09 June 2017

Compatibility Issues 2. In And Of The World

In part one, I argued for a mind-independent world, though I critiqued calling this world "reality" or projecting onto it human longings or idealisations. The mind-independent world is not "transcendental" or "absolute", it is neutral. And we do have some idea of what it is like, so it is not ineffable. I want to continue by considering humanity's place in this mind-independent world and exploring the nature of experience. 

In And Of The World

For the longest time we considered ourselves to be apart from the world. There was the universe and there was us. And we were special. So special that the universe was made just for us; and/or we were made to decorate the universe. And typically this specialness was fractal - at whatever level you look, people believed something along the lines that they were "God's chosen people". This has led to untold conflict and suffering as "the chosen ones" sought to convince others of their specialness by killing, raping, pillaging, and/or enslaving them. I'm this writing in the aftermath of a series of religiously inspired mass murders in London (mind you, I'm also against our government committing similar murders in the Middle-East).

Our discoveries about the world have dissolved us into the world. What we have learned has reduced any distinctions between us and the world; between us and other animals; and between different tribes amongst us. We are very much in and of the world. We're pretty much all alike, tell the same kind of stories about the world and ourselves, have the same kinds of longings. Most people's needs are actually pretty simple: shelter, food, sex, and community. The more we look, the less special human beings are. We just happen to be better at a particular combination of functions that are widely found in the living part of the world; and to have co-opted some key functionality to other tasks (such as shape recognition being adapted to reading).

I make the distinction between experience and a mind-independent world (sometimes I say "experience and reality") because it's a useful way of talking. The distinction is methodological, to some extent epistemological, but not ontological. From my point of view, your mind is independent of my mind, but it is not independent of the world, indeed it counts as part of the world. You have a similar frame of reference with respect to other people. And with all due respect to the psychonauts exploring the far reaches of mind—who say, for example, that they "have no self"—their sensory field is still created by their senses not mine, and they still only have access to their thoughts and only have motor control over their body. Even if they don't feel a sense of ownership, they still have to acknowledge the physical limitations of being embodied and the applicability of natural laws. I think they know this, but struggle with conditioning which prompts them to see their experience as reality. Our minds are not little motes of non-world, are not separate from the world, but are merely a subset of the world.

John Searle makes the distinction between objective and subjective modes of being. I'm not entirely happy with this terminology, but it can be useful in emphasising this point about mental activity. What happens in our minds is only directly accessible to us, which is why we might say that it has a subjective mode of being. The neural activity that generates the mental activity is itself objective. It's only the emergent results that are subjective (i.e. accessible only to our own minds). The analogy I use is that the nutrients from the food we eat are only accessible to our bodies, because when we ingest them the chemical processes of digestion take place inside our bodies. Similarly the processes that produce minds take place inside a body and the results are only directly accessible within that body. So mind is subjective in the same way that digestion is subjective.

Just as we have an objective science of digestion, there is no reason we cannot have an objective science of mental activity. Although I predict it won't be through reductive methods and theories. Reductionism is fine for exploring substance, but it destroys structure and mind is all about structure and emergent properties of structures. We've scarcely begun to explore antireductive methods of understanding reality, because most of us (including Buddhists) are still obsessed with the successes of reductionism. To the best of my understanding, enlightenment doesn't change any of this.


What A Mind Does.

Minds (all minds) do work in a distinctive way. Our ideas and images need not be real or conform to the laws of nature. I can imagine a pig with wings. I may mentally give it many details so that it becomes incredibly vivid in my mind's eye. However, at no point in this process does a pig with wings exist. I can even infect your mind with my image, by describing the pig with wings to you. Now you have a pig with wings in your mind too. But there is still no pig with wings in the world. Imaginary objects are not bound by the same rules as real ones. One couldn't just stick wings on a pig an expect it to fly. For example birds have many specific adaptations that enable them to fly, including hollow bones, feathers to create an aerofoil, musculature to produce the required power, and so on. Our mental images and creations don't have to deal with these physical limitations. We can be fairly sure that any animal that plays or dreams has the same interesting capacity to some extent.

