you’ve nailed his problem perfectly– “Harris seems to demonstrate all the time that he’s never learned the difference between formal logic and verbal reasoning”.


  11. Hi Yakaru,

    As you’ll be aware, during the conversation here earlier I began to question some of your points. I didn’t have the time to continue, but it felt like there were a few loose ends. As I said, I hadn’t listened to the source material you’re critiquing.

    Recently, I came back and started investigating, although I didn’t find the source material linked to here.

    You do link to the Woking Up series, which of course is already one remove from the original statements of Harris, and deeply critical of him. I began listening to the first of those, and they include sound-bites of Harris’ statements, but I found the delivery irritating (emotive background music pisses me off) and the analysis really very shallow.

    I searched Sam’s Making Sense episodes, however, and found what is presumably the main item you’re addressing, https://samharris.org/podcasts/243-points-confusion/

    I agree that he seems blithely and immodestly to compare his spiritual “truths” to those Jesus talked about, as absolute facts he has discovered, and that this is the reason he has been “misunderstood”, that 99% of the populace would misunderstand what “meditation” means, etc., which is to know these facts.

    It is a toe-curling display of conceit, apparently. It probably indicates a degree of unwitting, poorly-analysed indoctrination by certain types of religious community (Buddhist, perhaps, or the JPs of this world?). He crosses the line from experience and personal reflection, even tentative hypothesizing, literally into religion itself, which is deeply ironic for the supposedly atheist Harris.

    Against this, however, I felt that he was clumsily fumbling towards something that might bare analysis, at least. The thought occurred to me – what is meditation for, if not to shed experiential light on the nature of life, our minds, the self, the world?

    Maybe you can say more about this, as a dedicated meditator. You say it is just “awareness of awareness”, but why practise it? Are all the grander statements made about its value wrong (I’m accepting that some very grand ones may be)? Is it just enjoyable? Do you practise it because there is evidence that it improves thinking or health, etc.? Are there no statements about reality it helps us formulate, beyond “it’s possible to witness your awareness”.

    Because, despite the awful, self-aggrandizing clumsiness of the presentation, I felt he was pointing to something very important about meditation. Part of what he was trying to say, I imagine, is that it’s not just a nice or weird feeling or good for our stress levels, etc. – as the mythic 99% might say – but gives direct experience that can perhaps shed light on some of the biggest mysteries about ourselves.

    I intimated in one of my posts on consciousness (or maybe on free will) that I had started trying to conceive of my ordinary life from that new perspective (arrived at mostly analytically), as a body, and a body acting mechanically without free will, and I find your dismissal of the possibility of doing this rather premature and unfounded. Whether we believe it or not, there is a long history of Eastern mystical philosophy stating that this is the whole point of meditating, not merely to sit in a blissful state for some time and then go back to our fractious, separate lives, but live our ordinary life in (putting it crudely) “the meditative state” (usually implying such things as non-separation and/or universal compassion).

    So, at least giving his talk a very generous hearing, I might conclude that his major flaw in it was blundering into that interface – between inexpressible experiential “truth” and statements about it – and obviously doing so from a defensive position, without realising that it’s virtually an impossible divide. Maybe that’s too generous a hearing.

    I struggled as to what he could possibly be thinking of with the Jesus thing. It is hard to imagine some reading of the New Testament in which Jesus is actually indicating that we have no self and free will doesn’t exist, or any of the other propositions we might expect Harris to say in his saner days. Maybe JP persuaded him of such a thing. On the other hand, if his time in the desert (Jesus’, that is!) represented his meditating sufficiently to become enlightened, and this state is considered living with ultimate freedom from fear and unconditional love and compassion for everything, it fits exactly with the spiritual vision from the Hindu texts, etc., about the ideal purpose of meditation.

    I’m sorry to say this, but – on most of these matters – I find your rant here disappointingly irrational, presumably because of your negative emotional reaction to Harris (since I know you are very capable of better, cold-headed, analysis). You seem hell-bent on taking the most negative reading of everything he says, actually deliberately trying to misconstrue it, rather than trying – as I think we always should – to understand the other.

    For instance, despite the throw-away, ill-described, Jesus comments (assuming I even got some inkling of his meaning), which suggest his inflated view of his own enlightenment, he repeatedly states that he doesn’t mean he is fully enlightened, but on a learning journey. It would, of course, be better therefore to state the imagined insights more tentatively.

    It could, of course, be a trick, making people think you’re an Enlightened Being, then making them think you’re also Deeply Humble, but alas I can’t get inside another person’s head that well to know what they’re up to. The amount of effort Sam has put into trying to understand the world and considering deep ethical questions, however, persuades me we should give him some benefit of the doubt.

    I don’t know what to do with all this, but I’ve a great deal more of it. Just about every one of the quotes you give above, I could unpack in a way that is favourable and comprehensible, including the central ones about racial identity. I admire your work so much and we have been good (virtual) friends for so long, it pains me. I wonder if we might talk somehow or discuss this by email, or if you’d prefer to keep talking in the comments. I felt it would be wrong of me not to say this, and say it here in the comments.

    For now, I’ll mention another that stands out to me – “It is a form of mental illness to go through life identified, really identified, with one’s race.” – to which you respond: “Yes, your racial identity is a mental illness…..”

    You are right, I think, in describing Harris’ confrontational style! This is almost designed to backfire. But, for one thing, he stressed _really_ identified, and that should allow us to imagine people who are “over-identified” (a term he uses elsewhere) with their race. Whatever that might mean, whether you think it is possible to be “over-identified” with your race, it is disingenuous or careless of you to ignore that understanding. And, surely, we might easily raise this criticism of a white supremacist who sees everything in the world in terms of its relation to his whiteness or lack of it.

    Secondly, while “mental illness” is again ridiculously provocative, we might easily contemplate it as a truism of the militant white supremacist without batting an eyelid. We might also remember that race itself is a highly contested concept in scientific terms (although to designate everyone who holds less than purely scientific views as mentally ill would be a big push).

    I have been a casual supporter of Black Lives Matter since Floyd was killed, but – to my astonishment – began to question my view through the truncated (since I’m not subscribed) version of Harris’ discussion with John McWhorter. https://samharris.org/podcasts/217-new-religion-anti-racism/

    I’ll not go into any more detail now – sorry this has been so long – but I commend this to you and your readers to consider. Sam predicts that some will hear this and call them white supremacists, which suggests they’re aware of the danger.


