Waking Up - A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

Waking Up - A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

Postby epiphany55 » Tue Nov 04, 2014 2:49 am

For some time I've been interested in the convergence between philosophy, especially Eastern philosophy surrounding the nature of the self, and modern science.

Sam Harris helps to bridge that convergence in his latest book Waking Up.

Harris, a neuroscientist, sceptic and staunch atheist, is in a seemingly contentious position in the eyes of his peers regarding any discussion surrounding spirituality. So it's fascinating to read his take on what spirituality can offer those of us who are not ready to accept the unsubstantiated claims of religious dogma and many new age authors regarding the origins of consciousness. When reading, it admittingly feels good to be breaking the taboo of spirituality in the company of someone whose bullshit detector is so highly calibrated.

Rather than approaching the philosophy of consciousness purely from subjective experience, which can only ever validate itself, Harris analyses the evidence (or lack thereof) for the existence of a self in the physical brain. He quickly rejects the notion of the self on the grounds that we already know how fragmented the mind is and how a perpetual, continuous self, what he refers to as a "homunculus living within the labyrinth of the brain", is seemingly absent. There simply is no place for a stable, monolithic self to exist, except as an illusory construct of the mind we have evolved to help us navigate the physical universe.

So the first point that Harris brings home is that our minds create the illusion of a unified, perpetual continuity we call "I", when in fact there is much evidence to the contrary. Our minds are in fact fragmented, constantly in flux and regeneration. He references numerous studies and thought experiments to support this. The conclusion is that to find the true home of this "I", one has to strip away the physical layers to the point where there is literally nothing left. He poses the question of where the self ends and the body begins. He then pushes this a step further and questions why the body should necessarily be considered the boundaries of "who we are", considering that we are made of the same "stuff" as any other form in the universe. In short, "what is left of the self?".

But the real difference between the scientific view of spirituality and that of ET, is that no leaps are made regarding claims of the origins of this undeniable sense of a unified "I", beyond the illusion itself. He perhaps once or twice states that it's "likely" that such a sense, the profound feeling of I-ness, is a mere product of the complex molecular arrangement of forms such as the brain. But never does he claim that consciousness is anything beyond what the limits of our understanding humbly constrain us within. Whether that constraint is to be widened with time is for science to explore, but it should not be understated just how important the realisation of the illusion of self is, within the realm of scientific understanding, before we even entertain the notion that consciousness may be a precedent quality of the universe itself.

Harris acknowledges the importance of breaking down this illusion of self through meditation, in addition to contemplating the strong evidence against its existence. The result is an experience of life that is free from unnecessary suffering, rumination over past and future, and more mindful of one's presence.

While many who have read ET will find Harris comparatively cautious in his exploration of the nature of consciousness, I recommend the read if only because Harris provides that solid, "no BS" scientific validation of what many of us have subjectively stumbled upon, or learned about through religions such as Buddhism, for what it's worth.

It may not give you an epiphany, but it will show you, at the very least, that science has a lot more to say about spirituality and the nature of self than it's given credit for.
Thought is the object, not the essence, of consciousness.
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Re: Waking Up - A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

Postby Filander » Fri Nov 07, 2014 1:04 am

I like watching Sam Harris' vids on YT and reading articles by him but I hadn't considered getting the book. Have a sense that I'm not in the target audience, maybe most on a forum like this are not either. Maybe you can correct me if I'm wrong, I imagine it was written for two types of people: The religious who cling to irrational beliefs for fear of losing their spirituality, and the atheists who fear spirituality because it seems to imply irrationality. So I can appreciate it as an important book, able to reach some of the folks who would reject ET the hippy but not SH in his lab coat.

