I'm about a third of the way through. Which is far enough to have discovered the central theme. Harris writes:
My goal in this chapter and the next is to convince you that the conventional sense of self is an illusion -- and that spirituality largely consists in realizing this, moment to moment.
...Most of us feel that our experience of the world refers back to a self -- not to our bodies precisely but to a center of consciousness that exists somehow interior to the body behind the eyes, inside the head.
The feeling that we call "I" seems to define our point of view in every moment, and it also provides an anchor for popular beliefs about souls and freedom of will.
And yet this feeling, however imperturbable it may appear at present, can be altered, interrupted, or entirely abolished.
...Subjectively speaking, the only thing that actually exists is consciousness and its contents.
Now, I realize that some people would say "Yeah, makes sense, no big surprise" to the above scientifically- and experientially-persuasive truths.
But I spent decades as a devotee of a mystical philosophy that, like many others, taught that we humans have, or are, an eternal soul. The soul supposedly could return to God through meditation at the "eye center" -- that place behind the eyes and inside the head Harris, a neuroscientist and Buddhist practitioner, says doesn't house a self or soul.
So it sure seems like those who claim that this world is an illusion, with soul-realms being true reality, are the ones who have gotten it wrong.
There is no enduring soul or self to be liberated. As Harris says in his book, genuine spirituality is realizing this. Thus a belief in the existence of soul leads one farther away from the truth, not closer. This is basic Buddhism, yet even many Buddhists still harbor fantasies of living on after death as... something or other.
I'll share more from "Waking Up" in other posts. So far, I can highly recommend the book. Harris has a knack for saying familiar things (to those, like me, who have read similar books) in a fresh way.
For example, I've read most of Derek Parfit's "Reasons and Persons." A Wikipedia article describes a Parfit thought experiment.
At time 1, there is a person. At a later time 2, there is a person. These people seem to be the same person. Indeed, these people share memories and personality traits. But there are no further facts in the world that make them the same person.
Parfit's argument for this position relies on our intuitions regarding thought experiments such as teleportation, the fission and fusion of persons, gradual replacement of the matter in one's brain, gradual alteration of one's psychology, and so on.
For example, Parfit asks the reader to imagine entering a "teletransporter," a machine that puts you to sleep, then destroys you, breaking you down into atoms, copying the information and relaying it to Mars at the speed of light.
On Mars, another machine re-creates you (from local stores of carbon, hydrogen, and so on), each atom in exactly the same relative position. Parfit poses the question of whether or not the teletransporter is a method of travel—is the person on Mars the same person as the person who entered the teletransporter on Earth?
Certainly, your replica on Mars would remember being you, would remember entering the teletransporter in order to travel to Mars. Part of the problem here is that the teletransporter on Earth doesn't have to destroy the person who enters it, but instead can simply make infinite replicas, all of whom would claim to remember entering the teletransporter on Earth in the first place.
Using thought experiments such as these, Parfit argues that any criteria we attempt to use to determine sameness of person will be lacking, because there is no further fact. What matters, to Parfit, is simply "Relation R," psychological connectedness, including memory, personality, and so on.
Harris describes the thought experiment in a similar, though somewhat different, way. In his variation, the copy of you is transported to Mars, while the "real" you awaits confirmation that the duplication is complete before being destroyed. Harris then writes:
To most readers, this thought experiment will suggest that psychological continuity -- the mere maintenance of one's memories, beliefs, habits, and other mental traits -- is an insufficent basis for personal identity. It's not enough for someone else on Mars to be just like you; he must actually be you.
The man on Mars will share all your memories and will behave exactly as you would have. But he is not you -- as your continued existence in the teleportation chamber on Earth attests.
To the Earth-you awaiting obliteration, teleportation as a means of travel will appear a horrifying sham: You never left Earth and are about to die. Your friends, you now realize, have been repeatedly copied and killed.
And yet, the problem with teleportation is somehow not obvious if a person is disassembled before his replica is built. In that case, it is tempting to say that teleportation works and that "he" is really stepping onto the surface of Mars.
...Parfit believes that we should view the teleportation case in which a person is destroyed before being replicated as more or less indistinguishable from the normal pattern of personal survival throughout our lives.
After all, in what way are you subjectively the same as the person who first picked up this book? In the only way you can be: by displaying some degree of psychological continuity with that past self. Viewed in this way, it is difficult to see how teleportation is any different from the mere passage of time.
...Parfit's view of the self, which he appears to have arrived at independently through an immensely creative use of thought experiments, is essentially the same as the one found in the teachings of Buddhism: There is no stable self that is carried along from one moment to the next.
Far from being scary, this is a big relief. The self or soul religious people believe needs saving... it doesn't exist.
The egotistical belief that an immaterial "I" will endure forever while everything else in the physical world will change and die... it isn't true.
We can relax into reality.
The world is us and we are the world. Yes, there is something it is like to be a conscious part of the world called "me." However, I, and you, and everybody are ever-changing aspects of the world, not an eternal soul-drop destined to return to a godly ocean.
Whateven heaven might be, it is right here, right now.