Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

waking upSam Harris is the co-founder and CEO of Project Reason, a non-profit organization dedicated to spreading science and secular values. Many of its members speak openly against the dangers and evils of religion, so I find it significant that in 2014 Harris released Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.

It’s significant because it’s a risk. It doesn’t play to a large audience. According to the jacket, Waking Up is for the “20 percent of Americans who follow no religion but who suspect that important truths can be found in the experiences of such figures as Jesus, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, Rumi, and the other saints and sages of history.”

Most of Harris’ fans are hardline atheists and anti-theists who probably wouldn’t deign to admit that there is such a thing as “spirituality.” Even Harris’ brilliant contemporaries like Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens haven’t entertained “spirituality” with much respect, and I suspect that a large number of people simply never will. So this book is not for them, and Harris has risked alienating himself from some of his own team.

There are also a number of other public meditation advocates who portray reason and rational thinking as an enemy to spiritual progress. Shunning reason has left many of these gurus open to absurd beliefs about consciousness and the cosmos. I assume advising against critical thinking is one of the reasons some of them remain so popular.

When I first became interested in meditation, yoga, and various techniques for the manipulation of consciousness, I went to the beginning. I read several ancient Indian yoga books, doing my best to account for cultural differences. I took claims about conquering death and walking on water with an arched eyebrow, and tried let the exercises and proofs of experience speak for themselves.

As I worked my way through history, things clarified slightly, becoming more contemporary and palatable, but even now the amount of pure garbage written about consciousness is staggering and time-consuming. I wish I had found Waking Up years ago when I first began.

Harris’ writing is clear, his claims based on evidence and experience, and he adds no metaphysical nonsense to the completely practical, physical, real-world exercise of meditation. He also expresses many of the philosophical issues about consciousness in a tidy fashion, peppering in humour and sharp skepticism along the way.

Much of the opening explains what he means when he says “spiritual.” Transcendent experiences are valid, he says, and they have long been misinterpreted through the lens of religion. Granted, some people may never have these experiences, and many will confuse transcendence with moments of aesthetic contemplation or ecstatic bliss (both of which may be extremely valuable), but for Harris, transcendence is the subjective experience of consciousness in a state prior to thought, when the illusion of the self is annihilated.

Of course, we’re all thinking all the time, so getting to that state can prove quite difficult. With years of meditation training, a firm grounding in philosophy and a PhD in neuroscience, Harris gives straightforward advice, tips about the snags and traps one can find on the path of meditation, and ample evidence that meditation is for most people an entirely beneficial practice.

Harris has successfully written a brief but engaging overview of meditation from scientific, philosophical, and personal perspectives. At 237 pages, Waking Up provides ample explanations and citations in the endnotes from a wide variety of sources. Waking Up will hopefully serve as an olive branch to people searching for peace without the usual religious baggage.

Free Will by Sam Harris

A little while ago I wrote a review of Free Will by Sam Harris. The review, in which I speak very highly of the book, was aimed at the casual reader, someone who might pick it up out of sheer curiosity, so I avoided some of the semantic and epistemic issues that rubbed me the wrong way. Here is the review, as written. Next week I will post some of the problems I had with the book. These problems didn’t make it into the review because I doubt they will bother the average reader and reflect my own distinct brand of nitpicking.

Article first published as Book Review: Free Will by Sam Harris on Blogcritics.

Free Will by Sam Harris

By now we’ve all noticed the campaign of scientific materialists to discredit religion in the hope that a saner, more scientific society will prevail. This future society, it is hoped, will base decisions on empirically verifiable facts and not superstition. Among those leading the campaign for atheism are Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Bill Maher, Ricky Gervais, and the co-founder of Project Reason, philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris.

Harris’ position is very clear: he believes that physics explains all phenomena and therefore our so-called free will is actually an illusion. Because the decisions we make arise out of our current conditions, and those conditions are the result of innumerable physical influences (brain structure, weather, etc.), our decisions are simply the outcome of a specific organism (us) going through a specific physical history (everything that formed us).

Looking back at any action, it is easy to feel as though we could have done things differently. But we cannot prove this. To say we could have acted differently is to suppose that at least some condition at the time of our decision would have been different. If not for the particular conditions influencing us, why did we decide as we did?

