Buddhist philosophy of mind and self

Armando asked:

I find in the questions and answers that I have reviewed that there would be clearer understanding of what is the mind and personality (self), of objective reality and freedom, and other problems of perception with an application of the Buddhist philosophy of the mind and the self.

I believe Descartes expressed the idea incorrectly in saying ‘I think therefore I am’ in that thoughts come and go in the mind, but what perceives the thought as such, and is constant, is the quality of awareness, or that which knows (Buddha meaning the one who knows). Thinking is part of the physical functioning brain (an organic computer) not indifferent from the movement of the body and perception of feelings. That which moves the computer and the body is the awareness (consciousness). Therefore more properly it should be said ‘I know therefore I am’, or better, according to Wittgenstein and Buddhism, nothing can be said because the knower is prior to words and thinking.

The person (soul, personal identity, self) is only a creation of the awareness as it interacts with the physical universe since birth. Therefore it is said that there is no self in Buddhism. The true self, the true essence (the original mind in Buddhism), or consciousness, cannot be observed directly because it is the subject. The awareness is however that which gives everything its reality. As result the physical universe exists only in the knowing minds. We sense the physical world through the 5 senses and the braincomputer organizes the information but it becomes real only by its contact with awareness. So there is a physical world but it is only reflected in the mind (an accurate reflection) but it can never be directly known (thus the uncertainty principle and Schrodinger’s cat).

There is only true freedom when one understands that the physical world, the feelings, the thoughts and the personal identity are not the true self but only a creation of our awareness. The original mind, awareness, is obvious and is everything but is prior to thought, and it is what we are.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Thank you for a very well thought out and interesting question! In order to do justice to it I must, however, first remove some of your unstated presuppositions. I am mindful of the possibility that you may have acquired these from your reading and/or learning, but you will (I hope) agree that one cannot approach the matters in your question with assumptions already in place that really need to be part of the question!

In this case, you have put forward assumptions on the nature of thinking and on what kind of thing a brain is, that are widely broadcast in the scientific media, but not proved, and can therefore only be accepted as metaphors. You have also put forward some ideas drawn from Buddhism, which are widely believed to be the ‘truth’ about soul, self and consciousness, but they are not demonstrable and therefore at least debatable.

I begin with your statement that ‘Thinking is part of the physical functioning of the brain’ and your follow-up in calling the brain an ‘organic computer’. This is a twofold error, based on trust in the terminology used in theoretical research and writing, where such ‘objective’ language is necessary. But this vocabulary cannot imported into common speech without gross distortion of meaning, as if it unambiguously denoted the objects and processes under discussion. To conform with the thrust of your discourse, this assumption should have been put into the interrogative! Accordingly we must retrace our steps and put both of them as questions first!

And now it transpires that (a) The brain is not a computer of any kind, and (b) thinking is not a function.

To explain this, you must look at brains and neurons the same way as you look at flowers, fish and fowl and determine how they differ from plastic flowers, fish and fowl. Then it will not escape you that the former do something by themselves and for themselves that their plastic counterparts cannot do – namely grow, feed and reproduce and many other things as well, for which the word ‘function’ is out of place and must be replaced by the word ‘work’.

To understand the workings of a brain, it is frequently better to observe a beehive than to stick your nose into a computer. What you see in the beehive bears a closer resemblance to what the removal of a human skullcap reveals. I mean: you see a lot deliberate activity among the bees, and likewise a lot of deliberate activity among the colonies of neurons in the brain.

So the work going on in the brain is guided by a form of intentionality that is qualitatively an exact analogue of both the beehive and what you might call your own intentional being. Putting ‘function’ into the picture erases and/or obscures this fundamental insight.

Further, the brain is an organ, which like all living things is engaged on evaluating information. Computers don’t evaluate, nor do they exhibit intentionality: they are just hugely ramified mechanical cash registers. Leibniz over 300 years ago said that his calculating machine was ‘smarter’ than a peasant, and in like manner we today fall readily into the trap of attributing ‘sophistication’ to computers, which one second’s worth of thinking properly will reveal as the designer’s sophistication. Moreover the brain’s modus operandi is parallel processing and therefore utterly incompatible with the serial data processing of machines.

So your language on brains and thinking is inappropriate and inapplicable.
Once you’ve thought about it and distanced yourself a little from the mechanical prejudices of scientific literature, you can approach anew the question of whether Descartes or Siddartha has a more relevant take on the problems posed by our search for an understanding of the human mind, soul, self and consciousness.

