Brain vs mind?

Exploring Theravāda's connections to other paths. What can we learn from other traditions, religions and philosophies?
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Lazy_eye
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Brain vs mind?

Post by Lazy_eye » Sun Apr 03, 2011 12:24 pm

Here is a clip of Sam Harris presenting one of the standard arguments against dualism -- namely, that physical damage to the brain is known to affect practically every function of consciousness, so therefore we have good reason to view consciousness as inseparable from (and probably originating in) the brain.



The argument obviously poses a problem for religions that teach eternalism -- i.e. that there is some sort of permanent soul which leaves the body at death and goes to heaven, limbo or hell, or into a new body. My question: is it a problem for Buddhism?

Yes, it poses a problem

Buddhism teaches that consciousness is one of five aggregates. If consciousness originates in the brain then it is really just a byproduct of the form aggregate. Indeed, so are the remaining three (sensation, perception, formations). Moreover, the Buddha clearly taught that the mind is capable of entering "formless states" which would be impossible unless it can operate independently of the brain.

No, it does not pose a problem

Buddhism doesn't teach eternalism. Instead, it posits an ongoing process of dependent origination. Even if Harris is correct, there is no logical objection to the process of consciousness arising again and again, driven by kamma. Dhamma can therefore neither be classified as materialism nor Cartesian (substance) dualism. It is perhaps closer to property dualism.

The formless realms remain problematic, but a) they are a holdover from the sravaka movement, and b) they are not essential. Indeed, from the Buddhist point of view one wants to avoid these realms because no progress (towards nibbana) can be made while in them.

Buddhism teaches that a given mindstream (rearising via D.O.) can transmigrate into the animal realm, where there is a loss of cognitive functionality as well. Therefore, the argument from brain damage is already anticipated.

How would you respond to Harris?
Last edited by Lazy_eye on Sun Apr 03, 2011 2:09 pm, edited 4 times in total.

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Ben
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Re: Brain vs mind?

Post by Ben » Sun Apr 03, 2011 12:39 pm

One of the more compelling and important writers to emerge since 2000. Sorry I haven't watched the video link you kindly provided as my internet connection has been slowed to snails pace. I think its also interesting that on his website/blog/forum he has a number of Buddhist books that he recommends.
kind regards

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Re: Brain vs mind?

Post by yiming » Wed Apr 06, 2011 11:00 pm

Lazy_eye wrote:Here is a clip of Sam Harris presenting one of the standard arguments against dualism -- namely, that physical damage to the brain is known to affect practically every function of consciousness, so therefore we have good reason to view consciousness as inseparable from (and probably originating in) the brain.
There is no conclusive evidence that proves the brain generates consciousness. You are not conscious during sleep. How does consciousness switch off and on? Harris is making grand conclusions about the brain when there is no factual evidence on which to base his conclusions.
How would you respond to Harris?
I would respond like the Buddha: with a thundering silence.

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Re: Brain vs mind?

Post by DNS » Wed Apr 06, 2011 11:24 pm

Not a problem, imo.

Buddhism doesn't teach atta-view. The aggregates are impermanent and are like the parts of a chariot (or car). There is form, but also the 'thinking mind' which is also impermanent.

The 'thinking mind' is one of the six senses and also impermanent.

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Re: Brain vs mind?

Post by kirk5a » Wed Apr 06, 2011 11:35 pm

From just a logical standpoint, that isn't much of an argument. Observing changes to something which affect every function or aspect of something else, doesn't necessarily tell us anything about "inseparability" or "origination."

For instance. Suppose you're in a room with a glass window. You can affect every aspect of the light that comes into the room by manipulating the window. You can tint it colors, you can paint pictures on it, you can totally stop the light by putting something opaque over it. So from a totally naive standpoint, of say someone who had never been outside the room, they might conclude that the light must somehow be inseparable from the window, or even originate from it. But of course that is false.
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Re: Brain vs mind?

