Archives For: Book Club

Book Club: Does The Self Exist?

Oct 21 2014 @ 12:02pm

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In our discussion of Sam Harris’ Waking Up, I want to try a different tack than in previous Book Club discussions. I want to throw this over to you as quickly as possible, rather than write a review of the entire book as an introduction. And with Sam’s dense but deep little tome, there’s one question I’m eager to ask Dish readers about: were you convinced by his argument that there is no real self as we usually understand it?

Sam makes the case with a dozen little perspective shifts. He cites the fact that the right side of the brain often has no idea what the left side is doing, and vice-versa and asks: how can there be a coherent “I” if that is true? Or he challenges us with Derek Parfit’s thought experiments about the inherently unstable entity called a self “that is carried along from one moment to the next.” Or he notes how much of our lives are lived without our active consciousness at all, where even the task of sipping a cup of coffee is undergirded by

motor neurons, muscle fibers, neurotransmitters I can’t feel or see. And how do I initiate this behavior? I haven’t a clue. In what sense, then do I initiate it? That is difficult to say.

Much of this argument is entirely by a process of elimination. He merely chips away at a stable notion of the self – even in its most intuitive form – and challenges us to ask what remains:

However one looks for it, this self is nowhere to be found. It cannot be seen amid the particulars of experience, and it cannot be seen when experience itself is viewed as a totality. However its absence can be found – and when it is, the feeling of being a self disappears. This is an empirical claim.

The key argument, it seems to me, is that we are not identical to our thoughts. Our existence is rooted elsewhere – in fact, in the banishment of thought. It reminded me of the account given by Pope Francis of his experience before he signed the document that would make him Pope:

Before I accepted I asked if I could spend a few minutes in the room next to the one with the balcony overlooking the square. My head was completely empty and I was seized by a great anxiety. To make it go away and relax I closed my eyes and made every thought disappear, even the thought of refusing to accept the position, as the liturgical procedure allows.

I closed my eyes and I no longer had any anxiety or emotion. At a certain point I was filled with a great light. It lasted a moment, but to me it seemed very long. Then the light faded, I got up suddenly and walked into the room where the cardinals were waiting and the table on which was the act of acceptance. I signed it …

For Sam, this is evidence merely that meditation works, that stilling unending thoughts enables a person to live mindfully rather than to experience life as one goddamned distraction after another. He sees this as proof of the absence of a self and a way to live with clarity and calm as we are beset by feelings and passions, good and bad.

But the Pope suggests another way of seeing this: not as proof of the absence of self so much as the simplicity and calm of being oneself with God. It is a mysterious way of being, this communion with God. And maybe, experientially, it is indistinguishable from Sam’s meditative clarity and occasional epiphanies. But in it, for a Christian like me, the self does not disappear. It is merely overwhelmed by divine love and thereby fully becomes itself. In fact, this is the core mystery of our faith: communion with something greater and other than us, and a communion marked by love. In fact, something even more miraculous than that: a divine love that actually loves you uniquely.

I can read much of Sam’s book, in other words, and yet reach a very different conclusion about what’s really going on. Or am I only projecting what I want to believe onto the experience itself? Feel free to tell me. Not that it usually requires a request.

More relevant: Did Harris persuade you on the question of the self? Where was his argument’s weakest – or strongest – link for you? Email your thoughts to bookclub@andrewsullivan.com

Book Club: Waking Up, Ctd

Oct 10 2014 @ 12:39pm

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Our latest Book Club selection is already shaping up to be our most popular, based on the reader response we’ve been getting so far:

I am an atheist, and until I read about Waking Up on the Dish, I had never heard of Sam Harris. I bought the book, read it, and because of it not only will I die happily, I will be happier for the rest of my life. I am 69, a retired engineer. For a long time I have wondered about, and struggled with questions such as, Where was I before I was born? What happens to me after I die? Sam Harris has convinced me that consciousness is self (I.) My perception of I is just my consciousness. Bingo! Now I am not worried about “I.” Thanks, Andrew, for paving my way to enlightenment.

