The Frontal Cortex

Neural Buddhism?

I admire David Brooks for trying to expand the list of topics written about by Times columnists. (To be honest, I’m a little tired of reading about presidential politics.) His latest column, on “The Neural Buddhists,” tries to interject modern neuroscience into the current debate over New Atheists and religion.

Lo and behold, over the past decade, a new group of assertive atheists has done battle with defenders of faith. The two sides have argued about whether it is reasonable to conceive of a soul that survives the death of the body and about whether understanding the brain explains away or merely adds to our appreciation of the entity that created it.

The atheism debate is a textbook example of how a scientific revolution can change public culture. Just as “The Origin of Species reshaped social thinking, just as Einstein’s theory of relativity affected art, so the revolution in neuroscience is having an effect on how people see the world.

And yet my guess is that the atheism debate is going to be a sideshow. The cognitive revolution is not going to end up undermining faith in God, it’s going to end up challenging faith in the Bible.

Over the past several years, the momentum has shifted away from hard-core materialism. The brain seems less like a cold machine. It does not operate like a computer. Instead, meaning, belief and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings. Those squishy things called emotions play a gigantic role in all forms of thinking. Love is vital to brain development.

Researchers now spend a lot of time trying to understand universal moral intuitions. Genes are not merely selfish, it appears. Instead, people seem to have deep instincts for fairness, empathy and attachment.

As you can probably imagine, some other Sciencebloggers didn’t care for this take. I’ve worked hard to avoid the atheism arguments, so I’m going to steer clear of that side of the op-ed. But I do think Brooks does a good job of capturing the newfound respect among neuroscientists for “squishy” subjects like emotion and the self. These subjects used to seem unscientific because they couldn’t be confined to specific neural correlates. Where, for instance, is the self? As I wrote in my book:

If neuroscience knows anything, it is that there is no ghost in the machine: there is only the vibration of the machinery. Your head contains 100 billion electrical cells, but not one of them is you or knows you or cares about you. In fact, you don’t even exist. The brain is nothing but an infinite regress of matter, reducible to the callous laws of physics.

Obviously, this scientific solution isn’t very satisfying. It confines neuroscience to an immaculate abstraction. My own sense is that there’s an increasing interest among neuroscientists to grapple with what David Chalmers calls “the hard problem,” so that the subjective nature of human experience isn’t simply brushed aside as an “epiphenomenon”. In other words, you can’t study the brain by pretending that emotions and the self don’t exist. Here is how Brooks summarizes the intellectual atmosphere:

The momentum has shifted away from hard-core materialism. The brain seems less like a cold machine. It does not operate like a computer.

Well, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a neuroscientist who wasn’t a hard-core materialist. That, after all, is why they’re studying the brain. But I do think there’s an increasing respect for entities (like the self) that can’t be studied simply in materialist terms. Or at least there’s an increasing recognition that reductionist materialism has real limitations. As the novelist Richard Powers wrote, “If we knew the world only through synapses, how could we know the synapse?”

Brooks ends by arguing that “science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other.” Mysticism is a loaded word, but I’d certainly agree that many of the most profound mysteries of human existence have been deepened, and not erased, by modern neuroscience. Here’s how I put it in Seed a few months ago:

Only a few decades ago, scientists were putting forth confident conjectures about “the bridging principle,” the neural event that would explain how the activity of our brain cells creates the subjective experience of consciousness. All sorts of bridges were proposed, from 40 Hz oscillations in the cerebral cortex to quantum coherence in microtubules. These were the biological processes that supposedly turned the water of the brain into the wine of the mind.

But scientists don’t talk about these kinds of bridging principles these days. While neuroscience continues to make astonishing progress in learning about the details of the brain–we are a strange loop of kinase enzymes and synaptic chemistry–these details only highlight our enduring enigma, which is that we don’t experience these cellular details. It is ironic, but true: The one reality science cannot reduce is the only reality we will ever know.

Comments

  1. #1 Ben
    May 14, 2008

    Where did the buddhists go?

  2. #2 Jonathan Vos Post
    May 14, 2008

    There were some well-phrased statements in the op-ed piece in question.

    I quoted it in a graduate assignment earlier this morning.

