Showing posts with label Hamilton. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hamilton. Show all posts

29 April 2011

First Person Perspective

McCory Photography
I've already blogged about Thomas Metzinger a couple of times. In this post I want to write about another of his ideas. His book The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self opens with the words "In this book, I will try to convince you that there is no such thing as a self" and as Buddhists we may immediately feel that this is familiar ground. However Metzinger is not a Buddhist, and sums up the Buddha as a pessimist who posited, "essentially, that life is not worth living". (Ego Tunnel, p.199) Of course I disagree with this summation - the Buddha wasn't a pessimist, and did not say this, although he did place limits on what kind of life is worth living.

In this post I want to look not at Metzinger's book, but at a talk he gave in 2005 as part of the Foerster Lectures on the Immortality of the Soul, (available on YouTube) entitled "Being No One" (also the title of a book) which explores the idea of a first person perspective.

Metzinger says that for there to be a first person perspective we need three 'target properties'
  1. mineness - a sense of ownership, particularly over the body.
  2. selfhood - the sense that "I am someone", and continuity through time.
  3. centredness - the sense that "I am the centre of my own subjective self".
I'm not sure where he got these criteria, but after working on the Alagaddūpama Sutta recently I am struck by a parallel. Selfhood in the Pāli texts is often summarised in the phrase:
etaṃ mama, eso'haṃasmi, eso me attā.
this is mine, I am this, this is my self.
I suggest that:
etaṃ mama = this is mine = mineness.
eso'hamasmi = I am this = centredness.
eso me attā = this is my self = selfhood.
The order is different but the criteria are almost identical. I've recently argued that these are general observations, and not specifically connected with Brahmanical ideas about ātman with which the only minimally overlap.[1] Buddhists will hopefully be familiar with the traditional analytical approach to deconstructing these statements, so I can focus on Metzinger's approach.

Drawing on work by Antonio Damasio and Ronald Melzack, Metzinger proposes we replace the notion of a 'self' with a theoretical entity which he calls a Phenomenal Self Model. This is a representational system, created in the brain, the content of which is us, ourselves. "We" are in fact a simulation. We simulate and emulate ourselves for ourselves, and thereby create what we call consciousness. This model is rooted in our proprioceptive sense (the information derived from muscle tension, inner-ear and other bodily sensations) according to Melzack; and in our bodily systems (especially endocrine, blood and viscera) and emotions according to Damasio. These (probably both) generate a constant input which is modelled in the brain for the purposes of regulation and optimisation. This model is sub-personal, it is not a 'person' in our heads directing our actions (there is no homunculus as it used to be called). What we call our 'self' is in fact simply a representation of our bodily, and mental states, combined with a representation of representing (reflexive awareness).

However this model is transparent to us - we do not understand ourselves to be relating to a model of reality, we understand ourselves to be relating to reality. This is because the processes which generate the model are not available to introspection - they happen too fast, and too seamlessly for us to see them. There was a clear evolutionary advantage to having this ability to model reality and use that model to guide our actions; but there is no advantage in knowing that we are doing this - we see a danger and react, but to complicate things by seeing the picture of a danger in our head as a picture would only slow our reactions down, and we would not survive. For Metzinger the transparency of the Phenomenal Self Model is a strong limit that we cannot break through. It only becomes obvious through detailed analysis of what goes wrong with consciousness in specific brain injuries. We are all naive realists according to Metzinger, i.e we think we interact directly with reality, because that is how it feels. It is probably this naive realism that makes us resistant to reductive explanations of consciousness - whether Buddhist or scientific. The mechanisms of consciousness are not available to introspection, but we feel (want, assume) it to be something more than simple biological processes, and we are baffled by complexity generally so we think of consciousness as something rather magical. We may be wrong.

Metzinger's critique of the idea of a first-person perspective centres on the way that the Phenomenal Self Model can go wrong. In the case of "mineness" for example, we get cases where our thoughts do not seem to under our control, as in schizophrenia. In unilateral hemi-neglect a person may not recognise their limbs as their own. In alien hand syndrome one of the hands appears to act independently of our conscious will. Likewise some delusional people experience everything that happens as caused by their intention - Metzinger relates meeting a person who stood all day looking out the window making the sun move. In the rubber-hand experiment we find that an artificial hand can become included in our body image by confusing the physical and visual senses. Finally he cites the case of a woman born with no arms or legs who never-the-less has phantom limb sensations. Having never had limbs where could such phantoms come from if not the brain itself? The sense of mineness is actually prone to error in many ways which would not be possible if it actually reflected our bodies. The sense of ownership is generated within the Phenomenal Self Model, within the brain.

