26 April 2013

Metaphors and Materialism

brain pathways
human connectome project
OVER the years I've been puzzled by the horror of materialism that some people exhibit. Materialism never really bothered me. It's been pretty successful and I like some of the stuff it comes up with: medicines, computers and communications tech, air and space travel, electric guitars. Cool stuff.

More recently, however, I have tried to explain that I am philosophically not a materialist. I don't think we have direct contact with the material world. My understanding is that we can infer things about that world, but not know it directly. Any explanations relating to the world are perforce explanations of our experience of the world, rather than the world itself, something I try to make explicit in my writing. I'm chiefly concerned with the nature of experience rather than the nature of reality.

In the course of exchanging comments on the different ways of understanding consciousness I had a little breakthrough in understanding the aversion to materialism. Michael Dorfman, said this:
"I'm just saying that there's no good reason to assume that consciousness/qualia/etc. are reducible to matter."
I have read the works of George Lakoff for many years now, with varying degrees of comprehension. To be honest some of it is still over my head. However, it's from Lakoff that I learned about the idea of embodied cognition (which makes me think a disembodied mind is an oxymoron). I learned about metaphor from Lakoff and his writing partner Mark Johnson. And it was seeing this statement by Michael in the light of Lakoff & Johnson's work in a book called Metaphors We Live By that lead to an insight. I hasten to add that Michael chastised me at some length for suggesting that he might think the way I'm about to describe. But I think we all do at least to some extent, myself included.

The phrase "reducible to matter" is an abstraction. Lakoff & Johnson show that virtually all abstract thought is carried out metaphorically. And that the metaphors we use to manage abstractions are rooted in our experiences of the world and the way we interact with it. "Reducible to matter" implies that matter is more fundamental than other kinds of substance. The metaphor is: MATTER IS BASIC (I'll follow Lakoff & Johnson's convention of putting explicit metaphors in upper-case). The major contrast with matter in the West is spirit.

Spirit is what animates or vivifies dead matter, but it is a separate kind of substance which can be independent of matter. It may or may not reside in a separate realm of spirit and may or may not be associated with an afterlife. Where matter can collapse back into its inanimate state, spirit is the opposite. Freed of its association with matter, spirit rises up. Although spirit is associated with animation, motion and change it seems not to be affected by these. Spirit is like a catalyst that is involved in a chemical reaction, but remains unchanged at the end. These days we often hear spirit referred to as 'energy', a word borrowed from physics. As frustrating as it can be to hear this word misused, energy is what animates matter (or what makes matter animate). Spirit which is a pre-scientific concept does have affinities with energy in the scientific sense, especially if we are not very sophisticated in thinking about science. Another cross over area is quantum mechanics. The popular versions of quantum mechanics emphasise the apparent subjectivity involved in the world (the observer effect was originally pointed out as a flaw in the Copenhagen Interpretation) which hints at spirit underlying even matter at the most basic level. As post-Christians we may not explicitly believe in spirit, but I think it lurks in the background.

Metaphors exist in webs of relationship. For example what is fundamental is (practically and metaphorically) lower down. And with respect to spirit: MATTER IS LOWER; SPIRIT IS HIGHER. This is a spatial metaphor. Lakoff & Johnson relate it to our experience of being bipeds: when we are alive, healthy and active we are upright; when we are dead, unhealthy and inactive we are prostrate. That is to say the spatially vertical metaphor can be understood to relate to our experience of physical verticality. The metaphor MATTER IS LOWER; SPIRIT IS HIGHER is related to the more basic metaphor UP IS GOOD; DOWN IS BAD. And thus logically MATTER IS BAD; SPIRIT IS GOOD. Metaphors are thus not stand-alone, but interdependent and interconnected. We begin see the metaphorical implications of "reducible to matter".

Because GOOD IS UP, and SPIRIT IS UP, heaven above is the realm of spirit (or is it vice versa?). Earth (down here) is the realm of matter. Below earth at the nadir (down there) is Hell. So we have heaven, the world, and the underworld as the basic pre-scientific structure of our cosmos. This structure emerges from the notion of good-and-evil combined with an afterlife. [1] We might not believe in God or heaven or any of this, but we understand these metaphors because we have grown up in a society where these are part of the landscape of abstract thought.

