A review of Chapter One of Sam Harris, Waking Up: Preliminary questions

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:

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Truthfulness in philosophizing

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 Good Life and Sustaining Life: Day 1. The Question of the Good Life

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.

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Utility of academic philosophy

Andrew Taggart:

The philosopher of science and prominent blogger Massimo Pigliucci suggests that there are at least three practical uses to which academic philosophy can be put: ethics, logic, and philosophical counseling. Of the last, he writes, ‘In a sense, philosophical counseling is a return to what Socrates was doing back in the streets of Athens two and a half millennia ago.’

Originally posted on Ask a Philosopher:

Joyce asked:

Give three examples of how academic philosophy is useful in the contemporary world.

Answer by Massimo Pigliucci

Let me begin by questioning the question (just like any good philosopher would do!). Why should academic philosophy be useful, and what do we mean by useful anyway? It is curious that the question of utility comes up in the context of philosophy, but not of most other — arguably equally ‘useless’ — academic fields. What is the usefulness to contemporary society of, say, studying literature, or music? Indeed, even much of the research in mathematics and science (those paragons of utility) conducted within the academy, is useless, in the sense of having no practical application. Yes, scientists’ excuse for getting multi-million dollar grants is that their research may, one day, as yet yield unforeseeable pragmatic payoffs. But as a matter of historical record, it doesn’t, and at any rate…

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