Review of Sam Harris’s Waking Up

Sam did a great job of dealing with the complexities of free will in his book by that name, but in Waking Up he is writing about consciousness and the self, which are altogether more difficult subjects, and he flounders. Like all of us, he is a product of his personal history, and in his case, time spent with Eastern gurus and teachings has erupted in a spewing of woo-laden deepities.

Take for example, “Our minds are all we have. They are all we have ever had. And they are all we can offer others.” (Kindle Locations 51-52). It’s true that without a mind, or consciousness, we can’t be aware of anything we have, and if others are mindless, they can’t be aware of being given anything, but does that mean that if I give someone five bucks, I have given them my mind? Giving them five bucks will affect their minds, but is it possible to affect their minds in the same way without giving them five bucks? Stuff exists outside of minds, and minds would be in serious trouble if it didn’t. He makes some less hyperbolic statements in the paragraph that follows, but why start with such overblown nonsense. It alerts the careful reader that this is not a carefully written book.

Here’s another one: “The reality of your life is always now. And to realize this, we will see, is liberating. In fact, I think there is nothing more important to understand if you want to be happy in this world.” (Kindle Locations 485-486). While it’s true that we can’t actually be in the past or the future, there are things we need to remember about the one and anticipate about the other if we want to be happy. You may be in a comfortable environment and your hunger may be satiated at the moment, but if you don’t make plans to pay the rent and buy groceries, you may find yourself less happy when the landlord kicks you out and you’re starving. You may have the ability to be happy in those circumstances, but most of us find the search for happiness a little less challenging if we’ve learned how to avoid situations that in the past were difficult, and to anticipate future difficulties. Dwelling in the present moment without reference to past or future is a recipe for unhappiness, unless your staff is taking care of the details of life. The most important thing, then, if you want to be happy, is to make the best use of the past and the future without allowing either one to dominate or torture you.

The idea that the present is somehow magical is further deepified in this passage: “Everything we want to accomplish . . . is something that promises that, if done, it would allow us to finally relax and enjoy our lives in the present.” (Kindle Locations 57-59). If you buy this as an accurate depiction of the human condition, you would believe that no one is ever happy—kids laughing at the playground, friends enjoying a meal together, lovers locked in embrace—none of these people could really be happy unless they’re accomplished meditators who have learned to dwell in the present.

In fact, the present is often pleasant enough that many of us can relax and enjoy it without worrying that it will soon become an unsatisfactory past.  Thinking about former good times can bring great happiness to the present moment, and anticipation of future happiness is a joy in the present that few of us would want to give up.

Sam has drunk the Buddhist koolaid. There are many good insights to be found in Buddhism, but he presents the classic dogma uncritically, as any good religious person would. Here’s the dogma of dukkha, Harris version:

“Suffering may not be inherent in life, but unsatisfactoriness is. We crave lasting happiness in the midst of change: Our bodies age, cherished objects break, pleasures fade, relationships fail. Our attachment to the good things in life and our aversion to the bad amount to a denial of these realities, and this inevitably leads to feelings of dissatisfaction.” (Kindle Locations 544-547).

Certainly you can find people who make themselves miserable by dwelling on the brevity of life, who perpetually mourn that all good things must come to an end, but if this were the constant lot of human beings the suicide rate would be much higher than it is. Something under 10 % of Americans had an episode of depression last year, but that leaves at least 90% muddling through somehow, and a fair number even report being happy.

Look around; are you surrounded by miserable people? Are the diners at the pizza parlor enjoying their slice, or are they bemoaning the fact that they will be hungry again tomorrow? Are florists doing a thriving business despite the fact that every flower they sell is going to wither and fade in the next few days and that their customers know that?

A good many people have fairly realistic ideas about how long things can be expected to last: Someday the house will need a new roof, but for now it’s keeping us dry. This carton of milk will soon be gone, so we’d better add milk to the grocery list. Human beings must have had a fair level of happiness and optimism to have made the evolutionary cut.

Readers who are unhappy, and who are tolerant of nebulous concepts like spirituality and an overall surfeit of sloppy thinking, will love this book. If some of them are encouraged to look at what goes on in their heads, all the better. I just wish they had a better guide than Sam.

His contention that the self is an illusion is based on “scrutiny”: “What doesn’t survive scrutiny cannot be real.” (Kindle Location 1610). The scrutiny he relies on is introspection, and introspection alone is a very dull tool. Consider that by using introspection as his sole guide, not only does the self disappear, but the body as well. “There were periods during which all thought subsided, and any sense of having a body disappeared.” (Kindle Locations 1734-1735). While it’s too much of a stretch for Sam to suggest that the body is an illusion, the contention that the self is an illusion is good Buddhist dogma, and as he notes, it’s an idea that can be found in the mystic fringes of most religions.