A metaphor like UP IS GOOD is not an absolute. For instance: more inflation is bad, but the vertical spatial metaphor also applies like this: MORE IS UP and LESS IS DOWN. In this case because MORE IS BAD, UP IS BAD. We don't usually struggle with deciphering these metaphors despite the complexity and conflict. Indeed we may not even notice that we are using metaphors. There are many ways in which metaphors based on experience can be used. We can say that a house "burned up" and also that it "burned down". Two distinct metaphors are involved. "Burning down" means that the house was reduced to a more basic state (the construction falls down or is reduced to ash); "burning up" means the substance was consumed. Compare "eaten up" and "used up", which reflect another metaphor: EATING IS FIRE. Fire sends flames, smoke, and sparks upwards, into the realm of heaven. This is important for fire sacrifices - the substance of the oblation is converted into flame and smoke (which is more like spirit than solid matter) and is wafted upwards into the sky, to the realm of spirit. Fire is the agent in both cases, and the result is the same, but it is reached via two distinct metaphorical routes, reflecting different experiences of, and interactions with, fire. The appetitive aspect of fire is prominent in Buddhism, particularly in the Ādittapariyāya Sutta (SN 35.28, PTS iv.19) aka the Fire Sermon. And the goal of Buddhism is for the fires of greed and aversion to be extinguished (nirvāṇa 'blown out').

For the most part we use these metaphors unconsciously. When we say that we grasp what someone is saying we don't consciously translate the metaphor, we don't need to. We automatically understand the metaphor because it is part of the language and culture and it is rooted in our own experience of the world. Words are not real entities and cannot be physically grasped. However we intuitively understand the metaphor WORDS ARE OBJECTS. And any conceivable physical manipulation of objects can be applied to abstract objects such as words. Words can be twisted, spun, or thrown back and forth. Words can lift us up, put us down and spin us around for example. Words can be hurtful. What I say may come "as a blow". Also words can take on any property that an object might have. Words can abrasive and hard or smooth and soft. Hard words are uncomfortable, soft words soothing. Colourful language can shock or stimulate. None of these statements are perplexing to an English speaker, even for a second, but all of them are metaphorical manipulations of an abstraction. We understand these metaphors because from the moment we began to think abstractly they have structured our thoughts. (This idea is related to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but that digression must wait for another essay).

I've already applied Lakoff & Johnson's ideas to the CONSCIOUSNESS IS A CONTAINER metaphor (see The Mind as Container Metaphor). I'm trying to steer away from the word consciousness at the moment since it seems tied up in the myth of subjectivity and no one seems to know exactly what it is. In that previous essay I tried to show that this container metaphor for the mind is essentially absent from early Buddhism. For us the MIND IS A CONTAINER and THOUGHTS ARE OBJECTS; and thus THE MIND IS A CONTAINER OF THOUGHTS: viz. "What do you have in mind?" "open your mind to me", "keep a lid on your thoughts". The physical basis for this metaphor is fairly obvious since our head is literally a container and we have extensive experience of the properties of containers.

All metaphors are possible, but we tend to use them selectively. Because the head is a container and contains the brain and since the mind is also an object: THE MIND IS IN THE HEAD. The mind and the brain occupy the same container. So there is no cognitive dissonance for us in saying for example: "the thoughts in my brain" as opposed to "the thoughts in my head". Both metaphors work. The limit seems to come around the metaphor THE MIND IS IN THE BRAIN. The metaphor THE BRAIN IS A CONTAINER is just about acceptable, but to go further and say that THE BRAIN PRODUCES THE MIND is a step too far. The problem seems to be a conflict related to matter and spirit. For matter to become living and conscious requires an infusion of spirit from the outside. Also the container is generally conceived of as passive. The container itself does not manipulate the object it contains. The thought object in the mind container is like a marble in a jar. What does the manipulating of the thoughts (the "grasping" of ideas) in the container is generally understood to be 'I'. Despite all the arguments of scientists and philosophers, intuitively there seems to be a homunculus at work. The result is that:
Matter can be animated by spirit; but spirit cannot be animated by matter.
This metaphysical proposition is transparently obvious to a native English speaker and has far reaching implications. I suspect it's true in other languages as well. The equation of life featuring matter and spirit is not associative. The order of the words is important - one cannot take on the function of the other. It's only with conscious effort that we think differently, and even then we still behave as if this is true. Profession of belief is very often distinct from intuitive belief. One of the purposes of Buddhist practice is to try to align the two. Flesh is a special form of animated matter, which I will come back to shortly.

