Showing posts with label Awakening. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Awakening. Show all posts

02 September 2016

Searle on Consciousness & Implications for Buddhism

In this essay I will outline John Searle's approach to philosophy of mind. I've been making use of it for most of this year, but wish I'd read The Rediscovery of the Mind twenty years ago, because Searle cuts through a lot of the confusion to outline a workable philosophy of mind. I don't agree with everything he says, but the basic outline seems to me to be the best set-up for thinking about and exploring the mind. 

At the outset we need to make the distinction between a philosophy of mind and a science of the mind. A philosophy is a broad brush-stroke approach to a subject, which sets out the basic premises and presuppositions on which to approach studying and understanding the subject in more detail. Scientific theories seek to account for the known facts and guide a research program. Our philosophy of mind attempts to make the results of our science of the mind comprehensible; to create a meta-theory in which the relevant scientific theories fit together and are consistent with other scientific theories. Philosophy provides the framework in which to understand the results of science; and science informs the framework of the philosophy. I'll try to say something about where I see Buddhism fitting into this below. It's important to state unequivocally that at present we do not have a complete version of either a philosophy or a science of the mind. However, Searle is adamant, and I entirely agree, that we have have good enough versions of both to be getting on with. 

I had heard of John Searle as a philosopher of language many years ago when I tried to look into the mechanics of mantra. It seemed at the time that pragmatics (what mantras do) was a far more fruitful line in inquiry that semantics (what mantras mean). I naturally came across Searle in this context because he helped to define the field of language pragmatics. Much later, in 2014, I happened to listen to a lecture by him at Cambridge University (via their YouTube channel). In his lectures, Searle is direct and confident. He states the conclusions he thinks are obvious with none of the obfuscation I usually associate with philosophy. He's trying to clarify the issues, not to confuse his audience. In every lecture I have seen he invariable comments, Dr Johnson-like, on freewill: "I decide to raise my arm, and look [raises his arm] the damn thing goes up" (with that emphasis). I like this. Recently, I have gone back to Searle and read a couple of his books, The Rediscovery of Mind and The Construction of Social Reality; and I've listened to some other lectures. Searle's lectures on consciousness seem to invariably cover the same ground, most of which was in The Rediscovery of the Mind. The view has been updated to some extent over the years and linked to a theory of social reality, but from the mid 1990s on, Searle has been pointing out how confused most philosophy of mind is, restating his own philosophy of mind, and wondering aloud what all the fuss is about.

Part of my attraction to Searle is that he takes a straightforward approach to the subject and provides a meaningful entry point for me to join the discussion - he writes with clarity and explains jargon terms. I still have to use my dictionary from time to time, but the argument itself is presented in an accessible way. And yet what he is saying is quite a lot more radical than he tends to get credit for, particularly his critique of scientific materialism as a form of Cartesian dualism! Searlean philosophy seems quite compatible with Naturalism more generally and with the structure antireductionist philosophy I've been exploring recently. 

~ What is Consciousness? ~

Searle's standard definition of consciousness can be found in many books, articles, and lectures. It goes like this:
Consciousness consists of inner, qualitative, subjective states and processes of sentience or awareness. Consciousness, so defined, begins when we wake in the morning from a dreamless sleep - and continues until we fall asleep again, die, or go into a coma, or otherwise become 'unconscious'.
Searle says that consciousness has a "first-person ontology", by which he means "a first-person mode of existence. That is to say when it exists, it only exists for one person, privately, and is not accessible to others. I will offer challenge this assertion when I deal with the mind-body problem below.

For Searle consciousness is a neurobiological phenomenon. He says that consciousness is wholly caused by neural activity in the brain. Remember that this is a philosophical position, not a scientific one. Searle is saying that the best explanation, really the only plausible explanation, we have is the neurobiological one - which is a structure antireductive view. This does not mean that we have a fully worked out scientific description of consciousness in terms of neurobiology. We don't. But there really is no other type of explanation that is plausible in the current state of our knowledge about the world at mass, energy and length scales relevant to the question. If consciousness happens, it must happen in the brain, and this is why it is not a public event. It's first-person in the same way that biological processes like respiration and digestion are first-person. The glucose, amino-acids and other nutrients liberated by digestion from the food I ate are only available to me; similarly the conscious states produced by the functioning of the brain are only accessible to me. This distinction will be important when we look at the implications of Searlean philosophy for Buddhism. 

For a long time the science of consciousness was actually hampered by philosophers. One cannot study consciousness, for example, if one believes that it doesn't exist (a belief broadly referred to as eliminativism). Those who believe that consciousness is an illusion, often end up not studying consciousness at all. Or they focus on the question of how a non-conscious organism came to have the highly sophisticated mechanisms for creating illusions of having conscious states. Searle points out that the apparent illusion is a conscious state, so it cannot be considered as non-conscious. The eliminativist approach seems like a cul de sac. Nor can one study something if one believes that it cannot be studied, which is a surprisingly common claim amongst intellectuals. Ironic that the object of which we can claim no facts enables us to claim this one meta-fact. What is the epistemology behind this ontological claim? How can one know this? With all the obfuscation and confusion, it has been difficult to convince the mainstream of scientists that consciousness exists, is something that can be studied, and is worth studying. We're really only just beginning to get serious about studying consciousness a few decades after the study began. Before this, no one studied consciousness. 

One of the attractions of Searlean philosophy of mind, is that it encourages rather than discourages scientific study of conscious. For Searle the existence of consciousness is an unequivocal and rather trivial matter. Of course we have conscious states. However, as we will see, consciousness is irreducibly subjective and the subjectivity of conscious seems to have confused scientists who are committed to the belief that reality can only be objective. The ostensible reason for this is to avoid Cartesian dualism.
"The bankruptcy of the Cartesian tradition, and the absurdity of supposing that there are two kinds of substances of properties in the world, "mental" and "physical", is so threatening to [philosophers] and has such a sordid history that we are reluctant to concede anything that might smack of Cartesianism. we are reluctant to conceded any of the common sense facts that sound "Cartesian", because it seems that if we accept the facts, we will have to accept the whole of Cartesian metaphysics." (1992: 13) 
There are two ironies here. Firstly Searle is routinely accused of being a dualist despite saying that he finds dualism absurd; he points out that scientific materialists in avoiding talking about or studying the consciousness qua subjective reality, effectively reify the Cartesian distinction between mind and body. I'll say more about this below.

 Searle (1992: 127ff) elucidates a dozen features of consciousness, but in (2000) he highlights three that are distinctive of consciousness: qualitativeness, subjectivity, and unity.


Each experience we have, has its own distinctive qualities, though some experiences have shared qualities. Thomas Nagel (1974) argued that we could have perfect knowledge of the physiology of a bat and still not know what it was like to be a bat. Since then philosophers have used this idea that there is "something that it is like" to have an experience in contradistinction to the physical apparatus which underlies the experience to highlight the importance of the quantitativeness of consciousness. Conscious experience is not encompassed by knowledge of physiology. Of course in 1974 there was no serious study of consciousness to speak of and the knowledge of neuro-physiology was considerably less detailed than it is now.

Some philosophers have coined the word qualia for this aspect of consciousness. Sometimes they distinguish qualia from other kinds of mental experience. However, Searle argues that all conscious states have a qualitative aspect - there is always "something that it is like" when having or being in a conscious state. Therefore qualia is just a fancy word for conscious states, which doesn't really add anything to the discussion. Indeed, it could be said to confuse the issue by making it seem that a conscious state and the qualitative aspect of a conscious state are two different things. They aren't.

Whatever we call it, there is something that it is like to be in a conscious state, or to have a conscious experience. And this is part of how we define a conscious state. By contrast there is nothing that it is like to have a non-conscious mental state, such as the kind of non-conscious processing of visual data from the eyes before an object in the visual field becomes conscious.


Because there is always something that it is like to have a conscious experience, it follows that someone is having the experience. Consciousness is always someone being conscious of something. Buddhists are doubtful about there always being a someone and I will deal with this issue below. For now I will just say that I conclude that even non-dual experiences are subjective in the sense of being someone's experience. Consider the other possibilities: i.e., that an experience is everyone's experience; that the experience in one person's brain is someone else's experience; or that an experience can be no-one's experience (if it is no-one's experience it is not an experience at all, but another kind of event). So consciousness is subjective in the sense that there has to be someone whose mind is experiencing the conscious state or it is not conscious. 

