Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Rational Buddhism

The Sleep of Reason brings forth Monsters

The purpose of this blog is to explore how far Buddhism can be supported by rational arguments, both from the philosophical point of view, and also in terms of the observed effects of Buddhist practices.

In other words, if we regard Buddhism as a combination of a philosophy, psychology and religion, then how much mileage can we get from the first two aspects before we have to start invoking religious faith? This is not to say that the religious aspect should be abandoned or disparaged in any way, and I am certainly not advocating the mechanistic reductionism known as 'Secular Buddhism'.

The advantage of  pursuing the philosophical and psychological approaches is that of maintaining a common basis for discussion with science, medicine and Western philosophy for as far as possible, until the paths diverge.

Buddha told us to analyse his teachings.
Of course most religions don't like having their basic tenets subjected to searching analysis, and one cult has abandoned reason altogether, to the extent that you're likely to get your head chopped off for being too rational. 

But Buddhism is different. In the  Kalama Sutra, Buddha said that all religious teachings, including his own should...

(1) Not be believed on the basis of religious authority, or 'holy' books, or family/tribal tradition, or even coercion and intimidation by the mob.


(2) Test the methodology by personal experience. Does it do what it says on the box?

(3) Is the philosophy rational? Or does it require you to believe six impossible things before breakfast?

(4) Judge the tree by its fruits. Is it beneficial, or does it tell you to act against your conscience and 'The Golden Rule'.

According to Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Buddha told his disciples time and time again not to accept his teachings out of blind faith, but to test them as thoroughly as they would assay gold. It is only on the basis of valid reasons and personal experience that we should accept the teachings of anyone, including Buddha himself.

The advantages of rationalism
One advantage of establishing a rational basis for Buddhism is that it gives  Buddhism an 'intellectual respectability' at a time when the intellectual prestige of other religions is in steep decline, due to increasing obscurantism, which takes variety of forms varying from creationist anti-science to outright terrorism.

This 'intellectual respectability' also may help to prevent Buddhism being hit by collateral damage from increasing prejudice against all religions resulting from jihadist aggression.

Reason versus Revelation
Most religions contain some 'revealed doctrines' or 'dogmas', which were revealed long ago to one person or a few people, and then not to any others.

In all religions other than Buddhism, these ancient, unprovable, unrepeatable revelations are fundamental articles of faith on which the rest of the belief-system is constructed.

In contrast, Buddhism's fundamental doctrines are accessible to reason and investigation in terms of shared, repeatable experience.

The Four Foundations of Buddhism
There are many different schools of Buddhism, but all are built upon the foundations of the Four Seals of Dharma. These Four Seals can be derived from rational analysis.

The four seals are
(i) Lack of inherent existence
(ii) Impermanence
(iii) Unsatisfactoriness
(iv)  Liberation of the mind

The most fundamental of these seals is the first, Lack of Inherent Existence, from which the other three follow logically*.

First Seal -  Lack of inherent existence (emptiness)
No phenomenon is a ‘thing in itself’.  The more you look for it, the less you find it. Things disappear under analysis.  A car exists as a conventional truth, convenient for our everyday lives - a kind of working approximation.  But on dissection, logical analysis can find no ‘essential’ car, just a heap of parts that at a certain arbitrary stage of assembly is designated ‘car’, and at a certain arbitrary stage of disassembly is designated 'pile of junk'.

Outside our mind there is no defining ‘carness’ .  Similarly,  if you gradually decrease the height of the sides of a box until it becomes a tray, there is no point at which 'boxiness' leaves and 'trayfullness' jumps into the structure, with the box being automatically transformed into a tray. It’s all arbitrary mental designation.  This arbitrariness is the ultimate truth of how things exist to our minds. And it goes all the way down to the fundamental particles of matter. 

So how do things exist?
According to Buddhist philosophy, all functioning phenomena are dependently related to other phenomena and their existence arises from three relationships:

(a) Causality: Phenomena exist dependent upon causes and conditions.

(b) Structure: Phenomena depend upon the relationship of whole to parts.

(c) Most profoundly, phenomena depend upon imputation, attribution, or designation by the mind. It's the mind that designates what's a tray and what's a box.

More on Lack of Inherent Existence:    
Inherent existence   
Existence and Impermanence    
Ideal forms and essentialism   
Partless particles

Second Seal -  Impermanence
The impermanence of all functioning phenomena is an inevitable logical consequence of their emptiness of inherent existence.

No functioning phenomenon can be static, because to function it must change and be changed, it must give something of itself or receive something into itself. A truly unchanging phenomenon would reside in splendid isolation and could never even be known to exist. All functioning phenomena are composite and impermanent.  What we term ‘existence’ is really just impermanence in slow-motion.

From  Impermanence, Interdependence & Emptiness
“The ideas of impermanence, interdependence and emptiness are central to Buddhist teaching - and to the whole Buddhist worldview actually.

What these ideas boil down to really is that there is no permanent essence to anything. No part of anything lasts forever or is eternal. Everything (and everyone) that exists does so because of the interrelatedness of various parts - not because it has a permanent essence or "soul" around which all the parts are organized..."

This is true of all things and all people. All things exist interdependently - not as permanent essences. Thus, all things are ultimately "empty" - which is the Buddhist teaching of emptiness.

Because things are empty, they are impermanent. We forget this, says the Buddha, and act as if things are permanent. We desire them to be permanent and when they turn out not to be, we suffer. We suffer especially when we desire permanent happiness from impermanent things or people. It is not possible for impermanent things or people to provide permanent happiness because they themselves are not permanent..."

More on Impermanence:    
Process Philosophy   
Existence and impermanence
Subtle impermanence, the quantum vacuum, radioactive decay and causality

Third Seal -  The Unsatisfactoriness of Material Existence
All emotions based on the three mental poisons of attachment, aversion and ignorance are ultimately painful. You can never have enough worldly possessions, and even if you did you'd worry about losing them since - as stated in the paragraph above - they are all impermanent.  And you've got to lose the lot eventually when you die.

This sense of unsatisfactoriness can range from the severe physical and mental sufferings of people being bombed, burned and raped in war-zones, to the feeling of humiliation suffered by a billionaire who discovers that his business rival has a slightly larger and more luxurious yacht. An object that appeared to be a source of pride and happiness when he bought it, has now turned into a source of shame and aversion.

All materialistic cravings eventually and inevitably lead to disappointment and worse. They cannot provide any ultimate satisfaction.  See  Dukkha, Dawkins, Darwinism and the Selfish Gene  and Symbiotic Mind.

Fourth Seal -  The Ultimate Liberation of the Mind
The first three seals of dharma analysed the factors that imprison our minds in a ceaseless and futile process of chasing after the mirages of impermanent phenomena as if they were permanent,  in the hope of achieving ultimate satisfaction. The fourth seal provides an escape route from this labyrinth of confusion.

The method for liberating the mind from its delusions consists of meditational techniques.   These techniques have been empirically tested and shown to provide psychological benefits in the here and now, though of course Buddhists would also claim that they provide benefits in the hereafter (of which more later).

So as far as clinical assessment is concerned, Buddhist meditation does do what it says on the box.  As Ed Halliwell writes:

"It is not long since just mentioning meditation tagged you as a gullible new-ager or self-indulgent hippie. Buddhism, if considered at all, had a reputation for promoting withdrawal from this pain-filled world. But in the space of a few short years, core dharma has permeated western society's most influential institutions.

Madeleine Bunting charts the cracks in our once-cherished concepts of individual identity, and notes how the Buddhist teaching of egolessness resonates with corresponding insights from neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. Ideas that chime with Buddhism are being championed by the Royal Society of Arts and the New Economics Foundation, and reported in mainstream media. Before cif belief, I never dreamed I would synchronise my journalistic career and meditation practice, finding national newspaper space to write from a Buddhist perspective.

Buddhism is reaching beyond academia, think tanks and the media. Most GPs are aware of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and cognitive therapy (MBCT), well-researched approaches to health problems which feature meditation as their core component. MBCT is endorsed by the National Institute For Clinical Excellence, and thousands of people are being referred to mindfulness training on the NHS. In Scotland, the government has funded more than 200 healthcare professionals to teach MBCT."

