Added on 02/04/2016
I have recently read a great book called "Waking, Dreaming, Being" by Evan Thompson that brings together scientific and eastern theories of the mind in a unique and refreshing way. The author, a professor of philosophy at the University of British Colombia, and a long-term meditation practitioner, sets out to answer questions like: What is the self? Is it always present? Is it the basic nature of the mind or is it something perceived by the mind? I'd really recommend the book to anyone interested in these questions, either from a scientific or a philosophical perspective.
I've always been interested in neuroscience and meditation, not only because I study artificial intelligence but also because of my interest in the Zen-buddhist
philosophy. I've read quite a few books on meditation and on Zen, but the problem is that they are always written by more or less religious leaders, leaving the scientist in me unsatisfied. Never before reading "Waking, Dreaming, Being" have I come across an author with such an in-depth understanding of both science and the eastern philosophy. He presents his arguments very well and leaves no stone unturned.
The book starts by explaining the three main modes of consciousness: the waking state, the REM sleep (dreaming sleep) and the deep sleep (dreamless sleep with seemigly no consciousness at all). It contrasts the western point of view of consiousnes as something that is aware of the self and the Buddhist view of consiousness as something that underlies all states of the mind, including the dreamless sleep, and is always present. The author goes into a great detail explaining the changes in the brain, as measured by the EEG, that happen during sleep and meditation. The most fascinating parts for me where about lucid dreaming, especially the concept of "dream yoga"
, a meditation that one can practice during sleep, once they mastered lucid control over their dreams. Another very interesting, although a bit scary, chapter describes what we currently known about the state of consciousness during the dying process and how one can prepare themselves to make most of the experience of death by practising a so-called "death meditation"
The great thing about the book is that you don't have to agree with either the western view (based on objective observation), or the eastern view (based on subjective experience and tradition). Thompson simply provides a lot of knowledge and references for those interested, without pushing you to subscribe to either belief system. His opinions seem to lie somewhere between the two camps. I must say I agree with most of what he says (as he did such a good job explaining concepts from neuroscience and philosophy I previously did not know about) - although he does have some strange ideas about artificial intelligence that I disagree with.
In any case, to illustrate the kind of paradoxes that the book tackles, here is an example: Neuroscience tells us that there is no such thing as a "self-module" in the brain, that the mind is simply an emergent phenomenon resulting from millions of neurones working together. What then, brings about the illusion of a unified "self" that each of us has, and that immediately comes into our attention every morning when we wake up? Thompson develops a very interesting argument on how to answer this question. Without revealing too much, here is my favourite few lines from the book:
"We habitually experience our self as if it were a unified agent that functions as the executive controller of what we think and do, and that has a permanent inner essense distinct from our changing mental and physical characteristics. In this way, we're deluded about our nature. Our root error is to mistake something that's dependent and contingent - and hence 'empty' of substantiality - for something that's independently existent."