Free Will acknowledges the psychological fact that we all feel we are in control of our decisions. This is, in reality, one of the very few arguments for free will. So Harris asks us to look into the causes of our future decisions. We can tell a story about what influences us and how we will likely act, but this story covers very few of the innumerable factors that actually move us to one action over another. When we finally make a decision and exercise our will, we cannot say the impetus lies solely with our conscious “I.”

The conscious “I,” Harris argues, is a simply a function of human organisms. Consciousness is necessary to sort priorities and make decisions, but no supernatural agency is needed to justify this; it is simply an adaptive biological function. Willpower, he claims, is one factor of our consciousness, and we can never truly know why we choose to do one thing over another.

With Harris’ position, there is no need to invent supernatural explanations for any of the facts. God and the soul are comforting fictions but cannot maintain in a society that bases its decisions on empirical data.

This book should be fairly convincing to anyone with an open mind. I empathize with the frustration that theists must feel at the disrespect with which many writers and celebrities criticize religion. But Harris is not belligerent at all. His writing is clear, cogent, and makes no unnecessary detours to put down any creed. He instead prefers a straightforward approach, written in firm language.

Far from abstract verbalism, Free Will discusses the practical issues of morality, politics, and justice without yanking the rug out from under them. From Harris’ position justice must still be served, but our inclinations to hate criminals must be reassessed as we realize these criminals aren’t in complete control, but are the unlucky outcomes of bad genes, bad environments, or other maladaptive conditions. The elimination of free will in no way leads to the decay of morality.

What really impresses me about Free Will is the logical, masterful way in which he unfolds his thesis. Many times I finished one chapter with specific questions, only to find those exact questions tackled in the next chapter. Whether the reader is convinced or not, the execution of this little book is far superior to most on the subject.

Nice Nihilism

I recently read James Steinhoff‘s review of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions (2011) by Alex Rosenberg and it got me thinking. I consider myself a form of nihilist and I’ve noticed that many people are shocked by the notion. It seems like our culture has a phobia about nihilism. So to temper those fears, Rosenberg puts forward the idea of “nice nihilism”.

I don’t see why we need an apology for nihilism. Think through history about the people who have been killed or injured in the name of Nothing. Now think of the people killed in the name of some belief. Let the believers apologize if they want. Nihilism gives me no anxiety.

I consider myself a nihilist because I make a conscious effort to hold no fixed beliefs. I can watch the sun rise six days in a row and “believe” that it will rise on the seventh. But this isn’t a fixed belief, it’s just memory and understanding. I definitely do not hold the fixed belief that the sun will rise forever. As a matter of fact, I know this is impossible.

Many people assume nihilists are automatically immoral. They have no grounds to do so. I recently read a moronic tweet asking an atheist why he doesn’t just kill and rape anyone he wants? The atheist responded, “I do.” Of course he does, and so do I, because normal people don’t kill or rape. Let’s disambiguate the term nihilist from “asshole” forever. A better synonym for “asshole” would be “fanatic believer”.

Rosenberg takes a staunch materialist view of everything, it seems. He thinks that matter and energy and strict causality created all of reality, and that absolutely everything can be answered by physical facts. I find this ridiculous on a few levels. At exactly what point in history did science gain all the answers? It is a perfectly true fact that science has never had all the answers.

In the early days of the Newtonian revolution, everyone thought his system was The System. Of course Einstein proved that he was completely wrong. Sure, Newton’s theories were a huge jump forward owing to their usefulness, but let me just reiterate, he was wrong. The idea that there is some absolute space and absolute time is pure fiction, false to the facts of the universe. To assume physics will ever have all the answers is to disregard history with a faulty intellectual hubris. Not surprising since Rosenberg believes history is meaningless.

Everything that science has illuminated, it has done so through the human nervous system. There are no cold, hard facts sitting out there in a vacuum. Everything we understand about reality happens as a result of some nervous system interacting with the universe, of which that nervous system is a part. We can talk about the material basis for thoughts and feelings, but in order to express the uniqueness of each individual, we need something more.

Every one of us lives in our own unbelievably complex semantic environment. We interact with symbols, languages and feelings all the time, and all of these experiences become uniquely related to the observer. Even contemporary material science recognizes the effect of the observer on an observed physical system. Of course life loses meaning and purpose when you only consider the material side of reality. The semantic side is full of meaning, and inextricably linked to everything we know or can know about the universe.

Somehow Mr. Rosenberg thinks he can speak for the universe by eliminating the human experience. Then again, I haven’t read his book. I’ve only read the review. Anyway, it’s what I’ve been thinking about this week.

