Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Evolution, Emptiness and Delusions of the Darwinian Brain.

Can you trust your mind?  How do you know it's giving you a true picture of the world?

If the mind is nothing more than the brain, and the brain has evolved solely to ensure the survival of our hunter-gatherer and neolithic farmer ancestors, then how do we know that it can reliably do anything beyond the range of competence for which evolution selected it?  

Natural selection cannot select directly for true beliefs, but only for advantageous behaviors.

So is the brain giving us a picture of the world that is merely fit for purpose, rather than one that represents some true underlying reality?    In that case, how does the brain cope so well with science and technology, which have arisen so recently that evolution cannot have had time to respond to selective pressures to deal these new cultural and environmental factors?

Darwin had doubts

The Darwinian mind may be deluded
Charles Darwin himself was one of the first to ponder these implications of evolution: 

"But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?"    
- Letter to William Graham, 1881 

Opening the Doors of Perception

Darwin realised that there is no necessary correlation between mental representations that have survival value, and those that portray a true picture.  In fact, delusions may have more survival value than truth, as users of hallucinogens such as LSD and magic mushrooms may discover:

"The brain is an organ which has evolved to display a particular interpretation of reality to the mind. There's no dispute that the brain operates abnormally under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs - but you've got to ask yourself - what is the purpose of the normal functioning of the brain?

The brain hasn't evolved to represent ultimate reality to the mind. The brain has evolved by selection of the fittest (not the most truthful) to project the delusion of the inherently-existing self onto the mind. This delusion of a permanent, unchanging self is 'imputed' over the ever-changing transitory collection of biochemical building blocks that makes up the physical aspects of a sentient being.

These biochemical building blocks are brought together by a loose temporary alliance of selfish genes. This alliance comes into existence at conception and ends at death. When the brain is functioning 'correctly', it is acting in the best interests of the alliance.

The brain is the alliance's propaganda machine, and it is constantly exhorting the mind to:

" Preserve ME ! Reproduce ME ! "

The correct functioning of the propaganda machine is obviously necessary for the preservation and procreation of the species. Nevertheless, to perform its function the brain needs to project a distorted view of the self onto the mind.

Disruption of this ceaseless barrage of ME-ME propaganda by psychedelic agents enables the mind to temporarily push the doors of perception ajar and peek beyond mundane biologically-determined appearances."

Defying the tyranny of the genes
All animals, including ourselves, have genetically programmed drives to eat, reproduce, fight for territory and mates, kill prey, help our kin and so on. These drives appear to our mind as attachment and aversion.

Manifestations of attachment include sexual desire, hunger and the need for security. Manifestations of aversion include fighting, fleeing and avoiding painful and dangerous situations. All these mental reactions have evolved because they gave our ancestors a selective advantage. They are, or were, essential for preservation of the individual and procreation of its genes.

We humans can to some extent distance ourselves from these drives. We can examine them and if necessary rebel against them. From the Buddhist point of view this is especially significant when these instinctive drives become pathological, giving rise to mental states such as anger, hatred, sadism, jealousy, greed, miserliness, tribalism, addiction, sexual abuse and so on.

Hatred, attachment and ignorance

The Three Poisons
In Buddhist ethics, aversion and greed (and their associated thought patterns) are two of the three poisons. The third poison is ignorance, which consists, among other factors, of being unable to separate the true nature of one's mind from the delusions which afflict it, especially the delusion of inherent existence.

The delusion of inherent existence is more subtle than the other two - greed and anger. 

We are deluded into seeing the world in terms of 'things' because our genes are telling us to grab resources. But if we take a step back and view the universe in terms of geological and cosmic timescales, it is apparent that there are no inherently existent things, only processes of continual change.   All phenomena are dependently-related to other phenomena and empty of any defining essence.

Individuals, buildings, artefacts, species, continents, planets and stars are transient phenomena caused by the coming together of parts. All compounded things are impermanent and eventually disintegrate. It is the deluded grasping at things as if they were permanent, or desirable in themselves, that is one of the principal causes of dukkha - the sensation of unsatisfactoriness due the transience of all biological pleasures.

