The Embodied Mind

An interview with philosopher Evan Thompson

To be fruitful, the encounter between Buddhism and science demands intellectual boundary crossers—rare scholars who are expert in both realms, who can translate ideas across the divide and identify and critically appraise assumptions each side brings to the table. The philosopher and cognitive scientist Evan Thompson is one of these. Thoroughly grounded in Western and Buddhist philosophy and learned in science, Thompson has been dedicated to cross-cultural and interdisciplinary dialogue between Buddhism and cognitive science for over two decades.

Bringing clashing points of view into conversation is a calling Thompson was born into. He is the son of the social philosopher and cultural critic William Irwin Thompson, who founded the Lindisfarne Association—an Esalen-like think tank and retreat devoted to “the study and realization of new planetary culture.” Thompson grew up and was homeschooled at Lindisfarne, so from the time he was young—“a little kid gripped by philosophical questions”—he was surrounded by what he describes as the “passionate and sophisticated debate” of diverse thinkers from very different spiritual and academic backgrounds.

It was at Lindisfarne that Thompson met the renowned scholar of Tibetan Buddhism Robert Thurman. Thompson was so inspired by Thurman’s vision of philosophy (as “a transformative path of rational liberation with a global heritage,” Thompson wrote in a tribute to Thurman) that he entered Amherst College at the age of 16 to study with him. It was also at Lindisfarne that Thompson met the Chilean biologist, philosopher, and neuroscientist Francisco Varela, now recognized as the founding father of the dialogue between Buddhism and cognitive science. Varela lived for several months at Lindisfarne as a Scholar-in-Residence and became a Lindisfarne Fellow and a family friend. Later, when Thompson was a graduate student, he studied with Varela at the École Polytechnique in Paris and in 1991 coauthored with Varela and the psychologist Eleanor Rosch The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. This was the first academic book to explore what Buddhist philosophy and meditation practices could offer cognitive science and to promote an “embodied” or “enactive” view of cognition; in tandem with Varela’s Mind and Life meetings with the Dalai Lama, which had begun in 1987, their book launched the Buddhism-cognitive science dialogue. The Embodied Mind has since been translated into seven languages and will be published in a second edition in 2015.

Thompson is now a professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia. His other books include Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind and the forthcoming Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy.

Tricycle spoke with Thompson at a conference that he co-organized at the University of California at Berkeley, where 15 top scholars from the field of Buddhism and science gathered to tackle the question “Given the current critiques of the Buddhism and cognitive science encounter, how might we proceed?” Thompson is among those who are steering the conversation toward not only compatibilities but also differences, even contradictions, because that is where the partners in dialogue have most to learn from each other—and where, if given the chance, they may even find surprising complementarity.

—Linda Heuman, Contributing Editor

Almost two and a half decades ago, in The Embodied Mind, you critiqued a notion of mind that was already prevalent then and that continues to frame much of the current neuroscience research on meditation. What is that view, and what is wrong with it? We criticized the view that the mind is made up of representations inside the head. The cognitive science version says that the mind is a computer—the representations are the software, and the brain is the hardware. Although cognitive scientists today don’t think the brain works the way a digital computer does, many of them, especially if they’re neuroscientists, still think the mind is something in the head or the brain. And this idea shows up in the neuroscience of meditation. But this idea is confused. It’s like saying that flight is inside the wings of a bird. The mind is relational. It’s a way of being in relation to the world. You need a brain, just as the bird needs wings, but the mind exists at a different level—the level of embodied being in the world.

What’s your alternative view of the mind? The alternative view we put forward is that cognition is a form of embodied action. “Embodied” means that the rest of the body, not just the brain, is crucial; “action” means that agency—the capacity to act in the world—is central. Cognition is an expression of our bodily agency. We inhabit a meaningful world because we bring forth or enact meaning. We called this view “enaction” or the “enactive approach.”

In the enactive approach, being human is a matter of inhabiting the human world of culture and shared bodily practices. Of course we need our brain to do this, but we also need that world to be in place in order for the human brain to develop properly. The brain is what philosophers call a necessary “enabling condition” for mind and meaning, while enculturation is a necessary enabling condition for the brain. What’s important is not just what is inside the brain but what the brain is inside of—the larger space of the body and culture. That is where we find mind and meaning.

It was early in your career—you were a doctoral student—when you cowrote The Embodied Mind. Looking back, do you have any regrets—things you would have changed, knowing now what you didn’t know then? There was a certain way we talked about mindfulness that I now think is wrong. Sometimes we described it as a special kind of inner observation that lets you see the way your mind really is apart from being mindful—as if your mind were a box and your looking into it revealed what was there all along.

Do you mean the notion that in meditation you see “what really is there”? Yes, where “see” means looking inside to see how your mind really is apart from such looking. For example, we said that Buddhist meditation lets you see that your experience is really discontinuous and momentary, rather than a continuous flow. But one could just as well argue that certain kinds of meditation make experience gappy and then reinforce that gappiness by giving you a theoretical system that says that’s how things really are, as the Buddhist Abhidharma philosophical systems do.

If we go back to the neuroscience of meditation, the idea that mindfulness is a kind of inner observation reinforces the mistaken idea that the mind is in the head. It leads to thinking of mindfulness as a special kind of inner monitoring that scientists using brain imaging tools can identify with the activity of neural networks. This is a mistake. Mindfulness depends on the brain but isn’t inside the brain. Certain neural networks may be necessary for mindfulness, but mindfulness itself consists in a whole host of integrated mind-body skills in ethically directed action in the world. It’s not a neural network but how you live your life in the world.

Is the problem you are getting at the widespread assumption that mindfulness meditation is not mediated by concepts? Experience and concepts are interdependent. Whether there are nonconceptual modes of experience is a complicated matter that both Buddhist and Western philosophers have argued about a lot. But in most cases of human experience you can’t have one without the other. Take science. Here you observe things, of course, but you can’t see them properly unless you have the right concepts. If you just look through a microscope with no guidance on how to look at what you see, you have no clue what you’re looking at. Even if you’re doing high school biology, you need to have concepts like “cell wall” or “organelle”—to say nothing of what’s happening at the edge of scientific discovery, where you’re using new imaging technologies and learning to see things. So observation is happening there, of course. But also a lot of conceptualizing.

Similarly, if you go on a Vipassana retreat, you may spend the first day or so watching your breath, but then you’re given a system of concepts for practicing mindfulness—concepts like “moment-to-moment arising,” “pleasant versus unpleasant,” “sensation,” “intention,” “attention,” and maybe some categories from the list of elements, or dhammas, in Theravada Buddhist philosophy. It’s a silent retreat, so this is the only thing you hear, and everyone else around you is doing the same thing, so this shapes how and what you experience. You get a powerful and socially reinforced conceptual system for making sense of what you experience. That system in that context may help to bring about certain nonconceptual experiences, but the minute you start thinking about them—which there’s no way to avoid doing—you’re back in the land of concepts.

Practitioners might hear something like this and wonder, “If I’m not turning inward and seeing things as they are in and of themselves independently of my observing them, then what is my practice about?” I’d say it’s about commitment to a certain way of life and participation in a community (sangha) that supports that way of life. It’s about cultivating what we think are beneficial qualities of mind and body, and beneficial ways of acting or being in the world, as in the eightfold path. I’d say that practice in this full sense of the term, which goes well beyond sitting meditation, is its own purpose or goal and is itself the expression of a noble way of life. It’s what philosophers and psychologists call autotelic, an end in itself, not a tool or instrument for something else.

I object when people reduce practice in this rich sense to a tool or instrument. Some people use the analogy that meditation is like an inner telescope: Outer science uses physical telescopes for looking at the stars, and inner science uses meditation for looking at the mind. I don’t like that analogy. It makes you think of your relationship to your own mind in an instrumental way. Your relationship to yourself is precisely not an instrumental one. A telescope is a tool for looking at something separate and distant. Meditation isn’t like that. If you think that awareness is an instrument that enables you to look within, on that analogy you’re thinking of the inner realm as one of objectivity—except it’s not, because it’s subjectivity. If you think of meditation that way, you can’t help turning your mind into an object, which is precisely what the mind is not. So here I think there is an important difference between meditation and scientific observation, despite the importance of concepts for making sense of both. Meditation can be very powerful and transformative: it can be very generative of insight, deep understanding, and connectedness. But not because it’s an instrument or tool that enables you to see a hidden inner realm.