In fact, both the body and the self, along with our experience of the world, are constructions of the brain. The rubber hand experiment he describes is a wonderful example of how the brain’s body-construct can be manipulated—the brain can be fooled into thinking a rubber hand is part of the subject’s body. “. . . this effect— dissociation from one’s own body and a false sense of inhabiting the parts (or whole body) of another person—seems to leave the “self” very much intact.” (Kindle Locations 1480-1481).

Our bodies can include rubber hands and phantom limbs, and the self can be all over the place in out of body experiences, in which the subjects’ self-constructions are displaced: “It is possible to experience oneself as (apparently) outside a body.” (Kindle Locations 1450-1451).

Our brains on the whole do an adequate job of keeping our bodies intact and our selves in place, but they can be fooled by special circumstances. Those lapses don’t prove that bodies and selves are illusions, only that the brain’s representations of those entities can be manipulated.

Our sense that we are surrounded by the physical world is also a brain-construct, as Sam’s demonstration of the blind spot shows. (Kindle Location 1862). The brain compensates for the blind spot in each of our eyes by filling in the blanks of its simulation. There is no way to tell by “scrutiny” of our visual experience—by introspection—that this is happening. The blind spot was discovered by studying the anatomy of the eye, and then by testing hypotheses about the effect of the optic nerve’s penetrating of the retina.

Sam uses the perceptual square illusion, (Kindle Location 1617) to make the point that some illusions can be dispelled by examining them closely, but the larger point should be that such illusions demonstrate the brain’s shortcuts for dealing with vast amounts of data to create its mostly adequate though sometimes erroneous representations of the visible world.

The ability to make such constructions has given our brains distinct evolutionary advantages, and at times Sam seems aware of this fact: “Nothing I say here is intended as a denial of the fact that psychological well-being requires a healthy ‘sense of self’— with all the capacities that this vague phrase implies.” (Kindle Locations 470-471). While recognizing the value of such a “sense of self,” he claims that the brain’s self-simulation is illusory:

“The self that does not survive scrutiny is the subject of experience in each present moment—the feeling of being a thinker of thoughts inside one’s head, the sense of being an owner or inhabitant of a physical body, which this false self seems to appropriate as a kind of vehicle.” (Kindle Locations 1263-1265).

His view of the “false self” as something to be transcended overlooks the possibility that it may have evolved because it has survival value.

The brain can be misled in its self-construction by the culture in which it matures, ascribing attributes to the self that won’t pass muster—free will, for example. Science can correct these, but before we throw the baby out with the bathwater, we should ask which parts of the simulated self might be useful, and which are detrimental to the organism’s and society’s well-being. What might a healthy and scientifically correct sense of self entail?

Answering that question requires that we look more closely at the limitations of consciousness. Sam seems very much aware of these: “One thing each of us knows for certain is that reality vastly exceeds our awareness of it.” (Kindle Location 1220). Consciousness only gives us a pinhole view, and if we thoroughly focus our attention on any one part of our body or the world, the rest becomes so attenuated that it disappears. Experiences like Sam’s, quoted above, in which his thought and body disappeared, are prime examples of the limitations of consciousness.

With those limitations, giving ourselves the role of “thinker of thoughts” can seem something of an overstatement. We only have conscious access to the products of thinking, not the process. Still, it’s very practical to consider our thoughts as occurring in our own brain, rather than someone else’s, and if someone asks, “What are you thinking?” it would be unnecessarily awkward to say, “I’m not thinking anything, but my brain seems to be thinking about . . . whatever.” As long as we are in touch with the reality that we don’t know how we think, and that we can be just as surprised as anyone else at the words that come out of our mouths, to say that “I” am the thinker can be a useful locution.

I agree with Sam that we do entirely more thinking than we need to, and often about things that are either useless or painful. It is a great skill to learn how to keep our thoughts in positive, productive areas, and to keep our moods upbeat. It can be great fun to “experience the present moment prior to the arising of thought,” (Kindle Locations 542-543) but seeing the self as illusion is not required for any of these. What we need is a reality-based self, one that recognizes the limitations of consciousness, and that understands how its brain has been conditioned to react to circumstances.

I think it’s more helpful to think of the self as the brain’s avatar—a way of presenting itself—than as an illusion, in the same way that our experience of the external world is the brain’s way of presenting a mass of survival-relevant information. As the brain learns more about how it works, it can reconceive itself and alter its avatar to reflect the new reality, in the same way that our scientific understanding of the external world has altered its representation. Although the world still appears solid, nuclear physics has given us a new appreciation of that appearance.

