May 16, 2007

Mind and Body

From the comments, Doug Rogers said;

Mind is what the Universe does. All the causes and conditions come together to birth consciousness. In my understanding then, Consciousness is just a consequence of having a form to contain it. This is rather like Pinker's radio, tuned to a frequency and capable of receiving, like Brain/Body --> Mind. Really there isn't a difference between Brain/Body/Mind. We're bound by the language to make the distinction, and as such, there really isn't a distinct edge we can draw -as to self- between the fingers, the fingers on the keyboard, and the keyboard while in the act.

As far as Mind is concerned, Body is just a filter for sensation. Until a whole lot of neurons come together, there just isn't consciousness. Is there Mind before then? What exactly is reborn? Isn't this anthropomorphization a dangerous and misleading trap? How otherwise to say it? Is this some mal-understanding between English and Pali?

Is mind an effect, spontaneously generated with each sentient form? Or does Mind find form to birth into?
Let me try and clarify the Buddhist position on the mind-body problem, as I understand it (the last clause is an important caveat!)

I think the assumption made in the sentence "Until a whole lot of neurons come together, there just isn't consciousness" is unwarranted. The very first verse of the Dhammapada states that "mind is the forerunner" and it seems to me preferable to say "until mind enters the womb, there just isn't a structured network of neurons."

There isn't any strong a priori reason why one of those formulations is more logical than the other. The first is the default assumption of modern thought, but that doesn't make it either correct or logical.

The latter is the formulation that is in accord with the dependent origination, one of the cornerstones of Buddhist teaching. "Because of consciousness, there arises name-and-form." According to the dependent origination, mind does not arise out of matter (neurons), rather the reverse. If not strictly speaking matter, certainly form (organized matter) does arise out of mind. Brain is something mind does, not the reverse.

This is an odd way of thinking for most moderns, but there may be a theoretical basis in science to explain it. The biologist Rupert Sheldrake raises the serious problem of morphogenesis, i.e. when all the cells in a body have the same DNA, how do the embryonic stem cells "know" how to turn into liver cells or brain cells and organize themselves into complex organs?

This problem is profound, and is quite insoluble if you start with the ordinary materialist assumptions. With everything we know now about DNA the only mechanism we can demonstrate is coding for protein sequences. That seems to be all the DNA is capable of doing. And the problem cuts deep. Once a string of amino acids are combined into a protein string, this string must then fold itself into a workable shape. A given string can fold into a very large number of possible configurations, but only one will do the job intended. How does this bit of insensate matter "know" what is required? A purely physical explanation is impossible. And this only the lowest tier in a long hierarchy of increasingly complex maneuvres required to create an organism.

Sheldrake's explanation is something he calls "morphogenetic fields." These are pure information fields, without any physical location in space (non-local). This sounds vanishingly close to the Buddhist idea of Mind. Mind has no physical characteristics such as size, shape or location. It is everywhere (boundless) and nowhere (void). Thinking about Mind using physical concepts is to make a grotesque category error.

It's quite possible that in a hundred years time the philosophy of materialism will be just a quaint foot-note in the history of science, alongside the phlogiston theory of combustion and phrenology. It's easy to see how it arose in the first place; in the first three centuries of the modern scientific revolution (roughly starting with Newton's Principia) it has provided an enormously powerful explanatory matrix. This only started to get wobbly in the first half of the twentieth century, with quantum physics.

Nevertheless, nineteenth century habits of thought die hard and the materialist view remains strong. What is harder to understand is why it is so much taken for granted. It is really a quite unnatural way of thinking. Consider; mind is what we know directly. Matter (and the external universe) we only know second-hand, strictly speaking as an inference. Is it natural to assume that that which is immediately and surely known is derived from that which is only inferred?


anonyrod said...

Universe is what the mind does (not the other way round, unless you hold the Yogacara belief in a universal consciousness).

All the causes and conditions come together to birth consciousness.

While there are descriptive terms like rebirth consciousness, consciousness itself is simply a continuous flow, although it does have three stages, arising, static or development, and decay (corresponding to Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva in Hinduism).
As for all causes and conditions, it would be more correct to say ‘some’.

Consciousness is just a consequence of having a form to contain it.

Consciousness is a consequence of contact, and it does not arise without form, feeling, perception, and mental formations. Meaning that you need both body and mind to experience consciousness, not just body (try holding a conversation with a stiff). The contact that gives rise to consciousness can either be with the body or with the mind, so it is not dependent upon form alone.

Until a whole lot of neurons come together, there just isn't consciousness.

Consciousness is continuous, with or without neurons. Some of the consciousness may not be very interesting, like the bhavanga consciousness you experience while asleep or unconscious, but it is still consciousness.

DNA and proteins are just fancy names for ‘meat’, which knows nothing. The mind on the other hand knows everything, and creates according to dependent origination.

Materiality obviously has different levels according to our perception, and even in this realm there are more concrete forms, like bricks, and more subtle forms like electricity.