So does acceptance of the Four Seals of Dharma make you a Buddhist?
 "Anyone who accepts these four seals, even independently of Buddha’s teachings, even never having heard the name Shakyamuni Buddha, can be considered to be on the same path as he."  - Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche

However, 'the path' in Buddhism is considered to extend beyond the present lifetime, which brings us on to the next topic - the nature of the mind. According to Buddhist philosophy, the mind is non-physical and formless. The mind 'knows' its object, in the sense of designating meaning to it.

The mind survives the physical death of the body. It is a fundamental aspect of reality that cannot be reduced to physical or biological structures, and is not dependent upon them

The fourth seal of dharma aims to clarify the mind from delusions on a permanent basis, from this life onwards.
Buddhist philosophy rejects materialist explanations for the mind.
Materialism is the belief that all phenomena in the universe, in particular the human mind, are explainable in terms of matter.

In other words, such mental experiences as beauty, love, spirituality, pleasure and pain are reducible to nothing but physical and chemical interactions. According to the materialist view, the mind does not actually exist, but is an emergent property or epiphenomenon of matter.

Although there are not many people who enthusiastically promote the materialist worldview, it has become the default belief of many scientifically educated people that all phenomena are reducible to the activities of matter.

- The Malaise of Materialism
Materialism leads to a rejection of spirituality, both in terms of declining religious belief, and also in the arts where the cult of ugliness, with its obsessions with the sordid and brutalistic, seeks to reduce humans to biological automata.

Of course all religions reject materialism as an article of faith, but none apart from Buddhism attempts to provide any rational philosophical refutation of the materialist worldview.

- Buddhism offers the only coherent critique of materialism
Whitehead said "Christianity ... has always been a religion seeking a metaphysic, in contrast to Buddhism which is a metaphysic generating a religion." In other words, Christianity does not have the metaphysical foundation needed to withstand materialism.

So nowadays it's left to Buddhism to defend the spiritual aspect of humanity from mechanistic materialism, and show that not everything about the human mind can be explained in mechanistic terms.

The Buddhist argument against materialism is to demonstrate that mind is an aspect of reality that is not reducible to material causes and structures.

Note that in Buddhist metaphysics, mind is not a kind of 'thing' or 'substance' because 'things' and 'substances' are dependent upon structure for their existence. The mind can apprehend structure, but does not itself have any vestige of structure, nor can it be reduced to structure (mind is said to be 'formless').

So how does the materialist worldview map on to the Buddhist worldview, and what are the discrepancies?

-  Materialism, physicalism and computationalism.
In discussing the differences between Buddhist metaphysics and materialism, we need a more precise definition of the materialist philosophical position, which introduces two rather more modern terms - physicalism and computationalism.

Physicalism is a more precise formulation of the rather vague term 'materialism'. It states that all phenomena, including the mind, are reducible to the laws of physics.

Computationalism is physicalism specifically applied to explaining the function of the human mind. Since all physical systems can be modelled, simulated and explained in terms of datastructures and algorithms, (see Church-Turing Thesis), it follows that if physicalism is true, then the human mind can be modelled, simulated and explained by a computer. This is a more precise statement than the traditional materialist view that the mind is a machine.

Buddhism versus Computationalism
The difference between the Buddhist and the Computationalist view of reality can be stated quite simply:

The Buddhist believes that all functioning phenomena are dependent upon
- Causality
- Structure
- Designation by mind

The Computationalist believes that all functioning phenomena are dependent upon
- Causality
- Structure

...with the mind being reducible to the operations of causality on structure in the same way that the activities of a computer are reducible to the operation of algorithms on datastructures.

To the Buddhist, in contrast, the mind is an irreducible foundation of reality.

Arguments against computationalism.
If computationalism is false, then it seems very likely that mind must be an axiomatic aspect of reality, which is not dependent upon the mechanism of the brain or body, and so may continue to exist after death.

See here for arguments against materialism in general, and here for arguments against the computational theory of mind.

Metarationality versus irrationality in religion

Metarationality - the mental landscape beyond the end of the tracks

Metarationality deals with valid phenomena which lie beyond the limits of discursive thought.  Qualia are prime examples, and much meditational practice deals with the deliberate invocation of qualia. 

Also, some types of meditation deliberately seek to go beyond conceptual thought in order to reach nonconceptual awareness.

Other metarational phenomena are those paradoxes that lie at, or just beyond, the limits of logical thought, and which have been investigated by Buddhist philosophers such a Nagarjuna.

According to Hume, the entire field of ethics may be metarational, since reasoned and logical arguments are incapable of going from an 'is' to an 'ought'.  Ethics cannot be rationally derived  either from  knowledge based on logic and definitions, or from observation.

The difference between metarationality and irrationality, is that with metarationality you attempt to explore the landscape beyond the end of the tracks of logical thought, whereas with irrationality you come off the rails long before you reach the end of the line.

Irrationality - coming off the track before you reach the end of the line

Buddhist philosophy is rational until it reaches the limits of logic, wherupon it goes metarational, whereas some religions are just plain irrational from the very start of the journey.  See THE LIMITIS OF SCIENTIFIC EXPLANATION.

Buddhism and ...
Faith, the ultimate F-word for rationalists
For rationalists such as Richard Dawkins, 'Faith' is very much an F-word .

Faith makes a virtue out of believing unprovable and often improbable propositions.  Dawkins contrasts this with the scientific method, which he describes as a system whereby working assumptions may be falsified by recourse to reason and evidence.

The Place of Faith in Buddhism
So is 'Faith' in Buddhism the same kind of unquestioning belief in bizarre and often mutually contradictory assertions as found in other religions, or is it more in the nature of 'Trust'.

Buddha, in his rejection of essentialism and affirmation of the importance of impermanence, displayed an insight into the way that things exist that has only recently been confirmed by science.   Buddhist meditational techniques have also recently been empirically verified to have measurable beneficial effects.  But how far should we trust Buddhist doctrine when it deals with topics that are metarational?

Trusting the Guide to the Path
Consider the situation where we are hiking on a mountain in the Scottish Highlands.

We are following a map, when suddenly a fog closes in and we can only see a few feet ahead.  We decide to get off the mountain as quickly as possible and wait for better weather.   The map shows a quick way down which appears to be shorter than the route we took to get here. But do we trust the map?

Well, there are good maps and not so good maps. There are maps originating from the observations of competent mountaineers using suitable equipment and accurate record keeping, and there are maps originating on the back of beer mats drawn from hazy memories in Highland bars at 11 o'clock at night after traversing the malt whisky shelf. 

So how do we decide whether to follow the route on the map? How do we know it won't lead us over a cliff or into a bog?   Are we prepared to stake our safety and maybe our life on this map?

One way to weigh the risks would be to judge the reliability of the map by what it has shown so far. Has it accurately described the route we've taken?
Or has it shown things that aren't there, and missed out major features that are?   

If Buddha's map to the path has proved accurate up to where we are now, then maybe we should have sufficient faith in it to take us a bit further along the path.

TIP - If some aspects of Buddhist beliefs seem unfamiliar, obscure, or confusing, then bear in mind that Buddhism is a process philosophy.   Difficult aspects of Buddhism often become much clearer when viewed from a process perspective.


* I have listed the Four Seals out of their traditional order to correspond to the logical development of this particular presentation. Impermanence is usually number one.

- Sean Robsville

Related Posts



Process Philosophy and Buddhism

Evolution, Emptiness and Delusions of the Darwinian Mind

Mind and Mechanism – Buddhism and the Turing Machine 

The non-physical mind

Is Buddhist Philosophy neglected and discriminated against in the West?

How do we bridge the gap between mind and brain?

How do we reconcile non-physical mind with the theory of evolution?

The Emptiness of the Mind in Kadampa Buddhism

Buddhism and Quantum physics: does quantum weirdness produce the mind, or vice versa?

Are some forms of faith contagious mental diseases?

How does the mind form categories and concepts?
Regularities in nature

Uses and limitations of computer science in understanding Buddhist Philosophy 

The structure of composite things



Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Buddhism, Quantum Physics and Mind

Convergence of Physics with Buddhist Philosophy
One of the interesting aspects of quantum physics from the Buddhist point of view is that particles, which in classical physics were once regarded as little pieces of matter, are now regarded as processes consisting of continuously evolving and changing wavefunctions.  These processes only give the appearance of discrete and localized particles at the moment they are observed.

So particles are forever changing, and lack any inherent existence independent of the act of observation.    Consequently, everything composed of particles is also impermanent and continually changing, and no static, stable basis for its existence can be found.

