Friday, July 15, 2011

Shall we take a trip?

Sam Harris offers some false, but possibly interesting, thoughts about drugs and the meaning of life. He begins by saying this:
Everything we do is for the purpose of altering consciousness.
This is not quite hedonism, although it's surely close, but it is a form of nihilism. The possibility of meaning in life is simply ignored. If you see things this way then it seems you might as well just try to find the best drugs (or consciousness-altering alternatives) that you can. Which is not quite what Harris goes on to recommend, but drugs do come into it.

One thing this sentence reminds me of is playing rugby when I was a kid. I was never very good and rarely very into it, but I did play. I remember sometimes being in two minds about how to approach being on the field. One temptation was to wait for it all to end. With luck I wouldn't get too cold or muddy and would escape unhurt. But this is usually a good way to get bored, cold, and scolded or ridiculed for not joining in. The other option was to throw myself into the game, which turned out to be fun. Mostly I think I was so inept that the game tended to pass me by anyway, but I feel as though I learned something. And that was not to focus too much on your own consciousness but to throw yourself (fairly literally when it comes to making tackles in rugby) into something bigger than that. It could be argued, of course, that the ultimate goal is still very much related to one's own consciousness, but to make that argument is to retreat into the quasi-solipsistic position in which there is no meaning, and you get bored and lonely. I think we all move from self-consciousness (in the sense of focusing on one's own thoughts and feelings) to being caught up in the world and back again, but it seems like a bad idea to get stuck in the self. (I don't know whether getting stuck in the world, never reflecting or paying attention to yourself, would be a good thing. I'm pretty sure it would be impossible, though, at least for me.)

Harris recommends certain drugs partly as a way to escape the bounds of the self, which seems a little odd even though I think I see his point. He ends up saying that:
The power of psychedelics, however, is that they often reveal, in the span of a few hours, depths of awe and understanding that can otherwise elude us for a lifetime.
The word 'understanding' seems out of place here. How can hallucinating and chemically manipulating your mind lead to understanding? What he seems to have in mind comes out in this paragraph:
I have visited both extremes on the psychedelic continuum. The positive experiences were more sublime than I could have ever imagined or than I can now faithfully recall. These chemicals disclose layers of beauty that art is powerless to capture and for which the beauty of Nature herself is a mere simulacrum. It is one thing to be awestruck by the sight of a giant redwood and to be amazed at the details of its history and underlying biology. It is quite another to spend an apparent eternity in egoless communion with it. Positive psychedelic experiences often reveal how wondrously at ease in the universe a human being can be—and for most of us, normal waking consciousness does not offer so much as a glimmer of these deeper possibilities. 
I can't really argue this, but I will say that I think most of this is bull. If you weep in Itchycoo Park because 'it's all too beautiful" have you actually discovered something that art cannot capture and that even nature cannot match? What could it mean to say that "Nature herself is a mere simulacrum" of something, unless you have in mind Heaven or the World of Forms, perhaps, which Harris clearly does not? It might seem that beautiful, but it isn't, and you haven't discovered that it is. You just feel as if you have. What might be true is Harris's last point here, that you can discover "how wondrously at ease in the universe a human being can be," although, as he admits, there are other ways to reach the same state or make the same discovery.

I'm not saying that everyone should Just Say No. But feeling enlightened and being enlightened are not the same thing. Harris might see that point, but he seems to obscure it at times. He's otherwise quite sensible about the pros and cons of taking drugs, although he might add that their being illegal is a good reason not to encourage your kids to take them. They might end up like David Gilmour's son (whose sentence for a "drink and drug-fuelled rampage" seems harsh to me, but I'm talking about what can happen, not what should happen). Anyway, I won't be encouraging my daughter to take LSD as Harris seems to intend to do.



  1. Everything we do is for the purpose of altering consciousness.

    This seems not as bad if the reference to consciousness includes the consciousness of others. (I write for others, not just myself.)

    But it still doesn't seem obviously true. Someone might do something so that they could say that they had done it, not just so that they could have the experience of doing it. (This is like Nozick's point in his discussion of the experience machine.) I suppose Harris would find that peculiar, in that he might question what the point of doing it was if not to alter consciousness somehow. (Or that what the person really wants is to alter his consciousness by doing something that creates a new belief. But then, why not in that case just have the belief inserted by mad scientists?)

  2. Yes, it's much less bad if it includes the consciousness of others, but I still think it's wrong. If I rescued someone from a fire I wouldn't be acting for any such purpose (unless you count saving someone's life as altering their consciousness, which seems like a stretch). At least, altering consciousness is not what I would have in mind. If I save a butterfly (an example Rai Gaita discusses) I don't necessarily think it is conscious. Nor do I necessarily do it for the sake of my consciousness.

    I thought of Nozick too. Harris seems to assume that the experience machine is a fine thing, although perhaps he just hasn't thought about it.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. (I deleted my initial comment because of an embarrassing typo.)

    My instant reaction when reading the first quote wasn't that it expresses a sort of hedonism, but that it's dead wrong. SOME things we may do for the reason of altering our consciousness, like taking "mind-expanding" drugs, but most things we do not. When I'm tearing down my kitchen wall, say, I'm not doing it in order to alter my consciousness, I'm doing it for the purpose of altering my kitchen.

    Some changes in my consciousness will inevitably have taken place, given that I was conscious while doing the demolition work. But this, of course, does nothing to show that these changes were my goal, only that such changes are necessary aspects of all experiences -- all conscious experiences ARE changes of a kind, aren't they?

    Of course, I realize that this isn't the kind of changes Harris is talking about. What you write about hallucination and appearance and reality seems on target to me. Both for these and other reasons I won't encourage my daughters to do drugs either.

    But this is an interesting field. I have been meaning to blog about a related topic myself, having to do with identity. My father in law doesn't drink alcohol because he feels that people under its influence aren't themselves. But other people claim they need a drink to relax and really come out. So, maybe my father in law has never been himself? That seems strange of course, but the topic throws up all kinds of interesting question of who we are -- or should we say when we are (i.e. when we are ourselves)? Are we ourselves only under certain conditions or are we always ourselves but under different conditions?

  5. "But feeling enlightened and being enlightened are not the same thing." Ain't that the truth. Nice piece.

  6. Thanks, vh and Bosphorus.

    On altering consciousness, I agree that Harris mostly seems dead wrong (and for exactly the reason that we knock down walls to alter the kitchen, not to alter our consciousness of the kitchen). But he's giving what might seem to be a neutral, even scientific, account of practical reason, yet it very easily slides into an ethical view. After all, if everyone's ultimate goal is to alter their consciousness, what could the point of doing anything be except to produce good feelings?

    Being yourself is an interesting topic. I'm inclined to say that we are always ourselves but under different conditions, but I wouldn't want to rule out the use of expressions like "I'm sorry, I wasn't myself that evening" or just "Be yourself." I'll think about this some more.