Thursday, January 24, 2008

Materialist Metaphysics

Why Do Some People Resist Science?” illuminates the way we acquire many of our beliefs (see the previous post). It also puts forward one belief that needs to be challenged, which is that, “The strong intuitive pull of dualism makes it difficult for people to accept what Francis Crick called ‘the astonishing hypothesis.’ Dualism is mistaken — mental life emerges from physical processes.”

I have no problem with the first part of the statement about the intuitive pull of dualism. That makes sense. I also agree that, “Dualism is mistaken.” This has been a central tenet of Mahayana Buddhism for a couple of thousand years. It is the late Dr. Francis Crick’s hypothesis that “mental life emerges from physical processes” that needs to be debated.

This is not a scientific conclusion. It is a metaphysical assumption. Crick, who won the Noble Prize with Dr. James D. Watson for discovering the double helix structure of DNA, asserted this as though it were a fact. In his book The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul he wrote, “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”

Asserting the nonexistence of mind, because it cannot be detected by the material methods of science is a logical error. It is like looking for your lost car keys under the street light, even though you dropped them around the corner, “because the light is better there.” To deny the mind contradicts our experience of subjectivity. Just by looking inwards we can refute this extreme position. From a Buddhist perspective, there is nothing more obvious and essential than the knowing mind. How can we even speak of joys and sorrows without it?

Brain and mind are observed through different modalities. Scientific methods make quantitative observations of the material world. Though science is limited to studying the natural world, knowledge is not limited to the realm of science. Here is a simple example: we can learn everything there is to know about the physical and chemical properties of a Snickers bar, the structure and functioning of the human gustatory system, and the neurophysiology of taste, without learning anything about the experience of tasting a Snickers bar. This experience is not material and is beyond the intellect. No matter how we describe the experience of eating a Snickers bar to someone who has never tasted one, they will not be able to know what the experience is like. Yet, when we eat the Snickers bar we know exactly.

A really astonishing hypothesis is that whatever we conceive to be outside of mind, is just that, a conception. If things truly existed beyond the mind, how could they enter into our experience?

David Chalmers is a professor of philosophy at the Australian National University who works on the philosophy of mind and related areas of philosophy and cognitive science. He wrote a nice introduction to the problems of consciousness from a Western scientific perspective in a Scientific American article called “The Puzzle of Conscious Experience.” Another paper, “Consciousness and its Place in Nature,” gives a more technical summary of the arguments against materialism, emphasizing the metaphysical issues (proceed with caution: this paper assumes a lot of philosophical background).

All this may sound academic and theoretical, but believing that matter is the only reality provides the philosophical basis for rejecting the reality of the experience of other beings. This provides a justification for all the harmful, self-centered actions people perform. It also closes the door to the path of liberation.


Robert Paul said...

Materialist Metaphysics

In Western philosophy, the problem of understanding consciousness, and the relationship between the brain and mind--and understanding if they are different, identical, etc., i.e., defining what mind is--is called "The Hard Problem." And it is not called that for nothin'.

There is dualism or not, and a material world or not.

A. If there is no dualism, and there is a material world, then mind is material--part of the brain, a manifestation of the brain, a supervenient feature of the brain.

The proper modern term is "physicalism"--that all there is physical material-energy. With supervenience, there is the physical, but then aspects of it arise that can be considered independently, even while being totally dependent. For instance, there is no material aspect of Dalhousie University that can be identified as the university--it is a supervenient aspect of the students, instructors, buildings, teachers dirty looks, etc. And it always is changing composition and relationships. But the supervenient aspect "Dal" is identified for practical purposes. Perhaps this is what "mind" is in relation to brain/body.

B. If there is no dualism and no material world, then we are all imagining this = solipsism and nihilism, an extreme that can be discussed, but is hard to justify.

C. If there is dualism, then there are both. However, this brings problems: good survey and references here for more research.

Debates in philosophy of mind in modern times begin with Descartes, who was a "substance dualist", i.e., there is body/brain, and there is mind, which has a seat in the pineal gland, but is non-material.

See especially Meditation VI.

Since Descartes, and significantly in the 20th Century, the debate has raged with such issues as this:

1. if mind is non-material, how does it interact with material things? As far as we know, the only type of thing that interacts with material things is material things. Specifically, if my mind is distinct from my neurophysiology, and not material to boot, how does it directly interact with my neurons to get them to zap my hand and finger muscles to type this sentence? As far as we know, it requires something material to cause electricity--chemicals reacting to release energy, in this case.

One might respond that sound or light are non material, and they interact. True, they are not matter, but they are (fairly) understood matter-energy things, so what I really mean is matter-energy when I say "material". And what I mean by energy is one of the four known matter-energy forces: two nuclear, one electromagnetic and one gravity--plus a complexity from cosmology that we needn't mention right now. Thats all there is that we know that interacts to make matter-energy animate. In the body case, we really only have one--electromagnetic forces and their matter-energy interactions.

