affirming mind in an intellectual climate of materialism

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affirming mind in an intellectual climate of materialism

Postby coldmountain » Sun Jul 17, 2011 5:42 am

Hi all,

A little while back I had gotten in a debate here about karma, rebirth, and mind. It was in the thread on 'Buddhism Without Beliefs'.

Here in the West, not being a materialist is an exception to the rule, and not being influenced by materialism is nigh impossible. I'm no exception, even though I've come to reject materialism. I can't say that my rejection of it has landed me square with Buddhist beliefs about karma and rebirth, but I at least can't rule them out. At present I find many Buddhist beliefs on the ontology of mind, especially those descended from Yogacara, to be very agreeable.

One can look to the philosophy of many materialists today and see what prima facie appear to be some very fanatical beliefs. I can think of Daniel Dennett, Paul Churchland, Michael Shermer, Susan Blackmore, Thomas Metzinger: all philosophers of mind and/or neuroscientists who deny the existence of experience, qualia, and subjectivity. For them, subjectivity is an illusion and the only reality is an objective, material world.

Now, I'd like to dismiss their views as just what they appear to be: incoherent. In fact, it seems almost too easy to dismiss their views -- like I must be missing something: after all, these are trained philosophers and scientists, and they pride themselves, it seems, on debunking 'common sense'. Being a Westerner, I find myself beset with a problem, in that I have a nagging sense -- how rational this is, I know not -- that I may be profoundly wrong about the nature of mind (i.e. perhaps the materialist camp will one day find vindication for their views), which would, to say the least, undermine the very rationale behind spiritual practice. Needless to say, such nagging feelings make it difficult to practice.

I'm sure I'm not alone in this, as anyone who has grown up in the West knows that materialistic philosophy is something we're socialized into: the religious not excluded. Spirituality is looked on with utmost suspicion, and even the most modest of claims tend to be ruthlessly attacked by advocates of scientific progress.

Anyone have any advice for a fellow sojourner trying to navigate the maze that is the philosophy of mind with the simple aim of maintaining a spiritual practice?

Peace,
Mike
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Re: affirming mind in an intellectual climate of materialism

Postby Malcolm » Sun Jul 17, 2011 5:50 am

coldmountain wrote:
Anyone have any advice for a fellow sojourner trying to navigate the maze that is the philosophy of mind with the simple aim of maintaining a spiritual practice?

Mike



Study Abhidharma.

N
http://www.bhaisajya.net
http://atikosha.org
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Re: affirming mind in an intellectual climate of materialism

Postby Indrajala » Sun Jul 17, 2011 6:20 am

Namdrol wrote:
coldmountain wrote:
Anyone have any advice for a fellow sojourner trying to navigate the maze that is the philosophy of mind with the simple aim of maintaining a spiritual practice?

Mike



Study Abhidharma.

N


I second this.

Incidentally, there is a scanned .pdf of Asanga's Abhidharmasamuccaya here (right click and save, it is a big file):

http://lirs.ru/lib/Abhidharmasamuccaya, ... b,2001.pdf
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Re: affirming mind in an intellectual climate of materialism

Postby Jikan » Sun Jul 17, 2011 12:56 pm

There are smarter materialists than Dennett et al.

I'm not convinced we are socialized into anything like a rigorous materialistic philosophy in North America. Here are more accurate representations of what we're socialized into (not a philosophy at all but a spectacle):

http://juggalogathering.com/home.php

If anything, materialism in the 19th century sense is an ally to thought in opposition to mindless consumerism. In this sense, materialists of the Frankfurt School type have something useful to offer today.
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Re: affirming mind in an intellectual climate of materialism

Postby Paul » Sun Jul 17, 2011 4:06 pm

I've found this response by Ringu Tulku Rinpoche to a very similar question very interesting:

http://www.mefeedia.com/watch/32638918
Image

"Do not block your six senses; delight in them with joy and ease.
All that you take pleasure in will strengthen the awakened state.
With such a confidence, empowered by the regal state of natural mind,
The training now is simply this: lets your six senses be at ease and free." - Princess Parani
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Re: affirming mind in an intellectual climate of materialism

Postby coldmountain » Tue Jul 19, 2011 2:39 am

Jikan wrote:There are smarter materialists than Dennett et al.