You mentioned that the appropriation of mindfulness as an object of scientific scrutiny and research has created new forms of self-understanding for Western meditators, so that meditators start to identify themselves in terms of their inner life and their subjectivity in terms of mindfulness. How does that happen? The ideas I’m working with here come from the Canadian philosopher Ian Hacking. He calls them “looping effects” and “making up people.” When we categorize people—as poor, homeless, obese, gifted, and so on—we also change them as a result of how we interact with them based on these categories and how they come to think of themselves in terms of those categories. This is the “looping effect.” Sometimes we even create new kinds of people who didn’t exist before. This is “making up people.” Take the category “citizen.” We categorize ourselves as citizens, but there weren’t any citizens before there were legal criteria and government procedures for applying this category. Hacking argues that this happens especially with medical and clinical categories.

I wonder whether this is happening with “mindfulness.” An originally Buddhist notion is adapted for secular clinical programs like MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) and MBCT (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy). To assess the efficacy of such programs, specifically the idea that there’s a distinct “mindfulness” component, we need a way to scientifically define and delimit that concept. This leads to various scales for measuring mindfulness—based on what people report about themselves in response to questionnaires—and efforts to assess mindfulness behaviorally. Also, some scientists think there may be biological markers of mindfulness, such as the activation of certain brain networks. I’ve even heard some scientists and Buddhist teachers say that if we knew what these biomarkers were, we could use them to help people become more mindful. So we already have looping effects: We interact with people differently and they think of themselves differently because of this new version of mindfulness that our culture—which is to say, we—is creating. We seem to be making up a new kind of “mindful person.” Think of the mindful education movement and mindful parenting, or mindful eating and mindful sex, or mindfulness-based mind fitness training in the military—the list goes on.

Why is it important to recognize that this process is occurring in the popularization of mindfulness? It sets up a dichotomy between “mindful” and “unmindful,” where we fixate on mindfulness so that it becomes a kind of fetish, and that blinds us to how the concept or category gets used, especially socially and politically. One of Hacking’s points—and here he’s really taking his lead from Michel Foucault—is that there are always social and political interests and power dynamics at work in looping effects and in making up people. People always get organized in certain ways for certain ends. Why should we think that it’s any different in the case of the modern mindfulness movement? The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek has argued that the current fetishizing of mindfulness fits perfectly into a consumerist corporate culture that needs to pacify itself from the endless stress of modern capitalism. My way of doing philosophy is very different from Zizek’s, but I have to agree with him on this point. Those of us who work in this area have a responsibility to keep these looping effects and their social and political ramifications in critical focus. We need to know what we’re gaining—and for the record, I do think that MBSR and MBCT are very beneficial—and what we’re losing, or what we’re creating that isn’t beneficial. Buddhist scholars are contributing to this critical project by tracing the historical and philosophical evolution of the concept of mindfulness so that we can see how the Buddhist modernist and secular versions get generated. I try to contribute from the perspectives of cognitive science and philosophy by showing why it’s not right to think of mindfulness as being in the head or brain, so we can see that it’s social, relational, and ethical.

In 1996, Francis Crick stated that consciousness is now largely a scientific problem. As a philosopher, do you agree? If not, why not? No, I don’t agree. There are important conceptual or philosophical issues that shape how we think about consciousness and how we investigate it. Crick’s viewpoint, which most neuroscientists share, is that consciousness is in the brain, so the problem comes down to finding the neural correlates of consciousness. That’s another expression of the mind-is-in-the-head idea. It’s like saying a cathedral is in the stones. You need stones, of course, and you need them to be connected in the right way. But what makes something a cathedral is also iconography, tradition, and its being a place of worship. In other words, the larger context in which the structure is embedded helps constitute it as a cathedral. In an analogous way, consciousness isn’t in the neurons or their connections. Here the larger context that constitutes consciousness—in the sense of sentience, or felt awareness—is biological: consciousness is a life-regulation process of the whole body in which the brain is embedded. In the case of human consciousness, the context is also psychological and social. So even if we suppose—as I think it’s reasonable to do, though some Buddhists will disagree—that the brain is necessary for consciousness, it doesn’t follow that consciousness is in the brain. There are many scientific questions about how the brain enables consciousness, but those questions are miscast if they’re made into the problem of how to locate consciousness in the brain in terms of its neural correlates.

It’s also worth pointing out that Crick thought we might have a solution to the scientific problem of consciousness by the year 2000! And we still don’t have one.

So you don’t think progress in understanding consciousness is necessarily about doing more experiments? No. I mean, experiments are great, but we need conceptual work, theoretical work. We may need to radically change how we think about things in ways that are still not clear to us.

You have said that in seeking a way forward for the Buddhism and cognitive science dialogue, philosophy should take the lead. Why? Buddhism has very sophisticated and technical traditions of philosophy, every bit as sophisticated and technical as Western philosophy. Here we enter the arena of concepts, analysis, abstraction, models, and arguments, all of which bring us closer to science. Buddhist philosophy is very concerned with analyzing cognition, concepts, and consciousness—the subject matter of cognitive science. So this is the arena where I see Buddhism and science as having a lot to say to each other.

I also want to foreground problems of meaning—how these different traditions conceptualize the mind and what’s at stake for them in doing so. It’s really the humanities that need to take the lead in this discussion now, not neuroscience. I think science is really important, so this is not an anti-science point; it’s an anti-scientistic point. When you’re concerned with meaning, you enter into a different space of discussion, where scientific methods are not sufficient.

I am particularly concerned to deploy that thought against the idea that the neuroscience of meditation should lead the way in this dialogue, because that’s very much what the Buddhism-science discussion has been about for the past five or ten years now.

Has there been too much focus on the neuroscience of meditation? Yes, if we mistake this work to be a genuine Buddhism-cognitive science dialogue about the mind. Buddhism isn’t reducible to meditation—most Buddhists throughout history haven’t practiced sitting meditation. And cognitive science isn’t the same as neuroscience; it’s a broader endeavor concerned with a comprehensive scientific understanding of the mind and includes not just neuroscience but psychology, linguistics, computer science and AI, cognitive anthropology, and philosophy.

A cognitive science approach to meditation is concerned not with meditation per se but with using meditation to cast new light on basic cognitive phenomena like attention or consciousness. This means using meditation to generate new data and to test rival theories and models of the mind or to devise new ones. This can be especially valuable for the neuroscience of consciousness in conjunction with psychology and cognitive anthropology.

There is a widespread assumption that once certain metaphysical commitments are taken off the table—karma, rebirth, and the possibility of enlightenment on the side of Buddhism; physicalism, reductionism, and the causal closure principle on the side of science—Buddhism and science are well-matched enterprises because they are both empirical systems interested in investigating the nature of reality. University of Michigan professor Donald Lopez has argued that such bracketing doesn’t actually work to produce compatibility, because it takes out of play the most foundational topics on both sides, topics that are both regulative principles and the site of intractable differences. Do you think this strategy works? I think it has worked sometimes. In some way, the Mind and Life dialogues have been a paradigm of that bracketing strategy. But the most interesting moments in those dialogues are when the brackets come off. For example, to my mind, the richest of those dialogues is one of the early ones that was about the states of sleeping, dreaming, and dying, seen both from the Tibetan Buddhist perspective and from the perspective of Western science, so you have the neuroscientific viewpoint about the nature of consciousness confronting the Buddhist viewpoint. There’s a moment when the Dalai Lama gives an explanation of his view of the dying process and of the subsequent bardos, a traditional Tibetan teaching, in the presence of the scientists. And the scientists push back against the idea that there is a consciousness that could somehow have a life apart from the brain. So the brackets are off and these views are confronting each other. Those are the moments I always look for.

Are there other strategies that might be more effective than bracketing for a meaningful Buddhism-science encounter? A different strategy, the one I use, is to conduct the dialogue in the arena of cross-cultural philosophy. Here the dialogue partner on the Buddhist side is Buddhist philosophy. In philosophy, everything can be up for grabs, but any move you make needs argumentative justification. Philosophy is concerned with issues of meaning. Science must always presuppose a space of meaningfulness that it can’t fully account for, and philosophy is concerned with that. Philosophy can show the limitations of certain scientific viewpoints—as I was doing just now with Crick’s view of consciousness—so we can see more clearly the phenomena we’re trying to understand. The Buddhist philosophical tradition becomes very important here, because it has original insights and arguments to offer.

From this cross-cultural philosophical perspective, we can’t take science for granted; we have to remember that it operates within a human community of shared norms and values and practices—what phenomenologists call the “lifeworld.” Science itself is a social practice that has the force and meaning it has because of its place in our lifeworld. Science can change the lifeworld, but it can never step completely outside it and provide some absolutely neutral perspective. To put the point another way, philosophy is concerned with the meaning of science—something that science on its own can’t tell us. And Buddhist philosophy is as relevant as Western philosophy for thinking about the meaning of science.