Most Buddhists seem to be at home with the concept of disembodied consciousness moving between lives to be reborn, manifesting as ghosts, leaving the body at times, and all the other supernatural phenomena. We have no problems with 'subtle energy' or 'subtle bodies'. Cakras, nadī, Qi, and prāna are all fine by Buddhists these days. Buddhism seems to be compatible with Reiki, Kinesiology, homeopathy, shiatsu and acupuncture; with Hatha Yoga, Qigong and Taijiquan. We Buddhists happily use words like 'spirit', 'spirits', 'spiritual', and 'spirituality'; and phrases like 'spiritual life', 'spiritual death', 'spiritual rebirth', 'spiritual healing', 'spiritual welfare', 'spiritual awakening', 'spiritual practice' and so on. Of course when pressed we will deny an unchanging spirit, because we know by rote that it is a wrong view.

With regard to flesh we need to look again at the metaphor MATTER IS BASIC. This entails matter being simple, which draws us towards Lakoff's contribution on the subject of categories (from the book Women, Fire and Dangerous Things). Lakoff uses Wittgenstein's "family resemblances" but also draws on contemporary research to elaborate a theory of how we think in categories. When I use the word 'matter' it will evoke a mental category; and in that category each reader will have a prototypical image that represents the category for them. The prototype for 'matter' may well be something simple, like a lump of rock. Matter has the characteristic property of resistance (similar to rūpa in Indian thought). Matter has mass. Matter is lifeless. Matter tends to be dull. Matter is the opposite of spirit which is massless, light, free, colourful and animating. So in terms of prototypes we can see that flesh is a member of the category 'matter' but that it is rather peripheral to that category. Flesh has some of the characteristics of matter, but is more complex and more flexible than the prototype. The living creature occupies a liminal space between matter and spirit. Bridging them as angels bridge heaven and earth (the realms of spirit and matter respectively). Life comes from dust and returns to dust. Spirit is the catalyst which temporarily makes dust more than the sum of its parts.

I well remember seeing my father's dead body in 1991. I can bring to mind the image very clearly. He had been tidied up by the undertaker and was dressed as he often was in slacks and a woollen jumper. His receding hair line was even covered by a comb-over. Long eyebrows. His face was composed, frozen and waxen, but instantly recognisable. Indeed I experienced the emotional tremor of recognition that comes with meeting a loved one. However the body was entirely lifeless; completely unresponsive and inanimate. My father was both present and absent. He had been reduced to matter. I instinctively knew something was missing. I intuited at the time that the missing element was something like "spirit", though I did not use that word. Even now the experience is vivid and the dichotomy between matter and spirit remains the most obvious interpretation, though it is one that I reject on philosophical grounds.

I suspect this experience of dead loved ones may well be the source of our fundamental distinction between matter and spirit. And the source of our quest to understand what animates living things; what separates the quick and the dead.

The situation is further complicated by Romanticism. Most Buddhists I know are crypto-Romantics. They espouse the ideas of Romanticism without knowing or acknowledging that they are adopting a Romantic view of the world. Indeed some seem to imply that Romanticism is an expression of things as they are. My disgruntlement with this uncritical adoption of Romanticism has been steadily growing since reading David McMahan's book The Making of Buddhist Modernism and Thanissaro's essay on The Roots of Buddhist Romanticism. The Romantic is inevitably a dualists and focused on spirit. Romantics see matter as a mere surface beneath which they can penetrate to discover the spirit lurking within. Romantics I know love to quote Blake saying he could see the world in a grain of sand as a very profound statement. Indeed Blake did have a tendency to see things that weren't visible to anyone else. Romantics are the first to argue that Blake was a genius rather than a madman. He saw and conversed with angels, Jesus and God on a daily basis and that ought to make him a saint or a madman (and how often the line between them is blurred). Mere matter, mere flesh, is not of much interest to Romantics, though many of the Victorian Romantics sought ecstasy through the pleasures of the flesh. The original Romantics liked to get "out of their skulls" in various ways. Romantic Buddhists do it with meditation. In meditation one can withdraw from awareness of the body and float about in la la land. Which is not to say that some people are not seeking something a little more satisfying or profound through their practice.

