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:

1.) Spirituality vs. Religion. Harris wants to disentangle spirituality from religion, but this doesn’t strike me as being so simple. He has written vociferously about the ills of organized religion and the dubious claims embedded within religious doctrines. Despite this, he wishes to use the word ‘spiritual’ to designate a set of lived, real experiences. Thus Harris:

Throughout this book, I discuss certain classically spiritual phenomena, concepts, and practices in the context of our modern understanding of the human mind—and I cannot do this while restricting myself to the terminology of ordinary experience. So I will use spiritual, mystical, contemplative, and transcendent without further apology. However, I will be precise in describing the experiences and methods that merit these terms.

And yet, is it possible, notwithstanding anyone’s best efforts, to define spirituality as entirely outside the bounds of the religious traditions from whence many of these ideas, practices, and techniques arise? (This is a ‘deconstructive’ question.)

2.) Descent. Rather breezily does Harris move from the mystical to the ethical. After having taken MDMA as a young man, Harris experienced a kind of blissful love. He continues,

In the midst of this ordinariness, however, I was suddenly struck by the knowledge that I loved my friend. This shouldn’t have surprised me—he was, after all, one of my best friends. However, at that age I was not in the habit of dwelling on how much I loved the men in my life. Now I could feel that I loved him, and this feeling had ethical implications that suddenly seemed as profound as they now sound pedestrian on the page: I wanted him to be happy.

Following Plato, I will call this the ‘question of descent.’ Is it so easy to make the transition from a mystical experience of bliss (or whatever) to an ethic of universal love (or compassion, benevolence, fellowship, etc.)? Plotinus certainly thought this a hard question, and Harris scarcely takes it to be a question. Kant, more modestly, held that beauty is an analogy for the good in the sense that the disinterested interest I take when I view a work of art is preparation for the kind of respect I must have when I stand before the moral law. And Plato suggests that the descent is something philosophers would be pained by. My skepticism has to do, in short, not just with the difficult transition from one state of consciousness to another, not just from perception to action but also with the ethic that would need to be strenuously, rigorously drawn out of such experiences.

3.) Metaphysics. Throughout Chapter One, Harris states that he is only exploring the contours of the mind. The exploration can be submitted to experimentation on the part of the reader. He is therefore making no claims about reality, claims that would go beyond the mind and its experiences. I doubt whether one can be quietistic about metaphysical matters.

Can Harris really, like those who urge the ‘practical benefits’ of mindfulness meditation, simply spirit away any claims about metaphysics, however weak the metaphysical picture may be? At one point, he writes, ‘We are merely talking about human consciousness and its possible states.’ But are we? Or are we not minimally committed to saying something like this: ‘Just as nature is impermanent, so our thoughts, being a part of nature, must too be impermanent?’ I ask this question because someone can be exceptionally calm but yet have no reason for living, and it is one of my chief criticisms of mindfulness meditation as it has been instrumentally taught.

Note that a nihilist can be remarkably, unbearably calm whereas the Daoist is committed to putting his life in touch with what there is. Indeed, one especially good–the best, I take it–reason for living is that one is living in accordance with nature when nature is properly understood. Or when Pierre Hadot speaks of ‘changing one’s perception of the world,’ I take him to be speaking phenomenologically: to change one’s perception of the world is also and at once to change the world’s appearing.