This perspective can also help us to remember that there are different individuals and communities in the Buddhism-science encounter, and they have different things at stake. The Dalai Lama is a Tibetan refugee and a political figure, and so he’s going to speak from a particular perspective; he has certain interests—intellectual and political and personal—that are motivating his participation in the dialogue. Buddhists like B. Alan Wallace and Matthieu Ricard are scientifically educated Westerners who have become Buddhists, so they’re going to have a different stake in the dialogue. Tibetans like Thupten Jinpa, who was brought up in the refugee community and then was educated at a Western university, are going to have another perspective. Or take Francisco Varela, the founding scientist of the Mind and Life Institute, who was a brilliant neuroscientist and became a Buddhist through a charismatic Tibetan Buddhist modernist teacher. In my own case, I grew up in the 1970s at the Lindisfarne Association, an institute that brought together scientists (including Varela), philosophers, and contemplative teachers, and this made me want to study Asian and Western philosophy in college and graduate school. So we’re all participating in a shared discussion, but we have different backgrounds and histories. Our lifeworlds are shared, but we also have our particular emergence into them from our own places. Those kinds of things are not commented on very much, but they’re actually at the heart of the encounter. After all, it’s not really Buddhism and cognitive science that are encountering each other; it’s Buddhists and cognitive scientists.

What do you see as the way forward for Buddhism and cognitive science? What I’d like to see is a collaborative effort to develop a much richer understanding of the human mind—a cognitive science of wisdom, for lack of a better term. For example, although self-knowledge is a topic of cognitive science research, it has yet to be informed by the kind of ethical and contemplative perspective that Buddhism upholds. We need to bring into cognitive science the recognition that the human mind can cultivate mature emotional and ethical capacities of benevolence along with cognitive capacities of deep insight and understanding. Right now cognitive science has a view of the mind that’s rather narrow, where the database for mental function is mostly college students. Also, informed by that kind of cognitive science endeavor, I’d like to see a much more critical perspective on what’s happening with the commodification of mindfulness and the social looping effects I was talking about before.

Do you feel that your community of researchers, who have developed and been engaged in this dialogue between Buddhism and cognitive science, have any responsibility for how that research has been appropriated? Yes, definitely. I think it’s very important, as I was saying before, that we draw on Buddhist studies, philosophy, and cognitive science—and I would add the history of science—to keep critically in view the larger social and political context in which we’re working and how we may be contributing to deleterious kinds of looping effects. I’ve become very concerned about the growing fetishization of mindfulness I was talking about and how this is being appropriated by the corporate elite, including very right-wing elements. I was very dismayed to see the Mind and Life Institute co-sponsor an event with the American Enterprise Institute—a conservative think tank that helped give us the Iraq War—on “Happiness, Free Enterprise, and Human Flourishing.” “Free enterprise” is a contradiction in terms that has caused a huge amount of suffering in the world. It disturbs me to see what appear as dumbed-down versions of mindfulness and hyped-up science being advertised at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Some of my Buddhist and scientist friends will say that participating in such events is skillful means, but I think that’s naive. Social philosophy and policy aren’t my areas of expertise, so I don’t have readily available recommendations, but it’s become increasingly important for me to think about these matters. My hope is that Buddhist studies, cognitive science, and philosophy can work together to analyze what’s going on in ways that can be useful to activists and socially engaged Buddhists in their efforts to challenge consumerist appropriations of mindfulness and work for positive social, political, and environmental change.

Linda Heuman is a Tricycle contributing editor.

Photographs by Preston Schlebusch

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pipersails's picture

If, in Buddhism, that which continues after a person is dead is called the continuum mind, how can the mind be dependent or either brain, body or culture ?

Vishnu's picture

This is a fantastic, important and timely article. I hope that we can all be constantly aware of the political, social, and economic forces at play in our discussions of "truth," whether from the religious or the scientific perspective.

Lunar Numeris's picture

Great interview and contribution; refreshing, engaging and critical view on meditation; makes me want to know more about Evan Thompson's work; thank you

johnjayr's picture

I found this article very refreshing and reminiscent of my days in graduate school studying postmodernist theories (Derrida, Foucault, et al.) and phenomenologists Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, structuralist Roland Barthes, etc. (and Varela's work as well). What came to mind upon contemplating this was Ludwik Fleck's monograph on the evolution of scientific "facts" which was the precursor to Thomas Kuhn's work. In combination with Tielhard de Chardin's concept of the "noosphere," The contemplation led to the idea that consciousness may actually be "contained" in the cultural/sociological "body," but science in the west has precluded such a possibility by locating it's "facts" about mind and consciousness within particular bodies, individuated ones at that. This goes beyond the idea of an "embodied mind" still psuedo-contained within a body, though influenced by the cultural milieu. I am literally proposing the possibility that "mind" is not "contained" by bodies, that consciousness itself is greater than the "bodies" we conceptualize as containing it ... an idea not unfamiliar in Buddhist philosophies.

I found it interesting that in the same issue as this interview we read of Bhikshu Heng Ju's encounter with his Master, who seemed able know the thoughts and activities of his disciples. In western terms, these anecdotes may seem "quaint" and not to be construed literally. However, does western science, in its preconceptions of scientific "facts" (per Fleck) also preclude any possibility of locating this seeming "telepathy" as a measurable phenomenon? The very typical definition of "telepathy" (communication between minds by some means other than sensory perception), obviates any critical analysis which might go beyond "mind" as contained within a single body. If the mind is actually a shared phenomenon within the "noosphere" (or a collective consciousness), then the esoterics of the scientific community will remain blind to discovering "facts" about it.

Science tends to see what it is looking for where it is looking based on assumptions and subject to the social and temporal structure of this esoteric collective. Just a thought.

sanghadass's picture

"Bāhiya, there is no you in connection with that. When there is no you in connection with that, there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two. This, just this, is the end of stress." - Bahiya Sutta

If we have a dynamic interactive model of self or, we try to locate it somewhere in particular. It will not make a lot of difference in our lives. We may still be the victim of our fundamental ignorance and the suffering it gives rise to. We can see the vapor trail of our inner life but the source is cloud hidden, whereabouts unknown! Don't miss the open sky of liberation without measure, without grasping. It all comes down to just this much! An open mind and a loving heart.

eror's picture

I truly want to thank those people who were involved in the creation of this article and those who commented on the subsequent thread for a most exciting and enlightening conversation.

Richard Fidler's picture

I never said neuroscience had figured out how the brain works (what the "mind" is). Because it is reductionist, it can never give a wholly satisfactory picture of how things work. However, it has made the first strides forward in that investigation, but hardly has all the answers. What it does have is a method that criticizes itself: studies must be replicated, the best ideas go forward while the others drop away. Is that the method in Buddhist psychology? Not at all. The only criterion for "truth" is the approval teachers give in their discourse. There is no open-ended discourse: proof is about finding a scriptural basis for a statement. That is not inquiry at all.

To me, there is not just one method of discovering the truth, but many. However, all of them are subsumed under the broad term, "science". Statistical methods, computer modeling, double-blind studies, before-and-after treatments, all of the various methods of experimental design--simple observation using technological methods--all belong to the "scientific method". You will say how arrogant science is...but you come up with another way of getting at the truth besides laying out methods, analyzing data using the best mathematics we have, eliminating investigator bias as much as possible, publishing studies in refereed journals, and insisting on replication of results. I don't see the basis for criticism of Buddhist text and teachings. Mostly discussion centers around word definitions and the equivalence of this term or that given different scenarios. It all resembles Western Philosophy which, for the most part, hasn't progressed very far since Plato--mainly because the questions posed don't have answers. "What is the ethical life?" "What is knowledge?" "What is god?" Better to start with those little questions: "How big is the Earth?" "How old is it?" "What changes have occurred on Earth?" The answers to the Big Questions come later--and we have just started working on the question of consciousness.

I don't see where you are coming from when you say that "I" have all the right answers--I can be as wrong as anybody. But I do look for answers in scientific contexts when it comes to gaining a vocabulary to talk about aspects of the "mind". My own practice in the dharma is a never-ending exploration of the nature of self, consciousness, and the human emotions. Things I understand may be expressed in terms Buddhist teachers have always used or else it may be necessary to turn to the language of neurobiology. The point is that we constantly need to look at the teachings critically, asking ourselves, "What does this really mean?" "How does this teaching go along with what we already know?" "Is there a better way to express this teaching using more modern language?" I am asking for an open mind, one free from dogma.

sanghadass's picture

Dear Richard, We don't have to assume, or insist, that there are no Mitra's in the sangha, who have not understood the Dharma - in greater depth. The 'Aryan' sangha may not be relying - exclusively - on consistency with doctrine. The Buddha said as much! We don't have to take his word for it either. We don't need to have a fixed position on things we cannot demonstrate or, disprove, in any shape or form. However, that situation may change as our understanding increases. This is mere conjecture! But, it is an 'open' possibility. We cannot exclude this possibility - categorically. That would be a dogmatic position to take? Best avoided, in the interests of maintaining an open inquiry. The Dharma, may not be just an exercise in quibbling about definitions. You, seem to imply - or insist - that this is all that is going on. You provide no evidence for this!