When we put all this together the horror of materialism begins to come into focus. Matter might be suitable to be a container for mind, but not to be the womb which gives birth to it. Mind, rather, is clearly related to spirit. Matter has all the wrong qualities, whereas spirit has all the right qualities. The images conjured up by matter do not fit our images of consciousness. Thus, on an unconscious level, the idea that the mind is strongly associated with matter creates a cognitive dissonance. Unless one has studied chemistry.

Now chemistry is interesting because it combines practical applications (synthesis and analysis) with elegant models and theories about the processes involved. Chemistry in practice is fizzes, fumes, bangs, bubbles, colours, odours, and all manner of exciting transformations. In theory it has a vision of matter which is entirely different from the popular imagination. Atoms are composed mostly of space. They are entities in which there is constant movement and a tug of war between competing forces of attraction and repulsion. Atoms are little bundles of kinetic energy. They combine into molecules which rather violently vibrate, spin, twist, flex, and wriggle; molecules which give off light of every colour of the rainbow and far into the infra-red and ultraviolet. Chemistry is the study of the reactions and transformations of supposedly inert matter. When two or more molecules react they are changed into other molecules: trans-substantiated. There is still a little alchemy present in the science of chemistry. That changing world held me spell-bound for many years (and resulted in a bachelor's degree). I was an adept of that art and science of transforming matter. The possibilities of form and structure are seemingly infinite. Carbon compounds are seemingly uncountable. Every year new compounds are made or discovered and used in various ways. One molecule will kill cancer cells for example. Another can potentially be used to create a room temperature super-conductor. Chemical analysis can tell us what killed Richard III or about how the moon was created. In this world illuminated by chemistry everything is animated . Everything is moving and changing. Matter is solid, liquid, gas, plasma, super-fluid, Bose-Einstein condensate. Even such solidity as it has, is only on the surface: literally surface tension, beneath which lies pure energy. m = E/c2. Thus my prototype of matter is something very different from a lifeless, grey, cold rock!

A few weeks ago I introduced the term apophenia: "the ability to attribute meaning to patterns or events; and significance to stimuli." Psychologist Justin Barrett has proposed that we also have a faculty he dubs Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD). This is a fancy way of saying that we are a bit too ready to assign agency to objects in our experience. Barrett uses this to explain the pervasive belief in gods, but agency is a sign of life more generally; and of sentience in particular (see particularly Why Would Anyone Believe in God??). Humans have a strong tendency to see patterns, assign them significance, and attribute agency to them. We do this even where no pattern exists, the significance is entirely projection, and no agency operates. Something we did not notice until we started to look objectively at ourselves.

Perhaps what we think of as spirit is a product of our ability to attribute meaning and agency where none exists? If we go in search of spirit we never find it because it's just a story told by our over-active imaginations. We imagine ourselves to be so much more than we are and yet we have to continually paper over the cracks of our failures. We can imagine the world a better place, people as better people, but somehow reality always spoils the vision. As Buddhists we nod sagely and intone "saṃsāra" as if we understand.

Whatever the answer is, this story of matter and spirit rolls on in the West. It syncretises with our Buddhism and unconsciously informs our attitudes and approaches. We end up embracing our conditioning rather than transcending it, because we don't even notice that we are conditioned. This is the value of the work of someone like Lakoff. It exposes the structures and patterns of our mind at work. We think we are free to think new thoughts, but really we are constrained in narrow ruts.

There remains this gap in our knowledge; which because of our culture appears to be a spirit shaped gap. We are still unsure how to get from mere matter to the simplest living bacteria without invoking spirit (and in fact most scientists gloss over the part of the equation that says 'and then a miracle happens'). And for some people matter and spirit will remain forever apart. I understand this. I empathise because of my experience with my father, and because I've studied living and dead matter in some detail. However I think the horror of materialism is irrational. I don't have a problem with "we don't yet know" but I don't accept "we can never know" because that argument smells like Romantic spirit.

