Reasoning the Volcano: Sam Harris & the Limits of Analysis

Alexander Beiner
Jun 18, 2020 · 8 min read

Culture is on fire. Grief, anguish and anger have erupted from the depths of our collective psyche with a force that cannot be ignored. And the more we try to make sense of it with the tools we’ve relied on up to now, the more lost we become in the smoke and ash.

The killing of George Floyd and resulting civil unrest cannot be explained simply, or explained away. It is at once a tragedy, an injustice, and a tectonic shift that has let loose archetypal forces long held underground.

Many commentators have weighed in to try and provide reasoned analysis. As I have listened to these and watched friends on social media try to make sense of what we’re experiencing, I have found myself unsure whether to contribute. I don’t have a lived experience of being disenfranchised by the system I live in; in fact, quite the opposite. Nor have I experienced the kind of grief and anger so many people are expressing, so making sense has been a process of paying attention more than trying to analyse. If I close my eyes and slow down, the only thing that seems clear to me is that we are undergoing a profound psychospiritual process.

Observing people take sides and weigh in (often callously) on what is becoming a brutal new phase of the culture war, I have come to believe that too often we do not know how to approach a process this fundamental with grace or skill. We try to analyse, minimise, explain and contain — but eruptions care nothing for these things.

Pulling Back from the Brink

A key example of the difficulty of sensemaking this moment in our history is Sam Harris’ recent podcast episode ‘Can we pull back from the brink?’. In it, Harris does an admirable job of having a reasoned discussion about the dynamics we’re seeing. Overall, the podcast is well-intentioned, compassionate, and nuanced. Harris acknowledges the lived experience of many Black Americans with the police and racism. At the same time he makes a cogent, compassionate and balanced request for objectivity. He examines statistics of police killings over the last 25 years, lays out a case for why police use the tactics they do, and highlights the difficulty of their job. He critiques the shutting down of debate and takes a nuanced approach to how we might look at systemic racism.

And yet something crucial is missing. Harris points out (rightly I think) that the response to Floyd’s killing can be seen as, in part, a religious phenomenon. It is related to but also divorced from objective reality at times. However, I don’t think Harris has a satisfying solution for what that means for how we should respond. There is a deductive, humanistic assumption throughout the episode, summarised by his suggestion that ‘conversation is the only tool we have’ to move forward.

We cannot understand and integrate psycho-spiritual processes through reasoned debate. Conversation is important, but it’s certainly not the only tool we have. More importantly, I don’t believe we have evidence to suggest it’s going to help us right now. In leaning toward the rational at the expense of the pre-and trans-rational, Harris risks falling into the same trap as Jordan Peterson. He gets stuck on the idea that social justice activists are all mad. From one perspective you could see what’s going on as ‘everyone’s gone mad’ — but staying there means not inquiring into ‘what is the point of madness?’ or ‘what is the madness expressing’?

Not asking those questions means, to a degree, bypassing our own humanity. That we are emotional and symbolic beings. We can be dignified, messy, passionate, irrational, hurt, angry, heroic, villainous and everything in between. Our emotions and partial perspectives are not curiosities to be watched from the mountaintop, but realities to be lived into being with grace and skill. Objectivity and equanimity are part of that skilfulness, but not the end goal.

The Mythic Lens

If reason and analysis aren’t enough, what else do we need? There are many different lenses through which we might make sense of reality, but one that feels particularly important right now is the symbolic language of myth. In a recent discussion we put out with Greg Thomas, an integral theorist and scholar of Black American issues, he argues that it’s vital to see the killing of George Floyd in symbolic terms as well as social and political in order to understand it.

Symbols are the fuel of culture and the grammar of the myths we live by. Combined, they constitute the memetic force that helps culture evolve. Seeing the killing, subsequent social unrest and all of its second and third order effects through this lens does not mean we ignore the human suffering and injustice people are expressing, or ignore reason.

Thomas describes hearing about Floyd’s killing as feeling like a scab on a wound that gets torn off time and time again. His analysis comes from that emotional landscape, drawing on Black American history and the Blues to give an integral framing that says ‘yes and’ to the complexity of race and identity in modern America.

