Showing posts with label Metzinger. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Metzinger. Show all posts

19 April 2013

The Myth of Subjectivity

BUDDHISTS keep implying that I'm a materialist. I've tried expanding the discussion by pointing out alternatives and nuances, but it seems hopeless. Buddhists only seem to have two categories: materialist and non-materialist. All scientists are materialists. Because I talk about science, I'm advocating materialism. It has become quite tedious. 

In response I've been thinking about subjectivity. We so often hear that the much vaunted objectivity of scientists is a myth. Yeah, we know. It's old news. This critique over-emphasises the role of the individual in science. Each scientist might bring an irreducible element of subjectivity to their observation and interpretation, but millions of scientists working together can sort out what is noise and what is signal. Objectivity is an emergent property of collective observation and criticism. Individuals certainly make contributions to science, but they almost always work in teams, and in concert with peers and critics. Scientists like nothing better than to prove a rival wrong, or at least criticise their sloppy use of statistics. And the success of this manner of working has produced breakthroughs that have changed the world, for better or worse. The infrastructure of the internet stands out as an monument to objectivity - virtually every branch of science is represented in some form.

The emphasis on the individual betrays the influence of Romanticism in these anti-science critiques. For the Romantic the individual--the subject--is at the forefront of their world. They resist making the subject an object of study because axiomatically the subject is indefinable and ineffable. To define and understand the subject would be to destroy the edifice of Romanticism entirely. Which I'd happily participate in.

How ironic, then, that so many Buddhists are crypto-Romantics since one of the main themes of Buddhist thought is the deconstruction of the subject. This takes many forms including an outright denial of the existence of a self. The early Buddhist critique of the self or perceiving subject is a little more subtle.  It assumes that all experiences arise in dependence on conditions, and examines the claim of an existent self accordingly. 

The five branches of experience (pañcaskandhāḥ) according to early Buddhism are: a body endowed with senses (rūpa), sensations (vedanā), names (samjñā), volitional responses (saṃskāra) and cognitions (vijñāna). When we take each of these in turn, or all at once, we do not discover any basis for an existent self. The classic formula is:
netam mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā
this is not mine, I am not this, this is my not self.
In other words there is no subject: you don't own or control your experience; you are not found in the parts or the sum of your experience; and there is no entity which is you. What we experience as  "I", or the first person perspective, is simply another aspect of the processes of experience. It is an experience we can have, but no more than this.

In an earlier essay these three statements were equated with the three target properties for a first-person perspective outlined by Thomas Metzinger (See First Person Perspective). 
  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".
When experience is endowed with these three factors, then experience appears to be centred on a perceiving self. The Buddha's deconstruction of the self rests on the inability to find a definite basis for the permanent self - nothing in experience is able to be a basis for the existence of any permanent entity since experience is an ephemeral process. Experience is quick-sand on which no castle may be built.

Metzinger's approach is to show how each of these target properties can be altered or disrupted in specific ways, by brain damage for example. The way that the sense of self can be disrupted implies that the properties must be virtual rather than real. In other words Metzinger also argues the sense of self is not intrinsic to experience. We might think of selfhood as like a Kantian a priori. The three target properties are a priori structures that our organism uses to make sense of experience in the same way that time, space, and causality are. Our interpretations of experience rely on properties that are projected onto experience, which by itself is otherwise incomprehensible. 

The intense experience of apparently being a self is a simulation--and every night it must be switched off and on again. The self is a myth, therefore what we think of as subjectivity is also a myth. All the beliefs we have about subjectivity are questionable. All the speculative philosophy about the nature of consciousness over centuries is based on reified subjectivity - making an experience into an entity. Subjectivity is simply what the brain presents to awareness in the absence of, or indifferently to, external stimuli. Subjectivity is a story, a myth, that informs our experience of the world, but has no basis in fact.

Romantics tend to play up the importance of our inner life. Dreams, for example, take on deep significance. Our unconscious urges, the Freudian Id, become reified into entities that enact a little psychodrama "inside our head". Romantic Buddhism emphasises the forms of ideology which posit a pure self covered in defilements just waiting to be freed from the constraints imposed by conditioning and society. The free individual is, in particular, spontaneous: their behaviour and utterances come bubbling up without being filtered through imposed frameworks like morality. In other words at the same time as attacking the myth of objectivity, Romantics affirm the various myths of subjectivity and reify the subject into a self. Romantic Buddhism is thus a total contradiction.

The Romantics were immune to the petty conceits of conventional morality. Some of the key figures of the Romantic movement were drug addicts. They eschewed conventional mores and sought to justify their hedonistic indulgence in the pleasures of the flesh. They sought to leave their bodies behind through ecstasy, and like many people in history sought short-cuts to the realm of spirit. Some Buddhists have, incomprehensibly, gone down this road as well. 

It is quite true that objectivity has distinct limits, even when applied by millions of individuals working together. Yes, there have been a continuous stream of stunning insights into the world and how it works that have totally changed the way we live, but some things are, and may remain, beyond our understanding. The contrary holds for subjectivity. Subjectivity is not what it seems and is, and will increasing become, accessible to study. Subjectivity is not unlimited or ineffable - these are just stories we tell because we are intoxicated with experience. By the way the Buddha seemed to take a dim view of intoxication with experience. We are quite capable of conceiving of the subject as an object. Subjectivity is amenable to study.

A major aspect of the myth of subjectivity is the search for something we call "consciousness". The search for consciousness is first and foremost hampered by philosophy and philosophers. Consciousness  has been the subject of wild speculation which mostly seems to take everyday hallucinations as real. If we were setting out to explore the phenomena of the mind today we would not, on the basis of anecdote and generalising from personal experience, invent a whole raft of wild speculative theories, each with their own jargon and then set about trying to prove one of them right. I suggest that the scientific study of consciousness needs to detach itself from centuries of metaphysical speculation however interesting and concentrate on making observations.

Let's not assume that the way we talk about consciousness has any basis in fact until we can show that it is so. Where is the evidence, for example, for a theatre of consciousness? We really only have personal anecdote! But, since the idea infects our intellectual landscape, we grow up with this as an unchallenged background assumption. If there is in fact no entity which might be called a subject in the brain or mind, then we need to start again and work out how to talk about the phenomena we can experience, including the experience of selfhood. The simple fact is that how experience seems to us, is not how it is. We should no more trust individual subjectivity than we trust individual objectivity. That we do trust it is a barrier to progress. For example we still spill huge amounts of ink and research funding on the fundamentally Christian notion of free will. Of course there are juridicial repercussions to doing away with the notion of free will, but recent research is showing that the question of freedom is badly phrased because of legacy arguments that have now lost their relevance (we're not longer interested in how God came to be so incompetent as to allow evil; Buddhists never were). Freedom is relative to a number of constraints. We now know, from scientific investigation, that all of our actions are initiated unconsciously and the appearance of a decision in our awareness is timed to make it seem like we consciously willed the action to happen. Whence free will now? How do we even conceive of morality in this new light?