In fact we don't know if it will be possible to understand the mind. The answer to that problem is difficult to find because the question remains poorly defined. This in turn is (at least in part) because we still struggle on with pre-scientific legacy concepts from philosophy. We do not yet think clearly enough about what the mind is to be able to understand it. In the mean time we seem to be learning a lot. Some of it has practical applications, but all of it is fascinating. If your position is "we'll ever understand the mind" that's fine. But my challenge to you would be to justify such an epistemological position. I don't believe that anyone is in a position to know this. I don't believe it is possible to be categorical about it. By contrast I find myself optimistic about the attempt and enthusiastic about what we are discovering along the way.


  1. This basic threefold structure is found in ancient Egypt. From there is seems to have influenced Zoroastrianism in Iran. In one published and one forthcoming article I argue that from there, via the Śākya tribe, Zoroastrianism influenced the development of Buddhism. See:
    Possible Iranian Origins for Sākyas and Aspects of Buddhism. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. Vol.3 2012. Paid Access.
    The way that ideas about ethics and afterlife combine to produce this threefold structure are discussed in Gananath Obeyesekere's book Imagining Karma. I summarise my own thinking in various essays including:

29 Apr 2013 - I saw this today:
"Free will as an emergent phenomenon can be perfectly compatible with an underlying materialist view of the world." Preposterous Universe.

30 June 2015.
"The fact was that, as droves of demon kings had noticed, there was a limit to what you could do to a soul with, e.g., red-hot tweezers, because even fairly evil and corrupt souls were bright enough to realize that since they didn't have the concomitant body and nerve endings attached to them there was no real reason, other than force of habit, why they should suffer excruciating agony." - Terry Pratchett, Eric.
This is an interesting theological point. The very idea of a soul is that it is not part of the realm of matter, but purely of the realm of spirit. Lacking a body, the soul would be free of all the functions that go with having a body. Thus torturing or pleasuring a soul is impossible. So all narratives of Hell or Paradise are logically false. Not just ridiculous or fantastic, but false on their own terms.

On the other hand if a soul is susceptible to pleasure and pain, then that would imply that it cannot be purely of the world of spirit and must in fact be partially made of matter. And that contradicts the very idea of a soul.

Of course if one is bodily resurrected then that's a different story. But if the body is resurrected, then what is the point of a soul?

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.


09 April 2013

What is Consciousness Anyway?

I'm often frustrated by simplistic worldviews, especially when I fall into one myself. A couple of years back I wrote a response to the charge that is frequently levelled at me, namely that I am a materialist (gasp!). The choices in these cases seem to be materialist or non-materialist (where the latter involves believing in a range of supernatural entities and forces). Similarly there seems to be an assumption that if one is a materialist that one considers consciousness to be a mere epiphenomena. The suggestion is often that if you don't think that consciousness is an ineffable supernatural entity then you must believe it to be mere epiphenomena. But these are not the only two choices. 

A related subject is the idea that science can and does tell us nothing about consciousness. This is clearly not true, as scientists who study the mind are able to tell us a great deal about it. The idea that science cannot explain consciousness seem to be rooted in particular views rather than based on familiarity with scientific inquiry. In other words it's just an ideological position.

I don't think scientists have fully explained consciousness by any means, but there are some very interesting observations of, and ideas about, the mind, and a lot of really insightful deductive work on how the mind must function in order to exhibit the features it does (aka reverse engineering). At present we have some interesting conjectures about how the mind might work that are guiding our search for more data. Scientists are busy trying to disprove one theory or another.

Now, I happen to be a fan of info-graphic guru David McCandless and recently bought a copy of his book Information is Beautiful. One of his infographics lists 12 explanations for consciousness (including a Buddhist version). Each is represented by a graphic and a sentence. The same information with animations is online here. (At time of writing they are conducting a survey of opinions about consciousness using this set). Below is his set of 12 with a couple of additions. The heading in bold and the summary in italics come from McCandless. I have added a few explanatory comments in each case.

Substance Dualism
Consciousness is a field that exists in its own parallel "realm" of existence outside reality so can't be seen.
Aka Cartesian Duality. Strict separation between mind and body. Consciousness and matter are two distinct types of substance. The problems with this view are legend and almost no one takes it seriously any more. Still, if you believe in ghosts or psychic powers then you have a foot in this camp!