Harris does acknowledge the importance of the emotional landscape, albeit in his own detached way, but comes back around to the need for us to see these dynamics through a rational lens. In so doing, I believe he falls into the trap of believing that one way of knowing —knowing that, or propositional knowing — is superior to others, rather than interdependent with them. I explore this idea in more detail in Lost Ways of Knowing.

Context Matters

What if, instead, we were able to see and feel as many ways of perceiving as we could without fixating on any? It’s certainly not easy. But we all have the capacity, and it gives us a larger, more intricate view on reality. It also reveals truth to be both fixed and contextual simultaneously. As Nora Bateson has argued, data changes as it moves across different contexts, and trying to analyse it outside of its context takes the life out of it. We’re left with something partial and cold: it may be true, but it’s not the whole truth. A partial truth is much more easy to weaponise, and it’s the kind of truth deductive reasoning is brilliant at providing.

At a time like this, analysis often misses more than it gives. The complex cultural moment we find ourselves in is ever-changing as it moves across different contexts. It might be that one way of seeing the situation becomes more important in a particular context and at a particular time — but they are all ever-present and related.

Acknowledging this forces us to be humble. We don’t know everything, and what we try to grasp all too often slips through our fingers. Or burns us.

Reason and the Volcano

This volcanic eruption in our culture is an upwelling of suppressed archetypal energy that none of us can ever fully understand. To have a chance of gaining enough collective wisdom to move forward without tearing ourselves apart, we can’t retreat into our heads. We need to go down into the gut, into roots of the collective unconscious. That requires becoming skilful in using many ways of knowing and interpreting reality; understanding symbolic as well as literal meaning, while holding both as valuable and interrelated.

For all his brilliantly reasoned, nuanced and careful thinking, I believe Harris (and some other figures in what was the Intellectual Dark Web) leans too heavily on propositional knowing. He may be absolutely right about the way crime statistics have been warped and weaponised. He may be right to challenge the logical coherence of believing that one particular killing can be said to be indicative of systemic racism in the police force. The point is, it doesn’t really matter right now. Trying to reason our way through this eruption will not work. At its worst, it makes sense by sanitising, and even minimising, the complexity of human experience.

The volcano will keep erupting, and while Harris might be an expert on the physics of how magma gushes down rock, his block around the mystical or mythic means he doesn’t understand where it comes from, or the hidden wisdom within it.

You don’t set down a chair and have a reasoned debate with the volcano. You respect it, and you listen to its wild fury because you have no choice. That doesn’t mean you have to worship it, or agree with everything you’re seeing. I am as concerned as many commentators about the censorship and closing down of debate taking place in the last few weeks. However, respecting the fire means not immediately jumping to an argument centred around what statistics can tell us. It means listening, and holding as many perspectives as you can before attempting to make sense of what you’re seeing and hearing.

Where next?

Developing the ability to do this is not just a cognitive process. It’s a process of developing humility, courage, curiosity and raw humanity. It is also about learning the practices that help us hold many perspectives, from meditation and breathwork to authentic relating and improv. I don’t believe the ostensibly nuanced ‘I’m willing to have my mind changed… sort of’ conversations that characterised the Intellectual Dark Web are going to transform us; Sam Harris’s fruitless and circular debate with Jordan Peterson was a case in point.

If we want to reckon with, understand and allow society to be transformed by what’s happening in a way that moves us to another stage of development rather than to all out war, we need to dive into the volcano. In doing so, we burn away rational discourse. We plunge into an initiatory process that is able to hold the trans-rational, the archetypal, grief, shame, guilt, trauma, love, hope and reasoned debate and none of these things.

What does this actually look like? None of us know yet– and so we’ll have to learn. We might start by looking at ways of knowing discovered by our ancestors to take us out of the mental traps we so often make for ourselves — what Terence McKenna called the Archaic Revival. We can choose to, as individuals, allow ourselves to enter this process fully. To re-learn the practices that help us make sense of the symbolic world, from shamanic initiation to dance and art. We need more than ever to move beyond ourselves — not to bypass our humanity, but to engage with it fully.

And like the shamans who guided us 40,000 years ago, we also need to let ourselves be torn apart. To open ourselves to the archetypal forces erupting inside and beneath us. Then, perhaps, we’ll have a chance at pulling ourselves back from the brink.

Rebel Wisdom