Deciding Whether to Read re Meditation, Consciousness, Reality (currently reading 3/x)

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This brain dump was stimulated by a recent conversation on verbalizing and communicating inner experiences, epistemology, the limits of science, meditation, and the nature of reality. But, this post isn’t meant to directed at anyone in particular. I’m thinking out loud and rather sloppily.

There’s a classic Buddhist story where some guy gets shot with a poisoned arrow. People who care about him want to get the arrow out immediately. But this guy is like:

‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me… until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short… until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored… until I know his home village, town, or city… until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow… until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp, or bark… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated… until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock, or another bird… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langur, or a monkey.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed, a calf-toothed, or an oleander arrow.’

What the Buddha is saying is, “Don’t think so much, just meditate. Practice, practice, practice. Look into that other stuff later, if you still even care, rather, if you still even deem all that information to be relevant to your concerns.”

So I do actually think there is a body of knowledge, separate from meditation instructions and complementary practices, worth consuming concurrently with meditating. Otherwise, one is more likely to interpret meditation experiences in ways that make practice and progress less efficient and effective.


The stuff immediately below are not part of that body of knowledge:

Chalmers, David J. The character of consciousness. Oxford University Press, 2010. [amazon]

Nunez, Paul L. Brain, mind, and the structure of reality. Oxford University Press, 2010. [amazon] (I have a soft spot for anyone who’s spent their entire career thinking about EEG.)

Christof Koch’s body of work:

The above are hard-problem-of-consciousness related, as in, how does matter and energy relate to qualia, and vice versa? This is natural to wonder about, especially for meditators. And it’s super-interesting and ultimately very important for the future of humanity and human values in this universe. (Though we need possibly centuries more neuroscience and physics before there will be that much to say. These kinds of books, written circa now, won’t even be footnotes by the time we get around to solving these problems.)

Thing is, and this is personal opinion, I don’t think most people should read stuff like the above unless they’ve read stuff like what I’ve listed below.

I think people’s intuitions about consciousness, including the intuitions of meditators, are very misleading:

Wilson, Timothy D., and Timothy D. Wilson. Strangers to ourselves: Discovering the adaptive unconscious. Harvard University Press, 2009. [amazon]

Burton, Robert A. On being certain: Believing you are right even when you’re not. Macmillan, 2009. [amazon]

Basically, anything that makes into conscious is a leaky, fictional abstraction, highly removed from “the thing out there,” or it’s a de novo construct, sure, a real “object,” albeit an “iceberg” cf. the parts you’re conscious of v. the parts your not, but not having any corresponding referent “out there” whatsoever.

The doesn’t mean I don’t think meditation is valuable and illuminating. I just think that meditation has less to say, or different things to say, about self and reality than one might originally suppose. I think meditation, neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and physics (not to mention the sum of all human knowledge) needs to be considered together, in light of parsimony, explanatory power, and predictive value, to make best sense of anything…

Final links: [telephone game]

Churchland, Paul M. Plato’s camera: How the physical brain captures a landscape of abstract universals. MIT Press, 2012. [amazon]

Denton, Derek, Robert Shade, Frank Zamarippa, Gary Egan, John Blair-West, Michael McKinley, Jack Lancaster, and Peter Fox. “Neuroimaging of genesis and satiation of thirst and an interoceptor-driven theory of origins of primary consciousness.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 96, no. 9 (1999): 5304-5309. [pubmed]

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