I imagine that there will be great hostility to the downgrading of the individual to a biologically convenient fiction. Not only from libertarians, but from Romantics. We might be forced to admit that the Chinese view of a person, with it's emphasis on collectivity, relationships and obligations is more in tune with reality. Individual behaviour is not simply the product simply of psychology. Individuals are frequently responding to environmental factors, especially social cues. But Western society is founded on basis that individual liberty is a high good, if not the highest good. And if the individual is a fiction? Then what? There's certainly a lot at stake. 

I could briefly mention Lynn Margulis's observations that we are not individuals but communities. We are colonies of symbiotic organisms, some tightly bound in our cells and some loosely bound in our bodies. For every human cell in this colony there are 100 bacterial cells without which we probably wouldn't survive. Bacteria mediate our physical interactions with the world! I might also cite the fact that the smallest viable unit of humanity is not the individual nor even the family. It must be the troop of several families, or even the clan of several troops, for our genes not to become overly recessive and kill us.

Individuality, the autonomy of a self, is another myth; another Romantic myth. We are emeshed in webs of dependency and obligation from the molecular to the societal level. The myth of individuality is central to the divide and conquer policy of NeoLiberalism, and to the transfer of wealth to the wealthy creating disastrous levels of economic inequality in nations and globally. At present the rogue individual is free to exploit the community to their own advantage. Such individuals are even admired and made the subject of movies. Survival of the fittest ought to refer to the community best able to cooperate, but it seems to have become affixed to the predator best able to kill it's prey (this is a kind of Romantic Victorian fiction about how nature operates that modern science has yet to eliminate). We're a social primate species which is evolutionarily successful through our ability to empathise and cooperate,  so why do we admire rogue predators rather than successful team members? Something is deeply wrong with this picture!

Most people I meet have a crude, but effective, critique of materialism, though little appreciation of the sophisticated views of contemporary scientists and thus no way to really engage with what science is telling them about their world. I certainly value contact with people that don't fit this narrow mould but they are a minority. Almost no one I meet is aware of their Romantic conditioning or how it manoeuvres them towards particular conclusions about their experience of the world. Reifying the subject ought to be anathema to Buddhists. Ironically, it seems to be the norm.


27 January 2012

Rebirth is Neither Plausible nor Salient.

My Great-great Grandmother (96)
with my Father (6 months)
ca. 1936
I'VE NOW WRITTEN a number of Raves on the subject of afterlife beliefs. I've looked at the notion from a variety of perspectives: phenomenological, historical, and taxonomic. Along the way I have been drawn to a particular conclusion which is this:
The idea of anything surviving the death of the body, and in particular the death of the brain, seems so incredibly unlikely that I no longer find any afterlife theory plausible.
I no longer find the idea of rebirth plausible, mainly because I don't believe in the metaphysics which underlie the idea. Following David Hume and his criteria for judging testimony, I find the falsehood of rebirth considerably less miraculous than the truth of it. More crucially I no longer see rebirth as salient or relevant in my approach to the Dharma. After a few introductory remarks I'll deal with plausibility first, and then salience. This Rave is rather longer than usual and I hope readers will bear with me. The argument is not difficult to follow, but it's best seen in a broad context.

On face value, in rejecting rebirth, I am adopting an annihilationist view (ucchedadiṭṭhi) which I imagine will please my so-called secular Buddhist readers and appal my more traditionalist readers. Coming out as an annihilationist (ucchedavādika) might be seen as rather contrary for someone who claims to be a religious Buddhist. After all Buddhism quite distinctly positions itself as a middle-way between eternalism and nihilism. However I think I can justify my position with reference to Buddhist doctrine, and show that not believing in rebirth is not necessarily heterodox, even if it goes against the received tradition! In doing so I will invoke some ideas that have become my guiding lights in this blog. Chief amongst these is the "hermeneutic of experience" the idea that we should always interpret Buddhist doctrines as referring to experience and never to the question of what exists. I define "experience" quite generally as that which arises on contact between sense object and sense faculty in the presence of sense consciousness. A key text is the Kaccānagotta Sutta which denies the applicability of 'it exists' (atthi) and 'it does not exist' (n'atthi) when discussing the world [of experience] (loka).


When I criticised the Abhidharma recently I said that the Abhidharmikas shifted their attention away from experience as the sphere of interest, towards existence and problems like trying to determine what exists (in other words they ignored the Kaccānagotta Sutta). A related change was the move to see paṭicca-samuppāda as a Theory of Everything: i.e. a single, simple explanation for every 'thing' and/or 'phenomena' in the universe. In an unpublished essay I have argued at some length that paṭicca-samuppāda was not intended to explain everything, and that it's proper domain is precisely the world of experience where ontological thinking is not relevant. [1] Experiences arise and pass away without anything substantial coming into being and nothing going out of being. It follows from this that the Middle Way itself properly applies only in this same domain.

However before the Canon was closed paṭicca-samuppāda was applied to rebirth. Rebirth, or some variation on it, was and is the most common afterlife belief in India. Some form of rebirth eschatology can be seen as far back as the later strata of the Ṛgveda [2]. I've outlined these afterlife views in my taxonomy.

In order to have any kind of rebirth something of my current psycho-physical organism must survive the death of my body. Rebirth is generally predicated upon the idea that one can recall past lives, or that at the very least one inherits habitual tendencies from a previous being. Buddhists typically reject the idea that the reborn being is either identical with, or entirely different from, the being who has previously died. But at the very least memories must be preserved in some medium for recall, and every scrap of evidence we have ties human memory to our living brain. Habitual tendencies are habits of thought and emotion both of which require a living brain, and a living body. Can an experience even be called an emotion without a body in which to experience it? In which case even the Buddhist theory of rebirth posits some form of dualism: a part of us survives death to convey our memories and habits across multiple life-times. But this aspect of us cannot be the mind which is so closely tied to the living body, and it cannot be the body since it unequivocally ceases at death (and decays back into its constituent elements. So what is it? If we are not to answer that it is a soul (of some description), then how do we answer? I don't think there is a satisfactory answer to this question. Some of this material was covered in Rebirth and the Scientific Method where I outline the kind of evidence that would cause me to change my mind on this.

