Saturday, September 14, 2013

Consciousness, Mind, and Evolution

On  there's a good article dealing with scientific observations regarding consciousness, and it certainly has import to Buddhists.  But I think the writer gets some of the religious implications wrong regarding at least Buddhism.

According to Princeton University neuroscientist Michael Graziano,... Our brains create models of the world around us, including our bodies, in order to be attentive to the various signals we get from our senses. So in the Pinocchio Illusion, your brain creates a model of what your body looks like and the model falls apart due to the conflicting stimuli. Our brains might be exceptionally good at making models, but they’re never perfect replicas of what’s happening in the world, just fast and loose sketches to make sense of things. 
There’s a funny consequence to our brains’ proficiency in model-making, Professor Michael Graziano argues in his book Consciousness and the Social Brain, which came out this month. That consequence is what we call consciousness, the ineffable ungraspable “I,” the magic sauce of Being that defines our essential humanness. From Descartes’s “Cogito ergo sum,” to Kant’s theory of a priori forms, to Taoist, nondualist Vedantic whatever, the origin of consciousness has been, you know, a real head-scratcher. And Professor Graziano’s theory proposes an exceptionally clear explanation of what’s going on in our domes’ pieces every day of our short little lives.   
So to the question: Are we ordained by our divine creator or are we just delusional lumps of carbon and guts? Professor Graziano concludes something closer to latter. But it’s not delusion that makes our brains aware. It’s a highly functional adaptive strategy. 

Graziano is quoted in the article as saying:

So let’s think about what the physical project of attention is: there’s an agent, a brain, a being that’s focusing its processing power on a particular set of signals that neuroscientists call attention; the signals might pertain to the sandwich you’re holding. There’s an agent and there’s a sandwich, and there’s a relationship between the two: that is, the agent is focusing its resources on the sandwich. That’s attention. 
So when you build a model of that it will have a large amount of information about the agent—who you are, where you are, your memories, your information about yourselves—that model should contain information about the sandwich, and it should contain information about the relationship between the two. And, crucially, the model will have information about what it means for an agent to focus attention on a thing. What I’m saying is that there is information in the brain, a large dossier with lots of descriptive information that there’s a you, and there’s a sandwich and a specific relationship: you are aware of the sandwich.

I don't think this is particularly shocking or new, and despite what the author implies I fail to see how it has any particularly damaging implications to Buddhism.  If our small-m mind's awareness is indeed a manifestation of what the brain does to model sensory phenomena (including awareness of awareness), that awareness is indeed interdependent and co-existant with the myriad things.  It is not separate, and is separate from them.  Moreover,  we know that this awareness is modulated in ways that are specifically dependent on other life forms besides "ourselves," even if we're doing the solitary hermit thing.

Moreover, at least as far as practice is concerned, which pretty much sums up the whole thing for Buddhists,  the fact that this biochemical physical process is going on intimately related to awareness isn't particularly relevant unless you're a Buddhist neuroscience researcher and your right livelihood consists of work in that area.

This is not to say that any old, new, or random metaphysical system is true or false, but as far as can be observed, a great many of them are irrelevant to practice in the world, if practice in the world can be realized without appeal to those metaphysical systems.

I have taken Buddhist precepts; I consider myself a Buddhist.  I understand that the Lankavatara sutra places great emphasis on Mind as the "most real" existence.   On the other hand, Buddha nature pervades the whole universe, we chant.  It is revealed right here and now. It's not that the Buddhist precepts requires belief in the "truth" of the Lankavatara Sutra or any sutra, per se.  But clearly the little-m mind does have, at least as is physically observable, a pervasiveness in the universe.  As to the Big-M Mind (trademark  that, Mr. Merzel), if you've had experience of it, I don't see a need to doubt that experience even if it is co-dependent/co-existent with specific biophysical chemical phenomena.  The writers of the Sutras, the Patriarchs, etc. were describing, what seems to be co-dependent/co-existent with these specific biophysical chemical phenomena.  So what?

There's no need to invalidate the experience because of that, and in fact, I would say that an attempt to invalidate that experience by claiming it wasn't real because "the biochemistry and physics did it" is itself a mystification of experience.  The reason I say this, is because through practice we're attempting to have a mind that is not holding on to anything. Anything.  And that includes the infinite fun house mirror logic of not holding on to not holding on to...etc. 

It seems to me as that the author in making his claim might be implying "Hold on to the physical world!"  But, outside of the practice of neuroscience I think the author misses the point of experience and practice.  

We Buddhists of course don't have a divine creator, and I'm sure some Taoists and more than a few Hindus would object to the implicit privileging of of a monotheistic framework for discussing the metaphysical implications of awareness.  I do wish people that write this stuff, and for that matter, some of the New Atheists would be more acknowledging of the nuances of thought involved in non-monotheistic religions and their outlook. More than a few of us reject magic and hocus-pocus and woo. (And some of us, including practicing Hindus that I've met, are atheists.)  But then again,  most of the New Atheists I've read about  are intellectual descendants of Bertrand Russell rather than Jean-Paul Sartre or Nietzsche.  As William Barrett wrote in Irrational Man: A Study in Existentialist philosophy:

I love reading Russell's History of Western philosophy (just as I love reading Dawkins). And I share the general direction of where Sartre and Nietzsche were going, as it leads I think, to a Buddhist emptiness.,  However I think as the above paragraph shows, they were still rather attached to the notions of monotheism, their atheism as attached, as it were, to monotheism to a certain extent, as was Russell.  But Russell was all too human, as were the other Europeans mentioned in this paragraph, as am I.  But I'm practicing.  


Shokai said...

I have been thinking a lot lately along the same lines, especially how this relates to the first three links in the Buddha's chain of dependent origination. This teaching has consciousness dependent upon "mental formations" that arise out of ignorance, which I maintain is the subconscious - the parts of the mind of which we have no perception. Graziano's book (I almost bought in in Powell's last week!) and the Vice article are both just more pointers at how neurology is coming to the same conclusion as the Buddha had reached.

Mumon K said...


It does indeed seem the recent findings are consistent with the Buddha's position as expressed in the Buddhist literature.