I'm not convinced we are socialized into anything like a rigorous materialistic philosophy in North America. Here are more accurate representations of what we're socialized into (not a philosophy at all but a spectacle):

http://juggalogathering.com/home.php


:lol: Well, that may also be the case.

But I do think we are socialized into materialism. Of course, the average person isn't going to take much notice since the 'philosophy' part exists only at the level of vague presupposition. But presupposition is very potent. It's build into our culture, values and vocabulary. And even those who do take some interest in philosophy and science will usually continue to think in terms of materialist philosophy. Subjectivity and mind are generally treated as unreal whereas objectivity and materiality are regarded as what really exists. It's a very lopsided worldview.

Peace.
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Re: affirming mind in an intellectual climate of materialism

Postby coldmountain » Tue Jul 19, 2011 2:43 am

An interesting question would be how Abhidharma might interface with discoveries in neuroscience. Neuroscience has some very strange implications to what we think of the nature of our experience regardless of what metaphysical view one holds to.
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Re: affirming mind in an intellectual climate of materialism

Postby PadmaVonSamba » Tue Jul 19, 2011 3:32 am

I have always held dharma up to the scrutiny of "scientific reason", and have found that being highly skeptical has made my conviction to the truth of the dharma very strong. So, I think it is good to bring that into your practice, because nobody is ever going to really make you believe anything if you don't believe it. It is far better to know your own mind than to pretendto be on a holy path.

I have also been very interested in discoveries in neuroscience, especially regarding the understanding of autism. What is somewhat frustrating to me sounds like the opposite of your dilemma. I wish more scientists had some familiarity with the vajrayana teachings on the nature of mind.

To me, the biggest and most obvious error in the purely materialist approach, in trying to understand thoughts, is that while the brain certainly functions in physical 3D space, thoughts themselves only exist for durations of time (if even that!). In other words, they are looking in a box of material things for something which is not material. It's like peering into a saxophone to see where the sound is kept.

The other thing that nobody seems to talk about is that while the brain certainly provides a material environment for thinking to appear, there is nothing that the brain is made of which, as far as we know, can spontaneously begin to witness its own functioning. In other words, none of the chemicals in the brain can actually think. If we were to presuppose that chemicals can think, then this idea is really similar to animism, or the belief that rocks have a spirit or whatever. Well, that may in fact turn out to be true, and maybe the witch doctors were right all along, but it isn't in the realm of scientific reason.

Science does a very good job of explaining how the brain works, even to pinpoint areas of the brain where different types of activity occur. It can be shown that what is experienced as fear is merely a dose of a molecule released into the blood stream by one of the glands. "fear" is in fact very closely related to the molecule we experience as anger.

But Who is experiencing all of this chemistry? That, I think, is the philosophical question that comes from the study of dharma. I find that what has come out of the thoughts of great Buddhist thinkers over the last 2500 years often goes way beyond anything cooked up in European philosophy, whose materialist criteria still reflect parameters of reality established by the Christian church.

But then, I am really biased.
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Re: affirming mind in an intellectual climate of materialism

Postby Starglade » Tue Jul 19, 2011 6:15 am

PadmaVonSamba wrote:<snippage>

To me, the biggest and most obvious error in the purely materialist approach, in trying to understand thoughts, is that while the brain certainly functions in physical 3D space, thoughts themselves only exist for durations of time (if even that!). In other words, they are looking in a box of material things for something which is not material. It's like peering into a saxophone to see where the sound is kept.

The other thing that nobody seems to talk about is that while the brain certainly provides a material environment for thinking to appear, there is nothing that the brain is made of which, as far as we know, can spontaneously begin to witness its own functioning. In other words, none of the chemicals in the brain can actually think. If we were to presuppose that chemicals can think, then this idea is really similar to animism, or the belief that rocks have a spirit or whatever. Well, that may in fact turn out to be true, and maybe the witch doctors were right all along, but it isn't in the realm of scientific reason.

<more snippage>



At his talk on Sunday in Chicago, HHDL touched on this very same subject--that of science answering some questions, and religion others. He, too, spoke about the ephemeral quality of "mind" and the fact that science has yet to discover precisely where in the human body "mind" exists.

