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The Marriage of Science & Spirit: Negotiating the Great Pre-Nup, Part 2: Why Sam Harris’s "Waking Up" Matters
In Part I of this series of blog posts, “The Marriage of Science & Spirit: Negotiating the Great Pre-Nup”, I pointed out that there's a dawning awareness that the coming together of rationality with spirituality, the "marriage of science and spirit" is THE big shift happening now in terms of cultural evolution—an event on the scale of the Reformation or the Enlightenment. It is the most significant intellectual and cultural event of our time and it will reshape the future of human affairs.
I observed that a great public debate has commenced about the terms of this marriage, the “pre-nup” as it were. Although many participants attempt to straddle the safe middle ground, the debate roughly divides into two camps: the strict rationalists (often called agnostics or atheists) and the trans-rationalists (including both mystics and developmentalists).
The rationalists are interested in integrating the valuable insights and practices of contemplative spirituality into a richer, less dogmatic, more intelligent rationality. The trans-rationalists see exciting potentials in going beyond conventional consciousness into gnosis, awakening as co-participants in a conscious universal Reality, sometimes called the “Living Universe” or the conscious “Kosmos.”
I tend to be in agreement with the trans-rationalist camp, but in this second blog post I’d like to tune in attentively to the wisdom of the other side of this debate. Even though I think it’s in some ways painfully partial, the rationalist perspective holds extremely important truths, and in many ways has the most significant role to play in actual cultural transformation.
Let’s look at one of the most brilliant and extreme contributors to the rationalist synthesis, Sam Harris, the well-known American author, philosopher, and neuroscientist, whose recent book, Waking Up, makes a powerful original argument for an “atheistic” spirituality.
Why Sam Harris’s Waking Up Matters
Occasionally, a book makes history, or rather changes history. Sam Harris’s new volume, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion might well turn out to be such a book.
- This book makes a cogent and persuasive rational case for spirituality “without religion” — for meditation, mindfulness, higher states of consciousness, and ultimately awakening from the illusion of a separate self — and it does so in entirely credible evidence-based terms, without metaphysical baggage, with the advocacy coming from a well-known skeptic and scientist.
- Waking Up appears when meditation has already gone mainstream. We’ve had decades of scientific research, and tens of thousands of studies have validated measurable benefits from meditation’s higher or altered states of consciousness. Time magazine recently featured “The Mindful Revolution” on its cover, medical insurance often subsidizes mindfulness-based stress reduction classes, and “Wisdom 2.0” and Mindful Leadership conferences bring together top tech executives with Buddhist (and agnostic) teachers. Meditation is now taught in many public and private schools, and presented as a scientifically validated method to enhance focus and learning.
- This is a time of spiritual inspiration and mobilization, when people are not only doing “inner work” but also opening their minds to new ways of understanding it. Books, seminars, and courses on progressive spirituality and self-help are a fast-growing $12 billion a year industry. Participants in this marketplace are finding one another on the web, and engaging a wide-ranging public conversation that’s already increasingly informed not only by spiritual experiences and ideas, but also by scientific standards of logic and evidence.
- Waking Up delivers a science-based, ready-for-prime-time critique of the unconscious presumption that each human being is, at root, a separate self; and it embodies a species of the honest and intelligent discourse that can be unleashed on the basis of that understanding. And it does so at a time when the problems human beings are now facing can only be overcome via large-scale self-transcendence. (There is no more fundamental basis for self-transcendence than the direct recognition that our very sense of self is an illusion!)
Some of Harris’s other books are much more obviously political. Even during his press appearances to publicize Waking Up, what went viral was his controversial challenge on Real Time with Bill Maher to the links between Islamic ideas and bad behavior. There, and in follow up writings and appearances in such venues as GPS with Fareed Zakaria, he made some valid points to be reckoned with. But I predict that the ideas embodied in Waking Up (linked to those in his earlier book, The Moral Landscape) may ultimately have much farther-reaching effects on the underlying structures and assumptions — indeed, on the very paradigm — that dictates the character and direction of our public discourse.
Only Nixon Could Go To China
It has been said that “only Nixon (someone with impeccable anti-communist credentials) could go to China.” Similarly, it has been hardheaded scientists pointing to irrefutable data who have paved the way for meditation to go mainstream — not clear-eyed spiritual practitioners speaking from their hearts.
And who might be optimally positioned to help the scientific community embrace spiritual practice as a legitimate universal value? What popular intellectual could set the stage for public discourse that starts with awareness of the illusory nature of the separate self-sense? It would take someone like Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and well-known atheist, a man publicly endorsed by Richard Dawkins, a personal friend of Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Stephen Pinker, and author of a book prominently endorsed by Jerry Coyne.
Admittedly, Harris is still more an insurgent than a cultural insider. His fame is not primarily as the author of Waking Up. Far more people know him as “one of those New Atheists” or the guy who got into a fight with Ben Affleck on Real Time with Bill Maher after calling Islam “the motherlode of bad ideas.”
