I loved this book. Sam Harris cuts through a lot of the confusion to be found in religion, philosophy, and science regarding the nature of the mind, aI loved this book. Sam Harris cuts through a lot of the confusion to be found in religion, philosophy, and science regarding the nature of the mind, as well as a lot of the confusion regarding the relationship between spiritual experiences and our view of the world.
Regarding the latter, Harris makes the important point that while "spiritual" experiences are true in the sense that you actually experience them, they don't reveal anything about the cosmos. This effectively breaks the connection between religion and spirituality: while the metaphysical claims that contemplatives within various religious traditions have offered as a result of their spiritual experiences are unfounded, their subjective experiences are true. And much of what they learned about the self is valuable. So it's worth paying attention to what they had (and have) to say.
On the philosophical side, Harris shows that careful introspection and meditation (a "spiritual" practice) will reveal that you don't really have a self. You have consciousness - in fact all you can know for sure is that you have consciousness - but on careful reflection you will realize that there is no unitary "self" behind the eyes receiving sensory input and thinking thoughts."You" don't have sensations and "you" don't think thoughts; rather, there are sensations and there are thoughts in your field of consciousness. This is one of the key insights of Buddhism. Importantly, this subjective truth clears up a lot of confusion in the various scientific and philosophical attempts to explain consciousness. One of the biggest issues in the study of consciousness is that people tend to conflate the sense of self with consciousness itself. As Harris points out, and which others like David Chalmers never tire of reminding us, this is a category mistake. The sense of self is one of the "easy" problems of consciousness in that it can, in theory, be explained by an advanced neuroscience. The "hard" problem of consciousness, on the other hand, is how experience itself arises from physical matter at all. Consciousness is not the self.
Finally, Harris relates how realizing this subjective truth is conducive to wellbeing. This is another fundamental idea of Buddhism. Realizing that your consciousness is fundamental but that your sense of self is not allows you to detach from your thoughts, emotions, and sensations. Attachment to - or, more precisely, identification with - these mental processes is what leads to discontentedness even among those who live a "good" life. When you are no longer attached to your thoughts, when you no longer see your consciousness as a unitary "self" behind the eyes, then you will "wake up."...more
This is one of those rare books that made me feel like the author had me - and only me - in mind when she was writing it. And I suppose that's becauseThis is one of those rare books that made me feel like the author had me - and only me - in mind when she was writing it. And I suppose that's because Rebecca Newberger Goldstein and I have similar backgrounds and interests. We both grew up in religious Jewish families, and both of us had our worldviews violently and ecstatically shaken up by philosophy. We are both obsessed with the Ancient Greeks and with contemporary philosophy of science. And, apparently, we are similarly engaged in "pop" intellectual culture, as evidenced by her sneaking in figures like Bill O'Reilly in the character of Roy McCoy (who also makes the vacuous remark, now a meme, that Christianity must be true because the tide goes in, the tide goes out, and you can't explain that) and Amy Chua in the character of Sophie Zee, who, like Chua, is the author of a book about how to produce "off-the-charts" children. Needless to say, I had loads of fun reading Plato at the Googleplex, in large part because it felt like Goldstein and I were coming at all the ideas in the book from very similar perspectives.
The book consists both of essays that place the marvel of Ancient Greek philosophy in historical, political, and cultural contexts, as well as fictional dialogues between Plato and contemporary figures. Goldstein's essays are amazing. Not only are her points brilliantly argued, but some of the sentences in there just sing - Goldstein's command of language is something to be reckoned with. Her dialogues, however, weren't that entertaining. I actually skipped one of them (the one where Plato is giving relationship advice in a newspaper column) because it wasn't nearly as interesting as her essays. Ironically, Goldstein does a better job of animating Socrates and Plato as people in her essays than in her dialogues.
I feel, though, that what made this book so accessible to me might make it less accessible to others. In particular, I don't think many people will understand Goldstein's many jokes that are aimed at a Jewish audience, or at least an audience that is familiar with Yiddish-isms. Likewise, while she does some work to contextualize the plethora of her intellectual and academic references, I think that someone who has little familiarity with the history of philosophy or with contemporary intellectual culture might be overwhelmed by how fast Goldstein can move between ideas and thinkers.
I think there's a lot to be learned from this book. So, overall, I highly recommend it if you're already relatively engaged in intellectual culture. I just wouldn't make this the first philosophy book you read. ...more
Where Dante's Divine Comedy chronicles the poet's journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise in search of God's Truth, Phi chronicles Galileo's jouWhere Dante's Divine Comedy chronicles the poet's journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise in search of God's Truth, Phi chronicles Galileo's journey through the lessons of neuroscience and philosophy in search of a scientific understanding of consciousness and human experience. I don't know how to categorize this book, perhaps because there's little else like it, though Lucretius' De Rerum Natura and Hofstafer's Gödel, Escher, Bach come to mind. But it's both entertaining and enlightening. Read this book. ...more
I mostly agreed with Weinberg's ideas. In terms of his actual writing, though, he's no Carl Sagan. Overall, a worthwhile read, and fairly easy to undeI mostly agreed with Weinberg's ideas. In terms of his actual writing, though, he's no Carl Sagan. Overall, a worthwhile read, and fairly easy to understand. ...more