Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Hard Problem of Consciousness

One of the things that interested me about Buddhism is that it might give me some insights into such philosophical problems as the 'Hard problem of consciousness', which is also related to the mind-body problem.

The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. When we think and perceive, there is a whir of information-processing, but there is also a subjective aspect. As Nagel (1974) has put it, there is something it is like to be a conscious organism. This subjective aspect is experience. When we see, for example, we experience visual sensations: the felt quality of redness, the experience of dark and light, the quality of depth in a visual field. Other experiences go along with perception in different modalities: the sound of a clarinet, the smell of mothballs. Then there are bodily sensations, from pains to orgasms; mental images that are conjured up internally; the felt quality of emotion, and the experience of a stream of conscious thought. What unites all of these states is that there is something it is like to be in them. All of them are states of experience.

David Chalmers

Of course, although Buddhism makes use of philosophical discourse, it is ultimately existential in nature and so we should expect any answers to be existential rather than purely intellectual in nature.

The Buddhist resolution of such problems is less of a process of intellectual progress as a matter of the 'ironing out' and collapsing of the roots of the issue which are ways of thinking about reality which ultimately are deluded.

And perhaps I am being premature or naive but the more I investigate, the more it really does seem that many contemporary problems were solved by Buddhist sages and thinkers in the distant past (although I see some Buddhist sages and thinkers mired in the same sort of thinking or even greater confusion). Given that philosophers in the west rarely learn anything other than the history of western philosophy, and that Buddhism is regarded (and practiced) generally as a religion, it isn't surprising that there isn't much cross-pollenation.

With regards to the above problem, it seems to me that it arises from the assumed reality of objective existence:

1 Ultimately reality is objectively real and independent of our experience of it
2 From experiential evidence I cannot deny my subjective experiences
3 Therefore they must be part of reality
4 If my subjectivity exists then other people's subjectivity probably exists
5 Therefore they must all be part of objective reality
6 So how can a subjective something really exist within (and arise from) an objective reality?

So we end up with a picture of all these creatures walking around an entirely physical universe, but with little subjective bubble-worlds in their heads (or above them or somewhere else or nowhere at all). How do these two worlds interact? If one arises from the other, how? How could subjectivity arise from objectivity ever, even in principle? And if subjectivity is an ineffectual epiphenomenon, why does it make a difference when I stop making an effort?

Rather than try to solve this set of problems with its assumed premises, we can observe reality carefully with as few assumptions as possible. In Zen abstract thought is seen not as truth but as a bodily function, which at best has a practical use. Thoughts exist as representations of reality, but are only ever representations with a greater or lesser usefulness. In fact many of the more bizarre responses from Zen masters to philosophical questions can be seen as expressions of 'unasking' questions which are based on deluded premises, for example 'Mu', 'Katz!', 'the oak tree in the garden' or the act of placing a sandal on the head.

I remember a story that my philosophy tutor told us about G.E.M. Anscombe, the student of the famous linguistic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (who wrote extensively on the limits of language). During a conference of some sort, Anscombe was asked a question (how I wish I knew what that question was!) and she responded by removing her shoe in front of an international audience of philosophers and placed it on her head. Of course, without any grounding in eastern philosophy, most of the spectators (including my tutor) naturally assumed that she was batty. (Although Anscombe must have been elderly at this point, I have no reason to suppose that her mental faculties were failing. She was well-known for her intelligence and debating skills and famously won a debate against C.S. Lewis at Cambridge, forcing him to re-write a chapter of his book.) Anyone familiar with Zen stories will of course recognise this gesture as being identical to that performed by Joshu in response to a question from his master Nansen:

Once the monks of the eastern and western Zen halls were quarrelling about a cat. Nansen held up the cat and said, "You monks! If one of you can say a word [about ultimate truth], I will spare the cat. If you can't say anything, I will put it to the sword." No one could answer, so Nansen finally slew it. In the evening, when Joshu returned, Nansen told him what had happened. Joshu, thereupon, took off his sandals, put them on his head and walked off. Nansen said, "If you had been there, I could have spared the cat."

Source

The response might be seen as indicating that which is beyond language. Interestingly Wittgenstein himself famously declared that all philosophical problems had their roots in our use of language. He later retracted this having apparently found exceptions and tacked those in his Philosophical Investigations, which I really must read sometime.