I think most scientists and philosophers now believe that, despite the freedom of mental content, the mechanisms that generate that content do follow the laws of nature. Even though we're not quite sure how its done, we've ruled out other possibilities. For example, there is no need, no room, for a supernatural explanation of mental activity. We can be confident that mental activity is an emergent property of a living brain. Not absolutely certain, but as certain as we can about anything. We leave open the possibility that miraculous testimony might one day be backed up by miraculous evidence, but until then we focus on what seems overwhelmingly likely.

Any living body that has a functioning brain will display far more complex behaviour than one without, and the motions of that body will deviate from the norms dictated by simple physics. If you stand me and a bowling ball at the bottom of the stairs in my house, the bowling ball will never spontaneously go upstairs; whereas I do this all the time (as does my landlady and her cats). Some aspects of having a mind are obvious from the outside. If I go upstairs empty handed and return with a coffee mug, it's no great stretch of the imagine to speculate that I went up stairs for the purpose of getting that mug and that I am now going to do some mug-related activity like making coffee or washing up. You can infer how my mind works based on your previous knowledge of me, on your general knowledge about people, and on how your own mind works. This procedure is not unerringly accurate, but good enough at the level for which we evolved the capacity (i.e. to enable a small-to-medium, mutually-dependent social group to thrive). We can model how each other feels through noting and imitating facial expression, tone of voice, posture, etc., though experience suggest we're less good at attributing motives. These forms of mind-reading apply for social mammals and even work both ways to some extent between us and domesticated animals. 

In John Searle's terms some parts of the world have a subjective mode of being (i.e. mental activity), and some have an objective mode of being. However, I think Searle goes wrong at this point. He argues that our experience of things that have an objective mode of being is "direct" (a favourite word amongst Buddhists). In other words he consciously adopts a naive realism. There is so much evidence against naive realism that one boggles that such a clever guy, who has made such major contributions to how we understand ourselves, would go off the rails at this point and argue for something as daft as naive realism.

Not only is our mental activity a small part of the world, but the mental activity we are aware of is a small part of the overall activity. Our brain is constantly processing and producing information, but just occasionally it shunts something into the part of the brain that deal with self-awareness. The conscious part of our mental activity is just the tip of the iceberg, though again we tend to privilege this part because we identify with it as special. The "direct" quality of perception is an illusion. And the best evidence for this is the large number of perceptual illusions we are prone to. Experience is never direct. However, many Buddhists claim that they can, through mental exercises, perceive "direct experience". In this case they mean "direct" in an entirely different sense that is more to do with stripping away any conceptual overlays. Voluntarily shutting down one's higher brain functions produces a certain way of perceiving experience that aficionados recommend, but there is nothing direct about it.

So this is the situation that we find ourselves in. We live in a particular kind of world, but we are also wholly in and of that world. A tiny part of the world is dependent on, and only accessible to, my mind; but for the most part the world—the incomprehensibly vast universe covering dozens of orders of magnitude—is independent of any mind.*
* If the reader is still thinking, "But what about the need to observe the cat in the box?", I direct them to my essay, Erwin Schrödinger Didn't Have a Cat (29 October 2010). 

Experience as Simulation

My view is also a form of realism, we might call it a qualified realism. I take seriously what scientists tell me about how I perceive the world. Early Buddhists seem to have got this at least partially right: experience is not simply the subjective domain of the world, it is what happens when the objective and subjective domains overlap. I follow the representationalists (especially Antonio Damasio and Thomas Metzinger) who argue that our brains form virtual models of self and world, and that these are what we experience, or that these are experience (in which case they correspond to the five skandhas of the Buddhist tradition). My seeing a form is mediated by a large number of brain areas that process vision, but also with areas that recognise what things are, that name attributes, that create emotional responses, and that inform me of how I might interact with what I'm seeing. To perceive something is to infer knowledge about it, but also to infer possible interactions, and so on.