A problem here is Searle's assertion that the fact that consciousness is subjective amounts to consciousness having what he calls a first-person ontology. By "ontology" in this context he means "mode of existence" and he makes a distinction between this and the fundamental ontology. I see this broad use of the word ontology as a weakness in Searle's philosophy. The fundamental ontology is similar to my own view: the universe is made of one kind of stuff (the view is called substance reductionism). The modal use of the term ontology with respect to consciousness invites misunderstanding. And Searle is frequently misunderstood as either a reductionist or an ontological dualist with respect to consciousness (he is neither). On the other hand consciousness excites such emotional and polarised responses, especially amongst professional philosophers, that it is almost impossible that any given statement about consciousness will not routinely be misunderstood by those with a different idea.

To me the first-person/third-person distinction is epistemic rather than ontic, by which I mean that it is not a matter of modes of existing, since all existing is of one type, so much as it is of modes of knowing. That consciousness is subjective, means that it can only be known from a first-person perspective. Any given conscious state is only instantiated in one brain. It can only be known from the point of view associated with, or created by, that one brain. Searle himself insists, consciousness is wholly caused by neurobiological processes, which suggests that the ontology of consciousness is not distinct from the ontology of any other biological process. Indeed, as we will explore below, elsewhere Searle is insistent that there is no ontological distinction between mind and body. I'm nowadays doubtful about the notion of causation. However intuitive and natural it seems, causation is still a metaphysical concept, rather than one that is native to physics. That said, consciousness is at the least an emergent property of a functioning of the brain (however that happens). 


Searle describes consciousness as a unified field. All of our senses are working all the time (if they are working at all). Sense experience is to us as water is to a fish. Most of the time we don't even notice that we move through a unified field of sense experience. Searle identifies two dimensions to this process. A "horizontal" dimension in which mental events are unified over short stretches of time (I discussed this issue in my essay, The Citta Bottleneck. 21 Jun 2016). The "vertical" dimension takes in all the various features of my sensory experience across the different modes, i.e. visual, aural, tactile, etc. By unified we don't mean uniform. Conscious states certainly have features and structures, but they occur in a unified context.

While we can certainly be aware of particular facets of experience at any given time, these facets appear to us to be embedded in a unified field. In neurophysiology this is known as the Binding Problem. The division of labour in the brain is completely transparent to us, we are presented with this unified field of perception and it's not yet clear how this happens. 

Unity can be most striking when it fails. In some patients who have their corpus callosum severed as a way of treating epilepsy, thereby isolating the two halves of the brain, unity can become a duality. The different halves of the brain can operate as two independent unities. In the so-called "out-of-body" experience, the unity of consciousness also breaks down so that the sense of being embodied becomes disconnected from the visual perception of the body, so that people appear to themselves to be floating above themselves looking down at their own body. The illusion is vivid and compelling, but it is an illusion. 

This modern view of the unity of consciousness conflicts with the understanding of consciousness that was developed Buddhists and enshrined in the various versions of Abhidharma. I've dealt with this recently (The Citta Bottleneck. 21 Jun 2016) so I don't propose to go over it again.

Other qualities

Included in the list of other features of consciousness are: intentionality; centre/periphery relations, mood, pleasure/unpleasure dimension, gestalt structure, finite modalities, familiarity, overflow, boundary conditions.

Intentionality does not mean "will" in this context, but the fact of conscious states have a referential content (perhaps referentiality was a neologism too far for philosophers?). Most conscious states refer to something: we are conscious of something, or about something. As Searle (2000: 6) says "If I have a normal visual experience, it must seem to me that I am actually seeing something". In hallucinations, it still seems to us as though we are seeing something. The hallucination still has intentionality.  

However, Searle thinks that states such as "undirected anxiety" are not intentional. I'm not convinced by this, nor by his treatment of mood (1992: 140-1; 2000: 6-7). Emotion is not a conscious state like thought, but also involves physiological arousal triggered by the actions of the sympathetic side of the autonomic nervous system, which functions autonomically, i.e. it is non-consciously self-governing. As Gerald Mandler (1984) has pointed out:

emotion = arousal + emotional thoughts

(cited in Fine 2006: 43)

Searle seems to lack this important insight and I think his exposition on intentionality suffers because of it. A good deal of what makes an emotional state is our awareness of physical feelings in the body associated with states of physiological arousal, and our attribution of meaning (emotional thoughts) to those feelings. The attribution of meaning to experience is a deep a difficult topic, in the case of feelings in the body as much as any other kind of experience. Anxious thoughts can be triggered by states of arousal that are not linked to any obvious external stimulus; but in this case the thoughts are intentional in Searle's sense, because they refer to the feelings of arousal. Thoughts themselves can also stimulate the autonomic nervous system. I can easily think myself in a panic, in the complete absence of any external threat. 

Searle (1992: 140) suggests that moods may be non-intentional, but again, as in the the example of anxiety, the conscious thoughts we have are a response to feelings in the body that result from the workings of the autonomic nervous system. My view is that mood is itself is not a conscious state, because it is probably more a matter of the functioning of the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine system. Awareness of experiencing a particular mood is a conscious state and because it is awareness of something, it is intentional.

Two related features of consciousness are the gestalt structure and centre periphery relations. Within the complex unity of perception some things stand out. In my essay The Citta Bottleneck, I cited the example of degraded images that are more or less impossible to decode until one is told what they are, at which point the objects become comprehensible. This leads to the insight that expectation is central to perception. However, the crystallisation of an image out of noise is also a good example of the gestalt feature of consciousness. Our senses produce a lot of information all at once and our brain processes and filters this mass of information so that some aspects of it stand out. What stands out is presumably determined, ultimately, by evolution. The brain that causes the right aspects of the noise to stand out as signal, is the brain that survives. Another way of looking at this, is that our brains are extremely efficient pattern recognition engines. So within the field of perception some things and patterns stand out. But we also have the ability to shift our attention within this unified field structured by gestalt relations. We can focus on different aspects of experience: now I'm formulating a sentence, now I'm listening to the drum beat of the Massive Attack tune I'm listening to, now I'm thinking it's time to get ready to meet my friend for an outing.

These two features are, to the best of my knowledge, completely absent from Buddhist accounts of mind and difficult to fit into those accounts. I think this is because Buddhists privilege altered states of consciousness over everyday states. Whether this is a valid manoeuvre remains to be seen.

Another feature that Searle identifies that is present in Buddhist accounts is the pleasure/unpleasure dimension (to use Searle's terms) to experience. Although he doesn't make much of it, Searle suggests that we can always answer questions like "Are we having fun?" The Buddhist account of this dimension is (unusually) more developed than Searle's, though I will link it to other modern thinkers that give a modern perspective. This dimension is important because we are attracted to the pleasant and averse to the unpleasant. This can of course manifest in trivial likes and dislikes of the the kind that Buddhists seek to eliminate. However, more fundamentally, it is what drives all seeking and avoiding behaviours: seeking food, seeking shelter, seeking company, seeking a mate; avoiding danger, avoiding poisonous substances, avoiding conflict, avoiding predators. These responses to the pleasure/unpleasure dimension of experience are clearly not trivial, and not very well dealt with in Buddhist accounts.

Having outlined some of the major features of consciousness states, I now want to try to show how Searle tackles a perennial problem in philosophy of mind, the mind-body problem. 

~ The Mind-Body Problem ~

The essence of this problem is the puzzle of how something like the mind can affect changes (or actions) in something like the body and vice versa. The problem is based on the idea that the mind and body are fundamentally different. 

There are broadly speaking two popular approaches to the mind-body problem. One group adopt an eliminativist stance and try to explain away consciousness. In other words they try to account for consciousness without any reference to consciousness, and instead try to explain how we function without consciousness. This argument takes many forms, the leading contenders are forms of materialism, such as Behaviourism. Proponents of eliminativism often claim that consciousness is an illusion, but this tends to leave us scratching our heads about why would we have the illusion of consciousness. What would the evolutionary argument for the development of the complex brain architecture required to support the illusion of consciousness? But more importantly, Searle asks how we would distinguish the illusion of consciousness from a conscious state? Indeed, an illusion, to be an illusion, must itself be a conscious state. The having of the illusion is itself tantamount to consciousness (since the illusion is qualitative, subjective, and part of a unified field etc). In the end Occam's razor applies and it is far simpler to just acknowledge that we have subjective conscious states. 