If we think of our deluded belief-systems as a tree, which needs to be killed, then growing new branches to kill off other branches is no good - it just leads to proliferation of branches. Instead we can grow an axe to chop down the entire tree and then destroy itself - this is the project of Nagarjuna as I understand him. Alternatively we can stop watering the tree - in other words, release the attachments or delusions that feed it.

Many Buddhists (especially the ones I come across online) seem to see Buddhism as being 'against' rationality - often replacing it with some sort of intuitionism. I think this is a misunderstanding. Buddhism isn't against thinking - we need abstract thought in our lives to help achieve practical goals; there are many influential Buddhist philosophers who used rationality as part of their practice (eg. Nagarjuna). The goal is not the cessation of thinking, rather the goal is freedom from attachments to thoughts, feelings, and so on. Thoughts exist and they are sometimes useful, but they are only ever thoughts - and the conceptual reality they tempt us to enter is a virtual reality.

In Buddhism, experiencing reality without inherent dualities and seeing those dualities as inputted is the important thing. But explaining things in such a way that they might shed light on complex rational problems still takes a whole lot of conceptualisation and a whole lot of words. Hopefully I'm up to the task and hopefully I'm not just throwing more wood on the fire.

Coming back to the Hard Problem of Consciousness, what I see is that the premise of the existence of absolute objective reality is unsound. If I pay attention, I can see that I never actually come across this supposed objective reality, only ever the idea of it. Yet I'm not proposing that we replace this with some sort of philosophical Idealism. If I hide an object, forget about it and then come back to it, it's still there. Things I know nothing of still have causal effects in the universe and (in the case of sense perceptions and psychoactive drugs) can influence the nature of mental phenomena in my mind. I can't change reality just by thinking about it.

While there are entities which outside of my awareness, that does not mean that they are independent of me or that I am independent of them. And if there is an independent objective universe, it is independent and thus not part of all this.

Materialism asserts that reality consists entirely of 'non-self' and is entirely independent of me and Idealism asserts that reality consists entirely of 'self' and is partly or fully dependent on me. But by claiming the universality of one domain or the other 'self' or 'non-self' neither damages self/non-self dualism, it just tries to squeeze the border off the map. This is doomed because 'self' and 'non-self' are interdependent concepts. How can a subject exist without an object to perceive? How can objective reality be real with no subject to ever know of or be influenced by its existence? What meaning does non-self have without the existence of a self? How much do we have to distort non-self to include the phenomena we now label as 'self'? And vice-versa.

Both Materialism and Idealism are only partial, distorted truths - attempts to unify reality without dispatching or deconstructing subject-object duality.

So what is the relationship between subject and object? The Buddhist view and a view which can be experienced in meditation, is that the distinction is inputted by thought. All phenomena are interdependent. The 'objective world' is just reality existing from the 'point of view' of another aspect of the same reality - the 'objects' of perception are just causative effects 'acting through' the other causative effects that are my sensory apparatus and my brain in an immense interdependent web without ultimate objects. Causality does not just flow 'upwards' from object to subject, but in every direction without end. My mind is just this moment of reality.

Reality is dependent upon observation. It has no 'Gods eye view' from which it exists. Nothing real is standing outside of reality to see it. It can only be viewed from inside and it only 'exists' in relation to other parts of itself. Even the description of reality as a set of relationships is not something that exists objectively, that image is just an abstraction, it exists always from a point of view - in relation to my reality at the time of writing and to your reality right now. But what is a point of view? A point of view is an abstraction - a model built from interpretation of effects of one part of reality upon another. A point of view of a landscape is just the sum of all the effects of each aspect of that situation upon a smaller part of that situation e.g.. all the light from a landscape as it affects a camera and an eye and a brain/mind.

What unites all of these states is that there is something it is like to be in them. All of them are states of experience.


What does 'something it is like to be in them' mean? The word 'like' in this context is a term of comparison. In what way (if any) is being in a subjective state similar to something? It isn't so much that it is similar to something, but that it is something - it's real. This statement also presupposes the existence of a continuous identity which is 'in' various states. What if (as most current research on consciousness suggests) there is no 'Cartesian Theatre', no container for such states to exist in? nor a homunculus, an inner witness for these states? If only the states themselves and their effects exist then is there any philosophical problem?

