Quoting from chapter two of Waking Up, by Sam Harris:
“However we propose to explain the emergence of consciousness—be it in biological, functional, computational, or any other terms—we have committed ourselves to this much: First there is a physical world, unconscious and seething with unperceived events; then, by virtue of some physical property or process, consciousness itself springs, or staggers, into being. This idea seems to me not merely strange but perfectly mysterious. That doesn’t mean it isn’t true. When we linger over the details, however, this notion of emergence seems merely a placeholder for a miracle” (56).
“The fact that the universe is illuminated where you stand— that your thoughts and moods and sensations have a qualitative character in this moment —is a mystery, exceeded only by the mystery that there should be something rather than nothing in the first place” (79).
These extraordinary statements by Sam Harris (however qualified by him elsewhere) point to a line of demarcation between two fundamentally different orientations towards humanity and our place in the universe–namely, the line separating those who do not acknowledge the hard problem of consciousness from those who do. On the one hand are those physicalists who see time, space, matter, and energy as primary– and who are quick to dismiss consciousness as an epiphenomenon (if not eliminating it entirely–ostensibly as some kind of illusion); and on the other hand are various and sundry points of view advocated by those who continue to recognize the qualitative aspect of reality as equally (if not more) important to that which can be objectively measured and quantified under the umbrella of the natural sciences. In Waking Up, Sam Harris does acknowledge this problem and, despite certain misgivings, decides to employ such terms as spiritual, mystical, contemplative, and transcendent “without further apology”(7).
For the physicalist, reality is reduced to natural history and cosmology as it is observed and deduced to be unfolding in time– horizontally, as it were –based exclusively on that which seems empirically verifiable. From this point of view, the meaning and purpose of human existence, if not denied entirely, is limited to the degree of satisfaction that we experience, over time, as we pursue any number of finite goals–be they passing pleasures or (relatively speaking) more enduring projects. For the non-physicalist, on the other hand (i.e. any point of view that acknowledges the hard problem of consciousness) reality retains an element of transcendence, together with the potential, at least, for a kind of vertical realization which recognizes and honors the light of awareness and realizes the dignity of Being as an end in itself. [Note: It has been brought to my attention that some physicalists do acknowledge the hard problem and that Sam Harris may fall into this category (look for type-B materialists in this article by David Chalmers). This does not effect the general point I am making about the relevance of this problem to our consideration of the light of awareness and the dignity of Being.]
As I see it, the naturalistic world of the physicalist– unfolding, as it does, merely on the horizontal plane –is a misleading representation which offers only a limited and (ultimately) impoverished view of reality (i.e. it merely documents the way in which reality appears to unfold from the standpoint of our analytic minds and our ego’s instrumental use of reason). The real world, on the other hand (i.e. the qualitative world which is acknowledged by a wide variety of other, non-physicalistic perspectives) retains a vertical aspect which reflects the timeless truth of transcendental awareness– an aspect of reality that may also be referred to as Reason or Spirit (in the broadest sense of the Word ) –and which somehow transcends the unfolding of empirical subjects and objects in space and time. This vertical dimension of reality is, as I see it, prior to (and a condition for the possibility of) the horizontal. Nevertheless, we are quite naturally tempted to mistake the horizontal dimension for the whole of reality and thereby to neglect that which has been variously referred to (by Boris Mouravieff, for example) as the Real Present and (by Paul Tillich and others) as the Eternal NOW. While most readers will have heard of Eckhart Tolle’s book, The Power of Now, the Quaker author Thomas Kelly wrote in much the same vein two generations earlier:
The Now is no mere nodal point between the past and the future. It is the seat and region of the Divine Presence itself…. The Now contains all that is needed for the absolute satisfaction of our deepest cravings…. In the Now we are at home at last.” (Thomas Kelly, “A Testament of Devotion”)
And without implying any endorsement of his overall philosophy, it seems to me that another facet of this richer, more comprehensive point of view is very adequately formulated by Rudolf Steiner as follows–namely, that there is, in transcendental awareness, a deep and very profound intelligence in which we participate:
“…thinking must never be regarded as merely a subjective activity. Thinking lies beyond subject and object. It produces these two concepts just as it produces all others. When, therefore, I, as thinking subject, refer a concept to an object, we must not regard this reference as something purely subjective. It is not the subject that makes the reference, but thinking. The subject does not think because it is a subject; rather it appears to itself as a subject because it can think. The activity exercised by thinking beings is thus not merely subjective. Rather is it something neither subjective nor objective, that transcends both these concepts. I ought never to say that my individual subject thinks, but much more that my individual subject lives by the grace of thinking“ (from “The Philosophy of Freedom”).
