I recently read Chapter One of Sam Harris’s forthcoming book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion and found myself thinking, ‘This may not end up being an excellent book, but for all that it is an important and prescient one.’ (You can read Chapter One here on his website.)
Harris’s principal question, which goes unstated though is everywhere assumed, is as follows: how is it possible to experience a form of non-ordinary consciousness that is (a) ‘north’ of ordinary consciousness, (b) consistent with our best scientific understanding, and yet is (c) ‘south’ of religious doctrine and dogma? This seems to me one of the most pressing and vexing questions of our time. This is why I called the book important and prescient.
Based solely on what I’ve read so far, I believe there are three sub-questions that I’m not sure he can suitably answer:
Chart designed by Aleksandra Marcella Lauro
I have come to believe that the two virtues required for anyone to philosophize with me are truthfulness and courage. Often, I have spoken of bravery, so this virtue can be put off to the side in this post in order to consider truthfulness on its own.
Truthfulness involves putting a desire to know something about oneself–whatever that something should turn out to be–above the desire to be pleased with oneself or be flattered by others. For instance, I would want to know that I’ve been envious on a certain occasion and to examine why this was so rather than simply continue to believe that I’m always full of admiration and praise. Or I would want to get right that I have tended to be timid or am prone to being irritable on such and such occasions for getting this right takes precedence over indulging myself.
Indeed, truthfulness, teaching me to be accurate with myself regardless of what I learn about myself, lending support to my desire to get a better view of myself however ugly that view may initially appear, is opposed to self-deception. People deceive themselves that they do not lie or have never betrayed their friends; that they love humankind when they really loathe it; that they are compassionate when they are abominably cruel; that they are trusting when they are suspicious or generous when they are miserly. Self-deception is so loathsome because it stands in the way of our confronting what vices we have, what misperceptions cloud our view of things, with the unfortunate result that we cannot overcome these vices. Self-deception, itself a vice, won’t let us free ourselves from the vices it insists upon hiding.
Socrates’s first move was to show his interlocutors that they were deceived about what they knew. Truthfulness was required of each to examine this, to admit the painful yet powerful conclusion, and to continue–even or rather especially after this insight–to keep looking–for what? For what else but the truth.
The renouncer.– What does the renouncer do? He strives for a higher world, he wants to fly further and higher than all affirmers–he throws away much that would encumber his flight, including some things that are not valueless, not disagreeable to him: he sacrifices it to his desire for the heights.
Nietzsche, The Gay Science
Higher and Lower: Distinction, Articulation, Renunciation
The hero of this guidebook is undoubtedly the lonesome Nietzsche, a philosopher not of his time. Lucky for us, he is of ours. For Nietzsche’s chief philosophical question is, ‘How to take flight from the ordinary in order to lead an extraordinary human life?’ Nietzsche was ruthlessly honest about what would be required of one who sought to live extraordinarily: nothing less than the ritual sacrifice of one’s prior existence.
Let us listen to him. If indeed one is to set off on a path through life, then one must begin by drawing the line: the area below marks out ‘the lower,’ that above ‘the higher.’ There is no other way.