By the way I also believe the question of whether the Buddha believed in rebirth to be unanswerable. Buddhist texts are almost universally acquainted with some form of rebirth. It is true that there are some minor ambiguities and contradictions, but the texts reflect the views of early Buddhists, not the views of the Buddha, and there's no reason to expect them to agree on everything. There is no objective way to extract the Buddha's actual views from the early Buddhist texts. So it is facile to insist that the Buddha either did or did not believe in any particular idea.

We also need to consider the Theory of Mind. This is the special characteristic of self-consciousness that enables us to see other beings as self-aware individuals like ourselves, i.e. to develop a theory about other minds. Theory of Mind underlies our ability to empathise. It also allows us to perceive and meet the needs of other beings, even at the expense of our own needs at times (altruism). It is true that other primates have this ability to some extent, but humans have developed it to a far higher degree. It is Theory of Mind that informs the Golden Rule about how to treat other beings. We know what is is like to suffer, and so we should not inflict suffering on others (see also None Dearer than Myself). Now our Theory of Mind errs on the side of caution in most people. The possibility that our dog or cat is self-aware in the same way that we are is moot, but we may also attribute self-awareness to trees, to mountains, and to physical processes like storms. We have a tendency to see self-awareness where it is clearly not present. This allows us, even encourages us, to imagine the consciousness of the dead person continuing without their body!

Neuro-anatomical investigation shows us that mental activity is inseparable from brain activity. Even in the case where mental activity does seem disembodied—e.g. the out-of-body experience (OBE)—scientists have shown that electrical stimulation of the angular gyrus, on the tempero-parietal junction, will create this precise effect. We now have plausible explanations for how the sense of self may be disrupted in such a way as the ego is perceived to be connected to the felt sense of the body, but disconnected from visual sense, all the while remaining tightly correlated with brain activity. Thomas Metzinger, however, has observed that having had an OBE the overwhelming temptation is to conclude that consciousness is not tied to the body: i.e. to believe in a strong form of mind/body dualism. I would add that even those who haven't had the experience personally are tempted by the testimony of those who have. The conclusions of neuroscientists, however, are profoundly non-dualistic: there is no separation between brain function and consciousness, they are manifestations of the same process.

Now Buddhists will be tempted to trot out the old charge of materialism, or arguments against epiphenomenalism at this point. However I am not making an ideological argument; I'm not arguing for strict materialism or epiphenomenalism (and anyway: I'm not a materialist). I am only arguing that the evidence shows us that mental activity and brain activity are so tightly correlated as to be inseparable: i.e. that mental activity without brain activity, while not inconceivable, has not yet been observed, and seems unlikely ever to be observed. The evidence is certainly not complete, but each observation reinforces the others and points in the same direction. What's more the testimony that points towards dualism is shown to be false, or biased. I think we've reached the point where this conclusion is inescapable.

It will be useful to review why afterlife beliefs are so potent (from my rave The Abyss of Death). All organisms are characterised by, amongst other things, an over-riding imperative to survive (apparently Schopenhauer made this observation, but I take my cue from Thomas Metzinger). Even the single-celled amoeba acts for its own continued survival. Even plants with no nervous system compete with neighbours and fight to dominate their space, and to repel invaders and pathogens. Life strives to continue. However while life itself continues, individual living organisms all eventually die. Self-awareness has given us the certain knowledge of our own inevitable death. Thus, in the mind of a self-aware living being, an irresistible force (survival) meets an immovable object (death). The result is cognitive dissonance so strong that we simply deny death - in most cases the imperative over-rides the facts.

When reasoning we use emotion to assign value to facts. Antonio Damasio describes a patient with damage to the emotion centres in the pre-frontal lobe, but whose intellect is otherwise intact. Asked to make a decision they cannot do so because they cannot assign value to facts, they get caught up in an endless exploration of the available facts without ever coming to a conclusion. [3] The strength of emotion around death makes us weigh facts in a biased way: for instance we see the corpse of a loved one, but cannot accept that they have simply ceased to be, so we imagine that their consciousness (or their soul) lives on in some disembodied state.

When we combine all of these observations we can begin to see the dynamic that is at work:
  • We believe a priori that self-awareness is not tied to the body,
  • so the idea that 'something' survives death and continues to 'live' seems plausible,
  • emotional weighting of facts makes this seem probable, and the finality of death improbable,
  • and since we don't want to believe in death, post-mortem survival seems preferable.
  • We make the leap from preferable to actually true, and it feels satisfying because we have resolved the dissonance and been consistent with our other beliefs.
The problem is that the plausibility of post-mortem survival is undermined by rigorous observations of life and living organisms and how they function. It becomes clear that the afterlife is simply a metaphysical narrative with no real-world correlates - there is no other reason to believe it other than it feels right, but it only feels right because of pre-existing biases and unbearable tensions. Whatever contradictory facts are presented, they are not assigned much emotional weight, so post-mortem survival still seems preferable however irrational. Even when it is acknowledged to be irrational.

Now the scientist is often a materialist, though not in the simplistic sense of the 18th or 19th century Natural Philosopher. Studying science makes materialism compelling because it actually explains a huge amount, and the method has produced sustained progress in knowledge for 200 years now. I say sustained, but scientific progress is a punctuated equilibrium. A lot of the time we're just collecting data, filling gaps, and concerned with details. But from time to time observations are made that force a shift in the way we see the world. We probably all know about these because the most famous scientists are associated with paradigm shifts: e.g. Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Marie Currie, Albert Einstein, and Crick, Watson & Franklin. All of these people were studying the world with the explicit notion that stuff really exists independent of our minds. In the traditional Buddhist analysis they are therefore eternalists. However the same scientists usually conclude that there is no afterlife and this is traditionally a nihilist view. Eternalism and nihilism are mutually contradictory positions. A logical contradiction like this is a sign that the terms of the discussion are flawed and we need to take a step back. And this brings us on to the issue of salience.


In my critique of the so-called Two Truths I pointed out that the only reason we needed to introduce the idea of two truths was because Buddhists began to apply paṭicca-samuppāda outside its natural domain. What I argue here is that something similar has taken place with the notion of life after death. To be explicit I am saying that the idea of rebirth is outside the natural domain of paṭicca-samuppāda. This is big claim given the history of the Buddhist tradition, but the essays I've been writing in the last couple of years have built up a case for it. My position is that paṭicca-samuppāda only really applies to the arising and passing away of experiences, especially in our unawakened state to the arising and passing away of dukkha (disappointment). This is in fact explicit in a number of texts, but specifically the Vajirā Sutta (SN 5:10; S i.136) which I have written about.

