In the Spring of 2001 the popular press carried a number of articles claiming that scientists had 'explained' religious feelings as 'just a product of how the brain works'.
These articles referred back to a report in the New Scientist ('In Search of God' by Bob Holmes, New Scientist, 21st April 2001, pages 25 - 27 ). The report described experiments which demonstrated that when Tibetan Buddhist meditators experienced the dissolution of the distinction between self and other, there was an associated shutdown of the parietal lobe, a region of the brain responsible for the sensation of personal identity.
The tone of the tabloid press was that science had finally explained away mystical experience as some kind of malfunction of the brain. The original New Scientist report wasn't quite so simplistic, but did make some reductionist statements such as:
'Experiments on the brain have led neuroscientists to suggest that the capacity for religion may somehow be hardwired into us'
'You can have a dream and and it feels real at the time, but you wake up and it no longer feels as real. The problem is, when people have a mystical experience, they think that is more real than baseline reality - even when they come back to baseline reality'.
Why is this a problem? How real is baseline reality? What is reality?
In Buddhist philosophy, 'baseline' or 'ordinary' reality is what appears to the non-physical symbiotic mind after being filtered and distorted by the biological system which is the collection of our sense organs, nervous system and brain. This biological system has not evolved to represent reality. It has evolved to ensure its own survival - or more correctly to ensure the survival of those genes that code for it.
One of the mechanisms that ensures
survival is the instinct for self-preservation, which of course relies on the
projection on to the mind of an inherently-existent self or ego which has to be
preserved. Any animal which couldn't distinguish betwen self and other wouldn't
survive for any length of time.
This self or ego appears most strongly to us when we are threatened, either physically, or emotionally (such as being embarassed or insulted).
But how real is the self? Am I the same person I was when I was six? Will I be the same person when I'm 64? The constituents of my body are constanly being lost and renewed, and are said to totally turnover every seven years of so.
So am I the same person I was when I was six, in the way that the axe is still the same old axe even though it's had three new handles and four new blades?
If my body is not the self then maybe my mind is the self. But my mind as a fifty-year-old has more in common with other fifty-year-olds than it has with that of the six-year-old I used to be. The six-year-old had a large store of memories of his life back to infancy. Now I can only remember perhaps twenty things that happened to me before I was six.
So the stable inherently-existent self is a delusion. Many schools of Tibetan Buddhism (eg Kadampas) place great emphasis on arguing intellectually against the concept of the inherently-existent self, and also using meditational techniques to obtain a deep qualitative realisation of 'the emptiness of the self' . (In Tibetan Buddhist philosophy all things are empty of inherent existence).
To the average Westerner, deliberately cultivating the idea that your ego doesn't exist as a fixed entity may seem weird and scary, but in fact it can be immensely liberating. As one of the researcher/meditators taking part in the study said "It feels like a loss of boundary. It's as if the film of your life broke and you were seeing the light that allowed the film to be projected"
A materialist would view this loss of the sense of the self during meditation as pathological and delusional. A correctly functioning brain produces 'baseline reality'.
A Buddhist would turn this view on its head. The self or ego is a delusion and does not
exist inherently. The concept of a permanent unchanging self is a carrot-and-stick mechanism imposed by the biologically-evolved central nervous system on the non-physical mind. This mechanism is necessary for survival and evolution, but ultimately the self is a delusion - it is unfindable. The New Scientist article suggests that the parietal lobe is the neurological seat of this delusion.
'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 datastructures remain as objects. They are not themselves knowledge, neither are they that which performs the function of knowing'
'The fact that the mind is formless means that it is unconstrained, and hence has immense potential. The mind can comprehend all objects including its own creations. The description of the root mind as 'formless' doesn't just refer to its non-material nature, but it emphasises that it is unlimited, non-mechanistic and totally free from any structure or topology. In Buddhist psychology the root mind is non-physical and non-algorithmic. The mind cannot be understood in terms of circuit diagrams and flowcharts. It is pure awareness'
'Possibly one way forward in describing non-algorithmic phenomena is to describe what they are NOT. For a start, they are without form. They cannot be described in terms of structure, nor of procedures (which can always be reduced to form in a flowchart). Taking an analogy from computer programming we can say they are not objects. An object is a structure (the term 'structure' includes datastructure), which may or may not have an associated procedure (the term 'procedure' includes mathematical and logical functions and algorithms)......'
