MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Interviewing Sam Harris

Sam Harris

I ran into this old interview I did years ago with the brilliant and hugely controversial neuroscientist, philosopher, and gadfly thinker Sam Harris.

It’s actually a decade old, from when I was still an editor at Amazon (and when Amazon was, let’s just say, a very different place). The subject was the first book by the prolific Mr. Harris, The End of Faith, which went on to win the 2005 PENN Award for Nonfiction.

Interview with Sam Harris: The Mortal Dangers of Religious Faith
Not long before the birth of Christ, in an age of violence and turmoil, the Roman poet and Epicurean philosopher Lucretius wrote an epic masterpiece titled De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”). His goal, in part, was to liberate humankind from the religious superstitions that he believed stood in the way of true peace of mind and happiness.

Author Sam Harris plays the role of a contemporary Lucretius in his book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. Harris received a degree in philosophy from Stanford University and is a doctoral candidate in the field of neuroscience.

Well aware that a book about the inherent dangers of institutional, dogmatic religion would court controversy, Harris wrote The End of Faith out of a sense of urgency regarding what he argues constitutes perhaps the greatest threat we face today. He shared his thoughts about the character of dogmatic faith versus mysticism, the role of reason in civil discourse, and the hope that humans can overcome the propensity toward religious violence before it’s too late.

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Filed under: book recs, interview, philosophy, religion

Nietzsche vs. Dawkins


The event itself is far too great, too distant, too remote from the multitude’s capacity for comprehension even for the tidings of it to be thought of as having ARRIVED as yet. Much less may one suppose that many people know as yet WHAT this event really means — and how much must collapse now that this faith has been undermined because it was built upon this faith, propped up by it, grown into it; for example, the whole of our European morality.

-Friedrich Nietzsche, Die fröhliche Wissenschaft

Michael Robbins cites that passage in his recent review of Atheists: The Origin of the Species by Nick Spencer, who directs the London-based, Christian think-tank Theos.

Spencer ventures an historical traversal of the intellectual history of atheism, wherein “one of his most trenchant themes is that it is more proper to speak of atheisms and of various species of atheist.” (It’s worth noting — as the classical scholar Barbara Graziosi does in her excellent and highly recommendable “reception history” of the pagan Greek gods, The Gods of Olympus: A History — that for the ancient Greeks, the alpha-privative word “atheos” [ἄθεος] didn’t normally connote an unbeliever, but rather “someone whom the gods had abandoned.”)

Robbins describes how Nietzsche’s atheism is positioned historically by Spencer:

Nietzsche realized that the Enlightenment project to reconstruct morality from rational principles simply retained the character of Christian ethics without providing the foundational authority of the latter. Dispensing with his fantasy of the Übermensch, we are left with his dark diagnosis. To paraphrase the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, our moral vocabulary has lost the contexts from which its significance derived, and no amount of Dawkins-style hand-waving about altruistic genes will make the problem go away. (Indeed, the ridiculous belief that our genes determine everything about human behavior and culture is a symptom of this very problem. [sic*])

The point is not that a coherent morality requires theism, but that the moral language taken for granted by liberal modernity is a fragmented ruin: It rejects metaphysics but exists only because of prior metaphysical commitments. A coherent atheism would understand this, because it would be aware of its own history. Instead, trendy atheism of the Dawkins variety has learned as little from its forebears as from Thomas Aquinas, preferring to advance a bland version of secular humanism.

(*”sic” because this reads like a caricature of Dawkins’s theories — precisely the kind of superficial, gross misunderstanding of which Spencer is accusing the new atheists.)

More and more, Nietzsche’s importance for Mahler begins to make sense…

Reviewing Spencer in The Guardian, meanwhile, Julian Baggini observes:

Spencer is here promoting the conception of “religiosity as pattern of life rather than a set of verifiable propositions”. On this view, what matters is not whether difficult doctrines such as eternal damnation or even Christ’s resurrection are true or false, but that a life guided by such ideas is somehow richer, more complete, more directed towards a higher good.

If that is right, then atheists who have criticised religion for its doctrines have spectacularly missed the point, “tilting at theological windmills”. But as Spencer himself argues, we didn’t see “theological liberalism redrawing the lines” until the last decades of the 19th century, and, even then, only a minority accepted the new map.

Filed under: book recs, philosophy

The Endurance of Proust


Summers were the time for Mahler to compose, and for me summers always seemed the perfect time to become immersed in Proust’s universe, so there’s something pleasing about the fact that both share July as their birthday month.

Here’s another association that intrigues me: the philosophical underpinnings of Proust’s lifelong project. Consider these brief extracts from the philosopher Henri Bergson — an enormous influence on early Modernism and an actual relative of Marcel Proust through marriage (his wife was a cousin of Proust) — on his concepts of time, duration, and consciousness:

The truth is that we change without ceasing, and that the state itself is nothing
but change.

This amounts to saying that there is no essential difference between passing from one state to another and persisting in the same state. If the state which “remains the same” is more varied than we think, [then] on the other hand the passing of one state to another resembles — more than we imagine — a single state being prolonged: the transition is continuous.