  12. Thanks for you thoughts, John — much appreciated.

    Feel free to respond below — I think it’s worth putting some of this stuff up online.

    I can understand your criticism, and I’ll say something about it below. In short, yes, I have lost patience with Harris and that obviously comes across in the writing. I avoided going into detail about his ideas on race, and tried to focus as squarely as possible on what I argue he gets wrong about meditation.

    Yes, I did not consider his notion of race as mental illness from the perspective of meditation, and indeed, that was the perspective he was advocating — mental illness viewed from the perspective of meditation.

    BUT…

    a) he knew perfectly how it would come across — to tell people who are campaigning for racial justice that they are mentally ill; and b) he argued in his book that identification with the ego is indeed literally a mental illness. One could argue that he was talking clinically and not meaning to stigmatise mental illness — so it only *sounded* like he was insulting people. As he knew it would sound.

    And that is exactly classic Sam Harris trolling that he’s been doing for years — say a banal idea in the most provocative manner possible, get three quarters of people who hear it angry with him, and then sell himself as a victim to the other quarter who have a idea what he really meant.

    If he was only talking to meditators, then yes, you can say that your racial identity is as illusory as your notion of selfhood. But he’s not talking to meditators, and instead of trying to communicate the idea more clearly, he just blabs out something he knows will be taken as an insult, and then dangle the idea that he knows facts that his listeners don’t know, and even has the same mental state as Jesus (or by implication Buddha).

    I spent a decade or so listening to him and explaining away the appearance of trolling by thinking he is moving in difficult territory, and his opponents are just over-reacting. At some point I got bored with his habit getting himself in long-winded disputes about what he said but didn’t mean, or what he meant but didn’t say (as in this case).

    After getting bored and ignoring him for a few years, he teamed up with JP and started doing “debating” tours with him, and joined the “Intellectual Dark Web” — a group of right wing pro-Trump antivax racists and utterly clueless grifters.

    He dismisses the threat of white supremacy and was doing so right up to the time of Capitol Hill insurrection.

    I’m done with cutting him slack, and consider him a troll. That’s why I will take his claim that “your racial identity is a form of mental illness” as a piece of trolling rather than a serious contribution to a debate.

    He started his career by insisting on a literal interpretation of the Quran, so that he can highlight the danger of Muslims becoming terrorists, but now he expects everyone to take a subtle and nuanced approach to his attempts at “thinking out loud in public” about whether or not we should torture Muslims, or if racial identity is a mental illness.

    No doubt there are points where BLM or the me too movement went overboard, but Harris simply condemns “the Left” as whole. He doesn’t understand racism, and stupidly reduces it to using the “n word”. He entirely ignores the casual racism that that minorities in Europe and the US suffer daily — he is oblivious to it; and he treats it quite explicitly as if racism is a problem that would disappear if black and brown people were as “disidentified” with their race as he claims to be with his own ego.

    I have a lot of problems with much leftist political activism and there are plenty of criticisms to be made, but Harris makes them badly and is no longer worthy of attention, beyond trying to undo the damage of having helped build his career in the past, which is why I wrote this post.

    His mode is nothing more than trolling; he hasn’t informed himself about racism, or has only done so very selectively; and he evades criticism by playing the religion card (in this case meditation). And of course, his belief that you can force yourself to meditate and that his app can help you force yourself to have bliss on demand, is flat out idiocy.

    And of course, that idea also implies the existence of free will, which, relating back to your other comments, should make it an obvious non-starter.

    I might say something more about meditation later — I’m in agreement with your take on it, and maybe I gave the wrong impression in the post. I disagree with Harris’s take on it and the *way* he talks about it.


  13. Thanks, Yakaru, I see some of that. Part of it, at least, is his MO – the trolling – rather than the ideas themselves. I get that you’ve supported his work and now want to redress that, and I think I get that you’ve given up taking what he says as “serious contribution to a debate”.

    So it seems my problem here is that you’re largely engaging in rants, caustic, sarcastic and relatively shallow criticism, because you’ve given up dealing with his points seriously, and I’m left unsure how much to take them seriously. I haven’t followed his stuff at all closely, so it’s hard for me to judge, but this makes me want to know, and you seem to provide no direct evidence at all that is at all maturely analysed.

    For instance, when you say that Harris has ‘joined the “Intellectual Dark Web” — a group of right wing pro-Trump antivax racists and utterly clueless grifters’, what can I make of that? For a start, I’m sure Harris has eviscerated Trump in the strongest terms on several occasions, probably many hours’ worth. I find it hard to imagine he is an antivaxer. I don’t have enough evidence of the other epithets, but they seem unlikely in the main. I therefore begin to try to parse this differently. Has he entirely changed his mind and now supports Trump? It also seems unlikely.

    What seems more likely is that you’re stretching the idea of “joining”, to mean that you see him supporting some of the opinions of those people who have been identified as IDW personalities in some way (or maybe even talking to them – you’d have to clarify). I don’t think the IDW has a headquarters issuing membership cards, so again, I’m afraid I find expressions like these unhelpful (and maybe you weren’t setting out to be). Could you give specific examples of his opinions that you consider IDW ones, or explain what the above means more clearly, please?

    “Yes, I did not consider his notion of race as mental illness from the perspective of meditation, and indeed, that was what the perspective he was advocating.”

    I don’t quite understand this point. I don’t think the statement necessarily requires a meditator’s viewpoint. As I said, it simply requires accepting that he might have meant that some people are so obsessed with their race (“*really* identified”) that this constitutes a psychological problem, and, as I said, I expect you might accept the point if thinking about particularly militant white nationalists holed up on their ranches waiting for the Marxists and the blacks to try their luck.

    “BUT… that is exactly classic Sam Harris trolling that he’s been doing for years — say a banal idea in the most provocative manner possible, get three quarters of people who hear it angry with him, and then sell himself as a victim to the other quarter who have a idea what he really meant.”

    But it isn’t a “banal” idea. It is a shocking idea. And if it is true (at least in the generous reading I’m offering), then its phrasing isn’t necessarily “provocative” – it might just be that it shocks. Furthermore, for all we know, Harris might have thought long and hard about how to phrase such ideas and decided that nobody at all is going to listen if he gives a long, considered essay on the psychological dangers of excessive identification with one’s race, whereas a verbal slap in the face like that might get through.