Similarly the sense of selfhood is prone to malfunction. Various disorders of the dissociative type show that what R. D. Laing called 'ontological security' is by no means assured, and some people experience a complete breakdown of their sense of being a self, while remaining conscious. Or we may, through delusion, wrongly identify ourselves as some other person.

The first person perspective also capable of being disrupted: in out of body experiences for instance (which Metzinger has vivid experience of); and in mystical experiences of oneness with the universe. Compare Jill Bolte Taylor's description of her stroke in which the left-hemisphere of her brain shut down. (TED) Taylor's description of the breakdown of the first person perspective is similar to the mystical experience sometimes called oceanic boundary loss that is described by mystics of many traditions. Note that Taylor lost all language, the ability to speak, memory of who she was, and the ability to walk, but she did not lose consciousness nor the ability to make intentions or memories. However Taylor associates "I am" with the left hemisphere of the brain which "shut down" during here stroke - she remained conscious and aware, but with no sense of "I am".

So Metzinger argues that all of this plasticity and bugginess [my choice of terms] in the three qualities tells us that they do not exist as such, but are elements of a simulation. Consciousness, self-consciousness is a virtual reality. He sums up the idea with an annotated statement about the process of cognition.
I myself [the content of the currently active transparent self model] am seeing this object [the content of the transparent object-representation] and I am seeing it right now [as an element within a virtual window of presence (i.e. working memory)] with my own eyes [the simple story about "direct" sensory perception, which suffices for the evolutionary purposes of the brain].
He says "of course you don't see with your eyes!" We see with our visual perception systems. But we cannot experience these systems working, we just experience seeing. In the final part of the lecture two questions emerge from the the title of the lecture series which concerns the question of "the immortality of the soul". The first is: is the self an illusion? "For the self to be an illusion," says Metzinger, "there would have to be someone whose illusion it was, and there is no one," thus: "if it is an illusion, it is no one's illusion". The second question relates to immortality, and to this idea he says: "strictly speaking nobody is ever born, and nobody ever dies". His phrasing perhaps suggests a Vedanta outlook (we know he meditates but not in what tradition).

Having begun with the familiar and traversed some unfamiliar territory, we find ourselves back on familiar ground with these last statements. It sounds a lot like Buddhism - from a non-Buddhist scientific philosopher. But note that Metzinger is saying that the process is transparent, that it is not available to introspection - he does not seem to allow for a radical change in consciousness like bodhi. In traditional Buddhist terms there is no possibility of direct contact with reality - this becomes a contradiction in terms because consciousness is only a simulation. In my own terms, which derive mainly from the writing of Sue Hamilton, he does not allow for access to the khandhas, the apparatus of experience: he allows for no insight into the creation of a first person perspective which might allow for liberation from it in a positive sense. I believe, to some extent I know, that in meditation the Self Model becomes opaque and available to introspection.

In The Ego Tunnel Metzinger explores some of the ethical and even spiritual implications of his theory, and here he says some very interesting and attractive things which I will try to write about at some point. For more on Metzinger's theory see the self-model page on Scholarpedia.

  1. In making this claim I am consciously and explicitly contradicting both K. R. Norman and Richard Gombrich who see this particular phrase as a specific echo of the early Upaniṣads - Chāndogya in the case of Norman, and Bṛhadāranyaka for Gombrich. Part of my rebuttal is précised in the post Early Buddhists-and ātman/brahman - while the whole argument is set out in a longer but not quite finished essay. Suffice it to say, I do see a connection of a sort, but nothing to indicate that the Buddha had any direct contact with Upaniṣadic sages or was directly dealing with issues central to their texts. The papers I am thinking of are:
    • Gombrich, Richard. (1990) 'Recovering the Buddha’s Message.' The Buddhist Forum: Seminar Papers 1987-88. Ed. T. Skorupski, London, SOAS.
    • Norman, K. R. (1981) 'A note on attā in the Alagaddūpama-sutta.' Studies in Indian Philosophy (Memorial volume for Pandit Sukhlaji Sanghvi), Ahmedabad, pp. [Reprinted in Collected Papers, Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1991; vol. ii, p.200-209.]

08 August 2008

The Apparatus of Experience

Sue Hamilton's book Early Buddhism a New Approach is not an easy read, but it is very rewarding. I found in it a doctrinal confirmation and clarification of my intuitions about the Dharma. I had been asking myself - what is it that arises in dependence on causes? (Jayarava Rave 8 April 2008) My answer had shifted from "things" to "experiences". This is reflected also in my translation of the Buddha's last words: "all experiences are disappointing..."

Central to Hamilton's book, and building on her earlier published work is a re-examination of the canonical references to the khandhas (Sanskrit skandha). These are typically described as encompassing the whole human being - there is nothing outside of the khandhas. Hamilton demonstrates that actually the khandhas are not meant to literally encompass the whole being, but do make up the minimum required apparatus for experience: hence "apparatus of experience". I like this little phrase and its implications very much.