Therefore, at a very generalized level, the scientific view of the world has converged with the Buddhist view.   Buddhism is a 'process philosophy', holding that the underlying basis of reality is change, process and impermanence. Becoming is more basic than being, and existence is really just impermanence in slow-motion.  

The converse view is substantialism, which holds that constant realities or substances underlie phenomena.   In the transition from classical to modern physics, atomic theory has changed from substantialism to being in agreement with the Buddhist process view of reality.

Furthermore, when we look at the interaction of the wave-particles with the observer, we find additional interesting correspondences between Buddhist philosophy and quantum physics, as discussed below:

The observer is part of the system
The strange interactions of fundamental particles with the mind of the observer ('quantum weirdness') have long been of interest to philosophers. There are two opposing views: (i) Quantum weirdness produces the mind, versus (ii) The mind produces quantum weirdness. 

(i) Quantum weirdness produces the mind
Materialist philosophers have suggested that quantum weirdness offers a means  of filling the explanatory gap
(known as 'The Hard Problem') between the machine-like neurological functions of the brain, and the subjective sensations of the mind such as qualitative experience and 'aboutness'.

Materialists claim that quantum effects offer a way of generating non-mechanistic mental activity from a purely physical basis. These suggestions have met with a number of objections, and don't seem to have the explanatory power to fill the gap. (see The Penrose-Hameroff Conjecture later in this article).

(ii)  The Mind produces quantum weirdness

In contrast, Buddhist philosophers claim the mind is a fundamental aspect of reality, which is 'axiomatic', in the sense of not being reducible to a physical basis, such as to the physico-chemical activities in the brain. 

Buddhists regard the mind as a primary fact of reality, like space-time, in which we live, and move, and have our being. This axiomatic mind cannot be reduced to other facts. It is implicit and foundational in all facts and in all knowledge. 

Mind is clear and cognizing, and for Buddhists is the basis on which all other explanations rest, and is one of the three foundations of functioning phenomena  (the other two being causality and structure).

Classical prediction vs. quantum observation

So where does the weirdness come from?
For Buddhists, the freakiness at the smallest scale of physics is the result of our realisation of our mind's involvement in producing reality - that 'the observer is part of the system'.

This mental involvement is actually also apparent on careful examination at our everyday scale of reality, but we don't think about it unless it is painstakingly pointed out, as with King Milinda's chariot. 

However, when we look at the very foundations of reality, the involvement of the observer's mind becomes inescapably obvious.   The act of observation turns potentiality into actuality. 

Observation resolves the question of what the particle actually "is" through a combination of the particle's inherent potentials and the manner in which it is observed.  For a discussion of the experimental details of mind/matter interactions see Quantum Buddhism. 

So how does quantum reality fit with Buddhist Philosophy?
The two aspects of Buddhist philosophy that are relevant to observations at the quantum level are The Four Seals of Dharma and the Three Modes of Existential Dependence.  These teachings were established centuries ago, long before modern physics evolved, and were derived from careful philosophical and meditational analysis of the world.   However their description of quantum reality is remarkably accurate, as they predicted that:

(1)  Particles are not inherently existent. No particle is 'a thing in itself' with a self-contained identity.   An inherently-existent particle would be indestructible, unitary and indivisible.

(2)  Particles are not causeless.

(3)  Particles are not partless, they do not exist as indivisible points.

(4)  Particles are not  'permanent' in the sense of having a unchanging, static identity.

(5)  Particles exist by interaction with the mind of an observer.

...and what we actually see is...

(1)  Particles cannot function as stand-alone entities.  They can only interact with the rest of the universe by exchanging something of themselves - for example gluons or photons. Their properties can only be known by their interactions with other particles, and thus cannot be completely accurately established.

(2)  Particles are brought into existence by energetic events.  The mother of all energetic events was the Big Bang, which brought most of the existing particles into existence.    But natural energetic events such as cosmic rays and beta decay continue to produce particles, and energetic man-made events in particle accelerators produce secondary particles by hadronization  and  creation of particle-antiparticle pairs.

(3)  The tiniest particles (quarks and leptons) do not have parts because they are physically indivisible, but according to the Madhyamika school they have directional parts and so are mentally divisible. If even these smallest forms have parts, it follows that all gross forms that are composed of them also have parts. - Ocean of Nectar p 164

But if, according to Buddhist philosophy, partless particles cannot exist, how can we avoid the infinite regress of small building-blocks being composed of even smaller building-blocks, all the way down for ever?

This infinite regress...

... doesn't happen with the building blocks of matter

The resolution of this apparent contradiction came with discoveries in quantum physics in the early twentieth century. When physicists arrived at the stage where further subdivision was no longer possible, they did indeed find numerically irreducible particles. However these particles are no longer discrete 'things', but are smeared out into a myriad of fuzzy probabilistic 'parts' - a continuum of probabilities distributed in a wave function with spatial 'directional parts'.   

And they can even be in two places at once.

(4)  All particles show 'subtle impermanence' - they do not remain in exactly the same state from one moment to the next.  In the nucleus, protons and neutrons are constantly exchanging mesons to hold themselves together.  

In the outer layers of atoms the electrons are never at a single location in their orbitals, but vibrate like a standing wave on a string 


(5) The act of observation turns potentiality into actuality, resolving the question of what the particle actually "is" through a combination of the particle's inherent potentials and the manner in which it is observed.

The mathematical equations of quantum physics do not describe actual existence - they predict the potential for existence. Working out the equations of quantum mechanics for a system composed of fundamental particles produces a range of potential locations, values and attributes of the particles which evolve and change with time. But for any system only one of these potential states can become real, and - this is the revolutionary finding of quantum physics - what forces the range of the potentials to assume one value is the act of observation.

Matter and energy are not in themselves phenomena, and do not become phenomena until they are observed.  For a discussion of the experimental details see Quantum Buddhism.

Triple slit experiment

From Nature
by Jon Cartwright 
'If you ever want to get your head around the riddle that is quantum mechanics, look no further than the double-slit experiment. This shows, with perfect simplicity, how just watching a wave or a particle can change its behaviour. The idea is so unpalatable to physicists that they have spent decades trying to find new ways to test it. The latest such attempt, by physicists in Europe and Canada, used a three-slit version — but quantum mechanics won out again...  Full article

The Penrose-Hameroff Conjecture


Penrose's main argumentative line can be summed up as follows:

Part A: Nonalgorithmicity of human conscious thought.

A1) Human thought, at least in some instances, is sound , yet nonalgorithmic (i.e. noncomputational). (Hypothesis based on the Gödel result.)

A2) In these instances, the human thinker is aware of or conscious of the contents of these thoughts.

A3) The only recognized instances of nonalgorithmic processes in the universe are perhaps certain kinds of randomness; e.g. the reduction of the quantum mechanical state vector. (Based on accepted physical theories.)

A4) Randomness is not promising as the source of the nonalgorithmicity needed to account for (1). (Otherwise mathematical understanding would be magical.)

A5) Conscious human thought, at least in some cases, perhaps in all cases, relies on principles which are beyond current physical understanding, though not in principle beyond any (e.g. some future) scientific physical understanding. (Via A1 - A4)

Part B: Inadequacy of Current Physical Theory, and How to Fix It.

B1) There is no current adequate theory concerning the 'collapse' of the quantum mechanical wave function, but an additional theory of quantum gravity might be useful to this end.

B2) A more adequate theory of wave function collapse (a part, perhaps, of a quantum gravity theory) could incorporate nonalgorithmic, yet nonrandom, processes. (Penrose hypothesis.)

B3) The existence of quasicrystals is evidence for some such currently unrecognized, nonalgorithmic physical process.

B4) Future theories of physics, in particular quantum gravity, can be expected to incorporate nonalgorithmic processes. (via B1 - B3)

Part C: Microtubules as the means of harnessing quantum gravity.

C1) Microtubules have properties which make certain quantum mechanical phenomena (e.g. super-radiance) possible. (Hameroff/Penrose hypothesis.)

C2) These nonalgorithmic nonrandom processes will be sufficient, in some sense, to account for A5. (Penrose hypothesis.)

C3) Microtubules play a key role in neuron function.

C4) Neurons play a key role in cognition and consciousness.

C5) Microtubules play a key role in consciousness/cognition (by C3, C4 and transitivity).

