Sam Harris’ Waking Up and The Prestige

(Note: contains spoilers for the 2006 Christopher Nolan film The Prestige)

Currently I’m reading Waking Up by the terrific Sam Harris. I use his identically named app for meditation religiously – and was surprised to realize from reading the book he’s the same atheist author I read fervently in my edgy, nihilist youthful days.

Waking Up is about spiritualism. But Harris uses this word carefully and, unsurprisingly, approaches spiritualism and mysticism from a secular, rationalist perspective. He draws a careful line between Eastern and Western religions. While Western monotheistic religions are mythic, dogmatic, and irrational, Harris views much of Eastern spiritualism as fundamentally rational. “Religious” practices such as meditation are ways to understand the human mind through experimentation.

The great reveal at the end (or beginning) of such contemplation is that there is no self. What we think of as our “self” is in fact a very persistent illusion. Being able to “grok” this fact is enlightenment and seeing the one-ness of all things.

Harris interrogates this through examples in philosophy in science; for example, the split brain behavior exhibited by patients with severed left and right brain hemispheres. If a single person can have two selves then what can we do with our identification as one single self?

I’m enjoying working through more of these thought experiments on my own. For example, if we invented a machine that could teleport you from one planet to another by disassembling and re-assembling all the molecules that compose you, would you have “survived” that teleportation? To me the answer is clearly no. A copy has been created and the original destroyed.

This is the same question considered in Nolan’s The Prestige. A magician named Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) is able to perform an incredible teleporting act. The reveal of the movie is that he has not been. teleporting. He’s been using a machine to create a clone of himself on the other side of the room; the original is dropped into a tank and drowned. Every time he’s performed the trick he has committed suicide. Reflecting, Angier asks that every time he wondered “Would I be the man in the box or the prestige?”

Of course the answer is: both. The two men would be identical down to the molecule. Since memories, personality, and the illusion of self are all themselves composed of molecules they would be identical, too. Both men would feel they had lived continuously until that moment, when one continued and one drowned.

This doesn’t feel right. We have a strong belief that we have lived one continuous narrative in our life. But this too is an illusion created by our brains. Consider dreaming. Each night we spend the better part of eight hours living as someone else. Yet we wake up and – usually – feel that our life narrative is continuing from when we finally drifted off the evening before. What was the self doing during that time? And what of the self that was living in our dreams?

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