What the recreational drug Ecstasy, a medical scanner, and religion have to do with each other.  Or…why Sam the scientist can’t stop playing with his belly-button…er, rather…fMRI machine.

True ecstasy.  No, not the recreational drug called by the same name.  The real thing.  What is it exactly?  There is one and only one of its kind.  It goes by other names – bliss, euphoria, rapture, mystical transcendence.  It is an intensely personal, overwhelming feeling of elation.  Some people describe it as inter-connectedness with other people or their surroundings.  It is not mere happiness or contentedness.  It’s also not a very common occurrence for many people and may only happen a few times in the span of a single life.  Strongly associated with the religious experience, the feeling has been described in literature since antiquity.

MDMA

And once experienced, people can get attached to it.  People like Sam Harris.  Sam’s been trying to get it back since he first experienced it with that other kind of Ecstasy; the pill you pop in your mouth and swallow, also known as MDMA.  Which is easy enough for Sam and young adults who don’t have enough maturity in life to know what ecstasy truly is or can’t put it into proper perspective.  Yes.  Sam didn’t get it the hard way, through spiritual exertion or emotional ordeal.  He got it by taking drugs.

Now Sam is confused about the nature of what it is he seeks.  He wants the mysticism without having to expend the effort required.  He will deny its association with the religious experience on one hand and call it something else on the other.  On a used car lot, this is called baiting and switching.  Sam wraps his bait and switch in a good deal of mumbo jumbo scientism.  It sounds like science but really isn’t.

He’s got a Ph.D. in a bona fide area of scientific inquiry, sure.  Unfortunately, Sam isn’t a very good scientist.  The papers he wrote or co-wrote in pursuit of that degree did not show what he claimed them to show.  In that research they used an fMRI machine which stands for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging.  Many people are familiar with the machine from having medical imaging studies done on their joints or brains.  They make exquisitely good images of people’s anatomy, seeing things that can’t be seen in any other fashion. It’s that functional part of fMRI that’s troublesome. Research scientists using the machine will claim they can see the chemical and physiological workings of the brain, not just the structural/anatomical part.  In a certain sense they are right, but not in the way Sam Harris would have you believe.  Scientist Sam wants you to believe he can see the religious experience in people’s brains.  This is not a justifiable claim.  In fact, it is a ridiculous claim (1).

fMRI images of the brain.

fMRI images of the brain.

And the fact he doesn’t earn a living by being a full time scientist should also tell you something.  Real science, is hard.  It is intellecutaly difficult, trying to prove what you think is correct by designing well thought out experimental methods and it is hard in the sense it is very time consuming.  With all the book writing, speaking engagements, and hobnobbing with other celebrities, it’s just not possible to be a scientist too.  When pressed on some of these issues, he retreats into philosophical obfuscation.

Sam doesn’t like morality as it exists in the world today and wants to devise a new system based in science.His desire for a new morality is in the same vein as a long list of other ‘scientists’ using sociology, psychology and economics as their basis of argument.  Now it’s brain science, whatever that is, really. Morality has nothing to do with science any more than a belief in God does.  Morality at a civilizational level comes about through trial and error over long periods of time, mostly through political engagement (2).  We have arrived at this particular juncture in history by bloody and non-bloody struggle over millennia.  In large measure, the struggle is what defines human politics.

My advice to Scientist Sam is to keep naval-gazing.  Contemplating those bright, pretty, colorful blotches made by the fMRI machine sounds like a good use of his time.

 

  1. Brainwashed – The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience; Satel S. and Lilienfeld S.; Basic Books, New York, 2013
  2. Tyranny of Reason – The Origins and Consequences of the Social Scientific Outlook; Levin Y.; University Press of America; Lanham, New York, Oxford; 2001
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