The second approach is to adopt some form of ontic dualism. In this view consciousness is a distinct kind of substance from matter. Again this kind of argument takes several forms, and it is particularly popular amongst religious intellectuals. The religieux, amongst other things is stuck trying to explain the afterlife. No afterlife is possible unless something survives the death of the body, and by definition that something cannot be physical because we know in great detail what happens to the physical aspects of a human being after they die: the body is broken down by microbial and chemical means and recycled. Some prominent philosophers, notably David Chalmers have returned to dualism despite the scientific consensus against it and despite the absurdity of the idea. 

Proponents from both eliminativist and dualist camps frequently argue that consciousness can never be understood. Which strikes me as a premature conclusion at best. Certainly, if we define something as unknowable, that can only hamper efforts to study it. As an axiom it seems to be a deadend. We ought only adopt deadend axioms when all other possibilities have been exhausted and we are very far from that eventuality at present. 

Searle deals with this mess by going back to Descartes. Descartes was looking for a way to satisfy both the mechanistic views emerging from the nascent physical sciences of his day and the necessity to make room for God. He did this by formalising a kind of dualism that had existed for a long time:  i.e. that a human being consists of two parts: a body and a mind, formed from difference kinds of stuff (substance dualism; or substance antireductionism). Body was an expression of matter; mind was an expression of soul. The body functioned like a machine; the mind was where God came into it. I've previously looked in some detail how the language and metaphors associated with this dualism interact to create a particular kind of worldview (Metaphors and Materialism. 26 Apr 2013). 

Nowadays, it is only religious intellectuals who feel the need to make room for God and the physical sciences themselves have showed that mechanistic views of physics only apply when classical mechanics applies and classical mechanics is a special case of a more fundamental non-mechanistic (in fact probabilistic) understanding of science. Many physicists and neuroscientists still talk as though the world is mechanistic, but they are confused on this score. This can be distinguished from other interpretations of quantum mechanics, such as Everett's "many worlds" interpretation which is deterministic, but not mechanistic. Many worlds is deeply counter-intuitive as most quantum theories are. The key problem with mechanistic views is that mechanisms cannot exhibit emergent properties, even in complex mechanisms the properties are simply the sum of the the properties of their parts. 

Searle observes that scientific materialism, which portrays itself as the antithesis of dualism, is in fact underpinned by Cartesian dualism. Materialists divide the world into matter and mind, just as Descartes did, but they then claim that only matter is real and that mind is not real (that it can be reduced to matter). The claim that only matter is real only makes sense if we assume that mental phenomena are ontologically distinct from material phenomena. Searle denies that this distinction is valid. Idealists also divide the world into two, but they say that only the mind is real and discard matter. Some nihilists complete the picture by dividing the world into two and denying the reality of either. This observation might be my favourite thing about Searle. 

In other words the mind-body problem is still essentially a Cartesian problem. Proponents of materialism and idealism are making an (erroneous) ontological distinction between mind and body. If we truly reject Descartes, then mind and body are not, and cannot be, ontologically different. I go a bit further with this than Searle does. Searle makes the distinction between a first-person consciousness and a third-person reality an ontological difference: he makes a distinction between a first-person ontology or mode of existence and a third-person ontology.

Searle often compares consciousness as neurobiological process to digestion. I find this analogy apt, but I want to emphasise that digestion is encompassed by the same ontology as everything else. Reality is ontologically monistic. I know that Searle agrees with this, and sometimes he speaks of the "fundamental ontology", but I still think his use of the word ontology is too vague. The fact that the nutrients that I get from digestion are only available to my body does not change the ontology of the process. All events are local, so the localisation of consciousness in my brain is not particularly significant in or of itself. To my mind the grammatical person with which we observe the phenomenon is an epistemic matter, not an ontological one. It is true that consciousness is only available to be known as a first-person phenomenon, but if we eliminate Cartesian dualism as an option, then there cannot be an ontological distinction. It is a problem of what can be known, not what exists. I think this may be why some commentators mistake Searle for a dualist or a materialist (the two views he is openly and vehemently critical of).

On the other hand I can see how tempting it is to conclude that because something is so epistemically distinctive and localised that there must be an underlying ontic distinction. It's a kind of "no smoke without fire argument". The epistemic difference seems to intuitively point to an ontological difference. One thing we have learned in the last 400 years is that reality is often counter-intuitive. And in this case, while there might be emergent properties involved, the ontology is the same in each case. 

Thus the mind-body problem is, in Searle's views, based on a misunderstanding about the nature of reality. And that misunderstanding is the same one formalised by Descartes, i.e. that the mind and the body are ontologically different. This misunderstanding leads to the mistaken idea that we have to produce a special account for how mind and body interact. In fact, philosophically, we know how they relate, mind is an emergent property of the functioning brain. There is no reasonable doubt about this. Scientifically we are still gathering evidence and developing explanations, but so far the evidence we have all points in the same direction. If evidence starts pointing in some other direction, I'm quite capable of changing my view and don't see the point of being a tooth-fairy agnostic in the meantime.

Hopefully this brief outline gives a flavour of Searle's approach, though of course to really get what he's on about you have to read his books and watch his online lectures. Hopefully some one will read this and do just this. As always when I'm thinking about such things, one of my concerns is how this impacts on Buddhist belief. In the next section I comment on one aspect our discussions about awakening, particularly the contemporary discussions.

~ Consciousness and Awakening ~

In recent years a number of people have "come out" as awakened to some degree and there have been public discussions on the experience of awakening as well as more focussed programs for those genuinely seeking awakening (as opposed to those who want to be Buddhists). This is all for the good, partly because it allows us to recalibrate our expectations based on first-hand accounts of the experience rather than only referencing highly unreliable myths and legends. I'm appreciative of those people who have contributed to this recalibration. However, I'm also critical of the philosophy that appears to accompany the discussions, because, all too often, it is still rooted in the medieval adaptations of the original Iron Age Buddhist orthodoxies.

One of the things that is widely agreed upon seems to be that awakening consists in breaking down the distinction between objective and subjective points of view. This is often discussed as a realisation that subject and object don't exist. I think we need to take a step back from this. One of the observations that Searle makes is that the subjective/objective distinction has two senses: an epistemic sense and and ontological sense, i.e. a sense concerned with modes of knowing, and a sense concerned with modes of existence. I've already suggested that the epistemic/ontic distinction is not entirely clear in Searle's exposition on mind and body, so if nothing else this should alert us to how difficult it can be to be clear on this distinction. It seems to me that awakened people seem to be unclear in discussions of the subject/object distinction.

I've now described several times my philosophy of collective empirical realism. This is the idea that accounting for what everyone knows (for epistemology generally) without there being some kind of ontic support (a mind-independent, immanent, non-supernatural reality) seems extremely unlikely. Explaining experience without such a reality seems overly complicated and difficult. A mind-independent, immanent, non-supernatural reality is the simplest explanation for experience. And while we do not have direct access to this reality, by comparing notes we can infer a great deal about it, which is what scientists do. And since science produces accurate and precise descriptions of what we observe in the world, the world cannot be very different from how we perceive it to be when we eliminate the various cognitive biases and logical fallacies we are prone to. This is collective empirical realism - i.e. a mind-independent, immanent, non-supernatural reality as described by inferences drawn from the collaborative interpretation of empirical evidence. Individuals are in a difficult position because of how perception and reason work. The individual sees the world in terms of transcendental idealism, i.e. a world that is constructed by the mind, on the basis of sense experience, memory, and expectation. An individual reasoning in the absence of other people is prone to fall into cognitive bias and/or logical fallacy. For this reason the individual who generalises from their own experience is unlikely to accurately describe the mind-independent, immanent, non-supernatural reality. And yet this is exactly what the awakened tend to do! 

Let us assume that Devadatta* has an experience of awakening in which his ability to distinguish subject from object breaks down. When conscious Devadatta now experiences an undifferentiated field of experience, which has some features, but to which distinctions like inner/outer; me/not-me; or subject/object don't seem to apply. It is more or less impossible for anyone to imagine what this experience is like unless they too have it. 
* Devadatta is the equivalent of Joe Bloggs in Indian works of philosophy generally. The name means Given by God and is thus cognate with the English name Theodore.
This change is frequently presented with some reference to reality. The awakened, we are told, see reality, the nature of reality, the true nature of reality, or even the True Nature of Reality. Granted that the experience is profound and wonderful, but claims about the nature of reality are ontological claims and they are still based on generalising from personal experience. 