Nice knowing we're in good company. :namaste:
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Re: affirming mind in an intellectual climate of materialism

Postby denice » Tue Jul 19, 2011 10:17 am

@ PadmaVonSamba......well said & i agree ,there is nothing to add to it ,i just wanted to thank you for a wonderful post
keeping the mind in perfect tranquility and free from any attachment to appearances."
"So I say to you -
This is how to contemplate our conditioned existence in this fleeting world:"
"Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream;
Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream."
"So is all conditioned existence to be seen."
Thus spoke Buddha.
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Re: affirming mind in an intellectual climate of materialism

Postby coldmountain » Thu Jul 21, 2011 9:58 pm

Interesting thoughts, PadmaVonSamba, thanks for sharing.

If we were to presuppose that chemicals can think, then this idea is really similar to animism, or the belief that rocks have a spirit or whatever. Well, that may in fact turn out to be true, and maybe the witch doctors were right all along, but it isn't in the realm of scientific reason.


I think absent a full-fledged substance dualism, which makes only a modest amount of more sense to me than does materialism, something like 'animism' (though I wouldn't call it that) probably is true. In the link Hayagriva kindly provided, Ringu Tulku Rinpoche says 'prove the existence of matter'. While I shall not presume to know what the Rinpoche means, what I get out of this is not mere idealism. 'Matter' is simply a metaphysical concept. In the West, 'materiality' has a specific meaning as that which is devoid of 'secondary qualities', which are experiential qualities. 'Matter' is simply inert, passive, quantitative, and geometric. As such, I've never seen it, nor has one else to my knowledge. It is pure abstraction.

On another note, neuroscience very strongly suggests a strong identity between the mind and the brain. I often hear dualists say "certainly the mind is dependent on the brain, but dependency is not identity." This is certainly true, but just how the mind, conceived as a separate 'substance', is supposed to interact with a so-called 'material brain' is beyond me. And if the mind is really dependent on the brain, how is the mind supposed to survive largely in tact after the brain is gone? If there is true dependence, then the mind cannot escape death unscathed. Dualists often dismiss tough discoveries in neuroscience without really knowing what those discoveries are.

Consider a few cases in neurophysiology which suggest identity between mind and brain:

Consider the case of a person who has suffered damage to the part of his brain responsible for storing short term memory. That person has no memory beyond a few seconds. After a few seconds, the memories are lost: he is living in a perpetual present. His long term memories remain in tact, but he has no memory of anything that has happened since the damage was incurred. Are those memories still there? Is the mind storing them separately from the brain? Is this person accumulating karma or has that process ceased?

Or, consider the case of a person who has suffered a brain injury, who can no longer acknowledge his mother's face. He is convinced that his mother is an imposter. Strangely, if he only hears her voice, he is readily able to recognize his mother and speak with her accordingly. But if he has a face-to-face conversation with his mother, he will not be able to acknowledge that she is, in fact, his mother.

Or consider another case. A person has a large blind spot. A researcher places an object in front of the person within that blind spot. The person is asked to point to where the object is, even though that person has no visual experience of the object. From this person's perspective, he is merely guessing as to where the object is, yet his "guesses" are almost always correct. This is because there is another, albeit more primitive channel in the brain where visual information is processed. The person experiences 'guessing', yet this very experience is informed by another part of the brain. He 'knows' yet does not know that he knows.

Or consider another case of a man who has lost function in his arm, and yet is physiologically incapable of acknowledging it. When asked, he will offer many strange perspectives on why he will not use the arm: he simply doesn't want to at the moment, or perhaps perhaps the arm is not even his.


These cases are by no means strange exceptions to the rule. The number of neurological 'disorders' such as these are legion, and they prove that they aren't the exception, they're symptomatic of the way our subjectivity -- all subjectivity as we know it -- is structured. It speaks to a fundamentally fragmented nature of experience, and to a strong dependency of experience on the brain.


