Posts Tagged ‘Oliver Burkeman’

Sam Harris: Spirituality for atheists


As I continue my trawl through the works of Sam Harris in preparation for my posts on his 2011 debate on morality against Christian apologist William Lane Craig, I now turn to Harris’ thoughts on consciousness, for which he has received much criticism from both atheists and theists, some of whom exaggerate his views by making the false allegation that he believes in reincarnation, extra sensory perception (ESP) and telepathy.

The above video is an edited except taken from Harris’ speech to the Atheist Alliance International Conference 2007.  His thoughts on consciousness begin around the 23 minute mark and you can read an edited transcript of his speech on his website:

Those of you who have read The End of Faith, know that I don’t entirely line up with Dan [Dennett], Richard [Dawkins], and Christopher [Hitchens] in my treatment of these things.  So I think I should take a little time to discuss this.  While I always use terms like “spiritual” and “mystical” in scare quotes, and take some pains to denude them of metaphysics, the emails I receive from my brothers and sisters in arms suggests that many of you find my interest in these topics problematic.

First, let me describe the general phenomenon I’m referring to.  Here’s what happens, in the generic case: a person, in whatever culture he finds himself, begins to notice that life is difficult.  He observes that even in the best of times—no one close to him has died, he’s healthy, there are no hostile armies massing in the distance, the fridge is stocked with beer, the weather is just so—even when things are as good as they can be, he notices that at the level of his moment to moment experience, at the level of his attention, he is perpetually on the move, seeking happiness and finding only temporary relief from his search.

We’ve all noticed this.  We seek pleasant sights, and sounds, and tastes, and sensations, and attitudes.  We satisfy our intellectual curiosities, and our desire for friendship and romance.  We become connoisseurs of art and music and film—but our pleasures are, by their very nature, fleeting.  And we can do nothing more than merely reiterate them as often as we are able.

If we enjoy some great professional success, our feelings of accomplishment remain vivid and intoxicating for about an hour, or maybe a day, but then people will begin to ask us “So, what are you going to do next?  Don’t you have anything else in the pipeline?”  Steve Jobs releases the iPhone, and I’m sure it wasn’t twenty minutes before someone asked, “When are you going to make this thing smaller?”  Notice that very few people at this juncture, no matter what they’ve accomplished, say, “I’m done. I’ve met all my goals.  Now I’m just going to stay here eat ice cream until I die in front of you.”  Even when everything has gone as well as it can go, the search for happiness continues, the effort required to keep doubt and dissatisfaction and boredom at bay continues, moment to moment.  If nothing else, the reality of death and the experience of losing loved ones punctures even the most gratifying and well-ordered life.

In this context, certain people have traditionally wondered whether a deeper form of well-being exists.  Is there, in other words, a form of happiness that is not contingent upon our merely reiterating our pleasures and successes and avoiding our pains.  Is there a form of happiness that is not dependent upon having one’s favourite food always available to be placed on one’s tongue or having all one’s friends and loved ones within arm’s reach, or having good books to read, or having something to look forward to on the weekend?  Is it possible to be utterly happy before anything happens, before one’s desires get gratified, in spite of life’s inevitable difficulties, in the very midst of physical pain, old age, disease, and death?

Harris is a philosopher and a neuroscientist and a harsh critic of organised religion in his books The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation.  However, he recognises the range of extraordinary mental experiences that people of religious faith profess to have when praying and meditating.  Harris himself has gone on meditation retreats and practised mindful meditation for up to 18 hours a day.

Harris accepts that Jesus, the Buddha and many gurus, yogis and mystics were/are “spiritual” geniuses due to their inspiration and cultivation in their followers of feelings of self-transcending love, awe and ecstasy.  These experiences are available to everyone regardless of their religious faith and ought to be taken seriously by atheists and studied by mainstream science.

