Dechen Norbu wrote:
Hi Dechen Norbu,
Meditation masters are experts of the mind. In the scientific community we only have experts of the brain. The problem is that you seem under the impression that they are the same. Now, you can rely in the experts of the brain, who seem to know very little about the mind, or try to learn something from the experts of the mind.
An ethnocentric approach, by this I mean the impossibility that other civilizations made any discoveries of real value to our understanding, is unwise. Nevertheless it's rather common.
I do try to avoid ethnocentricism, but it is also important not to underestimate the force (and virtues) of scientific understanding. Whereas karma adds nothing to explaining earthquakes and sexual reproduction, it is Western knowledge that has explained them with demonstrable, verifiable, public means. If I dismissed that achievement I might be ethnocentric, so its important to walk a middle way, I think.
Thanks for your thoughtful comments btw.
Namdrol already commented the point you make in the way I was going to. Science has been very well succeeded exploring nature and giving us technology. I have no beef with science whatsoever and I kept close relations with academia till very recently.
My problem thus is not science, but again, the metaphysical assumptions behind it. Not all scientists hold them, in fact many don't even think about it. Science in the field has little or nothing to do with this, with the exception of a few branches more related to the study of consciousness. This branch is where these prejudices are harmful. In most of the rest, it doesn't matter that much actually. You get your job done without even thinking about philosophy.
The fact is that regarding consciousness, scientific progress has been less than satisfactory and I'm convinced this is due to a metaphysical belief in physicalism. We know a lot
about the brain and it's functions, but as we mistake mind to be an emergent property of its functioning we have progressed very little.
If you notice, perhaps it can be said that both Physics and Biology had big revolutions in their history. Physics had two, the first with Newton and the second with Einstein and quantum mechanics. Biology had one, starting in Darwin and culminating, perhaps it can be said, with the HGP.
The study of consciousness still approaches its object with rudimentary physical concepts, dated from the XIX century and with a strong leaning towards its background metaphysical paradigm, materialism. There are many reasons for the actual state of affairs, and ill will may be the less important, but the fact is that the study of consciousness is still at an embryonic stage.
What were the main factors that triggered the revolutions in other branches of science? Observation. Galileo used a telescope and Darwin observed the species. I'm being a little simplistic here, but I just want to make a point.
Let's use the example of Galileo. Galileo instead of looking to the correlates of the movement of celestial bodies, a la astrology trend of the time, looked at them directly. Based on the biases held by most intellectuals at his time, there were people who refused to look through his telescope, saying that if what they find wasn't the expected phenomena such would be due to defects of the lenses. Theory determined what you would see, not actual observation. Sometimes this happens even in modern science when some anomalous data is immediately set aside, because theory didn't support it.
Buddhists have spent 2500 years looking at the mind. Looking really carefully. They devised and used techniques for performing such task already present at their time. And then they came up with an interpretation of what they had observed. These experts of the mind have been agreeing in many points along hundreds of years. There are divergences, as to be expected when people have different theoretical approaches and use slightly different methods to study the same phenomena. Some techniques are better while others don't allow such deepness. Some chose a way to explain while others prefer different routes to help their disciples. There are many reasons for the diversity of Buddhist schools, some simply sociological.
Recently we have assisted to the reduction of Buddhadharma to trendy slogans, like just sitting and all that and one wonders how much one will achieve by doing such a simple thing, but the truth is that there is extensive literature explaining how to meditate, what obstacles are to be expected, how to overcome them, how not to take a transient experience for the ultimate goal of meditation, and so on. Following these methods, one comes by himself to agree with what one first learns theoretically.
So one would think,"OK, so I'll keep my beliefs until proven wrong". As I've said earlier, the problem is that the questions we make influence the answers we get. As Heinsenberg stated, we observe nature exposed to our method of questioning. The same is valid for the mind. Imagine I believe in a God. When I go for contemplation, if I find myself in a state of bliss, I may think "this is God" and end my path right there. All I'll do afterwards is trying to replicate this experience and dwell in it. However, if my theory is deeper, I'll have to cut through such experience and move along, gaining even deeper insight.
I hope I was clear in making my point.
Hello Dechen Norbu,
Thanks for your thoughts. I agree that the typical assumptions at the base of the modern Western worldview can be damaging. I think the fundamental problem is that Westerners approach reality as “object,” and expect it always to be an object, with all the metaphysical presuppositions that go into the idea of “object.”