    I have to accept that you’ve had more evidence of his MO, but I find the idea that he deliberately sets himself up for being attacked by three quarters of his audience in order to play the victim a little hard to swallow. It seems more likely that he accidentally upsets lots of people, or he deliberately upsets them in order to wake them up to consider the points he’s making.

    “If he was only talking to meditators, then yes, you can say that your racial identity is as illusory as your notion of selfhood. But he’s not talking to meditators, and instead of trying to communicate the idea more clearly, he just blabs out something he knows will be taken as an insult, and then dangle the idea that he knows facts that his listeners don’t know, and even has the same mental state as Jesus (or by implication Buddha).”

    I don’t see it like that. Again, I think the meditation issue is irrelevant to the argument (your racial identity, in some sense, is illusory). I suspect that, having said something like that and finding he’s attacked for it, he has grasped at the idea of trying to explain this by saying that he’s learned to see this illusory nature (of all aspects of identity, along with the self) through his meditation. This, admittedly, he did extremely clumsily, perhaps through feeling defensive, and over-egged the enlightened-masters pudding. He may have accidentally made himself sound grander than he intended with that, or he may actually have an inflated ego (which would be difficult to avoid given his status, I think). So I don’t see the issue being about whether he’s talking to meditators or non-meditators.

    “He dismisses the threat of white supremacy and was doing so right up to the time of Capitol Hill insurrection.”

    Maybe all I need is more exposure to his stuff. I mean, if this is even broadly true, it is worrying. I’m sorry if I’m arguing from a position of ignorance. Nevertheless, on the face of it, the above could mean a lot of things, some of them quite reasonable. One might, for instance, mean that white supremacy isn’t much of a problem because it won’t get anywhere (for whatever political reason), rather than that it’s not immoral and disgusting. He might have compared it with the danger of Islamic fundamentalism, which he considers, with some good reason, a much more dangerous problem in the world. I don’t know. He may, of course, be playing out his unconscious biases, to which I think just about any white person is deeply susceptible, since we have absorbed the background cultural idea that whiteness is a kind of invisible default, the normal human condition.

    As I said, I have witnessed something like this in one of his talks (in that case, anti-Muslim bias of which he seemed unaware), and maybe I just haven’t witnessed enough. It would be something to pity in a white person, to my mind, as opposed to rebuking them harshly, if they are not deliberately, spitefully other-hating, and just innocently believe they’re not racist, whilst acting from deep unconscious prejudice. I cannot say I am free of such bias myself. It may even be a product of evolution, and thus the default we all have to strive to overcome.

    “He doesn’t understand racism, and stupidly reduces it to using the “n word”.”

    I’m sorry, I find this, like so much you’re writing, very hard to believe! Harris, from my experience, dissects ideas quite finely, and he seemed to be keeping track of the extremely fine distinctions John McWhorter was making about it in their talk.

    “He entirely ignores the casual racism that that minorities in Europe and the US suffer daily — he is oblivious to it;”

    Again, this seems like nonsense to me. How can you even substatiate whether someone ignores something or is oblivious to it? Even if he said it’s irrelevant or not an issue, that’s not ignoring it. What do you actually mean?

    “and he treats it quite explicitly as if racism is a problem that would disappear if black and brown people were as “disidentified” with their race as he claims to be with his own ego.”

    Again, I’d need this “explicit” evidence. Could you link to an example where he says anything remotely like that? McWhorter says things that could be taken as meaning that, or something close to it, I feel. But it is important to distinguish between criticism of the extreme – people whose whole life centres around their victimhood due to their race, or cultural structures that emphasize that position as paramount, or the observation that too many members of that group are unhelpfully obsessed with it – and criticism of a whole group, as though it were an inherent fault in every member of it.

    And it doesn’t deny the fact of anti-black racism; it is just a different observation.

    You almost seem to imply that his meditation app is really to help black people forget they’re black so that the race problem disappears; that’s what he really wants it to do. If this is true, I’ll join you in criticising him too. If not, you risk looking a bit like you’ve lost the plot.

    I can accept that you might have written a fairly thoughtless ranty post without saying, “This is a thoughtless ranty post, don’t take it literally.” Engaging you on all this, you seem not to change your method at all. That’s more worrying.


  14. I think we’re in agreement that Harris Harris gets meditation wrong, and I would say he gets it seriously and absolutely wrong.
    I intended to have its relevance to his ideas on racism as a secondary point, because I wanted to avoid a more general critique of his work. The central point of my post was that you can’t force others to meditate and anyone who thinks they can force themselves to do so is deluded. Harris makes both these claims, and goes so far as to make them in the context of racism. In particular he makes these claims not so much in self defense against accusations of racism, but rather to positively assert that he is inherently immune from accusations of racism or ignorance of the issues he has chosen to speak about in public.

    He chose this particular territory to promote his meditation app which he claims would be sufficient to demonstrate to his accusers that he right and that they are **confused** – something they would inevitably see if only they were to learn to meditate and disidentify from their racial identity.

    He presented this as an argument on his podcast, into which he surreptitiously inserted advertising for his product. That is of course his right, but it is also why I didn’t link directly to it in the post. (And I should have given this as the reason for not linking to it – and I accept your criticism for not doing so.)

    For Harris the matter was closed at that point. The **points of confusion** were cleared up, and his critics should either learn to meditate and see that he is right, or shut up.
    I think I am justified in simply ending my analysis of his ideas in the blogpost at that point too, rather than opening the vast issues of racism and how he has dealt with them over the last nearly two decades. It’s too much for a blogpost.

    The mistakes he make about meditation – and they are genuine mistakes, not just a different perspective – are enough to disqualify him from further attention in regard to meditation, in my estimation.
    I am just sick of seeing him him do this – speaking in a way that appears racist or bigoted or right wing, and then draw people into extremely lengthy and convoluted arguemtns about whether or not he meant what he seemed to be saying. It’s exhausting, and I’m done with him.

    Here is Harris and the IDW.

    “I was meeting with Sam Harris, a neuroscientist; Eric Weinstein, a mathematician and managing director of Thiel Capital; the commentator and comedian Dave Rubin; and their spouses in a Los Angeles restaurant to talk about how they were turned into heretics.”

    Eric Weinstein is a pro-Trump antivaxxer. DaveRubin is a pro-Trump anti-mask activist, whose general includes the belief that Jesus was surrounded by Muslims. If an associate of mine said something as dumb as that, I would not support them. It didn’t bother Harris though. There’s also Joe Rogan, Ben Shapiro and JP of course and a bunch of others.