Being born is certainly an experience—though one that none of us have any memory of it precisely because at birth our brains are not fully developed. This is always the case because our head must get through the pelvis of our mother and that means leaving the womb with an underdeveloped brain. For most people our earliest memories (of this life) date from around age 3 or 4. This is also, perhaps not entirely coincidentally, about the time that Theory of Mind develops and allows us to see ourselves as an individual amongst other individuals.

The idea that we are reborn after death with memories of former lives (potentially) at our disposal, and inherited habits of mind and body, is not an experience. Rebirth is a interpretation based on anecdote which tries to explain why things happen the way they do. It's common enough to believe that beings come back after death, but certainly far from universal or obvious. Repeated death and rebirth is simply the predominant afterlife theory of India, though it is also found, for example, in African, indigenous American, and ancient Greeks socities. [4] In Christian or Islamic societies, by contrast, they subscribe to a different afterlife theory. So far as I can tell there is no objective criteria to decide between these views: we tend to just believe whatever people around us believe. Or we believe what feels right and I have already pointed out the potentially over whelming bias as far as the afterlife is concerned.

On the other hand ghosts and disembodied spirits are very much a part of the landscape in Christian countries. Friends of mine live in a "haunted" house and many people have experienced a close encounter with a "ghost" there. Most of these hauntings were actually classic sleep paralysis experiences, which highlights the distinction between an experience and how we explain and/or interpret it. Someone experiencing sleep paralysis has without doubt had a freakish and disturbing experience, but they have not experienced a disembodied conscious agent.

When Buddhists began to apply paṭicca-samuppāda to everything they did not leave out rebirth. However, like other forays outside the narrow application of paṭicca-samuppāda to experience, it caused contradictions and paradoxes: such as eternalists with nihilistic afterlife beliefs. These complications were generally accepted, though not without some juggling and competing interpretations, because Buddhists wanted (desperately) to see their most important idea as explaining everything. They still do. Speculating why this is so would take me too far from my topic, but perhaps I'll come back to it in another rave.

There is one more consideration here. Rebirth is intimately linked to the Buddhist doctrine of karma. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago (Son of the Śākyas) that the idea of being judged on the basis of your actions is one that might have come into Buddhism (and Hinduism) from Zoroastrianism. All large scale cultures seem to have a metaphysical overseer. In most cultures it comes in the form of a god who monitors your behaviour. Why do we need monitoring? In ancestral small scale societies we all knew what everyone was doing because we spent all of our time together. Privacy did not really exist. But as we became civilised and started living in larger scale communities it became impossible to keep everyone under surveillance to make sure they were keeping to the rules. Society is predicated on the idea that most people follow the rules most of the time, and if we catch someone breaking the rules we punish them somehow. One of the harshest non-fatal punishments is shunning which was practised in the early Buddhist Saṅgha for some offences (it still is). So gods like Indo-Iranian Mitra/Mithra, developed to keep a celestial eye on everyone and keep order. In non-Vedic India however the function was not divine, and not anthropomorphised, but became an impersonal built-in property of the universe, i.e. karma. However the function of karma is no different to the function carried out by judicial gods (e.g. Mitra or Zeus), or the oversight function of a mono-gods (e.g. Jehovah), and that karma is still a supernatural agency. Karma was invented to make sure that private actions have public consequences, though the astute reader will notice that the consequences are mostly private—that is divorced from the society in which the action was done—as well, since they are put-off till a future life.

Michel Foucault understood this surveillance function very well, and it forms one of the main themes of his work. In the West responsibility for oversight has passed from God and his priests, onto doctors (priests of medicine), and to the government via police and CCTV cameras. Though interestingly individuals with cell-phone video cameras are keeping tabs on us now as well! The oversight function of our society is being decentralised via technology! (Here is a fantastic example on YouTube, with commentary here) Rebirth and karma work together: karma affects the quality of our post-mortem destination (hence heaven and hell) and rebirth means that death is no escape from consequences. Interestingly the inescapability of consequences doesn't survive later developments in Buddhist doctrine and there-in lies a story!

Coming back to the main point: my rejection of an afterlife is not anihilisationist when considered within the hermeneutic of experience. I do not claim that dukkha (aka the five khandha; aka experience) does not arise and pass away; in fact like the Vajira Sutta I claim that only dukkha arises and passes away. Alongside this I argue that any afterlife belief is actually eternalistic, and problematically dualistic. Rejecting all of forms of afterlife—as talking in the wrong way and/or about the wrong thing—is the only way to keep to the middle. Hence rebirth is no longer salient, no longer relevant when considering how to live.


These arguments are not mere sophistry, or at least not only sophistry. If Buddhists do not accommodate the observations of scientists we will inevitably find Buddhism being dismissed along with other religions (and rightly so). Buddhist cosmology, eschatology and ontology is not based in fact or "reality", but in myth and superstition. Our soteriology is not much better. As inspiring as some of the myths are, we need not allow Buddhism to be sidelined as mere superstition, or to revert to anti-intellectual fundamentalism. If we accept the hermeneutic of experience, then so far as I can see Buddhists can happily co-exist with the mainstream of science and make a valuable contribution through introducing our awareness enhancing, anxiety and conflict reducing practices to people everywhere.

Some will see the death of Buddhism in my suggestions. By contrast I see a reinvigoration on a scale not seen since the 7th century Tantric synthesis in India where the collapse of civil society drove the evolution of an entirely new approach to religion that continues to thrive in India, Tibet and Japan. The synthesis of Buddhism with scientific rationalism is perhaps the most exciting cultural development the world has ever seen. As I envisage this synthesis the emphasis will be on understanding and working with experience; and belief in metaphysical processes or entities will not be required or encouraged, though, of course, people will continue to have extraordinary experiences.


  1. Jayarava. 'Is Paṭicca-samuppāda a Theory of Everything?' July 2011. Unpublished.
  2. Jurewicz. Joanna. 2006. 'The Ṛgveda, ‘small scale’ societies and rebirth eschatology.' [A revised version of her conference paper from the 14th World Sanskrit Conference, July 2006] Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies.
  3. Damasio, Antonio. 2006. Decartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain. (Rev. Ed.) Vintage Books, p.192ff.
  4. Obeyesekere, Gananath. 2002. Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth. University of California Press.

In this post I also refer directly to these previous raves (and indirectly to a few others) in chronological order:
I point this out to show that I've been giving it some serious thought over some years, and that most of the points I make here are explored in greater depth elsewhere in my oeuvre.

Thanks for Sabio Lentz for drawing my attention to the writing of Michael Blume, especially the lecture on Darwin's evolutionary approach to religion. I appreciate his ideas on how religious thinking and practice came into being. However it came too late for inclusion in this essay which has been in preparation for some months now, but I don't doubt that Blume's work will feature in subsequent raves.

