This book is bound to ignite another firestorm in the skeptic community around the word “spirituality,” but it really shouldn’t. As Harris makes clear from the outset, his interests still lie squarely within the bounds of rational inquiry. One need not entertain any spooky metaphysics in order to honestly interrogate the mind and its limits. What he does argue, however, is that consciousness is an object of study unlike any other in science – because it is both the subject of investigation and the tool we’re using to investigate.
A healthy portion of the book is spent fending off the attacks Harris anticipates from his less experience-hungry colleagues in the scientific community: spirituality is a term too loaded down with religious baggage, mystics and contemplatives are all on some level lying about the depth of their experiences, and the entire enterprise is ripe for fraud. Harris is quite willing to grant some ground to these objections, but having spent a serious span of his life on meditation retreats, experimenting with mind-altering drugs, and exploring the possibilities of consciousness, he insists that there really is a “there” there. And scientists would be well served not to dismiss it out of hand.
By the final pages, Harris has made a strong case with his usual verbal flair. All of us – scientists included – should be eager to openly and honestly explore consciousness because that’s all that could ever really matter. And unlike so many self-help books, Waking Up suggests that the answer doesn’t rest in learning more and more about the “self” but rather in dissolving it – and noticing that the thing that thinks our thoughts cannot be identical with the thoughts themselves.
While the program put forward in the book (and likely the online courses set to begin this September) is a daunting one, it’s extremely hard to argue with Harris’ reasoning. Who doesn’t want to be happier, less neurotic, and more at home in one’s own mind?