There’s no “I” in “Me” (and no sense in Sam Harris)
In offering my first blog on the new website (though I may link it to shadowofoz.wordpress.com as well), I had planned to take on some other topic or issue (say, Peter Boghossian’s book). Instead, it is Sam Harris’s book, Waking up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, that I will address first.
As with nearly all of Harris’s work, the book can safely be discarded before exiting the first chapter. In Saganesque fashion (remember Cosmos, “the universe is all that is or was or ever will be”?), Harris gives us, “Our minds are all we have. They are all we have ever had.”(p 2) His main thesis is that the mystics of antiquity were right in denying even this. There is no self, and so there is no mind (quotes to this affect forthcoming). How does Harris know this? Well, it all started when he took drugs as a young boy (namely, MDMA, psychoactive drug). For most sane individuals, this would be a bad start to the story. If one need take a chemical that alters brain behavior in order to see the truth of reality, it would immediately mean that all of those truths you’re seeing while not high are in fact fictions. I suppose it’s well established that the folks using MDMA at rave parties are seeing reality quite clearly. Isn’t that where the last Nobel Prize-winning idea emerged? No? Well, perhaps the breeding grounds for numerous studies in the psychologically self-destructive tendencies of America’s youth.
Anyway, following Harris’s “I love you man” moment, he realized that boundless love is the base level of reality. Somewhere in his exit from that drug-induced state, he seems to have confused loving for loathing: a feeling he expresses towards many groups (Christians in particular). I’ll let pass his conflation of “spiritual” with “religious,” because it’s a moot point. What does “spiritual” mean if not feeling something transcendent to material reality?
So, now we get to the mysticism. Beginning on page eight, we see “Our conventional sense of self is an illusion” and “The feeling that we call ‘I’ is an illusion.” Harris continues, “There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain.” (p 9) Unfortunately, it takes him less than a page to undercut this central thesis. On page ten, he references himself in first person eleven times, writing,
“I have not set out to describe…my goal is to pluck…I have devoted a fair amount of my life…Where I do discuss…it isn’t my purpose…may view my approach…I consider it…I will focus…that my personal experience….people I meet.”
Of course, if he (or the molecules formerly identifying themselves as Sam Harris) is right, then all of these statements are false. Sam, there is no “I consider,” or “that my personal experience.” There is no you! Which leads us back to the first quote I offered. When Same Harris write, “Our minds are all we have,” who exactly has a mind? He speaks as if someone possesses a mind. But this if false for two reasons. First, the mind is the self, so no self “has” the mind. Second, Harris doesn’t believe either of those are real. Most people with a working definition of self-contradiction and a 4th grade education can see the problem. (By the way, when Harris has dissolved his self in meditation, who decided to do that, who experiences that state, and who decides to come out of it?)
Trying to go back through the book has already given me (or the particles that think themselves to be me) a headache, but let’s take the next step into the abyss. Harris argues that happiness is ultimately what we seek, and this dissolving of the self in meditation can get us there. Here we get the next step of his thesis:
“If there exists a source of psychological well-being that does not depend upon merely gratifying one’s desires, then it should be present even when all the usual sources of pleasure have been removed. Such happiness should be available to a person who has declined to marry her high school sweetheart, renounced her career and material possessions, and gone off to a cave or some other spot that is inhospitable to ordinary aspirations.” (p 13).
To this, I say “three cheers!” and “once more unto the breach!” If only Harris would practice what he preaches and do so! But, it turns out that he’s only partly right. It is true that happiness and/or contentment cannot be met by material or worldly gain. In fact, Martin Seligman has offered one of the best TED talks I’ve ever watched, and it deals with this topic. But, happiness doesn’t come from dissolving the self (after all, there is a self that would have abandoned all worldly things to go live in a cave…which strikes me as fairly self-centered actually). No. As Seligman points out, the highest (and most sustaining) level of happiness (scientifically speaking) is achieved when one pursues a purpose larger than himself. Ironically enough, it is in forgetting about your own desires, and considering larger collective or communal goals (family, country, god, etc.) that such happiness is achieved.
Sounding like a pious monk, rather than a rational materialist (which he claims to be), Harris goes further down the wormhole, writing, “A true practitioner is someone who has discovered that it is possible to be at ease in the world for no reason.” (p 17) Belief without reason is supposed to be anathema to Harris. Apparently he’s practicing the “dissolve yourself as I say, not as I do” line of logic. To his credit (and at the expense of his entire thesis…which is typical form for Harris), he writes,
“The question of how consciousness relates to the physical world remains famously unresolved. . . the birth of consciousness must be the result of organization: Arranging atoms in certain ways appears to bring about an experience of being that very collection of atoms. This is undoubtedly one of the deepest mysteries given to us to contemplate.” (52-53)
So, why not go on to treat that birth of consciousness as real in form of some emergent property? Even as a materialist, it would be possible to believe that the self is real, and it would make much better sense of both the data and our experience. A rock is not a self. The brain seems to be. Why does the fact that the brain (for the materialist) is resolvable to material components lead Harris to believe that there no Sam Harris to contemplate these things? Who exactly is it that believes this illusion? Doesn’t that implicitly affirm a self to deceive?
It’s worth noting that the molecules formerly known as Sam Harris offer that the self is an illusion, in spite of the fact that he/they have recently argued for the autonomy and moral standing of any computer that claims to be human. It’s also worth mentioning that Harris (in that same dialogue) argued that the adult fruit fly has more moral standing than a human embryo. So, to say he’s confused is to wildly understate his condition. (Additionally, given that Sam Harris also accepts complete determinism and denies any kind of free will, it’s funny to think that he’s upset with those who don’t agree with him. After all, they could not do otherwise. It’s not their fault). So,
The remainder of the book is not entirely wrong (his methods for mediation are pretty solid), but offer nothing that couldn’t be found in a more authentic book on prayer or meditation. If you can find such things from a less zany collection of matter, I would strongly encourage you to do so.