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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Religion without God: Our post-Kantian moment

Ours is a post-Kantian moment. We can neither do without the idea of transcendence but nor can we embrace it as a substantial presence coursing throughout our lived experiences. For the Kant of the First Critique, reason aspires to travel beyond the bounds of human understanding but, when it does so and when it seeks to make certain claims, it gets caught in any number of entanglements (or antinomies).

One strategy for overcoming reason’s predicament would be to ‘tame’ reason’s aspiration, to ‘domesticate’ its yearning; quite another would be to become  agnostic about matters metaphysical and be done with it all. Domestication would be a fine thing were it not that the total loss of metaphysical aspiration would–notwithstanding existentialists’ nonsensical clamoring that each of us ‘create’ meaning–terminate in nihilism. The second, agnosticism, is like sex without teeth: lukewarm, bloodless, enervating, the proffered condom proving unnecessary.

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