My own journey in the Dharma and, the faith I have in it, is not based on philosophical quibbling. To the degree that the Dharma has been confirmed in my own life. To that degree, I have faith. Furthermore, I am willing to entertain the prospect that there is more to discover - that is all. As in science, we rely on teachers, to give us guidance in the methods of inquiry and, an education in the theoretical underpinnings. You seem to insist, that there are no 'repeatable' and peer reviewed findings in the Dharma. I don't accept that this is, necessarily so?

It is right to say there are no physically observable, quantifiable, technologically applicable products of Dharma inquiry. It does not claim any? At least, none that I have much of an interest in. Perhaps it is just not that kind of inquiry? Perhaps, that is not the kind of findings that we seek in the Dharma? As realization of the Dharma does not produce physical evidence - external signs - it does not fulfill the criteria you demand of it, in order to demonstrate the findings, it claims to produce. The findings it claims to give rise to are 'internal' shifts in consciousness and, deeper insights into the nature of reality. As well as, changes in our ethical behavior, that are related to these shifts and insights. The varification of these findings may not be commensurable with the empirical methodology of 'modern' science. That does not automatically lead to the conclusion, that these findings are invalid? One could only come to that conclusion if one insisted that the methods - and findings - of 'modern' science, were the only valid ones, for discovering and varifying things of significance, with regard to reality. Reality and truth are not synonyms. By this, I mean their meaning is determined by the context they are used in. We try to understand the nature of 'our' reality in order to arrive at truth.

You seem to be insisting that material findings, that tell us something about material objects, properties and, relationships, is the only valid form of knowledge, because this is all that exists? Can you demonstrate that? Is that a scientific finding? Or, is this merely an article of faith? If this assumption is correct, then the Buddha's teachings on the nature of mind - in the earliest texts - is complete nonsense! If you are open two the possibility that you may not have the complete picture of the nature of mind, the nature of reality. Then you might have a demonstrable reason for having an interest in the teachings of the Buddha. That may lie outside these fixed beliefs - and definitions - about what constitutes reality. I have an open mind, with regard to the nature of reality. I suspect, there is a lot more going on, than I currently have access to, given the limitations of my senses and, my current understanding. I have not arrived at the end of my journey of discovery. For all I know, I may have just scratched the surface. I am certainly, painfully aware of how often I get things wrong. I find that the Dharma is a useful tool, in remedying some of my erroneous perceptions - and the problems they give rise to.

You really don't need the Buddha to practice meditation, entertain psychological theories about what constitutes happiness and, what keeps us from it - and other themes of mental health. You don't need the Buddha to do work in science. At least, no theoretical or methodological assistance. If, you have no interest in the Buddha's more abstract teachings because you assert that they are false. Then, good for you! But if you are insisting that Buddhist's need to accept your personal conclusions with regard to the Buddha's teachings as a whole. Then it is not clear why you would bother?

Many of us have come to a different understanding of the teachings than you have. Having taken most of your methodological issues into account. You must not assume that we are all naive people who have not considered the issues you raise. Many of us have and, have come to different conclusions. What to do?

I am not saying you have got it wrong with regard to your conclusions. You maybe the final authority on these kinds of questions? All I am willing to assert is, there is room for doubt with regard to your 'core convictions'. Or, perhaps a simple awareness of them without the necessity of buying into them. They are not necessarily so! I am not asserting that alternative views on the issues you raise, are true! I do not have any final answers to anything. I don't see the necessity of having any. I live in the hope that as my understanding progresses this situation will change. But I don't rely on this outcome. As far as I can figure, the Buddha made it clear, that what he was ultimately pointing to, was not an object of 'clinging'. So I am not daunted by the prospect of not coming to any fixed conclusions about anything. In fact, clinging to fixed and intractable conclusions about how the world is ordered - a world picture - may have little to do with the liberation, that the Buddha was 'merely' pointing towards. How primitive the Buddha's understanding of the physical universe was, is not what matters. He is not an omniscient being in the early sutta's. What made him a 'Buddha' was his awakening at 'Bodh Gaya'. All his liberation teachings are the outcome of that event. These teachings and there implications form the basis of what he wanted to share with us.

It is possible to 'imagine' that there could be a perfect - and comprehensive - picture of reality brought into existence. One could 'imagine' a human being who had imbibed all the general features of that complete and perfect picture. But there would be no guarantee that this 'knowledge' may have a positive effect on such a clever fellow. He could be a total rat bag! As Buddhists, our main concern is not with a perfect picture of reality. We are concerned with a 'picture' that is adequate for the realisation of what the Buddha wanted to convey to us. When we understand the teachings, and they have been 'realised' we can then discard the model of the teachings. The teachings are a raft for crossing over. Then we give it to someone else, as we no longer have a use for it.

"Once the Blessed One was staying at Kosambi in the simsapa forest. Then, picking up a few simsapa leaves with his hand, he asked the monks, "What do you think, monks: Which are more numerous, the few simsapa leaves in my hand or those overhead in the simsapa forest?"

"The leaves in the hand of the Blessed One are few in number, lord. Those overhead in the simsapa forest are more numerous."

"In the same way, monks, those things that I have known with direct knowledge but have not taught are far more numerous [than what I have taught]. And why haven't I taught them? Because they are not connected with the goal, do not relate to the rudiments of the holy life, and do not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding. That is why I have not taught them." - Simsapa Sutta

Richard Fidler's picture

In my posts I have mostly expressed opinions--and I would not venture to supply "evidence" to support them. I am only expressing my feelings.

I, too, find value in the dharma in what it does, not in what it says. However, when it uses antiquated language to express ideas millennia old, I see a need to reformulate the teachings in the light of what we have learned about how the brain works. Actually, isn't that happening among various Western teachers? The Sanscrit and Pali terms are seldom used, English words substituted for them--or even applied to discourse without the primary step of translation. I applaud that effort.

The opposition between "material" and what? "spiritual" I do not accept. There is only one reality, though it is experienced in different ways: dogs and flatworms have a different take on things. What science illuminates also illuminates Buddhist teachings.

Your quote for the Simsapa Sutta is quite appropriate to the discussion. However, the Buddha himself described certain features of the "mind" in some detail and that description is relevant to dharma practice. It is appropriate to look critically at that description and to make it understandable in a language all can understand.

Yes, purely intellectual understanding of the mind does not guarantee transformation of the whole person. (Actually, from some accounts we have of revered teachers, they are liable to degraded behavior, too) I did not say that an intellectual understanding of the mind was sufficient to transform us. It might, however, lead more persons to the teachings. Not everyone is willing to put on the intellectual clothing of those who lived two thousand years ago.

Last, please do not imagine that I believe I understand everything about the mind. I do not. Neither does science--far from it. However, I do think there is value in conducting discussions like this. I've enjoyed talking with you. Gassho,

sanghadass's picture

Thanks Richard, I enjoy this too. I am simply pointing to the model presented by the Buddha in the sutta's. A model you suggest is archaic and redundant. A model I assume you would declare as patently false. A model you would like 'superceded' with scientific models, that you seem to feel, we would all benefit from. Something that would bring those with 'iron age' proclivities into the 21st century.

That is the model of 'nama/rupa'. He did not reduce 'nama' (mind) to 'rupa' (body). This is not the matter/spirit duality of theism but, it is a dualism of some kind - I imagine. If you have an issue with this model - take it up with the Buddha. Don't shoot the messenger! Best wishes, sangha dassa

Richard Fidler's picture

No, the model described in the Suttas is neither true nor false. It is not falsifiable. That doesn't mean it is wrong. Whatever science has to say about brain function is falsifiable: evidence points to its conclusions as being correct.

I don't think the same model for understanding the dharma has to go out to all people. Many--perhaps most--would be happy with the traditional exposition. Some--perhaps young people or newcomers--might want a scientific grounding when talking about the mind. That should be available to them.

sanghadass's picture

Dear Richard, earlier on you said, "In my posts I have mostly expressed opinions--and I would not venture to supply "evidence" to support them. I am only expressing my feelings." So, when you said in your last post, "No, the model described in the Suttas is neither true nor false. It is not falsifiable." Are you just expressing your feelings - an educated hunch?

Whenever we make a categorical statement about 'anything' we are no longer just 'putting things on the table'. This tendency is not all that helpful in instances were others may beg to differ. Or, where there is no final conclusion that is readily apparent. What you have said may be something that is worth a closer look. Something we can look at - together. In the hope of shedding more light on what we have to share.