Does he talk about the hard problem of consciousness at all? I haven't seen him address it. Maybe he thinks it is just insoluble, like Chomsky. But for him that would look somewhat more spooky I think, considering how he claims we can derive morality from our "objective knowledge" about conscious experiences. I think scientists in general are loath to talk about the striking way that human considerations like morality, meaning, suffering, spirituality... Most of the really important stuff... Are somehow bound up with a phenomenon/property that has so far remained inexplicable. I can understand that they don't want to feed the trolls (religious apologists etc), but I still hope they can become more forthright about it. Maybe Sam will somewhere down the line.
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Re: Waking Up - A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

Postby epiphany55 » Mon Nov 10, 2014 12:19 am

I certainly believe, from reading this book, that Sam will help to break the taboo of spirituality among the non-religious. Even just accepting the role of mediation in improving one's mental health and outlook on life is a step forward for the sceptics. It's because Harris is more inviting of philosophies and practices into his work that have at one point in history been the backbone of a major religion, that he is so interesting to read as a scientist and sceptic.

Harris does talk about the hard problem, and I would say with more clarity than anyone I've read. This blog post (perhaps with some additions) was used in the book - http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-mystery-of-consciousness-ii.

It is because the qualitative nature of consciousness cannot be explained that Harris invites people to seek answers through introspection and exploring consciousness directly. I think what Sam is forthright about is that such an inquiry does not give unevidenced claims about the after life, rebirth and the source of conscious energy any more validity. There has to be a clear distinction between subjective experience and objective fact, even when subjective experience is all that is available to us.
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Re: Waking Up - A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

Postby KathleenBrugger » Tue Nov 11, 2014 5:23 pm

I've read his book also. Yes he addresses consciousness. It seemed to me he was saying that science may never find any answers to what consciousness is. In fact he defines spirituality as "there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit." For example, he says “I am sympathetic with those who, like the philosopher Colin McGinn and the psychologist Steven Pinker, have suggested that perhaps the emergence of consciousness is simply incomprehensible in human terms.” He also says that “rigorous introspection—‘spirituality’ in the widest sense of the term—is an indispensable part of understanding the nature of the mind.”

My overall take was that he was courageous just in publishing this book considering his widely-known atheist position. Yet at the same time the book seems cowardly, like he just won't push beyond the safe boundaries of science. He is timid about suggesting any of his own ideas. For example, in his chapter on consciousness he doesn't spend any time discussing his personal experiences in meditation, it's all about science. He starts the chapter with this sentence: "Investigating the nature of consciousness--and transforming its contents through deliberate training--is the basis of spiritual life." In his extensive meditation practice he has done exactly this, so why didn't he share any of his personal revelations about what consciousness is?

I agree epiphany that anyone here who has an interest in science will find resonance with ET's work in Harris' book. He says things like: each of us is looking for a path back to the present; we want to be happy in the now; how we pay attention to the present determines the quality of our lives. He describes mindfulness as a state of clear, nonjudgmental, undistracted attention to the contents of consciousness; accepting, and (ultimately) nonconceptual. He describes enlightenment as: a boundless, open awareness; feeling of being at one with the cosmos. He spends a lot of time deconstructing the sense of self.

Harris is a serious meditator--he says he's done 2 years of silent retreats (when you add up all the week and month-long retreats) in his life. He's traveled to India to study. So there is also a lot of advice in the book about meditation and gurus.

I also agree epiphany that one of the beneficial aspects of this book is that a lot of people who would otherwise never have given spirituality a serious look, will now take a chance on meditation, and be open to the idea that there is more to life than the physical.
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Re: Waking Up - A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

Postby coriolis » Wed Nov 12, 2014 4:34 am

I very much enjoyed this book as I have almost everything Sam Harris has ever written.
I too am an atheist when it comes to believing that iron age or bronze age anthropomorphic beings created and are in control of the universe -- as I imagine most people are if they take a second to look at the implications of those assumptions :roll:

And that is what atheism actually is, rejecting implausible stories and attributions as having anything more than a metaphoric reality.
In that sense most people are "atheists" -- they just cringe at label because of all the associated baggage it has accumulated in various cultures.