Post by daverupa » Thu Apr 07, 2011 12:45 am

kirk5a wrote:Observing changes to something which affect every function or aspect of something else, doesn't necessarily tell us anything about "inseparability" or "origination."
Well, correlation on its own should never be taken as proving causative relationships, but neurology isn't based on this sort of mistake, and it is to neurology as a whole to which Harris refers. You misunderstand in detail what Harris has uttered in brief.
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Re: Brain vs mind?

Post by Alex123 » Thu Apr 07, 2011 12:59 am

Materialism has a very big problem with explaining complex mental states including: reason, inference, logic and so forth.


While I agree that 5 sense consciousness, and some purely mental states, depend on matter (but not only that), there is an aspect of the mind that is dependent on the mind, not matter.

Materialism belief ranges anything from, all consciousness is 100% byproduct of insentient and mindless matter, to consciousness doesn't exist at all (eliminative materialism).

I think that any conscious moment is a refutation of eliminative materialist assumption. Without consciousness, you can't think or make any sense of what you are reading now. So emperically it is disproven as you read and understand this.


As for "mind is 100% byproduct of the matter (ie brain)"


1) For an assertion or theory (such as materialism is true because X,Y,Z) to be capable of truth or falsehood it must come from a rational source.

2)No merely physical material or combination of merely physical materials constitute a rational source. (no panpsychism)

3) Therefore, no assertion that is true or false can come from a merely physical source.
4) Only the mind is capable of making theories, knowing and distinguishing truth from falsehood.

Therefore, mentality (especially the reasoning function) does not come 100% from a merely physical source

If all and any mental state (rational thought, reason, meaning, induction, deduction, inference), is 100% byproduct of insentient matter - then there is no reason or even possibility to know or rationally figure out these things. Any reasonable claim, would be no more true or rational than insentient sounds (noise) made by the waterfall, for example. The eliminative materialism (belief that consciousness doesn't exist at all) is invalidated by the very nature of logical proofs that are used to rationalize it. Without consciousnessness, none of the letters (and no idea) that you read right now, could be known.
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Re: Brain vs mind?

Post by Jason » Thu Apr 07, 2011 1:00 am

Interesting topic. Truth be told, I've always found the subject of consciousness an interesting one, from a scientific as well as a philosophic point of view. Lately (and I'm blaming this on all the philosophy I've been reading in the past few months or so), I've been questioning the sharp distinction traditionally made between consciousness and matter. I find myself agreeing with Bertrand Russell that it seems the more we understand about matter (i.e., energy), the more the word itself becomes "no more than a conventional shorthand for stating causal laws concerning events" (An Outline of Philosophy). Perhaps what we call 'mind' and 'matter' is ultimately groups or structures of events arising from a substance that's neither mental nor material, but in between the two a la neutral monism.

But even that explanation doesn't fully satisfy me, and I find myself going back to the Buddha and Hume, both of which rejected the idea of mental substance in favour of what Hume called association of ideas and bundle of perceptions, and what the Buddha called heaps (khandha). As Bertrand Russell summarizes Hume's empiricism, "Ideas of unperceived things or occurrences can always be defined in terms of perceived things or occurrences, and therefore, by substituting the definition for the term defined, we can always state that we know empirically without introducing any unperceived things or occurrences." Thus, "all psychological knowledge can be stated without introducing the 'Self'. Further, the 'Self', as defined can be nothing but a bundle of perceptions, not a new simple 'thing'" (A History of Western Philosophy, 603).

Moreover, I don't reject that specific mental events appear to be contingent upon corresponding physical events in the brain. I think it's been conclusively shown that there's a link between consciousness and the body via the brain, and that when the brain's damaged, the link between consciousness and the body is damaged. However, I'm not convinced that this in and of itself proves that consciousness is merely an emergent property of the brain, or that it ceases to exist when the brain itself no longer functions. Correlation doesn't necessarily imply causation.