So, the psychological symptoms of our evolutionary history are the three poisons of the mind, which are  of attachment and greed (for resources) aversion and hatred (for competitors and predators) and ignorance (of the whole show being a scam set up by the selfish genes to hijack the mind).  

But who or what is being deluded by this biological scam?  

If we aren't just the products of our genes, then what are we?  How is it possible for us to think of ourselves as potentially non-deluded, non-mechanistic, non-biological free agents?

The non-biological, non-physical component of the mind.
According to Buddhist philosophy, the reason we can work towards liberation from these poisons is that our minds, although influenced by biology, are not themselves predominantly biological  nor indeed fundamentally physical, nor are they emergent phenomena of physical or biological processes. In meditation we can imagine we are throwing away the three poisons, peeling off all our biological and social attributes in order to find out what we really are. We discover that we are pure awareness, a formless non-physical mental continuum that continues from life to life and body to body.

The evidence that our minds have capabilities that go way beyond what could have been selected solely by Darwinian evolution is discussed in the article on Mathematics and Buddhist Philosophy

"But it is hard for me to see how simple Darwinian survival of the fittest would select for the ability to do the long chains that mathematics and science seem to require".

"If you pick 4,000 years for the age of science, generally, then you get an upper bound of 200 generations. Considering the effects of evolution we are looking for via selection of small chance variations, it does not seem to me that evolution can explain more than a small part of the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics."

"Certainly it is hard to believe that our reasoning power was brought, by Darwin's process of natural selection, to the perfection which it seems to possess."

These considerations help dispel 'the horrid doubt whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy'.

The non-evolved, non-biological component of the mind is also non-physical, as discussed in the article on the Church-Turing-Deutsch Principle:

'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.

But why does the mind have both biological and non-biological components?

Symbiosis of biological and physical minds.
One explanation for the coexistence of biological and non-biological aspects of the mind might be found in the process of symbiosis between the physical and non-physical person.  Symbiosis may explain why humans (and presumably other animals) are sentient, with inner experiences such as pleasure and pain.  Sentient beings are not just ‘philosophical zombies’   - mere automata lacking conscious experience, qualia, or sentience

In contrast  to a ‘philosophical zombie’, Buddhism defines a ‘sentient being’ as one that possesses a mind that can experience qualitative feelings, in particular suffering, unsatisfactoriness  or dukkha

The body of the sentient being may indeed be a physical automaton, but the mind is non-physical.    A sentient being  experiences its inputs (perceptions) and outputs (actions), in contrast to an automaton where no subjective states occur, and all meanings have to be assigned to inputs and outputs from 'outside the system'.

Symbiotic Mind – an Evolutionary Perspective
It seems likely that animals above a certain level of development require more than automatic reflexes in order to survive. Advanced organisms need motivation and intention in order to function in complex environments. Motivation and intention are chiefly driven by dukkha - the need to avoid suffering or unsatisfactoriness, and the restless but futile search for lasting happiness.  Dukkha and suffering, unpleasant though they may be for the individual, have survival and evolutionary advantages for the species. 

To quote Richard Dawkins:

"The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored."

Mental states such as suffering, unsatisfactoriness and pleasure are qualia. These subjective experiences, which carry strong immediate meanings, do not exist in automata - mechanistic systems such as relay networks or computers.

It is for this reason that complex animals have evolved neural structures which attract and capture minds. Fundamentally, it is the suffering and grasping of their minds - the need to avoid pain and seek pleasure - that provides the driving force for survival and reproduction of complex animals. The physical body enters into a symbiotic relationship with a non-physical mind.

In Buddhist philosophy, the mind of a sentient being is not a product of biological processes, but something primordial which has existed since beginningless time, and which will be drawn into another body once the present one has died.

Survival advantages of sentience
In evolutionary terms, any adaptation or feature must have some selective benefit for the organism that possesses it. Obviously, a physical body equipped with sentience will have an improved chance of surviving to propagate its genes over any mindless competitor which is not deterred by pain or motivated by pleasure.