But Sam Harris is a more significant cultural figure than his latest viral media splash would suggest. I think he’s playing a “long game” — a bid to reshape public discourse, and in the process to propose the terms on which science will embrace certain inescapable and transformational truths and practices from the world of spirituality. Which, as we’ll see later, is a very, very big deal.
A Place Where Archimedes Can Take His Stand
After calculating the seemingly unlimited multiplier of force that can be achieved by a simple, well-designed lever, Archimedes famously said, “Give me a place to stand and I can move the world.” Especially in the context of his other writings, Sam Harris has chosen a potent lever and a very solid place to stand in Waking Up.
Even though the teaching of evolution and the scientific consensus on global warming are both under siege in red-state America, this is still a predominantly modern world in which evidence, science, and reason provide our most authoritative and broadly accepted basis for discerning what is true. It’s structured into all modern legal systems. Even the extreme cultural conservatives attempt to marshal evidence and make rational arguments to justify their positions.
In the trajectory of all his writings, Harris uses reason and evidence to fiercely advocate that human intelligence free itself from delusions of all kinds and accept responsibility for reality as it is. This is a laser-like expression of the nearly universal values and intentions shared by all modern minds. That won’t go away.
Harris has already subjected religious metaphysics to a harsh examination and indictment, and offered a scientific basis for morality (based on minimizing the suffering and maximizing the happiness of conscious beings). Now he’s critiquing the presumption that our discourse takes place among ontologically real separate individuals (each with an implicit right to his or her own opinion, however preposterous).
The Invitation Reads: “Keep Out: No Trespassing”
This sets the stage for a different kind civic conversation, one many would regard as much more “enlightened” than what we now find even from our best mainstream public intellectuals. Harris is establishing clearly defined standards of intelligent non-delusion, and as part of that, he legitimizes the discipline of attention, or mindfulness, as a value. Here, he is setting the terms for an intelligent discourse that bids to be of interest not only to skeptical scientific atheists, but also to a significant number of the 24-33% of the population that calls itself “spiritual but not religious”, including thousands of serious rational contemplatives. It seems he wants to help convene and participate in a more intelligent, serious, unencumbered public conversation about what really matters in today’s world.
Sam Harris has been described as a writer of polemics. He certainly enjoys driving home the implications of his criticisms and denouncing delusion. He clearly does not suffer fools gladly. His writings contain a litany of scathing indictments. On the surface they seem to say, to large numbers of people, “Your presumptions are so preposterous that you’re not worth talking with!” Ironically, his scorn also functions as an invitation to a new conversation, directed to the wide swathe of people who can see the validity of the points he makes, those whom he doesn’t directly denounce, and whom he wants to engage.
On the one hand…
To scientific materialists, Harris presents one kind of challenge, saying something to the effect of:
“I share your worldview and your scorn for most so-called ‘spiritual’ beliefs and attitudes.
“However, your patterns of thinking are far more automatic and deluding than you probably realize, and they constrain your clarity and intelligence. You’re laboring under the ‘user illusion’ structured into human neurology, that has you lying to yourself and others, imagining you’re making conscious choices ‘you’ never actually make, and thinking you’re an ontologically real ‘self’ in ways you simply are not. All these make your thinking more predictable and dumb than is appropriate. You should wake up!
“There’s a new, higher standard of excellence in town. To the degree that you do wake up, you can participate in it. You may already qualify to participate according to some key criteria, but there are some additional criteria (ones you’ve probably mostly disregarded or neglected) that are also valid and necessary. If you accept them, that means changing your behavior and practicing mindfulness. In the process you will stop being so fooled by your internal dialogue, and in the silence you’ll begin to function at a much higher level.
“Then you’ll be able to participate in a much more intelligent and interesting level of thinking and conversation.”
On the other hand…
To meditators and spiritual practitioners, he seems to be presenting a different challenge, something that might sound like this:
“I too do the serious practice of attending to attention, and I have experienced transcendent states of peace and seen through the illusion of self or ego. But practice doesn’t begin and end there.
“I’m a neuroscientist; I’ve taken a strong public stand against religious metaphysics; I’ve earned mainstream credibility and notoriety; and I’m risking my standing by publicly advocating for awakened awareness as a basis for the more enlightened conduct of human affairs.
“And even as I’m doing this, I’m harshly criticizing many of the foundational ideas of your worldview. For example, I disparage Aldous Huxley’s idea of a perennial philosophy, or even any ‘happy synthesis among spiritual traditions’; I say ‘there is no reason to think that consciousness is integral to the process…of how an underlying quantum reality becomes the seemingly classical world of tables and chairs…’ and instead happily observe and participate in ‘a style of discourse, across all branches of science and philosophy that [has] made the mind seem ripe for reduction to the “physical” world.’ I regard my meditative consciousness as a neurological state, and I don’t assume that meditative samadhis necessarily deliver any valid insight into the nature of the world around me.