    The Buddha did give some interesting sermons on the nature of the mind, many of which are by no means contradicted by modern science. His sermon on subjective rate of time, for instance, is fascinating.

  3. #3 jb
    May 14, 2008

    Thank you Jonah for this post! To respond to the above…

    What the Buddha investigated and taught about was our experience of life, and thus the mind. His instructions were not to beleive what he said but to do the investigation ourselves, which is what the meditation practice common to most of the forms of Buddhism taught in the West, are about. If one’s experience doesn’t conform to what he taught, one goes elsewhere. Still a meditator…

  4. #4 scicurious
    May 14, 2008

    I agree that I liked the op-ed column, if only for taking away a little from the atheist materialism that can be so alienating to non-scientists. Knowing that neuroscientists can leave room for the sacred (as opposed the concept of God and the Bible), might help people feel a little more warm to our work.

  5. #5 Jason Rosenhouse
    May 14, 2008

    But I do think there’s an increasing respect for entities (like the self) that can’t be studied simply in materialist terms. Or at least there’s an increasing recognition that reductionist materialism has real limitations.

    Speaking as someone who hails from the camp of hardcore materialists, I have no problem with this statement. But I see it as comparable to the statement that living organisms can’t be studied simply at the level of individual atoms. The limitations on reductionist materialism are practical, not conceptual.

  6. #6 Michael Woods
    May 14, 2008

    The Powers quote is fantastic. It really sums up that line of thought quite perfectly.

    “His instructions were not to beleive what he said but to do the investigation ourselves…”
    In other words, be diligent scientists…?

    Its all such a fascinating topic, and something I am embarking on a research career in. Very exciting. I haven’t read that other blog, but will do so.
    It is great to see some acceptance of ‘squishy’ topics, as its not so long ago when they were completely ignored in a lot of fields. I think alot of it has to do with greater communication worlwide, and exposure to so many new ideas, conflicting ideas, and science as a result is moving so fast. Its going to be very interesting to see how far current technology (and such a line of scientific inquiry) will get us with these sort of problems.

  7. #7 Alan
    May 14, 2008

    Where are the buddhists? Ask the sangha. But which sangha? There are numerous types of buddhist practices in the U.S. and elsewhere, not all of which consider the practice of mindfulness meditation central. Interestingly enough, there is something of a little disagreement between the silent illumination folks and the koan (a koan is a kind of insight-provoking riddle) folks, who would take issue with inquiry and discovery through meditation. This post and the comments are all terrific stuff, and I don’t want to quibble, except to say, that as with all conceptions of religious practice, buddhism is no exception when it comes to specific traditions and identities. Take your pick: Mahayana, Hinayana, Theravada, Tibetan, Chan, Zen … the list goes on. Let’s be on guard not fall into the habit of thought that it’s all the same.

  8. #8 g724
    May 15, 2008

    Let’s not be pre-emptively squeamish about that word “mysticism.” Technically it refers to “the branch of religion and philosophy that is concerned with the direct experience of God or the ground of being,” and the term “ground of being” is simply another way of saying “underlying reality.”

    One can be quite mystical while at the same time being entirely non-theistic.

    The “mystical experience” is characterized by the sense of transcendence of space/time boundaries, deeply felt positive emotion, sense of unity with God / ground of being, and persisting positive changese in attitude and behavior toward self and others. We can even describe some elements of this in neurophysiological terms: for example increased activity in the right temporal lobe. We can induce elements of it experimentally: the whole thing via the use of compounds such as psilocybin under carefully controlled conditions; certain elements of it via electromagnetic stimulation of the brain; other elements of it via audio entrainment of selected brainwave frequencies.

    There is nothing about this that is in any way contradictory to or subversive of the fundamental premises of science. In fact mystics on the whole tend to be more than eager to learn scientific methods, findings, and theories, and embrace them as the outward path to the discovery of fundamental truths about the universe.

    But I’ll tell you what is subversive about mysticism. It is universalistic rather than particularistic. It rejects obscurantism in all of its forms. As such it is highly subversive to religious orthodoxy, particularly the orthodoxies of its polar opposite (irony noted), fundamentalism. And today it is fundamentalism that is at war against science, still fighting its monkey trials and eagerly looking forward to its tribulations (the term used to describe the “end of the world” before the coming of the savior). It is fundamentalism that seeks to obscure and confuse, seeks to revive primitive tribalisms, seeks to deny the equal protection of the law to those with whom it disagrees, and seeks to ignite wars on the slightest ground of national or tribal offense.