Another atheist:

Count me as one excited for this pick! I had already requested it at the library in fact, before 51dolkylyou chose it. The timing of its release happened just as I have been reading more books on Buddhism and attempting to practice meditation myself. Despite being a long-time atheist, I have lately felt the need to find a different framework, a spiritual one, and Harris’s book offers me reassurance that I don’t need to feel I am betraying my convictions, or giving in to some soft-heartedness, by heeding the pull toward spirituality. At first I felt almost ashamed to be exploring meditation and Buddhism, as if I am failing to be rational or abandoning my intelligence. But in fact I think that my world when I only considered myself as an atheist and did not leave room for exploring other paths was too narrow and lacked room for any nurturing growth or exploration. I think it will be a great conversation.

The book has had a powerful impact on me, since I have long been drawn to many elements of Buddhism (Thomas Merton guided me there), but always stumbled at the problem of the self. The book helped me think about that problem more powerfully than anything I have ever read – including many Buddhist scriptures.

We’ll be starting the discussion next week, so there is still plenty of time to read the book – buy it here. And send your thoughts to bookclub@andrewsullivan.com. Sam has agreed to join the conversation in its final stages, so he might even respond to your writing. Another reader sends the black-and-white photo seen above:

Recently my wife and I went to hear Sam talk about his new book here in DC. Neither of us believe in the supernatural or an afterlife, etc, but we do believe there are numinous experiences to be had in life, and that those can be – and I’d argue can better be – had outside of religion. So, we’re really stoked that you’re placing this topic on the table for discussion.

One more:

I’ve only been able to read the first half of the first chapter. I keep having to stop and process. bookclub-beagle-tr-2Is it true that all religions are similar but for the crazy fictions we place on them, or that you have to believe ridiculous, magical things before you can be a follower of all major religions (except Buddhism)? And that, honestly, all day long we’re just lurching between states of wanting and not wanting?

Many thanks for choosing this book. I am humbled, even after 21 pages, and grateful for the future time lost to the interesting conversations this reading provokes.

You Don’t Really Exist

Sep 15 2014 @ 12:25pm

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Discussing his new book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Sam Harris uses the above image to explain why:

It certainly looks like there is a white square in the center of this figure, but when we study the image, it becomes clear that there are only four partial circles. The square has been imposed by our visual system, whose edge detectors have been fooled. Can we know that the black shapes are more real than the white one? Yes, because the square doesn’t survive our efforts to locate it — its edges literally disappear. A little investigation and we see that its form has been merely implied.

What could we say to a skeptic who insisted that the white square is just as real as the three-quarter circles and that its disappearance is nothing more than, as you say, “a relatively rare — and deliberately cultivated — experience”? All we could do is urge him to look more closely.

The same is true about the conventional sense of self — the feeling of being a subject inside your head, a locus of consciousness behind your eyes, a thinker in addition to the flow of thoughts. This form of subjectivity does not survive scrutiny. If you really look for what you are calling “I,” this feeling will disappear. In fact, it is easier to experience consciousness without the feeling of self than it is to banish the white square in the above image.

Damon Linker has a must-read review of the book here. Waking Up is our latest Book Club selection, introduced here. Buy it here and join the discussion at bookclub@andrewsullivan.com.

Quote For The Day

Sep 11 2014 @ 11:22am

“The fact is that Waking Up lends a different picture of Harris (at least to me): an intelligent and sensitive person who is willing to undergo the discomfort involved in proposing alternatives to the religions he’s spent years degrading. His new book, whether discussing the poverty of spiritual language, the neurophysiology of consciousness, psychedelic experience, or the quandaries of the self, at the very least acknowledges the potency and importance of the religious impulse—though Harris might name it differently—that fundamental and common instinct to seek not just an answer to life, but a way to live that answer,” – Trevor Quirk, TNR.