I liked the bullet point Q & A that outlines Rosenberg’s position, so I’ll just give a quick rundown with my first reactions for your reading pleasure. Naturally snappy answers to big questions are oversimplified.

Is there a God? No.

“Yes” or “No” doesn’t matter much to me without any attempt to define God.

What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is.

Physics itself says nothing. Physics is the name human beings have given to our own scientific observation of the universe. But even physicists don’t agree. There is still no fully developed model of our universe that doesn’t contain huge contradictions. Loop quantum gravity, string theory, etc., are not compatible. Even the Big Bang is just a theory, and one that no monolithic scientific community can get behind. To assume our current science is on the right track to discover everything is ridiculous. As our powers of perception continue to increase there will be always be more unknowns in the universe.

What is the purpose of the universe? There is none.

The question is a teleological error. Teleology, the doctrine that final causes exists, is nonsense to most modern philosophers, so the question is a silly one. The answer is correct though.

What is the meaning of life? Ditto.

I dare Rosenberg to define the word “meaning”. If he chooses to define his words with other words, and to define those words with still more words, he will eventually come to either a circular definition or ambiguous nonsense. Meaning is a function of the semantic structure of some human experience.

The term meaning is related to the level of abstraction taken into consciousness. Rosenberg wouldn’t admit that his book is meaningless, while most people should agree that a kitchen sink has no ‘meaning’. Meaning involves a cohesive structure of symbols, interpreted through a nervous system, reason, emotion, intuition, etc. As a writer, I consciously create meaning through the manipulation of symbols. Meaning is what we make it.

Of course if he’s talking about some objective meaning for all of life, I agree there’s no master plan at work here outside of our own.

Why am I here? Just dumb luck.

Yes. Good call.

Does prayer work? Of course not.

On this point he is actually wrong. There have been numerous studies that show results from prayer and meditation. Even if prayer only serves to focus one’s attention on certain concerns, it has had an effect. This type of answer reeks of dogmatic atheism, a fanatical belief which I have no time for.

Is there a soul? Is it immortal? Are you kidding?

Are you kidding? Once again, asking ambiguous questions, making no attempt to define the topics, and writing them off. Forgivable in this short-form index.

Is there free will? Not a chance!

Hmm. It’s tough to define consciousness, but among its criteria is the ability to apply different responses to stimuli. The more responses an organism can have to a given stimulus, the more conscious it is. This is a very reduced and ambiguous definition, but broadly acceptable to my mind. Strict determinism makes a lot of questionable assumptions about why different reactions would be given to the same stimuli. Chaos Theory and quantum effects might form a material basis for an answer, but that level of reality is effected by observation.

It’s very easy to feel from daily experience that the decisions we make come from thinking and not because of material, deterministic factors. To say that thoughts are only the results of electronic impulses is to completely disregard the human experience, to disregard quality over quantity.

What happens when we die? Everything pretty much goes on before, except us.

To be fair and literal, nothing ever just goes on as before.

What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them.

This may sound controversial, but I agree. I do not believe in moral absolutes, and as there is no such thing as a teleological expert, all moral systems are of equal value. Obviously going around killing people isn’t helpful to oneself or anyone else, and so is simply stupid. I do agree with his assumption that people are naturally inclined to be good and nice.

Why should I be moral? Because it makes you feel better than being immoral.

I more or less agree here. I think personal happiness is a good goal for life, and everyone’s personal happiness is connected with mine.

Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible, or sometimes obligatory? Anything goes.

To quote the creed of Hassan-i Sabbah “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.” Sabbah was the founder of the Assassins…so he’s probably not a great example for “nice nihilism”.

What is love and how can I find it? Love is the solution to a strategic interaction problem. Don’t look for it; it will find you when you need it.


Does history have any meaning or purpose? It’s full of sound and fury, but signifies nothing.

History is a collection of data on the experiences and interaction of organisms similar to myself. If I can glean anything about what motivates people to act, I can apply this knowledge to my own decision-making process.

Does the human past have any lessons for our future? Fewer and fewer, if it ever had any to begin with (2-3).

I have no reaction to this one.


P.S. I was reminded of a scene from The Big Lebowski that highlights the absurdity of this phobia towards nihilism. Three extortionists threaten to cut The Dude’s nuts off. Walter refers to them as Nazis but he is corrected by The Dude – they’re nihilists. Walter gets serious and says, “Say what you will about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, but at least it’s an ethos.”

