Podcast #210 – Waking Up

We discuss Sam Harris’s new book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

Waking Up is available September 9, 2014 in hardcover, for Kindle, and as an audiobook. For more about Sam Harris visit SamHarris.org.

To listen to this episode click here.

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Podcast #209 – Ian Harris (Critical and Thinking)

We interview comedian Ian Harris, whose new special Critical & Thinking is available now on iTunes and video-on-demand (check your local availability). As you’ll hear, Harris is one of us, a skeptic and atheist whose humor tackles such topics as religion, the paranormal, astrology, pop-mysticism and alternative medicine. You can befriend him at facebook.com/comediocre.

Plus:

Our DragonCon wrap-up.

We mourn the passing of physicist, philosopher, author and skeptic Victor Stenger (1935-2014).

To listen to this episode click here.

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Waking Up, Conclusion

Chapter-by-Chapter thoughts on Sam Harris’s Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

[Waking Up is available September 9, 2014 in hardcover, for Kindle, and as an audiobook. For more about Sam Harris visit SamHarris.org.]

On the very day I’m writing this, the last installment, Sam Harris’s new book hits bookshelves. I didn’t plan it that way, but it seems appropriate.

Sam Harris is (or ought to be, by now) used to stirring up criticism from fellow travellers for being too far to the right on some social issues (for example) while simultaneously getting hammered by religionists who see him as just another “new” atheist. I am certain this book will be no different.

This book is Harris’s first broad explication of concepts he’s been hinting at since The End of Faith; namely, that the nontheistic community has walled itself off from anything that might have the whiff of religiosity or superstition. Harris believes (and not without some justification) that secularists have avoided and ignored practices like meditation that have a longstanding tradition in the religious world, even though those practices can be shown to have secular and rational applications.

It’s true that many secularists have become stuck in a rut of obsession, railing against all things churchy, and thus have also ceased to grow in their personal philosophies. Some of them have ceased to grow, period. I agree with Harris to the extent that I encourage freethinkers to get back to the roots of that label, to explore the unknown without fear that they’ll be scoffed at or rejected by the mainstream of the Nones. Harris says, “A middle path exists out of making religion out of spiritual life and having no spiritual life at all.” I still think we need to work on some of the semantics: I’m still not sure I grok what Harris means by “spirituality” and “self-transcendence.” But if meditation (in one form or another) leads to better mental health, better lives, and a better understanding of human nature, then I’m all for it.

If this book serves no other purpose than to continue the conversations and explorations surrounding these subjects, it will have been worth Harris’s time to have written it, and worth our time to read it.

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Waking Up, Chapter 5: Gurus, Death, Drugs and Other Puzzles

Chapter-by-Chapter thoughts on Sam Harris’s Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

[Waking Up is available September 9, 2014 in hardcover, for Kindle, and as an audiobook. For more about Sam Harris visit SamHarris.org.]

Harris offers an overview of the challenge of finding a suitable spiritual guide. It’s hard enough knowing if your auto mechanic is telling you the truth, much less if an evolutionary biologist or a cosmologist is. It’s just not possible to become an expert on everything; at every point you have to balance what you already know with the credibility of expert claims. Harris admits the increased difficulty of measuring the claims of spiritual experts; also known as gurus. Gurus come on all shapes and sizes, from the blantantly fraudulent to the self-deluded; from the well-meaning and altruistic to the depraved and egotistical. The search for a spiritual guru is far more fraught than the search for an expert astrophysicist, precisely because spiritual quests come with far more emotional baggage and mental confusion that, say, wanting to know something about the chemistry within a white dwarf.

Another (potential) window into the mysteries of the mind lies in Near Death Experiences (NDEs), not because NDEs reveal life after death, but because they reveal something about how the mind works under fringe circumstances. Harris gleefully tears apart Eben Alexander’s bestselling Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. Harris’s bottom line is that Alexander is a trained physician who knows better and almost certainly knows he’s perpetuating a fraud.

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Waking Up, Chapter 4: Meditation

Chapter-by-Chapter thoughts on Sam Harris’s Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

[Waking Up is available September 9, 2014 in hardcover, for Kindle, and as an audiobook. For more about Sam Harris visit SamHarris.org.]

So what good does meditation do us? Harris stated earlier that meditation is NOT just about “stress reduction” (although, by my lights that would be enough).

Harris begins by establishing that it is inherent to our minds that they wander. We are, in many ways, subject to wave after waver of unsolicited and often unwelcome thoughts and feelings. And while this may be natural, it isn’t necessarily the best way to live, nor the most productive.

Harris points out that there is enough research out there to support the idea that seasoned meditators have brains less susceptible to the effects of aging, and are more effectively able to respond to pain and deal with stress.

One of the problems with meditation is that, for most practitioners, its effects are sporadic. Even Harris talks about “glimpses” and “fleeting experiences.” How to bolster these occasional drips of enlightenment and achieve the ability to tap into a sense of freedom and well-being on a regular basis?

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Podcast #208 – Live at DragonCon 2014

David couldn’t make it this year, so Allison jumps in to take up the slack! In this live version of the podcast we discuss recent Supreme Court decisions, take a look at Satanism, and share some really (really, really) bad Biblical puns. The song at the top of the show is “Modest Proposal” by the legendary composer/performer Mose Allison. (Photo courtesy of Dan Barber.)