I have already discussed with you reasons why the Buddha's claimed findings may fall outside the domain of empirical inquiry. You may feel you have good grounds for doubt. However, I did go to the trouble of exploring possible reasons why we may have difficulty in identifying shifts in consciousness and, forms of insight, that are the findings the Buddha highlighted - using the empirical method of modern science. The reasons being, the absense of external signs, properties, objects or, relationships associated with these kinds of phenomena. Properties or characteristics that could be measured or quantified empirically. Findings, that might require a different means of assessment and varification. A method of assessment, that may require the expertise of practitioners within another domain of inquiry.

It does not necessarily follow, if something is not measureable or quantifiable, that it does not exist. However, one may accept such a premise, on the the basis of faith. Personally, I neither accept or, reject the premise. I keep an open mind regarding this materialistic philosophical view. It is worth mentioning, that the Buddha did not count himself among the materialist philosophers of his era! I went on to suggest that the methodological issues that arise may not lead us to the inevitable conclusion that the Buddha's findings are invalid. In other words, there is room for doubt, but not for denial.

I went on to illustrate that, if we were to insist, as a base line assumption that empirical inquiry, as found in science, was the only valid means for uncovering the nature of reality, we would not be able to seriously entertain the Buddha's claims of unique and transformative discoveries. Discoveries that may not be empirically accessable. Discoveries, that the Buddha taught were of singular significance with regard to the nature of reality. In fact, the Buddha claimed that he had discovered the ultimate 'truth' of existence. In fact, he claimed that his discovery went beyond the field of existence - as well. We have to remember, that the Buddha claimed that his liberating insight had freed him from ''the taint of being".

The Buddha did not stop at making statements about his attainments. He also elucidated a method of inquiry. Furthermore, he claimed that those who undertook the method of inquiry he expounded in great detail, could arrive at the same findings that he had. But, they would need to be meticulous in maintaining the experimental parameters, required by his research model. The Buddha did not teach, 'all you can rely on is quibbling about definitions'. He did not teach, 'You need to take me on my word'. He taught a path of practice!

The Buddha and his Aryan disciples also peer-reviewed the findings of the sangha - as they advanced in their research. I am sure there is the possibility of error in the peer review process of Science and the Buddha Dharma. It may be true to say that peer review in the Dharma and, the findings being reviewed, would not satisfy the criterion of empirical inquiry.

How would you measure insight as defined in Buddhism - empirically? How would you measure the fourth jhana? What kind of apparatus would you use or, research model? What if we found a correlation between a particular pattern of neural activity and the fourth jhana? Would that prove causation? If a match was found between hot-spots in the brain and a jhana, would that tell us anything about the experience itself - from the point of view of the meditator?

How would you 'conclusively' demonstrate that my mental image of a flying elephant is caused by the interactions of a network of neurons? How would you extract the elephant from my brain in order to give us that, eureka moment! Where all becomes clear and undisguised? Even if you bang me on the head and I become confused. You have not demonstrated where my confusion is located. If I developed a nasty bruize outside or, inside my head. You could not point to it and say, aha! We have found the cause of your confusion. You could only infer a relationship - a correlation.

Lets say, I am watching T.V. and the image becomes fuzzy. So, I bang it - give it the fonzy touch - to improve the picture. Have I proved that the T.V. is producing the program I am watching? Even if I identify damage in the circuit board inside the television. I would still be seriously confused, if I thought that the television was the proximate cause of what I see and hear. In fact, a proximate cause cannot be found - empirically. We cannot stop with the waves that are gathered by the reciever. Or, the station that is the source of the telecast. All that must arise in a cause and effect sequence as well?

Brain pathology does result in behavior modification. However, the former and the latter are not synonymous with state of mind. They may differ in their expression from 'person to person' depending on the degree of damage involved. Acceptions disprove the rule! If there is to much disorder in any of them. It would be difficult to discern observable differences.

I am drawing attention to the problem of causation for the following reason. You said above, that the Buddha's theory of mind - as not reducible to the body i.e. the nervous system - is not falsifiable. However, you don't seem to apply the same criterion when it comes to the theory: that activity in the nervous system causes mental events. If there is - and there certainly seems to be - a correlation between the activity within neural networks and mental events, is there a way of proving that the former is the cause of the latter? Is this proposition falsifiable? If it is not, how is it any different from what the Buddha claimed to know regarding the nature of mind? You simply can't have it both ways. That would imply the use of double standards in your treatment of the Buddha's truth claims.

A theory, that attempted to explain the correlation between nervous activity and the mind that did not reduce one, to the other. A theory, that accounted for the observed correlation in another way. As a consequence of a stream of 'mental events' (chitta's) finding expression through the nervous system. This theory may be closer to the truth? The question of how neuronal networks manifest as mental events - if at all - may be beyond demonstration. It remains an open question.

We cannot eliminate the possibility that the complexity of sentient existence is more profound then we are presently capable of envisioning. The physical nervous system may be a dynamic two-way conduit in which the stream of chitta's finds expression in the environment and, the environment finds expression in the chitta's. The nervous system - that is partially understood - may be a medium through which this interaction takes place. This kind of theory would resonate well with the teachings of the Buddha - in the early sutta's. However, we run into the same difficulties with this model as we do with the other one, discussed earlier. They both give rise to serious problems with regard to empirical inquiry.

However, unlike the theory that 'mind' is an emergent property of the activity of the nervous system. I believe that the Buddha's theory of mind may be falsifiable - but not through the scientific method. We would have to become fully acquanted with the Buddha's teachings - in theory and practice - in order to properly test his findings. The Buddha does provide a methodology that 'may' lead us to conclusions that are not based on unproven conjecture - scientific or otherwise. I can not see how empiricism is adequate to the task? We may be forced into a closer reading of the Buddha's teachings out of necessity.

What if empirical research could tell us nothing about the post-jhana state, and what relevance it has to insight? What if there is no correlation between a brain-state and the fourth jhana. Would that invalidate it or, take anything away from its significance and value in the context of Dharma inquiry? The jhana's and liberating insight are examples of the Buddha's findings. If we cannot determine the significance of these experiences and their repercussions - through empirical means - does that diminish their importance? They are important discoveries within a different field of inquiry - that is all.

The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta:

"Vision arose, insight arose, discernment arose, knowledge arose, illumination arose within me with regard to things never heard before: 'This is the noble truth of the cessation of stress'... 'This noble truth of the cessation of stress is to be directly experienced'... 'This noble truth of the cessation of stress has been directly experienced.'

"Vision arose, insight arose, discernment arose, knowledge arose, illumination arose within me with regard to things never heard before: 'This is the noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of stress'... 'This noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of stress is to be developed'... 'This noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of stress has been developed."

Clearly, the Buddha is drawing attention to a mode of inquiry that is not the empirical method of science, that he claimed is a valid process for arriving at a deeper understanding of reality and liberating truth, a method that will result in an ability to falsify his findings. All that he asked of his disciples was that they followed the proper methodological procedure. If, on following the path of practice that the Buddha taught, we come up with a different result then, well and good! The Buddha would not have taken issue with this. He would not have 'blinked an eye' if a noble disciple had falsified his findings. But, not before carrying out the research. The Dharma is an open path of inquiry.

Where are the peer reviewed empirical findings that demonstrate beyond 'reasonable doubt' that the Buddha's approach to inquiry is inadequate? The problem is, even if we had peer reviewed empirical findings that led us to conclusions regarding the Buddha Dharma. We have still not eliminated the problems that may arise in regard to commensurability. If the Buddha's key insights are not ammenable to empirical methods. The results that such scrutiny might have may be of little value.

The quality of our review of the Dharma path and the findings it gives rise to, would depend on the quality of the research/practice we had undertaken - and completed. First of all we do the research then we gather the data and, then we analyse the findings and draw conclusions. This is how we test the validity of the teachings. Its exactly the same procedure in science. Without a willingness to actually do the research how are we going to gather good data for analysis? We would need fully qualified peers to make the peer review process valid. Otherwise they may come to dubious conclusions.

In order to properly assess the Buddha's teachings and where it leads, we would need to find peers who are keeping to the Buddha's methodological parameters and, that have benefitted from qualified teachers - as in science. This should be a question of great concern for people with an interest in Buddhism and science? Afterall, the Buddha did claim that his method of inquiry does lead to independently varifiable results. One of the reasons why the Buddha's teachings are so interesting and distinct from faith based traditions is because of his claim that we can varify his teachings for ourselves.

