Against Sam Harris's personal claim of attentional agency

by mike_hawke1 min read30th Jan 20214 comments

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TL;DR: Sam Harris has an obviously terrible information diet, and it is correct to criticize him for this in the context of his meditation teachings. He should treat his engagement with news headlines and twitter as unfortunate addictions, not good intellectual citizenship.

Here is a recent podcast episode in which he fends off claims that his attentional priorities are incompatible with his meditation practice (starting at 13m55s). Nothing he says is quite wrong, but I couldn't help but feel like he was talking around something more important. It felt like a missed opportunity to loudly admit that he falls well short of a healthy mental lifestyle. Those claims by some listeners that he should not podcast about ongoing world events are obviously silly. But I think that they end up serving as a Weak Man argument that distracts from the related, non-silly criticisms. It concerns me that he rebuts those misplaced criticisms at length, but (as far as I know) has never spent a similar amount of time admitting his actual error and urging contemplative trainees to beware the same.

Harris has said that given his background (as someone with extensive training in both meditation and neuroscience, plus a large existing audience), he is uniquely positioned to produce such an app as Waking Up. He’s right. But at the same time, he has the significant drawback of setting a very bad example of how to use social media. It’s true that people who like his app can just ignore his podcast and social media activity. But that strikes me as a needlessly lossy compromise. If I had it my way, he would stop using twitter except under very controlled conditions, spend some of the freed attention on deliberate, high-quality information, and thereby increase the signal:noise ratio of his podcast. Maybe he would agree with me about this, but if so, it’s not very clear to me.

Perhaps the starkest aspect of all this is the way Harris related to Donald Trump's Twitter presence. So far as I can tell, it was in large part a concession to outrage addiction. I think that paying fine-grained attention to Donald Trump’s tweets was an important task that some small number of people were right to do. But it was absolutely counterproductive for huge chunks of the American public to do it, including Sam Harris. He could have easily said what he wanted to say about Donald Trump without constantly intaking all those triggering tweets.

In conclusion, Sam should record a whole podcast episode about this, and title it something like "My Psychotoxin Addiction".

(P.S. Sorry for the unkindly terse tone, I just wanted to finally submit this post instead of continuing to sit on it.)

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I've been concerned for some time that intensive meditation causes people to stop feeling their emotions but not to stop having those emotions. Sam's podcasts are in fact littered with examples where he clearly (from a third-party perspective) seems to become agitated, flustered or angry, but seems weirdly in denial about it because his inner experience is not one of upset. I'm not up to speculating on exactly how this happens, but there also seems to be an wide but informal folklore concerning long-term meditators who are interpersonally abusive or insensitive.

Did Sam Harris get into meditation in a big way before or during his podcast? If we have, say, several years of podcast material from before he got into meditation, then there'd probably be a paper or three to be found in analyzing the podcasts for e.g. upset demeanor. 

Of course, a certain amount of that is subjective, but we could try to find some proxy or proxies (e.g. elevated voice), run the audio through and have a program enumerate every instance of those proxies, and then give a random selection of episodes to human listeners for them to measure, and see if the results are comparable. 

Podcast started in 2013 to tie in with his 2014 book on meditation, Waking Up. :) He's had a large interest in meditation since ~1986:

At age 19, he and a college friend tried MDMA, better known as ecstasy, and the experience altered his view of the role that love could play in the world. ("I realized that it was possible to be a human being who wished others well all the time, reflexively.") He dropped out of Stanford, where he was an English major, in his sophomore year and started to study Buddhism and meditation. He flew around the country and around the world, to places such as India and Nepal, often for silent retreats that went on for months. [... H]e did work for one memorable three-week stint in the security detail assigned to the Dalai Lama.

I see two views:

Sam Harris the Enlightened Guru, calm-voiced, leader,  unjudgemental, high status, above it all. 

Sam Harris a Flawed Mortal, full of judgements, self-denial, caught up in the Culture War.

I sense a conflict between these two views you might have of Sam Harris. Is there something to this?