C6) Microtubules, because they have one foot in quantum mechanics and the other in conscious thought, provide a window for nonalgorithmicity in human cognition.

D) Quantum gravity, or something similar,via microtubules, must play a key role in consciousness and cognition.

I would go along with this as far as B2, but I can't see how any scientific explanation can incorporate nonalgorithmic processes because:
(a) It's impossible to describe how non-algorithmic phenomena work (otherwise they would be algorithmic),   and
(b)  Scientific explanations and models require algorithmic compression to be effective and useful. It's difficult to see how algorithmic compression could apply to a system that was nonalgorithmic.

For a discussion of why the mind is a non-physical, fundamental aspect of the universe which is not derived from anything else, see Confronting Materialism and the Delusion of the Mechanical Mind.

TIP - If some aspects of Buddhist beliefs seem unfamiliar, obscure, or confusing, then bear in mind that Buddhism is a process philosophy.   Difficult aspects of Buddhism often become much clearer when viewed from a process perspective.


- Sean Robsville


Related articles:


Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Process Philosophy and Buddhism: Process Metaphysics versus Substance Metaphysics

Are all functioning phenomena processes?

1.  Christian versus Buddhist worldviews
I've written this article in response to a couple of recent critiques of Buddhism by two prominent Catholic intellectuals, George Neumayr and Professor Regis Martin, which demonstrate common misunderstandings of Buddhist beliefs.    One of the causes of these misunderstandings is that Catholics and Buddhists have two very different metaphysical views of the world, which will almost inevitably result in them talking past each other.

Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of existence.

There are two main varieties of metaphysics:

(i)  Substance Metaphysics
(ii)  Process Metaphysics.

Substance metaphysics holds that the foundations of reality are things, substances and universal forms.   In contrast, process metaphysics holds that no stable foundation to reality can be found, and everything we observe is the aspect of a process or processes.

Most western philosophies have been based on substance metaphysics, whereas most schools of Buddhism are committed to process metaphysics.    Classical (pre-quantum, pre-Darwinian) science presupposed substance metaphysics, whereas modern science is moving towards process models of reality.

In terms of religious views, this difference can easily lead to misunderstandings.  Most Christians believe that a thing called 'the soul' survives death and continues to exist independently of the body.   Most Buddhists believe that a cognitive process called the 'mental continuum' or 'mindstream' survives death and continues to operate for a while independently of biophysical processes, until it forms a further association with another set of biophysical processes constituting the developing body of its next rebirth.   

This is easily misinterpreted: 'Buddhists don't believe in the soul' (as a thing) rapidly becomes misunderstood as 'Buddhists don't believe anything survives death'. 

I've listed the contrasting features of substance metaphysics versus process metaphysics below. Not all the points will apply to a particular philosophical variety of metaphysics, but the lists give a general flavor of the different worldviews, and will hopefully give Christians and Buddhists a clearer idea of where the other is coming from during interfaith dialog.

2.  Major features of Substance Metaphysics

2.1  Focuses on what there is.

2.2  Being is primary, becoming is secondary.

2.3  Reality is an assembly of static components whose changeable aspects are secondary and superficial.

2.4  Matter is static and stable and can be categorized into fundamental substances composed of atoms and particles.

2.5  The identity of an individual plant or animal is determined by some 'ideal form', specification, or prototype for the particular species of which it is a member. Thus the actual forms of individual dogs are determined by the universal form of 'dog'.

2.6 The human mind is either a 'thing' (a soul as believed by Christians), or is a secondary and superficial emergent phenomenon of matter (as believed by materialists).

2.7 Processes are secondary to substances, and consist of rearrangements of very small things (stable unchanging atoms).

2.8  Measurements are real, objective properties of what is being measured 'out there'.

2.9 There's a tendency to favor creationism rather than evolution.

2.10  There are often essentialist assumptions and presuppositions.

3.  Major features of Process Metaphysics

3.1 Focuses on what is occurring and the way it is occurring.

3.2 Becoming is primary, being is secondary, arbitrary and ultimately impermanent

3.3 All functioning phenomena are processes.

3.4 The human mind is a process.

3.5 All physical (as distinct from mental) processes can be modelled and understood in terms of the operations of a 'Turing machine'. (Church-Turing-Deutsch Principle)

3.6 Anything that causes a change is itself changed.

3.7 Large scale macro objects consist of combinations of very small processes (quantum phenomena).

3.8 Measurements are properties of interactive processes. The observer is part of the system.

3.9 There is a tendency to favor evolution rather than creationism.

3.10 Empty space is itself a process, with entities continually coming in and out of existence (quantum vacuum).

3.11  All living individuals are processes, with their apparent stability being maintained by 'homeostasis', which is a collection of coordinated processes that utilize energy inputs to maintain structure, water balance, chemical composition, pH, temperature etc.  When the processes of homeostasis fail, the individual undergoes the process of death.

3.12 The subjective assessment of the stability of a phenomenon (e.g. , planet, ocean, continent, shoreline, sandbank, raindrop) is arbitrary and based on the phenomenon's length of endurance in comparison with the human lifetime.  'Things' are snapshots of particular stages of processes.

3.13 The inability to find any stable, self-existent or internal quality of an object that defines what it is, implies that it is the mind of the observer that arbitrarily assigns the name, identity, function, and conventional discreteness to that object.

3.14  There is a continuity between all lifeforms, and our categorizing plants and animals into separate species is an arbitrary result of their current stage of development and the extinction of intermediate forms (Dawkins' Granny chain).

3.15 The predisposition of humans to reify phenomena is a cognitive bias resulting from our evolutionary history.

4. Mental processes - when Buddhism goes beyond science
If Buddhism were only concerned with physical processes, then it would be nothing more than a philosophy of science. However, Buddhism is especially concerned with non-physical, mental cognitive processes, such as the development of qualia in meditation, and the intentionality of attachment and aversion.  It is also concerned with the mind as a process that continues from one life to the next, and which does not end when its associated physical processes end.

Physical processes, which include processes studied within the academic discipline of physics itself - and also processes in those disciplines based upon physics such as cosmology, chemistry, biochemistry, biophysics, physiology, meteorology, geology, engineering and technology - can all be modelled, simulated and understood in terms of datastructures and algorithms.   

In some cases these datastructures/algorithms can be as simple as the formula on the back of an envelope, such as
e=mc2. In other cases, they involve complex software simulations.   What they all have in common is that they specify processes, and they are all ultimately reducible to the operations of a Turing machine.

A Turing 'machine' is a mathematical structure that can implement and emulate any computable mathematical/logical function or algorithm.  Although it’s called a 'machine', and has actually been implemented physically, the Turing Machine is usually regarded as an abstract mathematical thought-experiment.   There is a fundamental principle of science, known as the Church–Turing–Deutsch principle, that any physical system can be simulated by a universal Turing Machine.

However, an examination of the architecture and capabilities of the Turing machine demonstrates that it is incapable of supporting or generating such characteristic mental processes as qualia and intentionality. A completely different approach to studying and investigating these mental phenomena is required, which is where introspective Buddhist meditation techniques become applicable. 

John Tydall 1820 - 1893

5. Materialism and physicalism and their refutations

In philosophy, the theory of materialism holds that the only phenomena that exist are matter/energy; that all things are composed of matter, and all phenomena (including consciousness) are the result of material interactions. In other words, matter is the only substance, and reality is identical with the actually occurring states of energy and matter. 

This gives a problem to those substantialists who believe in a spiritual dimension to life, which includes most Christian theologians, who are therefore forced to postulate non-material things (souls) composed of some substance or substances which survive the death and dissolution of the material body.  This view, which requires the existence of  two fundamental kinds of substance - mental and material -   is known as substance dualism. 

According to the theologians, souls and soul-substance are unique to human beings. Animals don't possess souls and are purely material beings.    These theological views run into some pretty obvious difficulties when we try to reconcile them with evolution.  In addition, there is no evidence whatsoever of any 'soul-substance' detectable by science.

Process philosophy refutes materialism by demonstrating that processes, rather than substances are fundamental (quantum physics).

At first sight this would seem to provide similar difficulties for anyone asserting a spiritual dimension to existence, in that materialism is simply replaced by the more process-oriented physicalism, which is the philosophical view that everything is explainable in terms of physical processes.  The physicalists claim that all mental activities are reducible to the physical processes of neuronal firings in the brain.