In fact I think this reasoning is flawed. Think for example of how Devadatta physically sees. Photons are still reflected from objects and into the eyes of Devadatta, focussed on his retina, and processed in his brain; his brain integrates a whole bunch of  disparate streams of information to create a unified field of consciousness (the binding problem q.v.), only now the features of his conscious states are radically different. Reality in this sense has not changed, nor can it have been revealed, because Devadatta is no more seeing reality directly than anyone who relies on human eyes and a human brain is seeing reality. What has changed is what Devadatta makes of the information being presented to his consciousness by innumerable non-consciousness processes. Devadatta may argue that the model of the world now in his head is better than the one he previously had, but clearly the world has not changed or we'd all notice it. The change is private in the sense that it is contained within Devadatta's skull. His model of the world is now radically different, but physics still applies. The subjective/objective distinction is an epistemological distinction, not an ontological distinction.

Devadatta's brain now produces thoughts without an "I" or an internal monologue about experience. But such thoughts as Devadatta has are still his thoughts, even if he does not experience a sense of ownership. They are happening in one brain and not other brains. The view from his eyes is not the view from my eyes. When pushed, the awakened people I have quizzed on this admit to only having access to one set of eyes and thus to having a physical location in space and a particular perspective on the world. It's just that they experience no sense of ownership or privilege of that perspective. And again, this is an epistemic issue, not an ontic issue.

Importantly, Devadatta still only has access to his own thoughts and not to mine and vice versa. So Devadatta's non-dual consciousness still has a first-person epistemology. The contents of Devadatta's awakened mind are still only accessible to Devadatta, even if he no longer believes in Devadatta or feels any privilege in his experiential field. And as wonderful as it might be to be awakened there is still this limitation on how experience is understood and communicated about by an embodied mind. However, the Awakened seem confused about the epistemic/ontological distinctions and mistake their perception for reality. Unfortunately this category error has always been a millstone around the necks of Buddhists because we give priority to the views of the awakened, even though they fall prey to this cognitive bias and the logical fallacies that it entails. In short the awakened need to have a few non-awakened philosophers around to talk things over with because they seem to lose perspective on experience along with the subject-object distinction. Without the dualistic perspective, they mistake their experience for reality. This is understandable, because when one stops making dualistic distinctions it must seem even more intuitive than for a dualistic mind to assume that experience is reality. But we must insist that experience is not reality. It cannot be. 

~ Conclusions ~

Searle seems to have produced a coherent, self-consistent, and plausible philosophy of mind a quarter of a century ago. It is not the only such philosophy produced in this time frame, but it has some major advantages over the competitors that I'm aware of. Searle not only rejects mind-body dualism, but he identifies where the competition have retained a tacit commitment to dualism. He accepts the existence of consciousness and treats it as the subject of a philosophy of mind. Even if consciousness were some kind of illusion, the illusion itself would be a conscious state. 

Searle does not pretend to be a scientist of the mind, though he is clearly informed by scientists. He is seeking to establish a framework within which science can proceed by asking pertinent and intelligent questions and produce comprehensible answers. If we proclaim that mind has a different ontology from the body, or that mind does not exist, then our questions about mind tend not to be pertinent or intelligent and our answers to important questions are not simply counter-intuitive, but completely implausible. 

Once we thoroughly purge our ontology of dualism, then the mind-body problem evaporates. This is surely one of the most attractive features of Searle's philosophy. There are other features of his philosophy which I have not touched on. For example I have not dealt at all with his debunking of the idea of the brain as a computer. To my mind this is an applied problem and not fundamental to the philosophy. He responds to the proposal "the mind is a computer" by pointing out reasons that this cannot be the case. What is central to his philosophy are those elements that are asserted positively, such as that reality is monistic; that consciousness exists and has certain features, and so on. 

The main weakness I perceive in Searle's philosophy is in the area of his reference to the mind having a "first person ontology". I understand what he means by this. He means that conscious states occur in relation to a single brain and they are accessible, if they accessible at all, to only one person (at present any way). I presume to correct Professor Searle here by arguing that this is in fact an epistemological distinction. 

We may not have arrived at a finished product for a philosophy of mind, but my feeling is that Searle has come very close to the mark and that we need now only sort out the details. Searle's philosophy fits into the broad category of Naturalism. Naturalism is by far the best approach we have and we are a very long way from exhausting the possibilities it throws up for exploring and understanding our world. But we should not mistake Naturalism for a simple philosophy. My version of naturalism involves a ontology that combines substance reductionism and structure antireductionism; an epistemology that acknowledges that individuals see the world in terms of transcendental idealism, but asserts that collective empirical realism allows us to make accurate and precise inferences about the immanent (but not supernatural) reality, the sense impressions of which our brains present to us as conscious states that are qualitative, subjective, and unified. I take this all to be settled at the mass, energy, and length scales relevant to everyday human life (or to the unaided human senses), but to be incomplete at the extremes of scale. In cosmology, physics, chemistry, geology, and biology we have the unfolding story of the world. In anthropology, psychology, and sociology we have the story of humanity's place in that story. All local myths and legends are superseded by this story. 

Unless civilisation is destroyed by some cosmic scale cataclysm, Buddhism will have to eventually come to terms with Naturalism.  Towards this end, I've been developing two kinds of critique of traditional Buddhist ideology. Firstly an historical critique based on intra-Buddhist disputes over doctrine (to the best of my knowledge this approach is unique); and secondly the more direct critique drawing directly on Naturalist philosophy and science that highlights the internal contradictions and logical incoherence of traditional Buddhist doctrines. As a sideline I'm also interested in how systematic misreading of Prajñāparamitā and related texts has led to a cult of paradox and nonsense in Buddhism and how that appeals to the Romanticism of Buddhist modernists.

I'm cautiously optimistic about the possibilities for synthesis between Naturalism and Buddhism. 


~ Bibliography ~

Fine, Cordelia. (2006) A mind of its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives. Icon.

Mandler, G. (1984). Mind and Emotion: Psychology of Emotion and Stress. W. W. Norton.

Nagel, Thomas. (1974) What is it like to be a bat? The Philosophical Review LXXXIII, 4 (October 1974): 435-50. Online:

Searle, John R. (1992) The Rediscovery of the Mind. MIT Press, 1994 (pb).

Searle, John R. (2000) Consciousness. Annual Review of Neuroscience.23(1):557-78. Online version pagination begins at p.1.

25 March 2016

Self, Continuity, and Morality

Buddhists make a big deal about how disadvantaged people are by having the illusion of self. The rhetoric implies that having a sense of self is a severe disability. Since it is axiomatic that it is up to each of us to make progress on the path, it's further hinted that those who still have a sense of self are culpable for their own disability, as though we are simply not making enough effort. I find this a rather unattractive version of Buddhism. To my knowledge, the breakthrough to non-self has always been the preserve of a few who have the temperament for intensive practice and the opportunity to pursue it. No doubt some genetic and environmental factors are also involved, but this only reinforces that it always was and always will be a minority who make that kind of breakthrough. The idea that we all might make this breakthrough is a quaint dream.

On the other hand, this view overlooks the good that people with selves do, the great art that they have created, and the general advancement of humankind from science and technology (better health, longer life, lower infant mortality, less violence, etc). Buddhism implemented on a national scale, on the other hand, has almost always led to repressive, authoritarian politics, rigidly stratified societies, and entrenched privilege, along with poor standards of living, especially for the poor. So if we were looking for ways to save all beings from suffering, or at least reduce suffering for all beings, then the evidence suggests that Buddhist rhetoric is vastly overblown: basic education and healthcare is probably more effective. The eradication of polio has done more for the reduction of suffering in the world than Buddhism ever did.

This kind of discourse which sees self as a a disability is more prevalent now that it was when I became a Buddhist twenty years ago, partly because of the rise in prominence of Advaita Vedanta in Western countries or at least people who employ Vedantin methods of undermining the sense of self. Those who do this, like to refer to it as "Advaita" (non-dual), but I prefer to use Vedanta to keep it clear what kind of religious ideology underpins the methods and worldview associated with the approach. A Vedantin is typically seeking the non-duality between soul and God, two concepts foreign to Buddhism. While self-enquiry seems like a good idea, we also ought to be enquiring into the worldview espoused by Vedantins and asking why the Vedantin who claims to have no self talks about it in such different terms to the Buddhist.