11 November 2011

Origin of the Idea of the Soul

IN MAY 2011 I EXPLORED the idea of afterlife, and précised some explanations for the ubiquity of beliefs in life after death. In June I outlined a taxonomy of afterlife beliefs, showing that most are variations on two themes, and stem from the same kinds of observations. In this post I want to look at an explanation put forward by Thomas Metzinger for the origin of belief in a soul - i.e. some conscious aspect of 'us' that is not tied to the body. [1] Obviously this subject is closely allied with the theme of life after death since in order to have post-mortem survival some part of us must survive the death of the body.

Those familiar with Metzinger will know that he has had a number of out-of-body experiences (OBE). In his paper he outlines the phenomenology, psychology and neural correlates of OBEs. He attempts to understand these from his own representationalist point of view. Metzinger's view is that the phenomenon of selfhood—the sense of being a self with first person perspective and agency—is related to a sophisticated self-model sustained in the brain. Reality is modelled by our brains in such a way that we do not know we are interacting with the model, except in exceptional circumstances such as brain injury which disrupts the model. Our 'self' is part of the model related to monitoring our own responses to the reality model. But again we experience our 'self' as real, not as a model. In his terms we are all naive realists with respect to our self-models. If one is not familiar with Metzinger's self-model I would recommend reading up on it, and not relying on my very brief summary which can hardly do it justice.[2]

OBE's are often associated with trauma—accidents, epileptic fits, brain injury—but some healthy people have them as well, sometimes in the waking state. They also occur in the dream state, or in the pre-waking state accompanied by sleep paralysis. OBEs are really a cluster of phenomena and that makes it hard to give a single representative example: but the common factors are that one sees oneself and one's surroundings, but feels oneself to be separate from one's physical body, or floating. In the OBE the locus of thought and identity is experienced as being outside the body, while the body and thoughts are still identified as 'mine'. This distinguishes it from phenomena such as depersonalisation and derealisation. Interestingly OBEs can also be artificially induced by direct brain stimulation, or using trans-cranial magnetic stimulation. The part of the brain concerned is the angular gyrus which is on the temporo-parietal junction - where the temporal and parietal lobes of the neo-cortex meet. Put simply if we pass a tiny electric current through the angular gyrus and there is an instantaneous out-of-body experience, switch it off and the OBE ceases.

Metzinger interprets the phenomena of OBE in terms of simultaneous but integrated self models. The first self-model is rooted in bodily sensations: muscle tension, inner ear balance information, the sense of touch etc. The second is primarily visual. Normally these two streams of information are integrated into a single self-model, but in the OBE for whatever reason the result is two self-models. The primary self-model, the one which the subject identifies with as the locus of their ego, is the felt sense of the body, though typically without the sense of weight from gravity which leaves the person with a floating sensation. The visual self-model is functional but not integrated with the felt sense allowing the sense that the subject is not "in" their body. In the OBE the subject will experience themselves as located in an ethereal body rather than as disembodied. Sometimes one simply floats, but frequently one has more or less agency and can decide to move about. This used to be called "astral travelling".

Metzinger describes his own OBEs in his book The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self. He does not doubt the phenomenological accounts of OBE, however he seeks to explain the OBE from his representionalist point of view, which is based on the observations of neuroscience. Metzinger is particularly interested in disorders like phantom limb syndrome, but also in ways in which the brain decides what is part of it's body and what isn't. For instance in virtual reality experiments subjects can have virtual OBEs where they experience a virtual body projected as separate from them physically in space as their own body. Alok Jha, science journalist, likened this to the movie Avatar where people 'inhabited' specially grown alien bodies. Our sense of being embodied, in our own physical body, is a simulation and it can be disrupted in many ways. If it were not a simulation then explaining phantom limb syndrome or the rubber hand illusion would be very difficult to explain.

The main phenomena the subject in an OBE will experience is that their thought processes are taking place separately from their physical body. Metzinger speculates that OBEs might be good candidate experiences for the origin of ideas about the soul. As he says:
For anyone who actually had [an OBE] it is almost impossible not to become an ontological dualist afterwards. In all their realism, cognitive clarity and general coherence, these phenomenal experiences almost inevitably lead the experiencing subject to conclude that conscious experience can, as a matter of fact, take place independently of the brain and body. (p.78)
We are all what Metzinger calls 'folk phenomenologists'—we all interpret our own experiences. On the whole we clearly do a good job of this. But when we have unusual experiences such as hallucinations, sleep paralysis, OBE, or even meditative experiences, we tend not to do such a good job. Although Metzinger does not say so, we are powerfully conditioned by a number of other factors which reinforce the ontological dualism. Here our predisposition to believe in life after death comes to the fore. This in turn is reinforced by our strong Theory of Mind: our ability to project consciousness not only into other humans, but into animals, trees, and even inanimate objects. The Theory of Mind is fundamental to our humanity, without it we would be incapable of empathy or relating to other people. But we are apt to see consciousness, and conscious agency where there is none. Particularly in the dead. If we combine this with an OBE or some other kind of experience which shifts the apparent locus of thought out of the body, such as a lucid dream, then ontological dualism might seem incontrovertible. Clearly some form of dualism is present in almost every afterlife belief, including Buddhist rebirth. It's impossible to posit post-mortem survival (let alone post-mortem memory) without implying, however subtly, an entity which survives separate from the body.

It's important to note that Metzinger is making conjectures here. He is taking the evidence and putting together plausible narratives to account for them. His representationalist explanation of consciousness is highly plausible, and appears to be a useful way of thinking about consciousness and especially self-consciousness. It is powerfully demystifying and disenchanting. It emerges from trying to explain observations from neuroscience, particularly the way the sense of self breaks down. These observations are intriguing, but more work must, and is, being done. And this is crucial difference between science and religion - in science we rigorously test theories hoping to prove them wrong (which is how a scientist gains kudos!)

If Metzinger is right, and I think his suggestion is entirely plausible, then we can see that this idea of being able to separate mind and body feeds into the powerful complex of ideas about post-mortem survival. The belief in an afterlife no longer seems so strange or strained. It's not only a psychological fantasy, but emerges to some extent from our experience of the world - or at least the experience of some of us. Afterlife beliefs are extremely persistent in the face of scientific rationalism, and my exploration of such beliefs has, to some extent, shown why they might seem plausible and preferable to the alternative. Metzinger remarks that trying to destroy a person's deeply held belief in the afterlife has ethical implications. In attempting to undermine a person's belief system we may be doing them a violence. It's all very well to debate the facts such as they are, but as self-aware beings we have an obligation to try to relate to people first and foremost on the basis of empathy. We may simply have to acknowledge that some people will be eternalists no matter what facts we present, because our version of the facts seem implausible compared with the alternative. I don't think this is a problem as long as what they believe is not causing them to be unkind or prevents them from relating on the basis of empathy.