Qualia - Subjective Experience
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.
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 subjective 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 bitstreams, 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 datastructures 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 dataprocessing 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.
The non-physical mind
Buddhist schools regard the mind as a fundamental aspect of experience which goes
on from life to life and does not owe its existence to any pre-existing physical
or mechanistic system. This contrasts with the materialist worldview, which claims
that all aspects of psychology can ultimately be reduced to neurology.
The fact that the mind is formless means that it is unconstrained, and hence has immense potential. The mind can comprehend all objects including its own creations. The description of the root mind as 'formless' doesn't just refer to its non-physical nature, but it emphasises that it is unlimited, non-mechanistic and totally free from any structure or topology. So it it is free from steps, loops, branches, strings, tables, stacks, queues, datastructures and all the other algorithmic constraints . In Buddhist psychology the root mind is non-physical and non-algorithmic. The mind cannot be understood in terms of circuit diagrams and flowcharts. It is pure awareness.
The (anti-Buddhist) philosophical doctrine of computationalism (a modern form of materialism) claims that the human mind is a physical system, and all physical systems can be modelled by a general purpose computer. Computationalism lays itself open to refutation, since if any aspect of psychology is discovered which cannot be interpreted in terms of the interactions of algorithms (procedures) with datastructures, then one must conclude that at least one component of the mind is not a machine, and is not indeed a physical system of any kind.
Meditation on formless mind
One of the quickest ways to convince yourself that the root mind is non-physical, (and is not therefore limited by one birth and one death), is to meditate on the formless nature of the mind.
(1) Find somewhere quiet and peaceful where you won't be disturbed. If at home take the phone off the hook.
(2) If you can't manage a classical meditation posture just sit upright in a chair. Try to keep your back reasonably straight. Avoid the two extremes of slouching and getting excessively rigid.
(3) Observe your breathing. Don't try to control it, just observe the natural rhythm of inhaling and exhaling.
(4) Once you've settled into this observational state, but before you've got bored, introduce a small amount of breath control - just pause for a second between the in and the out.
(5) Next try a simple mental recitation. On the in breath mentally recite the syllable OM (you don't need to say it out loud). At the pause between the in and out mentally recite the syllable AH (there is no need to prolong this pause any longer than it takes to mentally recite this syllable). On the out breath mentally recite the syllable HUM.
(6) Keep on breathing and mentally reciting OM AH HUM. Don't force the breath. Breathe naturally apart from the slight pause long enough to mentally recite the AH between the in and out breaths. You can then extend this pause if it helps you to feel calmer, and you can do so without discomfort. You may like to imagine that you hold the AH sound at your heart during the pause. Concentrate on the syllables and don't let your mind wander.
(7) After a while the novelty will wear off and your mind will appear to become extremely busy, with all sorts of thoughts competing for your attention. Your mind will have much more immediate concerns than OM AH HUM. - 'It's a week since I last phoned my mother - that reminds me, can I afford to pay my phone bill? - I haven't checked my bank balance lately - I guess its bad because I haven't had a raise since my boss put me on a wage freeze ....It's because I'm 48 and not likely to find another job - Why do I have to work for that creep? - Surely I could branch out on my own - the whole company's become a pile of poo - Oh look there's a crack in the plaster - Is it superficial or something structural? Structural..structure... Oh shit I should have emailed that drawing this afternoon..... etc,etc...
(8) Welcome to your superficial mind! Why does meditation make the mind busier? You thought it was supposed to calm you down. Yes ultimately it does, but in the early stages all that happens is that your mind becomes aware of the incessant junk-thoughts circulating in your brain (the first inkling that mind and brain are different!). There's no more going on in your head than usual, it's just that you've become aware of it.
(9) So is this incessant parade of trivialities all that there is to your mind? Who's controlling it - obviously not you!
(10) Continue with the OM AH HUM for a little while longer, gently returning your mind to the silent recitation every time it wanders away.
(11) Now cease the recitation and examine the constant stream of linked thoughts that your brain is presenting to your mind. But try to distance yourself from these thoughts. Observe them but with a certain amount of disinterest. Pretend you're observing someone else's stream of consciousness rather than stuff which is obviously aimed at you. Don't get involved in this thought stream. Rather than experience how one thought leads to another, examine what the links are and how each thought arises.