Despite the popularity religious rhetoric around the evils of selfhood I remain deeply suspicious of it. I wrote a few essays on this theme in late 2009, including:
In these essays I expressed some of my doubts about the negative rhetoric around self. I tried to show how vital the development of a healthy ego is. One might, perhaps, transcend one's ego, but the idea that we could develop from scratch as human beings without an ego seems fanciful. A whole raft of behavioural and cognitive problems emerge from the lack of a well-defined sense of self. If the sense of self fails to develop in a person, or is compromised by disease or accident, then (contra the religious narratives) that person really is disabled. However good it might seem to lose your ego as an adult, having no ego to start with is uniformly disastrous. This seems never to be acknowledged or discussed by advocates of non-self.  I've argued that the problems ascribed to "egotism" seem more often to be the result of an under-developed ego rather than too much ego. I've also expressed doubts about the possibility of a functioning morality in the absence of a self (Ethics and Nonself in Relation to the Khandhas, 21 Mar 2014). I want to return to this last theme in this essay.

The different attitudes of Buddhist and psychological models partly relate to different definitions of what is meant by ego or self. Which definition we use is notoriously dependent on context and each context requires us to redefine the word. From the psychological side we may say that without what psychologists call an ego, no social interaction or learning is possible. Without a clear sense of self and other we do not develop empathy, for example. Without empathy we could not be moral because morality requires us to see our actions from another person's point of view and feel what they feel (or at least to imagine how they might feel). We also know that people who have personality disorders or other psychiatric problems can get into real difficulty if they take up meditation, particularly the kinds of meditation that undermine the sense of self. Generally speaking Buddhists have been quite reckless in seeing meditation as a panacea and not cognizant of how mental health problems manifest and how they affect a person's experience of meditation (I addressed this to some extent in my essay  Rumination, the Stress Response, and Meditation, 22 Jan 2016).

So what can Buddhists and Vedantins mean? How can we understand the no-self discourse in the context of contemporary knowledge about the brain and its role in what Westerners call "consciousness". The scare quotes are employed because I'm not sure that there is a cross-over between ancient Indian theories of cognition and modern theories which treat consciousness as an entity rather than a function or process. In other words I am inclined by my Buddhist studies to see consciousness as something we do, rather than something we possess.

Traditionally Buddhists use concrete nouns like "mind" (manas) or "thought" (citta), and action nouns like cognizing (vijñāna) "thinking" and "remembering" (smṛti) but they don't seem to use abstract nouns with respect to the mind. So even if a word like vijñāna can be made to mean "conscious", there is no equivalent abstract noun vijñānatva, no conscious-ness. So there is no abstracted faculty of mind under which concrete functions can be groups. In Buddhists texts the functions of the mind are most often grouped under a concrete noun "citta" rather than an abstract noun. These observations often seem trivial, but they point to a radically different worldview that separates us from the authors of the earliest Buddhist texts. They did not think like us at all.

Another big difference in how early Buddhists and Westerners understand the mind is metaphorical. In an earlier essay I tried to show that the MIND IS A CONTAINER metaphor, which is almost inextricable from the Western understanding of mental phenomena, is absent from Buddhist texts. Pre-modern Buddhist authors did not conceive of cognition as happening in the mind; nor thoughts, memories etc in the mind. Again, rather than being something we have, consciousness seems to be something that we do. For example it's might be phrased that the Buddha dwelled with a particular state of mind (iminā vihārena viharato) not in it.  Hence, I've also argued that where we might be tempted to translate "consciousness" in a Buddhist text, the phrase "mental activity" is almost certainly better (Manomaya: Background to Mind-Made Bodies. 28 Nov 2014).

Since my first forays into this field I have discovered the work of Thomas Metzinger, in which I find a very useful paradigm for thinking about selfhood. For example I wrote Origin of the Idea of the Soul (11 Nov 2011) and First Person Perspective (29 Apr 2011) exploring Metzinger's work and how I think it applies to contemporary Buddhism.

Metzinger draws on work by Antonio Damasio, amongst others, who I also refer to directly. Damasio has put forward the idea that what the brain does, in the first place, is model the internal milieu of the body for the purpose of maintaining optimal conditions for life. The inputs include information about blood pressure, blood sugar levels, hydration, hormone levels, balance and other forms of internal physical senses, and the state of the gut. The brain integrates these internal inputs with information from the senses about the environment and produces behaviour as a result. The view that this is all that the brain does is called Behaviourism. Behaviourism was a briefly popular theory of consciousness in the mid 20th Century. 

In a simple animal like the round-worm C. elegans (see Reflections on Living Things. 13 Nov 2013), Behaviourism may well be a sufficient account of the animal's behaviour. Though in a brain with only 302 neurons, it is still not entirely clear yet how it produces behaviour, and attempts to model the brain in a way that does produce behaviour are in their early stages. In more complex animals with millions or billions of neurons something more sophisticated is going on. As brains become more complex, with layers of organisational sub-units, emergent properties become apparent that cannot be predicted from the physiology of neurons. Sophistication of behaviour is correlated to some extent with brain complexity. Generally speaking more neurons with more connections, correlates to more complex behaviours. Though the relationship also has to take into account what subsystem the neurons are in. Neanderthals for example had significantly bigger and more complex brains than their ancestors, but most of the gain was in the visual cortex not in the neocortex. The increase went to improved eyesight, especially night vision, not to improved cognitive abilities generally. In anatomically modern humans, the gain in complexity was in the neocortex which does correlate with improved cognitive abilities. In particular Robin Dunbar has famously showed that there is a correlation between the ratio of neocortex to the rest of the brain and the size of social group an animal lives in. Out of this research came the famous Dunbar Numbers.

From the mapping of our internal milieu and via emergent properties we get the most basic sense of consciousness that all reptiles, mammals and birds seem to have. At least this seems to be the most plausible explanation. In fact we still do not know much about what consciousness is or how it is created by the brain. But neuroscience is a relatively young science (a few decades) and consciousness is a big problem. Consciousness, as neuroscientists generally conceive of it, is mainly concerned with moving around and seeking food and mates, but also forward thinking, learning from past experience, and social interactions. In some animals and birds the basic level of consciousness is the basis for an even more sophisticated simulation—a sense of being aware of what is happening, of ownership over the actions that result, of having a point of view—in other words a sense of self. Many animals, for example, recognise themselves in a mirror. One of the tests is to surreptitiously paint a dot on the forehead of the animal and see how they respond. The self-aware animal will look in a mirror, see the dot on their forehead, and try to touch their own forehead to feel what is there. 

One of the important findings from recent neuroscience is that when we study the many ways in which our sense of self can be compromised by disease, accident, surgery or even perceptual tricks (such as the rubber hand illusion or the virtual reality) we are led to the conclusion that our sense of self can only be a simulation or what Metzinger calls a virtual self model. If the self were "hardwired", i.e. if there were a definite structure or architecture associated with selfhood, such as there are for say visual processing or memories, this would be inconsistent with what we see in neurology cases.

The evidence also tells us that the sense of self cannot be divorced from the brain. For brain damage to affect the self the way it does, the self and the brain must be intimately associated. Because of this intimate association of the brain and the mind, physics at the mass, energy and length scales relevant to the functioning of the brain can now rule out other forces or types of matter than those already described. Of course other forces and types of matter may and do exist at other scales, but not on this scale. If there were such forces and they could interact with matter at this scale we'd be able to "see" that interaction and describe it. The fact is that we do not see it. And if we do not see it, then it cannot interact with the matter of the brain to play any role in the mind (see There is No Life After Death, Sorry, 23 Jan 2015). So the self and the mind cannot be wholly immaterial either.

We do not need to have all the specifics to draw broad conclusions about the mind and especially that part of the mind which is our sense of being someone, our first-person perspective. Despite the fact that many philosophers wish to hedge their bets, arguing that science is a social construct (or whatever), what we can do with evidence is eliminate certain types of explanations. As intuitive and attractive as other kinds of explanations for mind are, they simply do not explain what has been observed. The two extremes of physical-monism and dualism can be excluded from consideration because they do not generate the right kinds of answers. And this enables us to focus on the type of answers that are at least possible. There are still a range of these, but we do know that only a virtual self of some kind, generated by the brain in some way, fits the facts.

The current best explanation of the known facts is that the brain is creating a simulation of a self, integrating many streams of information into a first-person perspective. No one suggests that we fully understand the workings of the brain or how it generates a sense of self. Indeed some argue that theories of the mind have yet to explain anything. But any theory that eventually does explain the functioning of the mind will certainly not be a kind of physical-monism or involve substance dualism. And thus, for example, studying how neurons and brains work in a physical sense will not only be relevant to the study of the mind, it will be essential.

