Monday, 8 December 2014

Waking Up by Sam Harris

Lowdown: There’s more to life than this, but in order to get there we need to meditate.
At the time I noted Sam Harris’ 2012 Global Atheist Convention presentation was one of the more interesting ones. Interesting, but also weird: during the middle of his half an hour long presentation, Harris asked the audience to close their eyes and join him in meditation. When you think about it, that’s a very weird request to make of an audience brimming with self declared sceptics. Yours truly can attest to many eyes being kept wide open.
Harris’ latest book, Waking Up (a book that comes with the secondary title of “A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion”), is a book aimed exactly at that crowd. A book that takes it for granted that religion equals bullshit, although it can definitely still be read by the religious, and aims at satisfying those very same sceptics around me at that 2012 convention hall.
Waking Up’s core claim is that there is more to life than this, and that this extra life - aka spirituality - can be at the reach of us all if we meditate properly. Up until now, religion - with all the false crap that comes along - took ownership of this spirituality, as it had gained many a follower touched by these unique life experiences. Harris, however, argues that the benefits achievable through spirituality should not be kept in the domain of religion; everyone should be able to enjoy them. He continues to offer a path for getting there through picking and choosing from what the religions of the Far East – Buddhism in particular – have to say.
Harris’ claim is nice and interesting, even if it does feel like he’s trying to be pompous and grand about it by using phrases such as “the illusion of the self” and “free in the moment” without explaining what he means till much later. Following that laying of the claim is a discussion on the workings of the human brain and philosophical deliberations on the concept of consciousness. The aim is to provide some sort of scientific foundations for the existence and benefits of spirituality. For my money, this was by far the most interesting part of the book. Once Harris deems to have cleared the way, he moves on to discuss meditation techniques as well as telling the charlatan meditation guru apart from the real deal.
I do not doubt Harris when he says there is more to consciousness than we are normally aware of. My problem with Waking Up, however, has been it never managing to leave me feeling convinced. If anything, its arguments reek of desperation. There is a lot that Harris asks the reader to accept based on his own personal experience, which – last I heard – doesn’t pass for scientific evidence. As already hinted, there is too much “shock & awe” in Harris’ presentation of the facts: to prove the effectiveness and clarity of a particular Buddhist instructor, Harris compares the guy's teachings with an optical illusion; WTF?
We covered cheap attempts at shocking the reader, leaving the reader impressed through lack of clarity, and other methods of argument typically ridiculed by Harris when he criticises religion. Next, I would bring the whole focus on meditation as the best/only way (drugs aside) to enter the new realms of consciousness the author is talking about into question. As in, what about other types of spiritual experiences people have, experiences that have nothing to do with religion? Specifically, what about music? Has Harris been to a music concert lately to see what the crowd is like even without the use of drugs? Testifying for myself, I know that I have experienced and continue to experience a lot of what Harris seems to be talking about simply through listening to my favourite music through a proper hi-fi system. There is a reason why I like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon as much as I do: it is consistently able to take my conscious away into otherwise unimaginable realms of pleasure where it is not encumbered by my day to day concerns. It is, if you will, my personal spiritual experience, yet I do not need a whole lot of hoopla and years with Tibetan monks in order to experience it – David Gilmour’s guitar will suffice, thank you very much.
The same can be argued about Western religions. Harris asks us not to leave spirituality to the domain of those religions; fine by me. He continues to argue that people of these religions are attached to their religion through their spiritual experience; true, at least for some of them. However, if that is the case, then how does he explain the fact these people get their spiritual experience without anything remotely close to Buddhist like meditation, but rather through experiences much close to the music concerts I am talking about? Talk about glaring omissions.
Look, I’m not saying Harris is wrong. There is at least something to his arguments.
I am saying, however, that Harris builds himself a house of cards made with flimsy evidence that cannot sustain the level of arguments he is making. And yes, I am accusing him of at least some two faced behaviour in raising arguments of type and quality he is used to criticising.
You may still want to read Waking Up to check out Harris’ claims for yourself. The carrot of living a happier life is potentially too good to miss out on. Yet it is clear that the case meant to support this carrot isn’t there [yet]. I would understand Harris if he raised his hypothesis and left it at that, a hypothesis, but I have a hard time being asked to accept the business case he brings along to the table. I therefore feel that 2 out of 5 crabs is all that Waking Up deserves, most of which are earned by the second chapter that does offer interesting insight on what we know to be the workings of our human consciousness.

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