  1. Metzinger, Thomas (2005) 'Out-of-Body Experiences as the Origin of the Concept of a "Soul".' Mind & Matter Vol. 3(1), pp. 57–84.
  2. Fortunately Metzinger himself has provided an introduction: Scholarpedia. Self models. See also his book: The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self. I précised Metzinger's lecture on the first person perspective in April 2011. I would also recommend reading Antonio Damasio's book: The Feeling Of What Happens: Body, Emotion and the Making of Consciousness which gives an account of how self-consciousness might emerge from modelling body states in the brain.

See also

24 June 2011

(Re)educating the Body

bodyPHILOSOPHER THOMAS METZINGER is interesting for a number of reasons. For one thing he has had a number of out-of-body experiences - spontaneous, waking and vivid - and he takes such experiences seriously. He says that any theory of consciousness must account for such experiences or it is "just not interesting". For Metzinger the sense of being an autonomous self is a consequence of the particular way the brain models its surroundings and interactions with them. In particular the proprioceptive or kinaesthetic sense is important in providing a locus of experience. Proprioception is the felt sense of our body - the sum total of information about muscle and tendon tension throughout the body, as well as information from the inner ear about orientation. It is proprioception that allows us to locate ourselves in space without seeing ourselves. Our sense of self, of being a self, is intimately tied to this internal model of the body.

Even when there is no actual limb to feel -- if one is amputated, or through a congenital defect never develops -- we may still have an image of it in our heads. Metzinger quotes the example of a woman born with no arms or legs who none-the-less experiences four phantom limbs with varying degrees of vividity. Phantom limb pain in amputees is a common problem. And how can something that does not physically exist cause us pain? Only if we have a mental representation of it, and it registers the mismatch between the representation and the reality in terms of pain.

In addition there is a visual map of the body generated in the brain. I've noticed, for example, that in learning Tai Chi I often have to look down at my feet to see where they are. My internal proprioceptive map is a little unreliable at times. So my visual sense helps to correct that - once I visually check where my feet are currently, I can correct their orientation and internally 'see' where they actually are, and feel what that is like, and hopefully learn to keep better track of them. Having to look at one's feet is rather a disadvantage in moving about, but in martial applications is potentially fatal. No doubt this is a modern malfunction, as it is hard to imagine our clumsy footed hunter-gatherer ancestors surviving long enough to breed.

It is possible for one or other of these internal maps to over-ride the other. As is shown by the rubber hand experiment we can integrate inanimate objects into our body image, a case of the visual over-riding the proprioceptive sense; and similarly in Phantom-limb Syndrome it is possible to have a felt sense of a limb where there is none to see (or feel). Sometimes a phantom limb will feel paralysed and V.S. Ramachandran has used mirrors to give a visual illusion of the missing limb moving which allows it to be re-animated in the mental model. Sometimes we can integrate an entire virtual body into our body image as in experiments carried out by Olaf Blanke in association with Metzinger (See Guardian 17.2.11 which likens Blanke's work to the Avatar movie where people 'inhabit' virtual bodies).

Metzinger has plausibly theorised that out-of-body experiences occur when the proprioceptive and visual models of the body lose synchronisation. They are most frequently associated with trauma which may account for the mismatch. The felt sense is of floating, while the visual sense is actually unchanged. Apparently the visual information available during waking out-of-body experiences is still just that of the physical eyes - one doesn't see one's own face for instance. It is not that we are receiving information from some other source, only that we feel our point of view as disconnected from its usual location. In a related phenomena we can feel a sense of presence near us (typically behind). This is the result of a similar process. It is ourselves we sense, but we feel dislocated from our visual sense, and so the felt sense becomes 'other', often interpreted as a 'spirit' for instance. I know several people who've had this kind of experience, and who interpret it as confirmation of the presence of supernatural beings.

I prefer Metzinger's explanation of the phenomena without in any way denying that an experience was had, or felt to be somehow significant at the time. I'm not convinced by explanations involving supernatural phenomenon because it is possible through direct brain stimulation (as sometimes happens in operations for severe epilepsy) or through stimulation of the brain using magnets against the skull, to cause these experiences to happen. An out-of-body experience can be physically induced using electro-magnetism to stimulate brain cells, and this reduces the likelihood of a supernatural cause to almost zero in my view. Recent studies have shown that the drug Ketamine can also induce out-of-body experiences, presumably also by disrupting the synchronisation of the various body maps in the brain. The explanation of the effect is found in the workings of the brain. The interpretation of the experience -- i.e. what it means to the person having it -- seems to depend on the context, and the preconceptions of the person having the experience.

During the late 1980s I became fascinated with F. M. Alexander and his 'technique'. I read all of his books, and all of the then available literature; and I had several dozen lessons in the technique. It is remarkable. Though it can be difficult to communicate what the Alexander Technique is or does, the gist is that Alexander discovered through trial and error that his proprioceptive sense was unreliable, and was able to retrain it by careful observation of his own movements using a mirror. Alexander thought that many ailments and malaises were caused by poor functioning of the body due to a corrupted proprioceptive sense, and indeed many people trained in his technique do enjoy better health generally. For instance your typical Westerner slumps, has rounded shoulders, and carries excess tension in their neck muscles (and doesn't know where his feet are!). This causes postural imbalance, breathing difficulties, back pain, and in the long term contributes to poor functioning, and probably emotional disturbances (though some would point the causal arrow in the opposite direction when it comes to emotions). In an Alexander Technique lesson one learns to retrain the proprioceptive sense through subtle physical interactions with a teacher who has an accurate proprioceptive sense. These interactions are very similar to some of the subtle techniques used in Tai Chi during sticking and push hands to sense the 'root' of a partner. It's something that has to be felt and is very difficult to put into words.

A mismatch between proprioception and vision can, in extremis, cause us to have out-of-body experiences. Most of us do not have such experience, but we do have these everyday minor glitches when we habitually slump or lose track of our feet. There is not enough disturbance to strongly effect our awareness -- no shifting of our point of view for instance -- but there is an effect. It clearly is a problem, and typically it becomes gradually worse over our life time. This suggests that as we try to find the best way to live in the modern world that attention to this problem needs to be considered.