Substance Monism
The entire universe is one substance, 
All is one, dude. Included in this is the form of idealism which says that everything is the mind, and physical objects don't really exist. Buddhists sometimes flirt with idealism e.g 'mind only' cittamātra. The opposite extreme, which is more popular in the West is that everything is just material, which is covered by epiphenomenalism, behaviourism and functionalism.

Emergent Dualism
Consciousness is a sensation that "grows" inevitably out of complicated brain states.
This features in a common science fiction theme: a computer network becomes so complex that it spontaneously develops consciousness. As a philosophy of mind this view relies on observations about complex systems emerging from simpler units interacting. One of the central insights of work on fractals and complexity theory is that simple repeating units can produce patterns and processes of startling complexity. The view accepts that we are constructed from matter, but argues that complex arrangements of matter are capable of displaying properties which are greater than the sum of their parts - consciousness and even a soul are attributable to this by proponents.

Property Dualism
Consciousness is a physical property of all matter, like electromagnetism, just not one the scientists know about.
Science is making new discoveries all the time right? So why should we assume that all the properties of matter have been discovered yet? The idea here is that everything is made of one substance, matter, (and it is  thus a form of substance monism) but that matter has multiple properties. In particular matter has physical properties and mental properties. In this view all matter has a psychic component.

This is similar to the Jain view of the world which considered that everything was conscious. Consciousness exists in a hierarchy depending on how many senses the entity possesses. Rock only has the sense of touch, so is only minimally conscious. Some animals have more or different senses than we do.

As a way around both materialism and idealism this view has some merits.

Pan Psychism
All matter has a psychic part. Consciousness is just the psychic part of our brain.
This seems to be a popular view amongst my colleagues. Sometimes its described in terms of the brain being like an radio that 'picks up' consciousness and tunes it in so we can be aware of it. Not very different from property dualism, indeed it is sometimes called Panpsychic property dualism. However Pan Psychism treats everything as mind, where mind has physical and mental properties. As I understand it Theravāda Abhidhamma sees the world in this way. Many Buddhists argue that in our world mind creates the physical world, possibly on the basis of the Nidāna sequence in which viññāna is the condition for nāmarūpa.

Identity Theory
Mental states are simply physical events that we can see in brain scans.
Aka type physicalism or reductive materialism. In this view the states and processes of the mind are identical to states and processes of the brain. In other words what you think of as your consciousness is simply the physical states of the brain. This is a form of monism - it doesn't see the mind as substantially different from the brain. 


Consciousness and its states (belief, desire, pain) are simply functions the brain performs.
Consciousness is the sum of the functions of the brain. Mental states are constituted solely by causal relations to other mental states, sensory inputs, and behavioural outputs. Presumably this does away with the hard problem of consciousness? Functionalism has it's origins in Aristotle's idea of a soul: that it is just that which enables us to function as a human being. Functionalism can be thought of as behaviourism as seen through the lens of cognitive psychology.


Consciousness is literally just behaviour. When we behave in a certain way, we appear conscious.
Once a very popular view behaviourism dispenses with the idea of consciousness. Life is just stimulus and response. In higher animals such as humans this is so complex that it appears to be consciousness, but really it isn't. This kind of mechanistic thinking about humans was popular early in the Enlightenment period when clockwork was the complex mode. I associate behaviourism with the advent of computers. The mind is often likened to the most complex human creation of the moment. Cavemen no doubt thought of the mind as a flint knife. When computers came along as they seemed like a metaphor for the mind. But in practice computers work very differently from the mind. However the invention of neural networks showed that it is possible to imitate more closely how the human mind works. This is the subject of one of De Bono's lesser known works: I am Right You Are Wrong (which I recommend).


Consciousness is an accidental side effect of complex physical processes in the brain.
This is the view that seems to get Buddhists most steamed up. Another form of mechanistic thinking which down plays the hard problem of consciousness by denying that anything is going on. "Move along folks, there's nothing to see here." It arose out of attempts to get around mind/body dualism.

If this view were to hold then we ought to be able to build a sufficiently complex clockwork device that was indistinguishable from a conscious being.

Quantum Consciousness
Not sure what consciousness is, but quantum phsyics over classical physics, can better explain it.
There is no reason why the mind should not involve quantum phenomena. But there is no evidence that it does. For some time it has been trendy to invoke quantum mechanics as an explanation for all sorts of things. But those attempting this seem to be philosophers rather than quantum theorists (Dennett for instance) and I'm doubtful. I've attempted to debunk the idea that Buddhism has anything in common with quantum mechanics (see Erwin Schrödinger Didn't Have a Cat).

