This is the third article I’ve written about Sam Harris’s new book, Waking Up. The subtitle of the book is, “A guide to spirituality without religion.” And that’s something I’m really interested in. One of the big problems of the modern atheist movement is that it is populated by reductionists. That in itself is not necessarily a problem — I too am a reductionist. But they tend to use it as an excuse to be really boring. And Sam Harris — who I have many problems with — has shown himself to be admirably open minded about the kinds of ontological questions that fascinate me, which have caused so many atheists to label me an agnostic.
Harris’ main concern in the book is the nature of consciousness. Although this isn’t my main issue, I’m really interested in it. And the parts of the book that deal with this issue are well worth the price of admission. But the rest of the book is largely a muddle. Much of the time, it reads like a memoir. The rest of the time, it reads like a self-help manual on meditation. That’s all fine, but I’m not really very interested in getting life lessons from Sam Harris. But if these parts of the book lead to even a few New Atheists not being quite so boring and closed minded, then it is a good thing that the book was published.
The curious thing about the parts of the book that matter to me is how Harris and I seem to completely disagree. Harris believes that the riddle of consciousness may never be figured out. Unfortunately, he isn’t terribly clear about this aspect of his discussion. He just takes it as a given that consciousness is something other than a mechanistic process. I share his awe that consciousness seems to be this thing that sits on top of the brain rather inside it. But I don’t see the problem.
I realize that it is very unhip to analogize the human brain to a computer. But I think I approach it from a higher level than it usual is, so forgive me. A computer is not a CPU. The CPU is simply what brings most of it all together. Instructions come from it. But it is rare that a computer will, for example, push a character onto a text screen directly by putting it there. Instead, it will talk to the BIOS and tell it to display the character. The CPU doesn’t have to worry about how it gets done. Similarly, if I want to scratch my nose, I just decide to do it and the details are worked out for me.
But I am not suggesting that consciousness is the CPU in this analogy. Consciousness, instead, would be the software that is running on the CPU. And it does rest in some netherworld that isn’t the brain but which most definitely exists because of the brain. And this leads to a subject that Harris never even touches on: that consciousness could just be an evolutionary trick — something that helps us survive but isn’t “real” in the sense that our bodies are real.
Let me step into Neuromancer for a moment. In it, Dixie Flatline’s consciousness has been stored in cyberspace. When it is reactivated, it disappoints him to learn that the person he thinks he is is dead. But the computer program that he now is seems to exist without a will. So he asks that the program be deleted after the job is done, because he doesn’t like existing in this state. This, of course, goes right along with Schopenhauer’s thought. According to him, the only reason we continue to live is because of the will pushing us on. It is irrational.
And that’s where I’m left. I have a very hard time believing that my consciousness is anything other than a mechanical construct. It is a matter of faith, of course — something that most New Atheists are blissfully ignorant of in their own lives. But I see no reason to believe that science will not one day show that what it is to be “me” is not something that I will find by drilling down one level. Ultimately, we drill down far enough and we get to the level of the cell. But there is no there there — or at least no end point. I’m all for meditation. But it isn’t how we will find our true selves, because there is no such thing.