According to the Ajarns, there are no morphogenic fields, and they say that from one form of perception, namely the deva Yama realm, the mind has a definite shape and has some basic coloration depending upon the impurities associated with it. It is confined within a limited shape and size, can move around, and is completely separate from other beings. This perception may be regarded as yet a view of even more subtle materiality, ethereal energy, and while it is limited to the Yama realm, and thus is not an absolute reality, it does offer some understanding of our being.

One interesting aspect of how we approach the cause of suffering, through vipassana, to come to know the mind, to become aware of the mind, is basically the ignorant approach from the position of ignorance.

The mind is the thing that knows, and it is not that ‘we’ come to know the mind, but rather that we let the mind come to know us. Once this happens, then the mind gets rid of all this self crap, and then starts working on the other attachments of anger and lust and the craving for various forms of consciousness. It’s not us that breaks free, it’s the mind that breaks free.

EBE said...

Very nice post.

I do agree that matter, which I do not know a good definition for it, that is hapen to be in the space (definition- someone??)and happen to vary in time (definition is required!!) cannot explain anything, but only within the strict area of our sensations. That is- when the science tries to explain what we see, hear and smell by what we see hear and smell- that's OK.

The only problem is that people try to explain many orher things by science and that sounds bad. As a nice example, has someone succeded to defeat Permanides?

pdxstudent said...

I don't think the notion that brain (or anything else) is mind- or consciousness-dependent is at all alien to Western thought. It's just very unpopular, especially when it filters down to the common schmoe.

Kant was one of the first Westerners to serious chime into how, in a certain and very important sense, mind creates nature. Schopenhauer and Hegel would pick up and immediately run with the problem of subject and object, and how the former is responsible for the latter. Heidegger and later Foucault (and myriad people in between) will extend this to culture, as that mode of socially dependent consciousness we live in that makes reality possible.

I think what trips people up is the fact that this way of thinking implies that, if in any unproblematic sense can we say there is anything besides mind, we categorically do not have access to it. So, it makes no sense to say there is anything besides mind, independent of it that is, because the only thing ever worth talking about (ever thinkable) is that which is within/dependent on mind.

doug rogers said...

First, many, many, thanks for taking this on. I think that, between us, you and I could get on very well.

I can see Sheldrake's model. In a way it's a reflection of the very narrow band of mathematical constants that reflect the functioning Universe we have. There are any number of ways the variables can come together, but only a very few will allow 'Life As We Know It.'

If as Sheldrake proposes:
Morphogenic Fields --> functional DNA folds
Mind --> network of neurons --> consciousness
is what I think you are saying.

This structure I have no problem with. I said 'Mind is what Universe does.' Rather I should say:

Mind--> Universe--> Consciousness

where Mind, in a materialist way is just the proper coming together of the correct parameters; the appropriate causes and conditions, to cause form, out of which arises our consciousness.

Formlessness--> Form --> Desire

You say: "What is [hard] to understand is why it is so much taken for granted. It is really a quite unnatural way of thinking."

Mathematics has so successfully modelled the Universe, since Newton, that it is so hard to abandon such a thoroughly useful and predictive and adaptive model. Just have to keep plugging in more numbers and more correct numbers. Even Quantum and fractal numbers. It very successfully adds more height to the flagpole, so we can see farther, but can't let us leap from the top.

We have to accept that we just don't know, and can't know. But because we don't have the information, or don't quite know the question to ask, doesn't mean that there is no purely physical explanation for the complex manoeuvres required to create an organism. Of course, this also means that we just can't leap to the solution of God, or forgive me, Mind.

I guess we have to accept, as Buddhists, the Formless Everywhere Nowhere Emptiness Unconditioned Void. It just is.

So before I wander of into just what is reborn, I'll stop and see if we're on the same ground at all.

Really truly with profound respect and curiosity, gassho.

pdxstudent said...

Would this be a right view?

The chair I am looking at is at once an image in my mind and something (understood as ambiguously and amorphously as possible) else. The only way I see that something else, however, is to see a chair. Of course, that something else is not subject to the boundaries of form. In the contact of my conditioned mind with that something else, which we might otherwise call the world, the chair is not a representation of what is really there as much as a distortion of what is really there (emptiness) that yields this apparent experience of a chair. Were we to see things clearly, the chair would disappear, or to the extent that it remained we would radically see through it. mountains could really be mountains, and rivers could really be rivers.

Anonymous said...

Fractals are: A subset of a Euclidean space etc. Not numbers.
Quantum numbers????

Anonymous said...

It depends on what you mean by "materialism." Obviously, "mind" has no place within 19th century mechanistic materialism(for some reason, modern science still adheres to this paradigm) but it does have a place with other theories of "materialism." For instance, take the Indian Samkhya system. In the Samkhya, "mind" is made up of gross "material" processes and subtle "material" processes; there is nothing "spiritual" or "transcendent" about it. This accords with the Buddhist idea that "mind" is simply a khandha and as such is a mundane phenomenon. Interestingly, these ideas are similar to David Bohm's views (no, this isn't an attempt to create some New Age QM mystical nonsense). I recommend reading the following pages:

Anonymous said...

"So before I wander of into just what is reborn, I'll stop and see if we're on the same ground at all."