100 billion cells each with 1000 connections is really very complex, so I don't see an a priori need to invoke quantum mechanics in order to explain or describe consciousness. On the other hand the adaptability of an amoeba might make us think again since it is capable of remarkably sophisticated responses to its environment given its relative simplicity of form. However until there's actual evidence of quantum effects this remains in the realm of speculation. Maybe someone more familiar with Dennett can point to the evidence that he cites?


Consciousness is the sensation of your most significant thoughts being highlighted
Quite a lot in common with Functionalism, in that it uses insights from cognitive psychology to improve on Behaviourism. In a sense it highlight thinking as a distinct kind of behaviour. It incorporates the idea of the mind as a computer which processes information and produces behaviour (Behaviourism only acknowledges behaviour).

Higher Order Theory

Consciousness is just higher order thoughts (thoughts about other thoughts)
The approach emerges from the understanding that there are different types of thoughts, and that they operate at different levels of organisation. One of the basic distinctions being between unconscious perception and conscious perception. Another is between intransitive consciousness (mere consciousness) and transitive consciousness (consciousness of some object). Distinctions amongst philosophers of mind often depend on finding the right level at which to describe it. Higher Order  Theory is primarily concerned with understanding conscious, transitive mental states (in this it is similar to early Buddhism).

Consciousness is a continuous stream of ever-recurring phenomena, pinched, like eddies, into isolated minds.
Clearly McCandless is not that well informed on Buddhist ideas about consciousness, and since he doesn't cite sources we can't get at why he thinks we think like this. The last part sounds more like Hinduism to me.

Early Buddhism 
Consciousness is always consciousness of... 
If consciousness is even a subject of inquiry (and I'm not convinced it is) then the usual way of talking about it is that consciousness arises when sense object meets sense faculty and gives rise to sense consciousness.  Early Buddhism focusses on transitive consciousness and has almost no interest in the mind otherwise. The word being translated as 'consciousness' is viññāna which probably means some more like cognition or awareness. Such a cognition which arises in dependence on conditions is referred to as conditioned (saṅkhata); it can be analysed into five branches (pañcakhandhā ≡ papañca). It is possible to have unconditioned (asaṅkhata) cognition when one sees and knows mental objects (dhammā) as they are (yathābhūta-ñānadassana). It is claimed that the six senses (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind) and their objects make up the totality (sabbaṃ) and that any other proposition about the world is beyond the proper domain (visāya) of inquiry.

Late Buddhism
Consciousness is a manifestation of karmic seeds
Consciousness arises on the basis of a storehouse for the 'seeds' of karma (ālayavijñāna). Floating on top of this layer are the sensory cognitions which produce provisionally valid cognitions (relative truth). The extra layer at the bottom was invented to try to account for difficulties explaining rebirth (the problem of continuity of consequences). However the ālayavijñāna is a kind of permanent substrate and thus suffers from metaphysical problems related to eternalism. I argue that the problem of continuity between births cannot be practically solved without positing some kind of ātman.


Damasio's Model of Consciousness
This is a rubric for ideas in which consciousness is an emergent property of the brain's role of monitoring the environment and the body's own internal states using virtual representations created in the brain. Combined with temporal memories of previous states (memory), and projections of futures states (imagination) and representing the observing subject as a virtual self, consciousness is the overall effect of these functions. This emerges particularly from the work of Antonio Damasio and Thomas Metzinger and is closest to my own understanding of what consciousness is or does.


Of course it must be said that all of these are the thinnest of glosses on some quite complex ideas, and that not being expert in any of them I have probably got them wrong. My purpose here is mainly to represent the complexity of the subject matter and encourage readers to take in some of the options that are available. There are more than two choices. Being interested in the science of the mind and uninterested in the supernatural leaves me choices other the epiphenomenalism.

In trying to understand McCandless's categories it becomes obvious that many of them have substantial cross-over. Some are in fact subsets of broader categories. So I wouldn't put too much store by his list. It illustrates the point that there are a lot of theories, but not much more.