    I don’t mind him doing what he needs to earn a crust, but I’m not going to agree that he is on the left or take him seriously. He criticises Trump in such a way that according to him a third of his subscribers are Trump supporters – that was in 2016.
    He said he thinks Trump is a racist, but then attacked „the Left“ (the entire left that is), for calling Trump’s „shit-hole countries“ statement „racist“. He says instead that that is not racist, because if there were predominatly white countries that were poor and under-developed, you could also include them on Trump’s list of shit-hole countries, but as it happens, all of the poorest countries are indeed populated by blacks and brown people.

    This is a pointless and stupid take. The entire left did not call that statement racist as Harris pretends. Rather the problem is that the US President was speaking about other countries in that fashion, revealing a profound ignorance on a vast array of levels. Harris didn’t discuss that at all, instread focused on the entire left. And then pretends that it’s not his fault that a large proportion of his income comes from Trump supporters.

    This isn’t clever use of the intellect, but simple trolling.
    Another problem with his style is the same as with JP – he’s an authoritarian. He demands a vast amount of attention – you have to shut up and listen to long drawn out and highly convoluted lines of reasoning, accept all the premises at least hypothetically, sort out exactly what it all is supposed to mean, and accept that you might not be smart enough (or meditative enough) to understand it properly, and either agree or shut up.

    Everyone would ignore him if he wasn’t always talking on trigger topics.

    Add to that his ridiculously slow faux-meditative speech – a simple trick to dominate the conversation – and his constant needling of the opposition and polarisation of every issue he touches.

    I don’t see any reason at all to pay any more attention to this person, and invite you – or anyone reading this — instead to say what exactly has Harris contributed to any argument or debate in the last ten years that crytalised the issues and improved the standard of debate afterwards.

    I can think of none at all.


  15. Oh dear, this isn’t going well. I feel awkward, because I am inviting you to support your position on Sam Harris, and you are clear that you don’t really want to do that, because you’ve had it with him. That’s fine, as far as it goes, and maybe I should shut up and leave you to your opinion. You seem to be too angry about him to deal with the issues dispassionately.

    But, on the other hand, you are engaging and made some indication that you thought it would be good to discuss this here, so I’m in a bit of a bind. Trying to argue about issues with someone who’s made up his mind absolutely and is too angry to contemplate a different perspective isn’t likely to be productive.

    The criticism that you didn’t link to where he says all these things – that you can “force yourself to meditate” or “force someone else” to meditate – isn’t a serious one. As I said, it’s clear the post was a bit ranty, and there are good reasons not to link to something you disapprove of. I could, of course, begin to search, but there is a danger that I’ll waste my time finding other materials where he discusses his app and not the offending – or, at least, offensive to you – one. Perhaps you could email me with it. Or just give the title of the podcast where this terrible offence took place, so I can confirm your dire opinion of him and join the Harris cancellation project.

    I find it distasteful that you see fit to bad-mouth someone so roundly without giving any specific examples of his offences, even at the risk of increasing hits on his stuff or turning someone on to his stuff, or whatever it is you’re trying to avoid, the excuse for this suboptimal journalistic style being only that you’ve “had it with him”. You can’t be bothered to substatiate your claims about him. You regularly blast people for this kind of avoidance and bland statements on here.

    I’m shocked by the effort you put into reading him as negatively as possible, and your complete failure to respond to alternative readings I’ve suggested. Which brings me to this:

    “I think we’re in agreement that Harris Harris gets meditation wrong, and I would say he gets it seriously and absolutely wrong.”

    Well, no, we’re not in agreement about that – I offered the opportunity to discuss the possibility that meditation might be for more than a nice happy feeling, and asked you what that might be, if it might tell us anything about “the mind generally” (perfectly normal thing to say, not equating to “your mind”, as in “he thinks he knows your mind better than you do”), but you declined. I have literally no idea what you think meditation is for, and I tentatively consider that it might indeed help us know our minds (which are similar enough, we might assume, to say we know the mind better in general).

    But you know what meditation is, apparently, absolutely, since you know he got it wrong absolutely. Ironic seeing such absolutism from you on the matter. And again, “The mistakes he make about meditation – and they are genuine mistakes, not just a different perspective – are enough to disqualify him from further attention in regard to meditation, in my estimation.”

    When you decide that someone’s mistakes are “genuine mistakes”, not just a “different perspective”, you’re on dangerous territory. Are you sure you’re not doing what you criticised him for, deciding you have perfect judgement of the correct opinion about a subject? And meditation! Hell, there’s plenty of scope for different perspectives on that, I’d have thought. Are you “absolutely” sure your view is correct?

    Of course, I can’t judge, because I still don’t know in what sense he said he’d force people to meditate or whatever it was that was so unforgivable.

    Unfortunately, if the Bari Weiss article sheds light on his crimes, I can’t read it, as I’m not subscribed to the NYT. The heading seems to ask the question, “Should we be listening?” Presumably, you think not.

    “Eric Weinstein is a pro-Trump antivaxxer.”

    And, as I tried to get you to admit, SH is not.

    “DaveRubin is a pro-Trump anti-mask activist, whose general includes the belief that Jesus was surrounded by Muslims.”

    This is somebody other than SH. You seem to be having a failure of basic critical thinking skills, Yakaru. Are you ill?

    “If an associate of mine”

    Associate? What, do they work in the same office? This is the Twitter guilty-by association, isn’t it?

    “said something as dumb as that, I would not support them. It didn’t bother Harris though.”

    Support? What, like give them money? Agree with their opinion? Or just engage in an interview or conversation at the same time? In what way did SH “support” the dumb statements?

    “There’s also Joe Rogan, Ben Shapiro and JP of course and a bunch of others.”

    Yes, and there’s Hitler and Stalin. I bet SH has mentioned them at some point.

    “He criticises Trump in such a way that according to him a third of his subscribers are Trump supporters – that was in 2016.”