Peace,
Mike
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Re: affirming mind in an intellectual climate of materialism

Postby coldmountain » Thu Jul 21, 2011 10:13 pm

BTW, I do not mean to even perpetuate this 'mind vs body' dichotomy. I think it is quite useless. Mechanical, efficient causation is the only form of causation that science, at present, works with. Other forms causes and conditions cannot be ruled out, and to me they most certainly do exist. I think whatever conditions give rise to brains also give rise to minds, because the two do not need to be dichotomized. The "physical brain" is an abstraction of a lot of living energy. A physical brain is what you get when you talk about reality only in terms of mechanical causation and objectified, publicly verifiable entities. Deeper conditions and structures which survive the 'death' of the brain cannot be ruled out.
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Re: affirming mind in an intellectual climate of materialism

Postby PadmaVonSamba » Sat Jul 23, 2011 3:12 pm

Consider The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat!
Yes, there are so many examples.
Well, here is what I think.. This is my theory, which probably falls into the "semi-pseudo-quasi-neuro-almost -buddhist" category, but since there is not a forum with that name, I will just have to make do with posting it here.

An analogy:
Suppose you are looking up at a full Moon in a dark night sky.
It appears as though you are looking at two different things, the bright moon and the dark sky.
Of course, "moonlight" is just photons coming from the sun, bouncing off the moon and into your eyes, processed by the brain.
In fact, there are even more of those photons in the dark space all around the Moon, but we don't see them, because they are not reflected into our eyes by anything. We only see the ones that bounce off the Moon. Likewise, when those photons bounce off Venus, we see them as Venus. When it is daytime, we see these photons as daylight, and even appear as different colors, depending on what they bounce off of and are absorbed into.

So, the point of this analogy is, just as we label the appearance of photons (and the photons are all we actually see) as different things according to the environments (Moon, Venus, flower, etc.) with which they interact, What we commonly refer to as "thought" as the activity of "mind" may similarly only be the specific interaction of that which is all around us when manifested through specific 'environments', meaning the physical brains of beings.

What we are experiencing as "thought", including the experience of a having an experience, might not be a separate thing at all, but merely a limited experience of the intrinsic nature of everything, in the same way that moonlight is but a small sample of the enormous amount of photon activity in the sky.

(The Sanskrit word dharmata, chö nyi in Tibetan, means the intrinsic nature of everything, the essence of things as they are. Dharmata is the naked, unconditioned truth, the nature of reality, or the true nature of phenomenal existence
--http://www.rigpawiki.org/index.php?title=Dharmata)

For ordinary beings, "mind" appears according to whatever composites happens to be there. If it is a dog, then a dog has a dog's "mind". If a human, an ant, regardless, it's all just the same reality, the dharmata is experienced according to the limits of one or another "environment". It's like pouring water into different shaped containers, the water assumes the shape of the container. We cling to those limited experiences of dharmata, the little bits of a greater reality that we are able to see or taste or smell or feel, as our 'reality'. In life we temporarily manifest parts of a greater reality the way that a mere gallon of rain water briefly manifests as a watermelon.

Dharmata manifesting in Buddha form is Dharmakaya. Mind and thought are completely liberated from any separating distinction.

So, I suppose what I am suggesting is that the difficulty in answering (from the usual scientific approach) what is "mind", is that the wrong questions are being asked.

The typical approach is to assume that mind and thoughts are something real occurring separately from the things around them. But perhaps thoughts only appear to be "real". So, people start from that premise: "I just had a thought--what was it, where did it come from--I'd better write it down so I don't forget it" So we give thoughts a kind of separate reality that perhaps they don't really start out with at all.
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Re: affirming mind in an intellectual climate of materialism

Postby Jikan » Tue Oct 11, 2011 1:44 pm

And with a bump, here's an instance of "affirming mind" in a public academic institution.

viewtopic.php?f=36&t=5540
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Re: affirming mind in an intellectual climate of materialism

Postby edearl » Tue Oct 11, 2011 7:14 pm

My perspective comes from being a computer programmer for many years, and being interested in artificial intelligence, neuroscience and cybernetics.

In 1907, Lapicque modeled a biological neuron, and In 1943, Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts proposed the first artificial neuron. Since that time more advanced models of both biological and artificial neurons have been devised. Artificial neurons are not as capable as their biological counterpart, but studying them has led to some insight about how the brain works. Many other phenomenon have been observed, such as anecdotal data from brain injuries, magnetic and radiological imaging, electronic stimulation of individual neurons, effects of brain surgery, etc.