(12) You'll become aware of the datastructures in your mind - the associations or 'hyperlinks' which link all mental objects together. Then you'll become aware of the algorithm - the automatic process which like a webcrawler follows all these associations and presents them to your awareness. You don't (at present) control this webcrawler. You will notice that the webcrawler has certain preferred types of links, those that lead to objects of anger, fear or desire. It doesn't pay too much attention to bland associations, and there's no family filter on what it dredges up.
(13) You have now begun to understand the algorithms and datastructures of the mind/brain. What you still need to experience is pure mind - the actual awareness which is viewing all the trivia which the webcrawler is displaying to it.
(14) Convince yourself that your mind is neither the individual scenarios thrown up as the stream of consciousness progresses, nor the mechanism which drives the stream of consciousness. Your mind is pure awareness - non-structured and non-procedural. Occasionally the stream of thoughts will subside into the root mind, and a moment or two of clarity will occur before a new thread of associations emerges. When this happens, attempt to catch a glimpse of the calm, space-like and empty nature of the root mind - like a blue sky rather than one constantly obstructed by a passing procession of clouds.
(15) Slowly come out of meditation. It may help to mentally recite the OM AH HUM for a brief period.
It is traditional and auspicious at the end of a meditation to silently dedicate any insight that you might have achieved to the happiness and freedom from suffering of all sentient beings.
Object Oriented Mind and Non-computable Phenomena
The great difficulty in talking about non-computable 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 and hence amenable to simulation by a computer program).
example of a noncomputable 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 shunyata). Many processes involving semantics, as distinct from syntax,
appear to be non-algorithmic.
Other apparently non-computable phenomena are:
Qualia (singular 'quale') which 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 from (though causally related to) physical and neural activities. Whether the causal relationship is one-way or two-way is open to debate.
Freewill is the ability to make conscious choices between options, which thus implies taking responsibiliy for one's actions. The assumption that sane citizens possess freewill is the basis for the rule of law in all civilised countries.
The root mind
Although some superficial mental processes are algorithmic (for example performing mental arithmetic) there are more fundamental aspects of the mind that do not seem to be reducible to procedures.
Possibly one way forward in describing non-computable phenomena is to describe what they are NOT.
For a start, they are without form. They cannot be described in terms of structure, nor of procedures (which can always be reduced to form in a flowchart). Taking an analogy from computer programming we can say they are not objects.
An object is a structure (the term 'structure' includes datastructure), which may or may not have an associated procedure (the term 'procedure' includes mathematical and logical functions and algorithms).
All algorithms (and other procedures) have associated datastructures, though these may be implicit rather than explicitly declared. For example, even the simplest functions, such as square root, have an implicit associated datastructure consisting of the paired dependent and independent variables. In contrast, not all datastructures have associated procedures.
Objects, in this context, include databases, buttons, boxes, forms, scrollbars and all the other paraphernalia of object-oriented programming. These objects consist of graphical structures (customisable to some extent by changing their properties) with associated algorithms, which are usually where the main customised functionality resides. This often takes the form of specially written code.
Outside the realms of computer programming, examples of objects are:
" Bicycle - mechanical structure but no algorithm
" Wall calendar - physical structure and datastructure but no algorithm
" Grandfather clock - mechanical structure, datastructure (clockface) and intrinsic algorithm (the adjustable pendulum length is the independent variable in the function determining the period of oscillation)
" Wind-up musical box - mechanical structure and algorithm as stored program (metal pegs on rotating drum).
" Solar system. Structure consists of one star, nine planets, a few dozen moons, and several thousand asteroids and comets. Algorithms are Newton's laws of motion (with a minor relativistic corrections for the planet Mercury).
All physical structures can be simulated as datastructures (CAD packages etc). All intrinsic algorithms can be expressed and implemented programmatically (eg desktop clocks and MIDI players). Therefore all physical objects can be simulated by computer programs.
Towards a science of consciousness?
Formless and non-algorithmic phenomena are, by their very nature, forever beyond the grasp of science. The scientific method (at least in the real sciences) consists of producing models constructed out of datastructures and algorithms, which are used to predict the behavior of the phenomena under investigation. Successful models are those with the greatest predictive accuracy and widest applicability.
Science may never be able to analyse such phenomena as semantics, qualia, consciousness and intention because these 'things' do not have any structure, either static or procedural - they do not have any conceptual 'nuts and bolts' for the dismantling tools of science to get a grip on. The phrase 'Science of Consciousness' may thus be a self-contradiction.