This is good news for Buddhists. As regular readers will be aware I am rather antipathetic to the idea that modern science confirms ancient wisdom. For example, I think there is no genuine connection between Buddhism and quantum mechanics. As far as I can see, claims to the contrary are bunk based on a superficial understanding of both Buddhism and quantum mechanics. Just because two bodies of knowledge can be counter-intuitive does not mean that they are in any way connected. However, in this case the idea of virtual self is fairly consistent with some Buddhist ideas about selfhood. It is also consistent with the idea that one can, through concentration exercises and reflection, substantially and permanently alter one's perspective on the world of experience to the extent that one no longer relates to it via a sense of self. If the sense of self were wholly immaterial (a ghost in the shell) or material (i.e. "hardwired"), then meditation could have no effect on it; we could not rid ourselves of the sense of being a self through meditation and introspection if self were anything other than a simulation whose parameters we can tweak through how we think.

Morality and Continuity

In 2014 Thomas Metzinger wrote:
"As a philosopher, my conceptual point is that only if an organism simulates itself as being one and the same across time will it be able to represent reward events or the achievement of goals as a fulfillment of its own goals, as happening to the same entity. I like to call this the "Principle of Virtual Identity Formation": Many higher forms of intelligence and adaptive behavior, including risk management, moral cognition and cooperative social behavior, functionally presuppose a self-model that portrays the organism as a single entity that endures over time."
Here Metzinger has put his finger on the crucial point about living things. Living things act in ways that over time seem purposeful. We move towards goals and to some extent towards meta-goals. I'm wary of a teleological argument here. I mean, for example, that we seek out and consume food as a goal. And in anticipation of this we plant crops many months ahead of their ripening, and then store the resulting food, anticipating future need as a meta-goal. I don't mean, for example, that evolution is developing towards a general goal or anything of that nature. Desire, seeking behvaiour, and reward for fulfilling the desire have to be coordinated at some level. If they were not then we would have real difficulty with basic functions like eating and mating.

But crucially moral behaviour requires us to believe that we endure over time. Buddhist teaching on morality openly acknowledges this. The Jātaka stories are all about connecting actions to consequences over time, linking previous lives to present one. Buddhist metaphysics goes out the window at this point, because they disrupt the kind of continuity required for moral behaviour by weakening the links between behaviour in this life and reward in the next (I'll return to this point below). 

If I believe that I will not be the one to achieve the goal, that it will for example only be achieved by my grandchildren, then I am probably less motivated than if I could see an immediate benefit to myself. The classic example of this is the problem of climate change. Even where climate change is admitted to be caused by human activity, the political will to make the necessary changes is lacking, partly because the time scale over which the changes occur are too long for most people's imaginations, i.e. the not only go beyond the electoral cycle, but beyond an individual human life. Almost no one is willing to commit to spending resources on a project that has almost no immediate benefits, but which will make life easier in future centuries. And as frustrating as this is, it can hardly be surprising. We surely know enough about human motivation not to be surprised by this fact.

George Lakoff has described morality as a kind of book keeping exercise (see Moral Metaphors, 8 Nov 2013). Actions create mutual obligations for ourselves and those we have contact with, which may be conceived of as debts. As social animals we are always in debt to our social group, and need to keep track of the debts of the group as a whole. If, for example, food is shared with us a quid pro quo is expected that we might repay in kind or through something of equal value. A social group is held together by a network of these mutual obligations. Where I grew up, people are quite relaxed about taking on social obligations - we make friends easily. In England most people are at pains to avoid any new social obligations, so it's difficult to make friends. English people don't want to be in debt to strangers, though ironically they have amongst the highest levels of financial indebtedness in the world.

Different political ideologies evolve out of the different responses to these debts. In the present political climate of the UK we have a government which on has staked everything on paying back existing national debts (despite 0% interest rates) and not accruing any more debts (which by its own standards it is failing to do). We have an opposition which is confused about how to respond. The Brits are largely a conservative nation and don't like to see the government getting into debt. On the other hand household debt is very high and rising.

What most cultures do is extrapolate from this social model of fairness within the group and propose the idea that the world is fair. This is called the Just World Hypothesis. I've written about this in connection with the afterlife. Since life is patently not fair or just, the afterlife becomes the place of debt settlement. And an afterlife requires a matter/spirit duality to enable something to survive the death of the body. In afterlife theories in which the afterlife destination is determined by morality, the deeds of the deceased are weighed against the law. In the case of ancient Egyptian myth, as recorded in their Book of the Dead, the heart of the dead person is on one side of the balance and an ostrich feather representing the law is on the other. In some religions God does the judging. Being judged is a distinct milestone on the journey to the afterlife in all moralistic religions.

Buddhists tried to skirt this inherent eternalism by proposing that rebirth was governed by the same principle as the arising of vedanā, i.e. that the dying being was a condition for the next living being. But they almost immediate split into factions, each of which developed a different explanation for how this might happen. There was no consensus amongst Buddhists on how rebirth occurred or what it entailed. And no existing explanation survives its encounter with modernity (See The Logic of Karma16 Jan 2015). This is because trying to explain the afterlife by generalising a theory of how mental events are related doesn't work. It reduces the connection between actions and consequences. Hence, historically, Buddhists had to sustain two distinct discourses: one with respect morality (summed up as actions have consequences for me) and another for metaphysics (it is not me, but not another either). But in moral terms, as Buddhists tacitly admit, if it is not me that is game over for morality. The second part of the formula, not another, is not important because it is not me. Hence Buddhists both deny that it is you (or another); and at the same time emphasise that it really is you. Getting Buddhists, or even supposedly neutral scholars of Buddhism, to even admit that this duality exists has proved very difficult. One meets incredible resistance and even hostility to the very idea. Even though it is plain as day.

Morality, especially Buddhism morality, depends on being aware of and sensitive to the consequences of actions, but, as I say, our metaphysics creates a barrier to owning consequences. The metaphysics is so problematic that Nāgārjuna ends up repudiating the very idea of karma (or a being who does karma) as fictions of "relative truth". He describes them as illusions "like the cities of Gandharvas in the sky" (see Chapter 17 of Mūlamadhyamaka Kārikā). Connecting consequences to actions without invoking eternalism is almost impossible. The early Buddhists simply set aside metaphysics when it came to morality. They set aside the limitations of the anātman doctrine and taught that we are the owners of our karma, the heirs to our karma (Cf. Five Facts to Continuously Reflect On).

But if morality is a book keeping exercise and accounts are settled in the afterlife, then where are the books? Something has to provide a memory of our accounts that persists after death. For those worldviews that include a soul or an overseer god this is not a problem. Admitting supernatural entities solves the problem. Buddhists came up with various schemes to allow karma to accumulate and transfer. Highlighting the arguments that each came up with for the other views is a theme of my writing on karma. No Buddhist idea of how karma and rebirth work was universally accepted. Most sects thought that other sects had got the problem disastrously wrong. 

Morality depends on some connection between the person who acts and the person who suffers the consequence. And in those Just World worldviews in which justice is delivered postmortem, that connection must survive death. And this is precisely where Buddhist metaphysics of no-self are problematic. There are two main problems as I see it.
1. The relation of conditional arising is not sufficient to motivate anyone to act well. I argue that this is born out by Buddhist's own approach to teaching morality. I have already identified a dichotomy between metaphysical and moral teachings.
2. The flat denial of any self in many Buddhist metaphysical narratives, even an experiential self, undermines any possibility of morality. Also if there is actually no self, then everyone would be severely autistic and unable to respond to anyone else.
Hence the talk of no-self literally meaning there is no self must be at least partly wrong. Because even those people who claim to have broken the fetter of self-view (sakkāyadiṭṭhisaṃyojana) are still able to interact with people, to recognise them and respond appropriately to them. On the other hand any self we do have at the experiential level can only be a simulation created by our brain to help us navigate the world. The trouble is that existence and non-existent are black and white extremes when we need something a little more subtle. If instead the self is part of a virtual simulation then terms like existence and non-existence don't apply. If we abandon the attempt to prove this kind of all-or-nothing proposition one way or the other and view the self as a simulation then we can start asking more interesting questions. How does the brain achieve the kind of continuity required for goal seeking behaviour and thus for morality? Is it simply memory, or is there a more specific mechanism?