    To the extent that we can encourage mysticism as the mainstream expression of religion, we are vaccinating the population against the meme-viruses of fundamentalism. To the extent that scientists recognize that mysticism is not only compatible with science but is a natural sibling of science, people for whom faith in God does not deny adherence to reason will find a natural home for their own beliefs.

    I am not asking you to agree with, much less to adopt. any form of theism here. I am asking you simply to recognize that there is a branch of religious philosophy that is a natural ally of science, and that this is also highly subversive to the root cause of today’s most aggressive form of obscurantism. This is worth giving serious thought.

  9. #9 Steve Marr
    May 15, 2008

    Attended a book signing and discussion of Pico Iyer’s book “The Open Road” about the Dalai Lama on Tuesday at the Central Library in Los Angeles. He discussed this very topic. Very interesting!!!

  10. #10 G.D.
    May 15, 2008

    Rosenhouse says: “The limitations on reductionist materialism are practical, not conceptual.”

    Exactly not. The limitations are conceptual, but they are not metaphysical. Point is well illustrated by Putnam: It is a law the square pegs don’t fit into round holes. Yet this law simply cannot be captured by microphysics, since microphysics doesn’t have the necessary conceptual tools to explain it (note what microphysics cannot give you: They can, of course, explain for each peg and hole why that peg doesn’t fit into that hole; the point is that the ceteris paribus LAW is not reducible). This is, of course, no problem for a materialist ontology. It simply shows that we have a need for describing and conceptualizing the world – carving up the world – in ways to which microphysics is simply irrelevant, and (more interestingly) that lawlike structures appear at these levels of description as well.

    But the “buddhism”-crap bothers me, though. And the reference to Chalmers in the text bothers me even more. That panpsychists and anti-materialists like Chalmers and Galen Strawson are taken seriously is simply a symptom of how the religious instinct of even serious scientists tries to force itself back into their work (“the hard problem” … anyone who have read some of the more interesting stuff about consciousness will have recognized that the hard problem is a myth which merely shows that some philosophers’ (even after all this years) are still held captive by the Descartes/Locke outlook in epistemology). There are lots of exciting stuff about consciousness; I would personally recommend Dennett, McDowell, Haugeland, Hurley, stuff on the enactivist view of perception and maybe Andy Clarke’s extended mind stuff (and that easily read little book by Gregory McCulloch, ‘The Mind and its World’ is a nice starting point). But Chalmers – and apparently Brooks as well – is not a good starting point for understanding consciousness; armchair metaphysics with a dose of buddhism won’t get you to any scientifically informed theory of the mind.

  11. #11 daniel wood
    May 15, 2008

    G.D.,
    I wasn’t aware that Chalmers is getting dismissed so lightly these days. As much as I don’t like where his arguments lead, it seems most philosophers that grapple with them don’t do a convincing job, at least in the journals I’m reading (JCS, Psyche). In your opinion, who has the best refutation of Chalmers?

  12. #12 daniel wood
    May 15, 2008

    G.D. — to be specific, I’m interested in his “hard problem” argument.

  13. #13 G.D.
    May 15, 2008

    Well, I do admit that several philosophers take the hard problem seriously. My post does reflect my own view of the matter. The problem is qualia-realism; that is, the view that the phenomenal character of experience are due to real, intrinsic or even categorical properties of these experiences. The most obvious reason to doubt this view is the problem of ‘zombies’; Chalmers famously accepts the possibility of ‘zombies’, but the trouble is that if qualia are intrinsic properties we cannot even know (or have reasons to believe) that we aren’t zombies ourselves (since our knowledge could only pick up on the relational properties of these qualia). The intrinsic properties these qualia are supposed to be would be utterly inert, even in relation to our own cognition of them (Dennett is usually pretty good at pointing out problems with qualia realism). This IS a reductio of Chalmers’ whole way of approaching the subject.

