Sam Harris has begun to peddle his new book on atheist spirituality. He begins by complaining that scientists and “New Age thinkers” don’t get it right:
Scientists generally start with an impoverished view of spiritual experience, assuming that it must be a grandiose way of describing ordinary states of mind
New Age thinkers usually enter the ditch on the other side of the road: They idealize altered states of consciousness and draw specious connections between subjective experience and the spookier theories at the frontiers of physics.
Now I am not sure why New Age thinkers can’t be called Iron Age thinkers, but I suppose it has something to do with Harris’s fondness for gurus and other forms of woo.
Few scientists and philosophers have developed strong skills of introspection—in fact, many doubt that such abilities even exist. Conversely, many of the greatest contemplatives know nothing about science.
Harris is trying to set himself as the First Man in History who can bridge the gap between science and woo. On one hand, he has been meditating and experimenting with alternative states of consciousness for decades. On the other hand, he got a PhD in neuroscience. So Harris begins to promote just how special and unique he is:
I know brilliant scientists and philosophers who seem unable to make the most basic discriminations about their own moment to moment experience; and I have known contemplatives who spent decades meditating in silence who probably thought the earth was flat. And yet there is a connection between scientific fact and spiritual wisdom, and it is more direct than most people suppose.
And then we get to the really interesting part:
I have been waiting for more than a decade to write Waking Up. Long before I saw any reason to criticize religion (The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation), or to connect moral and scientific truths (The Moral Landscape, Free Will), I was interested in the nature of human consciousness and the possibility of spiritual experience.
Harris admits this is the book he has been waiting to write all along – I told you he got his PhD for the purpose of padding his resume for book writing purposes. And he surely “was interested in the nature of human consciousness and the possibility of spiritual experience.” No, he wasn’t out there working in neuroscience labs. He was on a spiritual quest. As a Washington Post story from 2006 tells us:
What he’ll say is this: At age 19, he and a college friend tried MDMA, better known as ecstasy, and the experience altered his view of the role that love could play in the world. (“I realized that it was possible to be a human being who wished others well all the time, reflexively.”) He dropped out of Stanford, where he was an English major, in his sophomore year and started to study Buddhism and meditation. He flew around the country and around the world, to places such as India and Nepal, often for silent retreats that went on for months. One of his teachers was Sharon Salzberg, a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass. Harris stood out, she recalls, not just because of his relative youth — everyone else was a generation older — but because of his intensity.
“His passion was for deep philosophical questions, and he could talk for hours and hours,” Salzberg recalls. “Sometimes you’d want to say to him, ‘What about the Yankees?’ or ‘Look at the leaves, they’re changing color!’ ” At the time, he was supported financially by his mother, though he did work for one memorable three-week stint in the security detail assigned to the Dalai Lama.
So his mother paid for him to have Sharon Salzberg as his teacher? Who is she again? You can check her out here.
In Waking Up, I do my best to show that a certain form of spirituality is integral to understanding the nature of our minds. (For those of you who recoil at every use of the term “spirituality,” I recommend that you read a previous post.)
My goal in Waking Up is to help readers see the nature of their own minds in a new light. The book is by turns a seeker’s memoir, an introduction to the brain, a manual of contemplative instruction, and a philosophical unraveling of what most people consider to be the center of their inner lives: the feeling of self we call “I.” It is also my most personal book to date.
Woo-tastic! New Atheist fans of Harris, who will deny their New Atheism is a religion, will go out and pay money for this book on atheist spirituality, this “seeker’s memoir” and “manual of contemplative instruction.” And we are supposed to take their denial seriously?