But what does the mind gain from this symbiotic association?   Usually little or nothing. 

When the life of the biological partner comes to an end, the mind has to endure the sufferings of death and then leave its home, being unable to take anything with it. It must then enter the unstable state of the bardo and soon after find a new body. In Buddhist terminology these minds are wanderers or migrators in samsara (the realm of perpetual death and rebirth). The mind is non-evolved and non-evolving (at least not by the normal processes of natural selection).

Parasitic body, parasitized mind?
Perhaps the relationship between mind and body is more one of parasitism than symbiosis. The biological body gets a better chance to propagate itself.  But the mind has to endure dukkha -  the ever-changing experiences of craving, suffering and attachment that the body imposes upon it in order to force it to do what is necessary for survival, competition and reproduction.

The only way that the mind can escape being endlessly captured and used by biological systems is to permanently escape from the recurrent process of death, attraction to a body, and rebirth.  It is this cycle of 'samsara' that Buddhism claims to be able to break.

The evolutionary basis for the delusion of inherent existence.

In Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka, p 45 to 52, Jan Westerhoff argues that the mistaken belief in inherent existence of objects ('svabhava' in Sanskrit), is an inaccurate but useful conceptual handle on phenomena that has arisen from evolutionary selection.

Inherent existence as the brain's automatic default view.
'According to this cognitive understanding, svabhava (inherent existence) is here regarded as a superimposition (samaropa) which the mind naturally projects onto objects when attempting to conceptualize the world.'

Inherent existence as a simplifying concept
Westerhoff proposes that the brain has two preferred default views of phenomena, which have arisen through evolution:

(i) The principle of permanence
(ii) The principle of externality

The principle of permanence
'Other things being equal, we conceive of a sequence of stimuli as corresponding to a single enduring (though changing) object rather than to a sequence of different momentary ones [...] There are good reasons why we do not do so, primarily that such a representation is vastly too complex to use in practice. Any mind who lived in such a world of kaleidoscopically flashing phenomena would presumably be at an evolutionary disadvantage when compared with one that represented a world of stable, enduring objects.' - Westerhoff

The principle of externality
In the absence of evidence either way, we assume external rather than internal objects as the source of mental stimuli. For example, optical illusions still appear as illusions even when we know
intellectually that the source of the mistaken perception is within ourselves, rather than within the object.   Similarly, ordinary dreams appear to be totally externally generated, and it takes special effort and training in lucid dreaming to bring them under our conscious control.

The beta movement is a good example combining the principle of permanence with the principle externality to produce a series of momentary stimuli which produce an optical illusion giving the appearance of a permanent entity

Emptiness as a corrective view against biologically evolved delusions.
'Emptiness as a  correction of a mistaken belief in svabhava is therefore not anything objects have from their own side, nor is it something that is causally produced together with the object, like the empty space in a cup.  It is also not something that is a necessary part of conceptualizing objects, since its only purpose is to dispel a certain erroneous conception of objects.  [ ...] a mind not prone to ascribing substance-svabhava ('inherent existence from its own side') to objects does not need to conceive of  objects as empty in order to conceive of them correctly.' - Westerhoff

The realization of emptiness by meditation
Buddhist teachers stress that mere intellectual understanding of emptiness is insufficient. We need to obtain a deep mental realization of emptiness in order to destroy the root of ignorance. 

Westerhoff explains these teachings as follows: 'It is because this cognitive default of the superimposition of svabhava is seen as the primary cause of suffering that the Madhyamaka draws a distinction between the understanding of arguments establishing emptiness and its realization. Being convinced by some Madhyamaka argument tht an object does not exist with svabhava does not usually entail that the object will not still appear to us as having svabhava. The elimination of this appearance is achieved only by the realization of emptiness.  The ultimate aim of the Madhyamika project is therefore not just the establishment of a particular ontological or semantic theory, but the achievement of a cognitive change.'

It is precisely this cognitive change that Buddhist meditations on emptiness aim to bring about.  The methods require progressing beyond a merely logical and conceptual understanding of emptiness, to acheive a direct realization of emptiness, which can then be applied to our entire 'conventional' experience.