Yet, just because we close our eyes to the unceasing variation of every physical state, we are obliged when the change has become so formidable as to force itself on our attention, to speak as if a new state were placed alongside the previous one. Of this new state we assume that it remains unvarying in its turn and so on endlessly.


[O]ur duration is not merely one instant replacing another; if it were, there would never
be anything but the present —- no prolonging of the past into the actual, no evolution, no concrete duration.

Duration is the continuous progress of the past which gnaws into the future and which swells as it advances. And as the past grows without ceasing, so also there is no limit to its preservation.

From this survival of the past it follows that consciousness cannot go through the same state twice.

Meanwhile, the critic, scholar, and writer Daniel Mendelssohn recently observed the following on Proustian “resurrection” in an interview with the Paris Review:

It’s true that “In Search of Lost Time finishes” ‘well.’ There is a sort of optimism in thinking that a work of art can allow us to recreate and to preserve the past. It’s different for me, though. I never claimed that my writing would be able to do anything at all for my family, long gone. The past is the past, the dead are the dead, that is an unchangeable reality.

If literature is able to bring something to life, it’s the writer — and the writer alone — who reaps the benefits, not those he writes about. This is true in the case of Proust’s narrator. All the characters he mixes with have the same fate — transformation into literary fodder, to allow his own reinvention, as a writer.

Filed under: aesthetics, literature, philosophy, Proust

Camus and the “Wild Longing for Clarity”

Albert Camus

Albert Camus

It’s a few days late to honor the official 100th birthday of Albert Camus (November 7), but the commemorations I’ve been seeing remind me how refreshingly pertinent the core of his thought remains to our everyday lives. Aspects of it are obviously dated, but – it seems to me – nowhere nearly as much as the grim, sour, mid-century theorizing so many of his Continental peers.

Probably a key underlying reason for that freshness is Camus’ literary gift. Jerry Delaney, who adapted La Chute for a stage production in Santa Fe in 1999, offers an especially discerning recent assessment for The American Scholar, reminding us of the writer’s claim that “all the great novelists are philosophical novelists.”

I retain strongly physical memories of my first time reading L’Étranger – of summer, the heat around me, which melded with Camus’ descriptions of the beach and the merciless sunlight. But even the more challenging essays offered little explosions of insight and recognition similar in kind to the fiction.

Delaney describes how Camus’ idea of the “absurd” could move us so profoundly:

It’s worth remembering that Camus meant something quite different from what the vast majority of people thought he was saying about the nature of absurdity. For him, the absurd was not something ludicrous or preposterous; the absurd was a confrontation between our deep-seated desire to know and an irrational world that defied knowing—in his words, “the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart” versus “the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle.”

How astonishing it is to recall that Camus wrote the epochal Le Mythe de Sisyphe while still only in his 20s. From my teenage vantage point when I first encountered this essay, it seemed the scripture of a very wise man, of someone who had lived through more than I could begin to imagine. Delaney ponders why Camus’ essay has such staying power:

Camus’ idea is not particularly profound, but he states it with a compelling lucidity and force. Unlike most philosophical insights, which slip from our grasp even as we grip to hold on, the Camus observation sticks. What Camus did was give us a language to express what our experience in life had already prepared us to accept; he gave coherence to those inchoate ideas and unspoken assumptions that were roiling deep and unspoken in our minds.

Camus legitimizes us. We may wince to acknowledge that we are not endowed with the capacity to find an ultimate answer, that certain things are beyond our reach, but we are also reassured that our experience is universal, not a cause for despair: Quite the reverse, it is fruitful and full of passion.

We discover that being loyal to the truth means being loyal to oneself, and being loyal to oneself, the ultimate consolation in life, gives rise to an unspoken sense of pride and dignity—a hard-won self-esteem that comes unbidden from taking the more rigorous but truer path. By refusing to turn away from the absurd we are able, by a mere act of consciousness, to transmogrify the question of death into an inspiration to live.

“One must imagine Sisyphus happy” is Camus’ famous formulation – an existentialist update of Voltaire’s “il faut cultiver notre jardin”? But the context for this imagined Sisyphean contentment is far more reminiscent of Nietzsche’s version of eternal recurrence (in Zarathustra and elsewhere): the ceaseless cycle of life, repeatedly infinitely, without escape, as a “fate” to be affirmed with joy.

And what of the phantom of “engagement” that preoccupied Camus and his followers? Well, the wisdom arrived at in Sisyphus “is not a conclusion but a point of departure.” Delaney refers to L’Homme révolté, the essay which followed in 1951, as the political response to that wisdom: “Just as the absurd calls upon us to face the truth, the truth calls upon us to rebel” – in contrast to the posture of revolution. According to Delaney, for Camus the difference was that “rebellion brings to light limits, moderation, mesure. Rebellion is at odds with the excess of revolution.”

Revolution treats people as a means to an end; rebellion treats people as an end in itself. Revolution is top-down; rebellion is bottom-up. Revolution leads to terror; rebellion underscores the value of dignity in each individual, everywhere. Revolution is inspired by resentment, rebellion by love.

…More than any other writer, he enables us to expand our consciousness of freedom, to appreciate more fully the sanctity of life, and to recognize the honor of revolt in the face of cruelty and injustice.

Filed under: ethics, literature, philosophy

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