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Buddhism and the Hard Problem


The 'Hard Problem' is the inability of science to bridge the gap between the physical and mental worlds by demonstrating unbroken chains of cause and effect between brain states and mental phenomena. 

Since the physicalist attempts to bridge the gap from the neurological side don't seem to be getting anywhere, perhaps we should investigate whether we can start to build a section of the bridge out from the opposite end, from the mental side.


            The Hard Problem

The 'explanatory gap' is science's inability to demonstrate, by logical chains of cause and effect,  how brain activity produces mental experiences.

From Wiki 

'The explanatory gap is the lack of an explanation for consciousness and human experiences such as qualia under physicalism. Bridging this gap is known as "the hard problem".  The explanatory gap has vexed and intrigued philosophers and AI researchers alike for decades and caused considerable debate.

To take an example of a phenomenon in which there is no gap, imagine a modern computer: as marvelous as these devices are, their behavior can be fully explained by their circuitry, and vice versa. By contrast, it is thought by many mind-body dualists (e.g. René Descartes, David Chalmers) that subjective conscious experience constitutes a separate effect that demands another cause, a cause that is either outside the physical world (dualism) or due to an as yet unknown physical phenomenon.

Proponents of dualism claim that the mind is substantially and qualitatively different from the brain and that the existence of something metaphysically extra-physical is required to 'fill the gap'.

The nature of the explanatory gap has been the subject of some debate. For example, some consider it to simply be a limit on our current explanatory ability. They argue that future findings in neuroscience or future work from philosophers could close the gap. However, others have taken a stronger position and argued that the gap is a definite limit on our cognitive abilities as humans—no amount of further information will allow us to close it. There has also been no consensus regarding what metaphysical conclusions the existence of the gap provides. Those wishing to use its existence to support dualism have often taken the position that an epistemic gap—particularly if it is a definite limit on our cognitive abilities—necessarily entails a metaphysical gap.'

Physicalist approaches to the Hard Problem
Attempts by physicalist (aka materialist) philosophers to bridge the gap between the brain and the mind have always started from the brain, with the Hard Problem formulated in terms of 'how can physical phenomena give rise to mental experience'; as if the mind were just a passive consumer of whatever the 'neural correlates' dished up for it!  To quote Wiki    "Providing an answer to this question could lie in understanding the roles that physical processes play in creating consciousness and the extent to which these processes create our subjective qualities of experience."     This is what is known as begging the question or assuming the outcome you have not yet proven.

Buddhist approaches to the Hard Problem
Since the physicalist attempts to bridge the gap from the neurological side don't seem to be getting anywhere, perhaps we should investigate whether we can start to build a section of the bridge out from the opposite end, from the mental side.

To do this we need a clear definition of what the mind is, before we can begin to consider how it might interact with physical systems.

In Buddhism the mind isn't a 'thing' or 'substance'.  It is a formless, non-physical (and hence non-algorithmic) process that interacts with matter but is not itself material.   The correct terms for mind in Buddhism are 'Mental Continuum' or 'Mindstream, which emphasise its impermanent and ever-changing  nature as a process.  The mind is not a 'thing in itself' and it is important to avoid reifying it as some sort of ultimate ground of existence

Clarity of Mind

The  mind is defined as that which is clarity and cognizing:

Clarity refers to the non-physical nature of the mind, in contrast to the physical brain. The mind "is a formless continuum that functions to perceive and understand objects. Because the mind is formless, or non-physical, by nature, it is not obstructed by physical objects." 

The fact that the mind is formless means that it is unconstrained, and hence has immense potential. The mind can comprehend all objects including its own creations.  The description of the root mind as 'formless' doesn't just refer to its non-material nature, but it emphasises that it is unlimited, non-mechanistic and totally free from any structure or topology. The mind cannot be understood in terms of circuit diagrams and flowcharts. It is pure awareness."
'Non-algorithmic' means it is non-deterministic, in that it cannot be understood by chains of logical reasoning, but needs to be experienced intuitively, using subjective (though reproducible) techniques such as meditation.   The fact that the mind is non-deterministic allows for freewill.

Cognizing refers to the 'aboutness' of the mind, how it gives meaning to objects (mind and meaning are derived from the same ancient root word)  and of 'intentionality' and semantics (as distinct from syntax).

"Intentionality is the power of minds to be about, to represent, or to stand for, things, properties and states of affairs...As the Latin etymology of ‘intentionality’ indicates, the relevant idea of directedness or tension (an English word which derives from the Latin verb tendere) arises from pointing towards or attending to some target.... Because intentional states are of or about things other than themselves, for a state to have intentionality is for it to have semantic properties." - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy   

In Buddhism the mind is not regarded as a mere passive or derivative epiphenomenon of active physical systems. The mind is itself active and is said to go to, or apprehend, its objects over and above merely pointing towards them. 

The properties of the Mind can be summarized as:

  • Process
  • Devoid of structure
  • Clear
  • 'About' its object (intentionality)
  • Source of semantics and meaning
  • Experiencing qualia (happiness, suffering, peace, stress, beauty, ugliness etc)
  • Non-physical
  • Non-algorithmic
  • Non-deterministic, possessing freewill
  • Required for the survival and evolution of complex animals.