Earlier I mentioned the semantic problems of talking about self. Everyone understands something different by the relevant words. I have written about on several occasions the confusion of terminology. On one hand the meaning of ātman in Buddhist circles apparently changes depending on when and where it is being used. Initially the instruction seems to be that because ātman is a permanent unchanging entity it cannot be associated with any of the sense spheres. Thus, it cannot be experienced. And ipso facto cannot be known. There is a strict epistemological limit (despite what Vedantins may say). A permanent entity could not give rise to an experience. Nāgārjuna discusses this: we either always know about a permanent entity (past, present and future); or we never know. There can only be absolute knowledge or absolute ignorance of permanent entities; there can be no middle ground, no change from ignorance to knowledge. So ātman can never appear in experience (and nor can God). This is explicitly ruling out some unnamed extra sense beyond the five physical senses and the mind. There is no possibility of knowing by extra-sensory perception. And yet the same texts clearly believe in what we would call extra-sensory perception: that space is no impediment to knowledge. One can see things that are invisible, hearing things that are inaudible, and so on. That said the knowledge that comes this way is just an extension of sensory knowledge. One might see or hear at a distance, but no new senses are operating.

There is considerable confusion over how to translate ātman: soul, self, Self, ego, Ego, and so on. And on how to understand what it means at different times and in different contexts. As far as the Pāḷi texts are concerned they appear to be responding to the metaphysical entity as described by the Upaniṣads (see Gombrich 2009). There the ātman is a permanent unchanging entity that resides in our body, usually in our heart, and is not affected by the changes that our bodies and minds experience; not affected by life or death or suffering. Ātman is always pure and unadulterated. This is not what ego means, nor "self" in the usual sense. It does not equate to an homunculus either.

Morality in the Absence of Self

In discussing this issue with a colleague a resolution to this apparent conflict between karma and anātman emerged. In his view the sense of being a separate self is the origin of unskilful actions. While one has a sense of being a separate self, one will react to experience with attraction or aversion and thus create karma. So for someone with a simulated sense of self (i.e. all "normal" human beings), it is necessary for them to believe that they will suffer the consequences of their actions in order to motivate them to be moral. However, when one eradicates the sense of being a separate self, this also removes the motivation to act unskilfully. Greed and hatred are responses of the self to opportunities and threats in the environment. No self means no greed, no acquisitiveness; no hatred, no aversion. Thus the need to motivate the person to be ethical through the fear of consequences is also eliminated at the same time. 

Part of the problem we have in understanding this and communicating it, is that the few people who attain this state of spontaneous morality have not yet been properly studied. Worse we still rely on Iron Age or Medieval worldviews that are rooted in profoundly wrong conceptions of the world, life, and people. As yet we have no good way of integrating this perspective into a modern body of knowledge. The beginnings of a way forward may emerge from the work of people like Andrew Newberg who is studying the neuroscience of religious experiences. He calls his field "neurotheology" and is particularly interested in theistic interpretations of religious experiences, but has also studied the brains of Buddhist meditators. Ideally we would have a cohort of people who experience themselves as having a self who could participate in a baseline study before they practised and then again once they had eliminated the sense of self. This would give us a much better understanding of what has happened to them.

It would be especially interesting to see if anything changes in the way that they parse grammar. It is common for such people to use pronouns in the conventional way, but to say that they no longer understand the world to be divided up into I, you or they. So how they use pronouns accurately becomes an interesting question.

Unfortunately all we have to go on at present is the testimony of those who experience the cessation of the sense of being a separate self and they are themselves a source of confusion. It's clear that many approaches to achieving this state exist and that people from different traditions are attaining it. But each of them seems to see in it the culmination of their particular tradition and explain that their traditional interpretation of the experience is the correct one. As David Chapman recently observed:
"People in non-ordinary states, produced by psychedelic drugs or meditation, often proclaim sudden, unshakable, universal understanding. They rarely or never can explain their supposed understanding. I think these are probably mostly illusory. Such experiences may give genuine but ineffable insight into some things. I’m reasonably sure they involve no actual understanding of most things." - The Illusion of Understanding
This is also my conclusion from trying to correspond with a few people who talk about being permanently in a non-ordinary state, and many in-depth conversations with a friend who spends a good deal of his time in non-ordinary meditative states. 

Compare the conclusions of Gary Webber for example. For him the dropping away of ego is the confirmation of the teachings of Ramana Maharshi, an early 20th Century teacher of Advaita Vedanta. Webber understands his experience in Vedantin terms and is critical of the Buddhist teaching of emptiness. Though he clearly doesn't really understand the emptiness teachings. For Webber, for example, free will is an illusion because in his view everything ties back to an unchanging essence that underlies the universe. This combines ideas from the Upaniṣads with the influential Sāṃkhyā school of Indian metaphysics (a huge influence on Patañjali and Yoga metaphysics). For Webber this kind of metaphysical speculation is underpinned by his experience of awakening. But Buddhists who describe more or less the same experience -- i.e. the loss of internal dialogue and a first person perspective -- argue that no such metaphysical speculation is valid. The Awakened can still disagree amongst themselves on metaphysics (as they have traditionally done throughout history, especially in India).

This discrepancy plays out in other ways and one that particularly interests me is the use of language, particularly pronouns and grammatical agents. People with no self say that they experience no first-person point of view, that they do not see the world in terms of self and other. And yet they are still able to accurately use pronouns. If there truly was no distinction at all between self and other, then pronouns would be confusing. If there were genuinely no reference point in experience, then one would struggle to accurately ascribe actions or qualities to agents. A pronoun is used to point out the agent of an action or owner of a property. So the awakened still have access to the knowledge of how pronouns map onto situations, on how verbs require agents, and thus on some level are able to distinguish agents. Mind you most of us use pronouns without thinking, so perhaps it is unfair to expect the awakened to have insight into this issue. Until we better understand how anyone with no first-person perspective can use pronouns accurately we have to remain suspicious of the generalisations that those people draw from their experience. Something does not add up.

In other words the awakened still seem to be unable to look past their own subjectivity. That subjectivity may be radically different from mine, but it still seems to have the same kinds of limitations. Logical fallacies and biases are still in play. What we need is for a few people who have experienced enlightenment to become lab rats, so that we can study them. We need to better understand the nature of the changes they have experienced in order to better codify them and make them available to other people, if in fact that is desirable.


Metzinger, Thomas (2014). What Scientific Idea Is Ready For Retirement? The Edge.

26 December 2008

Communicating the Dharma

The experience of bodhi was always going to be difficult to describe and explain. This is dramatised in the well known story from the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta of the Buddha wondering whether it would be possible at all, and then being begged by Brahmā Sahampati to teach the Dharma. Of course any experience is difficult to describe to anyone who hasn't had the same experience, especially if it is something entire new. A simile would be explaining the colour red to someone blind from birth.

Sometimes it seems as though traditional Buddhism considers that the Buddha had a single decisive experience that he then set about teaching about it for 45 years. Clearly this is an over simplification. But what was it like for the Buddha? What kind of process did he go through in order to assimilate his insight? Two suttas in the Saṃyutta Nikāya give a small window into this process. I suppose them to reflect a very early period of the Buddha's career.

The two suttas (SN 45.11 and 45.12) are identical except for a minor detail - the period of seclusion. In each the Buddha tells his companions that he wishes to go into seclusion for either half a month, or for three months, and that no one should approach him except to bring him alms food. When the Buddha returns he announces to the bhkkkhus:
yena svāhaṃ, bhikkhave, vihārena paṭhamābhisambuddho viharāmi, tassa padesena vihāsiṃ
I have been dwelling in the region in which I dwelt when I had newly realised awakening.
Now this is really very interesting. The Buddha is here shown to go back to dwell in the region (padesa) of his insight. Note that the metaphor is spacial - he was going back to the same 'space' as we might say. Now this phrase, as far as I can determine only occurs in these two texts, but is quoted from these texts in the Visuddhimagga (XVII,9 : p.594). Buddhaghosa uses the content of these suttas to argue against simple dependent origination and I don't plan to deal with that here. He does gloss padesa as "one part" suggesting that the Buddha dwelt in or on only some aspect of his immediate post-awakening experience.

The Buddha then attempts to convey something of what he has understood in the process. He begins: So evaṃ pajānāmi - "thus I have understood it", or "I know thus". The Sanskrit verbal root of pajānāmi is one that should be familiar to all Buddhists: jñā, which is related to our words 'know' and 'gnosis' and has much the same sense as the these English words.