Harris is so impressed with the contemplative literature that while he is not an outright “dualist” in believing that the body and the mind are separate and divisible and that we have a “soul” that is capable of surviving death, he has not ruled out the possibility that consciousness can exist outside of the brain.

Harris also gave a speech at the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne, 2012 called “Death and the Present Moment”, which I highly recommend as an introduction to the concept of mindfulness meditation.

Harris’ ideas on “spirituality” recently persuaded me to go to a meditation and mindfulness class studying the book Going Home: Jesus And Buddha As Brothers by Thich Nhat Hanh; a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who has been heavily involved in the peace movement throughout his life and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King, Jr.  While I attended all but one the 10 sessions and have gained much from them, I have found certain elements of Hanh’s book frustrating and have been unable to get behind the meaning.  Perhaps my atheistic naturalism and material means that I am unable to let go of my mind as readily as religious believers in the group.

During the course, someone emailed us this TED talk by Jill Bolte Taylor from 2008 called “My stroke of insight” where she recounts visiting nirvana upon suffering neural haemorrhaging.   It is an interesting talk and well worth watching.  It reminds me of a recent news story about a man called Malcolm Myatt who had a stroke that completely eliminated his ability to feel sadness, which in turn reminds me of the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet.  The film’s “high concept” is a medical agency that manipulates and eliminates a person’s memories so they can get over a relationship break up by forgetting the entire relationship and thereby taking away the emotional pain.

This has been a tempting option for me on more than one occasion after a relationship break up and I have researched the possibility of undergoing hypnosis to eliminate the memory of an ex-partner.  However, the general consensus is that it would not work and may even have undesirable consequences.  We (our “selves”) are products of our memories and that is how we learn to live in the World.

It seems lamentable that Jill Bolte Taylor has to have a stroke in order to experience nirvana, while Malcolm Myatt has one to eliminate sadness from his life, and that many other people have to alter their chemical composition of their minds with recreational drugs to achieve a higher level of bliss that is temporary and ultimately false.

Work like you don’t need the money,
Love like you’ve never been hurt,
Dance like nobody’s watching,
Sing like nobody’s listening,
Live like it’s heaven on earth.

– William W. Purkey

I see the above quote cut and pasted on people’s blogs and Facebook pages and it seems a trite and impossibly optimistic statement given how difficult it is to disconnect ourselves emotionally from our memories.

However, in the last few days, a small change has taken over me.  As I will hopefully soon discuss in my upcoming review of Oliver Burkeman’s wonderful anti-self-help guide, The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, happiness (and therefore perhaps nirvana as well) is a concept that all too often considered to be something that will happen to us in the future as long as we eliminate all negative thoughts from our lives and invest as much time, effort and money as we can in our “preferred version of the future”.

Now, I am more mindful of my surroundings, down to the texture of the keys on my laptop as my fingers touch them, the sound of the rain outside my study window, the sounds and smells of my food as I cook it and the feeling of the clothes on my body.

And for my next holiday, whenever that will be, I will look at going away on a meditation retreat in order to learn to focus on the present moment every waking hour of the day.


Having children does not make you happy – Part 2



What would it mean for a couple to decide that they should have a child?  It probably means that they think that their own well-being will tend to increase for having brought another person into the world; it should also mean that they expect their child to have a life that is, on balance, worth living.  If they didn’t expect these things, it’s hard to see why they would want to have a child in the first place.

However, most of the research done on happiness suggests that people actually become less happy when they have children and do not begin to approach their prior level of happiness until their children leave home.

Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Happiness (London: Black Swan, 2012, p.239)

My previous post aired my personal reservations about becoming a father and the possible adverse effects such a course of action would have on my own life.  When I first read Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape at the end of last year, I read the above passage with much delight as the scientific analysis appeared to be very much on my side: parents have children because of their perception of the enjoyment and satisfaction they will of being parents.  However, the studies indicate that they become significantly less happy after their children are born and only re-attain their previous levels of happiness when their children leave home!