All states - even the state of an unwatched beaker of water in an empty building - are part of the causal matrix of reality (see The Butterfly Effect, Chaos Theory). Whether there are faculties to interpret these effects as information or not, no black box exists from which effects cannot spill so effects ripple out across the universe at the speed of light and we are all affected - it is 'like something to be in' every state. A problem arises only if we conceptualise reality in terms of categories which are independent of one another. For it to be 'like something to be in' a state is just to be contiguous with that state, to be affected by that state and (given that there can be no independent objects) ultimately to be that state.

My acts are irrevocable
Because they have no essence...
Where are the doers of deeds
Absent among their conditions?
Imagine a magician
Who creates a creature
Who creates other creatures.
Acts I perform are creatures
Who create others.

Nagarjuna

10 comments:

  1. Justin-

    I really like this post. All of your posts are really well thought out and informative.

    You said-"For it to be 'like something to be in' a state is just to be contiguous with that state, to be affected by that state and (given that there can be no independent objects) ultimately to be that state."

    If we can see cause and effect as one, we make great strides towards understanding the interdependence of all. Instead of [cause-effect-cause-effect-cause-
    effect, etc.]
    we should understand [cause/effect(as one)-cause/effect, etc.] Each cause is an effect and vise versa. We can't go back and pick any one event that was purely cause ONLY.
    Looking deeper, we see there is no linear stream of cause/effect just this moment- now- which is forever in flux and a composite of all causes, all effects.

    If you drop one pebble in a pond, you can see the ripples form, travel across the pond and fade. Yet we live in a universe where countless pebbles rain into the pond and there can no longer be a distinction, because the ripples themselves are now causing more ripples, etc.

    Who's to say that we are the pebbles, the ripples, the pond? There is no distinction.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Exploring consciousness is the final frontier, the great taboo about which so much has been said but so little actually decided.

    The paradox between the objective and the subjective mirrors the great paradox of life and death, being and unbeing. The East is more sophisticated in terms of dealing with paradox, because they have been exploring balance for millenia.

    As you said, the two opposites are part of a seamless whole, and it is our habit of catagorising that gets us into trouble. (the only way I've been able to actually realize this, and experience it, is through zazen, or psychotropics)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Chris,

    I slightly modified the bit you quoted after publishing. Bad me!

    Yes, what you said about the oneness of cause and effect is very much along the lines I was thinking.

    What happens when the one observing the ripples is composed ultimately of ripples? Confusion, I'd say and a pragmatic need to draw a sharp conceptual division between 'me-ripples' and 'not-me-ripples', to take it out the equation in order to avoid infinite interations in calculations about the 'not-me-ripples'.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Gaelin,

    I recommend Susan Blackmore (again) Consciousness, an Introduction as a good general overview with a little Buddhism thrown in.

    If there is no real duality is there any paradox?

    I think you can experience this with psychotropics (I have too), but the results are unpredictable and short-lived. You are just as likely to increase you delusions I think.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I love the image of 'little subjective bubble-worlds' over our heads! And beautiful Nagarjuna quote.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hi, Justin. Buddha, Nagarjuna, and 3rd Patriarch eliminated paradox by eliminating the absolute.

    Just a thought.

    Regards & Metta

    ReplyDelete
  7. Buddha, Nagarjuna, and 3rd Patriarch eliminated paradox by eliminating the absolute.

    You mean because even Sunyata, even Dependent Origination is empty and not separate? Do you have anything more on this - a link you can give me perhaps?

    ReplyDelete
  8. You mean because even Sunyata, even Dependent Origination is empty and not separate?

    Hi, Justin - I mean by testing the limits of perception and holding forth the relatively new idea (then) of indeterminancy.

    When you have time, you might want to look around the Indian Logic Forum:

    http://nyaya.darsana.org/

    Regards & Metta
    M.Lee

    ReplyDelete
  9. Hi, Justin - Here is a reference on my last comment:

    "The empty set, the origins of mathematics and the Buddhist concept of sunyata."

    http://home.btconnect.com/scimah/emptyset.htm

    Regards, M.Lee

    ReplyDelete
  10. Thanks!

    A forum exclusively on Indian logic - wow!

    And thanks for this other link too.

    I have some catching up to do!

    ReplyDelete