This is perhaps the most challenging and unusual book I ever read. At first it seems similar to the other books on mind and consciousness that started appearing in the late 1980s, in response to advances in neurobiology and artificial intelligence. But the final chapters confirm that the authors were shooting for something much grander.
The writers of this book, which was first published in 1991, were a "dream team" of philosopher, psychologist, and neuroscientist (the late, great Francisco Varela). They wrote for a professional audience. An interested layperson having some familiarity with philosophy of mind issues can keep up, but only with much effort; I had to stop several times to look up a term or research an important concept. But it's worth the effort. You will review a wide variety of interesting ideas and be shown how they relate to one other, including neural networks, societies of mind, object-relations psychoanalysis, adaptive resource theory, multi-chromatic vision, evolutionary drift, nihilism, the delusion of "self", and much more.
And you will also read about Buddhism. The authors introduce Buddhist concepts every second or third chapter, noting the parallels between ancient thought and modern science (and the failures of western philosophy). Yes, this does remind one of Capra`s Tao of Physics, although the conceptual juxtapositions aren't as forced. The two biggest problems that cognitive science present for western thought involve the failure to integrate and account for subjective experience, and an increasing sense of social groundlessness as science and history reveal the world to be mostly "relative". Varela and his team believe that these problems lie at the root of a major social crisis that is now being felt in the developed world, i.e. a growing sense of nihilism. When despair and confusion become prevalent and our enemies are at the gates, can the new dark ages be far behind?
The response to this gathering storm, the authors argue, can be found in the wisdom of the Buddhist tradition. However, this isn't your father's Buddhism. Varela and company have cleaned it of any supernatural accretions such as hungry ghosts, cosmic nirvana and reincarnation. And although karma is discussed, its definition is narrowed so that it could appear in any graduate textbook on psychology without objection.
The Buddhism presented in this book appears to be fully compatible with our modern scientific viewpoint. Through awareness meditation techniques, subjective experience can be grasped and integrated in a way consistent with empiricism. And in that grasping, we can learn to stop grasping. (Love those eastern paradoxes). Instead of fighting the relativity introduced over time by Einstein, quantum physics, psychoanalysis, evolution, complexity theory and cognitive research, we can learn to embrace the end of grounding. Our science can be enriched through "embodiment", expanding science's conceptual boundaries so as to embrace subjective experience without losing precision and explanatory power. And we ourselves can learn to give up the unsustainable concept of "self" and become more open-hearted and compassionate (those words are used more than once by the authors). We can work with our everyday experiences in ways that are "liberating and transformative".
I've read some professional reviews of this book, most notably by the famous neuro-philosopher Daniel Dennett. They focus on the many technical and research-oriented discussions, and generally ignore the chapters on liberation and compassion. There is so much here regarding the techniques and directions of cognitive research that one can easily ignore the hub and concentrate on the spokes.
The cognitive field appears to have responded to these spokes, i.e. to the need to take "embodiment" and subjective experience more seriously. Neuroscientists Antonio Damasio and Gerald Edelman have discussed the need to conceptualize consciousness in light of the overall human body and its "stay alive" dynamics. Even arch-representationalist Dennett became interested in "hetrophenomenology", which seeks to document a person's subjective feelings and impressions, though not without a certain distance and skepticism.
But getting back to the axis of this book - i.e. saving the world - I will now attempt to go where better minds than my own have feared to tread. First off, one can sense a truly good intent on the part of these authors. They pictured a bridge between eastern and western ideas that could allegedly convey our half-civilized, half-atavistic species toward a more mature state of collective mind and individual being. They honestly felt that brain research had reached the point where it had something earthshaking to say to humankind, once catalyzed through the wisdom of the east. They wrote this book with a sincere sense of hope and purpose. Books like this are rare, especially in the cognitive science field.
Unfortunately, science and critical thought are not compatible with the Buddhist notions presented in this book, however denuded of supernaturalism. The authors call Buddhism a "case study" regarding the positive social effects of embracing groundlessness. Unfortunately, they don't provide a citation to that case study. I'm sure that awareness meditation, the annihilation of self, and the cessation of grasping desire have helped many people to live better lives. But as to whether it works on the scale of a particular culture, or nation, or for humankind as a whole - can we answer that question? And even if we can, what would the side-effects be? Less innovation and economic wealth? Or extreme exploitation by a cabal of charlatans, as happened with Communism? We won't be fooled again? Although Buddhism is not a religion in the same sense as Christianity and Islam, Varela and company still urge a leap of faith upon the reader.
I would recommend this book to anyone even vaguely interested in the issues of the mind - but be ready for a long, tough slog. Despite all the cold technical jargon and talk of emptiness, a sincere human warmth and idealism eventually comes forth. It's kind of like listening to John Lennon's Imagine - except that these authors couldn't expect nearly the payday (and possessions) that Lennon got for his Utopian formula.