However physicalism can be shown to have a yawning explanatory gap when it comes to providing any mechanism of consciousness.  It has 'known unknowns', to use a Rumsfeldian idiom, whereas the soul-substance theory is more in the realm of ‘unknown unknowns’.

An eloquent statement of these 'known unknowns' in physicalist attempts to explain the mind was provided by the Victorian physicist  John Tyndall in 1871.  I'll quote it in full, then go on to discuss some of the points in more detail, taking account of changes in knowledge and terminology in the intervening 142 years - none of which has to the slightest extent invalidated the deficiencies in physicalism identified by Tyndall:

"The passage from the physics of the brain to the corresponding facts of consciousness is unthinkable. Granted that a definite thought, and a definite molecular action in the brain occur simultaneously; we do not possess the intellectual organ, nor apparently any rudiment of the organ, which would enable us to pass, by a process of reasoning, from the one to the other. They appear together, but we do not know why. 

Were our minds and senses so expanded, strengthened, and illuminated, as to enable us to see and feel the very molecules of the brain; were we capable of following all their motions, all their groupings, all their electric discharges, if such there be; and were we intimately acquainted with the corresponding states of thought and feeling, we should be as far as ever from the solution of the problem, "How are these physical processes connected with the facts of consciousness?" The chasm between the two classes of phenomena would still remain intellectually impassable. 
Let the consciousness of love, for example, be associated with a right-handed spiral motion of the molecules of the brain, and the consciousness of hate with a left-handed spiral motion. We should then know, when we love, that the motion is in one direction, and, when we hate, that the motion is in the other; but the "Why?" would remain as unanswerable as before."
    —John Tyndall (1871), Fragments of Science

6. Comments on Tyndall’s critique of physicalism

6.1  "The passage from the physics of the brain to the corresponding facts of consciousness is unthinkable."     

It still is. Philosophers still cannot conceive of how a sequence of physical events, whether spiralling molecules, diode states, neuronal discharges or strings of characters, can produce qualitative experience (see the Chinese Room argument).

6.2  "We do not possess the intellectual organ, nor apparently any rudiment of the organ, which would enable us to pass, by a process of reasoning, from the one to the other."

If we rephrase 'intellectual organ' as 'intellectual faculty', then the major addition since Tyndall’s time has been computer simulation and modelling.  Nevertheless, all that computer science has done is to confirm Tyndall's view by providing a more rigorous definition of physical and mechanistic processes, and a better understanding of why such processes cannot in themselves support the mental processes of intentionality and qualitative experience.

To illustrate this, suppose that we could map the brain, to whatever degree of accuracy required (down to single molecules if need be) as a three dimensional array of values in a computer.   Consider also that we knew that a certain configuration of values was associated with pleasure, and a different configuration of values was associated with pain. 

This three-dimensional array of values is reducible to, and actually stored within the computer as a one-dimensional array if binary digits (isomorphic with the tape in a Turing machine).  So we would then know that, say,  01010 was associated with pleasure, and 01101 was associated with pain. 

However, the mechanism by which these binary strings caused the subjective experiences would remain as obscure as ever, because there is no envisageable 'mechanism', in the Turing sense, that can bridge the gap between a datastructure and subjective experience.

6.3  "Were our minds and senses so expanded, strengthened, and illuminated, as to enable us to see and feel the very molecules of the brain; were we capable of following all their motions, all their groupings, all their electric discharges, if such there be; and were we intimately acquainted with the corresponding states of thought and feeling, we should be as far as ever from the solution of the problem, "How are these physical processes connected with the facts of consciousness?" The chasm between the two classes of phenomena would still remain intellectually impassable."

In other words, if the technology of brain scanning were so improved and perfected that we could follow the causal chain of physical or biophysical processes from seeing someone we love/hate, starting from the eye, then through the optic nerve into the brain until its final physical  manifestation as the firing of neurones, we would have reached a state beyond which no physical causal mechanism was present, and yet causality would still be occurring, as evidenced by the experience of love/hate.  

From a Buddhist point of view, any further causality along the chain would be regarded as coming from mental processes rather than physical processes.

Imagine the case where we caught sight of our fiancé(e) after an absence (which made the heart grow fonder).  Our mental processes would interact with the physical processes of the brain to produce the qualitative feeling of love.  Now consider the case where we caught sight of the same person a couple of years later as he/she was entering the courtroom during particularly acrimonious divorce proceedings. Would  our mental processes then interact with the same physical processes of the brain to produce the qualitative feeling of hate?

These non-physical interactions are discussed further in The Hard Problem.

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Thursday, 25 July 2013

Confronting Materialism and the Fallacy of the Mechanistic Mind

Promises, promises...


Materialism is the belief that matter is the only reality in life and everything else, such as mind, feelings, emotions, beauty etc are just the by-products of the brain's physical and chemical activity, with no independent existence of their own.  Once their material basis is gone, mind and consciousness just disappear without trace.   Needless to say, materialism denies the validity of all religions and spiritual paths, not just Buddhism.

The debilitating effects of materialism don't just affect religions; they despiritualise all in their path, degrading art and encouraging brutalism.

Philosopher Roger Scruton believes that all great art has a 'spiritual' dimension, even if it is not overtly religious. It is this transcendence of the mundane that we recognise as 'beauty'.

Although materialism undermines the basis of all religions, nevertheless, materialism is of special interest to Buddhists, because Buddhism is the only religion that has a sufficiently strong philosophical basis to confront it.   Buddhism can argue rationally against materialism, whereas less  intellectually grounded religions can only bury their heads in the sand and ignore it, while their congregations decline and their institutions get taken over by small cliques of extremists.

As the Abrahamic religions have failed to tackle materialism, and instead are  degenerating into antiscience, idiocy and bigotry, Buddhism could become the only object of refuge for intelligent spiritual seekers wanting to escape the bleak and barren consequences of materialism.

This article will begin by looking at the sources and effects of materialism, then will attempt to get a workable definition of materialism in order to establish a clear idea of the 'object of negation' to be refuted.  The actual process of establishing this object of negation will itself begin to show some of the weaknesses of the materialist view.

In section four I will look at how we confront materialism, pointing out its inadequacies as a complete model of the mind. Finally, in section five I will put forward a more positive view of mind as a fundamental and irreducible aspect of all phenomena.


2.1 Scientism

Materialism always claims a scientific justification for its view, though as we shall see in section 4, this is not supported by close examination.

Materialism has its origins in scientism - a mistaken attempt to apply the methods of science beyond the limits of their applicability, in particular to claim to understand the workings of the mind (as distinct from the brain) in terms of physics and chemistry.  A warning against scientism was first given by
the eminent Victorian physicist John Tyndall over 140 years ago:

"... the passage from the physics of the brain to the corresponding facts of consciousness is unthinkable. Granted that a definite thought, and a definite molecular action in the brain occur simultaneously; we do not possess the intellectual organ, nor apparently any rudiment of the organ, which would enable us to pass, by a process of reasoning, from the one to the other. They appear together, but we do not know why.

Were our minds and senses so expanded, strengthened, and illuminated, as to enable us to see and feel the very molecules of the brain; were we capable of following all their motions, all their groupings, all their electric discharges, if such there be; and were we intimately acquainted with the corresponding states of thought and feeling, we should be as far as ever from the solution of the problem, "How are these physical processes connected with the facts of consciousness?" The chasm between the two classes of phenomena would still remain intellectually impassable.

Let the consciousness of love, for example, be associated with a right-handed spiral motion of the molecules of the brain, and the consciousness of hate with a left-handed spiral motion. We should then know, when we love, that the motion is in one direction, and, when we hate, that the motion is in the other; but the "Why?" would remain as unanswerable as before."

Everything we have learned about the structure and physiology of the brain in the century and a half since Tyndall's statement has taught us a lot about the structure and physiology of the brain.  It has not progressed one inch towards closure of the explanatory gap of the Hard Problem.


However, amid the 20th century optimism that science and technology could do everything, Tyndall's warnings went unheeded, and scientism and materialism dominated philosophy throughout the century until its final years, when it became increasingly apparent that despite fifty years of promises that the 'electronic brain', exhibiting 'artificial intelligence', was just around the corner, the entire machine-intelligence project had failed to deliver and was now stalled. 