The fundamental nature of the mind
Buddhist philosophers claim the mind is a fundamental aspect of reality, which is 'axiomatic', in the sense of not being reducible to a physical basis, such as to the physico-chemical activities in the brain.

This axiomatic view identifies 'mind' as a primary fact of reality, like space-time,  in which we live, and move, and have our being. The axiomatic view cannot be reduced to other facts. It is implicit in all facts and in all knowledge.

Mind is directly perceived or experienced, and there is no proof or explanation possible, or indeed necessary.   Mind is the basis on which all other proofs and explanations rest, and is one of the three foundations of functioning phenomena, the other two being causality and structure. 

From this view, the mind is so intertwined with 'objective' existence that objects and their apprehending mind are said to co-arise.  

In other words, the observer is part of the system, as has been demonstrated by quantum physics.

Approaching the gap from the side of the mind. 
In the past, apart from a few puzzling quantum phenomena,  the only way of exploring the explanatory gap from the side of the mind has been by introspective meditation.  

But recently a new methodology has appeared, whereby the short-term and long-term effects of controlled mental states such as meditation can be studied. These have shown the curious 'mind over matter' effects of downward causation, which have demonstrated that thoughts are not 'epiphenomena' of neural activities, but have causal abilities from their own side.

This approach is still in its early stages, but obviously has great potential to narrow the gap between neural events and mental experiences.




I received a  very interesting comment from  Sunyavadin  which, rather than leave in the comments section, is worth quoting in the main text of the article, with my reply following.

Generally agree with the direction you're taking, but it is interesting that the Buddhist view of nature-of-mind was not a consequence of trying to 'understand the mind'.

The problem which the Buddha set out to solve was 'cause of suffering' or 'the knot of existence'. In so doing, he arrived at a point where 'nature of mind' became clear to him (and so to subsequent generations of Buddhists). But I don't think that the Buddhist understanding of mind is at all available on the level of discursive reasoning at all.

I know there is a lot of activity around neural Buddhism and so on, but at the end of the day, I can't help but think that as long as the approach is to 'understand mind' it must fail, because of the deeply recursive nature of that problem. The mind is 'that which understands', not 'that which is understood'. In fact, knowing that the mind is not something that can be known, would radically alter the direction of research. By its nature, it is knowing. What is knowing? Well, we can't go there, can we? We can't explain explanation, or find reasons for reason, and so on.

When we really deeply realize that, we will abandon the pursuit of 'scientific understanding of mind'. This will be the big breakthrough!! Then science can concentrate on doing the millions of things that science can be doing, instead of covertly trying to replace spirituality by 'explaining the mind'.

29 February 2012 23:06

I agree that Buddhist psychology is not about understanding the workings of the mind.   To quote  Rudy Harderwijk.  'the distinctions in Buddhist psychology are made from the point of view of how to obtain liberation and buddhahood; and certainly not to figure out how 'the brain works'.

It may well be that no discursive reasoning can unravel the workings of the mind, for if the mind is non-algorithmic, then it is simply not amenable to explanation by logical chains of cause and effect.

I also share your doubts whether neural Buddhism will ever completely close the gap, or indeed if the gap is in principle closable.  Over 140 years ago John Tyndall wrote:

"the passage from the physics of the brain to the corresponding facts of consciousness is unthinkable. Granted that a definite thought, and a definite molecular action in the brain occur simultaneously; we do not possess the intellectual organ, nor apparently any rudiment of the organ, which would enable us to pass, by a process of reasoning, from the one to the other. They appear together, but we do not know why. Were our minds and senses so expanded, strengthened, and illuminated, as to enable us to see and feel the very molecules of the brain; were we capable of following all their motions, all their groupings, all their electric discharges, if such there be; and were we intimately acquainted with the corresponding states of thought and feeling, we should be as far as ever from the solution of the problem, "How are these physical processes connected with the facts of consciousness?" The chasm between the two classes of phenomena would still remain intellectually impassable. Let the consciousness of love, for example, be associated with a right-handed spiral motion of the molecules of the brain, and the consciousness of hate with a left-handed spiral motion. We should then know, when we love, that the motion is in one direction, and, when we hate, that the motion is in the other; but the "Why?" would remain as unanswerable as before."  

And nothing has changed much in the intervening 140 years.   We are no nearer closing the explanatory gap from the physical end of the problem. 

There is a school of philosophy called Mysterianism which claims that understanding the mind is beyond human mental capabilities.    However it may well be, as you suggest, that it is the deeply recursive nature of the problem itself, rather than the inability of our intellect to grasp it, that prevents our understanding the mind.

Nevertheless, I feel that before science finally abandons trying to explain the mind in physical terms, it should at least attempt to define why the mind can never be thus understood or explained.   This would give Buddhism a rational basis for counteracting any further covert attempts to replace spirituality with mechanistic pseudo-science.

- Sean Robsville
, adapted from Bridging the Explanatory Gap of the Hard Problem



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