A quick digression here to a suggestion by Prof. Gombrich about the translation of khandha - again from the Numata Lectures and appearing in his forthcoming "What the Buddha Thought". Khandha is most often translated by words such as aggregate, group or category, or (by Conze) as 'heap'. Gombrich points to the Pāli term aggikhandha meaning "a blazing mass". Khandha often occurs in the compound upādānakhandha where it is frequently translated as "aggregates of clinging". Gombrich links it to the extended fire metaphor used by the Buddha and suggests "blazing mass of fuel" (upādāna meaning literally fuel.) The khandhas, then, are a mass of fuel which, as the Fire Sermon ( Ādittapariyāya Sutta literally: The way of putting things as being on fire) tells us are on fire with the fires of greed, hatred and delusion.

The khandhas then are part of the mechanism keeping us in saṃsara, they are the "mass of fuel" that burns, and Nibbāna is the extinguishing of that fire - though the fuel itself can remain at this point as the term upādi-sesa-nibbāna "extinguishing with a remainder" suggests. It is rather a squeeze to fit every facit of the human being into just these five categories, and Hamilton manages to make a lot more sense of them as a kind of minimal requirement for experience - she takes the idea of nothing existing outside the khandhas as a metaphorical reference to the fact of experience: that everything we can know comes to us through the senses.

To have experience at all we must have a living body (rūpa). This is the vehicle for consciousness and the locus of experience. Without a living sensing body we would not receive sensory data - recall that the sense organ must be involved for contact to take place.

Having met with sensory data (vedanā) we process it: we become aware of and identify the sensation (saññā), we categorise it and name it (viññāṇā), and we respond affectively to it (saṅhkāra). This is a very cut down psychology, a minimalist account of consciousness, but it contains all that is necessary for continued experience, that is to say for continuation in samsara. And this is the process, this continuation in samsara which the Buddha constantly tells people is the focus of his teachings. Asked about all manner of metaphysical and philosophical teachings, the Buddha replies that he only teaches about the process of experience and how to end it.

Hamilton is saying, in effect, that later Buddhist tradition have taken this teaching a little to literally when they say things like: "These are the five aspects in which the Buddha has summed up all the physical and mental phenomena of existence". [Nyanatiloka : 98] Everything is not literally summed up, it is just that this is the necessary apparatus (to use Hamilton's terms) for all experience. All of experience - of whatever kind - is sensed, processed and acted upon through the khandhas. It is in this sense that the set is a complete description of the human being, not literally. It makes the assumption that we are what we experience, and as I have discovered, any attempt to get behind experience to confirm it involves some other sensory experience. One image that occurs to me for this is that we cannot get behind the mirror to see if anything is there because we always see a new mirror.

All this is not to say that some kind of objective world does not exist. I think the level of consensus that is possible on what is being experienced suggests very strongly that there is some kind of objective world. However I would argue that since we must always rely on our senses in any attempt to establish the status of the objective world, that such attempts are meaningless - they cannot provide a definitive answer one way or the other. I've come to believe that it was this that the Buddha was trying to get people to understand. Take for example the short Sabbaṃ Sutta in the Saṃyutta Nikāya. In this text the Buddha says that "the all" (sabbaṃ) is the eye and forms, the ear and sounds, the nose and smells, the tongue and tastes, the body and the felt, the mind and dhammas. (SN 35.23 = Bodhi : 1140). There is nothing outside of this "all". This is an explicit confirmation of what I've been saying. To take this to be an ontological statement - that outside of this "all" there is nothing - is to miss the point. It does not make sense as ontology, but as an epistemology it is very useful. All that we can know are 'objects' of the senses (including the mental sense), that is to say all we can know is what we experience - and the khandhas are the apparatus of experience.

I think this has profound implications for how we practice and teach the Dharma. For one thing I think we should abandon talking about dependent arising in terms of "things arising in dependence on causes" - there are no things only experiences. It would be more accurate to say that "experiences of things arise in dependence on causes". This then allows us to focus on the experience of dependent arising, rather than trying to locate some object which is arising. So many of our metaphors for dependent arising involve "things". But because of the way we function - through and only through experience - there are in effect no things arising.

  • Bodhi. 2000. The connected discourses of the Buddha : a translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. Boston : Wisdom Publications.
  • Hamilton, Sue. 2000. Early Buddhism : a new approach. The I of the beholder. Richmond, Surrey : Curzon.
  • Nyanatiloka. 1980. Buddhist dictionary : manual of Buddhist terms and doctrines. (4th ed). Kandy, Sri Lanka : Buddhist Publication Society (2004 reprint).

image: JAKIMOWICZ Fabien - belfry clock mechanism