Saturday, October 25, 2014

Commentary on Waking Up by Sam Harris, part 1

I'm reading Sam Harris's new book Waking Up, A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. Harris, you may remember, is one of the New Atheists and is the author of, among other books, the popular The End of Faith. Less well-known is that Harris is an advocate of Buddhist meditation, and in this book he discusses meditation in terms of its benefits and its relationships to religion in general and atheism. As I've mentioned elsewhere, Harris is a pleasant author to read because of his straightforward style and obvious sincerity. I think he is sincerely wrong about many things, but one of his virtues is that he has the courage of his convictions and tells you exactly what he thinks in plain language. As I was reading along I noticed that he wrote so many things of which I felt the urge to respond that my space in the margins filled up. So instead of writing there, I'm going to write here. This will not be a book review or essay on Harris's work, simply my comments on Harris as I read through the book.

Here goes.


In the first chapter, pages 4 and 5, Harris describes the results of his experimenting with the drug MDMA (Ecstasy) in 1987:

And then came the insight that irrevocably transformed my sense of how good human life could be. I was feeling boundless love for one of my best friends, and I suddenly realized that if a stranger had walked through the door at that moment, he or she would have been fully included in this love. Love was at bottom impersonal - and deeper than any personal history could justify. Indeed, a transactional form of love - I love you because... - now made no sense at all. 

The interesting thing about this final shift in perspective was that it was not driven by any change in the way I felt. I was not overwhelmed by a new feeling of love. The insight had more the character of a geometric proof: It was as if, having glimpsed the properties of one set of parallel lines, I suddenly understood what was common to them all. 

The moment I could find a voice with which to speak, I discovered that this epiphany about the universality of love could be readily communicated. My friend got the point at once: All I had to do was ask him how he would feel in the presence of a total stranger at that moment, and the same door opened in his mind. It was simply obvious that love, compassion, and joy in the joy of others extended without limit. The experience was not of love growing but of it no longer being obscured. Love was - as advertised by mystics and crackpots through the ages - a state of being... It would take many years to put this experience into context... I still considered the world's religions to be mere intellectual ruins, maintained at enormous economic and social cost, but I now understood that important psychological truths could be found in the rubble.

Harris writes that what happened was a shift in "perspective" and not driven by "any change in the way I felt", but its significance is calculated in terms of how felt about his best friend, and how he would feel about a total stranger walking through the door. And at the end of the passage, he understands that he found an important psychological truth. Love, then, for Harris is a psychological experience and the state of being he mentions is a psychological state.

We may contrast that with the traditional Christian understanding of love, which is not so much a feeling or psychological state but an action. When Christ teaches what it means to love your neighbor as yourself, he teaches it in terms of parables like the Good Samaritan, a story that tells us what the Samaritan did and very little about what he felt. Harris and his friend take Ecstasy and sit around having warm feelings for each other and the world in general. All very nice, but where does that get Harris or anyone else?

Love, for the Christian, involves a state of being, but that state is much more than psychological and is dynamic rather than static. "Being" is an action word, and a man who is actually in a state of love must actually be doing something based on it. In fact, from the Christian perspective, simply having warm feelings about others that does not issue in action is very dangerous, since it invites one to mistake a mere psychological experience for the genuine state of love.


On page 6, Harris notes that:

Our world is dangerously riven by religious doctrines that all educated people should condemn, and yet there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit.

Admissions like this are one of the things that makes Harris worth reading, since he doesn't deny the obvious as many atheists do. For them, religion must be a malignant force through and through with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. If it were, why have so many people followed it? There must be something about religion that accounts for its persistence over millennia. The typical atheist response here is to account for religion in terms of evolution or some reassuring but false consolation it provides. This isn't good enough either, as it is obvious that, whatever else may be said about it, religion has produced some remarkable people who have managed to transcend the ordinary human condition in some way - the Buddhist monk serene in his contemplation being an example. 


page 9:

Nothing that a Christian, a Muslim, and a Hindu can experience - self-transcending love, ecstasy, bliss, inner light - constitutes evidence in support of their traditional beliefs, because their beliefs are logically incompatible with one another. A deeper principle must be at work.

That principle is the subject of this book: The feeling that we call "I" is an illusion. There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is - the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eyes, looking out at ta world that is separate from yourself - can be altered or entirely extinguished.

It's clear that Harris arbitrarily limits experience here. For example, while Harris does not accept revelation, there is nothing logically impossible about it. Someone could experience a private revelation from God through which God reveals certain truths to him inaccessible by other means. That experience being private, of course, means that it need not carry cognitive weight for anyone else, but that does not rule out the possibility that it could be genuinely meaningful for the person who experiences it. But in any case, Christianity has always depended on public witness rather than private revelation. The Apostles proclaimed the Gospel based on their witness of the risen Christ, a witness that involved him speaking to them, touching them, and eating their food. Subject experiences of ecstasy or love have nothing to do with. Today, the Church carries on the public witness of the Resurrection of Christ that was handed on to them through the ages starting with the Apostles. Now you may not buy that witness - as many did not buy it in the first century - but that is where the game is, not in subjective experience.

The doctrine that the self is an illusion involves profound consequences, and it will be interesting to see where Harris goes with it.

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