Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Introspection in to Consciousness

Hi folks, another excerpt from an interview where Sam Harris plugging his new book. His support for introspection as a valid scientific methodology, is something that Stevphen, Nick, Ciaran, and myself, among many others, have been banging on about for ages.

To see one of the figureheads of the New atheist movement speak in these terms is unprecedented.

Whilst there is common agreement with other philosophers, the last sentence is particularly telling. If you do not want to read the short article, he argues that consciousness studies should include introspection as a valid scientific methodology. This is something I had numerous arguments about on Truth Strike, not only regarding its validity, but also as a methodology in its own right.

To see someone of his stature call for this kind of mainstream enquiry is great news. I also feel proud that we have been pioneers in the sense that we upheld the scientific method throughout our enquiries, and rejected much of the metaphysical spiritual conceptions that were not grounded in experience. Hopefully this is the beginning of the sea change we have been fighting for since the days of Ruthless Truths inception.

Original article here

Sam Harris is a neuroscientist and prominent “new atheist,” who along with others like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens helped put criticism of religion at the forefront of public debate in recent years. In two previous books, “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation,” Harris argued that theistic religion has no place in a world of science. In his latest book, “Waking Up,” his thought takes a new direction. While still rejecting theism, Harris nonetheless makes a case for the value of “spirituality,” which he bases on his experiences in meditation. I interviewed him recently about the book and some of the arguments he makes in it.

Gary Gutting: A common basis for atheism is naturalism — the view that only science can give a reliable account of what’s in the world. But in “Waking Up” you say that consciousness resists scientific description, which seems to imply that it’s a reality beyond the grasp of science. Have you moved away from an atheistic view?

Sam Harris: I don’t actually argue that consciousness is “a reality” beyond the grasp of science. I just think that it is conceptually irreducible — that is, I don’t think we can fully understand it in terms of unconscious information processing. Consciousness is “subjective”— not in the pejorative sense of being unscientific, biased or merely personal, but in the sense that it is intrinsically first-person, experiential and qualitative.

The only thing in this universe that suggests the reality of consciousness is consciousness itself. Many philosophers have made this argument in one way or another — Thomas Nagel, John Searle, David Chalmers. And while I don’t agree with everything they say about consciousness, I agree with them on this point. The primary approach to understanding consciousness in neuroscience entails correlating changes in its contents with changes in the brain. But no matter how reliable these correlations become, they won’t allow us to drop the first-person side of the equation. The experiential character of consciousness is part of the very reality we are studying. Consequently, I think science needs to be extended to include a disciplined approach to introspection. (My Highlight, Ghost x)


Anonymous said...

Sam Harris is a smart guy, though he has come off like a bit of a dick in past interviews/debates. It's awesome that science and spirituality are being recognised in the same breath. Especially considering someone of Harris' character and the fact that spirituality at its core is sonething almost impossible to put into scientific terms.

Gh0$T V1Ru$ said...

I have not seen him in that many debates, however, I am familiar with his 'Project Reason' and have seen his videocasts on you tube. I thought he did well against William Lane-Craig, purely for the reason that he refused to be drawn in to defending against Lane-Craig's fallacious intepretations of his arguments, and focussed on the absurdity of his arguments for religion. I also admire the fact that he cares about the truth too, something that is a rarity these days!

I agree wholeheartedly with your comment about putting spirituality in to scientific terms, it does not seem to fit our conventional materialist conception of empiricism! However, I think this is where phenomenology can play a role in mapping out first person experience in such a way that it is replicable. I have also stated before that a nomological (law like) language should be used to try and bridge the hard problem of consciousness, and try to introduce fine grained concepts in to the endeavour of first person enquiry. I think in the Sanskrit language they have many rich and descriptive words for the different subtleties of conscious states. I don't see why there would be a problem trying to capture this with the English language, particularly as we have many words for the same thing in other places!

I guess the Bhuddist cannon tried to couch it in investigatory terms, however, some may find it vague in places. I tried reading the platform sutra and didn't find it to reveal anything particular to investigate and I gave up before the end. I also found the Bhagarava Gita to be vague, other than describing the non dual nature of reality. However, this concept has been explained by many sages, so I personally found nothing new or relevatory in there. Maybe I have read the wrong books on spirituality thus far, and I am also open to the idea that I am a dumb heathen!

I am looking for a Bhuddist text that actually lives up to the claims that it is "demonstrable experientially". I know that Ingram wrote a book, which I have on my read next list, however, I would like to become familiar with the source texts of Bhuddism that describe the states of consciousness in meditations. Can anyone point me in the right direction?


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