So, is the mind electromagnetic (= material) or not. If it is, then its material just like everything else we know. If its not, then how does it interact with the material?

2. On the other side is experience. What is it, and how did it come to be? Can a complete description of the material world completely describe experience? If we know everything physical there is to know about a bat (the animal) do we know what is it like to be a bat? (Thomas Nagel, 1974, "What Is it Like to Be a Bat?", Philosophical Review, pp. 435-50. ). Does a color blind neurophysiologist named Mary who knows every physical description of the optical cortex and visual system concerning color know all there is about color? (or a taste-blind scientist and a snickers bar.) If she has an operation and can now see color does she learn something knew? (Jackson, F. 1982 "Epiphenomenal Qualia," Philosophical Quarterly (32) 127-136. See for some analysis and more references.)

David Chalmers, mentioned by Andy, by the way, is a dualist, and is not representative of the community of philosophers of mind. He thinks that mind exists and is non-material. See his book The Concious Mind (amazon link is too long) and his edited selections book that has all the classics and moderns represented on all fronts: Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings. He is a good writer, but I recommend the latter to get background on all views first.

I think that it is necessary to apply a Madhyamakan analysis to the situation in order to get clarity. And I think that supervenience is the appropriate modern philosophical perspective to take. The mind has no fundamental, inherent essence any more than the brain does--they are interdependent and experience co-dependent arising of features, etc. But they are not known to be entirely material, any more than elementary particles or light are known to be material. Nor are they entirely non-material, since that is largely not coherent. But we must distinguish what is (ontology, metaphysical nature) from what we know or can know (epistemology, knowledge).

Perhaps in another blog comment.

Andy Karr said...

Thanks for the update on the Western philosophical understanding of consciousness. I pick B.

—Just kidding! The basic point of my post is that dismissing the mind as a manifestation of the brain has no scientific basis. It is a metaphysical assumption that ignores the essential feature of mind, its knowing quality, or subjectivity, which science has found no way to address or explain. Only people blinded by their concepts could ignore subjectivity and think they have a satisfactory explanation of the mind.

Some comments on the points you raise:

A. I have never seen the term supervenient before. What is the difference between supervenient features and imputations? I would say that “Dalhousie University” is merely imputed on the basis of diverse ranges of experiences of teachers, students, buildings and other things. If mind is merely an imputation, than how do you explain subjectivity? It is undeniably experienced, so it isn’t merely a concept.

If supervenient features are aspects of phenomena, not just imputations, then the physicalist needs to explain how subjectivity could be based on matter. The classical Buddhist refutation of this position is that if mind arose from matter, rocks and trees would be able to experience. Modern science might come up with a more subtle explanation of the physical basis of subjectivity, but since there is no material way to detect mind, it is hard to imagine how they would go about it proving their theory.

B. If solipsism is the view that the self is all that can be known to exist, this contradicts a fundamental Buddhist tenet: selflessness. If nihilism is the belief in the nonexistence of everything, it is an extreme view that denies experience. Neither of these is equivalent to “no dualism and no material world.” There is experience. Is there anything beyond that? How could we know?

We always imagine that there must be a material basis for experience beyond the mind, and cling to that basis, whatever it is. When we investigate with reasoning, and with meditative insight, we don’t find anything. This is why Milarepa sang, “The phenomena of the three realms of samsara—while not existing they appear. How incredibly amazing!”

C. Dualism is problematic, as you say. I like your presentation of some of the issues. However, if I understand his writings correctly, David Chalmers has not placed any bets on dualism, but leans towards monism. That is what he says in the conclusion to “Consciousness and its Place in Nature” in Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings.

David Whitehorn said...

Materialistic Metaphysics.

“You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” – Dr. Francis Crick

Andy…thanks for bringing up this interesting issue. It’s something I have struggled with since my early training as a neuroscientist; and I have no answers. But perhaps I could put down a few of my thoughts for your comment and advice.

Clearly, Dr Crick does not have any scientific evidence for his statement. But it is provocative and pushes us to contemplate the nature of mind and brain; a task that, as Mr. Paul demonstrated, can be a sticky wicket. It is not a purely academic issue, however. It arises in clinical settings when people experiencing extreme states of mind (severe depression, hallucinations, delusions, debilitating anxiety) and ask themselves, and their clinicians, why. Is it my brain or is it my mind?

I wonder if it would be helpful to look more carefully at the process by which we are asking these questions and trying to come up with ways of thinking and talking about them.

