Science and Buddhism II: Understanding one’s mind


Scientists themselves have increasingly seen the importance of ‘the observer’. Science is for human beings, so it needs to understand what it is to be human, what self-awareness is, and what the range of human needs are (scientists tend to stop at the survival (medicine), and material (technology) needs.) But above all because immediate experience is all we have! All else is inferred, models, theories, assumptions, attempts at communication etc.

So take mental processes seriously. And take seriously the mental processes of others — there is a real possibility of empathy. (Note how primitive Western philosophy and psychology can be here, without ‘contemplative’ disciplines.)

Can consciousness be studied scientifically (i.e. objectively)? Of course it can. But one can miss what it actually is — and think that consciousness is a thing, rather than it being ‘actual awareness’ – a ‘light’ you and I are immersed in now, in a rolling present. The structures that I use to make sense of the ‘contents’ of this illumination (which ‘I’ think of as partly inner, partly outer) can be studied.

Real empathetic communication implies different people’s described worlds can be compared. One can even construct highly simplified circumstances amenable to careful measurement (experimentation) as in brain imaging, and correlate measured variations with reported mental states, and with observable body responses or actions.

Actual experience and the states of the brain act reciprocally upon one another, so that it is incoherent to say that brain states simply cause mental events. Perception (says the Buddhist neuroscientist Francisco Varela) can be regarded as subsidiary to the mental function of imagination. Perception refers to what is present, imagination to what is not present, and the two mix so that in every moment they are emerging into awareness from an unconscious background, as a living present.

It is still the case that the dominant view among neuroscientists is, in effect, that processes in the body cause the mind. But neuroscientists such as Varela have shown that one’s state of mind can access local neural processes, so that neither can be reduced to the other. The mental state corresponds to a particular neural state, and actively incorporates or discards any contemporary neural activity in the relevant brain region, evaluating many potential neural states, “until a single one is transiently stabilised and expressed behaviourally”[1]. Mental states (says Varela) require both a phenomenological and a biological account. The neural elements and the global cognitive subject are co-determined; the subject is emergent, not just from the brain, but also from preceding mental states. Buddhism extends this account by offering its pragmatic consequences, showing how the living present, with imagination active, is a means for human transformation. 

[1] Varela and Depraz, in Buddhism and Science: Breaking New Ground, B. Alan Wallace (editor), Columbia University Press, New York, 2003. 213.  See also Varela, Thomson, and Rosch, The Embodied Mind (MIT press, 1993), 22.

English (UK)