Nevertheless, there is an equal danger in not being objective enough, and the West has made its important contribution to the history of humanity in this respect. People are prone to project their expectations upon their experience, as you note. Having an unidentifiable, out-of-place memory, for instance, may just be assumed to be a past life because it fits with one’s expectations, when that assumption need not be made. People are also prone to believe everything their ideology or spiritual teachers say wholesale, as if they are not of human origin, and cling to a very sectarian viewpoint. But even the Buddha said to not accept teachings just because he said them, but only if they agree with experience and reason (do you think the Buddha would turn someone away from the sangha just because he is not convinced of a specific theory?) For instance, it makes sense that, just as the Christian church did, Buddhist culture eventually came up with absolutely horrific ideas of hell regions with punishments well beyond what any unbiased person can consider reasonable. Does this represent enlightened teachings, or are they scare tactics meant to keep people faithful to that society’s official religion? What about buying blessings by donating to the temple? Is that a good use of the doctrine of karma? What about the ethical implications of karma when taken too literally - it completely drains any concern for social justice. Why help the poor, the sick and abused when that's their karma? What about the outmoded cosmologies which can only be accepted as symbolic today? What about the exclusion of women from monastic practice in traditional Buddhism? Are these too to be accepted as justified beliefs and expressions of enlightened wisdom, much less actually desirable to believe? What a way to burden masses of people based on very slim evidence, based on interpretations of the private experiences of just a select few.
Of course, within the framework of the assumptions underlying these cultures, these may not represent any dishonesty on the part of anyone. Their perceptions of the world are united. But when confronted with other points of view and perceptions -- and more information - say, like scientific evidence -- it becomes quite questionable when people refuse to allow that to inform their views. Do we really suppose that Western science has added nothing new to the picture of reality? -- more on that in a sec.
As to the issue of mind, the problem as I see it is that it really only makes sense to speak of one reality, therefore I see no reason to place any clear differentiation between physical and mental. As far as I’m concerned, all physical events are mental events and vice-versa, with cognition being highly structured, yet experiential to the core. As I said to Namdrol, "physical" and "mental" are mere categories. The objective world of the brain cannot have any fundamental conflict with the subjective world of the mind, otherwise, how would they even relate to each other? By even thinking in these terms, we have created a dualistic rift in experience.
Buddhism may have explored reality very carefully in a contemplative and subjective way. But I think it is questionable to say the least to suggest that a complete picture of the mind can be had without knowing anything as to the structure of the brain and body in objective terms. Western scientific knowledge must have relevance and must inform Buddhist theory in some way, otherwise you might as well suppose that the world science describes is not our world. There is no empirical demarcation between the inner world and the outer world. Both science and Buddhism must be referring to the same world.
Now, it is in principle impossible to obtain a purely objectified picture of the world, because no such world exists. Reality is not some object that we can distance ourselves from. But we must be careful, lest we fall for any hocus pocus. Real, sufficient evidence must be presented in some form to justify any belief. The belief must add to, and in turn be supported by, the richness of information with which we interact with, and embody, the world.
I think modern science and Buddhism can inform each other, and science can really help to refine Buddhist ideas and help it flourish as a path that still makes a lot of relevant sense today. Everyone just has to get over the initial reactionary stage and start to digest what the other side has to say.
For instance, neuroscience strongly suggests that our memories, perceptions, etc. (our karma, you might say) are encoded in the brain, loss of information equals loss of memory, damage in structure equals damage in the mind. Rebirth/karma suggests that information gets transferred from one life to the next, apparently defying all that we know about thermodynamics, because such information transfer is not registered in any way at all, either entering or exiting the life, and that information (or energy) is clearly dissipated after death and becomes the energy of other beings. How does karma and rebirth fit into this picture? Does it? Inquiring minds, I'm sure (because I am one such mind), would like to have a satisfactory account for such a phenomenon if it exists. Now it could possibly be the case - perhaps even likely depending on how you see it - that consciousness can continue after death, because consciousness may not be any "thing" at all. If reality is "made of" experiences, then experience can continue in some sense - perhaps as the grass, the trees, and the wide earth. But I really have a problem with the loss of information/energy content that happens at death. Only a mind-matter dualism seems to overcome this problem, but I see too many problems with dualism.