To be sure, the empirical subject seems real enough in its own right and it is not surprising that we misunderstand ourselves to be separate individuals who exist over against one another in a physical environment which is continuously changing over time–an environment, nonetheless, which we imagine to exist in an entirely “objective” way (i.e. whether or not it is illumined by any living intelligence).
It is no secret, however, that when this point of view is taken to its logical conclusion, our existence appears utterly absurd and the entire drama appears to be unfolding with no ultimate end in view. But this apparent meaninglessness and purposelessness only obtains if (and for as long as) we imagine that there are subjects and objects which exist apart from the thinking which transcends them and that the truth and being of our existence (in the hypothetical absence of such thinking) is coextensive with the duration of our apparent bodies. In fact, no such “objective” existence can be demonstrated and our real truth and being is not to be found apart from the transcendental awareness which is prior to the unfolding of these apparent bodies in space and time. But for those who have yet to recognize and honor the light of the awareness, as such, and who, as a result, are tempted to doubt that such thinking exists, the hard problem of consciousness endures and will continue to provide a much needed clue. As Sam Harris put it, “The fact that the universe is illuminated where you stand . . . is a mystery, exceeded only by the mystery that there should be something rather than nothing in the first place” (76).
Leaving aside the question of what it might mean for anything to be “in the first place” (i.e. apart from consciousness), this is indeed a thought provoking mystery–which brings to mind a famous line of Heidegger’s:
“The most thought-provoking thing in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking.”
~ Martin Heidegger, “What is Called Thinking?”
Keeping in mind that I don’t really claim to understand Heidegger, I nevertheless find many of his observations in What is Called Thinking? very powerful and very suggestive of the kind of ontological comportment that I am pointing to. Heidegger continues:
”The reason [we are still not thinking] is that this most thought-provoking thing turns away from us, in fact has long since turned away from man.”
“Once we are so related and drawn to what withdraws, we are drawing into what withdraws, into the enigmatic and therefore mutable nearness of its appeal. Whenever man is properly drawing that way, he is thinking…. All through his life and right into his death, Socrates did nothing else than place himself into this draft, this current, and maintain himself in it. This is why he is the purest thinker of the West.”
NOTE: This very special thinking which transcends the empirical ego (together with its subject/object relationships) must not be confused with the discursive thought of the intellectual– nor, by any means, with the kind of rational calculation or instrumental reasoning utilized by the egoic mind in its own self defense or in the imaginative pursuit of personal happiness –but must be seen to involve the spacious awareness and alert stillness which provides the (nondual) background for any and all such foreground (dualistic) cogitations. For after all is said and done, it is this transcendental thinking (construed as an end in itself) which constitutes the real meaning and purpose of our existence–and it is in this light that our most authentic temporal pursuits derive their meaning, as well. As such, the egoic mind is somewhat analogous to the Moon which appears to us (at first) to be luminous in its own right, but which (as we later realize) is only shining by virtue of the Sun which it reflects. Likewise, as the Rudolf Steiner quote indicates, our individual subjects live by the grace of thinking which transcends them. As such, it is only by recognizing and honoring the light of awareness that we enjoy the dignity of Being that is our birthright. By taking up our cross and placing ourselves in that draft, we simultaneously enter the kingdom and know eternal life . . . HERE and NOW . . .
“For you who revere my name, the Sun of Righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings” (Malachi 4:2).
“When around one everything has become silent, solemn as a clear, starlit night, when the soul comes to be alone in the whole world, then before one there appears, not an extraordinary human being, but the eternal power itself, then the heavens seem to open, and the I chooses itself or, more correctly, receives itself. Then the soul has seen the highest, which no mortal eye can see and which can never be forgotten; then the personality receives the accolade of knighthood that ennobles it for an eternity. He does not become someone other than he was before, but he becomes himself. The consciousness integrates, and he is himself. Just as an heir, even if he were heir to the treasures of the whole world, does not possess them before he has come of age, so the richest personality is nothing before he has chosen himself, for the greatness is not to be this or that but to be oneself . . . (Kierkegaard, “Either/Or”, Vol. II, 177).