Some kind of physical training which emphasises proprioceptive awareness rather than simply cardiovascular fitness or muscle mass, and in particular refines the accuracy and synchronisation of this sense with other aspects of our internal self model, would seem to be a desirable companion to any mind training techniques we use. We have a number of options from various disciplines. We can use Chinese Tai Chi, or Indian Yoga for instance; but from the West we also have Alexander Technique and the Feldenkrais Method which work more explicitly with proprioception without the more metaphysical and symbolic elements of Asian approaches. This doesn't exhaust the list. All temperaments are catered for.

This is a more prescriptive argument than I would usually make. I usually aim for understanding of a principle, or how to read a text; I'm not usually saying what to do on the basis of that understanding or reading, even if I think it's obvious what everyone should do. But for me there is a stronger sense of imperative about this theme of physical education because it is so clearly the direct cause of a lot of misery, and relatively easily dealt with. We had a subject called "Physical Education" at school, but though it involved being physical, moving around or playing sports, there was little or no education. By contrast many music schools now routinely give their students Alexander Technique lessons to ensure that poor body use does not result in repetitive strain injuries. Prevention is both better and cheaper than cure. And actually the practices are fun. If you aren't currently doing some form of body education along the lines I've been writing about, I would recommend that you start. The benefits are legion.

mens sana in corpore sano
nοῦς ὑγιὴς ἐν σώματι ὑγιεῖ
आरोग्यवन्मनः आरोग्यवच्छारीरे


See also:

06 May 2011

The Abyss of Death

In this post I want to look at a theme that I explored in my recent talk at the London Buddhist Centre (available on Free Buddhist Audio). Thomas Metzinger points out that evolution has imbued all life with a powerful urge to continuity. We humans experience this on a number of levels - we will do almost anything to ensure our personal continuity; and most of us will also try to ensure our genetic continuity by procreating. We share this fundamental drive with all life - animals, plants, and even viruses. Indeed a virus does little else except reproduce itself with no sense of purpose, but relentless efficiency. The 'urge' for continuity underlies all of our other basic needs - shelter, food, water, air. I did not see the film 127 Hours, but I know the story - a man is trapped by a boulder while climbing and after several days cuts his own arm off in order to get free. It's a true story. Likewise people survive through all kinds of adversity and oppression - concentration camps, ship wrecks, wars, and slavery. The survival instinct is extremely powerful.

But at the same time evolution has given us consciousness. Emerging (probably) out of our need to regulate our internal milieu and optimise our response to the environment we animals began to model our own internal states using our complex brains. At some point our awareness of ourselves became part of the picture - we became aware of ourselves as being aware. The advantages of this are manifold. We can better grasp social interactions because we can understand what another is feeling through emulating emotions; we can learn what others do by imitating them; and we can imagine various possibilities of action and weigh the consequences. The benefits of having an ego are huge, and in particular it allows us to be moral beings. If any other animals have this ability it is only very rudimentary.

But Metzinger also notes that with the evolution of this amazing new ability comes another kind of knowledge. The knowledge that we will grow old, become ill, and die. Death is a certainty. When we see a corpse we know that something we value is missing. We can hold decay at bay with preservatives such as formaldehyde or honey, but the corpse is only preserved and does not continue except as inert matter. Life leaves us, consciousness leaves us. Seeing a corpse can be a profoundly, existentially disturbing experience, but it is also entirely natural and inevitable for all living things to die.

This certain knowledge of the inevitability of death creates a conflict with our most basic and powerful drive which is for continuity. It is the proverbial irresistible force meeting an immovable object. Not continuing is an option few of us can really take seriously as an option because deep down inside our most singular and powerful drive is to keep going. We Buddhists have memorialised this conflict in the story of the four sights - in various different tellings the youthful Siddhartha sees old age, sickness and death, (as if) for the first time, and he is engulfed by the dilemma. In those days men and women left their home life and social ties to seek an answer - they were called śramaṇas 'toilers'. The Buddha to be joined first one and then another band of wanderers seeking the way to the deathless. Our story says that he eventually abandoned all previous methods and found the way on his own, and that this 'way' is what we pass on from one generation to the next. The details are specific to Buddhism, but the theme is universal.

Most human cultures have stories about post-mortem continuity, be it a return to earth (usually via some intermediate state) or arrival in some version of a perfect world. Although genuine nihilism does crop up from time to time, I think we are mostly naive eternalists. Almost all of these stories require consciousness to be distinct from matter, to be able to exist without a body - that is to say a mind/body duality. In Buddhism we even find it said that consciousness causes a body to come into being. Those who curate these stories -- priests -- often become powerful and rich, but at the very least they are usually respected and influential. However, even in the presence of powerful priests, ordinary folk will often maintain their own local traditions of continuity through local spirits and ghosts and the like. The interesting spin in India is that repeated rebirth came to be seen as a burden to be put down in favour of something more satisfying which the spiritual masters called variously brahman, vimokṣa or nirvaṇa.

Whatever we make of these stories - whether we take them literally or dismiss them, or find some compromise - we all face this tension between the continuity imperative and the certainty of our own death. The great magnitude of the tension is reflected in the grip we take on these stories - some people will kill or be killed before giving up their particular story. Many people are just not equipped to deal with the idea of death as a discontinuity, and most are not willing to see it that way. There often a hint of moral condemnation from religious people against those who declare that no continuity is possible. During his US Presidency George Bush apparently opined that an atheist could not be a citizen or a patriot for instance.

The fact of death is an abyss, a hole that can't be filled. It is not something we can fix on it's own level. But we can bring light to the situation. We can care, i.e. care about and care for other living beings. We can be kind and generous. We can be selfless. Although consciousness brings the abyss of knowledge of personal death, it brings the blessing of selfless acts of kindness. Ironically we find fulfilment in selflessness.

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.]

11 March 2011

A Theory of Language Evolution (with a footnote about mantra)

I HAVE BEEN READING The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self by Thomas Metzinger. It is a book with some flaws, which I'm not going to dwell on, but on the whole Metzinger presents a fascinating theory of consciousness, selfhood, and self-consciousness. Metzinger is a philosopher, so is concerned to give an overview and to create a coherent narrative of consciousness, but his source materials are the findings of neuroscience, along with his own out-of-body experiences and lucid dreams. The combination is intriguing because though he fits in with a scientific, even materialistic, world-view, he seeks a theory of consciousness which takes his unusual experiences seriously and explains them. This may make him unique in the field.

His opening sentence declares that he is setting out to convince us that there is no such thing as a self. In this he follows in the footsteps of Antonio Damasio whose book The Feeling Of What Happens I highly recommend. I want to come back to Metzinger's theory of consciousness in subsequent blog posts, but here to talk about a point he makes in passing in his chapter the 'Empathetic Ego'.

