For some time I've been interested in the convergence between philosophy, especially Eastern philosophy surrounding the nature of the self, and modern science.
Sam Harris helps to bridge that convergence in his latest book Waking Up.
Harris, a neuroscientist, sceptic and staunch atheist, is in a seemingly contentious position in the eyes of his peers regarding any discussion surrounding spirituality. So it's fascinating to read his take on what spirituality can offer those of us who are not ready to accept the unsubstantiated claims of religious dogma and many new age authors regarding the origins of consciousness. When reading, it admittingly feels good to be breaking the taboo of spirituality in the company of someone whose bullshit detector is so highly calibrated.
Rather than approaching the philosophy of consciousness purely from subjective experience, which can only ever validate itself, Harris analyses the evidence (or lack thereof) for the existence of a self in the physical brain. He quickly rejects the notion of the self on the grounds that we already know how fragmented the mind is and how a perpetual, continuous self, what he refers to as a "homunculus living within the labyrinth of the brain", is seemingly absent. There simply is no place for a stable, monolithic self to exist, except as an illusory construct of the mind we have evolved to help us navigate the physical universe.
So the first point that Harris brings home is that our minds create the illusion of a unified, perpetual continuity we call "I", when in fact there is much evidence to the contrary. Our minds are in fact fragmented, constantly in flux and regeneration. He references numerous studies and thought experiments to support this. The conclusion is that to find the true home of this "I", one has to strip away the physical layers to the point where there is literally nothing left. He poses the question of where the self ends and the body begins. He then pushes this a step further and questions why the body should necessarily be considered the boundaries of "who we are", considering that we are made of the same "stuff" as any other form in the universe. In short, "what is left of the self?".
But the real difference between the scientific view of spirituality and that of ET, is that no leaps are made regarding claims of the origins of this undeniable sense of a unified "I", beyond the illusion itself. He perhaps once or twice states that it's "likely" that such a sense, the profound feeling of I-ness, is a mere product of the complex molecular arrangement of forms such as the brain. But never does he claim that consciousness is anything beyond what the limits of our understanding humbly constrain us within. Whether that constraint is to be widened with time is for science to explore, but it should not be understated just how important the realisation of the illusion of self is, within the realm of scientific understanding, before we even entertain the notion that consciousness may be a precedent quality of the universe itself.
Harris acknowledges the importance of breaking down this illusion of self through meditation, in addition to contemplating the strong evidence against its existence. The result is an experience of life that is free from unnecessary suffering, rumination over past and future, and more mindful of one's presence.
While many who have read ET will find Harris comparatively cautious in his exploration of the nature of consciousness, I recommend the read if only because Harris provides that solid, "no BS" scientific validation of what many of us have subjectively stumbled upon, or learned about through religions such as Buddhism, for what it's worth.
It may not give you an epiphany, but it will show you, at the very least, that science has a lot more to say about spirituality and the nature of self than it's given credit for.
Thought is the object, not the essence, of consciousness.