In the texts the Buddha talks about the various factors that condition (paccaya) sensations (vedanā). He says that there are sensations associated with the various aspects of the Eightfold path: wrong view (micchādiṭṭhi), and right or perfect view (sammādiṭṭhi) - up to wrong concentration (micchāsamādhi) and perfect concentration (sammāsamādhi). Further there are sensations associated with desire (chanda), thinking (vitakka) and with the perceptions (saññā). Sensations are present in all the combinations of presence or absence of these three. When they are all absent something new arises that is simply described as stretching out for (āyāmaṃ) the attainment of the as-yet unattained (appattassa pattiyā), and finally there are sensations associated with this.

So what can we make of this. Firstly let me say that it is not immediately obvious. There are some inconsistencies here if this text is describing an early period in the Buddha's career. One of the things that happens with texts is that over time they start to become formulaic. Things start to be quoted as lists, and further on when there is an obvious progression the list can be, as it is here, abbreviated by the word 'pe'. Many examples of less formulaic, more spontaneous sounding suttas can be found for example in the Sutta Nipātta, which for that reason, amongst others, is considered to be an earlier strata of the canon. Now, if this was some new insight that the Buddha was bringing back from his revisiting of the immediate post-enlightenment space, I hardly think he'd skip over the details of it. So both the presence of the eight-fold path, and the fact that it is abbreviated suggest that the sutta was composed rather late in the process of the creation of the Canon. Perhaps this passage was inserted at a later time; perhaps it was edited at a later time; perhaps the conjecture that the sutta relates to the Buddha's early career is just wrong.

The linking of "desire, thinking, and perceptions" is a collocation that I am unfamiliar with. In fact it doesn't seem to form a natural list at all. And this may be a sign again, of a poor job of later editing, or of a much less systematic presentation of the Buddha's insights. Notice also that the text says that even in the absence of these three that there is vedanā - sensation.

I begin to suspect that words are being used in way with which I am unfamiliar, so let's check a few definitions. Vedanā is built on the root vid "to know" from which we get many familiar words such as veda, and vidya. The verb form vedeti actually has a two-fold meaning according to the PED: in the intellectual sphere it can mean "to know", and more generally "to experience". I am so used to seeing vedanā used in a technical sense, that it can be easy to forget that it has other connotations! I think vedanā is being used in a more general sense of experience because if we use it in the more traditional sense we find logical inconsistencies.

Vitakka is an interesting choice here. Again it is more familiar as a technical term relating to meditation and the establishment of concentration. More generally it means "reflection, thought, thinking" - the vi- prefix can mean divided or expanding, and in the latter sense is used as an intensifier, and takka means "twisting or turning", and in an applied sense "doubt, a doubtful view, hair-splitting". I think we can take vitakka here as "turning something over in the mind", we might translate this as "reflection" (from Latin: reflex-, pp. stem of reflectere, from re- "back" + flectere "to bend." Online Etymological Dictionary).

Saññā is saṃ- + jñā so means literally "complete knowing". It is used in the senses of: "sense, consciousness, perception; discernment, recognition, assimilation of sensations, awareness; conception, notion, idea; sign, gesture, token, mark". Technically it means the recognition of a vedanā, but it must be being used in a different sense here because it functions as a condition for vedanā, not the other way around! I think its being used in the sense of consciousness or awareness generally.

The Buddha is saying that in the absence of affective responses to experience; the absence of intellectual responses to experience; and the absence of being aware in it's more fundamental sense: there is still experience! Were on the home straight now. I think the Buddha is saying that there is an experience beyond normal everyday experiences, which causes one to stretch out to something as yet unattained. There are a couple of synonyms in the Sāmaññaphala Sutta (Dīgha Nikāya no. 2) where it talks about the Buddha stretching and reaching out (abhinīharati abhininnāmeti) with his mind (citta) towards knowledge of other peoples minds, his own previous existences, and of the passing away and arising of beings; and in the culmination of the Awakening experience his mind stretches out towards knowledge of the destruction of the influxes (āsavas) (D.i 79-84).

This may sound quite jejune to the contemporary Buddhist. But I go back to my original conjecture that this is likely to be an early discourse - edited perhaps but at least based on an actual early occasion. The Buddha is trying to explain something entirely new to his followers, to his new followers. And perhaps they, like us, are caught up in the magic show of sensory experience. The Buddha here is saying something quite profound - that if one looks beyond mundane everyday experiences, if one can put aside desire, intellectual twisting and turning, if one reaches beyond the normal scope of consciousness - then one finds not annihilation, but something as yet unattained. There is an air of mystery in this text. I find it a little difficult to believe that this will have been all the Buddha said on such an occasion. The Buddha usually also set out a method for his disciples to follow, but this is all that has been recorded by the tradition.

I think we may have here a somewhat fragmentary edited version of what it might have been like for the Buddha in the early days of his mission. He dwelt in states that had never been attained before, and therefore never described. He did not set out to create a new vāda or religious dogma, but tried to base his teaching in experience; and tried to devise methods for his disciples to achieve the same thing, and to motivate them to try it. This meant in part that he had to use language in new and interesting ways, and fortunately for us he had some genius in this area!


29 April 2006

No guarantees

Sri Ramanamaharshi - Enlightened GuruWe had a conversation at the Cambridge Buddhist Centre the other night that parallels similar discussions I had in several places. Indeed I've asked the question myself before. Who is around now that is Awakened? And why to people keep fobbing me off when I ask the question?

My response is that this is a difficult question to answer. For a start, would we know an Awakened person if we met them? We might if we spent some time observing them. But in a chance or glancing encounter we may fail to recognise their special qualities. There are ample stories of this nature in the Pali Canon.

Then what would it mean for someone to say that someone they know is Awakened? Surely we would have to have an inordinate amount of trust in our informant for their words to make much difference in our lives. What would it mean if we ourselves said someone was Awakened?
What it comes down to, and this came out in our conversation, is that we want guarantees that the Dharma is going to make our lives better. Having someone who totally exemplifies the Dharma would make believing a lot easier. Where is the Buddhist messiah to save us from ourselves?

But actually the Dharma never really operated this way. The Buddha of the Pali Canon doesn't go around saying: take this on faith. The Dharma, he says, is ehipassiko. Ehipassiko literally means 'come and see'. And in a way this is better than having a messiah! What we do is we start to practice a little mindfulness and we evaluate the results. Most people, however difficult they find it, report that being a bit more mindful makes them a little happier, a little more alert, a little less stressed. We are then ready to take the next step whatever that might be for us.

We may need a teacher who can show us the next step, although often after some experience of practising, it is obvious to us what our next step should be. Often what we want is a teacher who has all the answers, who can advise us on every crisis, who can guide our every step. We want a messiah. We are not ready, willing, or able, to take personal responsibility for our consciousness. But having been given a few basic tools, most of us are quite capable of making progress in the Dharma.

The original model of practice in Buddhism was often very simple. Someone would meet the Buddha or one of his disciples, they would be given a Dharma talk in the course of which they became firmly convinced of the truth of the Buddhadharma. They would then be given a method of meditation, or a subject for reflection, and be sent off to practice. Alone in the jungle they would use this single tool to penetrate the nature of reality, Awaken to the truth of it, and then return to report on their findings. What we get these days, with some exceptions, is elaborate systems of practice with a bewildering variety of approaches, 1000's of books, and 1000's of Dharma talks, all giving us much to think about. Rather than the simple certainty of a straight forward approach, we get a plethora of ideas, most of which we cannot hope to put into practice.

There's really no point at all in reading about the highest yoga tantras if we cannot sustain basic mindfulness. Very few people would read a book on advanced physics before having thoroughly studied the foundations and expect to get anything out of it. There is a case for reading inspirational literature. The lives of Buddhist saints can be very inspiring. But lets face it, most of us need to be looking much closer to home.

The good news is that if we take this incremental approach to practice then we do make progress. And our confidence in the Dharma gradually increases, not on the basis of our guru's charisma or through blind faith, but from actually experiencing the results of practice first hand. My own confidence in the Dharma is not dependent on my teachers, nor on any external reference. I practice the Dharma because I know for myself that it does me good, and I include in this that it enhances my ability to be altruistic.

We don't need to have anxiety about whether our current teachers are awakened. No one can live our life for us, and even if we had a teacher who is Awakened, we'd still have to understand the teaching, and make the effort to practice. The only guarantee that we need comes from our own experience of practice. Doubts are resolved through practice, not through someone telling us it's OK.