It seems to me that if we are to make any progress in understanding ourselves then we need to begin with observation and allow understanding to emerge. My beef with philosophy is that it starts with theories and searches for facts to fit. Indeed the vast legacy of philosophical speculation of the mind completely divorced from observation would seem to be a major impediment to progress.

My enthusiasm for Thomas Metzinger is precisely that he starts with observations and works towards an explanation. I'm also interested George Lakoff's ideas about categorisation, metaphor and embodied cognition influence how we see cognition and selfhood. Lakoff's work also stems from observation. I don't mind being presented with a worked out theory as long as the evidence for and against the theory follows.

I tend towards rejecting any strong form of mind/body dualism. Free floating, disembodied consciousness simply does not make sense to me. All the evidence I am aware of points to an intimate connection between brain and consciousness. Metzinger's account of his out of body experiences is central to undermining the last vestiges of my dualistic thinking in this area because it showed that unusual phenomena, like religious traditions, don't have to be taken on face value. Yes, it really does seem as if the consciousness can leave the body; but no, it doesn't have to literally do so to produce a convincing illusion. Traditional Buddhist ideas about consciousness are compatible with this view, as long as we are not too literalistic.

With Kant I accept the existence of an objective world distinct from my perception of it along with the caution that we can only infer things about this world, we can never know it directly (since our only source of information about the world is our senses). However this is not a problem in the foreground of early Buddhist thought. The objective world is a given in early Buddhist texts. Our experience of the world occurs in the space of overlap between a sense endowed body, a world of objective, and attention to the overlap. The entire focus of early Buddhist practice takes place in this liminal space, where our responses to experience feedback into, and to some extent determine, the quality of our experience.

One of the main criticisms that comes from the anti-physicalist side of the argument is that theories which don't accept a supernatural aspect to mind, i.e. an aspect of mind which operates outside the known laws of nature, can't account for qualia. One of the reasons this claim stands is that such people do not keep up with neuroscience. Some recent research looks promising.
Orpwood, Roger. 'Qualia Could Arise from Information Processing in Local Cortical Networks.' Frontiers in Psychology. 2013; 4: 121. Published online 2013 March 14. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00121
Jakub Limanowski, and Felix Blankenburg. 'Minimal self-models and the free energy principle.' Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2013; 7: 547. Published online 2013 September 12. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00547

See also
 The Where of What: How Brains Represent Thousands of Objects by Ed Yong (Dec 2012), which summarises the state of research on this subject as of 2012. 
I also recommend A Brain in a Supercomputer, a TED talk by Henry Markham which helps with getting an idea of the complexity of the brain. Follow this up at The Blue Brain Project.
We do not yet fully understand consciousness. But this is no reason to fall back on supernatural explanations.
The route away from superstition and fearful projections onto the world has been long and difficult but it has been worth it. On the other hand what we are learning is far more sophisticated than Medieval insights from Buddhists and if we stick to what's in our ancient texts at some point we'll become irrelevant. The Mindfulness Therapy movement is already showing how this this might work since they have been far more successful in communicating their version of Buddhist methods in a shorter space of time.


See also this in the Guardian (10.4.13): Transparent brains reveal their secrets – video. A fly-through of a whole mouse brain where the non-neuronal material has been rendered transparent - every dendrite of every neuron is visible! Selective stains enable neurons of different functionality to be coloured differently. The original article is: Chung, K.,  et al (2013). 'Structural and molecular interrogation of intact biological systems.' Nature. doi:10.1038/nature12107.

I should also have given a nod to the Human Connectome Project. No doubt this new technique used above will advance their work considerably.

Brain as Receiver

One of the options that comes up regularly to explain consciousness in a dualistic frame is the brain as TV receiver analogy. This is ruled out by Steven Novella. He argues that to compare the brain to a TV that simply displays the information beamed into it the analogy would have to answer these questions positively:
A more accurate analogy would be this – can you alter the wiring of a TV in order to change the plot of a TV program? Can you change a sitcom into a drama? Can you change the dialogue of the characters? Can you stimulate one of the wires in the TV in order to make one of the on-screen characters twitch?
Disrupting the reception, via brain damage, does not simply distort the image of the show, it changes the plot and the characters. The brain simply cannot be a passive receiver. The brain creates consciousness. This is the only way to explain the correlations. 
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