Not only that, but the converse project of attempting to reduce the mind to machine-like  activities had suffered the same fate, and in fact had made no progress since Tyndall's time  The Hard Problem of consciousness was reformulated in the 1990's by David Chalmers

“It is undeniable that some organisms are subjects of experience. But the question of how it is that these systems are subjects of experience is perplexing. Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does."

2.2  Materialism as a default belief.

Although materialism has fallen out of favor with scientists and philosophers, it is still the default position among many people who are not scientifically educated, and who have been taken in by scientism.   Materialism is an unwillingly held default belief among many who don't see any rational alternative, while it is enthusiastically adopted by others to bash religion.  

There are undoubtedly many potentially spiritually-inclined people for whom scientism denies them the permission to believe in any dimension of reality other than a world restricted to the physical and mechanical, with its bleak and barren view of the potential of the mind.  

2.3 Secular Buddhism - The Enemy Within?

There is a movement within Buddhism, based on scientism, which is known as 'Secular Buddhism', and which ultimately seeks to reduce the mind to a by-product of the mechanical workings of the brain.

B. Alan Wallace  regards secular Buddhism as a counterfeit form of pseudo-Buddhism resulting from the current domination of science, education, and the secular media by scientific materialism:

"The Theravada Buddhist commentator Buddhaghosa refers to “far enemies” and “near enemies” of certain virtues, namely, loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity. The far enemies of each of these virtues are vices that are diametrically opposed to their corresponding virtues, and the near enemies are false facsimiles. The far enemy of loving-kindness, for instance, is malice, and that of compassion is cruelty. The near enemy of loving-kindness is self-centered attachment, and that of compassion is grief, or despair.  To draw a parallel, communist regimes that are bent on destroying Buddhism from the face of the earth may be called the far enemies of Buddhism, for they are diametrically opposed to all that Buddhism stands for. Batchelor and Harris, on the other hand, present themselves as being sympathetic to Buddhism, but their visions of the nature of the Buddha’s teachings are false facsimiles of all those that have been handed down reverently from one generation to the next since the time of the Buddha. However benign their intentions, their writings may be regarded as “near enemies” of Buddhism.

2.4 Soulless Buddhism - Or How to Shoot Yourself in the Foot

A traditional Buddhist teaching, which may unintentionally have the same despiritualising effect as Secular Buddhism, is the denial of the existence of the soul. This teaching has its origin in the denial of an ancient Hindu theology of an unchanging and unchangeable core to the mind, but does not deny a non-physical mind existing as a continuum that goes on from life to life.

Unfortunately, the teaching on no soul lends itself to misinterpretation by Westerners, who automatically assume that Buddhism must therefore be materialist.  In fact, the 'existence' of the soul is denied in the same way as the 'existence' of the body, in that body and soul are both processes, but do not have any static, unchanging inherent existence.   It would perhaps be best, rather than to deny the soul, to regard it as a conventional truth like the body.  For a detailed discussion of the soul in Buddhism see this excellent review.



3.1  Inadequacy of the Concept of Materialism

Although I've used the word 'Materialism' up to now, the term is actually too vague to be of much use for detailed discussion, and has mostly gone out of use among philosophers.

Part of the problem is that there is no generally agreed definition of 'matter' among scientists. As Wiki says  "The term "matter" is used throughout physics in a bewildering variety of contexts...  It is fair to say that in physics, there is no broad consensus as to a general definition of matter, and the term "matter" usually is used in conjunction with a specifying modifier."

Another problem is that when matter is contrasted with mind, it can be very difficult to disentangle the two when we get down to the fundamental quantum level of physics.   According to one view (The Copenhagen interpretation), the mind of an observer is required to turn matter from probability to actuality.

3.2  Physicalism

In order to overcome the problems with 'Materialism', philosophers adopted the term 'Physicalism' as a more precise statement of the belief that that everything which exists is no more extensive than its physical properties.

"In contemporary philosophy, physicalism is most frequently associated with the mind-body problem in philosophy of mind.  Physicalism holds that all that has been ascribed to "mind" is more correctly ascribed to "brain" or the activity of the brain. The term "physicalism" is preferable to "materialism" because it has evolved with the physical sciences to incorporate far more sophisticated notions of physicality than matter, for example wave/particle relationships and non-material forces produced by particles." - Wiki

But even so, physicalism suffers from definition problems. Hempel's Dilemma questions how physicalism is defined. One could either define the physical with respect to the entities stipulated by contemporary physics, or with respect to some future complete physics. Both options seem problematic. In the first case, it seems reasonable to assume (based on the history of science) that current physical theories will very probably be refined by future scientific discoveries. Therefore, it is very likely that any definition of "the physical" based on the current state of physics would end up being ultimately false. If on the other hand, we define the notion of what is physical based some future idealized physics, we have not effectively defined anything at all because nobody knows what entities a future physical theory might postulate.    

3.3   Naturalism

Naturalism is an old-fashioned term which is a weaker and incoherent form of physicalism. Naturalism holds that all properties related to consciousness and the mind are reducible to natural phenomena.   This is such a vague definition as to be useless, since it leaves open the question whether such 'Hard Problem' mental phenomena as qualia and intentionality should be regarded as natural, especially since they don't seem to be explainable by physical, chemical and biological mechanisms (e.g. Tyndall's Love and Hate in section 2.1)

Alan Turing - Buddhist Philosopher, Mathematician and Code Breaker

3.4 Mechanistic Reductionism

The most precise term for the metaphysical basis of scientism is Mechanistic Reductionism (aka Philosophical Mechanism) . It is precise because its defining reference is to the Universal Turing Machine, which is a precisely defined mathematical object.  This avoids the slipperiness resulting from ill-defined basic terms such as 'matter', 'physics' and 'nature', and gives Buddhists and other anti-materialists a clear object of negation which can be refuted by rational argument. 

The Universal Turing Machine is an idealised mathematical object , yet it is functionally equivalent to the familair stored program computer  such as your desktop PC. The Church-Turing-Deutsch principle states that a universal computing device can simulate every physical process.
To quote Michael Nielson 

'The Church-Turing-Deutsch (CTD)  Principle is a descendant of a famous idea known as the Church-Turing Thesis, taught to all computer scientists early in their degrees. I’ll talk later about the relationship between the Thesis and the Principle.

Just stating the CTD Principle makes it look deceptively obvious: Every physical process can be simulated by a universal computing device.
Most educated adults in the West today believe this Principle, whether they realize it or not.

We do not blink an eye to be told that a computer is being used to simulate a new aircraft, the explosion of a bomb, or even the creation of the Universe. The fact is, most people take it for granted that your standard desktop computer, given enough time and memory, can simulate pretty much any physical process.

Yet our ease with the CTD Principle is an ease brought by familiarity. One hundred years ago the statement would have been far more surprising, and, I suggest, even shocking to many people.

Viewed from the right angle, the CTD Principle still is shocking. All we have to do is look at it anew. How odd that there is a single physical system – albeit, an idealized system, with unbounded memory – which can be used to simulate any other system in the Universe...

So, if we can show that the CTD does not apply to the mind, in other words that there are mental properties and/or  processes that are not reducible to the operations of a computer, we have established the reality of irreducible mind and disproved materialism.  Turing himself believed that the mind or spirit was non-physical and underwent reincarnation.

3.5 The Universal Turing Machine and Computationalism

If we want to be precise in our terminology, we need to understand that  computation, in the Turing sense, does NOT involve the manipulation of actual symbols.

Computation is limited to the manipulation of the characters of a defined 'alphabet' (which may be as simple as 0 and 1).

The symbolic significance of those characters is assigned from 'outside the system', and is thus a form of derived intentionality.

This limitation applies to all Turing-equivalent devices (and thus to  all physical mechanisms), including all computers.
A universal Turing machine consists of two main structures
(i)  a data tape
(ii) an action table (the program). 

The data tape can  be used to read in the program much like you can use a CD to read in either data or programs.   The data tape, being erasable, can be thought of as being equivalent to both the hard-disk memory and the RAM memory of a real life computer.    

The main difference between a Turing Machine and a PC is that in the Turing Machine the action table for even the simplest task becomes huge and unwieldy, and in a real world computer its functionality is simplified into about 20 basic operations implemented as the computer's instruction set.   By combining the members of this instruction-set into procedures, any algorithm (program) to simulate the behavior of any physical system can be constructed.

