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.

Read more at Buddhist Philosophy


Anonymous said...

Are you in the US?

What do you think of the demographic shift as it relates to Buddhism?

seanrobsville said...

No I'm not in the US so I can't offer any first hand judgment. However Buddhism does seem to be gaining in popularity quite rapidly in Latin America, with the major Buddhist publisher Tharpa translating many of its books into Spanish and Portuguese. There's no reason to think that the trend won't be the same among people of Latin American origins living in the US.

But far more important than the demographic shift (and superimposed over it) is the meltdown of the Roman Catholic Church. The collapse of Catholicism will leave a spiritual vacuum in traditionally culturally Catholic populations that something will have to fill.

For all its faults, Catholicism alone of all the Abrahamic religions has honored the divine feminine in the form of the Virgin Mary. This may present an opportunity for Buddhism, with its veneration of the Lady Tara and other female Buddhas, to fill the cultural/spiritual void.

Anonymous said...

I am a school Physics teacher from an Asian Buddhist country. I am happy to say that you have grasped the concept of mind very clearly. If you wish you could read more on mind and thoughts in Buddhism under 'Abhidhamma'. If one reads Abhidhamma, it goes on to explain not only the nature of minds of human beings of the earth, but minds of non-humans that exist in other galaxies.
May you be Blessed with Buddha energy in the universe!

Anonymous said...

I read many of the Buddha's teachings. He makes lots of sense, especially his explanations on cause and effect, and that how matter is dependent on the mind and the mind is dependent on matter. That nothing is absolute. I guess we have to experience for ourselves and know what he knew, before we make any judgments on reality. But being a scientist myself, I can't seem to find anything to falsify his doctrines. That much I can tell.

Beelzebub said...

All religions posit the existence of extraphysical phenomena and/or realms of being. If these DO exist, and if they are capable of influencing our Physical Realm, they must somehow interact with it. In order to do so they must therefore affect matter - i.e. atoms. The key to PROVING the fallacy of Materialism is to show how this influence operates. The following book is available as a free download and does just that:

Christian Bette said...

I find it very interesting how in our western world buddhism is becoming more and more popular and I really like some of the articles here. Having read the comments I would like to add that Buddhism is as a method in some way (certainly not in all aspects) similar to nihilism. At least within its way of questioning dogmatic concepts weather the spiritual ones or the materialistic ones. I have no first hand experience but I can imagine Buddhism is doing its thing to christianity the same way it did its thing to hinduism in India and other countries around India or even influenced chinese and japanese culture later on. I have only recently started writing on blogger so if you guys have any suggestions for this topics I'd be happy to inform myself further.

Megan Jones said...

Interesting comments. There is a long history of interaction between Christianity and Buddhism. You might want to start with something like The Making of Modern Buddhism by David L. McMahan if you are interested in some of the interactions. I recommend that if you are interested in Buddhist philosophy, you read Jay L. Garfield's book Engaging Buddhism, Why it Matters to Philosophy and T.R.V. Murti's book The Central Philosophy of Buddhism, A Study of the Madhyamika System. You might also want to read Pruning the Bodhi Tree, edited by Jamie Hubbard and Paul L. Swanson.