Quirk doesn’t care for the new atheists and, until reading this book, was repelled by Sam’s public persona. But I’ve known Sam for a while now and always knew he was different from the others in his camp. His book is a place where the atheist, the spiritual and the religious can meet and argue. Join me in this month’s Book Club discussion of Waking Up. Get it here. We’ll be debating it in October. One reader’s on board:

What a timely choice for the next book! I’ve had a somewhat searching summer and finally gave myself the permission to identify as an atheist. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ve taken a stand on the issue of God’s existence, but for all my life I’ve had a mental block against the word atheist. Atheism, on its face, seemed to lack the rich language necessary to sort out a complex world. In its fight against irrationality, it had forgotten how to make us feel (with notable exceptions). This gap felt real to me, but allowing myself the possibility of atheism applying to me opened me up a bunch of writers and thinkers.

Naturally, at one point or the other, I found myself reading Sam Harris. I definitely don’t agree with everything he writes, but it’s undeniable that he writes well and demands from you your attention. Waking Up seems to fit exactly into this gap that I mentioned. I had pre-ordered it when Sam Harris announced the project. Very excited to read the book and see what fellow Dishheads thinks.

Send those thoughts to bookclub@andrewsullivan.com.

Book Club: Waking Up

Sep 9 2014 @ 3:40pm

Well, I couldn’t resist, could I? Sam Harris is a friend and great interlocutor. We’ve hashed out the issues on Israel and, indeed, religion itself in dialogues. See the Gaza conversation here; and the longer exchange of emails on religion here. I always learn something from him – and I have always thought of him as somewhat different than an atheist like Hitch. Why? I cannot imagine Hitch spending time in an ashram, or being dedicated to regular and disciplined meditation, or writing something like this:

I once spent an afternoon on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, atop the mount where Jesus is believed to have preached his most famous sermon … As I gazed at the surrounding hills, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self – an “I” or a “me” – vanished. Everything was as it had been – the cloudless sky, the brown hills sloping to an inland sea, the pilgrims clutching their bottles of water – but I no longer felt separate from the scene, peering out at the world from behind my eyes. Only the world remained.

That’s a passage from Sam’s new book, Waking Up: A Guide To Spirituality Without Religion. It tackles big subjects – neuroscience, consciousness, meditation, faith – in his sometimes dense but always pellucid fashion. At times, the book is actually quite funny – there’s a 51d++OL+kYLpart about him dealing with various water leaks in his house that cracked me up.

And the book’s argument is a rare and serious one: that it is possible to find a place in one’s mind where one is no longer in one’s mind. This elusive idea of consciousness is the basis of a peace and serenity and balance that we in the West have so often failed to achieve, even as our civilization constantly scales new heights. This can be achieved within a religious tradition – such as Buddhism or a Merton-like Christianity – but Sam also insists there need be no religion to the experience at all.

Now, I’m religious as well as spiritual, a believer in prayer and meditation as vital parts of any healthy faith life – while Sam is unrepentantly hostile to any idea of divine revelation, or anything but consciousness beyond our own delusional egos. And it struck me that many Dish readers – some engaged in our religious and spiritual coverage, some hostile to religion but open to the sublime and the spiritual – would get a huge amount out of the book, and the conversation it could prompt.

So drum roll … this is our September book of the month.

Buy the book now at Amazon and help us get a little affiliate revenue while you’re at it. I have a head start, because Sam got me an advance copy. He’s agreed to join the conversation in its final stages. I hope we can get somewhere in a debate often defined by polarization and cheap rhetoric – and see where we overlap and where we still differ.

And with your input, religious and spiritual people, I hope we can advance the conversation about spirituality as opposed to religion as well. I’ve long believed that the key thing we need right now is a revival of a Christianity less concerned with dogma and more focused on faith as a way of being in the world. Sam’s is as good a provocation on those issues as any out there. So join in! Get the book here – and we’ll start the discussion after the beginning of October. Send your thoughts to bookclub@andrewsullivan.com and there’s a good chance you’ll see them posted.

