Tuesday, March 22, 2011

How did "Buddhism get neuroscience right?"

Those sort of questions often seem to be the wrong questions to me, but one David Weisman writes:

[Buddhists] believe in an impermanent and illusory self made of shifting parts. They’ve even come up with language to address the problem between perception and belief. Their word for self is anatta, which is usually translated as ‘non self.’  One might try to refer to the self, but the word cleverly reminds one’s self that there is no such thing.

When considering a Buddhist contemplating his soul, one is immediately struck by a disconnect between religious teaching and perception. While meditating in the temple, the self is an illusion. But when the Buddhist goes shopping he feels like we all do: unified, in control, and unchanged from moment to moment. The way things feel becomes suspect. And that’s pretty close to what neurologists deal with every day, like the case of Mr. Logosh.

Mr. Logosh was 37 years old when he suffered a stroke. It was a month after knee surgery and we never found a real reason other than trivially high cholesterol and smoking. Sometimes medicine is like that: bad things happen, seemingly without sufficient reasons. In the ER I found him aphasic, able to understand perfectly but unable to get a single word out, and with no movement of the right face, arm, and leg. We gave him the only treatment available for stroke, tissue plasminogen activator, but there was no improvement. He went to the ICU unchanged. A follow up CT scan showed that the dead brain tissue had filled up with blood. As the body digested the dead brain tissue, later scans showed a large hole in the left hemisphere...
The next day Mr. Logosh woke up and started talking. Not much at first, just ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ Then ‘water,’ ‘thanks,’ ‘sure,’ and ‘me.’ We eventually sent him to rehab, barely able to speak, still able to understand...

When we consider our language, it seems unified and indivisible. We hear a word, attach meaning to it, and use other words to reply. It’s effortless. It seems part of the same unified language sphere. How easily we are tricked! Mr. Logosh shows us that unity of language is an illusion. The seeming unity of language is really the work of different parts of the brain, which shift and change over time, and which fracture into receptive and expressive parts.

Consider how easily Buddhism accepts what happened to Mr. Logosh. Anatta is not a unified, unchanging self. It is more like a concert, constantly changing emotions, perceptions, and thoughts. Our minds are fragmented and impermanent. A change occurred in the band, so it follows that one expects a change in the music.

Both Buddhism and neuroscience converge on a similar point of view: The way it feels isn’t how it is. There is no permanent, constant soul in the background. Even our language about ourselves is to be distrusted (requiring the tortured negation of anatta). In the broadest strokes then, neuroscience and Buddhism agree.
How did Buddhism get so much right? I speak here as an outsider, but it seems to me that Buddhism started with a bit of empiricism. Perhaps the founders of Buddhism were pre-scientific, but they did use empirical data. They noted the natural world: the sun sets, the wind blows into a field, one insect eats another. There is constant change, shifting parts, and impermanence. They called this impermanence anicca, and it forms a central dogma of Buddhism.
 While there are quite a few that want a magical kind of Buddhism, (Buddhists or not) this empirical viewpoint has been, I'd agree, part of Buddhism from its origins.

But I'd also point out to the author that generation after generation after generation of Buddhists spent a whole lot of time observing human behavior, and so they had time to refine what they observed.  This is why it's kind of strange to me that there are folks that want to point to the "original" this or that as evidence that "the Buddha really said" this or that.  That's just a dodge, just as when some folks say "I didn't say it, God did." It is a denial of  your responsibility to observe without attachment.

And I'd also point out to the author that not all Buddhists adhere to a position of the "reincarnation of consciousness," at least not in a personal, "it happens after death" and is punted to another being sense.

Yeah, "Buddhists believe that..." There are things some Buddhists believe and some  Buddhists generally take as true, based on observation. And some things to take as true to the point of belief are good sense and don't harm others.


Petteri Sulonen said...

Not just human behavior, either. I'm pretty sure that it comes mostly from introspection, and sharing the experiences of that introspection. Sit still and pay attention for a while, and that unified view of the self does start to come apart; it's as if the self fades in and out of existence as phenomena come and go. Get enough people doing that and comparing notes, and you get the Abhidhamma.

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