In the first of his two wonderful anti-self-help life guides, Help! How To Become Slightly Happier And Get A Bit More Done, The Guardian’s psychological columnist, Oliver Burkeman, states:

When you don’t have children – as I don’t, thus far – one entertaining thing to do with friends who do is as follows.  Wait until they’re gazing, lovestruck, into the eyes of their newborn baby, tucking their toddler into bed, or proudly watching their 21-year-old graduate.  Then creep up behind them, slap down a copy of the Journal of Marriage and Family, volume 65, number 3 and triumphantly declare: ‘Ha!  You may think parenthood has changed your life for the better, but, in fact, the statistical analyses contained herein, along with numerous other studies, demonstrate conclusively that having children makes people, on average, slightly less happy than before!’  Then walk away cackling.  They may never speak to you again, but that won’t matter: you will have won the argument, using Science. (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2011, pp. 42 – 43)

These findings clearly fly in the face of what parents say to you in everyday conversation: that having a child was the best thing that could have happened to them and it will be the best thing that will happen to you.  It is tempting to write-off the studies’ methodology as flawed.  However, as Burkeman states this is no reason to think that this attitude would skew the results against the supposed joys of parenthood: “If anything, the taboo against admitting to regretting having kids may put things the other way.”

Nattavudh Powdthavee’s overview of the research published in The Psychologist explains the discrepancy with the notorious “focusing illusion”: contemplating any major alteration in our circumstances, we overate the effect it will have.  We imagine living idyllically after making millions when in fact sudden wealth leaves most people largely emotionally unchanged:

According to Daniel Kahneman and David Schkade, part of the problem with stated preferences, or any judgement requiring the comparison of two or more alternatives, is that they suffer from inherent focusing illusion, best captured in the maxim ‘Nothing in life is quite as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it’.

Daniel Gilbert states that the “meme” of having children axiomatically making us happy is a “super-replicator”: the advancement of human civilisation depends on it and those who disagree tend not to have children so their views do not percolate down the generations

Like the Jenny McCarthy-ites who claim that the MMR vaccine leads to autism based on nothing more than personal perception and social interaction, the idea that having children will lead to personal happiness is an illusion which has been burst by the force of science.

In an excellent summary of the scientific research, Jennifer Senior writing in The New York Magazine perfectly encapsulates the “rose tinted spectacles” factor:

About twenty years ago, Tom Gilovich, a psychologist at Cornell, made a striking contribution to the field of psychology, showing that people are far more apt to regret things they haven’t done than things they have. In one instance, he followed up on the men and women from the Terman study, the famous collection of high-IQ students from California who were singled out in 1921 for a life of greatness.  Not one told him of regretting having children, but ten told him they regretted not having a family.

“I think this boils down to a philosophical question, rather than a psychological one,” says Gilovich.  “Should you value moment-to-moment happiness more than retrospective evaluations of your life?”  He says he has no answer for this, but the example he offers suggests a bias.  He recalls watching TV with his children at three in the morning when they were sick.  “I wouldn’t have said it was too fun at the time,” he says.  “But now I look back on it and say, ‘Ah, remember the time we used to wake up and watch cartoons?’ ”  The very things that in the moment dampen our moods can later be sources of intense gratification, nostalgia, delight.

It’s a lovely magic trick of the memory, this gilding of hard times.  Perhaps it’s just the necessary alchemy we need to keep the species going.  But for parents, this sleight of the mind and spell on the heart is the very definition of enchantment.

Nevertheless, parents are not immunised from these stress factors while it’s all going on.  A recent study by the relationship charity OnePlusOne (download PDF) examined the effects that the “Baby Quake” has on new parents.  The report included a survey of 1,403 parents, which revealed that ‘lack of sleep’ is the biggest single cause of relationship strain for couples who have just had a baby.  The research also revealed that two-fifths (42%) of parents who are no longer with the parent of their first child separated during pregnancy or before the child reached three-years-old.