A reader winds down our discussion by tying the lessons of Montaigne to the current crisis in Gaza:

It seems to me the most compelling angle to look at Montaigne right now is how living through the civil war of religion in France his whole adult life shaped his philosophy of bookclub-beagle-trmoderation. I had no idea how bloodcurdling the conflict between the Catholics and the Huguenots were. That was just shy of half a century of neighbors dragging neighbors out in the streets to be tortured, killed, and perhaps slowly roasted over an open flame for witchcraft! All over what we now think of as slightly different flavors of Christianity!

Montaigne has been accused of being too bloodless and passive, with his stubborn refusal to pass definitive judgement and his pursuit of equanimity as a cardinal virtue. But if you consider the bloody backdrop of the times he lived through, his very moderation is the bravest and most radical stance I can think of.

Read On

A reader welcomes him into the fold:

You ask if Montaigne was an atheist or Christian. Montaigne was most certainly atheist, and his atheism, though concealed for obvious concern about the consequences of opposing the opinions of those “stronger in number.” Montaigne’s atheism shines through in his Apology for Raymond Sebond, written in the wake the French Wars of Religion in which thousands were slaughtered in a sectarian conflict.

montaigneIn his Apology, Montaigne, by placing words in the mouths of others, openly ridicules the promise of heaven and knowledge of divine beings. One example: “The philosopher Antisthenes, as he was being initiated in the mysteries of Orpheus, the priest telling him, ‘That those who professed themselves of that religion were certain to receive perfect and eternal felicity after death,’—’If thou believest that,’ answered he, ‘why dost thou not die thyself?'”

Two more examples from the Apology: “‘Tis Socrates’s opinion, and mine too, that the best judging of heaven is not to judge of it at all.” And: “Nothing is made of nothing, God therefore could not make the world without matter. What! has God put into our hands the keys and most secret springs of his power? Is he obliged not to exceed the limits of our knowledge?”

Montaigne is, of course, cautious, with numerous references to the trial and execution of Socrates for disbelief in the gods, all expressed in a way that undermines any divine authority:

“For that which our reason advises us to, as the most likely, is generally for every one to obey the laws of his country, as was the advice of Socrates, inspired, as he says, by a divine counsel; and by that, what would it say, but that our duty has no other rule but what is accidental?”

Were Montaigne living today and free from the threat of persecution for his beliefs, his detractors would call him a “New” atheist.

Well, since this is a book club, we can now bring on Marshall MacLuhan the author Sarah Bakewell, to address the question. Here’s her response to the email:

Thank you for raising this fascinating topic! It’s one that I puzzled over constantly while writing the book, and I still feel that the answer is open to interpretation. To some extent (as with other areas) it depends partly on what one wants to read into Montaigne, because he is quite capable of pointing us in several different directions at once.

I am an atheist myself and therefore quite inclined to look for an atheist Montaigne. On the other hand, I came to feel that this would be an over-simplification.

Read On

A reader continues the discussion:

The next book club topic is to discuss whether Montaigne was Christian or Atheist? Puh-montaigneleeze. Does it matter? Does it matter to God Himself what you, me, Montaigne or anyone believes? Isn’t that a little prideful?

Do you think the first question God will ask all his Super Christian followers (or atheists) upon their death is what they believe in? Will their God want their opinions on evolution? Global warming? It’s like asking your dog’s opinion when casting your ballot.

It’s much more interesting to see how beliefs are played out. And for that, Montaigne/Sarah Bakewell is fabulous. We’re this Super Christian nation but that doesn’t always play out so well. Sure we don’t drown witches (anymore), but we torture and murder innocent people, turn refugee children away at our border. We justify these actions, as all extremists in crisis conditions do, by claiming exceptional times and unusual circumstances.

