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?

Temple Renovations

This weekend my parents and I retired to our family home in Falmouth, Massachusetts to begin demolition. The kitchen had grown out of date in both form and function, and with my sister now firmly graduated my parents can shift their attention to renovations.

Our Cape house and community are something of a secular religion to me. The home is the one thing I share with my paternal great-grandparents. Lifelong friendships were formed there, coming of age rites passed, our family grown and bonded. The idea of modifying this chapel felt borderline sacrilegious. How could we mere mortals improve upon so perfect a place? Though the updates were long anticipated, I was anxious and hesitant to begin.

I arrived late Friday night and already the character of the house was changed. My parents had already moved everything not bolted down from the kitchen into the living room, leaving only empty cupboards. My memories of the house are primarily of warmth, coziness, and unquestionable belonging. Now, we remarked, we felt like we were lamming it – strangers hiding in the skeleton of a home.

Desecration began the next morning. At first I moved gingerly, treating the room with well-worn respect. Then I slowly accepted my role as destroyer – using a sledge hammer and crowbar was unexpectedly joyful. Physical labor often becomes meditative.The final give of a cabinet coming off the wall was pure exuberance. However, there was something undeniably treacherous about gleefully taking to pieces the cabinets that had held together your childhood – holding your cereal, hiding your secretive liquor. Cupboards that had served so well and so long as to become anachronisms now turned to kindling.

Yet in the destruction I felt a more intimate connection with the home than I’d ever had in twenty-seven years of living in it. To go from acting within the house to acting upon it brought a better sense of knowing than I’d thought possible. Instead of seeing the house as a completed, singular thing I saw the many constituents – the pipe carrying your water, the cables weaving under the stairs, the black steel supporting the second floor. These things that before seemed magic are now understood. My former knowledge of this place, the lodestar of my youth, now felt superficial. I came to understand how the home made such a beloved childhood possible, and to respect our home all the more.

Like archaeologists we also uncovered clues about the past generations – two generations of (to me) unknown Prides. I ripped up linoleum and learned their taste (or lack thereof) in tiling. I tore down drywall I saw the fifty’s fashion in wall paneling, or a mount where they’d hung a picture eighty years before. In one portion of the floor the wood was rotted – the result of some previous generation’s cataclysm. Here was proof that these ancestors had lived where we lived and renovated the place they loved, as we do now. And proof that this place has always changed in its constituents yet always remained the same in its sum.

This history and this intimacy would have remained hidden without our undertaking, lovingly, the demolition. And now we leave our own imprint on this sacred  yet changing place.