So what does a 31 year old Henry Higgins take from these astonishing findings?  I have found no better guidance than an astonishing frank piece of relationship advice, “relationship coach” David Wygant phrases the dilemma in no uncertain terms and his advice is worth quoting at length:

Do you understand the picture I’m painting for you?  You’re with a woman who so desires to have children, but you see children as parasites.  You think kids are nuisances.  You just don’t see yourself as a father, but since she came along, you’ve asked yourself every day, “Can I do it?  Do I really want kids?  If I don’t want kids, can I keep dating her anyway?”

If everything I’ve just said resonates with you, then you are going to be miserable with children.  You’ll basically give yourself a prison sentence for the rest of your life.  You’ll give up the great car and drive a minivan instead.  Your girlfriend, who will now become your wife, will no longer make you feel desired.  You liked being the apple of her eye, but you’ll come second to the children.  It’s everything you don’t want.

The bottom line is that she wants children and you don’t.  So how do you compromise?  How do you keep her and still be fair to both of you?  Here’s the answer: You don’t compromise.  You don’t stay with her.  Unless you can see yourself changing diapers or as the guy on the airplane, apologising for your baby’s incessant crying, you’re not cut out for having kids [My emphasis].


If you don’t want children, you can’t stay with her.  You have no choice but to let her go. You have to be completely honest with her and let her find somebody who shares her vision of having a family.  You understand that her vision is beautiful – it’s what she wants out of life — but you don’t want the same thing for your life.  So there’s no way in the world you can stay together.  Because if you end up getting her pregnant and having a child with her, it’s a child you never wanted, and that’s not fair to the child, and it’s not fair to either of you.  You’re not going to want to be there as a father when your child needs you.  Either your life will be miserable, or she’ll end up a single mum, but the bottom line is that you don’t have any right to remain with her.  You need to set her free and allow her to live her life as she envisions it.

Well, I suppose then the next time I enter a lucid phase in my attitude to women in general and romantic relations with them in particular, I will tick the box on eHarmony or Matchdotcom that indicates in so uncertain terms that I am only interested in the first stage of procreation, not the last…

Having children does not make you happy – Part 1



As I career headlong into my thirties as a bachelor and with neither the hide nor hair of a member of the opposite sex with whom to grow old, I am becoming increasingly bemused at how many of my friends are lumbering themselves with spouses and rug rats.  The writer James Friel published a wonderful piece towards the end of last year addressing this very question.  Like me, Friel writes:

In the course of my life, I have loved and lost and sometimes won, and always strangers have been kind. But I have, it appears, been set on a life of single blessedness.

And I haven’t minded.  Or rather, I realise, I haven’t minded enough.

I had a comparatively solitary upbringing.  I had to make do with my own company and now I have become used to it rather well.  I can undertake solitary activities without feeling an overwhelming sense of loneliness: reading, writing, watching films (either on DVD/Blu Ray or at the cinema – I regularly go to the cinema on my own) and a variety of physical exercise.  I am also trying to get into meditation and mindfulness.  Maybe one day I will take Sam Harris’ suggestion of being an atheist who can still have amazing “spiritual” experiences in consciousness by going off to a cave and meditating for years on end.

I have never really understood why so many other people seem to think that finding “The One” and having children is the apex of human existence.  No matter how pretty and interesting the lady, no matter who well we get on together as friends or as lovers, no matter how passionate the sex, invariably I get bored with the monotony and routine of a relationship.  I begin to resent my partner for impinging on my free time and generally find that I have better things to do.  However, I am facing increasing stigma from those who do give the pretence to be happily shacked up.  Friel continues:

They look down from the high castle of coupledom, protected from such a fate. But if I were to ask: “Why have you settled for him?  Why are you stuck with her? Were you so afraid of being alone?” such questions would be thought rude, intrusive.