    You must tie yourself in knots coming up with this stuff. Listen to or read just about anything he says about Trump. He abhors the man; he spells out in no uncertain terms the depravity and pathological self-centredness, the scheming, lying, on and on. But you seem to be suggesting that he does this “in such a way” as to deliberately manipulate Trump supporters to follow his podcast! Could you tell me exactly how he does that? What, contrary to all his bile for Trump, does he say to ingratiate himself to Trumpists? And are they soooo incredibly stupid that they ignore the vast denunciation of Trump’s illegitimate Presidency and scheming to retain power, because Harris said….what? He said that the “shit-hole countries” comment wasn’t technically “racist”, which is literally true…but it’s one of those things the politically correct police would denounce as deserving of excommunication from civil debate. I begin to wonder if you’ve been indoctrinated by all that bullshit in the Twittersphere. You seem to have lost the capacity for intelligent debate.

    He criticises “the Left”, shock horror. I will take a risk and insist that he did not implicate, “the ENTIRE Left” in saying the comment was racist, it’s you (echoing some other twit, probably) who says that’s what he said.

    And what if he gets money from “Trump supporters”. Again, you seem to imply these are non-humans, not worthy of consideration. People voted for Trump for all sorts of reasons, and largely (I assume, and I believe SH says) because of their deliberate manipulation by Trump and QAnon and the Right. Just maybe he knows that the way to influence people who disagree with him and are under the spell of a cult is to keep them listening. I don’t know what his motives are, if he actually does try to keep Trump voters following him, and – the point is – NEITHER DO YOU. You’re just making these absolutist assertions of bad conscience on his part.

    Besides which, IIRC, you can follow his blog for very little money at all. Does he get a large proportion of his money from Trump followers, and how do you know this? I can’t believe I’m having to dissect your nonsense like this. It is genuinely shocking. It’s like I’m arguing with a conspiracy theorist.

    “Another problem with his style is the same as with JP – he’s an authoritarian.”

    Well, he has enough polite conversations with people he’s at odds with that you assume he agrees with them. He just can’t win, can he?

    “He demands a vast amount of attention”

    Really? How so? He publishes his own podcast? He’s invited to speak now and then? This sounds like the sort of thing someone would say who was jealous of his popularity (and I don’t imagine you are, so I wonder who you’re echoing).

    ” – you have to shut up and listen to long drawn out and highly convoluted lines of reasoning,”

    No, you do not “have to” do either of those. He speaks, and it is your right to listen to him or not. Sometimes long drawn out and highly convoluted lines of reasoning are required to shed light on a subject, because life isn’t simple. He generally listens silently and intently to others for long periods, and he often checks he’s understood what they’re saying carefully too.

    “accept all the premises at least hypothetically, sort out exactly what it all is supposed to mean, and accept that you might not be smart enough (or meditative enough) to understand it properly, and either agree or shut up.”

    Nonsense. Just angry irrational bile. Even if he does construct elaborate premises, he can’t force people to agree or shut up, like he can’t force attention from them, or force them to meditate.

    “I don’t see any reason at all to pay any more attention to this person, and invite you – or anyone reading this — instead to say what exactly has Harris contributed to any argument or debate in the last ten years that crytalised the issues and improved the standard of debate afterwards. I can think of none at all.”

    Well, he has contributed quite centrally to the popular debate on free will (more cogently and correctly, IMHO, than any of the other personalities involved in the popular debates, though I imagine there will be better technical papers in the journals). Dennett looks like a complete idiot arguing with him. Carrier is a fool along the same lines. And – interestingly – the latter two both seem to be arguing for free will because of their extraordinary careers, which must be due to their own efforts. Harris has the humility to say he’s got no free will and is therefore not responsible for any of his successes. Many people who have recognised the (likely) logical impossibility of free will cite Harris as having woken them up to this. Not a small contribution to humanity, IMHO (incidental, of course!).

    You say people have no free will (IIRC), but Harris is to blame for so much!

    As I say, I haven’t followed him closely, but he has contributed some interesting work, I believe, on consciousness and philosophical naturalism.

    The Moral Landscape, to my mind, ultimately fails in its central intention (giving morality an objective standing), but not before sketching some important features of the landscape, and it stimulated wide debate on the matter.


  16. I appreciate you taking the time to go through all this John, and I will try to address some of your objections.

    Sam’s I argue in the post that Sam’s position is indeed that you can force yourself to meditate. In the podcast/advertisement “Some Points of Confusion” he says that you can experience the same blissful states that Jesus experienced, “and experience them on demand.”

    My formulation of that claim as “being able to force yourself to meditate” is in fact an understatement.

    His expectation that people do this to themselves and thereby disidentify with their racial identity is effectively the claim that he is capable, via his app, of forcing other people to meditate too, in a manner that many of the worst gurus and meditation do — follow his instructions and you will disidentify from your racial identity.

    Talking like this in a political argument is for me simply a disqualification for being taken seriously.

    I am not interested in “cancelling” him, but rather in criticising his false claims about meditation, and beyond that ignoring him.

    My general characterisation of his his approach is a matter of opinion and perception, and I stand by it. As for the tone, Harris himself says no one should be bothered by such things. And he is one who makes absolutely no effort whatsoever to be diplomatic. He wants to be able to “think out loud in public” about highly controversial issues. I think he is far too ignorant of the issues he discusses to do that in a fruitful manner.

    He is the one who wants to take the Quran literally and discuss it like that. Fine by me. But it’s hypocritical to complain about me doing the same to him — which I did in the post: “You can experience the same blissful states as Jesus, and experience them on demand.”

    I don’t see any other possible interpretation of what he meant there. Nor did anything else he said hint at one.

    I will grant you that his contributions on free will were indeed ok, and also fall within the last ten years, just — (2012), so, okay, that’s one thing he contributed to. But he didn’t integrate such concepts or language at all in the aforementioned “bliss of Jesus on demand” claims — did he. That’s a serious failure.


    My post might have been better had I kept my general annoyance with him more out of sight, but I also think my description of his method in the post is a reasonable description.


  17. You mention SH’s taking the Quran literally, and say ‘it’s hypocritical to complain about me doing the same to him — which I did in the post: “You can experience the same blissful states as Jesus, and experience them on demand.”’

    But that’s not literal. That is the whole point. Nobody is complaining that you’re taking him literally! You are interpreting his words, not analysing them literally at all. I’ve found the transcript, and there is no hit when I search for “bliss” because that’s not what he says.

    You even follow this with, “I don’t see any other possible interpretation of what he meant there. Nor did anything else he said hint at one.” So it’s not literal, it’s your interpretation.