Apropos Descartes, it transpires that his point of view yields more than the one perspective which you allow. Your presuppositions are again over-informed by the aforesaid mechanistic doctrine, and curiously it emanated in the first place from Descartes himself. But to insist on it without taking his purpose on board means you will miss two of the more fundamental points of his exercise. The first concerns the possibility of ‘proving’ existence, and the other the possibility of ascertaining the truth (or objective factuality) of our observations of nature. In this context it was appropriate for Descartes to translate the teeming complexity of organic life into simple cause and effect models, which must be understood on the basis of almost zero neurophysiological knowledge. Therefore his research agenda radiated inward from the myriad forms of existence to the one and only form that has the capacity of pronouncing on existence. The fact that he called this form of existence ‘thinking’ must not be allowed to constrict your appreciation of what he is trying to establish: namely that only ‘thinking’ can validate existence, and only ideas in a mind capable of logical performances have a chance of being actually true. What ‘thinking’ actually is, we still don’t know.

Since you appear to be involved with Buddhist conceptions, I expect you will not argue with the need for putting an intentional agent into centre court. You basically said it yourself: The existence of the world is a meaningless supposition unless an intelligence exists that can certify both its own existence and that of other existents. This is precisely where science is out of its depth, as none of these issues are amenable to being weighed, measured and detected; they can only be inferred from observation. But now you might look into the Hindu philosophy of intellectual monism and the total ensoulment of the universe which the Buddha does not deny. It is a nice talking point, but nothing more! It is not accessible to human knowing (and rather more to imagination than understanding). It remains on the philosophical, religious and spiritualistic agenda, because the mystery of it all intrigues us endlessly; but as for certainty, no amount of arguing or dogmatising can settle the point.

This is where your attempt to correct Descartes fails. You cannot say ‘I know’ unless you are a knower. A computer is not a knower. In a limited way, however, every living thing is a knower, in the sense that survival strategy is unquestionably a form of intentional behaviour (e.g. the extraction of survival information from the habitat). On the other hand, in respect of the advanced form of this which is our human attribute–human consciousness, our ‘soul estate’, knowledge of self–it seems at least arguable whether there are, or have been, humans who know nothing other than what they have been brainwashed to believe. It is more than debatable, in fact almost certain, that there have been humans without the ability to self-reflect, who would not therefore be in possession of a self. It can fairly easily be demonstrated from historical and anthropological information about hominids that self-reflexive thinking is a recently evolved trait of H. sapiens and not in evidence earlier than his appearance on Earth.

Therefore consciousness as your ‘true essence’ of the ‘true self’ is a self-contradictory assumption. A worm has consciousness without claiming to be a self. The same must, with very high probability, be said of archaic humans. A self is a quite sophisticated attainment, which we constantly underestimate. A very common error is the attempt to the ‘reduce’ it, which plainly erases the distinction between an instantiated consciousness of individuality and a ‘general’ consciousness which is nothing other than life itself.

It is true, as you say, that consciousness cannot be observed; but not true that this is because consciousness is the subject. It is unobservable because it is not an existent, but an intentional characteristic. Hence inference is our only avenue. This perspective should also correct your over-optimistic equation of the world with its reflection in the mind. Which mind? Your’s or the worm’s? Or maybe the neuron’s? If you keep asking more such questions you will also come to see that Schrodinger’s cat has absolutely nothing to do with it. You simply misunderstood the gist of that metaphor.

I suspect you might benefit from a better compartmentalisation of your thoughts. Desist from using mechanochemical models for living organs. Avoid confusion between work and function, between the living and the dead. Try not to mix up consciousness with mind, since self-evidently one is prior to the other. Don’t lump metaphysical authorities into the same basket with scientific authorities. And try to sort out the differences between knowing what and knowing how; between knowledge, intuition and understanding; between facts and principles. Don’t assume that searching for answers and giving answers is the same thing. And finally, don’t assume or accept that any one person, or any group, has final answers.

At the risk of sounding dogmatic myself, I propose to you that no doctrine whatever on spiritual issues has ever settled those issues with finality, except by means of dogma. The world of humankind has suffered from innumerable dogmatisms for as long as the arm of our historical knowledge reaches into past; and it is an unsightly spectre that has impeded us from understanding ourselves. I think you might be willing to agree that ‘knowing what it is to be a human being’ is the foundation of all thinking; but until this problem has been sorted out, every kind of assertion of finality has only the right of being wrong.


One thought on “Buddhist philosophy of mind and self

  1. Thak you for your generous and elegant commet. I have the following clarifications:

    The brain seems to function as a computer of sort programed by nature; as for example the visual image created in the retina is very small and upside down and is very modified at many levels before presented to the knowing mind; also when typing the mechanism of movement is slowly programed to a level where one types faster than the mind can think of the letters. “Thinking” I define to be the creation and manipulation of ideas in the mind, whereas “knowing” is the active awareness which can focus on vision, hearing , thoughts and gives it the cuality of existing or reality. That quality of existing or reality is what colapses the probabilty options of Schrodinger’s cat, meaning that an experiment is not complete until a human reads the answer. The knowing awareness has qualities of individual being of itself but when confused it creates a false image of itself which leads to confusion beliving that the thinking is the self.

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