Why Sam Harris is trying to rehabilitate the word 'spirituality'

The author and neuroscientist argues that, despite its spooky etymology, there's no better word than "spirituality" to describe the personal and intimate exploration of human consciousness.

Sam Harris: I’m almost as embarrassed by the word spirituality as every other atheist. It’s not – I’m not comfortable with my use of it. The problem is – and this is a problem you almost never encounter in English. We just don’t have a good word for this domain. We just do not have a good word for the project of taking seriously the notion that you could become like Jesus or become like the Buddha or become someone who inhabits the far end of the positive side of the continuum of human psychology and human well-being. And someone who can have really radical insights into the nature of consciousness by virtue of a disciplined practice like meditation. So to talk about things like awe and well-being and love and positive psychology and happiness, that doesn’t get at how deep and rarified this project can be. It also doesn’t link it to the traditional context in which people have pursued similar projects. So there is a point of contact between what I’m talking about and, you know, what a Tibetan Lama is doing in a cave for five years. I mean it’s very explicit. Most of these teachings come out of traditions like Buddhism. So while I argue that we have to get out of the religion business and the doctrines that have framed most people’s discussion of these experiences are as unwarranted as I’ve always said. There is no alternative term for the efforts that people can make through meditation or psychedelics or some other means to really transform their consciousness and have insight into the – it’s intrinsic selfless nature. And it’s inconvenient but I feel like the other words that are available are even spookier, something like mysticism, you know, or more specific like contemplation, the contemplative life. I use contemplative a fair amount but again that doesn’t get at for most people what the subject matter is. So for better or worse I’m just – I’m trying to rehabilitate the word spirituality.
I mean one burden I think we have is to reclaim good and powerful words no matter how they’ve been misused in the past, no matter what the inconvenient details of their etymology is. So I would say spirituality is one of those words. But a word like evil is also spooky for many people. It’s felt that evil is a holdover from religion. When religious people talk about evil they’re thinking about things like Satan and a force that is somehow not to be understood in scientific or naturalistic terms. And it’s thought, I think, rightly that once we understand psychopathy at the level of the brain fully we will have a discussion of evil that will seem to erode any basis for using this spooky word. But I think to lose the word evil would be unfortunate and would disempower smart people from making strong moral claims and fighting a war of ideas on this front. And so we need potent words. We just need to be precise about how we use them and the kinds of experiences that merit their use.

Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton

Despite its spooky etymology, there's no better word than "spirituality" to describe one's personal exploration of human consciousness. Harris explains why it's important to reclaim powerful words despite their past misuse.

To boost your self-esteem, write about chapters of your life

If you're lacking confidence and feel like you could benefit from an ego boost, try writing your life story.

Personal Growth

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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