Inside, Outside, and “The Real”

Atheism is on the rise thanks to progress in empirical sciences and reason. This movement of un-belief is popular in our social media due to the satirical efforts of atheists like Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher and Ricky Gervais. Unfortunately it seems that these outspoken atheists cannot argue against the devoutly religious using reason, and so resort to a campaign of constant ridicule. Besides being generally distasteful and disrespectful, their comments have the effect of polarizing people, getting laughs from like-minded people while causing believers to dig in their heels. They generally do not promote dialogue.

When confronting this disrespect of religion it’s helpful to remember that religions maintained their power for centuries by the systematic persecution of all those who disagreed with them. This is much worse than ridicule, and entrenched power structures still pull this nonsense today. It’s only now that U.S. politicians are taking a second look at the religiously-inspired intolerance of homosexuality. (And just this weekend, BBC reported that a 60-year-old woman was tortured for alleged witchcraft in Nepal, which assault was apparently sanctioned by the local village council. Last year a different woman was burnt alive for the same reason.)

The problem seems to be that everyone is so sure of themselves. I recently saw an episode of Real Time with Bill Maher that mocked a Newsweek article called “Heaven Is Real”, in which a comatose neurosurgeon claims to have visited the afterlife. Bill and his panelists scoffed in their usual manner, claiming the account was unscientific and unreal. While the account was definitely unscientific, its reality is debatable.

The scientific empiricist laughs the experience off as a hallucination, as unreal because it is not verifiable in a laboratory. They say that such an article is harmful to science, and therefore to society, because it promotes belief in the supernatural. They would argue rightly that belief in the supernatural leads away from belief in empirically-testable phenomena and hence towards insanity.

Of course there is no doubt that Dr. Eben Alexander’s experience was real to him. It reordered his conception of reality and was a transformative experience with obvious subjective value. He is not wrong to write about his experience, though he is wrong to call it scientific. The whole method of science is to root out those variables that are purely subjective.

This debate brings me to one of my favorite topics: The Real. I get a lot of personal joy from the fuzzy definitions of the word “real”. Individually the definitions of the word are unbearably limiting because they fail to acknowledge the multi-ordinality of the word (to borrow a term from Alfred Korzybski). The definition of the word “real” depends entirely on its context and the structure of the argument in which it is used.

Through our entire lives experience is the primary datum. We can’t even properly speak of the universe without reference to our experience of it. Scientific advancements are valuable to us because they can make the macroscopic, microscopic, or sub-microscopic realms intelligible to our experience, just as a telescope is merely a technological extension of our sense of sight. A telescope does not measure the reality of far away places; it is the empiricist who proclaims “I see it, therefore it is real.”

“The empiricist…thinks he believes only what he sees, but he is much better at believing than at seeing.” – G. Santayana

I am comfortable in proclaiming the reality of subjective experience. However, subjective experience has the insidious tendency to colour our perceptions of the outside world. William James says the mystic has every right to his or her visions, and that no outsider can refute this. However the corollary to this is that mystical realities are valid only to the one experiencing them and do not extend beyond the subjective realm. The connection between the inside and the outside cannot be perfect.

This is where I can get on board with Bill Maher: theism and atheism aside, when purely subjective experiences leak out into the objective world, the objective world is made insane. When religious metaphysics shape our social policies, the politicians are out of touch with the external reality they ought to be governing. It is only when subjective experiences are true to the facts of the external world that they should be used to dictate external laws. To do otherwise is a confusion of planes; what is real externally may not be real internally and vice versa.

Zeno’s paradox of dichotomy, which states we can never make it to our destination because we have to first travel half way there, then half of the remaining distance, and so on ad infinitum, is silly and insane because it disregards the external fact that we don’t travel according to logarithmic principles. I simply walk to my destination and arrive without noticing when I’m half or three-quarters of the way there. Zeno puts mathematics before experience, but mathematics is a priori and doesn’t refer to nature.

When empirical policies must be formed, empirical laws must be obeyed. When we decide our own personal code of beliefs and ethics, the subjective experiences of our life will be determinative. To regulate belief from without would also be a mistake. As for religion, if a subjective, personal connection to the divine becomes good enough for everyone, I bet these atheists won’t have much to say about it. It’s mainly belligerent evangelism they’re trying to tear down.