I have used some scientific terminology to illustrate what I have tried to convey. The Buddha used the language of his time to illustrate his teachings. I don't believe that the Buddha was a proto-scientist or, a philosopher. The Buddha was simply the awakened one. If we think of him in ways that suit our own proclivities, foibles and infatuations, it says more about us then it does about the Buddha. I plead guilty - as charged! This is a classic example of what 'Dr.Thompson' refers to as, making up people. Once the caricature is established we can then find fault - or favor - with the Buddha's teachings. Due to his lack of interest in the elemental table or, his seeming endorsement of 'Nietzsche's' nihilism - and so on.

Dr.Thompson, is echoing the Buddha, when he encourages us to take a long hard look at our underlying assumptions. So, if we were to ask questions about how we enact meaning in the world? We might start with our understanding of the Buddha - and his teachings. Why? Because we don't want to waste our time shadow boxing with a Buddha of our own making. We would be better off understanding what he actually had to say - and why. He wanted to wake us up! So we may come out of our suffering through letting go of its cause.

It is always refreshing to hear the occasional scientist or philosopher, when they admit to issues they find hard to resolve. When the penny finally drops and, they realize, "I have come thus far and I can proceed no further". Instead of, I have come thus far and therefore, there is nothing more! Or, we have dealt with the major issues! Our intuition makes us sceptical with regard to these kinds of pronouncements. Buddhism encourages intuitive scepticism?

A problem arises when those who have some degree of understanding of science, attempt an empirical critique of the Buddha's findings.There is nothing in the teachings that would suggest that 'Marga' (Path) and 'Phala' (Fruit) could be realised through inference - alone. All the knowledge in the world may not free us from suffering. It may only satisfy our curiosity. We may be in need of stronger medicine?

sanghadass's picture

May you be well and happy!

sanghadass's picture

"Then, Bāhiya, you should train yourself thus: In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized. That is how you should train yourself. When for you there will be only the seen in reference to the seen, only the heard in reference to the heard, only the sensed in reference to the sensed, only the cognized in reference to the cognized, then, Bāhiya, there is no you in connection with that. When there is no you in connection with that, there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two. This, just this, is the end of stress." - Bahiya Sutta

The Buddha gave 'Bahiya' these concise instructions on how to practice. On recieving this teaching Bahiya immediately woke up! So, how would we test - the above - findings of the Buddha, empirically? It may not be the case, that the Buddha's insights are innaccesable? However, we may need to arrive at them, through a different approach. We may need to explore a different form of life - a different mode of practice? If we cannot do a laboratory test to find evidence for the 'no you' or, the 'the cessation of suffering' - that this discovery reveals/uncovers. Would this inconvenience take anything away from the Buddha's liberating insight? A discovery of enormous significance in human life. An actual realization! Not an 'inference' we could find scientific - or philosophical - support for and, be none the wiser! In order to investigate the Buddha's teachings, we may try an extended silent retreat. This may prove to be a more conducive context for exploring his teachings. In contrast, to a research laboratory.

Its good to mitigate suffering through finding cures for disease. Its wonderful when we find solutions to economic issues that can alleviate the hardships of poverty. It is wonderful when science helps us in finding solutions to 'climate change'. This kind of research could help countless sentient beings - on earth! And, there would be a clear and obvious benefit if we discover the origin of suffering and, let it go completely. The Buddha taught the way that leads to the cessation of suffering - without remainder. It does not matter if the Buddha's 'skillful means' (upaya) of discovery has anything to do with science. Or, its methods of experimental varification.

Therefore, what obvious benefit is there in finding fault in - or correcting - the Buddha's teachings due to an interest in science? Especially, if we are perfectly capable of having an interest in both. xxoo

Dominic Gomez's picture

embodied action-the rest of the body, not just the brain, is crucial; to act in the world: AKA non-dualism. Buddhism is the totality of one's daily life.

sanghadass's picture

Please, dear mitra's. Offer some reflections on this interview? Why so little interest? yours, sangha dassa

Dominic Gomez's picture

So little interest? Could be the quite narrow breadth of his topic. Just the tip of the iceberg of life.

sanghadass's picture

good to hear from you dominic. oddly, i came to the opposite conclusion. best wishes xxoo

Danny's picture

He's a phenomenologist of the most naive sort, and I don't think anyone in philosophy takes him too seriously. That is why he has turned to the Buddhist community, where most cannot see his errors. By mistakenly locating the mind in the body, (like those who locate the mind in the brain) he believes in an absolutely atomistic individual, and thus has no real understanding of the Buddhist concept of anatman.

sanghadass's picture

Dear Danny, There is no independent measure for degree's of naivety. Though I am sure the psychologists would be happy to create one. Perhaps a twenty page questionaire, followed by a timed trial of, lets say, how long it takes two rub your belly and pat your head, while singing twinle twinkle little star! Don't laugh - there could be a significant correlation? In the absence of such psyche measurement tools we will just have to settle for your assessment. Are those in the Buddhist community, more prone to making philosophical errors, than others - as you suggest? I don't think there is a way of determining - or measuring - how kinds of 'community's' are prone to these kinds of pit-falls - either? This might be one for the sociologists to work on. Though you might find popular support for the thesis in this thread! I like your take on anatman though - are you a Zen enthusiast? xxoo

Richard Fidler's picture

Evan Thompson does not have a grasp of evolutionary biology, that deficiency infusing his outlook on consciousness. Nowhere do I read a definition of consciousness. How can you discuss something you do not define? Any definition should take into account the consciousness of flatworms, spiders, and birds; it should not relate to human consciousness alone--as both Buddhist psychology and Western philosophy tend to do.

Evans talks about embodied action, insisting that consciousness does not belong to the mind alone but to the whole body. Why would neurobiologists object to that? Certainly the human nervous system innervates everywhere in the body. But then Evans says "We enact meaning" in the world--a statement that presuppose both agency (the ego) and "meaning"--a slippery word that calls forth more questions than it answers (as philosophical treatises tend to do). Are we getting anywhere with this discussion?

Finally, I wish Crick were here to defend himself. Certainly he would say the world is represented in neural pathways in our brain, but that does NOT mean that perception and cognition exist "in the head". At a subjective level, the apple I see, the reception of sensory information, and the subsequent processing are all ONE process. From a subjective point of view there is a total oneness of object and subject. No neurobiologist would disagree with that statement.

There is a powerful need to frame Buddhism in modern language; the old Sutras frame consciousness in language that reminds me of the Four Humors or the Four Elements. We know so much more about how the brain operates--and our language now carries nuances those living two thousand years ago were incapable of understanding. That is not to say the dharma is without value: it simply points to the need to reconcile scientific understanding with Buddhist teachings.

skf91's picture

Richard, it seems to me that you are not familiar with Thompson's work. His concept of consciousness as articulated in "Mind in Life" (2010) does take into account the consciousness of flatworms, spiders, and birds- all the way back to single-celled organisms, in fact. From the preface of that book: "..the self-organizing features of mind are an enriched version of the self-organizing features of life." While this may not be a dictionary definition of consciousness, if that is what you're after, I think it is strongly indicative of Thompson's concept of consciousness as a phenomena only meaningful in the context of life- or perhaps better, living.

You are also taking his statement out of its context. (a rhetorical maneuver that is actually homologous to taking consciousness out of its lived context) “We inhabit a meaningful world because we bring forth or enact meaning." Properly understood, Thompson's point does not presuppose an ego (which in common use is not at all identical to agency, as you seem to suggest) or meaning, but emphasizes that both meaning and the self are inextricably woven into and (in)formed by a given form of life. Hacking's concept of looping kinds comes into play here, when we make ontological assumptions that actually introduce or reinforce a particular set of meanings or definitions of possible selves. (Is your baby a boy or a girl? Is that student intelligent or stupid? Is your wife hysterical, or is she living in a society in which people with bodies like hers are systematically oppressed?)

Richard Fidler's picture

Am curious what Thompson means by "the self-organizing features of life." The organization of life is hardly due to a "self-organizing" principle; it depends upon the steady process of natural selection (and accident) which results in the complex organization of our bodies. Even the term "life" is not especially attractive to biologists at least in a technical sense. Life is defined by what things do: reproduce, metabolize food, excrete wastes, respond to the environment, and so on. There is no essence "life": that understanding was achieved some time ago, partly with the help of Edwin Shroedinger, the physicist. If you are talking about "life", you need to specify which function you are talking about: reproduction, responding to the environment, etc.

sanghadass's picture

"I also want to foreground problems of meaning—how these different traditions conceptualize the mind and [what’s at stake for them in doing so]... I think science is really important, so this is not an anti-science point; it’s an anti-scientistic point. When you’re concerned with meaning, you enter into a different space of discussion, where scientific methods are not sufficient.'' - (Evan Thompson)

I feel that what you have had to say in your reply opens up inquiry 'skf91' - instead of closing it down. This is a valuable skill and I hope to hear more from you! One of the things I find most attractive in the Buddha's teachings is his invitation to 'come and see'. The Buddha put a lot of effort into helping people to inquire for themselves. So we could answer our own questions. He had arrived at his own findings and offered them as themes of investigation. Not fixed conclusions to be accepted or rejected on the basis of his own discoveries.

