30 October 2015

Dharma and Science

"Truth is always liberating, not always comforting" -- Janna Levin

"We can't experience profound well-being without working with, not against, the gritty reality of life." -- Pema Chodron

Like a scientist investigates things "objectively", the mindfulness meditation practice instructs us to be curious, and observe and investigate our personal "subjective" landscape, our mind. But there is no "objective" way to report our experience - at least, not yet - fMRI images are as close as we may get to it now. We are left with certain landmark remarks and descriptions from the experienced meditators and teachers as a map or guidelines, as we progress through the practice.

We should be clear that studying the mind this way is not same as studying it scientifically. It is like trying to understand how the car engine may work from the experience of driving the car. Both offers different perspective and usefulness, and hopefully complementing each other. The following are some of my simplified ideas linking the dharma (Buddhist teachings) and Science.

"Substrate" or "space":
There is a well-established concept in cognitive and neuroscience known as "Working Memory" (WM). Apart from the sensory transient memory, WM can only hold four items at a time (say, 4 numbers or 4 names; using internal rehearsing, we may learn to hold up to 10 items). This is why we find it difficult to hold a phone number. This is similar to the registers in the computer CPU. Roughly speaking, we are conscious of what is available in WM at each moment. I think that WM is what we experience as "substrate" or "space". As we continue our practice and slow down our thoughts, we may notice "gaps" or "pauses"in this "space".

Mind-body problem:
The brain is hardware, and the mind is software. The mind emerges from the function of the brain, like "walking" emerges from the legs. If we are still deeply looking for where "walking" is located in the "legs", then it may seem like a problem. "Walking" is a function of the legs, not a physical thing to locate. The Buddha described how "the self is not so solid". I think that it was his way of describing the software concept more than 2500 years ago.

Qualia:
Nobody denies the experience of qualia or redness of red or our subjective experience of vision, sounds, etc. The idea is that it's an illusion. It does not mean that it is not there, it just means that it is not what it seems to be. It is like watching motion pictures – the motion is just an illusion as they are just stack of images. In fact, this how we see the world, image by image – because, it takes time to process and understand each image. Then the brain creates an illusion of continuity. In the end, all our mental experience is a model, a kind of virtual world created by our mind. It is like the computer GUI (graphical user interface), so we can navigate around and utilize it. The dharma describes the illusory quality of our nature.

Materialism:
There is this physical world including us. Our commonsense world view was crushed by Einstein's general relativity, then further crushed by quantum mechanics. At the fundamental level, we understand the world of the elementary particles with quantum mechanics. Chemistry emerges as the elementary particles combine to form atoms and molecules; then from chemistry to life to mind to consciousness emerges step by step at many levels. But it seems, people want some mysterious force of life, and some magical source of consciousness. Perhaps it is their way of holding on to something, or their way of having some hope. The dharma says it's all empty. Pema Chodron puts it: There is nothing to hold on to; this mundane world is all there is!

Emergence of Consciousness:
Before we understood evolution and molecular biology, the emergence of life from the matter also seemed spooky. As Daniel Dennett puts it, this is inversion of reason - where the reasoning itself goes backwards. In essence, what Charles Darwin discovered: In order to make a perfect, highly complex survival machine, it's not requisite to know how to make it. There is no need for an intelligent agent. In a similar fashion, the father of computer science, Alan Turing showed: In order to be a perfect, highly sophisticated computing machine, it is not requisite to know what arithmetic is. Computers do not understand anything about arithmetic or mathematics, yet they perform advanced arithmetic calculations. In essence: It is possible to have competence without comprehension; and comprehension can come later from competence. Comprehension is an effect, not a cause. Likewise our intelligence is an effect, not a cause; our consciousness is an effect, not a cause; our sense-of-self is an effect, not a cause. The description of Skandhas shows how consciousness arises from the others skandhas, other mental factors.

Dalai Lama says: 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. Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh asks that if the dharma teaches selflessness - no solid self or soul - then how rebirth or reincarnation is possible after our physical death. As master Hsing Yun clarifies, the concept of rebirth should refer to the different physical or mental stages within our lifetime. Sometimes we may hold on to the dharma so tightly or so blindly. Yet the dharma says: don't even hold on to the dharma! Then, we can ground ourselves in the dharma and the reality, and make a proper cup of tea!


See also:

I wrote this in response to "Minding Closely: The four applications of Mindfulness --- 8. Mindfulness of Phenomena" -- by B.Alan Wallace.

25 October 2015

Reasoning Gone Bad

We naturally apply logic and reason on everything - this epitomizes our intelligence. But it stands on our fragile careful attention. I think of the following four major ways, how our reasoning may go wrong: the first two are influenced by our emotions; and the other two are influenced by not going far and deep enough.

We may be intelligent creatures, but we are still emotionally weak. Often, not only, we don't know how to handle our emotions, we don't even have the courage to feel and stay with our own emotions. This may be as simple as staying with boredom just for five minutes without doing anything.

"We are nuclear giants and emotional infants" -- Jack Kornfield

Emotionally blind reason:
Every reasoning we make is somewhat emotionally biased. Once we are emotionally invested in anything, we will be blind to see even obvious errors in our reasoning. We may believe in any magic and outright stupidity.