    The fundamental problem in Chalmers’ approach, is his Cartesian epistemology and theoretical solipsism, however. I won’t go through all the work that has been carried out to undermine this conception (I am especially fond of the Evans-McDowell line). In Chalmers theory this amounts to what is known as a ‘two-factor’ theory of mind. It is, for reasons pointed out by e.g. McDowell or Burge, far from obvious that this position is even intelligible. The semantic side is ‘two-dimensionalism’. For criticisms of the two-dimensional framework (the way it is used by e.g. Chalmers and Jackson), see Soames or Stalnaker – among other things, Chalmers’ descriptivist solipsism (he denies that he is committed to descriptivism, but he is committed to some form of intensional private language, so Stalnaker’s and Soames’ criticisms will hold) leads him, apparently, to a particularly nasty form of Putnam’s paradox (the model-theoretic argument); particularly nasty, since the it seems to drive him towards not only a global metaphysical anti-realism, but a solipsist one.

    In general, the problem with Chalmers’ is that the whole picture of the mind is skewed – the premises are false and the methodology is off track. The correct approach seems rather to be a radical form of externalism (not a two-factor one and in particular one that rejects any form of qualia-realism), such as the views defended by, in particular, McDowell, Haugeland and even Dennett. Instead of viewing consciousness as some inner state or process, it should be explained in terms of situatedness, non-insulated ‘being in the world’ where the relevant interfaces between mind and world is not drawn at the skin or skull (so, consciousness ought not, if it is to be explained, to be viewed as a purely neural phenomenon – and there is nothing mysterianist about this, despite the Heideggerian or Merleu-Pontyian overtones). Chalmers, on the other hand, rests comfortably within the myth-of-the-given mythology derived from Descartes and Locke.

    Ok, anyway, this is mostly short suggestions and directions to interesting literature on the subject, literature that might help overcome the illusion of ‘the hard problem’ by undermining the view of the mind it presupposes ((it’s not that it isn’t hard, it’s that the problem doesn’t exist unless you adopt a Descartes-Locke view of the mind which is untenable for several fundamental reasons). Of course there are hard problems remaining, and a naturalist explanation of subjectivity might still be one, but as long as consciousness is not viewed as some intrinsic property of experiences, it won’t make anti-materialsim, panpsychism and mysterianism seem like appealing options.

  14. #14 daniel wood
    May 15, 2008

    G.D.
    I’ve always favored the phenomenological/embodiment approach (especially the Merleau-Pontian variety) to dealing with dualism. Thanks for pointing out some interesting avenues (some I’ve probably already seen, but others I definitely haven’t).

  15. #15 Michael Woods
    May 15, 2008

    “McDowell, Haugeland, Hurley, stuff on the enactivist view of perception and maybe Andy Clarke’s extended mind stuff ”

    G.D. can you provide some refs/titles for these works?

    Cheers

  16. #16 Caledonian
    May 15, 2008

    But I see it as comparable to the statement that living organisms can’t be studied simply at the level of individual atoms.

    But that’s wrong, Jason. Living organisms most certainly can be studied that way. It’s just that most of the organisms we’re interested in exist so many levels of implementation above atoms that studying the atoms isn’t useful in an everyday sense.

    We don’t need to believe that there is anything more than what the atoms alone can tell us to believe that studying the atoms won’t necessarily give us the models we need.

  17. #17 daksya
    May 18, 2008

    it’s that the problem doesn’t exist unless you adopt a Descartes-Locke view of the mind which is untenable for several fundamental reasons

    Such as?

  18. #18 yogi-one
    May 20, 2008

    One can be quite mystical while at the same time being entirely non-theistic.

    Thank you.

    Meditation, if pursued seriously, (not just as a relaxation technique, but as an exploration of mind and self) leads you to some stark realities.

    First, your mind has no separate existence. The Buddha, was, in fact, completely uncompromising on this point. He is right. Nothing in your mind exists a priori.

    He is equally uncompromising that your idea of you has no separate existence either.

    Yet he is considered a model of spiritual enlightenment and compassion.

    Maybe because a “you” and a “God” are not required for those qualities.

  19. #19 geciktirici
    February 16, 2009

    There is nothing about this that is in any way contradictory to or subversive of the fundamental premises of science. In fact mystics on the whole tend to be more than eager to learn scientific methods, findings, and theories, and embrace them as the outward path to the discovery of fundamental truths about the universe.