Stephen King’s “The Stand” vs. Ricky Gervais’s Athiesm

I just read The Stand by Stephen King and it impressed me as a well-crafted contemporary novel. Having read almost no Stephen King I had almost no expectations. But hearing the popular opinion that it is his magnum opus, I thought it might shed some light on my own writing.

The Stand is well executed technically. The way he sets the story up is compelling – it starts in the middle of a super-flu epidemic and offers enough dramatic action to carry the introduction of a wide cast of characters. Like a Yahtzee throw, there’s a good chance I’ll want to stick with at least one of these characters. One hundred pages in the story-engines are revved and there’s a lot of machinery in motion. It’s written in a thoughtful voice that isn’t over-sophisticated. It’s easy to read.

Whereas many long books can meander during the second act, Book 2 of The Stand is a great piece of writing. When the immediate viral threat to our heroes dies down, we’re quickly thrust into a survival situation offering food for thought for all tastes. The questions of civilization rise up from ancient history and we think fundamentally about society, politics, law, love, comfort and all the rest we take for granted living in a stable situation.

But here’s where The Stand let me down. [Spoiler alert! If you haven’t read The Stand, which came out in the seventies, and you’re just about to read it now and will be pissed if I spoil something, skip down to “I’m no Objectivist”.] The forces of antagonism through the book reach climax much earlier than our heroes are ready to deal with them. By the time our heroes get to Las Vegas, Flagg’s powers are already on the decline. And although Flagg still has enough evil magic to overpower our guys, the climax is deflated and unsatisfying because as readers we already have a sense that Flagg’s time is drawing to a close. With all the intricate set up in the first 66.6% of the book, I wanted more of a bloodbath at the end, firstly, and a more concrete resolution to the arc of each character. Instead what we get is a sterile explosion, viewed from afar, that kills heroes and villains alike.

I am also unsatisfied with the good/evil dichotomy presented throughout the book. Aristotle’s two-valued logic is faulty and naive. Nothing in life is absolutely good or absolutely evil except perhaps in our own imaginations. Understandably King wants us to feel we’re on the side of the “good”. But do “good” characters go out in search of violent confrontation as these heroes do? Their idea of a preemptive strike against Flagg reminds me of the illegal American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Not a fan.

But the major criticism I have with The Stand is that for all their politicking, civilizing, and good intentions to re-boot, the intrinsic problems of humanity creep back in and our heroes win the day by submission to Divine Providence. And in the end, it will all happen again. All well and good in a religious, “it’s all meant to be,” kind of way, but as a writer and a human, I want my characters to take a more proactive position and I want some kind of change from beginning to end. I believe the phrase is “God helps those who help themselves.” The way to an exciting climax is not to let characters just give up and submit to whatever is coming.

Novels must offer some glimpse into the mind of the artist. But if Stephen King’s message is that in order to win we should lie down and accept what’s coming, I disagree with the thesis of the novel. Then again, if Stephen King didn’t have a theme or point in mind, was in fact telling a meaningless story, then the book is as culturally significant as a Sudoku puzzle. I doubt this is the case.

I’m no Objectivist, but I agree with Ayn Rand that the will to make one’s own destiny is a good ideal, and to eschew mediocrity and complacency is helpful to society. Most of our great geniuses from Buddha to Einstein saw a gap in the world and filled it with their own brand of intellect; they went against convention to rise above.

Objectivism, and the outspoken atheism of people like Ricky Gervais, rub me the wrong way. It rubs me just as wrong as outspoken missionaries trying to spread their version of religion among “heathens”. If atheists tell me not to believe in God, they are not motivating me to think for myself, they are motivating me to think like they do. Outspoken atheism is simply the negative form of religious fanaticism (fascism).

But Atheism does have this positive effect: the message that we shouldn’t wait for heaven after we die, that we shouldn’t wait for God to come down after death to redeem our lives, motivates us to make the most of our waking hours and work hard. Hard work is something I can definitely get behind, and I know hard work is something Ricky Gervais can get behind. Hell, Stephen King writes 2000 words a day so I know he can get behind it too. We should all work hard to shape the lives we want. Obviously. My ideal novel won’t get written by anyone but me.

There is also this facet of the argument: I’d take laughter over horror most days. For that reason I’m declaring Ricky Gervais the winner of this battle-between-two-completely-unrelated-things. Besides, you can likely watch BBC’s The Office in less time than it will take you to read The Stand.

Thanks for reading this piece of tangential writing and I hope you appreciated that despite it’s strange structure, it had a point. Now get back to work.