In addition, computer scientists have achieved three important milestones in artificial intelligence: DARPA Grand Challenge was won in 2007, Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov in chess, and Watson beat two humans playing jeopardy. These three achievements are important because a computer has done things requiring human like artificial intelligence. There are other important milestones, such as voice interpretation and synthesis, but including others is too much.

The DARPA Grand Challenge was to build a wheeled vehicle that drove itself from one place to another, without human intervention using a map provided by the DARPA judges. The stated goal of this competition is to encourage the development of self driving logistics vehicles for the US military; they do not like risking a soldier delivering ammunition to combatants and remote control was unacceptable. The complex 96 km (60 mile) urban course was completed in 2007 by six different teams. People are still more skillful, but AI driving will improve.

The Deep Blue and Watson events were competitions with people, and the computers won.

These AI achievements indicate that computers can be programmed for a wide variety of human like activities and do as well or better than humans.

A computer may store data in memory or on disk, but to make the AI program better requires someone to improve the program. When a person learns something in long-term memory, the the number of synaptic connections in the brain change as special proteins are synthesized, a process a bit similar to protein synthesis during muscle strength training. Apparently, the brain uses one process both to store data and reprogram itself. Even if there are several processes involved, computers are inept at reprogramming themselves, and the most useful AI programs to not reprogram themselves, AFAIK.

In summary, an AI analog for a human is a significant challenge, and effective AI self learning is a major stumbling block at the moment. On the other hand, scientists have learned many interesting and useful things about AI in my lifetime.

IMO: Scientists will be able to demystify the workings of the brain and the learn the real nature of the mind, and making an AI intelligence comparable to a person will be possible and will be done to provide slaves for the corporations and the military. Though, they admit to their knowledge being minimal at the moment, scientists are working towards creating a virus from chemicals; it is difficult but possible.
HHDL: "My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation: if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims."
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Re: affirming mind in an intellectual climate of materialism

Postby PadmaVonSamba » Wed Oct 12, 2011 3:52 am

edearl wrote:My perspective comes from being a computer programmer for many years, and being interested in artificial intelligence, neuroscience and cybernetics....*s n i p *...IMO: Scientists will be able to demystify the workings of the brain and the learn the real nature of the mind...


Thank you for that interesting post. I am very interested in research about brain chemistry, especially in the field of autism treatment. The thing about Watson, as I recall, that is so remarkable was it's ability to form possible conjectures based on actual data on hand (the fact that what can be made available is virtually infinite is really something too!). This is the next step in the process of actually producing a "thought" which was not previously produced. In other words, a computer will be able to look at, say, medical data and suggest a new type of operating procedure, gather words and produce a rhyming poem which has never been written, incorporating sophisticated word play, and do so on its own.

I think, however, that the machine will never truly develop a sense of "me" the way that a human or other animal does, although a machine can certainly run self-diagnostic scans, and can simulate a sense of self. That already occurs.

There is something that makes it so that, not only do we carry on our shoulders an electrified meat sponge inside a dark calcium box , but also develops a witness to the chemical activity of that meat sponge, that we experience.

Dharma teachings tell us to examine that experience, which it calls mind. Scientists assert that the mind is produced by the brain, but I think, ultimately, Buddha would assert that the brain is produced by the mind.

I remember, one of the first questions I ever asked my root lama (and I think this is a very common question), was "If there is no self, who is it that becomes enlightened?" to which he replied, "who is it that is asking the question?"

Great topic.
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Re: affirming mind in an intellectual climate of materialism

Postby PadmaVonSamba » Wed Oct 12, 2011 3:58 am

What does a thought look like?
These are actual photos of neurological activity taken by a researcher I know.
What we experience as a thought about something in fact looks something like this.
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The Chinese characters are Fo (buddha) and Ming (bright). The image is of a student of Buddhism, who, imagining himself to be a monk, and not understanding the true meaning of the words takes the sound of the words literally. Likewise, People on web forums sometime seem to be foaming at the mouth.
Original painting by P.Volker /used by permission.
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