Recently neuroscientists discovered two related facts about the link between behaviour and the brain. When we see an object, groups of neurons associated with motor activity are active. These are called canonical neurons. When we perceive objects part of us is relating to them by imagining potential physical interactions, by how we might manipulate them. I'm reminded here of George Lakoff & Mark Johnson's theory of metaphor. They say that the metaphors which underlie our abstract language and thought are related to our physical interactions with the world. Hence we can say that we grasp an idea meaning that we understand the concept. (See Metaphors We Live By).

On the other hand we know that some neurons associated with motor activity -- called mirror neurons -- light up whether we are doing the action ourselves, or whether we are observing someone else doing it. In particular these mirror neurons seem to be active when we witness emotional states in other people and feel empathy with them. It seems that mirror neurons are involved in modelling the posture, gesture and facial expression we see in others, in order to understand the kinds of feelings we associate with that physical arrangement. This ability to sense emotions in others is quite accurate, and important for us social primates.

Metzinger speculates that these two types of neurons might have been associated with the development of communication and I want to run with this idea, and sketch out an idea about how language might have evolved.

Once we move beyond the very simple forms of animal life - the single celled organisms - and look at the way animals communicate there are clearly hierarchies. We all release chemical messengers, e.g. hormones, and these are sensed with the mouth and nose, or have a physical effect on us. The other form of communication shared by all animals is posture - and posture is one of the basic activators for the canonical and mirror neurons. Posture can communicate attitude - aggression, receptivity (for mating), submission or dominance. But not much beyond this. Think of reptiles.

Subtlety begins to emerge when we employ three other forms of communication. Over posture we note that reptiles will sometimes reinforce posture with sound, although reptilian sounds don't add much to the message. Birds developed elaborate postural displays, and added more complex sounds to the mix. These sounds mainly seem to transmit the the message conveyed by posture -- e.g. territorial displays, or receptivity to mating -- but over a broader area. In other words, birds can broadcast their posture. Mammals, however, are capable of producing more sophisticated sounds, though these are still related to fairly basic 'emotions' like fear, contentment, receptivity, and aggression.

Some mammals added gesture, a more subtle form of posture, to the mix. Gesture allows for more nuanced communication. Then primates in particular added facial expression to this mix. With these one can communicate a wider range of emotions. Scholars have come up with many lists of basic emotions which overlap but do not converge. However, any list would contain some common items, for instance: anger, joy, sadness, fear, disgust, surprise, desire. All of these, and many variations can be accurately communicated without any words through posture, gesture, tone of voice, and facial expression.

With posture, non-language verbal sounds, gesture, and facial expression we can communicate the full range of human emotions. However there is not much scope for abstraction, no possibility of communicating outside the immediate present. And in fact we share this level of communication with other primates. We do know that chimps are capable passing on knowledge of tool use, of planning, and getting others to cooperate in group actions that require forward thinking - war and hunting. So this level of communication is quite sophisticated, but language is orders of magnitude more sophisticated again.

Language sits on top of all of this. You would be forgiven for thinking that language existed apart from all of this because linguists seldom make reference to non-linguistic communication, and are often focussed on just the words involved in language, or even just written language. As I mentioned, Lakoff & Johnson have argued that the metaphors which underlie the our abstract though are based in our physical interactions with the world. So native English speakers know the metaphor that up is good (on the whole) and down is bad: e.g. a good mood is up; optimists feel things are looking up etc. (Similar metaphors are found in Sanskrit btw.). Similarly, in discussions we employ the argument is war metaphor: we take sides and defend positions against opponents; a vigorous exchange involves cut and thrust; we line points up and shoot them down; and we win if our points are on target or we exploit a weakness, or lose when our argument is undermined or demolished; we love to drop bombshells, and overturn paradigms, but hate to capitulate and back down. This suggests that language doesn't jut sit on top of the under-layers of physical, emotional communication, but is deeply rooted in them, and perhaps emerges out of them. We can't really consider language separately from gesture for instance, or from posture, or tone of voice.

Further support for this idea comes from research on the Brocas area of the brain. This region is intimately connected with language, but is also part of the system that controls motor function in the mouth and hands. V. S. Ramacandran (in his 2003 Reith Lectures) speculated that cross-activation in this area is responsible for the tongue poking out during intense concentration on manual tasks for instance, and that this is related to the evolution of language. Gestures, mouth movements and language are obviously connected. People can communicate complex abstract language with only their hands.

Vocal sounds are, at least some of the time, used symbolically and the study of this phenomenon is called Sound Symbolism or Phonosemantics. The roots of sound symbolism may be in pre-language sounds which communicate emotions, and in mouth movements which either directly interact with an object, or imitate an interaction. In which case we would expect that both canonical and mirror neurons would be involved in the language as well - I'm not sure if anyone has looked at this.

One of the central dictates of modern linguistics is that "the sign is arbitrary". This is usually qualified by saying that it is arbitrary but not random, since clearly conventions of sounds are seen. Sound symbolism takes this further by saying that the conventions are so pervasive and they represent such a high a level of organisation that they cannot be arbitrary. Indeed it would be surprising if verbal sounds were arbitrary in relation to the concept being conveyed because they would exist outside the structure of language itself. Lakoff & Johnson say that abstractions are not arbitrary, but rooted in how we physically interact with the world. Sound symbolism tells us that there is a relationship between a word and it's meaning which is not arbitrary, but related to how verbal sounds function as symbols.

So Metzinger's theory is interesting because we can construct a plausible narrative about the evolution of communication around it, and it links up with other interesting ideas about the brain, the mind, and the evolution of language. It can incorporate many different observations, and it dovetails with other theories of embodied awareness and communication. It certainly seems to tie together many of my own interests. Though I note that one reviewer of The Ego Tunnel complained that "Grandiose philosophy is so 19th-century". [1] So perhaps Metzinger and I, with our interest in such "grandiose philosophy", are out of step with contemporary philosophy - but there have been few ages when being out of step with contemporary philosophers has been a bad thing. Personally I think Metzinger is ahead of his time.

This is not idle speculation on my part, nor only a side line. This idea has been bubbling away in my Buddhist brain because I am fascinated by Buddhist mantra. Mantras are said to be sound symbols, and I'm interested in how verbal sounds function as symbols. I believe that this sketch of a theory, or something very like it, might begin to explain the effectiveness of Buddhist mantras both as a collective, devotional practice, and in individual meditative practice -- without resort to the supernatural.


  1. Flanagan, O. (2009). Review: The Ego Tunnel by Thomas Metzinger. New Scientist, 201(2700), 44.

image: Rhetorical gestures. Wikimedia.