I am very happy with Buddha Dharma as a form of open questioning. I am more moved by an open-ended journey of discovery than an idée fixe. Which is all Scientism seems to have on offer! Everything must conform to the pre-existing model of how the world is ordered - according to scientism. This dogmatic approach to inquiry does not reflect the Buddha's approach to teaching. Liberating insight should help to free us from dogma's of any persuasion - religious or non-religious. The wisdom and compassion that arises out of our engagement with the Dharma, has little to do with producing a perfect model of reality! We can have a very concise and clear understanding of many things, and still behave in self-centred and ignorant/insensitive ways.

I don't understand why people with a scientistic fixation have much interest in the Buddha. They appear to have already answered most - if not all - of their questions. At least, those which deal with the fundamental features of their world-view. After accepting the basic tenets of scientism, the search for knowledge and understanding is mostly reduced to a process of filling in the details. There is still a delight in 'novelty' as long as it does not undermine - or subvert - any foregone conclusions. "When a pickpocket meets a saint, all he sees are pockets."

It would appear that the ignorant folk of the ancient world had good intentions - in some cases. However, they have been completely out-classed by the advocates of scientism - who alone can set the record straight, for all time! It does not seem to be of interest to the devotees of scientism that this attitude towards the people of the past has a history. A history that has nothing to do with science - as a form of open inquiry.

Was the Buddha an ignorant ancestor? Is this a scientific finding? What kind of life-world or, ideology did this vision of the Buddha arise in? Is it the result of a sweeping generalisation i.e. 'the ancients were ignorant ergo the Buddha was an ancient ergo the Buddha was ignorant! These may not be scientific questions and conclusions. However, might they tell us something about how the Buddha is characterised or, 'remade' in the context of scientism. Is this something we need to be concerned about? I am not suggesting that the Buddha was infallible. He did not claim to be! But I do think it is important to be aware of the assumptions about the Buddha and his teachings we bring to the table. Science may not be the medium through which we find answers to these questions. We need to ask these kinds of questions for good reasons! Not for the purpose of merely confirming our pre-set conclusions. All of this is 'must-see' stuff in our journey of awakening.

''When we categorize people... we also change them as a result... this is the “looping effect.” Sometimes we even create new kinds of people who didn’t exist before. This is “making up people.” - (Evan Thompson) I think what you have said - 'skf91' - in your reply to Richard, illustrates the point: ''Hacking's concept of looping kinds comes into play here, when we make ontological assumptions that actually introduce or reinforce a particular set of meanings or definitions of possible selves."

When Richard states that: "any definition [of consciousness] should take into account the consciousness of flatworms, spiders, and birds; it should not relate to human consciousness alone--as both Buddhist psychology and Western philosophy tend to do." I can only conclude that he is off with the fairies! The Buddha taught that consciousness is not something peculiar to human beings and, it is of 'six kinds'. From the Buddha's perspective it is a mistake to speak of consciousness as a single, unified process or, thing.

The Buddha taught, that there are six internal sense bases and six external sense bases. Thus, there are six internal-external (organ-object) pairs of sense bases: eye and visible objects, ear and sound; nose and odor; tongue and taste; body and touch; mind and mental objects. Mind is defined as a subtle sense-door. From contact between the senses and their respective objects, six different kinds of consciousness arise. In what way is this account of the six different kinds of consciousness reminiscent of medieval medicine and the 'four humors' - as Richard suggested? This account of consciousness does not sound primitive or superstitious to me - at all! However, it is certainly ancient. Does this fact make it false or unreasonable?

Richard may take issue with the Buddha's teachings with regard to consciousness. I am sure that Richard could offer us a deeper and more profound understanding of the nature of consciousness then we could expect from the Buddha - given his interest in science. After all, science is the most important means for arriving at a proper understanding of reality! Hmm... I wonder if that is a scientific finding?

Richard also pointed out that no 'definition of consciousness' was given in the interview. As far as I know, the nature of consciousness is still an open question? I am not troubled by an open-ended form of inquiry that does not insist on any final definitions. Or, a form of inquiry that does not proceed on the basis of a fixed understanding of what is being explored. However, Mr. Thompson did share a theory, that does not concieve of consciousness as something located 'in the head'. I thought he did a good job of defining this theory. Perhaps, he was not prepared to offer a conclusive definition in an area of inquiry that is still ongoing?

Richard Fidler's picture

I do not have time to answer all of the points you bring up in your post, but I will look at a few of them.

First, your constant use of the word "scientism" only highlights the artificial division you and others have created to separate "real scientific inquiry" from something that is dogmatic, narrow, and set in its ways (scientism). Mostly, you are upset with science when it presents understandings that go against ideas you have concerning consciousness--for example, that the "mind" is the result of the functioning of the brain. Why spend time decrying "scientism" and just say you disagree with certain conclusions?

The Buddha may have commented on the consciousness of animals, but that statement never became the basis for research concerning how the mind works. When you talk about the senses, the emotions, perceptions, consciousness itself, you are automatically leaving out animals that do not have the same senses people have, those that lack emotions as well as animals that process information differently. If we want to understand consciousness, we must look to a simpler model than that of a human. At the same time, we must look at many different animals to come up with the broadest definition of consciousness. Only looking at humans, you come up with a narrow definition.

You might read this month's Harpers Magazine to read an article by the esteemed biologist E.O. Wilson to get an idea of modern, scientific thinking about consciousness and self. You might be surprised at some of the conclusions of neurobiologists since they have a bit of the tang of the dharma. Of course, if you are not impressed, you will, no doubt, call it all "scientism". That is fine, but understand that that word is nothing more than a negative judgment you are making.

You summarize the Buddha's teaching concerning the five skandhas, but have you ever looked at the five skandhas critically? We have many more senses than five; the term "sense-door" referring to the mind is something that is not amenable to scientific inquiry; a narrower, more pointed definition must be made. "Mental objects" being the object of the "mind sense" makes little sense to neurobiologists. Even applying the word "object" takes us away from scientific inquiry: what is a "mental object"? Is it a pattern of neural processing or something else? How can you apply the word "object" to a thought of your grandmother? Is the relationship between a thought of your grandmother to the "mind" the same as the relationship between the visual sense and objects we look at? No scientist would say that it is.

The use of terms in Buddhism suggests a primitive way of looking at the world because it is entirely constructed and does not rest upon evidence-based inquiry. It is not that it is wrong. From a subjective point of view it certainly can be meaningful to many people--and is meaningful to them right now, in the modern world. However, the teachings should not be regarded as an expression of reality. Those interested in studying the mind should not take the dharma as a beginning place for inquiry as some Christians take the book of Genesis as the basis for scientific inquiry into our past. Better to start with a blank slate and answer the small questions first: what is the nature of the consciousness of a spider? How do nerve cells talk with one another? How do patterns of neural response encode memory? What is the basis of short-term memory (a topic never mentioned by the Buddha)? By working with the small questions we begin to understand the Big Ones. All we need is patience; the human mind will understand itself.

sanghadass's picture

Dear Richard, its lovely to hear from you again, and to sense that you are still full of vigor, passion and, enthusiasm. Its great that we have these opportunities to 'shake each others trees' in this forum. I hope you don't find it onerous - a bit of a chore? I feel that the exercise is genuinely useful or I would not bother. Please don't think I have some kind of vendetta against people who see the world from a different perspective - particularly the one that is dear to you! I can only try to say clearly what I feel and think. You may be right? I may simply be a naive fellow who has not really thought 'critically' in my engagement with the Buddha's teachings? Perhaps you have? Your reading of them and, your conclusions, are far removed from my own.

However, there is one conclusion you have come too, in your reply, that I can honestly say, is ill-founded. I do not insist that the picture you provide of the biological basis of behavior, and the nature of consciousness, is untrue. I really don't know. I only know that there are other models and explanations in circulation. One of these is the result of the Buddha's teachings. And what he had to say about the mind is clearly different from the model you present - in many ways. I am not prepared to say that the Buddha was wrong, and that you are right. I am not prepared to say that you are wrong in your critique of the Buddha's teachings and he is correct in his understanding of the nature of the mind etc. I don't have fixed and final answers on these kinds of questions. Given the depth and profundity - as I percieve it - of the subject matter, I tend to keep an open mind on the subject. I very much appreciate the perspectives you bring to the table. But, rightly or wrongly, I am as of yet, not convinced. And I know - given the depth of your inquiry - that convincing me, is not what you have an interest in. I feel the same way. But it is nice to share.

