Some Thoughts About The Present – From Sam Harris’ Talk at the GAC

Posted by on April 19, 2012 in Featured, Thoughts | 2 comments

This is a continuation from my previous blog “Some Thoughts About Death – From Sam Harris’ Talk at the GAC“.

One of the things we can do to avoid anxiety about our past and future is to live in the “now”. This may seem strange, since it is impossible to live in any other time; the “now” is the only place we can inhabit since the past cannot be changed and the future is an unknown quantity. However it seems to us that we hold into pieces of the past in our present day lives, and build our futures to create a better life. Harris pointed out that our memories are actually thoughts brought to life in the present, created from parts of our brain used for retaining information, and not actual manifestations of our past in the present. Likewise, the future is something we don’t know and can’t know, as there are at any one moment thousands upon thousands of external forces we are unaware of which could alter the outcome of any situation. So our visions of our own futures are just wishful thinking created in the present.

The only moment we can actually live in is the present. This may seem obvious to some, but when you really think about it we actually spend a lot of our “now” time either reminiscing or agonising about the past, or planning and stressing for the future. Given that we can’t change our past, and we have limited actual power over our futures, the “now” is all we have.

As I said in the previous post, we know that death awaits us in our futures. We can also speculate that our futures may hold personal tragedies, pain or illness, or great successes and happiness. But death is the only certainty we have. This may seem overly grim, but think about what this means to our daily lives. Think about what the promise from religion appears like when it’s the alleviation of this worry that’s on offer.

On the flip side, we often seem to ruminate on our pasts, living in our present with regrets and hurts, and this affects the way we live our lives now. Since we are forever seemingly moving forward in life, it would be great to leave behind our regrets and not have to deal daily with regrets and hurts, as when remembered these events seem nearly as bad on a psychological level as the even was when it did occur.

Religion’s second most powerful tool is the apparent ability to alleviate sins. In a practical sense, this is more about the trespasses people commit on others, and the guilt people feel for the apparent sins they commit (sins which are proclaimed by the very same religion). Religion claims to offer this peace of mind for things we have done in the past.

Given that I see the promises on offer from religion as at a minimum unlikely and unprovable, and at most an outright lie, this alleviation of worry is unappealing. To quote Carl Sagan (which I also use as the quote on my homepage):

“For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”

Harris suggests we can get the absolute most out of our lives and our relationships by really appreciating and embracing the now, rather than be overly reflective or overly speculative. If we can achieve an appreciation for our current situations, we can create more fulfilling lives.

At this point I think it is important to note two things. Firstly this is not a suggestion that we forget our pasts, that we leave our memories behind; there is a time and a place for remembering, and without memories and what we have learned from them we would never progress. It is important also to remember our loved ones who may have died, or to remember our good and bad times, because they help to formulate who we are in the moment. They are very important in fact, but they should not rule our lives at every turn. Secondly, this is not to suggest that planning for our futures is useless. In fact we can actually make changes in our lives by making choices whether or not the idea of “free will” is a reality.

I’m sure you can agree that the are many other aspects on this topic that could be explored, but I’m mostly interested in deciphering the talk given by Harris. It is very complex, but I think I am getting somewhere with this, even if it is an aside from what Harris actually said on the day.

There is still so much to discuss, so I’ll continue with the ideas presented on how to achieve this focus on “the now”.

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  1. @MartinPribble I’ve recently seen a talk by Harris, and part of it deals with what you go into here — that death is the only certainty (especially considering tax-breaks for wealthy Republicans here in the ‘States) — and the very limited control we have over our own lives, at best, we being the product of our own pasts. The Sagan quote you gave is one of my favorites, and to me sums up the tough-mindedness required of rationalists who face a meaningless and unforgiving universe. Excellent post.

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  2. Great post Martin.  I think you and Harris are spot on.  The founders of religions were quite astute in finding ways to deal with the greatest stresses that humans face.  The reality of the situation, at least for, can be summed up in the Sagan quote you used.  People always ask me “how can you be happy without god?”—-Look around you!  Or, perhaps we can say, “live in the now”  enjoy the present.  There is so much around us that makes life enjoyable throughout our day.  We do not need to focus so much on our pasts.  It is over and done with.  I think you make a great point in stating that the past is often full of fond memories and that there is a time and place to think on those.  The same can go for our future.  I think it wise to financially plan for our futures, but we need not obsess about it.  As humans we spend much too little time enjoying the now, and our life on this planet and way too much time worrying about stuff that is outside of our control.  (FYI–I spend my days at work more or less restating some formation of that last sentence…it is amazing how hard it is for people to do that).

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