Sam’s book, Free Will, could have been the starting point for a re-imagination of the self that takes cultural distortions of it into account, including those of Buddhism, but he fails to take advantage of that insight.

When I realized many years ago that I didn’t have free will, it was the beginning of a major realignment of my self. It didn’t require sitting in meditation, but involved ongoing monitoring of my thinking and noting when free-will-based thoughts arose—like pride in my accomplishments or condemnations of my fellows—and labeling them as incorrect.

Passively monitoring the arising and passing away of thoughts is not that productive. The brain’s understanding of itself is advanced much more quickly by asking of each thought, “Where did that come from?” You will find that some thoughts are the product of suspect sources, like religion, superstition, and other forms of ignorance. Others are cued by the environment, and still others arise from brain processes that are unavailable to consciousness. Sorting these out can give us an inkling of how the brain works.

Sitting meditation can introduce you to the idea that your thoughts can be monitored by your brain—it develops a thought-monitoring module—but once you realize it’s possible, you can do it anywhere.

Introspection can be a great tool in the company of reason, but alone it is misleading or useless. Yes, everything arises and passes away in consciousness, but there are recurrences, continuities. Barring some unforeseen circumstance, I expect to remain a male of the species till I die, hopefully remembering how to speak English, where I live, and how to get money out of an ATM. It’s probably a good idea to keep track of these things.

One of those Advaita guys, Jean Klein, gave a very good definition of the self. Although he used the term, “personality,” I think it applies: “The personality is not the constant we imagine it to be. In reality it is only a temporary reorchestration of all our senses, imagination and intelligence, according to each situation.” Klein, Jean (2013-05-11). Who Am I? (Kindle Locations 144-145). Non-Duality Press. Kindle Edition.

Each situation activates sets of neurons that have been active in similar situations, and sets off a cascade of neuronal interactions that will result in our behaving in the best interests of the organism as far as our brain is capable of computing them. The self is who the brain thinks we should be in that situation. In spite of the fact that it is a re-orchestration, it usually includes elements of who we are that have continuity in many situations—gender, height, weight, etc., contributing to our sense of being the same person.

Failure to note the variations from situation to situation, despite the continuities, can leave us wondering why the desire to lose weight when we’re standing on the scales disappears when when we sit down to eat. It results in expressions like, “I’m so angry with myself,” when the current reorchestration finds itself embarrassed by the behavior committed by a prior reorchestration.

Does the fact of the self’s variability make it an illusion? Consciousness is variable, too, in that it totally disappears for hours at a time while we’re sleeping, but Sam and many of the rest of us don’t take it’s intermittent absence as demonstrating illusoriness. The self isn’t controlling the brain, to be sure, but it’s the brain’s guide to appropriate behavior in a given situation. It may not be the thinker of thoughts, the experiencer of experience, or the owner of the body, but the brain creates the feeling that it is all these things as part of its being the organism’s representative, its user interface. It’s like the cursor in your word processing program, which isn’t really adding or removing letters from the screen, it’s just the programmer’s way of illustrating what the 0s and 1s are doing on the motherboard.

My brain has concluded that the view of the self that I, as its representative, am presenting here is close enough to reality that it has attempted to improve my self’s correspondence to that reality. “I” don’t harbor the illusion that I create thoughts or control the body, but I certainly do enjoy most of the experiences that arise, and am fairly tolerant of the unpleasant ones, usually laughing after initially exclaiming, “F#*k!”

As for consciousness, Sam says, “Unfortunately, efforts to locate consciousness in the brain generally fail to distinguish between consciousness and its contents.” (Kindle Locations 844-845). He gives this example of the relationship between the two: “If you shut your eyes at this moment, the contents of your consciousness change quite drastically, but your consciousness (arguably) does not.” (Kindle Locations 856-857). He seems to take consciousness as a constant which exists independently of content. “. . . it is quite possible to realize that consciousness itself is free, no matter what arises to be noticed.” (Kindle Location 1907). “consciousness is intrinsically undivided.” (Kindle Location 1914).

To see how these conclusions about consciousness might be flawed, consider that you can see waves on the surface of the ocean, on a lake, or in a bowl of milk. You may even take the word of physicists that waves occur in electromagnetic radiation. You might look at all these instances of waves and conclude, “Waves are a constant, always behaving the same way no matter where they are found. They exist independently of the content of their peaks and troughs.” But in fact, waves cannot exist independently of their content. They are a particular kind of behavior that can be found in many different media, but they are not independent of some kind of wave-supporting medium.