Take a look at Schopenhauer's ideas. Forget about his metaphysics of the will, and look at the general framework that he provides. It is very useful to understand Buddhist ideas:

"Schopenhauer’s Kantian and Platonic metaphysics is tempered by its uniquely Buddhistic and Hinduistic, rather than Jewish, Christian or Islamic, concept of the soul’s salvation. The immortality of the soul is understood by Schopenhauer as the indestructibility of Will as thing-in-itself, the pure willing that transcends or underlies the empirical individual willing that Schopenhauer refers to as the will to life. As thinking subjects we are immortal only in the attenuated sense that Will willing purely within us can never be destroyed. When the world as representation in its entirety, including the representing subject’s body, ceases to exist with the passing of the representing subject’s last moment of conciousness, Will as thing-in-itself at the core of each thinking subject alone remains (WWR 2: 215). There is therefore something in each of us that is immortal. The part of us that survives death is not, according to Schopenhauer, as some sects of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have taught, the personality or self or soul of the thinking subject. It is rather the impersonal Will within, the indestructible thing-in-itself, transcending space, .time and causality, that is in no way part of the world as representation or subject to any sort of change."

Also, notice this paragraph from a post on a blog:

"See previous post on Schopenhauer who essentially solves, without realizing it, the theoretical possibility (beyond empiricism) of how this situation might be understood. His version, which never even mentions reincarnation (and isn’t about that), might give a hint. It is not a question of a psyche-soul surviving death, but of the source of representations that was never born and never dies in a relationship of space-time and something not in space-time. Unless you have developed an alternate possibility by whatever method, that bardo would induce complete blackout. Remember the ‘experiencer’ you take as you doesn’t survive death."

In terms of Buddhism, the "world as representation" would be equal to the khandhas. The point is that the representations(khandhas) are self perpetuating through volitional actions; the representations(khandhas) are the only "things" which are "reborn." Whatever lies beyond the representations is absolutely undefinable; "it" is uncreated and uncreating.

doug rogers said...

Okay... precision.... How about 'Quantum and Fractal number modelling'....

more later

Anonymous said...

check out the work of the late professor Dr. John Lorber on the student without a brain who went on to graduate with an honours B.A in Maths at the university of Cambridge.
Most of current knowledge is simply the 'party line' cross it at your peril.

doug rogers said...

What do we make of this?

""If one is asked, 'From what requisite condition does contact come?' one should say, 'Contact comes from name-and-form as its requisite condition.'

"If one is asked, 'Is there a demonstrable requisite condition for name-and-form?' one should answer, 'There is.'

"If one is asked, 'From what requisite condition does name-and-form come?' one should say, 'Name-and-form comes from consciousness as its requisite condition.'

"If one is asked, 'Is there a demonstrable requisite condition for consciousness?' one should answer, 'There is.'

"If one is asked, 'From what requisite condition does consciousness come?' one should say, 'Consciousness comes from name-and-form as its requisite condition.'

"Thus, Ananda, from name-and-form as a requisite condition comes consciousness. From consciousness as a requisite condition comes name-and-form. From name-and-form as a requisite condition comes contact."

Jonathan said...

(Apologies if this posts to the wrong user's comment. I'm attempting to respond to Ajahn Punnadhammo's 16.5.07 post.)

I'm afraid that there are some factual errors in your interesting and thought-provoking post.

This is a general problem when one bases one's philosophical or religious belief on the details of current scientific knowledge. Sometimes one misunderstands the science and other times the science changes, often filling in the "unexplainable." A classic example is the creationists claim that the compound eye is too complex to have evolved in a stepwise manner. Careful work by evolutionary biologists has since uncovered a series of organisms that show many of the intermediate stages between a photosensitive patch and a compound eye. (The compound eye also seems to have developed independently in the squid.)

In this case the claims presented relate to morphogenesis, the physical development of a organism from a single cell into many tissue types and into a complex structure, and protein folding. Both problems have been extensively studied and the outlines, but not the details are understood. Protein folding is the best understood. The proteins simply fold up due to the attractions and repulsions of the atoms that make up the proteins and their bonds, and in some cases the influence of nearby molecules and enzymes. The protein doesn't have to know anything to do this, just as the balls in billiards don't have to know where to go, though in both cases predicting exactly what will happen requires lots of computer power.

Morphogenesis is a wonderful problem, though not insoluble by traditional scientific means. Great research has been done showing how embryos start differentiating their cells. One of the easiest methods to understand is that when an embryo needs to differentiate a group of cells, such as the original few dozen identical cells that a fertilized egg splits into, chemical "gradients" develop where areas high in a signaling molecule develop into one kind of cell and other areas develop into other types. (If you can see the holes in this - how does the gradient develop - you're asking the right question - Wikipedia will show you the way.)

The essential piece of your argument stands well on its own without these diversions into scientific rationalizations. The idea that matter arises out of mind is wonderful! It contains so possibilities about how the universe is structured. In fact this idea may possibly be outside the realm of knowledge that science is equipped to explore (just as Goedel's theorem limits math and logic). Nobody has shown any good reason why any bit of matter - even the brain of an animal or human should be conscious. The biology of behavior as we understand it would work quite well without consciousness.