Having studied western philosophy at Uni, I had a lot of respect for Buddhism when I read about it. The majority of what it states is very sound and in line with modern thinking. In fact Buddhism is in many ways 2500 years ahead of western thought which is quite incredible.

The basic underlying principle of the way Buddhism sees the world is about causality and impermanence. This can be interpreted in line with modern materialism and dynamical systems theory. Put simply we can view the world as a dynamical system with a set of variables, say for example atoms. Some of these come together to form a thing. However, the things that are formed are impermanent. For example all the atoms in a persons body change many times over their life time until eventually it completely disintergrates. This is an example of impermanence. What we believe is a thing is really the presence of form over time not stuff such as matter. The dynamical system also by definition exhibits causality.

Buddhism defines the self as having five aspects: matter, sensation, perception (i.e. pattern recognition/concepts), mind (i.e. thoughts), and consciousness. These aspects should not naively be viewed as components that plug in together but rather qualities on the self with which there may be overlap. It’s pretty hard to define such a thing as self and the Buddha made a pretty good job here I think. The self in Buddhism doesn’t exist but is illusionary due to the fact there are no real things just perceived form over time.

The self is dukkha which is often inappropriately translated as suffering but is better described as thirst, the continual striving and wanting to hold on to things. Dukkha therefore makes life unsatisfactory as we cant hold on to stuff because it is impermanent.

Here is where is starts to get sketchy. In order to get rid of the bad effects of dukkha one should let go of holding on to things, conceptualisation, and of the self. Now although there is no objective reason to say that a life through intellectual conceptualisation is more right or wrong than a life without, we may concede that following a Buddhist approach may lead to a more content life. Where it now turns into mumbo jumbo is that they say that the there is a causal effect of having a self focused life which continues after death. Although original Buddhism doesn’t say anything about reincarnation, this causal effect is not simply say a social effect that you have had on people continuing, but rather an actual physical causal effect and it is the negative effect of causing more dukkha.

The method of achieving Buddhist goals is through lifestyle and meditation. Through this one reaches a nirvanic state where conceptualisation and self do not appear. One might argue that the seeming attainment of nirvana through meditation may be illusionary and just a high state similar to taking psychotropic drugs. However, neurological studies using brain scans on people who practice meditation have shown amazing results, such as gamma power 30 times hight than normal, heighten activity in brain areas that have responses to things being meditated on etc. So it may be possible to control your brain to such a degree that you suppress lots of conceptual features.

Jill Bolte Taylor is a neuroanatomist who suffered from a stroke. Whilst this was happening she was aware of certain high level brain functions shutting down (such as language and internal monologue). She found herself in a nirvana kind of state. You can watch a TED video where she talks about her experience here.

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