I'll admit that it's looking more and more like that's the most likely scenario, but when I read things like The Holographic Universe, Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer, or even some of Rupert Sheldrake's crazy ideas regarding morphogeneic fields, I can't help but think that maybe it's not the whole picture. I suppose it could just be wishful thinking on my part, but I'm not ready to jump on the materialist bandwagon just yet. Perhaps consciousness is simply a by-product of electrochemical processes in the brain, but perhaps there's another dimension to consciousness that science has yet to discover. I'm not saying that there is, mind you, but it's certainly a possibility. As Alan Wallace points out in an interview with Steve Paulson in the Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowships in Science & Religion:
  • This very notion that the mind must simply be an emergent property of the brain — consisting only of physical phenomena and nothing more — is not a testable hypothesis... Can you test the statement that there is nothing else going on apart from physical phenomena and their emergent properties? The answer is no... If your sole access to the mind is by way of physical phenomena, then you have no way of testing whether all dimensions of the mind are necessarily contingent upon the brain.
Unfortunately, I doubt that I'll ever fully understand what consciousness is, or what its relationship to the body (and the material world) is. I'm just not that clever. So, in the end, this is one of those areas where I'll probably always remain somewhat skeptical; although, from a purely empirical point of view, I do find myself leaning more towards the idea that consciousness is simply a by-product of electrochemical processes in the brain based on the evidence we do have. Science can be very convincing in that respect.

Of course, that doesn't mean there isn't more to consciousness than what's been discovered thus far, or that I've completely discounted other possibilities, especially considering the fact that, in the spirit of full disclosure, my ethical-spiritual practice assumes the possibility of a type of continuity involving consciousness that transcends a single birth and death—a belief built on premises that a strict materialist would reject, and with little from an empirical, scientific standpoint to back them up.

I'm comfortable with that, however, because my ethical-spiritual beliefs and practice are ultimately pragmatic, serving a practical purpose that's subjectively beneficial regardless of their objective validity. Incidentally, this is why I tend to have sympathy for theists, even though I don't have any theistic beliefs myself. While I find too many logical inconsistencies in the Bible to view it as the infallible word of God, there are some interesting philosophical arguments for the existence of God (although, not necessarily a personal God); and I understand that a belief in God can provide comfort in difficult times, as well as serve as the basis for a beneficial ethical-spiritual practice, just as my Buddhist beliefs can. I also accept that certain people may have had some kind of profound spiritual experience that has led them to such a belief.

What I generally don't accept, however, are dogmatic statements about absolute truth and/or reality, especially when they stem from an 'appeal to authority' or personal experience. In the former, the validity of a statement rests not on its own logical coherence or truth, but on the supposed status of the source as an 'authority.' In the latter's case, there's generally no way to confirm or deny them, so they're not very useful in proving something to someone who hasn't had them.
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Re: Brain vs mind?

Post by kirk5a » Thu Apr 07, 2011 1:39 am

daverupa wrote: Well, correlation on its own should never be taken as proving causative relationships, but neurology isn't based on this sort of mistake, and it is to neurology as a whole to which Harris refers. You misunderstand in detail what Harris has uttered in brief.
I'm responding to the ideas as we have them here.

"physical damage to the brain is known to affect practically every function of consciousness, so therefore we have good reason to view consciousness as inseparable from (and probably originating in) the brain."

So where does 'neurology as a whole' differ from that?
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Re: Brain vs mind?

Post by Alex123 » Thu Apr 07, 2011 1:43 am

There have been interesting cases that seem to challenge overly simplistic idea that brain affects the mind:



http://www.flatrock.org.nz/topics/scien ... essary.htm" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;
John Lorber, a British neurologist, has studied many cases of hydrocephalus (water on the brain) and concluded that the loss of nearly all of the cerebral cortex (the brain's convoluted outer layer) does not necessarily lead to mental impairment. He cites the case of a student at Sheffield University, who has an IQ of 126 and won first-class honors in mathematics. Yet, this boy has virtually no brain; his cortex measures only a millimeter or so thick compared to the normal 4.5 centimeters.

Although the deeper brain structures may carry on much of the body's work, the cortex is supposed to be a late evolutionary development that gave humans their vaunted mental powers and superiority over the other animals. If the cortex can be removed with little mental impairment, what is it for in the first place?

