Some thoughts on science, Buddhism, and the mind

by lonesomeyogurt

Meditation the last few days has not been going well. My fat little legs keep falling asleep and compelling me to move and drastically increasing my grumps. No matter how I sit, I can’t seem to keep them from dropping out after about ten minutes; I swear, if I didn’t know better, I’d say that attachment to the body causes suffering.

I’ve been spending the time I should be meditating watching more debates online, which probably just makes my mind even more unstable. But I can’t keep away, especially not with a premise as delicious as Sam Harris vs. Deepak Chopra on the menu. The eminent Mr. Chopra never disappoints one looking for absolutely fucking bizarre statements like, “Consciousness is a dynamic flow of potential existences superimposed by a God-mover” or (I shit you not), “In the absence of a conscious entity, the moon remains a radically ambiguous and ceaselessly flowing quantum soup.” I felt so bad for Sam; how do you even argue against that?

On the whole, the debate went well and covered the normal scientific claims about God, the mind, and science, most of which Sam Harris and his partner Michael Shermer elucidated and defended very well. Especially interesting to me was the discussion on consciousness, thanks in no part to Deepak’s bizarre outbursts regarding “quantum nonlocality” as a base for experience. – but with his inanity as a sounding board, the two skeptics were able to make a lot of really fascinating points about the limits of knowledge in regards to what consciousness really is; Sam in particular should be lauded for his brave (but nervous) admittance that “…we simply don’t know how consciousness forms in the brain, or if it is from the brain at all, and we may never know.” I was reminded of an XKCD comic from a few weeks ago:

The fact that consciousness, the very thing through which the entire world is revealed, remains a fundamental mystery in its origins and operations is a fascinating concept. For a long time, we’ve been fighting to understand and quantify it, whether through neuroscience, biology, psychology, or even spirituality. But, just like the stick figures above, we always keep arriving at a brick wall – the ultimate realities of consciousness, of our brains and our minds, are always studied through our senses, and no amount of scientific rigor or philosophical examination can remove the inherent subjectivity of experience. To use a sentence as complex as the problem itself, it’s maddening to know that you don’t know how you know you know things.

But as I’ve spent more time exploring the Buddhist path, the search for fundamental reality apart from experience has begun to feel a bit like the search for a reflection apart from the mirror. I’ve begun to doubt, as I progress (however slowly) down the path, that it’s wise or even possible to know anything about this world except in terms of sense experience; whereas the modern Western approach seems to regard the exterior world as a true and constant reality accessed through an unreliable and emergent consciousness, I tend nowadays to believe that our consciousness is the true and constant reality through which we access an unreliable and emergent world.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we can disregard that which we do experience and usher in some kind of epistemological anarchism of relativistic and baseless assumptions, but it does mean that we must come to terms with the fact that even the most concrete scientific, philosophical, and social constructions we have are, at best, an imperfect patchwork of concepts and categories placed over a never-ending stream of pure sense data. When we’re honest with ourselves and admit our fundamental inability to truly know something apart from our experience of it, we become healthy skeptics, capable of admitting the pragmatic benefits that these frameworks bring while still realizing their inherent shortcomings and assumptions. A consciousness-first, experiential relationship with the external world can bring us a much-needed distance from the universals that too often bind both the materialistic and the spiritual into restrictive and dogmatic ways of thinking.

That doesn’t mean we have to rid ourselves of these shorthand expressions; it’s a lot easier to refer to a sunset as a sunset rather than a bundle of sense impressions, or to just compliment a friend’s cooking rather than declare the ability of the meal’s qualia to be conceptually ordered as “delicious.” But there is a real danger when the framework of concepts we use to describe the world suddenly becomes the ultimate nature of the world itself – when we mistake, as the old Zen koan goes, the finger that points at the moon for the moon itself. And as much as I love science, I tend to think that perhaps we’ve already made this mistake any time we talk about “explaining consciousness.”

This isn’t to say that research into the brain is bad or counter-productive, because it isn’t. I just worry that, as we learn more about what makes that three-pound computer inside us tick, we’ll be more and more likely to reduce the fundamental element of consciousness to the conceptual; we’ll turn the light by which we see the world into a product of that world, a fundamental category error and leap of faith that undermines everything we really know about the nature of the world.

I love science, and I hope that we continue to explore the brain, both to improve the lives of those who suffer from neurological disorders and move towards an increasingly simple means of predicting phenomena. But I sincerely hope that with this new knowledge, we don’t indulge in the arrogance assumption that, through an unwarranted shift from the instrumental to the universal, we can subvert the most Properly Basic knowledge we have. Simplifying consciousness down to its materialistic constituent parts in the brain may very well be a great way to make pragmatic advances in the treatment of disease and the development of consistent biological theory – but it is neither a helpful nor accurate summation of the real, ultimate nature of this world.