One starting point could be to assert that everything we experience, including this discussion, occurs in mind. We could also assert that the entire discussion is being conducted in the realm of dualism; we are trying to parse the phenomenal world into useable chunks (that is, concepts). From this point of view, the concepts we come up with have no inherent existence. They exist to the extent that we give them meaning.

So, in terms of mind (non-material) and brain (material) we could say that we have a particular kind of experience and we call that mind. We have a different kind of experience and we call that brain. In our day to day life these concepts seem to be reasonably useful, but like all concepts, we shouldn’t forget where they come from.

Sometimes I wonder if these two concepts arise simply because we are viewing one phenomenon through two different modalities of observation, as you alluded to.

If we accept the two concepts as useful, then we can gather evidence about their relationship with one another. Following that line (how is this concept related to that concept), there is abundant scientific and introspective evidence that there is a close correspondence between what’s happening in ‘mind’ and what’s happening in ‘brain’.

There are innumerable natural experiments in which brain is damaged and mental experience is altered (see Oliver Sacks for examples). Brain mapping studies demonstrate consistently show a correspondence between mental activity and brain activity. Interesting, well developed meditative states have been shown to have unique corresponding brain patterns (see Mingyur Rinpoche). So, your basic question of how to shift one’s view from point A to point B would, from this point of view, have a parallel process at the level of brain activity.

It is interesting that Crick uses the words “no more than” in his assertion, as if having our mental experiences associated with complex electrical and molecular processes is some kind of put down. I would think the opposite. The apparent relationship is so marvelous and amazing that it is beyond concept.

In terms of scientific evidence, there is one other natural experiment that seems relevant, and that is death; an experiment we will all be able to conduct in due course. After death, when the brain is no longer functioning, is there mind? The Tibetans tell us there is. If that is the case, then some kind of experience (mind) is independent of brain. But how does that relate to what we call mind in our day to day life?

It’s interesting that Crick mentions “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will…” From a contemplative point of view these seem to be exactly the mental experiences that we, as practitioners, come to recognize as our own projections.

Finally, I recently visited my 92 year old aunt who has very severe dementia. Three years ago, the last time I saw her, she showed a flicker of recognition when she saw me. This time there was nothing. She seemed completely unaware of her environment; surviving only because her son takes meticulous care of her. Her brain is severely damaged. Does she still have an experience of mind?

Thanks again for your interesting blog, and for any thoughts you have on my confusion about this topic….dave whitehorn.

Robert Paul said...

So, Dr. David, can you tell me: concerning the evidence that the correlations between brain "states" and mental "mind" subjective experience are causal. By that I mean that if we jab this part of the brain we experience the smell of burnt toast; if we zap that part we have a memory of our first kiss; or the other part we experience blue, feel sad, feel happy, etc.? By the same token, if we experience those things, the corresponding parts of the brain light up (in MRI or such devices).

So, brain states produces and corresponds to subjective experience, but subjective experience produces and corresponds to brain states. Is there any reason not to say that they are identical?

David Whitehorn said...

Dr Bob, you raise issues that go beyond my understanding. In statistics, I am told that a significant relationship or correspondence between two variables does not imply causality. The whole question of causality seems to assume that there are two apparently different ‘entities’ or ‘mechanisms’ that influence one another, as opposed to there being only one, as you suggest. I hope Mr. Karr can shine some light on my confusion.

Andy Karr said...

Thank you Bob and David for this really interesting discussion. You both make good points.

Following up on some of these comments, I would note that mind and matter are imputed in dependence upon each other. That is, neither truly exists.

Conventionally, we can say that mental phenomena arise in dependence on both mental and physical phenomena. With the growing scientific acceptance of neuroplasticity, we now know that physical phenomena also arise in dependence on both physical and mental phenomena. These correlations are what is known as “the easy problem of consciousness.”

The “hard problem” is not explaining the causes of experience, but explaining basic subjectivity, which is known in Buddhism by various names: mind itself, buddha nature, mahamudra, ordinary mind, dharmadhatu, ground wisdom, the true nature, etc.

Recognizing this true nature of mind, and becoming familiar with it is the core of the path to liberation. Denying its existence cuts us off from this path. That's why this topic is so important.

markszpakowski said...

I think it was Varela who noted that most Western science and philosophy has a blind spot: first-person experience, how to approach/experience it, how to describe it. One exception is phenomenology, which does attempt to pay attention to the bare structures of consciousness, and which in this regard has a meeting point with buddhadharma.

Many discussions of this topic seem to actually refer to a Newtonian and mechanistic science of the world, which for the past century has been shown to be inaccurate, incomplete, and just a special case. For a brilliant, difficult (I'm reading it for the 2nd time) but possibly groundbreaking approach from the point of view of quantum physics, check out Quantum physics in neuroscience and psychology:
a neurophysical model of mind–brain interaction
. This deserves it own blog post; in fact, probably its own blog.