"We who work at the Supreme Court level, where I do, understand that 90% of our decisions are made on an emotional basis; the other 10% supplies the rationality for those decisions" -- Justice William O. Douglas

Invention of reason (Rationalization):
With our emotional weakness, we often become the victims of our own emotions. Then we invent some reasons (excuses) for our behaviors or feelings to satisfy others or ourselves. We rationalize our actions and feelings so we may feel better. Rationalization is so common that we may not even consciously aware of it.

Short-sighted reason:
If our reasoning is short-sighted and not thorough enough, and we could end up with a wrong conclusion. That is how we used to think that the Earth is flat, the Sun rotates around the Earth, and heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones. The conclusions are wrong here, as we only applied a small set of short-sighted evidences.

Inversion of reason:
However bizarre it may sound, there are cases in which, not just our conclusion, but our reasoning itself can be totally reversed, upside down.

"I'm sorry I wrote you such a long letter. I didn't have time to write you a short one" -- Blaise Pascal
"Oh Lord, protect me from my friends, I can take care of my enemies" -- Voltaire


Inversion-of-reason can be startling and confusing. No wonder, why most people still struggle to fully comprehend the evolution of life. In essence, what Charles Darwin says: In order to make a perfect, highly complex survival machine, it's not requisite to know how to make it. There is no need for an intelligent agent. It further enlightens us, how we maybe getting many of our simple day-to-day reasoning totally backwards. It's not that we like honey because it's sweet, honey tastes sweet because we are evolved to have sweetness for it. There is no intrinsic sweetness in honey, sweetness is wired in our brain. It's not that we adore and care babies because they are cute, we are evolved to find them as cute because we have to adore and care them.

In a similar fashion, the father of computer science, Alan Turing showed: In order to be a perfect, highly sophisticated computing machine, it is not requisite to know what arithmetic is. Computers do not know anything about arithmetic or mathematics, yet they perform simple to advanced arithmetic calculations. In essence: It is possible to have competence without comprehension; and comprehension can come later from competence. Comprehension is an effect, not a cause. Likewise our intelligence is an effect, not a cause; our consciousness is an effect, not a cause; our sense-of-self is an effect, not a cause. Our intelligence is a result of many low level components. Our consciousness is a result of many intertwined unconscious processes. Our sense-of-self is a collection of many concepts. Alas, many are still looking for some fundamental magical source for our intelligence, consciousness, and soul.

Reference
Inversion of reason is based on a presentation by Daniel Dennett.

30 August 2015

Battles of Love

From the perspective of romantic love, men and women have many common interests, but also many conflicting interests. This tension is a source of excitement, pleasure and love, and also panic, pain and heartache. This is a game, a battle: Men and women are evolved to play. In this game: they are kings and queens, players and drama queens, and lovers and cheaters. In this battle: there are broken hearts, wounded souls, and destroyed spirits.

The conflicts start from the beginning of the process itself – who they find attractive and how they check out the opposite sex. As women and men are evolved to play different roles, they seek out different traits in their partners. As studies show: Men are most excited to see images of naked women, whereas women are most excited to see images of babies and mothers. Hence women have to seek out other venues like certain romantic novels to satisfy their fantasy. Though both men and women check out the opposite sex, men's tunnel vision makes it obvious, whereas women's peripheral vision makes it difficult to detect. Both men and women equally cheat their partners, though they may do it for different reasons.

Reproduction is at the core of life evolution. Hence every aspects of it including mate selection, mating, pair bonding (love), child birth and parent-child bonding are the most important aspects of our life – as coded in our genes and expressed in our body/brain/mind. When we succeed, it gives us the ultimate pleasure and great feeling; when we fail, it gives us the worst pain and miserable feeling. As women are evolved to play a major role in the reproduction process, accordingly their pleasure and pain (ups and downs) can be more than that of men. Hence women are often said to be more emotional.

If a man leaves a woman after their first mating, it might be devastating to her. She might feel like being used and something precious taken away from her. She is evolved to feel this way, as it might be a very costly mistake of her life – she might get pregnant and she has to raise her child on her own. Men not only have such a cost associated with this aspect, further it can be positive for the survival of their genes. Hence it may be difficult for men to naturally grasp this feelings of women. Men learn this later from the social experiences. Though women learn to soothe this feeling over the time, it is always present in women's psyche – in every mating and even after a long successful relationship. Women like to be reassured and comforted on a regular basis. The purpose of romance is rooted from this.

Though nature may not be fair, but certain balance cannot be avoided. Though the emotions of men maybe under-expressed (and often under-valued), they do have their own shares. After all, the Buddha - who went to extreme measures to understand our pain and suffering - was a man. Men pay a huge price as they are less experienced with handling their own emotions and women's style of emotional/psychological game. They are often just caught up by it in a shocking way – further trapped by lack of social support.

Being cheated on affects both genders in a heartbreaking way. If a man cheated on his woman, and he comes back to her sincerely, it may still be evolutionarily advantageous to her to accept him – whether she carries children of his or someone else or none. But if a woman cheated on her man, and she comes back to him, it is often evolutionarily harmful to him to accept her. Because a man cannot really know his children for sure. He has no other option but trust his woman. Hence he may find it much harder to forgive and accept her, and continue to suffer for a long time. This predicament of men – not able to know their children for sure – is imprinted in many of men's behaviors including trying to possess and control women. The oppression of women in our society maybe rooted from this insecurity of men.

P.S: This post is not meant to complain and criticize each other, but to understand each other, and perhaps to go beyond our insecurities and weaknesses. This is meant to provide some understanding, so we could accept this fundamental aspect of our life and not disheartened by it.