“You’re invited to bring your awakened awareness and practice of mindfulness into that public discourse. What won’t be welcomed are non-mainstream ideas about a ‘conscious Kosmos’ or a ‘living universe’ or ‘subtle energy’ or the worldview they express. Instead, I welcome you to a serious mainstream conversation in which intelligent transpersonal clarity is encouraged and valued, as long as it’s related to the terms of existing mainstream discourse, and rigorously grounded in observable reality and empirical evidence. I won’t promise to play nice, but I’ll promise to question my own mind and follow the evidence.
“After being excluded from the mainstream so totally for so many decades, here’s an opening. That’s exciting, isn’t it? And I’m taking risks to open it. I’m not inclined to negotiate with you over the fine print. Take this offer or leave it. My scientific materialist friends are far less open than I am, so I suggest you seriously question your New Age attitudes and assumptions. If you do, you’re welcome to pitch in and join the process of bringing intelligent clarity to bear on human affairs.”
Giving the Finger
Part of what makes the conversation exciting is that the invitation begins by posting “Keep Out” signs that exclude many familiar and tiresome kinds of conversation.
Sam is not extending his invitation to religious believers. Those with mythic beliefs and unnecessary metaphysics are explicitly not welcome. He’s written several previous books documenting that “idiocy”, and wastes little time with such folks in this context.
He unapologetically is not extending this invitation to fussily politically correct liberals. If you’re overly concerned about excluding or even not offending Islamic or Christian or Jewish believers, then you’re clearly not serious about following your discriminative intelligence wherever it takes you. Your thinking is hostage to political considerations and ideology, which are ultimately just as limiting as ridiculous religious beliefs.
Lighting a Fuse
This two-sided invitation, starting off with “Keep Out”, has great appeal to large numbers of intelligent, inquiring minds. And a lot of them are already listening.
I cheer that success. To the degree that Harris’s version of “spirituality without religion” gains traction, post-conventional spirituality becomes a bit more credible, mainstream, and influential. To the degree that others respond to Harris’s implicit invitation, our public conversation will evolve. To whatever degree he’s able to light a fuse that ignites the passionate intelligent awareness of large numbers of people, the odds increase that the human species will mobilize to meet the nearly overwhelming crises we now face.
Harris has already had a lot of impact. I’m inspired that he has stimulated a public conversation not only about transcending unhealthy mythic religious ideas, but also focused on establishing a rational universal basis for morality that brings the power of intelligent discernment in service of care for the suffering of sentient beings. Now he’s signaling that his next direction will be to anchor that discernment in a non-egoic, transpersonal view of reality. That would certainly be a radical upgrade of our public discourse!
The timing is excellent. A new level of conversation seems ready to take off. This is already a time of seismic cultural and intellectual shifts, when popular intellectual discourse is rightly so alarmed it is willing to think outside the box defined by our intellectual habits and categories, and is groping for new terms on which to effectively grapple with the multiple crises we face — from global warming and mass extinctions to national and international culture wars, and the increasingly broken status of American and world political systems and institutions.
The apparent futility of achieving meaningful change through democratic elections has created an “inversion layer” among a certain strata of the intelligentsia wherein much civic passion is now trapped, festering, unable to express itself effectively. Much of our public discourse is so constrained by its focus on what seems politically and culturally possible that it reflects a “learned helplessness” to energize bold solutions, much like lab rats that no longer bother trying to avoid the next electric shock. This, together with the balkanization of the public sphere, helps explain why so many have tuned out.
Sam Harris has already managed to break through this stuckness by daring to speak the unspeakable. He may be a polarizing figure, but he’s energized our cultural debate. He’s already a frequent guest on national television, and recent events have only raised his profile.
In Waking Up, he’s now indicating that his disposition is more awakened, and that his ultimate intentions are more radical and transpersonal than we had suspected. The time is ripe for an explosion of engagement among the best minds of our time. If Harris is able to help that latent potential cross a tipping point, its power could actually begin to become liberated. That would catalyze a much-needed transformation of public discourse and political engagement.
For all these reasons, I applaud Waking Up, Sam Harris’ larger body of work, and his cultural project. Spiritual practitioners interested in the evolution of dharma will do well to pay attention, notice the patterns that connect, learn, beneficially evolve, and enter the fray.
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This blog post is the second of a series. In coming installments, I’ll point out why the other side of this debate is just as important as this one, circle back and look at the sobering realities of our cultural context and our prospects for synthesis, and then I’ll dig deeper into the hidden drama that’s unfolding as all of us (consciously or not) continue to participate in this wrestling match over the terms of the “pre-nuptial agreement” for this epochal marriage of science and spirituality — which may provide the source code for the great event of our time — a transformation of mainstream worldviews.
I would love to hear your thoughts and comments below.