The physics-based sciences (and everything that reduces to them) construct their models, predictions and explanations by abstracting and reducing the numerous natural instances of processes operating on structures, into a few generic procedures operating on data (for example, the orbits of all the planets, comets etc can be described by Newton’s Laws)

Consequently,  physical explanations will be impossible to construct, will fail, or will be inapplicable as 'category errors' for any phenomena where...

(i) Processes cannot be reduced to procedures
(ii) Structures cannot be reduced to data

The intractable features of The Hard Problem of Consciousness seem to be that some of the processes of consciousness are not even in principle reducible to procedures (they are 'non-algorithmic'). Similarly, qualia (eg Love/Hate) cannot be reduced to data.   

Physical models and explanations cannot bridge the gap between quantitative/Boolean phenomena (physics) and qualitative phenomena (qualia of the mind). The instruction set of a computer does not, and cannot, deal with any qualitative phenomena such as semantics, qualia and intentionality. The instruction set consists only of the boolean and arithmetic operations SET, MOVE, READ, WRITE, ADD, SUBTRACT, MULTIPLY, DIVIDE, AND, OR, XOR, NOT, SHIFT, ROTATE, COMPARE, JUMP, JUMP-CONDITIONALLY, RETURN and their combinations. None of these separately, or in combination, are capable of generating Tyndall's love or hate. No instruction set can manipulate any qualitative phenomena.

For people with a scientific education, the Turing Machine provides one of the most easily understood refutations of materialism, physicalism and the mechanistic model of the mind.  The argument is as follows:

- The behavior of all machines, computers and physical systems is reducible without remainder to the operations of a Turing machine.

- The behavior of the mind shows at least two functions - 'aboutness' (intentionality)  and qualitative experience (qualia) - that cannot in principle be reduced to the operations of a Turing machine.

- Therefore, there are some aspects of the mind that are non-mechanistic and non-physical.

See  Mind and Mechanism – Buddhism and the Turing Machine for a full explanation.

3.6 The limits of science
The domain of science concerns those aspects of the world that can be modelled effectively and efficiently in terms of algorithms and data-structures.

'Effectively' means that the models have predictive power (and hence are falsifiable).

'Efficiently' means that the models are simpler and more general than the phenomena that they model (they embody 'algorithmic compression')

All non-algorithmic phenomena, by their very nature, are outside the scope of the physical sciences.

The 'materialists', 'physicalists', 'reductionists' and other practitioners of scientism are committed to trying to represent the three-dimensional world of causality, composition and mind, in terms of the two dimensions of algorithms and datastructures.

This representation ultimately requires them to insert various square pegs (qualia, semantics, intentionality, freewill etc) into the round hole of mechanistic reductionism in the form of computationalism. But computation can only deal with quantitative and Boolean-logical values. 



We can refute the mechanical model of the mind if we can demonstrate mental phenomena that are irreducible to computational procedures.

The New Kadampa Tradition, foremost of all the schools of Buddhism, is uniquely placed to refute materialism, mechanistic reductionism and computationalism because its view of how things exist maps onto the areas of contention with mechanistic reductionism.


Challenging the mechanical model of the mind

4.1 Kadampa Buddhism versus Mechanistic Reductionism

The difference between the Kadampa Buddhist and the computationalist view of reality can be stated quite simply:

Kadampa Buddhism states that all functioning phenomena are dependent upon

- Causality
- Structure
- Designation by mind

The Computationalist believes that all functioning phenomena are dependent upon

- Causality
- Structure

...with the mind being reducible to the operations of causality on structure in the same way that the activities of a computer are reducible to the operation of algorithms on datastructures.

To the Kadampa Buddhist, in contrast, the mind is an irreducible foundation of reality. 

To be a purely physical system, a phenomenon must be capable of being completely simulated by algorithms acting on datastructures (without any unexplained remainder).  Buddhists would claim that there is always going to be an unexplained remainder, because algorithms and datastructures are not self-interpreting.  Any assignment of ‘meaning’ to them has to come from mental awareness, which is primal, not derivative of algorithms or datastuctures.  As Copthorne Macdonald  points out:

"Traditionally, definitions of primal entities have left much to be desired. Asked to define time, Einstein is supposed to have said: "Time is what clocks measure." A widely-accepted definition of energy is: "Energy is the capacity to do work." About awareness we might say: "Awareness is the capacity to present information subjectively." Each definition is saying something interesting about the primal entity it attempts to define, but each falls short of letting us look at the intrinsic nature of that entity. To me, this difficulty in defining awareness is itself strong evidence that this aspect of reality which I'm labeling awareness — like those other aspects: energy, time and space — is fundamental, not derivative."

4.2 Intentionality, meaning and semantics

Aboutness (intentionality) is, according to the Buddhist view, something that only minds possess.

Physical things, such as electrical circuits, computer inputs and outputs, do not possess aboutness. As Roger Scruton pointed out recently, the pixels displaying a picture of a woman on a computer monitor are not in themselves about the woman. Only the mind of the viewer is about her.

This quality of 'aboutness' is known in Western philosophy as 'intentionality'  - a rather confusing term which has nothing to do with 'intention'. In Buddhist philosophy, intentionality is known as  'mental designation', 'mental imputation', 'mental projection' or 'mental attribution'.

Near synonyms for intentionality are 'semantics' and just plain old 'meaning'. The property of being about something, of having 'an intentional object', is the key feature that distinguishes psychological phenomena from physical phenomena, because physical phenomena lack the ability to generate original intentionality, and can only perform an intentional relationship in a second-hand manner: derived intentionality, such as a textual description.

Intentionality plays a much more fundamental role in Buddhism that it does in traditional Western philosophy.  Intentionality, in its role as 'mental designation' is, together with causality and structure, one of the three axiomatic foundations of all phenomena,  and is not reducible to the other two.   John Searle argued for this position with the Chinese room thought experiment, according to which no syntactic operations that occurred in a computer would provide it with semantic content.

The role of intentionality in Western philosophy is weaker than in Buddhism.   Intentionality came comparatively late into Western thought, being first formulated in its modern form by Franz Brentano in the late nineteenth century.  Unlike in Buddhism, intentionality took a long time in the West to be established as a causative aspect of reality, and for much of the twentieth century was dismissed as an epiphenomenon of matter by the dominant philosophies of positivism, behaviorism and materialism:

'So-called ‘eliminative materialists’ (see Churchland 1989) resolutely opt for the second horn of Quine's dilemma and deny purely and simply the reality of human beliefs and desires. As a consequence of their denial of the reality of beliefs and desires, the eliminative materialists must face the challenge raised by the existence of physical objects whose existence depends on the intentions, beliefs and desires of their designers, i.e., human artifacts.' 
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

4.3  Mind and Meaning - Algorithms are not self-interpreting.

Something fundamental is missing from attempts to apply the Church-Turing-Deutsch model to the mind.  All meaning is inevitably stripped out of an algorithm before it can be processed by a machine, an operation known as compilation.  For example, the following two statements reduce to exactly the same algorithm within the memory of a computer

(i) IF RoomLength * RoomWidth > CarpetArea THEN NeedMoreCarpet = TRUE

(ii) IF Audience * TicketPrice > HireOfVenue THEN AvoidedBankruptcy = TRUE

both, when compiled, will appear to the machine as an anonymous executable form such as
IF a*b > c THEN d=1

The algorithmic models for carpet laying and theatrical success are said to be 'isomorphic' - they both have the same form, though they are 'about' very different phenomena.   This 'aboutness' is called 'intentionality' by philosophers, and is something that minds can process and machines can't.

The computer will perform the same internal operations whether its consequences are a visit to the carpet store, or an embarrassing surplus in Max Bialystock’s bank account.

Audience * TicketPrice > HireOfVenue


4.4 John Searle's critique of Computationalism

This critique of the possibility of machine intelligence has been further developed by John Searle in the famous Chinese Room Argument, which claims to demonstrate that a computer cannot understand what it is doing or why.

So procedure and structure, no matter how programmed, or as implemented on any sort of physical machine, are inadequate to describe the capabilities of human mental processes. (See computationalism).

This limitation will not be solved by hardware improvements. No matter how many terabytes, gigaflops, neural nets or iterations of Moore's law we throw at the problem of producing artificial intelligence, the difficulties will remain insurmountable as long as the hardware is only capable of dealing with truth values which can be treated as binary or numeric, and as long as compilers strip out all meaning from the source code in order to produce machine code.