    No, you don’t apparently see any other possible interpretation, but that doesn’t mean that yours is right. To my mind, he does indeed say things that hint at another (and yours is bizarre). He describes the point of meditation as becoming free of identification with anything. He says: “How can I say with confidence that most religious doctrines are not merely scientifically implausible, many people can say that, but that they are also a perversion of a very real opportunity to experience self transcendence” and “the deeper you examine your experience, the more you discover that freedom ultimately depends on not identifying with anything, even with how you look in the mirror.”

    So his view of meditation here says nothing about bliss, but about becoming free, self transcending, and he relates this to what most religions seem to be trying to convey, but get perverted.

    He says: “And when you’ve had these experiences and can have them on demand is not just a matter of having taken LSD a few times and dimly remembering how different things were when it’s absolutely obvious to you that the conventional sense of self is an illusion, then it’s also obvious that our spiritual hopes need not be pegged to the idea that some historical person might have been the son of God who died for our sins.”

    This is the only time “demand” appears in the text, so he’s talking about his ability, not demanding others meditate, nor saying everyone can force themselves to. He’s comparing the ability of the regular meditator with the disassociation one might feel from a drug trip. That’s the only meaning of “demand” he uses.

    Are there “false claims about meditation” here? Does he say he’ll force you to meditate and disidentify with your race? Of course not. So your formulation: “His expectation that people do this to themselves and thereby disidentify with their racial identity is effectively the claim that he is capable, via his app, of forcing other people to meditate too” is simply false. You made it up. Just like you made up the idea that he says “you can force yourself to meditate.” He doesn’t say that either. He does not say, “you can experience the same blissful states that Jesus experienced” either.

    What he says – a better interpretation – is that as an experienced meditator, he can experience meditation regularly (“on demand”) and from the experience knows that we can become freer of all aspects of our identity, indeed, in the extreme, our self (something like this is what he infers Jesus was trying to communicate, and, as you observe, Buddha). From this sort of contemplation, he forms various political opinions, including criticism of religions and the belief that “getting beyond” race is a better way forward for humanity than obsessing more and more on identity politics and critical race theory.

    I am inclined to agree after listening to his talk with McWhorter. I long ago dismissed the idea of “colour-blindness” being a way forward, because we cannot – it seems natural to assume – ignore our racial type, or our face in the mirror.

    But perhaps we can, in a sense, with practise, with subtlety. I don’t mean, if we meditate with Sam’s app we’ll do these things, and I don’t think he means that either. I mean that we can gradually move towards a state of mind and a social conscience in which someone’s face doesn’t matter, nor their colour or ethnic origin, nor anything else.

    And, as he says, he knows people (like you, to my horror) will think that’s the same as saying “Black folks should get over themselves, buy my app and stop seeing themselves as black”.

    I’m going to leave it at that for now. Thank you for sticking with it this long and letting me criticise your position here. I’ve asked a lot of questions you haven’t answered, and I’m not going to nag you to answer them, but I would really like to know what you think is the purpose or the more important benefits of meditation. If it’s not self-transcendence and disidentification (as the Buddha seems to suggest), what is it for?


  18. I typed that comment late at night, and referred the relevant part about Jesus from memory. You are correct, that Harris didn’t use the word “bliss” as I implied. This is exact quote which is in the post–

    “there’s nothing hypothetical to me about the kinds of experiences that people like Jesus were rattling on about to anyone who would listen. And if you’ve had these experiences, and can have them on demand”

    I interpret “the kinds of experiences” to mean that they are blissful.

    And I interpret “you can have them on demand” to mean that if you meditate you will have blissful experiences. I argue in the piece that this is not so, by referring to standard Buddhist teachings on meditative practice, and personal experience, which I describe.

    Same with my points about free will — I outlined this in post at some length and as clearly as I can.

    With my description of forcing other people to meditate, I should perhaps have been more clear about what exactly I meant — that Harris expects people to force themselves to meditate and experience what Jesus experienced, and you can use his app to force yourself to do this.

    As I argue in the post, these are beginner’s mistakes, and his attack on left politics is vague, heated, and vastly over-simplifies whatever it is he means by “the explosion of identity politics that we see all around us”.

    His accusation that people will criticise him simply because he is “a white guy” is itself identity politics.


  19. Right, so he didn’t say “bliss”, he compared the subject he was talking about with what Jesus talked about. And you jumped to the conclusion that meant “bliss”, and you now reiterate that interpretation as if it were still true.

    But it’s not. Here’s what he says meditation is, “a process of discovering what is already true of your own mind.”

    However much you think that’s arrogant or you disagree with it or doubt it, THAT is what he’s saying, and it’s not the same as “bliss”, and if my experience is anything to go by, it’s pretty painful.

    He continues, “Of course, the discoveries one makes here [in meditation, presumably] are directly relevant to living a more satisfying life, which is the important part. ”

    Not bliss, then. He spells out that the important part (purpose, we can assume) is to help us live a more satisfying life.

    Next, he says, “And that’s why I spent so much time recommending that people look into this.” He recommends people look into it; not, he expects them to force themselves to meditate.

    So this, of yours, is clearly flawed:

    ‘I interpret “the kinds of experiences” to mean that they are blissful.’

    ‘And I interpret “you can have them on demand” to mean that if you meditate you will have blissful experiences.’

    And you still apparently fail to acknowledge that your interpretations are obviously wrong.

    He is trying to talk about the importance of meditating because in his experience it brings “a very real opportunity to experience self transcendence. I can say this because there’s nothing hypothetical to me about the[se] kinds of experiences”.

    So, oddly, you say, ‘I argue in the piece that this (bliss-on-demand) is not so, by referring to standard Buddhist teachings on meditative practice, and personal experience, which I describe.’

    Which descriptions are you referring to? This…: ‘It is true that meditation, especially the Buddhist type that Harris likes, can be said to involve a kind of “dis-identification” with one’s idea of “self”’? Maybe you mean somewhere else. I don’t see you describing personal experience of meditation here in the post.

    This is rather curious, now I read it again, because you seem to be almost grudgingly accepting Harris’ description, about self-transcendence, suggesting that you recognise that’s what he means. And then you ignore this idea again, criticising him instead for a bunch of other stuff you simply imagine.

    Here they are: ‘In short, Harris makes three fundamental errors.’

    (1) ‘ He thinks you can simply force yourself to meditate;’

    I believe I have disproved that beyond reasonable doubt. You thought he meant you can force yourself to meditate because he said (clumsily perhaps) that HE can meditate “on demand”, which could easily mean “pretty reliably” in context.