(Lewin, Roger; "Is Your Brain Really Necessary?" Science, 210:1232, 1980.) Comment. Brain size, then, may mean nothing in comparing ancient and modern human skulls or human brain capacity with those of animals! Where is the seat of intelligence?
http://www.science-frontiers.com/sf015/sf015p14.htm" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;
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Re: Brain vs mind?

Post by alan » Thu Apr 07, 2011 2:30 am

What does this clip have to do with "dualism", and why should it concern Buddhists?
It's Sam being Sam. In other words, perfectly rational.

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Re: Brain vs mind?

Post by yiming » Thu Apr 07, 2011 6:10 am

kirk5a wrote:From just a logical standpoint, that isn't much of an argument. Observing changes to something which affect every function or aspect of something else, doesn't necessarily tell us anything about "inseparability" or "origination."
Good point.
For instance. Suppose you're in a room with a glass window. You can affect every aspect of the light that comes into the room by manipulating the window. You can tint it colors, you can paint pictures on it, you can totally stop the light by putting something opaque over it. So from a totally naive standpoint, of say someone who had never been outside the room, they might conclude that the light must somehow be inseparable from the window, or even originate from it. But of course that is false.
Well, it only false because you conclude that there is an outside and an inside of the room. Your argument is valid but you must apply it to yourself and not only to Sam Harris. Truth destroys all illusions, not just Sam Harris but also the Dhamma.

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Re: Brain vs mind?

Post by retrofuturist » Thu Apr 07, 2011 6:13 am

Greetings,

I don't see how it matters.

What would one be hoping to prove from a Dhammic perspective, by affirming or denying mind/brain dualism?

The ancients thought that the brain was a pus factory that leaked out your nose when you got a cold... it didn't stop them achieving the goal of the holy life.

Metta,
Retro. :)
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Re: Brain vs mind?

Post by Lazy_eye » Thu Apr 07, 2011 3:20 pm

retrofuturist wrote:Greetings,

I don't see how it matters.

What would one be hoping to prove from a Dhammic perspective, by affirming or denying mind/brain dualism?.
I'm not sure if it's important from a Dhammic perspective, or has any bearing on the holy life. Might well fall under the category of things the Buddha advised us not to worry too much about.

My question really has to do with the broader philosophical context -- i.e. the ongoing debates about science and religion. Skeptics often use the evidence from neuroscience (including the apparent results of brain damage) as ammunition against religious belief systems that posit some ineffable, immortal, non-physical aspect to consciousness. What I'm wondering if whether that critique -- whether or not it is valid -- applies to Buddhism at all. In other words, can Sam Harris and the dhamma both be correct?

Stephen Batchelor, in his talk on Buddha nature, argues the idea of some ineffable "essence" finds its way into the Mahayana via certain interpretations of tathagatagarbha doctrine. His implication is that Theravada doesn't go down this route and so there's less of a problem reconciling the Pali Canon with science.

However, in his essay on the mind-body problem in early Buddhism, Peter Havery concludes that the Pali Canon does provide for the possibility of "anomalous states" in which consciousness operates without physical support.
The 'mind-body' relationship, then, is seen as a pattern of interaction between two types of processes. The interactions which take place between these two sets of processes are part of an overall network of interactions which also include mental-mental and physical-physical interactions. Neither the two sets, or the processes they comprise, are independent substances, for they are streams of momentary events which could not occur without the interactions which condition their arising. Meditation has the power to alter the usual patterns of interaction into non-normal configurations, which accordingly affect the type of process-events that arise.

As I have argued elsewhere, however, the Pali Suttas (though not later Pali material) includes indications that the early Buddhists regarded consciousness (vinnana) as able to 'break free' of the network of interactions. Indeed, the Suttas often see personality as a vortex of interaction not between nama (including consciousness) and rupa, but between consciousness and nama-rupa (D. II. 32, 63-4, S. III. 9-10).

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Re: Brain vs mind?

Post by ancientbuddhism » Thu Apr 07, 2011 3:40 pm

I had offered this in another thread on what is sentience?

Of course the question of changes to what an individual is due to age, illness, trauma and so forth is met with the usual analysis of anicca. And as we know, the Buddha often challenged any notion of a 'who' or possessor of cognitive processes.
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