I think it worth mentioning, that much of what you have had to say, regarding the complexity of these kinds of questions, has not escaped my attention. I am not completely ignorant of the need to work "with the small questions [and then] we begin to understand the Big Ones." - as you put it! I have had the privilege of having met - and learned from - Buddhist's and others, that are fully cognizant of the kind of scientific findings and philosophical 'issues' you draw attention to. However, they have not come to the same conclusions that you have. So, we need to find an explanation for this 'pluralism'?

One explanation is that you simply know more than these 'others' with regard to themes of scientific inquiry and their philosophical implications? If this is not the case, and they have been as meticulous as you have been in your analyses. Then, the explanation must lie elsewhere! It might have something to do with ideology? To me, this is the elephant in the room! It might just be the case, that all my other well-educated friends are hopeless ideologues. Whereas, you are an exception to the rule. You simply rely on 'the scientific facts' having understood their implications fully and, those who have come to different conclusions, are people I should avoid, out of self-interest? However, as these 'kalyana mitra's' cause no apparent harm and, seem like quite reasonable folk. They can explain clearly, why they see things as they do, and the reasons why, in ways that are not cryptic, difficult to understand or, abstruse. Oddly, a bit like yourself! Because of this, I remain in a state of open inquiry and investigation.

So, as a result of 'all of the above'! I find no grounds for taking a fixed and final position with regard to science or, the Dharma. However, I do see and recognise the pluralism and, feel the need to find explanations for it. The explanations must lie somewhere else? This is why the philosophy in the article is of interest to me. Unlike yourself, who gave it 'short shrift' . I believe that the discussion it contained went a long way to explain the pluralism I am highlighting. Your Dharma friend, sangha dassa. xxoo

Richard Fidler's picture

It is not that the Buddha was wrong in his explaining how the mind works; he used the concepts available to him and the frames of reference commonly used at the time. What else could he do? And he, like Darwin, got so many things right--even by modern scientific standards: the tendency of people to form expectations, preconceived notions about how things should be; the delusion of the self--a view taken by many neurobiologists now, the importance of meditation in seeing through that delusion--and, of course, his insistence that one should never accept something as true based upon the person saying it, the book that "truth" is contained in, tradition, or any other external thing. Notice he did not mention evidence in his answer. He did not because in his society evidence-based inquiry did not exist. It only began to flower with the Greeks only slight later than the Buddha and with Galileo, almost two thousand years after him. For the Buddha, truth was what one found out upon practicing the dharma; it resonated or not with the "investigator". That is not the same as objective truth such as the fact that the Earth revolves around the sun. That fact does not depend upon how it resonates with an observer. It is simply true and can be demonstrated to be true by means of observations of many kinds.

In the present scientific study of brain function, the same rules apply as applied to Galileo's inquiry into heliocentrism. Terms are carefully defined and the means of measuring them are laid out. Observations and experiments are conducted which explain certain phenomena. As an example, one might mention short-term memory: seven data plus or minus two can be held within short term memory. That is an interesting fact, one which might relate to the nature of consciousness (along with attention, another psychological term that has value). The knowledge gained from such inquiry applies to all people and does not require anyone's internal approval to demonstrate its "rightness".

It isn't as if explanations from the dharma are in competition with explanations from science. The explanations from science are objectively true: compromise--going half way--is not possible. The explanations from the dharma may "work" as far as individual practitioners are concerned--they are "true" from a subjective point of view.

For that reason I would like to see the dharma expressed in terms acceptable to modern neurobiology. Most likely, Buddhist teaching would be filtered and simplified since so much of it depends upon concepts hardly alive today: prajna paramita is not a term most people of any culture can connect with--with the possible exception of monks and serious laypersons who have devoted their lives to penetrating it. Distilling the dharma to its essence should be a joyful task to those who undertake it.

Best of luck to you,

sanghadass's picture

Dear Richard, It is always a pleasure to hear from you. You are not only well-informed and clear in your expression. You are also non-abrasive! Sadly, this is not always easy to find. Perhaps, the Dharma has helped you in this i.e. reflections on right speech? However, genes seem to play an important role.

I find your first observation - in your last offering - an interesting one: ''It is not that the Buddha was wrong in his explaining how the mind works; he used the concepts available to him and the frames of reference commonly used at the time. What else could he do?" Yep! And what else can we do? You also list among the things that the Buddha got right: "the tendency of people to form expectations, preconceived notions about how things should be..." Preconceived notions about how things should be! Or, how things are - in any 'absolute' sense! Hmm... I wonder where these lines of inquiry may take us, if we follow them to their logical conclusions?

Perhaps we arrive at particular conclusions that are skewed by our 'pre-conceived' notions - of how the world is ordered? Some would say that this is inevitable. I think the idea needs refining. After all, we can begin an inquiry with tentative conclusions or, a variety of tentative ideas, not fixed ones? "When a pickpocket meets a saint, all he sees are pockets." It is difficult to see how we would have got anywhere in science, if scientists did not have a tendency to form expectations and, preconceived notions about how things are? What is an hypothesis? What determines an experimental model if we are not looking for things that we expect to find? It works well in science, but it can be problematic when we use science - or anything else - for ideological purposes. This is my main concern.

You seem to insist - please correct me if I am wrong - that YOUR world-view, informed by scientific research and, Buddhism and, what you had for breakfast etc. is surely the 'correct one'? It also appears that you would like to see the Buddha's teachings, perhaps, corrected or re-appraised, in the light of science. I think that is a good idea and, a work in progress. But you seem to go further? You seem to imply that we should all just shut-up, and go back to our meditation cushions. Because, the deal is done! The game is over! Well, some of us did not hear the fat lady sing! I believe that science as an ongoing inquiry, may yet arrive at findings that may give us all pause for thought. I hope that our Dharma inquiry will have a similar effect?

I simply don't buy the 'Buddha was an ignorant ancestor' thesis - or conclusion. Perhaps, the methods he employed and, language he used, were 'adequate' for the findings he wished to convey? Perhaps, the methods employed in science and, the language that is used to convey those findings, are 'adequate' given its many fields of interest? To claim that there is only one 'supremely' valid method of inquiry and, one appropriate means to convey its findings, is not a scientific finding! It is an article of faith in a modern ideology. One you don't like me mentioning - so I will exercise restraint. We also find analogous beliefs in ancient faith traditions. Where uniformity and conformity is encouraged. Understanding - and enlightenment - is found in the one 'true' faith. I am not saying it is wrong! I am saying that I remain sceptical.

If we want to know about the micro-biology of the brain we had best turn to science. If we want to know about the solar system, we need to look through a telescope. If we want to wake up from ignorance and, understand suffering and 'moksha' (liberation), we might benefit from the Buddha's approach to inquiry. But to insist that the Buddha is incapable of making sense, and of teaching us valuable lessons regarding the nature of existence because he was not born in the era of science, seems rather odd - to me. To your credit, you have given a simple list of where you think the Buddha was onto something. But I don't need an endorsement from science to figure that out! I don't need religious authority figures either - only good friends. I find this approach to be consistent with the Buddha's sound advice. But, this is just my point of view.

In my readings of the teachings in the early sutta's, I have found nothing that would lead me to the conclusion that the Buddha was an ignorant fellow. I am not saying that he got everything right either! I prefer to maintain an open mind with regard to the Buddha, and his teachings - and science. I have not found, in doing so, that my interest and appreciation of science is 'compromised'. This has been 'my findings'. They could be wrong? I am not suggesting that you are wrong in coming to - what I take is - a different conclusion. I really don't know! This is what I mean when I refer to 'keeping an open mind'. For me, the jury is still out, with regard to 'the ultimate nature of reality'. And, I am naive enough to BELIEVE that the Buddha may have been onto something, with regard to this rather difficult question. I am also prepared to entertain the prospect that no one has a 'bleeping' clue!

One of my Dharma teachers - a friend, was talking to a Christian about how we are all members of an orchestra. If we each learn to play our instruments sweetly, we can make beautiful music together. My Dharma friend is a wonderful meditation teacher, a 'Theravadin Ajahn' and, a physicist. Many Buddhists have an interest in science. They don't struggle with these dual interests as if there is some kind of internal tension - or dichotomy - between the two. I have not found any! I have only found similarities and differences. I don't see any problem in acknowledging both? I don't think there really is any need for Buddhism to collapse into 'modern' Science. Buddhism does not need to be redefined by science.

Buddhism and Science need no help from each other. They are both vibrant and alive fields of inquiry. Perhaps we should encourage and celebrate a polyphony of voices. Instead of encouraging a uniformity of view. Maybe we don't need unanimity of vision, but a love and respect of diversity? Mostly, we need to respect each others rights to live safely, to be cared for. This applies to all beings. If we get this, we can forget the rest. Big Love, sangha dassa xxoo