    (2) ‘ he assumes that insights gained from meditation can be directly carried over into everyday mental life;’

    We haven’t dealt with this much yet, but you say this as though it were obviously stupid. It’s partly why I asked you what you think is the purpose of meditation. It seems to me a reasonable claim. I would generally agree with it. There may be other reasons one might cite, but I think meditation does engender direct experiential “insight” into questions about the mind. I did also say that there is a long tradition in Eastern mysticism that the goal of enlightenment isn’t to sit in meditation or have bliss or even have insights into the nature of reality, but to apply these in ordinary life.

    (3) ‘ and instead of helping you dis-identify from their race, he is really coaxing people into identifying even more strongly with a set of (utterly fatuous) ideas.’

    I am genuinely trying to understand your objections, and I had to look again to get clues to what’s going on here. I do think Harris says this very badly:

    “Meditation is just a bad word for the recognition of specific truths about the mind.”

    I don’t think he means “truths” necessarily in the sense of “propositions”. I think he’s referring to direct experience of mental facts. I _interpret_ this, admittedly, but through the context of what he says here and elsewhere. He gave a long talk, IIRC, on this in regard to the lack of free will. We can, of course, put this in a proposition as well – maybe there are some other facts that can’t – but what we observe mentally isn’t an “idea” in that sense (and hence the word “truth” is a bad word for the thing!).

    If that’s right, then I understand your reaction:
    ‘Hang on — what??? So meditation doesn’t mean awareness, but rather a “recognition” of certain “truths”??? That’s insane! That’s not meditation by any normal definition. That will only lead to being egotistically identified with a set of ideas, only now with the added mistake of taking them to be “truths” instead of just ideas. That’s not even what his own book says!”

    And maybe that’s why it’s not what his own book says. He’s thinking aloud and talking rather inaccurately. But I have observed myself trying to make a decision by an act of free will, and it’s not too “insane” to describe what happened to me as “recognising a truth about the mind”.


  20. No, he cannot have been talking about a “process” if he was talking about “the kinds of experiences” that Jesus had.

    And it’s irrelevant to my criticism. You cannot have such experiences — nor can you have anything else related to meditation “on demand”.

    I’m sorry, I don’t see any way around that. Regardless of whether or not I was loose with terminology here in the comments section, Harris claims it is possible to have some kind of positive experience, or if you prefer, process, or insight into fact about the mind or whatever, *on demand*.

    Talking so vaguely and incoherently while telling people that they are “obscenely confused” about race and “human potential” (and even more vaguely, “societal potential”) is bound to lead to differing interpretations, more confusion, and polarisation.


  21. This is pointless.


  22. Exactly — because your man has used vicious divisive language in a vicious divisive tone and staked out a position on an extremely divisive issue that is extremely vague.

    I hope you have noticed the amount of effort that you have put into defending the position that you think he took, and compare it with the amount of effort he took in defending himself — pre-emptively — against the criticism he expected: i.e. because he’s white.

    The mere possibility that he might be wrong about meditation is pre-emptively excluded in the title of the podcast: Some Points of Confusion” — it’s other people’s confusion, not his. And their confusion is about meditation, which he knows as much about as Jesus and will now explain it.

    And the people who will refuse to follow his advice are doing refusing to do so because they are “obscenely confused” — confused about “human potential”, and “societal potential”.

    Well, do you know what he means by those words? I think I do, and I think it’s stupid and ill-informed, but I avoided discussing those issues as well because it’s such a minefield.

    It’s not the first time that this kind of dispute and confusion has arisen around something Harris has said about a highly complicated and extremely controversial subject. Nor is it the first time he has drawn a great amount of attention to himself merely with a couple of vague but provocative words.


  23. Ok, another round of this pointless bollocks then, if you insist.

    ‘I hope you have noticed the amount of effort that you have put into defending the position that you think he took…’

    I didn’t go to any effort at all to UNDERSTAND the position he was presenting. I listened to the podcast and it made pretty good sense, given that it’s a difficult, subtle and complex issue, and I had none of the responses you had. I have had to put inordinate effort into inviting you to consider that your interpretation might be skewed, but you seem either unable to see my interpretation, or you’re too entrenched to allow yourself to admit any of its points unless I demonstrate that you’ve actually invented a word that he didn’t even use.

    ‘…and compare it with the amount of effort he took in defending himself — pre-emptively — against the criticism he expected: i.e. because he’s white.’

    No, he begins the podcast referring to “a few encounters recently on other people’s podcasts and on social media that have made me think that many people are confused about some of the views I express on this podcast. […] So clearing up this confusion requires that I say a few things about the role that meditation has played and continues to play in my life.”

    So this isn’t pre-emptive defence, as he’s referring to earlier misunderstandings. Later, talking later about his whiteness, he sketches briefly, and without mincing words, what the danger is of holding the views he holds: “Of course, to say that as a white guy in the current environment is to stand convicted of racial insensitivity and even seeming indifference to the problem of racism in our society. I mean, what greater symptom of white privilege could there be than to declare that we should just all get past race? That’s a retort that I believe I can hear percolating in the minds of many listeners and most well-intentioned people have been successfully bullied by that kind of response. […] How much easier would it be to back down here and just say, sorry, I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m just a white guy.”

    I realise that, to you, this will sound like a two-faced excuse, either for actually being racist, or saying stupid things he can’t defend. It is, of course, a possible interpretation. I get it. But it doesn’t take any great effort to take him at his word, especially given his long work in ethics, cognition, etc.

    ‘The mere possibility that he might be wrong about meditation is pre-emptively excluded in the title of the podcast: Some Points of Confusion” — it’s other people’s confusion, not his.’

    As demonstrated, it’s not pre-emptive, it’s an attempt to clear up some confusion on HIS views. The fact he failed to do that in your case may not be entirely his fault. The fact that it’s other people’s confusion is reasonable, since we all know our own views. If he talked about how he’s been confused about the issues, that would have a different title.

    ‘And their confusion is about meditation, which he knows as much about as Jesus and will now explain it.’