Consciousness may be the same kind of phenomenon—a particular kind of activity among neurons, and not occurring independently of neurons. It need not be confined to sensory neurons, as Sam claims here: “Many scientists and philosophers believe that consciousness is always tied to one of the five senses—and that the idea of a “pure consciousness” apart from seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching is a category error and a spiritual fantasy. I am confident that they are mistaken.” (Kindle Locations 1736-1738).

What Sam seems not to consider is that feelings are just as much conscious phenomena as the products of the senses are. We can be conscious of positive, negative, or neutral feelings. The bliss he experienced while meditating would fall into this category, along with nameless dread and abstract fear. Feelings exist in neurons, though in different ones than do the senses—different media, same phenomenon.

Although he endorses the idea that “pure consciousness” could occur without some sort of content, that idea is the product of conceptual thinking, based on the observation that consciousness seems the same across multiple varieties of conscious perception. Even being conscious of  the absence of thought, or nothingness, or the void, is consciousness of a thing, or non-thing, that we can muster some kind of description of. Jean Klein called it “the silence;” Eckhart Tolle and countless other woo-propagators have called it “bare attention;” Sam calls it “pure consciousness,” joining the other woo-masters.

Sam has my sympathies. I have been thinking about and trying to articulate how our understanding of the brain can alter our perceptions of consciousness and the self for over thirty years, and it’s a can of worms. Read the book, but keep your wits about you. Don’t drink the koolaid until you’ve considered all the options and looked inside your own head enough to see what a wonderful piece of work you are.

ripples at the beach, color altered
Not Deep


Review of Sam Harris’s “Waking Up,” Chapter 1

To put Sam’s intentions in my terms, he wants people to learn to access experiences most people’s brains are capable of, but that aren’t widely promoted in western culture. He thinks this will be good for them, and for anyone they might encounter, and given the values with which my history has provided me, I agree.

Unfortunately, he thinks that describing such pursuits as “spiritual” adds something to the discussion, while I see it as adding a “woo” element that does nothing except widen its appeal among “spiritually inclined” folk at the same time that it mangles clarity.

Take this passage, for example:

The promise of spiritual life—indeed, the very thing that makes it “spiritual” in the sense I invoke throughout this book—is that there are truths about the mind that we are better off knowing. What we need to become happier and to make the world a better place is not more pious illusions but a clearer understanding of the way things are.

The phrase, “there are truths about the mind that we are better off knowing,” makes perfect sense all by itself. To add that the pursuit of such truths is “spiritual” gives it a label that doesn’t add any greater clarity of meaning than it already has. The same is true of his expressed need for “a clearer understanding of the way things are.” Such an understanding can have ethical implications and make us happier without labeling it “spiritual,” and giving it that label doesn’t make “the way things are” any clearer.

Clarity is further undermined by a loose usage of “consciousness.” In some cases, consciousness is described as having different “states”—ordinary and non-ordinary. At other places he talks about observing the contents of consciousness, as if consciousness were a kind of container that remains the same while its contents change.

I think consciousness only has two states—on or off, conscious or unconscious. Being conscious requires a certain minimum level of activity in certain parts of the brain. What one is conscious of is determined by where that activity is concentrated—what neurons and neurochemicals are involved. Sam’s MDMA experience thus would not involve a particular state of consciousness, but a particular level of activity in certain parts of the brain involving dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin.

Rather than think of consciousness as something that has states, or as a kind of container, it may be more accurate to think of it as analogous to waves in that both require a certain level of activity in a medium—liquids, gasses, or electromagnetic radiation for waves, and neurons for consciousness. Waves and consciousness are not “things,” they are particular activities of things—no activity, no waves, no consciousness. To paraphrase Dogen, one of those Eastern guys, consciousness in certain parts of the brain is seeing, in other parts of the brain is hearing, in other parts of the brain is love, and in other parts of the brain is euphoria. It’s all just brain activity, but some of it can be fun, good for you, and have ethical implications. Calling certain areas of activity “spiritual” doesn’t make them any more fun, or better for you, or alter their ethical implications.

Sam has the same problem that all the religious folk have, except that while he recognizes it in them, he doesn’t seem to see it in himself. Here’s the problem:

. . . the terms spiritual and mystical are often used to make claims not merely about the quality of certain experiences but about reality at large. Far too often, these words are invoked in support of religious beliefs that are morally and intellectually grotesque.

The universal problem with talking about feelings or emotional experiences is that we have no alternative but to use the concepts we’ve been provided with by our personal history within a given culture. By the time Sam had his MDMA experience, he had already acquired certain ideas about love, anxiety, envy, etc., and by the time he came to describe his memories of the experience to us, he had acquired many more, which color his recollections. Someone with a different background would likely describe the same brain phenomena in different terms.