Thanks again to Derek Colundano for organizing the Skeptrack. And thanks to Mark Ditsler and Company of Abrupt Media for providing stellar audiovisual infrastructure.

To listen to this episode click here.

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Waking Up, Chapter 3: The Riddle of the Self

Chapter-by-Chapter thoughts on Sam Harris’s Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

[Waking Up is available September 9, 2014 in hardcover, for Kindle, and as an audiobook. For more about Sam Harris visit SamHarris.org.]

Harris begins by describing a blissfull experience he once had near the Sea of Galilee. “In an instant, the sense of being a separate self…vanished.” A Christian, or a Jew, or Muslim, or Buddhist might have interpreted this experience through his or her religious lens. Harris naturally dismisses any supernatural interpretations, instead seeing this as a glimpse of the “intrinsic selflessness of consciousness.”

Right away I might ask, what is it that can glimpse intrinsic selflessness? If not the self, then what? I’ll grant that finding the physical organ that generates the self may be impossible, and that perfectly defining what the self is may be incredibly difficult. Harris readily admits that concepts of “self and ego and I…appear less than scientific.” But if Harris is going to explain at great length about glimpsing, cutting through, altering, interrupting, and abolishing, isn’t it crucial to concede that something is doing the glimpsing, etc.? What is that something, but Self? When Harris discusses allowing thoughts and feelings to appear and vanish without becoming distracted by them, to cut through the illusion of the self,” what exactly is doing the cutting?

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Waking Up, Chapter 2: The Mystery of Consciousness

Chapter-by-Chapter thoughts on Sam Harris’s Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

[Waking Up is available September 9, 2014 in hardcover, for Kindle, and as an audiobook. For more about Sam Harris visit SamHarris.org.]

If we are going to look inward at our own consciousness in any intelligible way, it seems logical that we should first understand what consciousness is. As Harris points out in this chapter, that’s much easier said than done.

Despite great leaps forward in neuroscience, researchers are not much closer to defining consciousness than they were, say, fifty years ago. We do know that consciousness is part of what the brain does, but the hope of finding a discrete part of the brain that we can point to and say, “There. That is where consciousness comes from” is long past. We cannot even say for certain how conscious other animals are. It’s a safe assumption that “normal” human beings experience consciousness in more or less the same way that we do, but it doesn’t get us any farther down the road to saying exactly what consciousness is and how it develops. The only thing  you can truly bank on, Harris says, is that YOU are conscious.

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Waking Up, Chapter 1: Spirituality

Chapter-by-Chapter thoughts on Sam Harris’s Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

[Waking Up is available September 9, 2014 in hardcover, for Kindle, and as an audiobook. For more about Sam Harris visit SamHarris.org.]

From time to time, one chapter at a time, I’ve blogged my reactions to new books written by notable freethinkers. (See Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth, Irshad Manji’s Allah, Liberty and Love, and Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape.) I really should do this more often, as it forces me to take frequent notes and to engage with the work as it unfolds.

I’m always very excited when Sam Harris puts out something new. His arguments are concise and his use of language make him a joy to read. And he can usually be counted on simultaneously to piss off religionists and provoke some of his secular fellow travellers. I’m sure Waking Up will be no different.

A couple of caveats before we move forward. I am neither a neuroscientist, nor a person well-read in Eastern philosophies. Harris is undeniably the former, and certainly more qualified than me on the latter. Nonetheless, I don’t think I am unqualified to digest Harris’s analyses and conclusions, and decide if his arguments retain internal logic.

Going back as far as The End of Faith (his first book), and on many other occasions, Harris has encouraged the nonreligious to give a second glance at spirituality. I must admit I fall squarely in the mainstream of infidel subculture in finding discomfort in words like “sprituality” and “mysticism.” Part of my discomfort is in the incredible difficulty of creating suitable working definitions of such terms. If I don’t think anything called “spirit” exists, then I’m going to be a tough room for anybody selling “spirituality” as a legitimate concept. But that’s exactly what Harris sets out to do in this first chapter.

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Podcast #207 – Ark Encounter Still Afloat

Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter continues to grasp for Kentucky taxpayer dollars, despite being a religious operation that promises to discriminate in its hiring policies.

The Supreme Court has put marriage equality on hold in Virginia. Presumably they’ll hear this and other cases in the fall, and with a little luck SCOTUS will rule on behalf of rights and freedom in the spring.

Plus:

Strap on the lightning rods–David goes to church!

We have feedback! Mostly good, but at least one listener thinks we waste too much time on personal, non-freethoughty stuff. And for those interested in our discussion last time on Secular and Humanist Celebrants, here are some more organizations that endorse nonreligious celebrants:

American Ethical Union - leaders and officiants in Ethical Societies.
International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism - rabbis and leaders.

Announcements:

Check out American Freethought Live! 10PM, Friday, August 29th at DragonCon’s SkepTrack. David can’t make it this year, so Allison is stepping in for him. Excitement! For more visit SkepTrack.org.

Get a discount on your Atlanta Star Party tickets by using promo code AMERICANFREETHOUGHT. The annual Star Party is upon us–Thursday, August 28th at Emory University. For more visit AtlantaStarParty.com.

To listen to this episode click here.

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