    This, I admit, is a really stupid thing to throw into the mix, and does appear to demonstrate exaggerated assessment of his own abilities and of what Jesus was talking about, since experts don’t even agree if there was a Jesus, let alone how accurately we know what he said. Your criticism of Harris along these lines seem entirely defensible. Unfortunately, I don’t know what the original disputes involve (the ‘points’ that needed clarifying), and he may have blabbed about all that too much earlier and this is an attempt to partially fill the hole he dug. It kind of looks like that. I’m not excusing that – if that’s the case, he should instead, in my view, recognise and state that he over-stated his position on both these things (his knowledge of ‘the mind’ and of Jesus). Comparing yourself to Jesus, even with caveats, is a monstrously stupid and politically incendiary thing to do, unless you’re actually standing on wine that was a lake.

    ‘And the people who will refuse to follow his advice are doing refusing to do so because they are “obscenely confused” — confused about “human potential”, and “societal potential”.

    ‘Well, do you know what he means by those words? I think I do, and I think it’s stupid and ill-informed, but I avoided discussing those issues as well because it’s such a minefield.’

    It is a little unfair to judge what you think he means without saying what it is, even if it is a minefield. I admit it is curious, though, and he throws those in without much hint of what he means. I also admit that “obscenely confused” is somewhat ‘vicious’ and ‘divisive’.

    I can only guess, but, in context, I guess he’s referring to the political potential of a society in which humans have gained enough enlightenment (small e if you like) to “get beyond race” (i.e. for the problem of widespread racism to be largely solved). This would seem to be the only reasonable goal for a decent human being to want to reach. I have no reason to think Harris has suddenly turned 180 and wants anything else, nor that he wants it through some disgusting intermediate position where whites overcome the awkward problem of their being non-white people. I can’t imagine that he’s expressing visions of a society where everyone is forced to meditate on not having a colour or ethnic background. And I imagine, were we to dig into other things he says, we’d find he honours people’s ethnic backgrounds, their formative experiences and differences. HERE, he is trying to discuss our underlying lack of identity. He is obviously saying this in criticism of the trend towards deeper and deeper identity politics. I think you also had a problem with his referring to that, as if it wasn’t a thing, but it is, and it’s dangerous, IMHO. You say there are things about it that concern you (IIRC), but Sam isn’t apparently allowed to make stronger references to it.

    ‘It’s not the first time that this kind of dispute and confusion has arisen around something Harris has said about a highly complicated and extremely controversial subject.’

    That sentence contains its own explanation. Dispute and confusion is to be expected when people dare to approach highly complicated and extremely controversial subjects. I think the correct criticism to make is that Harris probably is fairly incompetent at this, because he blabs his mouth off before he’s really engaged brain (and I think I’d accept – and said earlier – that he is probably encouraged to do this by overestimating his own knowledge and abilities). But it’s a difficult bind. For instance, if we talk about meditation long enough, as a relative expert from years of practice and study, we might at some point discuss the religious connotations – what Jesus or Buddha said and how it might indicate their extremely advanced practice. Then, the dots are making their own lines, there is an inference that you’re begining to compare yourself with Jesus, whatever you say or do not say. How do people try to avoid this meaning more than it should – they say (as he does at least twice) things that deliberately distance himself from the fully enlightened position.

    There is – as you and I know – also a tendency for people to dig themselves into their opinion-bunkers. Here’s what I wrote in response last time before deleting it, because I’d given up:

    ‘No, he cannot have been talking about a “process” if he was talking about “the kinds of experiences” that Jesus had.’

    Of course he can. Those are two different but related things, and he can have been talking about both of them. Quite obviously you’re talking nonsense.

    ‘And it’s irrelevant to my criticism. You cannot have such experiences — nor can you have anything else related to meditation “on demand”.’

    That’s very authoritarian. How do you know? Maybe you haven’t meditated properly, or for long enough. Anyway, as I said, “on demand” doesn’t mean what you’re pretending it means. It can mean “fairly reliably”. You don’t consider him literally enough when you should, and here you take “on demand” literally when you shouldn’t. If I say “heavy metal does my head in”, you have to apply a certain knowledge of English vernacular to get the likely meaning. You ignored my point last time, and continue to read this weird draconian inference into “on demand”.

    What exactly do you mean by ‘nor can you have anything else related to meditation “on demand”? I won’t hold my breath on getting an answer.

    ‘Harris claims it is possible to have some kind of positive experience, or if you prefer, process, or insight into fact about the mind or whatever, *on demand*.’

    …i.e. “fairly reliably”. And apparently you claim the negative, which is as absolute a position, and you need to provide proof of it (good luck with that). There are a lot of things I might think (out of ignorance) that nobody can possibly do fairly reliably. Run a marathon, for instance. Some people do that “on demand” (but not when they’ve broken a leg).

    ‘Talking so vaguely and incoherently while telling people that they are “obscenely confused” about race and “human potential” (and even more vaguely, “societal potential”) is bound to lead to differing interpretations, more confusion, and polarisation.’

    Agreed. You and I have demonstrated that here. There is a lot along the lines of style and sloppiness of language that I would criticise him for. However, I suspect there must be another cause of your dire reading beyond those. I should not conjecture what it might be.


  24. Thank you for spending so much time and energy on this, and for representing criticisms of the post in as clear a manner possible, given the nature of the content.

    I do think you’re being a bit unfair to me, in comparison with the standards you hold Harris to, but I can live with it.

    This post went through many drafts, because I genuinely wanted to avoid having it balloon out into the issue of racism, or “societal potential” etc. Clearly in your eyes I failed, and I value your critical analysis.


  25. Thanks, Yakaru. It pained me to be so critical of your work, which I’ve always valued as some of the best critical thinking out there, especially, of course, the running to ground of pseudoscientists and scam artists. Even your rantier posts always seemed right on point!

    We have very different interpretations on this matter and are struggling to see across that divide. I also should reiterate that you’ve probably been following SH’s output closer than I have. I am warned by this to look closely at more of it and see where he’s heading – since of course it may be me missing the underlying intentions. We both know of experts on the reasonable side who go over to the dark side.

    I forgot, by the way. to acknowledge that I’d given examples of his good work mostly from earlier than ten years ago – I’d missed that part of your request/challenge.

    Maybe we should move on. I look forward to more of the detail on your latest series, which looks very interesting.


  26. I take it as a great compliment that you take what I write seriously enough to spend time dealing with such complicated issues. It really means a lot to me. and of course thanks for your support over the years — I doubt I’d still be writing here if it weren’t for your support. (And it does me good to write.)

    the change of opinion for me about SH was a lot longer and slower than I managed to represent here. I tried not to make it too much of a sudden U-turn, and clearly lost a few packages out the back that I thought would stay in.



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