As Geshe Kelsang Gyatso explains in Modern Buddhism:

"When we first realize emptiness we do so conceptually, by means of a generic image. By continuing to meditate on emptiness over and over again, the generic image gradually becomes more and more transparent until it disappears entirely and we see emptiness directly. This direct realization of emptiness will be our first completely non-mistaken awareness, or undefiled mind. Until we realize emptiness directly, all our minds are mistaken awarenesses because, due to the imprints of self-grasping or true-grasping ignorance, their objects appear as inherently existent."

Read more at Buddhist Philosophy


Robert West said...

Nice page. I did a TedX talk last year trying to explain a theory I have linking Buddhism and Evolution. Any comments are appreciated

Anonymous said...

A nicely thought out post.

nonzero said...

There is no evidence or reasoned need to posit a non-material consciousness that forms a symbiosis with the material brain, as nice as it may seem to sound. Our ability to reason and perform mathematics is evolved and not very mysterious, lower primates and other animals can count, and counting, transformed by language and culture, quickly builds up into higher mathematics and reasoning abilities. Feral children without any exposure to culture do not develop these abilities, but flowing through our unbroken cultural chain is our extended phenotype of artifacts passing down knowledge and tradition through learning and has given us the ability to transform mere counting and object recognition into performing such feats as discovering quantum mechanics.

Qualia, meaning, consciousness, these are the emergent phenomena of our universe evolving to a point where it starts to understand itself. There is still a spiritual mystique around why we find ourselves in such a universe, why does matter exhibit qualia when it evolves into particularly structured patterns, but it has nothing to do with supernatural, non-physical, or non-computable causes. The onus is on you to explain why we should think otherwise.


seanrobsville said...

@ nonzero
Thanks for your comment.

- The ability to count and perform elementary mathematics is not in itself mysterious. What is mysterious is the powerful and widespread applicability of mathematics in the physical sciences at scales much larger and much smaller than the environment in which our biological behaviors were selected.

- Emergent phenomena are psychological rather than physical in origin. For a phenomenon to be emergent presupposes the existence of a mind from which it can emerge . So to say that meaning and consciousness are emergent properties of a purely physical universe is relying on the implicit premise that the mind is purely physical.

Michael H. said...

Hello Sean Robsville,

Who are you? Where are you? The "about me" section on your blog is blank.

I recently stumbled on your blogs. Your description of Buddhism is wonderful. I am particularly interested in your discussion of the intersections between Buddhism and science.

About me: I am a scientist working in the realm of molecular evolution. I am also a beginning Buddhist. In recent years, Buddhist philosophy has changed how I view the world and made me a happier person. My professional research in molecular evolution and my personal interest in Buddhist philosophy have led me to think a great deal about .... the mind that was evolved by Darwinian paths and can be liberated by Buddhist paths. After thinking about these issues for over a year, I decided to crawl around the web. This led me to discover that you had already written much of what I was trying to (re)discover on my own.

Since we have overlapping views of reality, I would love to meet and discuss our ideas. So back to the first question: Who are you? and where are you? If we are on the same continent, perhaps we can meet in person. If not, I guess we'll continue this by email.

For starters, my name is Michael, I am on the East Coast of the United States. I teach and run a research lab in a science department at a major research university (you've probably heard of it). My email is

Looking forward to hearing from you.

All best

seanrobsville said...

Hi Michael. Thanks for the comment. I've replied to your questions by email.

Anonymous said...

In your post, I've noticed an image telling about:
"... all that have life ..."

But it's actually:
"May all sentient beings have happiness and its causes
May all sentient beings be free of suffering and its causes
May all sentient beings not be separated from sorrowless bliss
May all sentient beings abide in equanimity, free of bias, attachment and anger"

Sounds like the same... I know, but it's not. Could you please remove this image? I found your article so amazing, but this image can give a distorted idea to people who believe in spirit. They won't just stop believing, but they can think the spirits are not welcome in buddhism.

If spirits exist, they would be "sentient beings" without life.

Thank you.