Well, Sam Harris is essentially showing you with this book that it is possible to throw out the dirty bathwater and keep the baby lovingly intact.

I thinks it's a message long overdue in being heard and understood.
Look deeply inside yourself and try to find yourself.
The ensuing failure is the true finding
---- Wu Hsin
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Re: Waking Up - A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

Postby epiphany55 » Wed Nov 12, 2014 12:39 pm

KathleenBrugger wrote:My overall take was that he was courageous just in publishing this book considering his widely-known atheist position. Yet at the same time the book seems cowardly, like he just won't push beyond the safe boundaries of science. He is timid about suggesting any of his own ideas. For example, in his chapter on consciousness he doesn't spend any time discussing his personal experiences in meditation, it's all about science. He starts the chapter with this sentence: "Investigating the nature of consciousness--and transforming its contents through deliberate training--is the basis of spiritual life." In his extensive meditation practice he has done exactly this, so why didn't he share any of his personal revelations about what consciousness is?


This is a fair comment, but I personally respect Harris' cautiousness, given what I suspect is his primary target audience - atheists and sceptics who think spirituality is a nonsense, fluffy word championed by new age guwoos. I'm sure he did have far more to say about his personal experiences, but he may have felt it would have blurred the lines between merely opening the door for people, i.e. guiding them towards the practice, and semi-dictating what the outcome of meditation should be, which is a problem many teachers have. He may even have felt his own personal experiences were at odds with his scientific integrity and he's not quite ready to admit that yet. Who knows? :wink:

Saying that, he does talk quite candidly about his experience with MDMA, which I thought was a nice way to begin the book. It introduced the important point that truly unconditional love can be experienced by humans.

But I am glad Harris did mostly stay within the safe boundaries of science. Anything else would have cheapened it, I feel. We have ET, Adyashanti, Gangaji and many other wonderful teachers to offer us a more colourful, poetic, looser interpretation of consciousness exploration, and their contributions are indeed valuable. But Sam's contribution is equally as valuable because you know when you read it that speculation and conjecture will be kept to an absolute minimum. The two kinds of author create a kind of equilibrium of ideas that gives the enquirer more clarity and meat to chew with their potatoes.
Thought is the object, not the essence, of consciousness.
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Re: Waking Up - A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

Postby Filander » Thu Nov 13, 2014 4:05 am

epiphany55 wrote:Harris does talk about the hard problem, and I would say with more clarity than anyone I've read.

I had not seen those articles, thanks for the link. Agree he does a great job.

Get the sense from the posts here, that his intent is to function as an apologist for spirituality within the atheist community. So I guess it is not surprising that he is being so cautious for now. In the long term, he may have to become more adversarial, I think the secular world has become so saturated by materialist superstitions, nobody even notices anymore. They swim in an ocean of Newtonian billiard balls.

Rupert Sheldrake wrote this a couple of years ago:

I am more and more convinced that that the spirit of free inquiry is being repressed within the scientific community by fear-based conformity. Institutional science is being crippled by dogmas and taboos. Increasingly expensive research is yielding diminishing returns.

Now his opinion doesn't carry far in the scientific community, his credibility and research are utterly mired in controversy, but I think his point about diminishing returns is important - dogma within scientific institutions does real damage.
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Re: Waking Up - A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

Postby epiphany55 » Wed Nov 26, 2014 1:38 am

Filander wrote:
I am more and more convinced that that the spirit of free inquiry is being repressed within the scientific community by fear-based conformity. Institutional science is being crippled by dogmas and taboos. Increasingly expensive research is yielding diminishing returns.

Now his opinion doesn't carry far in the scientific community, his credibility and research are utterly mired in controversy, but I think his point about diminishing returns is important - dogma within scientific institutions does real damage.


True, but never has there been a better framework for weeding out dogma, even if dogma still prevails in certain areas of the discipline.

With science, all we need hope for are better scientists. With religion, better theologians will only more sophisticatedly confirm the dogmas that define their beliefs.
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