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: Vague Words and Well-specified Questions

Certain philosophical terms have been slowly creeping into business culture and everyday speech, terms such as ‘meaning,’ ‘value,’ ‘direction,’ and ‘purpose,’ without its being possible, with any clarity or analytical rigor, to pin down their meanings. Calling a project ‘meaningful’ implies that one is drawing a line between projects that are not meaningful and those that are. Suggesting that one’s life is headed in the ‘right direction’ may, albeit only obliquely, suggest that there are right or wrong ways in which your life could head and thankfully, in this case, it is going the right way. And though it may sound good to say that one is doing something of ‘value’ with one’s life or that one ‘has a sense of purpose,’ the listener invariably has to crane his neck and work his ears in order to squeeze out any genuine content from these utterances.

Much of this talk, I suggest, suffers from vagueness and nominalism and quickly results in conversation-stopping. The adjective ‘meaningful,’ for instance, is vague in the sense that it is difficult to pin down what it is referring to in any given context. Yet it is as if the one making such a claim were a nominalist, believing that calling something X were enough to make it so. If I say something has a purpose, then the error is to think that, as a matter of fact, it has a purpose. It may or it may not; quite possibly, the claim may be well wide of the mark.

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The Good Life and Sustaining Life: Definitions (Excerpt)

Preliminary Remark

The good life and sustaining life are two separate, albeit connected, concepts. How they are connected, when they are connected properly, is the subject of this philosophical investigation.

Definitions and Distinctions

 1. By ‘the good life,’ I mean that for the sake of which one ultimately lives.

 2. Throughout the course of this guide, I will often distinguish between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ in order to bring out the distinction between various viable conceptions of the good life (the higher) and various mistaken conceptions of the good life (the lower). 

Remark: I will claim that the bourgeois and hedonistic ways of life are chief examples of ‘the lower.’ Plato delightfully refers to hedonists as the ‘lovers of sights and sounds.’

3. By ‘wasting one’s life,’ I mean not living out a viable conception of the good life either (a) because such a form of life is not available to us in the modern world or (b) because such a form of life cannot be defended as a higher form of life. 

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Philosophical Portraiture: Listening Intently and Considering Closely

In Aleksandra’s most recently completed portrait, the subject is in the midst of a philosophical conversation. In the figure on the left, we see a man listening intently. He is either ready to hear another speak or, more likely, is in the middle of hearing someone make a claim. He is listening–but in what manner? Intently, unwaveringly, undistractedly, single-mindedly. ‘Intently’ is meant to capture something of what it is like for him to have these words be ‘his entire world.’

andrewcompletedportrait_smaller

In the figure on the right (whose head is bowed slightly), we observe him taking this claim in. The claim does not tarry in the air; he does not let it simply pass (or give it a simple pass). It is scrutinized–but, again, how? Closely, with ultimate carefulness. The claim he takes care of, even if the person is not spared this intense examination. As we look on, we note that what is yet unclear is what the statement means or whether it will require modifications, assent, or ultimate rejection. This moment of suspense–a claim suspended, a response suspended–the dramatic element of philosophizing is in evidence.

The artist, I suspect, was also looking intently and considering matters closely as she worked on this portrait. (Well, I know this: I could see her in the other room working day after day.) Hence, the artist exhibits certain virtues while she works, and the work is to be evocative of a life lived according to the beautiful virtues.