But what other computer architecture is there?.   Every computer is equivalent to a Turing machine, which is itself a state-transition table coupled to a tape of symbols, neither of which are capable of holding intrinsic meaning.

4.5 Towards a definition of non-physical mind.

So we are beginning to see a definition of Mind emerging  from the limitations of the Church Turing Thesis.  The Mind is that which gives meaning and is ultimately formless and non-algorithmic.

Minds can perform algorithmic operations such as mental arithmetic (though remarkably poorly compared with machines), and are capable of perceiving structure, yet when both algorithms and structures are factored out of mental processes, there remains a non-algorithmic residuum, which is a clear formless awareness.   

This foundational ‘formless’ mind is without form itself, either as datastructures,  or as algorithmic operations expressed as structures such as state transition tables and flowcharts.

Nevertheless, the mind can grasp, comprehend and give meaning to such external structures, and also to structures of its own imaginative creation.

The mental faculty that creates algorithms in the mind of the scientist, analyst or programmer ('The Mother of all Algorithms') is probably itself partly ‘intuitive’ and  nonalgorithmic.

4.6 Nonalgorithmic Phenomena

Computer simulations are, by their very nature, incapable of dealing with nonalgorithmic phenomena.

The great difficulty in talking about nonalgorithmic phenomena is that although we can say in general terms what they do, it is impossible by their very nature to describe how they do it. (If we could describe in a stepwise manner what was going on, then the phenomenon would be algorithmic!).

A typical example of a nonalgorithmic activity is assigning meaning to any object. For example, when is a chariot a heap of firewood? Or when is a car a pile of parts? (as discussed under sunyata). Many processes involving semantics, as distinct from syntax, appear to be non-algorithmic.

4.7  Qualia

Qualia are internal, subjective qualitative states such as the redness of red, aesthetic experiences of beauty and revulsion, pain, happiness, boredom, depression, elation, motivation, intention, the experience of understanding something for the first time, etc. Such states are subjective and private and are distinct (though causally related to) physical and neural activities.

The experimentally accessible processes, such as projection of images on the retina and the resultant neural firings etc, are describable in terms of manipulation of symbols (typically binary states such as fired/not fired, matrices of pixels or strings of pulses). However, how these symbols and the processes that manipulate them give rise to qualitative experience is one of the major areas of difference between the materialist and Buddhist viewpoints.

To the materialist, all perceptions - sight, hearing, touch taste and smell - arrive in the brain as bitstreams, a sequence of 1's and 0's like the bitstream which is bringing this information to you down the telephone wire. The 1's and 0's are physically implemented as electro-chemical impulses of neurons. The neural nets within the brain process these raw bit streams, firstly into data, then into information and finally into knowledge.

Buddhist philosophy has no difficulties with this process up to and including the point of generating information. However it points out that no mechanistic explanation appears to be able to bridge the gulf between information and knowledge, ie from symbols (whether on the printed page, or in the brain) to actual experience. There seems to be no bridge between the data about a rose, no matter how they are processed and arranged, and the actual subjective experience of the rose. The immediate knowledge of the rose consists (among other things) of the qualia of red, green, and the smell of its perfume, not to mention the very immediate and unpleasant sensation I get when I attempt to pick it up by its thorny stem.

The Buddhist does not doubt that the brain does some very sophisticated ordering of its incoming nerve impulses into the datastructures which are the objects of knowledge. But when all is said and done, those data structures remain as objects. They are not themselves knowledge, neither are they that which performs the function of knowing.

A datastructure by its very nature must have form. But according to Buddhist beliefs, the mind is formless and is capable of grasping any object of knowledge, including facts about the mind itself, which then become objects of knowledge in their own right. Consequently the mind is potentially unbounded.

Buddhist philosophy states that the the gap between information and knowledge cannot be bridged from the data-object side, it can only be bridged by the mind reaching out or going to its object (as it appears to do in certain quantum phenomena such as the 'spooky action at a distance' discussed in the section on quantum phenomena). Thus the mind is not a extension of the data processing capabilities of the brain either in terms of hardware, datastructures or algorithms. It is something totally different in its fundamental nature from all of these.

There is no one-way chain of causation between neurological events and qualitative mental states. Rather the mind appears to impute or project reality over the contents of datastructures within the brain, much as a PC operator would impute text, graphics, windows etc over the two dimensional array of dots that comprise a computer display.

4.8  Quantum Mind Interactions

The mathematical equations of quantum physics do not describe actual existence - they predict the potential for existence. Working out the equations of quantum mechanics for a system composed of fundamental particles produces a range of potential locations, values and attributes of the particles which evolve and change with time. But for any system only one of these potential states can become real, and - this is the revolutionary finding of quantum physics - what forces the range of the potentials to assume one value is the act of observation. Matter and energy are not in themselves phenomena, and do not become phenomena until they interact with the mind of an observer. 

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso - Leading Buddhist Philosopher of Mind


Up to now I've concentrated on refuting the materialist, mechanical model of the mind.   But we need to go beyond that. We need to produce a view of the mind that will offer an escape route from the soulless, stressed-out, dehumanised, over-regulated and proceduralised rat-race of present day existence, and re-establish our connection with the spiritual and numinous dimensions of life. 

However, there is a difficulty in that we cannot produce a model of the mind, because it is non-algorithmic.  As mentioned earlier, it is in general difficult to talk about non-algorithmic phenomena, because if we could describe in a stepwise manner how they operate, they would be algorithmic!  Ultimately the non-algorithmic nature of the mind can only be understood by meditative experience, not by procedural descriptions.   Again, Kadampa philosophy shows us the direction we need to take.

The Kadampa Buddhist definition of Mind is

"Mind - That which is clarity and cognizes. Mind is clarity because it always lacks form and because it possesses the actual power to perceive objects. Mind cognizes because its function is to know or perceive objects."

In Modern Buddhism Volume 1, p109Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says that as well as understanding how physical things (including our bodies) are empty of inherent existence and ultimately unfindable, we should also understand that the mind is similarly unfindable upon analysis.  

The mind is like an empty space that perceives or understands objects. It is not so much a 'thing' as a process, 'an ever-changing continuum' or 'mindstream'.   The very subtle 'root mind' is the process that goes on from life to life. All other temporary minds and thoughts are subprocesses that arise from it, and ultimately dissolve back into it.

So the mind is...
(i) Clear and Formless
(ii) Cognizing
(iii) Devoid of 'inherent existence' (or any defining essence)
(iv) A process rather than a 'thing'.

Not only is the mind empty of inherent existence, it is also empty of form or structure, though it can cognize forms and structures through 'the inexistent images of its intentionality', as they say in the trade.

In Transform Your Mind  Geshe Kelsang  says   "If the mind is not the brain, nor any other part of the body, what is it? It is a formless continuum that functions to perceive and understand objects. Because the mind is formless, or non-physical, by nature, it is not obstructed by physical objects."

'Cognizing' implies intentionality or 'aboutness'. Physical systems, including machines, are not in themselves 'about' anything. The apparent 'aboutness' of a physical system is projected onto it by the mind of its user.

The lack of inherent existence of the mind means that it has no defining essence, nothing to 'keep it as it is', so it can unobstructedly perceive all objects including those of its own creation. The mind can be 'about' anything whatsoever. This lack of defining essence, combined with lack of structure, allows the mind to change, expand, have freewill, and be creative.

The formless nature of the mind gives a double-whammy to any attempts to construct a deterministic physical or mechanistic explanation for the mind.

The first whammy is obvious: something totally lacking in form cannot be expressed as a structure.

Then there's the second whammy: algorithms and procedures are themselves ultimately structural.  In the Universal Turing machine (to which all other information processing machines are functionally equivalent) the algorithms take the form of state-transition tables, and the Turing machine populates its empty state-transition tables by reading them in from its data tape.

These whammies may explain why The Hard Problem is so hard that it is insoluble by science. The root process of consciousness is not even in principle reducible to a procedural form. Consequently, attempts at physical or mechanistic explanations are a category error.

Although the mind cannot be understood physically, it can be known experientially and changed and improved by meditation. More here

See also Mind and Mechanism – Buddhism and the Turing Machine


TIP - If some aspects of Buddhist beliefs seem unfamiliar, obscure, or confusing, then bear in mind that Buddhism is a process philosophy.   Difficult aspects of Buddhism often become much clearer when viewed from a process perspective.


- Sean Robsville