Thousands of people have taken MDMA since Sam did, and their brain chemistry was altered in similar ways, but I doubt that all of their lives were transformed in the same way. How we interpret any experience depends on the context we bring to it, and everyone’s context is different. It seems unlikely that telling all those people they had had a spiritual experience would bring their interpretations into line with Sam’s.

Under the influence of the drug, it occurred to him to imagine a stranger entering the room and being engulfed in the feelings he was having, which suggested to him that love is fundamentally impersonal. I would add that his interpretation of such feelings could be extended much further. If it had occurred to him, he could have looked at the couch he was sitting on, the walls of the room, the floor, a light fixture, and included them all in his feeling of love. That feeling can encompass any thought or object of perception, depending on one’s predisposition—context is crucial.

Sam seems to know the value of context when he talks about the pain of lifting weights:

Here we see that cognition and emotion are not separate. The way we think about experience can completely determine how we feel about it.

In his descriptions of the value of meditation, and the possibility of having different experiences than we may have imagined, he is attempting to describe such experiences—and to give them a context—that will make us think of them as desirable. It’s like convincing a weight-lifter that, “No pain, no gain.”

The difference between meditators and non-meditators is a difference in awareness of it and beliefs about it, which Sam is trying to change:

Most of us spend every waking moment lost in the movie of our lives. Until we see that an alternative to this enchantment exists, we are entirely at the mercy of appearances.

You have to believe such an alternative exists before you’ll be motivated to work toward it. Sam wants to give you such a belief, and yet he says,

. . . the difference I am describing is not a matter of achieving a new conceptual understanding or of adopting new beliefs about the nature of reality.

Our beliefs about the nature of reality affect how we view meditation and what we expect from it. Meditation may reinforce certain beliefs, and what it reinforces is likely to be what we’ve been led to expect. Consider these examples:

Both Eckhart and Al-Hallaj gave voice to an experience of self-transcendence that any human being can, in principle, enjoy. However, their views were not consistent with the central teachings of their faiths.

The term, “Self-transcendence” sets up expectations about what meditation may reveal about the nature of reality. The brain can produce many strange experiences, with or without drugs, but whether these have anything to do with objective reality can only be determined by recourse to reason and evidence.

Hopefully Sam will clarify what self-transcendence and the illusion of self mean at some point, but putting them aside for the moment, the two people he’s referring to did disagree with the mainstream, and yet their religious backgrounds led them to connect their experiences with god. Some Indian traditions consider similar experiences to be merging with the Self, capital “S,” while Lao Tsu refused to describe it: “The Tao that can be named is not the Tao.” Some Zen traditions deal with the problem of translating “self-transcendent” experiences into language by saying that as soon as you open your mouth you are wrong. Our preconceptions determine our interpretations.

The problem with the  kind of meditation one encounters in silent retreats, of which Sam admits to a cumulative experience of two years, is that any insights one has in them are context specific. Once the retreat is over, the meditator must translate the insights they had in that specialized environment into the diverse circumstances of the everyday world, and one hears the complaint that after years of such meditation, their lives are hardly different. As Sam says, “it is difficult to stay awake for more than a few seconds at a time.”

There are other kinds of meditation one can do while out and about in ordinary life, and that have their effects in that context, which is where most people want them. Perhaps Sam will get to those in later chapters.

In my view, meditation can educate our brains about abilities they have that are not taught as part of general education. Attention can be shifted from language processing areas, which our social existence gives high and sometimes unnecessary priority, to other areas that can be beautiful, entertaining, and euphoric, but which are often neglected. Access to these areas can make our lives much more interesting, and can alter our views of our selves and our fellow humans for the better, depending on the attitudes we bring to them.

Sam’s first chapter gives a “spiritually” tainted view of such possibilities, but readers who can see past his biases will find some useful information. I look forward to reading the rest of the book.

In the meantime, I’ve put together a book of my own which covers some of the same territory, although with a very different perspective—the word “spiritual” doesn’t appear once. It consists of slightly edited transcripts of audio recordings I made starting in 1981 under the influence of speed, pot, caffein, nicotine, and alcohol, and following an LSD experience I’d had the day before. The last recording was made in 2008 after 24 years drug-free, except for caffein.

I’m hoping to have the ebook published in a few weeks, but the original recordings are available on my web site now. I rearranged them for the book, so if you want to listen to them in the book’s order start with Episode 7, then 8, 9, 10, 11, 2, 3, 4, 1, 5, 6, 12, and 13. I’ve added an introduction and afterword, and inserted some contemporary comments in the text.

Book Cover
Book Cover