If, as Montaigne states, it’s just politics and therefore part of the cycle of decay and rejuvenation, then why react in such extremes? Why sue the President? Why intervene everywhere? Why listen to Hannity or McCain on bookclub-beagle-tranything? However bad things are, as Montaigne says, most of life goes on undisturbed. In the long view, fanatics wear themselves out. Preserving your dignity, your soul, and remaining true to yourself is forever.

Keep picking books like this one and the world will be a better place. No shit!

Send your thoughts on How To Live to bookclub@andrewsullivan.com.

Montaigne And Conservatism

Jul 29 2014 @ 1:20pm

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A reader writes:

Andrew, you said in your appreciation of Montaigne:

Skepticism is not nihilism. It doesn’t posit that there is no truth; it merely notes that if truth exists, it is inherently beyond our ultimate grasp. And accepting those limits is the first step toward sanity, toward getting on with life. This is what I mean by conservatism.

I am a lifelong liberal, perhaps for genetic reasons (as some recent studies have proposed), conservative-soulbut most certainly because conservatism in America has, as you say elsewhere in your piece, degenerated into reactionary, xenophobic, fundamentalist, hate-inspired lunacy. So, yes, I am a lifelong liberal (also because as a gay man, now in his seventies, the liberal left always seemed to me to be more favorably disposed to accepting me and our kind, though slowly and reluctantly.)

But I tell you, I heartily and wholeheartedly agree with your statement. So I guess I’m a conservative too, at least one of your kind. Can you confess that maybe you’re a liberal too? The progressive objection to the way of Montaigne?

I haven’t met a leftist ideologue who thought there were “true” solutions since the sixties. You, fighting leftist gays when you were arguing for gay marriage and they were for rejecting your “virtually normal” ideas, may have soured your views of the left, but believe me, there were millions throughout the country who just wanted their rights, to be as lawfully legitimate as our heterosexual brothers and sisters. And we have prevailed, spectacularly.

The key here, it seems to me, is understanding conservatism as a disposition rather than as a fixed ideology. That suggests, of course, that it might pragmatically express itself, at times, as a form of political liberalism as we understand it.

bookclub-beagle-trOne of the aha! moments I had in reading Oakeshott (who was deeply influenced by Montaigne) was when he actually described progressivism as an integral part of the Western conversation – one that a true conservative would not seek to extinguish, but rather respect and nurture. The genius of the modern European state was that it contained two core impulses – collective action and individual liberty – and the conservative mission was to find the right balance between them, at the right time, with a little preference for liberty.

That requires prudential judgment and a light, pragmatic touch. Oakeshott’s vision of the conservative politician was a “trimmer” – someone who trims the sails on a ship to exploit the current winds and weather. The point is merely to keep the ship afloat – not to reach the perfect desert island or to conquer distant lands, but for the sake of the coherence and steadiness of the whole. And when you look at Montaigne’s own political predilections, he fits smack dab in the middle of just such a disposition.

Bakewell, in How To Live, vividly brings to life the era of zeal and religious conflict that Montaigne lived in.

Read On

A reader adds to the other near-death experiences sparked by Sarah Bakewell’s How To Live:

I am 65 years old. In 1958, when I was 9, I suffered a ruptured appendix that was misdiagnosed as flu, so I lay in my bed for a week getting sicker and sicker until I was taken to Lankenau Hospital outside Philadelphia. They treated me with drugs for three days and then operated.
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I have a number of memories from the three weeks I spent in the hospital but my near-death experience is still very close to me 55 years later. I, too, have a vivid memory of looking down on myself from up high, the minister at my right hand, and my already grieving parents on my left. I remember seeing a bright light and feeling a great sensation of peace and comfort surrounding me. Then my father kept shaking me. He kept saying “Wake up! Don’t go to sleep!” He pulled me back from that gate or passage I was about to enter.

I also have another vivid memory which I have kept from that time. While I was passing in and out of consciousness I had a dream that has stuck with me.

Read On