One of the key methods in neuroscience to-date is to tally all the ways in which perception, cognition, and our sense-of-self, can go wrong and then try to infer what the mind must be like to be able to go wrong in that way. When one takes all the evidence into account there is no other plausible explanation: perception and particularly our perception of a sense-of-self, are virtual rather than real. "Virtual" here means, having all the properties and functions of a real thing, but not being physically instantiated. The brain is a reality emulator. The sense of having a first-person perspective on experience can break, or we can shut it down through meditative techniques. Unfortunately if this happens to us, it tends to lead to unwarranted metaphysical speculation. In particular, for Buddhists, the shift in perspective is interpreted as an insight into the nature of reality. Religieux indoctrinated with different views take this experience as meaning something else, such as being one with God or merging with the absolute.

Experience is an emergent property of living, embodied brains. Experience only exists, to the extent that it exists at all, as a product of our interactions with a mind-independent world. In this, experience is unlike the world, i.e. experience is dependent on our mind. It is presumably more efficient to employ a model of the world because the sheer volume of incoming information would otherwise quickly overwhelm us and render us incapable of action or reaction. After all this is why human employ models when dealing with complex situations.

We can make a methodological distinction between experience and reality, with some caveats. Firstly, "reality" is used in the value neutral sense that I have described; and, secondly, we have to acknowledge that ultimately experience is an aspect of reality, i.e. that part of reality, with a "subjective mode of being", that only we have access to. However, roughly speaking, experience is our personal world; while reality is the public world that we all share. For each of us there is an epistemological distinction between self and world (our thoughts are clear to us, others' thoughts are opaque). And it can be useful to talk as though these were separate as long as no one is confused about the context.


Buddhism, Experience, and Reality

While the ancient Greeks were busy speculating about "reality", in ancient India they had figured out that if you completely ignore sense experience, there is a class of experiences that one can have that are unlike any other. By focussing internally, one can withdraw into a state of peaceful bliss. This is not only very evocative of mind-body dualism, sky-beings and all that, but it also gives the meditator a totally new perspective on experience. Reflecting on experience, especially in the light of being aware while experience stops and then restarts, can result in permanent changes to how we experience the world. The first-person perspective can drop away, leaving us operating in a field of experiences without a subjective reference point. Those who do experience the world in this way describe it in glowing terms.

For many Buddhist traditions this luminous experience is reality. Part of my project is pointing out that it isn't. Selflessness is still experiential, or at least involves a perspective on, inferences from, and interpretations of experience. Granted, the luminosity or selflessness or whatever are unlike anything humans normally experience, but they are still experiences being had by a person. The interpretations of the significance of these experiences are so very obviously culturally determined, that calling it "liberation" in any ultimate sense is clearly going beyond the data. One may well be free of certain types of conditioning as a result, but intellectually many well-worn ruts still exist and channel the thoughts of the "enlightened". Typically the liberated person judges their experience to confirm the doctrine that they have been indoctrinated with. Thus the liberated still appear to suffer from confirmation bias. I've recently come across work by Jeffery A. Martin, which I have yet to fully evaluate, but at the very least he appears to have a useful vocabulary for this kind of experience, which he calls "non-symbolic". Enlightenment in his terms would be persistent or on-going non-symbolic experience. I think this may turn out to be a very useful of talking about enlightenment to disentangle it from the legacy terminology of Asian tradition (not to mention unhelpful English translations of such terminology).

Unfortunately the non-symbolic experience is so engrossing and all encompassing, that those who have it are often supremely confident in their interpretations of their experiences. They are often unwilling to contemplate any other interpretation. I accept that at least some of the people who claim to have no self, really do have a different experience of the world, but I'm unwilling to accept their metaphysical/ontological claims on face value.

Experiences of the non-symbolic type led to Buddhists to develop an influential discourse that begins with a simile: "form is like an illusion" (rūpam māyopama). Here "form" represents all of the five branches of experience, i.e. form, sensations, perception, volition, and cognition. These are how early Buddhist conceptualised the processes required to have experiences. So we could read this as, "experience is like an illusion". The skandhas are still not a bad list, even if the definitions of the items have become overly vague. Many people find the skandhas provide a useful methodological focus for reflecting on experience. "Illusion", here, translates the Sanskrit and Pāḷi word māyā, which comes from a root (√) meaning "to create", and is related to the creative power of gods. In Buddhist myth, for example, the Buddha's mother is called Māyā, which probably means something like "Creatrix" (it's a Brahmanical name with Brahmanical religious connotations). However, in Buddhist texts māyā usually refers to something conjured up, usually by magic, which deceives the mind into thinking it is real, when it is not. 

