30 October 2015
Dharma and Science
"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".
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.
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.
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!
I wrote this in response to "Minding Closely: The four applications of Mindfulness --- 8. Mindfulness of Phenomena" -- by B.Alan Wallace.