The reality of death and what it means (00:00 – 20:00)
What is now? (21:30 – 25:00)
Shifting perception and a small experiment (27:30 – 37:00)
Consciousness and experience (37:30 – 40:00)
Words of advice (40:15 – 45:00)
At the 2012 Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne Australia, Sam Harris delivered a talk entitled “Death and the Present Moment“. It was a departure from what I’ve come to expect from him, not because he was saying radically different things but because he went further than I’ve seen in elaborating his views of spirituality, consciousness, and philosophy. There were hints of this in the closing chapters of the End of Faith, in his debate alongside Michael Shermer with Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston, and in his essays. I hope that this is a taste of what we can expect in his forthcoming book.
I can only speculate, but it seems that Sam departs most noticeably from his fellow horseman in these matters. Though I find much worth pondering in what the major atheist thinkers agree on, I’m at least as interested in what they disagree on, because there lies fertile ground for planting the seeds of a discourse on the future of non-belief. This post is just a summary of the video; I will probably write a follow up post in the future with my opinion of his message.
The talk was long, but its basic points were these: we are terrified of death, and many people seek solace in religion. At root, the battles fought over things like creationism and evolution reduce, on some level, to a fear of death. Because people’s religious worldview often comes as a package, telling them that their belief in creationism is foolish is interpreted as telling them that their deceased daughter isn’t in heaven basking in the glow of Jesus. If it’s true that believers see the advancement of science as an effort to pry consolation from their fingers in the wake of a tragedy, perhaps we can understand the tenacity with which they cling to their beliefs.
To make matters worse, atheism as a rejection of God has little to offer that compares with the solace provided by religion. Whatever liabilities they may present, religious beliefs do the job of comforting the bereaved and suffering remarkably well.
The first step in navigating a path between the twin rocks of nihilism and absurdity is to remember that it’s always now. This may sound obvious, but Sam asserts that there are ways of finding happiness and experiencing our lives as sacred now. Our minds, and more specifically our conscious experience, are all we have and all we are and all we can offer. Its true that the brain does much beneath the level of awareness to create our experience of the present, and the idea of “now” is problematic from the viewpoint of physics. But the fact remains. If there is an antidote to the terror inspired by the yawning abyss of death, it does not consist in learning new things; if there is a meaning of life, it is not to be found in endlessly checking things off our To-Do lists. Too many of us, in a tragic inversion of the ancient proverb, live no day as if it were our last. When the bad news comes that the end is upon us, we look back on our uses of time and attention and discover that the latest ipad didn’t hold the key to our fulfillment.
This does not mean our aspirations are unimportant, but does suggest that we need to learn to reorient towards life, to more fully experience the present moment. This could involve either reframing how we interact with our own experience, or doing away with such frames altogether.
Surprisingly for an atheist, Sam claims that discursive thought is both extraordinarily useful and a primary source of suffering. There is a ceaseless conversation going on inside our heads, giving birth to all manner of worry, anxiety, and fear, and our inability to disentangle ourselves from it and just be is problematic if we value sanity and happiness. Techniques like meditation are one way of not drowning in the stream of consciousness.
A new conversation about death and the meaning of life needs to be had, and it is up to us to make the world a better place, starting from the piece of it between our own ears.