How can we understand the idea that experience like an illusion? In the context I have been outlining, we can say that experience, is like an illusion to the extent that it is unlike the mind-independent world. In other words the question about experience and illusion only makes sense when the contrast between solid objects and ephemeral experience is clear.

I had an insight into this on a long retreat some years ago. I was standing with a friend, both of us looking at a 100m vertical rock face. And I said, "but it doesn't change". My friend's response was "close your eyes". In that instant of closing my eyes, the rock did not change one iota; but my experience of the rock changed completely. My experience changed from a primarily visual one to a primarily mnemonic one (I had a fresh memory of seeing the rock). When I opened my eyes again and switched back to a visual experience, the rock was again apparently unchanged, but my experience changed completely. It's not that everything changes, although, of course, it does. It's that experience is impermanent, unsatisfactory, and insubstantial. In fact experience can completely cease, leaving us alive and aware, but not aware of anything. This is not reality, but is better described as the experience of the cessation of experience (nirodha or nibbāna).

The idea of a mind-independent world is not explicitly endorsed by any Buddhist text. However, the early Buddhist model of perception requires that there be what we would call an "object", but which they called a "foundation" (ālambhana) that is not encompassed by their idea of mind. The foundation is contrasted with the sense faculty (indriya) and sense cognition (vijñāna). In other words the foundation for perception is independent of the mind. However, nothing is ever said about the nature of the foundations of perception. It is merely a background to the act of perception and the focus in entirely on the cognitive aspects of the act. However, it does mean that a mind-independent world is entirely consistent with the early Buddhist model of perception.

The philosophical position that the world is an illusion is common in other Indian traditions (especially in Sāṃkya-darśana and the traditions it influenced such as Vedanta and Patañjali's Yoga ). However, this position is not practical and long ago ceased to be interesting. In fact, we know that the world is not an illusion. The world is real, in the value neutral way I have described. Experience can certainly deceive us about the world, but this is a commentary on experience, not on reality.

The world is not an illusion or even like an illusion. Quite the opposite. The world is the (relatively) stable reality against which the concept of "illusion" has meaning. We contrast experience with the world and discover that unlike the world, experience is like an illusion - virtual, fleeting, unsatisfactory, insubstantial. This is an epistemological distinction. The ontological argument that mind and body, or mind and world, are substantially different or made of different stuff is untenable. Everything is a manifestation of one kind of stuff and reductionism is the right method for dealing with questions of stuff or substances. However, structures made from stuff are also "real", i.e. existent and causal. Reductionism fails at this point precisely because the associated methods destroy the very structures we wish to study. 


Summary So Far

In Part 1, I argued for a mind-independent world. Or at least I summarised arguments that I have previously made at greater length, based on ideas I have drawn from various sources, especially Sean Carroll, Richard H Jones, and John Searle. I argued that this mind-independent world is value neutral, that it doesn't fit the narratives developed over centuries in which the world mirrors projections of human desires. The world is not absolute, transcendent, ultimate, divine or any of that. It just is what it is.

In this part I have tried to show that our relation to this world is not separate or unique, but integrated and of the same type. However, I also noted that our experience is not like the mind-independent world. Indeed, it is the contrast between experience and the world that helps up to makes sense of the Buddhist claim that experience is "like an illusion". This is a distinction I think few Buddhists will easily accept, because most of us are deeply indoctrinated to believe the exact opposite: either some form of idealism in which the mind literally creates the world; or that experience is the world. I see the standard Buddhist narratives as problematic and in the next part I will explain why. In the briefest possible terms, Buddhism as it stands is not compatible with the laws of nature. There could hardly be a worse situation for Buddhists.

~~oOo~~

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