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?

May 13, 2007

Don't we ever learn?

After mad cow and chicken fever, you'd think people would be thinking twice about the wisdom of our industrial agricultural methods. But you'd be wrong.

The latest crisis is the massive die-off of honey-bees. This is becoming a serious threat to our food supplies, which depend on the bees for pollinations.

A number of possible factors are being considered; cell-phone radiation, GM crops, new pesticides, immune collapse due to stress.

Some of these may be partial explanations. I don't buy the idea of cell-phones having a major effect; we've saturated the ether with RF radiation for decades now and the picayune amount added by cell-phone towers shouldn't make that big a difference. (Pity though, it would be grand to have an excuse to ban the damned things)

GM crops seem to be a more likely causal agent; these weird genetic brews have been unleashed haphazardly on the environment and we are just beginning to see the fall-out.

But it seems that there is an over-arching systemic issue here; same one that was behind the mad-cow and crazy-chicken episodes - the greedy capitalist itch to wrack more and more out of Mother Nature.

Bee-keeping has gone industrial. The same intemperate use of chemical inputs that characterize the keeping of larger stock also goes into the bee-hives. Honey is just a side-line for modern bee-keepers, the big bucks is in trucking the bees around the countryside to perform crop pollination services, a highly unnatural life for the bees to say the least. What's more, some bright bulb thought of the idea of making pre-formed combs larger than nature's to force the bees to grow bigger.

The really telling detail is that organic bee-keepers who use natural sized combs and no chemical inputs are not experiencing bee death.

Just Plain Silly

He told them not to go to warp nine.
When you get old.
Blue screen of death, no one hears your scream.
World's most perfect map ever.
Green Lama saves America (don't ask me)