Last week a friend of mine went on a date.  A foolish thing to do.  The man she met had been married three times and had a child by each wife.  An example of emotional continence I’m sure you’ll agree.  And he asked my friend, single and childless, why she had failed at life.

It was a shortish date.  Failed at life?

An even greater bugbear for me is the issue of having children.   I did not have an abusive childhood at the hands of my parents by any stretch of the imagination, however, I always wondered from a very early age why they decided to have my older sister and I since so much of their time with us was taken up by shouting at us.  I did not enjoy my school education whatsoever.  This topic is for another blog post for which I am researching extensively, but I could not in good conscience send a child to any school knowing full well the potential humiliations and brutalities that awaited them there.

When I was 11 or 12 years old, one of my cousins who was in her thirties at the time and had just had the first of four children breastfed him directly in front of me in a restaurant.  Without warning, she exposed her breast to me in public place.  My instinctive feeling was one of deep embarrassment: I did not know where to look.

When I was travelling in New Zealand and Australia in 2006 and 2007, I stayed on small farms and worked for my room and board.  Along with feeding sheep and cattle and mucking out stables, I had to look after the farm owners’ children.  With the exception of one sweet little two-year old boy who was mercilessly bullied at the hands of his older brother, I did not take well to any of them.  Furthermore, I could not see what enjoyment the parents did garner from their children as they seemed to spend so much time disciplining them and had little or no free time or money to themselves.  The experience made it vastly less likely for me to have children myself.

Since that time, I have ended relationships on the issue of parenthood.  I fail to understand why it is such a deal breaker for women.  At least two of my close female friends in their mid-thirties have ended what seemed like otherwise perfectly happy relationships because their partners at the time either did not want children or did not want any more children on top of those he already had from previous relationships.  Now they have no one, yet they are not so comfortable with being single as I am.

I have told two women that I wanted to have children with them.  The first time was in an effort to get back with a girl I before my June 2010 layoff as I realised I had taken the blogging way too far and let it interfere with my personal life.  We had split up six months earlier on the very question of having children because I didn’t want to go there.  When I told her we could get married and have children if that’s what she wanted, I was not in my right mind and now I am glad that my efforts to get things back on track with her failed.

The second woman was already married (!) and had a daughter who was then two and a half years old.  She had been dropping hints about wanting another child as practically all of her other “mummy-friends” had given birth to a second child by the time their first was two and she felt left out by the disintegration of her marriage.  I sensed at the time, and I know for certain now, that I was not being honest either with her or myself: I was simply telling her what I thought she wanted to hear in an effort to woo her away from her hellish hubby.  I also believe that I was attempting to atone for the failure of my previous relationship on the children question.

Society damns people who remain childfree as “selfish”.  Selfish?  Surely the main reason why people decide to have children in the first place is because of the enjoyment they perceive they will have in being parents.  Where does the child’s view fit into all of this?  This dark, nihilistic, existentialist thought is for another post, but I firmly believe that some people’s lives are so hapless and miserable that they are not worth living.  Life is very hard, even for those who have many material advantages.  I saw Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry recently and his character, Harry Block, a typically Allen-esque neurotic, depressed, sex addicted writer quoted Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex to a hooker as an explanation for his depression: “To have never been born is perhaps the greatest boon of all.”  Perhaps those who choose to remain childfree are not so selfish after all.

There is also the terrifying matter of what kind of child you will bring into the World.  A morbid and perverse thought though this may be, but think of any psychopath, despot and mass murderer from Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot to Harold Shipman, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold: they were once cooing bundles of innocent joy in their parents’ eyes and arms.  Lionel Shriver explores this shocking concept in relation to the upbringing of a future high school mass murderer in her novel, We Need To Talk About Kevin, and its equally compelling film adaptation starring Tilda Swinton and Erza Miller.

Having removed the personal issues of relationships and parenthood from my chest, my next post will examine the scientific research on the topic.